The below diagram is a non-comprehensive illustration of a casting procedure.
Casting commences by wrapping a blanket of material around a physical object through a process called mold-making. In forming a ceramic shell for a bronze cast, for example, one dips a wax shape over and over again into a bath of slurry—a viscous, greenish-yellow fluid filled with pulverized silica that dries into a light orange crust. A mold can also be made by brushing thickened rubber onto an object multiple times, accumulating gauzy laminations into an elastic slab. Clay, plaster, and resin-coated sand are also utilized as mold materials by means of padding or daubing.
The original object is then removed, and the mold becomes a vessel that envelop a hollow cavity. Through the pouring spout, one can now pour molten metal, self-hardening liquid, or gooey chemical mixtures. Just like soup in a bowl, the material will take the shape of its holder. After a period of waiting called cure time, the material solidifies. The resulting cast can finally be extracted—or demolded—either by carefully taking apart a hard shell, or gently unveiling a flexible mold.
What is so fascinating about casting is that it resurrects an object that had once been turned into an empty space. The sensation of successfully demolding is similar to perfectly peeling a hard-boiled egg, or sliding a lychee out from its half-split shell. However, while such fluent conclusion registers the thrill of excavation, it also conceals the energy exerted from painstakingly forming the mold, the many hours spent waiting for wet coatings to dry, or the days spent incubating the cast.
In the early Copper and Bronze Ages of Western Asia, casting and moldmaking were developed to replace physical labor. Circa 3000 B.C., instead of mining for metal chunks, the people of Mesopotamia began to extract copper from their unprocessed ore by heating and melting it—through a process called smelting. This paved the way for metal casting to slowly replace the backbreaking process of endless chiseling. As a result, hunting tools, ornaments, and religious items could be churned out in tens and hundreds every day in almost identical configurations, bolstering the ability to trade and commodify objects.
In the early 20th century, the billowing demand for machines and automobiles propelled the mechanization and automation of casting. Even now, many mass-produced goods are made this way: ceramic mugs in souvenir shops, disposable plastic utensils, styrofoam ice boxes, and flexible phone casings—even troll dolls and jelly bears. Computer-aided manufacturing allows machines to carve precise and long-lasting molds from solid blocks of steel, and casting materials are injected mechanically, and hyper-efficiently, through high pressure air vents.
The pre-casting hand-wrought items of the Mesopotamian are nowhere close to being as sleek as the state-of-the-art iPhone X—which was released earlier this November while appraised as a “living 3D model.” That said, the handcrafted object embodies a chronicle of inimitable moments that are intimately human: marks of pounding, chipping, bending, shearing, and twisting are evident on the object’s surface. Conversely, in their almost magical existence, replication turns caster and mold makers into invisible hands. It treads on a path that is systematic, automated, and almost inhumanly mechanic.
Yet, between molding and demolding, there is space; there is time and space for casters and mold makers to experiment with the rules of casting, interrupt its pipeline, and produce a creative outcome.
For example, the multi-disciplinary artist Kaari Upson brushes latex on a salvaged couch repeatedly over the span of two years, almost as if he were making a mold. Yet unexpectedly, she proceeded to peel this synthetic skin and turn it inside out as a cast on its own. By altering the couch’s mold, not only does Upson shun replication, but she also allows for mutation; she allows the shape of an old piece of furniture to evolve into a magical and otherworldly entity. In this context, creative intervention transforms the certainty of casting into poetic expression.
Despite their seeming immateriality, the logic and procedure of digital processes are in proximity to that of casting and mold-making. In this analogy there is space for materiality to be re-introduced; there is space for the online and the algorithmic to be similarly, and necessarily, interruptible.
Casting and mold-making can perhaps be defined as the analog forebearers of copy-pasting. Press ctrl + C, ctrl + V, and lo and behold: a copy is made.
Casting is also similar to downloading. The latter involves duplicating recorded data that exists within a distant, unknown server into personal computer memory. Before the era of Spotify, Pandora, and Apple Music, we used to cast .mp3 files into our computers and music players. The mold was the data structure of the file, and casting happened as one clicked the “click here to download” button.
Similarly, distributing online content—sharing memes on Facebook, retweeting news, and reblogging a Tumblr post—occurs by duplicating and casting content onto another person’s newsfeed. Even liking a picture or a post spreads content across our network of friends, and our friends’ network of friends. Based on the statistics provided by a data-analysis platform called Domo, the two billion active users of Facebook alone produce roughly five million likes per minute. The banality of our digital experience is inundated with replicas of content and material.
Nonetheless, the ease of clicking, tapping, and swiping allows us to forget that we are in fact laboring as casters and mold-makers, continually fueling the conveyor belt for social media expansion. We are giving broad license rights to the global distribution of our content and personal history. Instagram users are bound to grant the company the full right to use any of their photos for free, for any reason, worldwide. Google and Facebook can even sublicense this right to third party organizations in their pursuit for corporate expansion. Facebook, for one, has grown to be a giant ‘cookie’ monster—frantically consuming our digital trails to display targeted ads, even to web visitors who are not members of its social network. This controversy includes the recent accusations of Facebook eavesdropping on phone conversations to hone its ads-targeting campaign.
But this forgetting may also be perhaps a product of our increasing insulation. Aside from being casters, we are also the cast; our digital environment as the surrounding mold. Our liquidness is perhaps already a matter of fact: drop-down menus, virtual keyboards, and integrated-camera encode us into free-flowing assets such as texts, sound waves, ‘react’ faces, and short video snippets. Just as smelting extracted copper from its ore, digital interfaces distillate specific datas from our presence.
However, the infrastructure of the Internet is continually re-molded to be increasingly algorithmic, privileging predictable data patterns over creative anomalies. Instagram, for example, curates content based on a user’s profile searches, accounts interactions, and time spent viewing a particular post. The notion of contingency that is associated with discovery—as in social media’s Discovery tab—grows increasingly suspect, as it is filled with vapid, on-your-doorstep caterings: “Watch: Videos You Might Like,” “Picked For You: Science Experiments,” “Oddly Satisfying,” “3D Motion Graphics.” The rest are replete with posts which have received upwards of a thousand likes. Similarly, YouTube’s homepage recommendation does not favor less-than-100-views videos, or those which are totally alien to the Previously Watched archive. Instead, it features Recommended Channels, such as Today’s Funniest Clips with million-views clips that are “racking up the LOLs across the web right now.”
More frighteningly, both humans and machines are churning out replicas of contents which are deemed to be highly engaging—and therefore profitable. For instance, social media has allowed for the propagation of sped-up food recipe videos, the popularization of zoomed-in sprinkled-slime kneading, and the proliferation of algorithmically-titled cartoon videos on YouTube Kids. Artificial neural networks such as Google’s Creatism are also learning to create images that mimic “high-ranking” photography, scavenging on Google Map’s assets while generating numerous “aesthetically pleasing” landscape photographs.
Amidst being engulfed by a culture that is tethered to algorithms, we rarely think of ourselves as digital labors—or virtual casters and mold-makers—because physical exertion, hours, and wages are by-passed and hid from view, while gratifications (as well as notifications) appear as intimate and instant. It almost feels as if we are left only with the pleasing sensations of constantly demolding and discovering ourselves—but, unbeknownst to us, our clicks are caught in the frenzy of copy-pasting.
Beyond the sheen of our screens, we are not only engineered to cannibalize content, but also to stream a massive amount of personal and interpersonal data. Yet, being a part of a giant virtual factory is an elusive concept, and perhaps it is because data itself only appears to be transfigured into the gaseous Cloud. Snaps ‘disappear’ after being opened, and Instagram stories ‘expire’ in a day—but, in reality, they hover within Google’s server for a month. Data Center Frontier has written about how Facebook stores their exabytes of data inside innumerable Blu-Ray discs, stored within 14 racks of housing square enclosures in Forest City, North Carolina. The network intelligence research group called Deepfield also found that one third of worldwide Internet usage transits on Amazon’s data center in North Virginia—its facade inconspicuous, it could almost be mistaken as any other ambiguously industrial building. Almost imperceptibly, we are siphoning ourselves into these “molds”.
Artists Eva and Franco Mattes are among those who decided to interrupt the effacing of labor and physical processes. Their work Dark Content (2015) presents glimpses into what occurs on the outside of “the mold.” The real life installation of Dark Content includes viewing chambers which are veiled behind the abstract, minimalistic facade of an overturned office table. Yet, it also consists of episodic videos which are released periodically on the Darknet (to view it, you have to download the Tor browser and access a cryptic link with a .onion domain). It features anonymous interviews with online media content moderators, and each of their stories are narrated by digital avatars in the robotic sound of text-to-speech transcription. With the video’s white background and uncanny avatars, the whole video illustrates the zombification of a corporate graveyard.
The video exposes us to the fringes of the readily accessible Internet, especially as workers reveal that they are laboring at the periphery of large companies. For instance, a Vimeo content moderator admitted to having never interacted with the “engineers, marketers, data analysts, or any other positions in the [InterActive Corp] headquarters.” They recount the experience of working in a building likened to a “call center” stationed among “typical grey cubicles and granite countertops.” Some of these employees work from within their cars using their own mobile hotspots, while others station themselves in recognizable public places such as Starbucks, McDonald's, and Panera Bread.
These invisible workers (some reside in the US, while most are outsourced in the Philippines) spend their day scanning through photos, videos, and texts before their distribution is made public. Without knowing their contractor, they scour for “unacceptable” content with the goal of removing it from our daily consumption. In the video, many claim that the work experience is disturbing, having to encounter traumatizing and gruesome visuals on a daily basis. Some report having “lost faith in humanity,” others say they feel mentally exhausted.
Through Dark Content, we skim a familiar space that feels palpable, but at the same time nebulous and otherworldly. Yet, its alienness only testifies to our engineered contentment of residing in a mode of online consumption. Dark Content shows that our perception of the Web is controlled by corporate system; that outside the Internet, there is a cacophony that has been silenced and rendered invisible.
No matter how many identical objects there are, or how perfect they all seem, physical casts do not come to be simply with the click of ctrl + C and ctrl + V. There is always labor involved in casting and production, and it is well the case with today’s digital phenomena. It is erroneous to think that digital infrastructure can somehow be made non-human, or that there is no force at play other than the supposedly ‘neutral’ machine itself.
Today, the emancipatory and democratic ideals of the Internet are not only underscored by corporate headlines—they are bracketed by governmental agendas. The Federal Communication Commission’s recent plan to overturn Net Neutrality means that internet service providers (ISPs) will be able to throttle the agendas of web giants while blocking other, less-profitable competition; it will mold the open market into a group of unrestrained, quasi-monopolistic winners. This privatization also creates a loophole that allows major companies to override the utility of common carriage by investing in high-grade fiber optic that reaches poorer and rural areas. More concerningly, ISPs will be able to suppress dissents and political speech deemed unfavorable by their own corporate interests; on Capitol Hill itself, the public is already out-lobbied by the resources of capital giants such as Verizon, AT&T, and Comcast. While simultaneously weighed down by an automated and immaterial up-in-the-Cloud imagination, the Internet is forced to be an enclosure of self-cannibalization that suffocates complexities and productive exchanges; a single receptacle cast repeatedly in an unyielding, post-truth rhetoric.
A political critique of computational culture, then, is suffocated when it appears solely online. An urgent interruption of the Internet demands a political consciousness that engages with material conditions while tactfully implicating—and complicating—the hegemony of self-replication. It calls for an awareness that the digital is not divorced from the physical; that their dualism is at best bogus; and that there is a vast, unexplored territory that has been excluded from our molds. In remembering our commonality as laborers, casters, and mold makers, the creative and political interruption within the digital and the online has never been, and never will be limited to the purview of established artists and creatives. In our voyage amidst the sea of replicas, our horizon is always uncharted—never just the clouds.
WILLIAM SAMOSIR RISD'18 is a giant ‘cookie’ monster.