After a remarkable 1,803-year life, print media died on July 25, 2013. No less of an authority than The Onion provided the obituary. To summarize:
Print is dead. Long live online writing about print.
Of course, we knew this was coming. We had been rehearsing the funeral rites for some time. What surprised me was how the New York art world seemed unready to accept the fact. The New Museum’s 2010–11 exhibition “The Last Newspaper” and Dexter Sinister’s Performa 09 project, The First/Last Newspaper were as much meditations on the imminent loss as attempts at resuscitation. Dressed up in their finest blacks, they turned themselves into publishing sites.
A few years before, Aleksandra Mir had made a similar gesture for exhibition at Mary Boone Gallery with her work Newsroom 1986–2000 (2007). During its two-month run, the artist and several assistants inhabited the gallery, creating oversized drawings of the New York Post and New York Daily News from that fifteen-year period. “Every day,” Mir wrote, “there will be new art and old news on the walls.”
There were a few stages to this project. First came the selection of 240 front pages from the 10,000 options. In general, Mir scanned the headlines for common themes: “miracle” stories about survivors of deadly crashes, dirty cops, gay issues, and—my favorite—alarmist reporting on extremely hot or cold weather (a topic that will never go out of fashion).
In the gallery’s back room, Mir sketched outlines of the front pages on large sheets of paper. Obviously, precise replication was not the goal. The Post and Daily News are akin to town gossips, and in Mir’s freehand style they seem all the more loopy and all the less reliable.
Finally, Mir relayed the outlined drawings to her assistants in the front room, felt-tip pens at the ready. Upon completion, a thematic set would go up on the walls for a week or two, then get de-installed to make room for the next. Like the news, the exhibition was in constant flux, though the mood was always lively. When Pulp’s on the boom box, you would be a fool to keep up an act.
By staging “news publishing” in a gallery, Mir brought the public into the production process. And in so doing, she echoed Benedict Anderson, one of the most famous theorists of the newspaper. Anderson’s 1982 book, Imagined Communities, proposes that while Medieval time is structured around “prefiguring and fulfillment”—around a Christian conception of life and afterlife—modern time is secular and simultaneous: measured by clock and calendar. 1Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (London: Verso, 2006 ), 24. And there are certain products of modernity, such as the newspaper, that technically “represent” this shared experience of time. The newspaper does this, of course, by presenting content that temporally coincides. That said, such products do more than “represent.” In being aware that there are other readers of the newspaper, for example, we come to feel as if we are part of an “imagined” community. And this process, Anderson claims, can produce different feelings of belonging: to a community of readers, to a cultural community—even to a nation.
Now, it is a commonplace that newspapers allow us to participate in public discourse. Marshall McLuhan has gone so far as to say that, “the press is inseparable from the democratic process.” 2Marshall McLuhan, Understanding Media (Cambridge: The MIT Press, 1994 ), 210. But in fact, this is a subject of considerable debate. In a 2008 New Yorker article, Eric Alterman narrates two famous positions from the 1920s. The first, held by Walter Lippmann, puts no stock in the capacity of the general public to engage in meaningful discourse. The average member, he wrote, “is slow to be aroused and quickly diverted […] and is interested only when events have been melodramatized as a conflict.” Lippmann elsewhere described the public as the, “deaf spectator in the back row” at a sporting event.
The second position was John Dewey’s. Counter to Lippmann, he believed that the foundation of democracy was less about the dissemination of information than the conversation produced by it.
If Lippmann and Dewey debated the role of public discourse, more recent thinkers have questioned the very form of this public sphere. Michael Warner, for one, critiques the assumption that discourse is universally understandable by its readers—and that acts of reading are, “replicable and uniform.” As he writes in his 2005 book, Publics and Counterpublics, “Public discourse says not only ‘Let a public exist, but ‘Let it have this character, speak this way, see the world in this way.’” 3Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (New York: Zone Books, 2005), 114. For Warner, there is a need to shift our understanding of public discourse and its platforms, to recognize their “performative and poetic” dimensions. This might expand the public sphere beyond what is conventionally imagined.
Warner wrote Publics and Counterpublics in the salad days of social media (and at the beginning of the end of print). While preliminary, his book anticipated many of the discussions in our “great unbundling” age. If news arriving through web discourse is “not punctual,” he writes, “then it remains unclear to what extent the changing technology will be assimilable to the temporal framework of public discourse.” Indeed, it may be, “difficult to connect localized acts of reading to the modes of agency in the social imaginary of modernity. It may even be necessary to abandon ‘circulation’ as an analytic category.” 4Michael Warner, Publics and Counterpublics (New York: Zone Books, 2005), 98.
In short, the “imagined” community of readers is undergoing change. And here, we see a reprisal of the Lippmann-Dewey debate: Are online users more meaningfully engaged in the democratic process by having the capacity to voice their sentiments in comment threads, on blogs, and through various social media channels? Are these places where public opinion thrives? Or should we follow the example set by Reuters, the Chicago Sun-Times and Popular Science, which have closed the commenting systems on their sites, largely due to the burden of monitoring “uncivil” comments? In policing uncivility, are we not propagating a new form of self-righteousness, which keeps the “deaf spectator” deaf?
These are not simple questions to answer, though they drew me back to Mir’s project, which also happened in the early days of social media. Seen through Warner’s writing, Newsroom is a testament to what the “poetic and performative” dimensions of public discourse could look like: peculiar, personalized ways of reading and remaking the news. At the least, there is no denying the poetry of creating a studio for the production of, “old news,” as newspapers shrink to the thinness of screens.
At the conclusion of the exhibition, Mir grouped her drawings for sale. Many of these groups went into the world, and the rest were destroyed by Hurricane Sandy. The artist characterized the loss by remarking:
“From pulp to pulp.” 5Aleksandra Mir, in an e-mail interview with the author, 5 August 2015.