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Rhizome Commission Proposal

COMPUTERS on LAW & ORDER  |  Jeff Thompson

A blog documenting computers on Law & Order, their encroachment in late 80s/early 90s and following the rise of internet culture and mobile computing


Starting in 1990, spanning 456 episodes and 20 seasons, “Law & Order” has no peers when it comes to following cultural and political trends through popular media. Because of its particular time, one of the clearest shifts during the show’s run is our relationship to technology.

I propose to create an extensive blog documenting computer use on "Law & Order". Over the course of the series, computers begin to appear the background of offices, then actors begin actively using them onscreen. Crimes using computers, BBS systems, email, and databases start to appear. Internet and email communication become norms, and as the show closes in 2010 mobile computing is in constant use.

Top: designer's computer in the background, above: database at Child Protective Services, below: looking at tax records

While partly a project of techno-nostalgia (blue screens, clunky monitors), a blog made from screenshots of computer use on “Law & Order” will also track our relationships with these technologies over the last 20 years. This includes not just a rapid change in how computer technology integrated into our lives, but also the transformations in style and size of these devices, as well as the cultural byproducts such as BBS systems and email that arise in a networked culture.

The blog itself will be built on a very minimal Wordpress installation, likely requiring a good deal of customization. An introductory essay will be written (much of it an elaboration on the ideas outlined here), followed by large, high-resolution screenshots, short descriptions of the context in which the computer appears, and annotated season, episode, and time information so the image can be retrieved by others.

Above: screensaver, below: computer (and printer) at the State Liquor Authority

Some of the initial work for this project has already started and can by seen at www.jeffreythompson.org/blog. These initial screenshots are haphazard and are by no means comprehensive. While the finished project will likely not be able to include every image, an in-depth and metadata-tagged website will provide a searchable and sortable index of technology over the last 20 years.


[ full CV available here ]

Jeff Thompson received his BFA from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and his MFA from Rutgers University. He is currently Assistant Professor of New Genres and Digital Arts at the University of Nebraska, Lincoln where he is also artist-in-residence at the Holland Computing Center, the supercomputing facility for the University of Nebraska system.

Thompson has exhibited and performed his work internationally, most recently at the Sheldon Museum of Art, the Taubman Museum of Art, SITE Santa Fe, Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts, Jersey City Museum, Weisman Art Museum, Hunter College, White Box Gallery, and Museo Arte Contemporaneo in Argentina. Thompson was awarded the Van Lier Fellowship from Harvestworks in 2008 and a commission from Dispatx, an alternative curatorial platform based in Spain and NYC, in 2007. In addition to his studio work, Thompson co-founded the Texas Firehouse, an alternative gallery space in New York City from 2007-2009 and is currently a co-director of Drift Station Gallery in Lincoln, Nebraska, USA.

Relevant skills:
+  HTML, CSS, and PHP experience to build/modify a usable Wordpress theme
+  Experience with Wordpress
+  Extensive time already spent with Law & Order :)


Month 1

+  Order DVDs
+  Determine system for organizing and categorizing images, metadata

Month 2-4

+  Gather screenshots systematically
+  Begin work on Wordpress theme
+  Finalize metadata requirements as images are gathered

Month 5-6

+  Begin posting
+  Possibly develop automated system for making posting easier (Bash/PHP script to auto-post on specified days)

Month 7-12

+  Continue and finish posting (while images will all be gathered, posting will continue to encourage repeated visits)
+  Archive the project blog


$550 Complete series on DVD (streaming is hard to scrub for better frames and quality is lower)
$250 Hosting for life of project (approx. $50/year x 5 years - combined with existing hosting to save money)
$100 Domain registration for life of project (approx. $20/year x 5 years)
$4000 Artist fee (456 episodes x 40 minutes each = 304 hours of video, or approximately 2 months of full-time work just to watch the episodes)




Much of my work, like this proposal, addresses ideas of remix, algorithm, and data in relationship to culture through artworks and critical writing practice. The examples below use networked, software-based approches to tease out the poetics and importance of these issues.

What I See When My Eyes Are Closed [ website  |  2011/12 ]
What I See When My Eyes Are Closed is an online data visualization project that shows the approximate colors seen by users when their eyes are closed. The data was gathered using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk, a site for crowd-sourced labor. Participants closed their eyes, stared at a white screen, and recorded the color they saw, along with their name and location. Research into “soft data” is of particular interest: data sets culled from cultural or personal sources suggest a lack of utility that aligns this kind of information with poetics and removes the often-arbitrary relationship of data-point to image. Specifically, What I See When My Eyes Are Closed gives a very human interaction with anonymous Mechanical Turk workers, who are located across the globe. Clicking on a color fills the screen for an immersive view that simulates a temporal shift into that person’s body.

For a paper detailing the methodology and critical implications of this work, please see a recently published paper on the Parsons Journal for Information Mapping.

[ full description and futher images]

Every Nokia Tune [ audio, custom software  |  2011 ]
Every Nokia Tune is made up of a 10TB hard drive, filled with all 6,227,020,800 possible combinations of the Nokia Tune ringtone. This melody, the most ubiquitous piece of music ever, is heard 20,000 times per second around the world. The piece was created in collaboration with the Holland Computing Center at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln using the Open Science Grid, a network of supercomputers.

Using custom-written software, the original 13-note melody is reorganized into every possible permutation, which are stored on a 10TB hard drive. The drive itself is all that is shown and has no power or data cables – the complex, useable data becomes a sculptural form. It becomes like a crystal – a careful lattice with a very specific structure, though the crystal's internal form cannot be readily seen.

Everything of something is more than just all of something: by creating all possible ringtones, as opposed to building a dance track (for example), the subjective decision-making is removed. No aesthetic decisions needed: just make all possible works. More than that, however, the every possible permutation of a set creates a new form that is separate from any individual permutation but that is an ontological summation of the original source. This form of remix does not "significantly transform the original" as copyright law allow, but in its excessive scale becomes a useless archive that is no longer a functional object, but a site within which is contained a massive, nearly architectural structure of data on a microscopic byte-scale.

As an interesting technical note, if run on a typical desktop computer, this project would have taken approximately 11 years to complete. Created with the generous assistance of David Swanson and Adam Caprez at the Holland Computing Center, University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

[ full description with audio samples ]

42,607,656 Pixels of Sky, Sorted by RGB Value [ inkjet print on paper, custom software  |  2011 ]
From a total of 8,222 digital photographs in my collection, spanning 1997-2011, all photographs where the sky took up more than 50% of the image were pulled. The resulting 358 photographs were processed using custom-written software that read the RGB color value for every pixel and wrote those values to a text file. This file was then used in conjunction with a second piece of software to rebuild a single image, containing every pixel from the 358 photographs, sorted from black to white - a total of 42,607,656 pixels.

[ full desciption with detail images ]


Random Hexadecimal Values, Sorted [ video, custom software  |  02:06"  |  2011 ]
Each frame, a set of 2,073,600 (1920x1080) hexadecimal color values are created, sorted, and drawn to the frame. Values range from #000000 - #FFFFFF (black to white).