17th April 14
I am pleased to have contributed about a dozen or so illustrations to Josh Ostergaard’s terrific new book of baseball ephemera, essays, and digressions, Devil’s Snake Curve: A Fan’s Notes from Left Field. Josh wanted the illustrations in the dry, precise pen-and-ink line drawing style of midcentury young adult adventure books, and that’s what I tried to do. The books includes some very exciting illustrations of the likes of Billy Martin, George Brett, and a young Philadelphian being Tasered after running out onto the field (pictured below).
Josh and CHP are having a release party on Wednesday, April 30 from 5:30 to 7:30pm at Harriet Brewing on Minnehaha in South Minneapolis. More information here, and the Facebook RSVP here. I hear there’ll be whiffle ball.
You can also buy the book directly from Coffee House Press, or the independent bookstore of your choice.
31st March 14
Our vanishing Tumblr heritage: The best abandoned Tumblrs of the early 2010s
LETTERS TO BOB
First post: March 2009
Most recent period of sustained activity: September 2009
Most recent update: September 2009
Total # of posts to date: 112
First post: November 2010
Most recent period of sustained activity: November 2010
Most recent update: November 2010
Total # of posts to date: 16
THE CROW AND THE WOLF PROJECT
First post: June 2011
Most recent period of sustained activity: July 2012
Most recent update: December 2012
Total # of posts to date: 280
First post: April 2012
Most recent period of sustained activity: August 2012
Most recent update: August 2012
Total # of posts to date: 19
This may have not been the best category to start with, since these four Tumblrs violate quite a few of the parameters I’d initially set for this exercise: first and most importantly, the owners didn’t disappear completely after the projects faded. At least one of them left some kind of forwarding information, and others left pretty obvious clues for finding them on other platforms (email, other Tumblrs, Twitter). In fact, two of these Tumblrs were created by the same guy, Scott Nedrelow, an artist in Minneapolis who happens to be a friend of mine. Though both of his Tumblrs were created anonymously, I know enough about the backstories to lift that veil a bit.
That said, I think all four of them demonstrate very well how Tumblrs can be used very productively for either a short or more sustained period of time, and then abandoned, forgotten or transformed into something else. Especially when used by artists, a Tumblr can be a standalone project, a notebook, a travel journal, or something more like a coffee table book or catalog of one particular body of work. Which is fine; a Tumblr PR person would tell you the same thing if he or she was trying to sell you on the platform. What they wouldn’t tell you is how few of those have any real staying power, which is one of the metrics we traditionally use to judge the relative “success” of a creative endeavor. Is longevity a good metric? Of course not. Some brilliant projects only last a short amount of time, and some crap hangs around forever. But it can be difficult to uncouple the concept of “longevity” with that of “success.”
As I noted, Letters to Bob and Copy-jacked were both created by a painter I know named Scott Nedrelow. In fact, now that I think about it, one of the first times I met Scott was in 2009 writing a preview for a local art magazine of a show he had coming up. I don’t even remember what work had in the show, but I think it was work that started as Letters to Bob.
Letters to Bob is a series of scans of pages ripped from glossy art magazines like Artforum, with notes scrawled on them in Sharpie and permanent marker. They start off as pretty straightforward correspondence between the writer and Bob. (Explained Scott later: “An old college friend from Gustavus. He lived on my freshman floor. He was from a suburb of Chicago and only wore Hawaiian shirts and a trench coat and drank lots of coffee.”) The phrases “there has to be doubt built in” and “there are some people who don’t believe in love” show up a few times. I seem to recall Scott telling me at some point there was some connection to the film Leaving Los Vegas, but looking back, I don’t see where that would be the case (of course, I’ve never seen Leaving Los Vegas, so I could be missing something). As the correspondence continues, there are less in the way of messages, and more pages with marker scrawls — as anyone who’s written on glossy paper with a Sharpie knows, the way the pigment from the marker interacts with the gloss is almost like a brushstroke. As the series continues, you can see the correspondent getting less interested in the content of the messages, and more interested in the marks. By the end, the marks are more like paintings themselves, mostly made over colorful images of other abstract paintings. And the transformation is complete: it started as a blog, and became art. Scott told me this in that interview back in 2009: “I was already editing what was going on the blog and realized that to turn it into an art project it would have be less public. So the Letters to Bob was a spark for the project, but it’s already changed into something else— what exactly, I’m not sure yet.” What he ended up doing is making large-format prints of some of the images and framing them for gallery display. They’ve been exhibited numerous times — you can see them on his website, as Letters.
Of course, you wouldn’t know any of this from seeing the Tumblr. In most ways, I find each scenario equally interesting. Scenario one: knowing this was a Tumblr project that transmuted into an art project, leaving only the corporeal body of the blog behind. Or scenario two: encountering only the strangeness and anonymity of the project itself, with no context or background offered. All you could really know is that there were 112 letters to Bob, and then they stopped.
Copy-Jacked, on the other hand, is a classic Tumblr one-off with no need for background or context. Sometime in 2012, Scott acquired a Copy-Jack 40, a small, Japanese-made “handcopy machine” manufactured in the 1980s. I’d never heard of such a thing, and neither had most everyone else; you can’t even find them on eBay. You could run the optical lens of the Copy-Jack over any flat surface, and it would produce a photocopy of the surface on heat transfer paper, like a receipt. For two months, Scott went around copy-jacking notes, signs, and other flat surfaces he came across.
OK, so I did just give you the backstory, but the great thing about Copy-Jacked as a Tumblr is that all of this is completely self-evident from looking at it. Person acquires Copy-Jack 40, person terrorizes acquaintances with copy-jacked surfaces for two months, person goes on to something else. The final image: someone’s warning below their nameplate that there is to be “NO COPYJACKING,” copy-jacked.
As funny and interesting as the practice of copy-jacking is, it’s obviously not the sort of thing a person could be expected to faithfully update for more than a few months. Why would you? I asked Scott about it last week, and he admitted he’d actually forgotten all about it. It’s a great joke, and great jokes must come to an end.
also isn’t a perfect fit for our criteria, since the creator, David Enos, leaves his name and contact information. A person who likes the sensibilities of Dimension Arcade could easily Google David’s name and find his Tumblr and Vimeo. Both contain work very similar in spirit to what you find on Dimension Arcade. In an idealized world, Dimension Arcade was something you’d stumble across with an un-Googleable name attached to it, or no name at all, leaving you to wonder who made it.
I’ve never met David, or really ever communicated with him apart from a short email or two, though I’ve followed him for years. He has a fantastically odd sense of humor, and Dimension Arcade is one of the favorite expressions of that sensibility. There is no shortage of jokes about video games on the Internet, but most of the examples in Dimension Arcade seem less like straightforward “wouldn’t it be funny if [unlikely subject for a video game] was a video game?” scenarios, and much stranger. How else could you explain Tom Hanks: The Game? I loved Lou Reed more than most musical artists, but when I heard he died, I’ll admit there was a small part of my brain that thought, “Punk Rockers employed by the government are causing trouble in a Puerto Rican neighborhood.” Once Lou Reed’s Street Hassle in your blood, it’s hard to get it out.
The numbers tell the story: less than twenty posts for about a month. Like Letters to Bob, you get the sense it was more a short-term sketchbook or incubator for ideas that turned up somewhere else. (Though it’s shame, because DA was just starting to hit its stride toward the end.) If David had neglected to put his name on it, for whatever reason, you could easily think it was just the enthusiastic early work of a very creative person who simply got bored or overwhelmed and then disappeared from that corner of the internet for good.
It’s not necessarily accurate to call The Crow and the Wolf Project ”abandoned” — the project itself is over, through the artists that created it remain out there and actively making work. It fits here because the Tumblr itself comes to an end, and while there is some indication of how the work will continue and the artists do leave a forwarding email address, there are no names associated with it, and searching for follow-up information with the information the Tumblr provides is difficult. The project is still active, presumably, but the Tumblr itself is now more of an archive than a living document. Which is perhaps what the artists intended.
CWP is the work of two nomadic artists who’d met in Baltimore, lived in San Francisco, and spent much of 2011 and 2012 on the road, traveling from city to city, visiting artist communities, documenting everything they encountered along the way, to then put into a documentary format to be determined. I met them briefly when they were in Minneapolis in August 2011, at the referral of some friends in Omaha and Chicago they’d met.
The most interesting thing about the Tumblr from the perspective of 2014 is what’s going on concurrently — part way through the Crow and the Wolf’s travels across America, in late 2011, the Occupy movement begins. For two artists exploring the cross-sections between community, activism, and art, there couldn’t have been a better time to be out on the road. Occupy completely changes the tenor of the artists’ writings and documentations. The Crow and the Wolf immediately head to Zuccotti Park to join the other Occupy protesters, and from there, head back out into the US, working their way across the country from Occupy movement to Occupy movement. It’s easy to forget what a galvanizing effect Occupy had on American leftism and radicalism during late 2011 and early 2012. The Crow and the Wolf Project seemed at first like a fairly open-ended trip across the various art and radical communities of the US, but halfway through becomes something more of a tour of an entire interconnected culture, in close contact with one another, embedded in every community. It was the Occupy moment that, for a lot of people, put these long-established communities in relief against the rest of American culture.
Which might have been part of the Crow and the Wolf’s intentions starting out, but how could they have known the scale on which history would intervene? It even seem to catch them a little off-guard, and you can sense the growing sense of urgency and excitement as their travels continue. I still don’t know what history will make of the Occupy movement, but the Crow and the Wolf’s Tumblr was a fantastic first-hand account of what it looked and felt like across the country in the months following September 2011 — it was interesting to read at the time, and as time goes by, it looks more and more like an invaluable historical document of a specific historically significant time and place. I continue to follow it today because I have a sense that someday a new post will show up on my dashboard or RSS feed telling me what came next.
Of course, that’s the hope with any of these Tumblrs.
NEXT: ABANDONED TUMBLRS ABOUT WIKIPEDIA
27th March 14
As of 2013, Tumblr is estimated to have approximately 30 million active users. Impressive as this number may be, it is dwarfed by its number of registered users, which is closer to 110 million. This means that for every active Tumblr out there, there are three with inactive accounts. Though the platform is, by all appearances, a thriving online community, it could also be reasonably described, in cosmological terms, as a dark, barren and boundless field populated by an ever-growing number of the small, dim remnants of burnt-out stars, clustered together in an interminate vacuum, their eternal slumber interrupted only by the pelting of debris from collapsing nearby objects falling into their decaying orbits.
The bulk of the world’s vanishing English-language Tumblr heritage falls into two broad categories: abandoned art or cultural projects, and abandoned personal ventures.
There are more and more future abandoned art and cultural projects created on Tumblr every day, with no end in sight for the foreseeable future. Tumblr remains perhaps the best venue on the Internet for conceiving of a single good artistic or cultural idea, quickly laying out the parameters, executing it well on a regular basis, gaining a large following in a short period of time, and then gradually ceasing posts, once the idea is exhausted and there is no possibility of a follow-up in the form of a book, television program or continuing artistic project. An excellent recent example of this might be “Upworthy Springfield,” which repurposed screengrabs from the long-running animated program The Simpsons and gave them headlines reminiscent of those used on the reviled politically oriented viral video site Upworthy. Exceptionally popular for a brief period of time in late 2013, it averaged about 25 posts a month for about three months. As of March 2014, it has not been updated for two months. It may never be updated again. This has become a familiar cycle.
As Tumblr evolves into a different kind of content platform, emphasizing “curation” and “reblogging,” the latter type — the personal venture — would appear to be a dying breed altogether. A Tumblr-based microblog that bears much resemblance to the personal “blogs” of our older siblings’ and cousins’ generation is already, in 2014, very nearly a fading memory.
— Excerpted from “No One Calls Them Tumblelogs Anymore”: Report and Recommendations of the Presidential Commission for the Study of Microblogging Preservation Issues, released March 2014 and reprinted with permission of the Commission.
Over the next week or two, I’ll be posting a few lists of Tumblrs I follow that haven’t been actively updated for at least a year (and three or four years, in some cases). That’s not a terribly long time in human terms, but in Internet terms, it’s an eternity. If a Tumblr is inactive for a year, most likely it’s inactive for good.
There is probably no great mystery about why any of these Tumblrs disappeared. Running a one-person self-sustaining content-generation machine is hard work, with few tangible benefits outside the quick biochemical rush from accumulating “likes,” and few can keep it up for more than a short period of time.
Most likely, their owners simply lost interest or found other things to keep them occupied. Since Tumblr is at once a highly personal and impersonal medium, you can develop what feels like a genuine relationship with someone’s writing or self-representations. You can then be surprised to realize the limits of that relationship when they disappear, or just slowly slip into non-activity. These weren’t people I really exchanged emails with or got to know or became friends with, for the most part (there are a few exceptions). These are Tumblrs I admired for some period of time that simply came to an end with no followup or forwarding information, and, in most cases, with no formal announcement of any kind.
(And hey, that includes me and South 12th, which has undeniably been faltering in recent years. I crank a post out, what, maybe once a week at most? And it’s usually just an image with a quick sentence or two of dashed-off commentary, anyway. It’s also no great mystery as to why I’d enjoy undertaking a backward-gazing exercise like this, now that my own personal First Golden Tumblr Age is clearly over, and probably has been for a long time.)
Of all the Tumblrs I’ll be posting — maybe about twenty — I’ve never unfollowed any of them, and I don’t plan to. Here I am, sitting at my dashboard like some poor, aged Victorian dog, waiting faithfully by the front door for its master to return from the Crimean War or wherever years after the soldiers have all come home. I’ll occasionally go through and weed out the inactive Tumblrs in my “following” list to keep things tidy, but these are the few I feel strongly about not unfollowing, even if it’s just to have a record that they existed. This isn’t because I’m obsessed with them or feel like they’re timeless works of brilliance or even give them much thought on a day-to-day basis. It’s mostly because I’ll occasionally go through and think, “Huh, I really enjoyed that one. It really made the world a more interesting place. Wonder what came of it?”
Mostly I’ve tried to avoid listing anything where the project continued in some other format or medium (like, say, they got a book deal, or shifted their focus to Twitter or national magazine work). A few of the Tumblrs I’m going to list don’t really meet these criteria, but I wanted to post them anyway. I suppose there is a small chance one of the owners might see their work here and be spurred into action by guilt or nostalgia or something else. That’d be fine with me, unlikely as it is. They deserve a wider audience, even if no one’s apparently around to enjoy it.
NEXT: Abandoned art and cultural projects, artist category