Extract from The Peter & nou Handbook: A Field Guide to an SF Practice (So Far), Jane Topping, 2020.

Chapter 5

www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com (2018)

‘Readers who find themselves daunted by the unfamiliar narrative structure of The Atrocity Exhibition – far simpler than it seems at first glance – might try a different approach. Rather than start at the beginning of each chapter, as in a conventional novel, simply turn the pages until a paragraph catches your eye. If the ideas or images seem interesting, scan the nearby paragraphs for anything that resonates in an intriguing way. Fairly soon, I hope, the fog will clear, and the underlying narrative will reveal itself.’

J. G. Ballard, 2001

www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com is an artwork made using WordPress website architecture.[1] The work develops and expands the intertextuality of The Peter & nou Project, radically increasing the number and type of readings possible of the project as a whole. www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com uses works completed since January 2014, along with much of the research towards those works (and some unfinished or abandoned works) as material with which it creates randomised collages of moving and still images, audio and text. There is no way for a viewer to control what is seen and heard when they view the work and no visit to www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com is the same.[2] As the work is essentially a series of never repeated cut-ups of still and moving images, audio and text, it is not possible to describe the work effectively other than by description of its basic form[3] and by example screen grabs from the work (Figs. 140 – 143).

Fig. 140: A screen grab of www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com (Credit: the author).

Fig. 141: A screen grab of www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com (Credit: the author).

Fig. 142: A screen grab of www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com (Credit: the author).

Fig. 143: A screen grab of www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com (Credit: the author).

Made with Trisha Donnelly’s 2014 web-work that accompanied her exhibition at Serpentine Galleries, London,[4] Roger Hiorns’ catalogue that accompanied his 2016 exhibition at Ikon Gallery, Birmingham[5] and Douglas Gordon’s Pretty much every film and video work from about 1992 until now (2014) in mind, www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com rabbit is a digital Wunderkammer – a randomised cabinet of curiosities filled with the material of The Peter & nou Project.[6]Art historian Barbara Stafford has reflected that:

from the perspective of the computer era, the artefacts in a Wunderkammer seem less physical phenomena and more material links permitting the beholder to retrieve complicated personal and cultural associations. (Strafford, 1998)

Similarly, one effect of www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com is its revelation of the complex nature of personal and cultural associations in the mind of the viewer – a circumstance at work throughout The Peter & nou Project.

www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com is never complete. It is continually amended as new pieces of research and new works accrue, expanding the narratives and developing the scope of the project.[7] Umberto Eco has stated that:

…it is not true that works are created by their authors. Works are created by works, texts are created by texts, all together they speak to each other independently of the intention of their authors. (Eco, 1998: 201)

and that statement is embodied by www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com – it is not a text of which I am in control and it is not exactly authored by me. It is an artwork in and of itself, and it is also an artwork generator.[8]

Figs. 144 & 145: Untitled (Tooth) (2018) and Untitled (Deckard Hand) (2018), digital prints, 1189 x 841 mm (Credit: the author).

www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com is the piece of The Peter & nou Project (to date) which is most open to interpretation – in fact it largely resists any narrative interpretation.[9] Instead it reveals and repurposes the constituent fragments of my practice, behaving more like a manifestation of the world of The Peter & nou Project than a distinct element of it. www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com is contradictory in the sense that it offers access to the stories of Peter and nou, but does not align itself with their narratives in a specific way. Rather www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com acts as a support for those narratives, while also complicating them. Unlike those narratives, the story (such as it is) told by www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com does not feature a narrator, nor is it repeatable. It is the only ‘voice’ of the project which appears to be autonomous – a god-like entity perhaps, continually making and remaking itself.[10] The site is a further demonstration of how apparently key elements of the project are disconnected from their respective narratives and allowed to resonate and spark in a studiedly unorganised, essentially non-narrative way.

Perhaps the most conspicuous way in which www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com is connected to The Peter & nou Project is by its domain name. ‘rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit’ is a reference to the induction to hypnosis story in The Horizon Object. The domain name repeats key words of the story and mixes the imaginary (rabbit), the real (tooth) and the fake (cotton).[11] Looping back on itself, the domain name mimics the physical reality of the induction to hypnosis – the cotton wool ‘rabbits’ spinning round and around on a rotary dental drill. It could be argued that the domain name places the viewer in the dentist’s chair, but instead of watching cotton wool rabbits being chased by a fox, they are met with a digital collage which appears to endlessly reiterate the motifs of The Peter & nou Project.

Behind the Curtain

The research process of art practice is challenging to represent and articulate in ways other than recordings of process (for instance as sketchbooks or blogs) which are often reductive or abbreviated forms of annotation rather than explanatory of the complexities, even the vagaries, of developing works. www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com presents pieces of research and finished works, foregrounding their connectedness and their disparate natures, in order to mirror the fragmentary nature of the development of works and the dynamic of ideas. www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com evolves using a huge range of material and the seemingly contradictory (and complimentary) logics of content and media are placed together appearing mutually dependent. As the work creates a new set of circumstances with every refresh of the site, the experience of www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com seems to add up to more than the sum of its parts. Fragments of works appear, disappear and reappear, spliced into still further fragments, so that the work is ‘a palimpsest even when it looks relatively simple.’ (O’Sullivan, 2015) The work is dynamic in its development of The Peter & nou Project, encouraging the viewer to track equivalencies though the process of arranging and rearranging and rearranging pieces of practice. Though a resulting map of The Peter & nou Project may be impossible to draw, previously invisible forces at work in the project appear revealed by interaction with www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com.

As the works Peter & nou can be accessed from every page of www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com, these two videos are prioritised and bound together,[12] sitting on a slippery foundation of their constituent parts which can contradict or support their narratives. The screen of www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com acts as a kind of rhizomic underpinning to The Peter & nou Project, supporting it, augmenting it and situating it in the broader context of my practice as a whole. www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com subverts the viewer’s desire for transparent immediacy, instead creating a density and an opacity which at times, and conversely, appears to offer clarity and explanation of both research territory and the fictions of The Peter & nou Project.

www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com retains the heterogeneous, multi-windowed screen design of most web pages and the desktop screen. This visual style privileges fragmentation and indeterminacy, emphasising content and process over a ‘finished’ artwork, indicating that the world of The Peter & nou Project is open-ended in nature, much like artistic practice. The site develops project-wide temporal complexities by appearing to be made from and be the origin of The Peter & nou Project – an undifferentiated cloud of matter which may be the fragments of a supernova or from which a new universe may be formed. The site can be described as a kind of ‘hypermedia’ in that it combines multiple media and random access to create an experiential work without beginning, middle or end – sitting outside time and space. In so doing www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com intensifies real-world interactions with our screens and the information which lies beyond, asking the viewer to rethink the veracity and integrity of such interactions and their potential impact on contemporary ways of researching and thinking. Thus www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com offers something significant to the field of arts research as an artwork which describes the nature of practice-based research which in turn has ramifications for our everyday encounters with information online.

More Than A Labyrinth-Rhizome

In his discussion of The Shining,[13] Mark Fisher proposes to

treat the novel and the film as a labyrinth-rhizome, a set of interlocking correspondences and differences, a row of doors – (Fisher, 2014: 120)

www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com exists as a more complex system.  Operating in the interstices of The Peter & nou Project, it reveals the particles that make up the works, sometimes in expanded or truncated form, and reconfigures them, broadening the scope of the project by demolishing boundaries between finished works, their source materials and incomplete and failed works. Additionally, www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com, like The Peter & nou Project as a whole, expands Fisher’s labyrinth-rhizome by creating connections where none have previously existed while making every refreshed page a new and perhaps never to be repeated stand-alone artwork. www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com does not simply open doors but, by occupying the fissures of the project, weaving together narratives and presenting them for their ‘completion’ in the mind of the viewer, it is a generator of unique artworks, beyond my control yet firmly part of The Peter & nou Project.

The Clunky Click

Though www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com is post-digital and was made to exist on the web, it is not what James Bridle would describe as exemplary of his New Aesthetic – it does not concern itself with digital objects of the Net in the real world. It does however engage with and critique the aesthetic of the Net, as it reflects existing and creates new ‘rabbit holes’ that can be found there. The work does not allow for the usual broad range of gesture that the human hand has developed in order to engage with the digital 2D screen – the viewer may ‘click’ to refresh the screen but there is little else for the hand to do.[14] Also, as the vast majority of the content of www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com is both flat and rectangular – screen-shaped,[15] the work reveals the limited nature of our interactions with our screens.[16]

Figs. 146 and 147: Screen shots of Laurie Anderson’s Puppet Motel (1994) and Chris Marker’s Immemory (1998) (Credit: transmediale and K. Jones).

By engaging with digital technology in this way, the work emphasises layers over dimensions and the continual uploading of new content to the site means that:

layers can be added and removed like sheets to a stack of vellum pages. The desire to touch is thus transferred from the hand to the finger, where the age-old instinct to hold something in its entirety is refocused on an evolving instinct to poke at a particularity. (Kholeif, 2018: 133)

For the viewer of www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com this refocusing is onto one ‘set’ of objects at a time. In this way it is possible for www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com to seduce a viewer by a combination of limited control and the innate human desire to devise a narrative by making connections between the objects on screen. This desire encourages further interaction but because that interaction is ultimately disappointing and because of the unknowable depth of the work beyond the screen surface, the viewer clicks to refresh the page again.[17] After a period of time, the initial degree of interactivity offered by the work turns out to be limited and www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com feels like a cul-de-sac – a highly circumscribed area of the net. [18]  This is not a barrier to its effectiveness however. Rather the limitations of the work[19] encourage a change of speed in the viewer’s interaction with the Net, prioritising contemplation and an almost aimless, languid manner over more commonplace snappy Net interactions in which a search has a defined purpose from the outset. In this sense www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com transposes an effect of the video Peter, in which the experience of searching for an image in Blade Runner is offered strategically as a critique of the documentary form, to the realm of the Net.

Like Ian Cheng’s description of his work as a self-playing video game or a ‘simulation’ (from Cheng’s website (2018), in Kholeif, 2018: 115), www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com functions as a self-authoring ‘simulation’ of the world of The Peter & nou Project. Like a model of a system it operates independently, requiring little significant human input, is dependent on its own laws and has no moral prejudice. Because of its seeming autonomy, interaction with the world system of www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com reveals an innate human desire to understand through building a cohesive narrative via connections of seemingly random but networked images and sounds.[20] This is what makes this particular Wunderkammer[21] fascinating and is something that the mechanisms of the Net play upon. www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com offers an escape from the furious speed and determinacy of more usual Net interactions and the viewer is encouraged to spend time sifting through world of Peter and nou.

As www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com offers no clear narrative and no ‘final’ page, the work has the potential to encourage return visits. The sheer number of possible iterations of the work complicates the narratives possible within The Peter & nou Project, which has the contradictory effect of both bolstering and undermining the narratives of Peter and nou. By creating a vast tangle of readings and interpretations, www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com has a temporal density created by the fact that every screen of the work could be said to be ‘an extraction from a narrative that goes from the depths of the past of the work, towards a future that the work itself helps to bring about.’ (O’Sullivan, 2014).

The use of individual pieces of research – of the cut-up – is important in this respect too. Ayesha Hameed has noted that more than an aesthetic gesture, the violence of the act of ‘cutting-up’ a text or film allows for new possibilities to arise. She describes the text as being

cut up like a corpse on an autopsy table with the same kind of sacrilegious intent. Thus the violence of the cut and the not knowing or understanding what that gesture produces it is constantly generative. (Hameed, 2017: 10)

In the context of a practice which is concerned with the speculation of alternative realities, www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com reveals that the cut-up, constituent parts of any world may be used to create any number of new ones.

In an email exchange (2018), Tahani Nadim[22] suggested that www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com ‘offers an inventive problematisation of narration, speculative futures and digital cultures’. She continued:

I think [www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com] makes a really important point about what the anthropologist Marilyn Strathern calls “partial connections” (she writes in relation to ethnography and its problematic claims to tell “total stories”). Conventional qualifications around what constitutes coherency, continuity and conclusiveness don’t hold as much as they used to – immense data volumes, new types of connections across scales and natures, new kinds of powerful invisibilities, or the materialisation of control fantasies demand new kinds of sense-making tools. Stories and how we tell them are one important part in that. (Nadim, 2018)

Following this exchange, in 2018 www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com was invited to be shown as part of the group exhibition The Influencing Machine at neue Gesellschaft für bildende Kunst (nGbK), Berlin (2018-2019). The exhibition assembled a range of contemporary artistic positions with the intention of

examining the automation and datafication of our life worlds and work environments. Here, bots are understood as socio-technical phenomena; their efficacies requiring and provoking novel and manifold relations and imaginations. (nGbK, 2018)

Fig. 148: Installation view of www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com in The Influencing Machine, nGbK, Berlin (2018) (Credit: nGbK).

www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com was shown in a cinema-style space with seating, placed at the end of the exhibition route (Fig. 148). The work was shown projected onto a wall and visitors could interact with the piece via a mouse. In this way the work transformed from a personal experience between the viewer and their screen to an interactive performance during which a group of viewers were able to control the speed of interaction via consensus.

In addition to my artist pages in the exhibition’s accompanying publication The Influencing Machine (2018: 194 -197) (Figs.149 and 150), six different screen grabs of www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com ‘wrap’ six different versions of the publication (Figs. 151 and 152) – a further development of the intextuality of The Peter & nou Project and an act that is foregrounded by the random, bot-driven, self-generating nature of www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com itself.[23]

Fig. 149: The Influencing Machine, pp194 and 195 (2018) (Credit: the author)

Fig. 150: The Influencing Machine, pp196 and 197 (2018) (Credit: the author)

Figs. 151 and 152:  One of six different end-paper designs made using images from www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com in The Influencing Machine (2018) (Credit: Sybille Neumeyer and the author)

Like Chris Marker’s Level 5 (1996), www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com is

appropriately incomplete, selective in the elements it seeks to elaborate upon and aware of the fact that there is no such thing as full knowledge or closure in the way that memory and history are continually rewritten, remembered or forgotten. (Cooper, 2008: 165)

As an artwork which generates new artworks, www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com is by its very nature speculative, able to develop the scope of The Peter & nou Project while simultaneously revealing and underpinning the fragments of practice-based research, itself something perpetually generative.

[1] I am not entirely clear on how www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com works, so I am paraphrasing from an email conversation with web designer Patricia de Vries when I say that the site is populated with loads of content as posts, each ‘post’ being either text/image or audio clip or video clip. The site randomly shows a ‘post’ from any of the entered data (text/image/audio/video). It positions this data on the website display area by randomly choosing a number from 1-2000 for the x and the same again for the y co-ordinates. The page will also show a second randomly selected post item – chosen by what the first post is not, i.e. if the first post is text or image then the second will be either audio or video. If the first is either audio or video then the second will be text or image. This item is also positioned randomly on the display area by choosing a random number between 1-2000 for the x axis and again for the y axis. There are a series of assigned background images which randomly display in the background, independently of the post content. On a very few posts the background has been selected specifically for the content – only in these instances will the random background image be replaced by the specified background. The ‘buttons’ and words/links to the videos Peter and nou are also displayed randomly, again by choosing random number from 1-2000 for each the x and y axis. Patricia continues: ‘I tried to find out for you the mechanism that WordPress uses for generating randomness but I didn’t get anything coherent. I’ll do a WordPress codex request for how WordPress creates randomness. Gregor says “it will just do a PHP shuffle from the available options and pick one”’. (de Vries, 2019)

[2] Though mathematically it could be, it’s just very unlikely.

[3] See Appendix 0.1.

[4] frustratingly, no longer available.

[5] which consisted of a single, strung-out essay by Ruth Noack, surrounded by hundreds of Hiron’s photographs, allegedly unedited.

[6] Also a consideration when developing this work was Shu Lea Cheang’s 1998 web project, Brandon which used the nonlinear and participatory nature of the early Net as a means to investigate of the rape and murder of transgender man Brandon Teena, in 1993.

[7] An approach also taken by Wolfgang Tillmans when guest editor of Jahresing 64. His What Is Different? takes a collage approach to the composition of texts and images, in part to ‘acknowledge its own incompleteness.’ (Tillmans, 2019: 9).

[8] I have exhibited large c-type prints of screen grabs of www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com for instance (Figs. 144 and 145) and I’ve an idea that future artworks could be made by using www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com as a kind of screenwriter.

[9] And yet the work could be described as a digital self-portrait of sorts. As the work is generated from my research it could be interpreted as a curated self, an Internet of Me.

[10] I am reminded of Dick’s VALIS (1981) here – a book about Vast Active Living Intelligence System, a kind of god-like figure which is narrated by a character called Phil (who authored Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?) and in which autobiographical facts are mixed with speculative fictions.

[11] A reference to the cotton wool balls which stood in for rabbits in the dental surgery.

[12] An action consistent with their combined presence in the publication Peter & nou.

[13] Of course there are two physical labyrinths in Kubrick’s The Shining (1980) – the real maze outside The Overlook Hotel and the model of the maze in the hotel lobby. When I visit www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com it sometimes feels to me like I’m Jack Torrance (Jack Nicholson) standing above a model of the world of The Peter & nou Project, gazing at it maniacally, foolishly thinking I am in control of it.

[14] There is no opportunity to swipe or pinch and the work is not haptic or tactile. In many ways the site feels like a development of artists’ early experiments with the CD-Rom format, such as Laurie Anderson’s Puppet Motel (1994) (Fig. 146) or Chris Marker’s Immemory (1998) (Fig.147).

[15] The site’s design principals recall the collage forms of the Dadaists or perhaps even Ballard’s collages which he made out of old copies of Chemistry and Industry magazine. Ballard thought of these as ‘sample pages of a new kind of novel’ (Kunzru, 2002). Maybe I can think of www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com as a sample of a new kind of artwork?

[16] The site operates a bit like a repetitive and slightly boring TV channel, harking back to the pre-net and pre-streaming days of four television channels in, oh, I don’t know, 1982 perhaps…

[17] and again and again… it’s not surprising that the architecture of website design has the notion of ‘click-bait’ knitted right into it.

[18] Patricia and I spent some time during the development of the work, attempting to judge just how frustrating an experience www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com should be. For instance, how long should it take the viewer to understand that the screen is larger than it first appears and that there are elements placed in these ‘hidden’ areas of the screen to be found? How ‘clickable’ should the work be? The work was intended to feel a little clunky – a signal that it perhaps carries a good deal of unseen content (and is therefore slow) and as an admission of the ad hoc nature of much of its content. The intention was to use the limitations of web design to offer www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com a gritty physicality best able to convey the supposed ‘honesty’ associated with the divulgence of the uncurated contents of my hard drive.

[19] Since its inception, www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com has felt like an old fashioned part of the Net – a digital example of a thing that exhibits a kind of ‘crackle’.

[20] For instance, on a recent visit the work appeared to reveal to me previously unnoticed architectural similarities between Brueghel’s The Tower of Babel (1563) and East Kilbride shopping centre.

[21] In 1936, Joseph Cornell, better known for his boxed collages, made the film Rose Hobart – a neat connection between cabinets, appropriation and the moving image.

[22] Junior Professor of Socio-Cultural Anthropology at the Department for European Ethnology in a joint appointment between the Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin and the Museum für Naturkunde (Museum for Natural History), Berlin.

[23] The designer Sybille Neumeyer of formphase was able to generate her six choices of end paper images simply by interacting with www.rabbitcottontoothcottonrabbit.com.

random generator