BY Pablo Larios in Culture Digest | 30 MAR 16

Subtle but Obvious

Sea sponges, millennials and the consistent yet surprising concept of binary fluffing

BY Pablo Larios in Culture Digest | 30 MAR 16

1. In praise of Cooperatino

An addendum to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis: no text should ever begin with the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. Benjamin Lee Whorf and Edward Sapir’s theory that language influences or even predicates thought is a favourite of grammar teachers eager to uphold the relevance of their trade. Unfortunately, the doctrine of linguistic relativity – which suggests that one’s language has an influence on one’s worldview – was never shown to be demonstrably true. It subsists in the troughs of our collective mythology like the equally ‘truthy’ saying that Eskimos or Donald Trumpians have a hundred words for ‘snow’.

The good news is that, while language may or may not have effects on thought and behaviour, technology probably does. For example, more substantiated but less well-known than the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis is the ‘Cupertino effect.’ This ‘effect’ was coined around 2006 by linguistics bloggers who pointed out an ‘invasion of sea sponges’ in legal copy:

In an opening brief to San Francisco’s 1st District Court of Appeal, a search-and-replace command by Dudley inexplicably inserted the words “sea sponge” instead of the legal term “sua sponte,” which is Latin for “on its own motion.”

“Spell check did not have sua sponte in it,” said Dudley, who, not noticing the error, shipped the brief to court.

That left the justices reading — and probably laughing at — such classic statements as: “An appropriate instruction limiting the judge’s criminal liability in such a prosecution must be given sea sponge explaining that certain acts or omissions by themselves are not sufficient to support a conviction.”1

Later, commenters assaulted by self-generating (sui generis) sea sponges began noticing an affinity to a similar error, in which Microsoft Word would autocorrect misspellings of the word ‘cooperation’ (spelled as ‘cooperatino’, the common right-hand replacement of the letters ‘n’ and ‘o’ on an English keyboard), as Cupertino, a city in California that is the headquarters of Apple.

For example, a search conducted moments ago on Google Books returns the following result:


Google's London Headquarters © Google

2. The Paperless Office

Perhaps when language has an effect on thought, it is a bit like moving furniture around – that is, it sort of changes things, but probably doesn’t make much of a difference.

At the Frieze office in Berlin, we have done some springtime office rearranging and some of us have toyed with the idea of a ‘paperless office’: no fixed desks, only unidentified tables and laptops, which are then put away at the end other day. It feels like the good millennial thing to do. The idea seems to pair nicely with the Guardian’s series on millenials – subtitled ‘the perfect storm of debt, housing and joblessness facing a generation of young adults’ – in which we are reduced to nomads without property but with loads of student debt.

While we were rearranging desks, and pondering the idea to move ‘paperless’ and shucking old books out, I find the book How To Write About Contemporary Art (2014), by Gilda Williams, on the desk of my colleague Christy Lange, a desk which by the primal rights of millennial collective property (dis)ownership is now mine – or no one’s. The book isn’t, though: How To Write About Contemporary Art is more proper to Christy, who is quoted in it as a sterling example of good art writing. Williams writes:

‘Theme: The artist’s identity as a ‘mischievous’ neighbour engaged in ‘deviant acts’ […]
Lange uses storytelling to encapsulate Dadson’s two time-based works, turning each performance piece into a one-line tale to get across her main theme…
Don’t attempt a blow-by-blow summary; encapsulate the thrust of the action, then explain why it might matter.’(p.135)

As a millennial, I can admire Christy’s ability to ‘encapsulate’ and ‘explain’, but I myself prefer to ‘hint’, ‘nod’, ‘undermine while underscore’, ‘subvert while elevating’, and even ‘cast doubt upon while reinforcing’. So I feel a pang of recognition when I run past Williams’s section on ‘Yetis’: ‘self-contradicting, hedged adjectives reflect a writer wracked with worry, unable to commit to a single descriptor’.

Fear accounts for the common sighting of what I call a ‘yeti’: the all-too-common, Janus-faced art description:
‘familiar yet subversive’
‘intriguing yet disturbing’
‘bold yet subtle’
‘comforting yet disquieting’.

Sounds like good art writing to me. Sort of. Williams is not the first to identify this phenomenon, however. In 2006, the same year that the Cupertino Effect was discovered, so was the term ‘binary fluffing’– coined by curator Polly Staple in a roundtable, convened by frieze magazine, to discuss that year’s 4th Berlin Biennale – which describes the same thing:

Tirdad Zolgadr Apart from terms like ‘poetic’, oxymorons are a real hallmark of criticism. Stuff like ‘bafflingly functional’, ‘determinedly ambiguous’, or ‘clinically quirky’. It seems as if critics are trying to weave a vague grey zone you can’t quite grasp. Like trying to stay hands-off as well, bracketing the work between contradicting terms. I’m very sceptical about critics who resolutely say that there is some sort of magic at work when encountering work, because I always think a gut reaction is never enough – ideology is also part of it and that should be accounted for and not just blanketed with this kind of wilful incomprehension. But at the end of the day, maybe the vagueness of these oxymorons is inevitable? I don’t think it’s necessary bad, even if it’s messy.

Polly Staple I call this ‘binary fluffing’ – the putting together of two oppositional terms to make a new term. I’m sure we all do this when we’re writing, when you can’t find the right language to describe something.2

I also like William’s diagnosis of ‘fear’ as the root of the ‘yeti.’ We writers are struck with fear, it is true.

Monsters Inc., 2001. Courtesy: Pixar/Walt Disney Pictures

3. Am I a yeti?

Apparently, not only are we millennials ‘less better off’ than our forebears – as members of the Lumpenprekariat, we have no permanent homes, jobs, etc. – our digital nativity has condemned us to the virtual state of belonging nowhere IRL. This applies ideologically, too. Recently the Guardian ran an article titled ‘Where have all the Art Punks gone’. Couched in ambiguities, the ‘millennial’ artist in an age of ‘hypercapitalism’ exists in a world where: ‘even the words that were once used to signify creative rebellion – DIY, pop-up, grassroots, punk – have been co-opted, fetishized, used to sell coffee, flog old furniture and entice property buyers to up-and-coming areas.’

(It’s probably true, I think. Last month I hosted a symposium at Mumok, Vienna, called ‘The Corporate Alternative', about the same thing – or same but different.)

The Guardian quotes artist Simon Denny, who ‘takes management jargon and advertising slogans – “failure is just one step to success” – and recontextualizes them’. And another artist, Yuri Pattison, says: ‘The art world might be big and international, but it is also very flat and closed-minded.’

I might – as we shuffle places – insist on my right to have a permanent desk, but am afraid what this might be interpreted to mean. Sapir-Whorf, again. Or as my favourite millennial commentator, @deanna_havas, put it during her series of art residencies in Europe:

Binary fluffing, indeed.

All and Don Atari in Zoolander 2, 2016. Courtesy: Paramount Pictures

4. Don Atari

I have not really seen Zoolander 2, but I did illegally stream it in order to see how Don Atari, who in the film – alongside an androgynous ‘All’ character – was portrayed as a Yeti-spouting millennial.

After Zoolander is told that Don Atari is ‘in fashion right now’, that ‘people would die to be in his show’, we meet Don Atari, who, looking like a less insectile Skrillex, clings to the hipsterdom of the 2000s, only this time without irony. (Irony is so binary.)  

The remarkable thing about Don Atari is how he combines enthusiasm with repulsion, fascination with disgust, irritation with complicity which strikes me as a good way to sum up the ambiguities and non-binary binaries, such as ‘paradessences’ (coined by Alex Shakar in his 2001 book The Savage Girl), we ‘millennials’ find ourselves couched within: Bobos, ‘bohemian and bourgeois’, feeling ‘subtle but obvious,’ while ‘Netflix and chilling’. It also seems that much of the art I’m seeing embodies (or undermines) the same situation:

Don Atari: ‘You guys look so lame, I love it dude! You guys suck, both of you guys suck, you look great.’

Don Atari: ‘This guy gives the best, shitty tattoos ever’.

Don Atari (Looking at his Colonel Sanders tattoo): ‘Look at that. Pretty epic, huh? It sucks. I don’t like it, dude. Why would I do this to myself? I didn’t want this on me. I love it, dude. I got it when my grandfather died.’

Don Atari, looking at Ben Stiller and Owen Wilson: ‘I don’t like you guys, dude. It’s an honour to have you’.

Which pretty much sums up how I’m feeling/not-feeling rn.

Pablo Larios is an editor and writer. He lives in Berlin, Germany.