Wanting Nothing More Than to be With proximate.org?

Patrick Herron is a rounded-face American who wears thin-framed glasses and sports a clean but not all connecting Goatee. My guess is that Mr. Herron is somewhere in the 5’9 to 5’11 range, but I haven’t found any definitive evidence stating otherwise. Mr. Herron is also a poet, artist and info. scientist living in Chapel, NC. At least that’s what I found in the bio section in proximate.org. Mr. Herron has written “The American Godwar Complex,” “Man Eating Rice,” and his essays have appeared in journals such as Exquisite Corpse, Fulcrum, among many others. What interests me and the central focus of this post is however, his web site proximate.org, which has been shown in the electronic collection of New York City’s New Museum of Contemporary Art.

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First page the user encounters is comprised entirely of an image in the center of the page, a search engine with YOUR NAME HERE[1] written in it and a submit box beside it, and a few lines of welcoming/this-is-what-you-need text. The centered image looks kind of like a whale or some paraphyletic organism like a gold fish; for clarity’s sake we’ll just say it’s a whale. Its head/body is rectangular-shaped with rounded off edges (the basic anatomical box-head shape a physeter marcocephalus would have in cartoon form) and its backend has a backwards-C shape that could be interpreted as flukes. And less than half an inch above the center of the whale’s head/body is an eye, looking straight at the user, as if waiting for h/her to press “SUBMIT.”

I don’t know whether the next page is either supposed to (A) seduce the user into clicking the text that will “take h/her” to the subsequent page, or (B) supposed to repel the user and make h/her want to close out of the website. Nonetheless, various words and symbols (not always together) flash on the page, in this order: Closer, !, come closer, closer !, point your arrow, right into me !, 01 me 01 closer, you and I 01 are intimate…[2] Who exactly is “I” is answered with the numbers “0” and “1.” Which I posit means the computer. But with that, is Mr. Herron trying to establish some sort of friendship between you and the web site from the very beginning? I mean “you and I (01) are intimate” did come up. And if so, then maybe Mr. Herron wants the user to realize that often people attempt to replace actual human-to-human friendships with devices?

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The next startling image could then support the idea that to try to befriend a technological thing is dangerous; the image is a black-and-white picture of a hockey mask, a mask resembling the one Jason Voorhees wore in Friday the 13th.

One the next page is a letter addressed to “Your Name Here” said with “Warm Regards” from 0l, telling the user to do to and/or with it what h/she wants to. “Feel free to count me, to add me, to read me, to push me, to fill my blanks, to click all my buttons.” 01 is in other words granting the user permission in the same friendly way h/she (i.e., the user) would deploy in an actual face-to-face exchange. The user then has to click on the letter. H/she is taken to a page displaying two human-like hands, all digits intact, with all the tips replaced by finger puppets, e.g., eight women in red holy habits (four on each hand) and two indiscernibly clothed children (one on each thumb). Underneath the hands, and underneath the website link, is the word “shake.” As if clicking on the word would allow the user to “shake” hands with 01.[3]

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I won’t bore you with my reminding experiences of Mr. Herron’s proximate.org. The web site is a lot longer, a lot longer. It is in hypertext fashion and in linear form, so you’ll be witnessing the same stuff in the same order I did. I would, however, like to end with this, which perhaps kind of hits what Mr. Herron wants me to hit. Computers and other modalities are entertaining and useful. Certain modalities provide the recipient with the ability to experience a world outside the dry and banal one h/she inhibits, while others satiate recipients need for information, and yet others give recipients the opportunities to showcase their works and/or view the works of others. But none of this stuff can replace and/or substitute for specific components that form humanity, i.e., the actual in-the-flesh kind of relationships. It’s of course tough to not want to inhibit worlds in which the user feels comfortable and in which communication seems pretty easy to not only stop when the user feels like it, but also manipulate it.

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[1] Replacing “YNH” w/ your actual name is oppositional. It doesn’t really make a difference though.

[2] There are lots more. Some are even stranger then the ones above.

[3] The notion of “shaking hands” with a program seems very odd. It also seems like Mr. Herron tries really hard to make proximate.org come off as something trying to be as humanly authentic as possible. Well, as humanly authentic as the program can be. Or maybe proximate.org is playing with the idea of being human without being human, i.e., the hands look human-like, well, umm, at least the palms up to the bottom of the fingernails, but the fingertips are puppets; therefore, the program is trying to be human while at the same time keeping its integrity.

  1 comment for “Wanting Nothing More Than to be With proximate.org?

  1. Patrick Herron
    June 15, 2015 at 12:36 pm

    Thank you for this incredibly thoughtful review. I would say that what is being set up is a sort of distorted mirror for the relationship between person and a human-inspired interface. The user should come to experience that the interface isn’t human though it pretends to be. Proximate was created at a time when most people were not concerned with this, namely, because interfaces couldn’t really be so human-like. But now, in 2015, we are in the throes of an algorithmic culture, with affective interfaces engineered through data mining of emotional responses to images, and other interfaces like human-like robots offering substitutes for actual real human beings. I don’t know what is lost when we form relationships with machines that pretend to be human, or at least human-like enough to meet our needs for human-like interactions, but at the time I felt a deep suspicion for such interfaces. Something is lost in translation, something truly fleshy and proximate.

    I’m actually quite narrow-faced these days, and I’m down to 5’7″.

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