Dada Semiotics and Web Satire

cement satyr

The Web as a Medium
for Satire

Jimmy McGary's Clickme

1 The Web as a
Site for Satire: explosive growth of the World Wide Web in the last few years has resulted from its opening to commercial advertisement and sales (most notably of sex products) and mass media broadcast-style content. Scholars, scientists, and educators, whose messages were the original business of the Web, often see this expansion as schlockification, vulgarization, and exploitation of the new medium. In any case, the Web now provides a wide and comprehensive, though scarcely deep, image of the occupations and entertainments of late capitalist societies, mostly Western. To surf is no longer a highbrow activity: all brows can play.

The purpose of this site is not to lament or inveigh against this revolting development (in Daffy Duck's words) but to display and celebrate the counter formations of satire on the Web. The web is a natural place for satire to flourish,

  • because it so easily reproduces miniatures, samples, clips, of everything else,
  • because hypertext is a made-to-order device for juxtaposition, incongruity with effects ranging from wittiness to monstrosity,
  • because it offers myriads of adolescent males digital tools and distribution for their parodies, send-ups, mustaches on Great Art, bullshit-busting truth telling and other transgressions,
  • because it is an international platform for the declaration of post-Gutenburg pomotheorypraxis avantpop interventions.

A good bit of Web satire is on the order of the cheap shot, the one-line zinger, and the perverted logo (as for example the one on the left and others These are not organized into sustained parodies and they tend to be shots at very well-established targets. And even the better web satire is a menippean farrago of voices, sounds, images, logos, and links in diverse directions. In short, we most likely will not see another Gulliver's Travels online.

1.1 Dada as Graphic Satire

*A splendid Dada questionaire: www-personal.umich. edu/~rmutt/form.html

Jamie Zawinski's Webcollage:
Exterminate All Rational Thought


1.2 Reading Dada pics and links

*If part of the pleasure of linking arises in the act of joining two different things, then this aesthetic of juxtaposition inevitably tends towards catachresis and difference for their own ends and for the effect of surprise, sometimes surprised pleasure, that they produce. (171)

**When users follow links and encounter materials that do not appear to possess a significant relation to the document from which the link originated, readers feel confused and resentful.(126)

1.1 Some Web satire is straight text--a parody of various discourses appearing in the newspapers, journals, memoranda, questionaires.* In this case, it is a print phenomenon with Web distribution. Web satire becomes more native to the Net when it employs the visual as well as the verbal parts of the medium, and here a great inspiration is DADA--the brief but quintessentially modern/postmodern movement which began at the end of World War I in Switzerland, Germany, and Paris, and which, though it quickly disestablished itself, is still generating followers and offshoots.**

Four traits and techniques are very often used in Dada pieces. They are:

  • bricolage: the making of Dada art out of common materials and things intended for other uses. Marcel Duchamps' exhibiting of a urinal as sculpture is proverbial, as well as some of his other "ready-mades" including the front wheel of a bicycle inserted into the top of a wood stool, and an iron coatrack. Others included bits of junk, newspaper clippings, and so on. Today we can add throw-away images like TV screen captures, frames of videotape, logos and bits of advertisements.
  • collage and photomontage: organizing a composition into one representational space smacked of bourgeoise realism; Dadaists preferred the juxtapositions and overlays of collage, evoking an incoherent multiplicity of signs; but of course, one looks for local meaningful assemblages...
  • text-in-image: rejecting the separation of pure art from text and message, Dadists mixed them, and happily embraced "conceptualism" (a work could be "about something").
  • the body repulsive: Dada aimed to shock and disturb; the physical body appears as diseased, grotesque, cadaverous, its nakedness unbeautiful, its sexuality preposterous. The last trait is by no means special to Dada--it is a regular trait of satiric graphic art (e.g. Hogarth, the Brueghels, Bosch) and of satire from the time of the Romans on.

In short Dada was militantly "anti-art" and a good current Dada site is Pursuing its logic to the end, Dadaists would have no use for the notion of "work" itself--with its connotations of a place in an archive of officially approved objects of aesthetic value--and one development of Dada was into performance art.

1.2 In Hypertext 2.0, George Landow suggests that the juxtaposition of collage is very like the way a hypertext link inserts another document which is not directly part of the first document into it.* Certainly Dada likes juxtaposition and catachresis (the "indecorous" yoking together of disparate things), but not all surprise or shock is Dada, which has always a critical, satiric motive--some shock can be "cognitive," some macabre, morbid, or otherwise perverse, and none of these are Dada. In any case, Professor Landow cannot be implying that all hypertext is Dada; further specification is in order. And we should note that Landow also maintains that we expect links to be meaningful**: the link may pose a cognitive dissonance, but we must be able to resolve it. This notwithstanding a certain avant garde aura or cache that we might associate with disorientation.(119). Landow suggests, at least to me, that the same principles useful for resolving the simultaneously presented dissonance within an image may be useful in resolving the sequential dissonance of Dada links. To be sure, there are no classic Dada links, but there certainly are many contemporary ones. That is why we will now take a tour of Dada visual semiotics.

2 Dada Visual Semiotics


2.1 Incongruity

Max Ernst, Virgin Spanking while artist and friends look on
Hannah Höch: Marlene (1930)

2 "Dada visual semiotics" sounds nasty, but we will really be looking at just two principles: incongruity and photomontage. Images are famously mute, worth a thousand words, and work without the assistance of the critic to render their meanings in words. But a Dada image does not just "be", it means--one reads it in terms of values and institutions. If you can't read an image, it is probably Surrealist.

final image in McGary's Fitness
	 Channel 2.1 The incongruity in Dada images is usually quite flagrant: as "What is wrong with this picture?" exercises they would not challenge the average third grader. Here are two examples (these are thumbnails--click for larger image). In "Virgin Spanking" the incongruity is with the long tradition of Madonna and Child--some such spanking is likely enough to have occurred, but the idealized relation always depicted has no place for turbulence and conflict of wills. (It is also quite erotically charged, critics note, with visual echoes of Venus and Cupid.) What is wrong on the right, which is the culminating image in one of Jimmy McGary's "rides" in Dadanetcircus, is also obvious, though its motivation is not (we will discuss it in context).

Rene Magritte's torso face: Rape Hannah Höch's Marlene, which dates from the same year as Marlene Dietrich's The Blue Angel (1930) is late Dada; the initial incongruity of the heroically proportioned woman's legs placed literally on a pedestal (and thus immobilized) seems to strike the observing men more with wonder than desire, while the smiling face (of Marlene) peers down and out at the viewer with enigmatic regard. "Marlene" disturbs the stability and privilege of the viewer certain of his/her identity and locus of interest. The Magritte torso/rape on the right was considered so scandalous on first exhibition that it was kept in a private room and shown by invitation only. This is one female that cannot gaze back at you or speak. Clicking on the image will give larger one and some heavy duty Lacanian commentary, but one can at least get a handle on it as the ironic rejoinder to "It's really your personality that I care about."

Hannah Höch, `Bourgeoise Bridal Couple', 1920

Hannah Höch, `The Bride' 1927 This pair illustrates the way the same artist can treat the same theme, Dadaist throughout, but with differences over time. In the first, the Kirche and the Kuche frame the couple and the couple are making their stately transition from one to the other, rather blankly in the case of the groom to be sure, but the bride is seriously deficient, though not in a way that disrupts the orderly progress. In the later reworking, Höch uses a doll or infant's head that she uses elsewhere, greatly out of scale and staring frantically out of frame. Aligned around the couple are not-so-arcane emblems of things lost, including, it would appear, sexuality, or specifically the pursuit of self-knowledge through sexuality.

2.2 Collage and Photomontage

collage: the pasting of discrete pieces of things into a composition;
photomontage: the pasting of parts of one photograph into another so as to make one composite photograph.

*Brigid Doherty, "See: 'We are all Neurasthenics!': or, the trauma of Dada montage," Critical Inquiry24 (1997).


2.2 There is little doubt that photomontage has a powerful trompe-l'oeil effect: Brigid Doherty cites a 1995 Massachusetts case where a court found that a crude pasting of a (picture of) a woman's head onto the (picture of) naked bodies in various salacious postures did cause traumatic stress and injury to the woman and awarded damages.* Such a cutting and pasting dismembers the body and travesties the original image and intent. The objects or pieces of objects and people do not arrange themselves in a single space but jar and bump against one another with different scales and angles of camera vision. Though the larger and more comprehensive ones suggest a great profusion, they are composed of tensions and juxtapositions.

In and around 1920, Hannah Höch made a number of richly intriguing photomontages which are still the objects of much analysis and commentary (most in German). The one included here (Slice with the Dada Kitchen-Knife through the German Weimar Beer Belly Cultural Epoch--1919/20) is the largest (roughly three by four feet) and most inclusive and ambitious. It is the subject of an entire monograph by Gertrud Jula Dech (Munich: Lit Verlag, 1981). Dech notes that the images are drawn from five domains: mechanics, architecture, animals, people, and of course words drawn mainly from posters and the newspapers. She identifies most of the texts from which the words are drawn, and as many of the human faces as she can (which is most of them). We have Einstein, von Hindenburg, Marx,dancers, acrobats, generals, Dadists. We have gender splicings--always men's heads on women's bodies, or in the case of her lover Haussmann's face, on that of a toy. The "Schnitt" suggests to me a cross-section of the belly as well as the technique of reducing figures to snippets. Much text can be woven about this work, but my point here can be simply put: imagine each of the images and words connected to others by hypertext links. Then "Schnitt" would be a sitemap to a dada satiric network. Indeed, given the extreme dynamism of the figures, one might almost suppose it to be the network itself. We could make each component image into an anchor and add an alt tag which would cause some identifying words to appear in the status bar (in Netscape). The anchors could point to various pieces of Dech's book (placed online of course) and go from there to other works by Hoch, Haussman, and so forth.

2.3 but hypertext is not -age

unidirectional linkage

bidirectional linkage 2.3 But such a map is crucially different from a working hypertext web, because the map can be simultaneously (or synoptically) experienced, whereas the juxtaposed element in a web is always not present at the source anchor, and if you click on the source anchor, you "leave" it and go then to the target. In addition, in a web with one-way links, the paths of traversals arrange the pieces into "narrative" sequences while also excluding other connections. Even with bidirectional links, if there is a fixed entry point, the linking pattern places some things before others. Compare for example the first set of four files on the left with the second: in the first, possible paths from 1 are 1-2-4, 1-3-4, 1-2-3-4 but not 1-3-2-4 or any paths returning through 1. With bidirectional links, there are an unbounded number of paths because recursion is possible. The bidirectional net more resembles Landow's image of the rhizome: any point can be reached from any other point. Note, however, that some sequential ordering still exists: even in the completely bidirectional as much as the directional net, 4 will not be experienced until either 2 or 3 has been. The composition--the arrangement of the parts in the whole--simply cannot be observed directly in hypertext.

Contradiction, by the way, is a relation that does lend itself to static representation, since it is the claim that something is or can be simultaneously one thing and also its opposite. The graphic here is from Clickme and places two opposing attitudes towards woman's body in collision.

3 dadanetcircus


3.1 Dynamic HTML and the Ride


*"rapid refresh" uses a META HTTP-EQUIV= "refresh" with 0,1, or a few seconds delay before loading the next page. The pages are linked in unstoppable sequence, but not with href and the reader is not offered a choice.


3.2 Topology of links

Link map: Fitness channel

3 is actually a group of kindred spirits in Houston Texas joined for the purpose of doing performance art. The general manager is Jimmy McGary, a science guy but also a digital artist who has been mounting stories and other webby things on the Web for years. He used to refer to his collection of sequences as netsam and calls them "web rides." His most recent (not too recent-1996) suite of rides all all links from a screen called Click Me, and contains four sequences with some cross linking, but distinct themes and linear sequencing in each ride. The site is strongly satiric and its targets are the treatments in the mass media of

"Dada" subjects the question of web-obsession to the probing of network journalism and talk shows; "Tantalus" traces the pact of Faustus with Mephisto for a free 24 hours of online service and differs from the others in that the voice/language parodied is not a bundle of massmedia gabble but Faust, Part I.

3.1 "Dada" invokes the mode of network TV and uses a number of timed HTTP-EQUIV "refreshes" to change the screen automatically and to play some sounds. This returns control to the author in the manner of TV. He also uses "rapid refresh"* to deliver a "poem" of short lines completing the frame "I am __". (Compare a similar rapid fire (5 seconds/screen) of lines in Grammatron). The text is interactive, or pseudo- interactive, however, as it consists of questions posed over and over to the viewer as to "why you do what you do when you do the net thing." And follows that with a series of "8 signs of addiction" to snorting information over the Net ("Has the use of information ever interfered with our job?" etc.)

3.2 The basic structure of the four rides is that of the hub-and-rim, aka a Table of Contents with "next" links from each page to the next and "spoke" links from the hub to each individual page. Thus the subpages are quite strongly sequenced, but the hub allows one to enter the sequence from the side, or at various points in midstream, thus shortening the path (and missing the earlier parts of the “ride.”) The map at the left shows one such hub and wheel ("Fitness Channel"; "fit" is the hub); it is relatively short (with 14 local nodes) and has only 24 edges (almost entire wheel and spoke links) and no external links.

The "Tantalus" ride is very similar, but it lacks a hub-it is a strictly linear retelling of the Faust story-and hence almost all of its 17 edges are used to connect its 15 nodes.(See Popup Graph)

"Rocco" and "Dada Net Circus" are considerably larger and are hub-and-wheel; Rocco has 49 nodes plus 10 external links and is the longest ride; DNC has only 20 nodes, but another 210 external links (170 of them off one page in tiny print). Not surprisingly, DNC might be subtitled "Mass Media meet the Net."

There is some cross-linking between the "rides" in their middles, especially via the "italian" page of Irmgard's Grammar Gopher so that a webby sort of sliding into another ride sequence is possible, but on the whole the experiences offered the reader are fairly tightly enclosed and ordered. All the rides are joined at the central double hubs of full-notext and me represented in the diagrams with diamonds.

3.3 link semantics


3.3.1 When is a hub not a TOC?


On the limitations of structure and the virtues of irregularity, see Mark Bernstein's Hypertext Gardens: Delightful Vistas


3.3.2 Hyperpuns and riddles


Jakob Nielsen strongly supports labelling of links via a tooltip balloon as an aid to navagation; now if the major browsers would! Alternatively, you could use a little icon like this as the source anchor of every external link:link to Nielson's column on labelling links There are actually pages that use this icon and convention.


Coffee comes back with the "drugs" option plus picture of a molecule: the molecule is caffeine and the link is to a "Too Much Coffee" web page.


The matrix is slightly off, in that position 9 is actually the fourth page in the sequence, and of the 8 "channels" Channel 3 is missing. Channel surfing is like that.

3.3 With this set of rides, we come to a point where link topology fails to account for differences. Although three of the four rides are organized as hub-and-wheel, they have very different effects, mainly because of what the hub page reveals or conceals.

3.3.1. These three hubs range from a menu with numbered sequential items to a 3x3 matrix to an odd sort of non-evident wheel. The first two "TOC's" give pretty clear signals as to how to browse the ride in order, but the third does not, does not make it clear how many subparts there are, and does not place them in linear clockwise or counterclockwise order. So this site ranges in the way it structures and enables browsing, from a ride with virtually no choices and no external options to one which makes wandering almost inevitable (and offers by far the most links away from the site). So we can answer the riddle "when is a table of contents not a table of contents?" with "when it is in no obvious way a table."

HTML style guides often treat ease of navigation as the sine qua non of hypertext sites, and such ease is valuable not only for purposes of finding and retrieving information, but even more broadly just to be able to get back again some point/page. HTML shows its double ancestry here: if it is on one hand the successor to "info" and "help" documentation in technical communication and library science, so too is it a successor to Dungeons and Dragons, and the experience of wandering can be valued quite as much as the efficient, directed search (or tightly plotted narrative). In "Clickme", only DadaNetCircus encourages wandering, which, as it turns out leads only to a succession of more or less one line answers to the question "Why do you do what you do when you do the net thing?"

3.3.2 A second point where topology tells us little is that of the character of the link-the basis, that is, of the association of target item to source. Here too the link may be perspicuously or enigmatically labelled (and the "label" may be an image or a piece of text, sometimes both). On one extreme, the reader can make a fairly well-informed choice about whether to click and what to expect; on other, the reader is turning over rocks to see what lies beneath-guess, surprise, the witty linking: these are the order of the day here. It isn't a question whether people will click or not click-- overwhelmingly we know that people click on links--but the degree to which expectation is aroused and either satisfied or otherwise played with. I am not claiming that links are always or inherently enigmatic, and these leaps into the unknown are generally low risk--the worst thing likely to happen is getting stuck in a slow load from Hong Kong.

"There's nothing new here with hypertext," one can imagine someone saying; "we learn to cope with uncertainties and expections first of all with footnotes and cross references in print--there too we have to decide with little to go on whether to break the stream of our reading to go to the other text." Footnotes (or end notes), though, are marginalized for a reason: the information in footnotes is subordinated to the main line of the text. One can, and does, read and simply ignore the footnotes. But the hyper link is so much of the essence of Web that ignoring the links would usually be a narrow and limited (and brief!) experience. Some links are like rabbit hole Alice fell into or the wardrobe to Narnia, and one would not say that of most footnotes! One could label links--with Cascading Style Sheets, one could even color code them for importance or relevance. It is not clear that uncertainty surrounding links is a problem requiring a technical solution, or even a problem, much of the time.

In "Dada," the first ride in Clickme, there are two pages of "reasons" posed to the reader as possible answers to the question, "Why do you do what you do when you do the net thing?" Each page has about a dozen links, one to each answer along with a picture illustrating the text. Here the guessing game aspect of hypertext is in the foreground, since the information derived from clicking on these links probably will not help clarify the question or assist in an answer and will provide further evidence of the reader's addiction to clicking. On the first page one suggested answer "keeps you up all night" combines with an old photo of a naked girl in her room with a drip coffee maker--and the target is a larger version of the image --as is the case with the first image of the late 1940s girls displaying their "new [vacuum-tube] computer," and with "peeping in celebrity windows" of Tanya Harding on her honeymoon. There are also

  • "bad links" (as the one to the "ultimate site"),
  • punning links (on the second page from "You do it so well" plus a picture of dancing elephants to the US Open of Surfing (like, in the ocean, man)),
  • unguessable surprises,
  • porn sites and Plato,
  • Brazilian glamor,
  • a brief snip of an angiogram movie,
  • French cave paintings,
  • Sumo wrestling,
  • an illustrated quotation from Dante,
  • solarized photography, and
  • "The Spot" --a group of beautiful people living in a house in Santa Monica (the link to this one is "better than TV" and the picture is of the Brady bunch).

There is no narrative sequence here, or even staying on topic, no filtering or exclusion of the plethora of information just one or two clicks away. In short, it is a schnitt cut through the sagging belly or brain of the addicted surfer in this last/first epoch of the virtual age.

More common than these "caption-plus-pic" anchors in Clickme is the simple pic used as a link to a page--the pic is the title or icon for the page which includes a larger version of the icon-title. As noted, McGary uses one set of nine such pics to make a 3x3 picture TOC for the "fitness" ride. Here the pics represent "channels" and choosing one then another is channel surfing among different approaches to the "care" of women's bodies. The 3x3 array suggests a less than compelling narative line (though each page is linked to the "next" one) and indeed one could imagine differences in ordering, but there is overall a mounting sadism that culminates in the fitness-cross image cited above.

4 Barblie


4 A useful point of comparison is a very similar matrix in Mark Napier's Distorted Barbie site, a site which is also similar in theme. The matrix reproduced on the left is the TOC for the segment (or "ride") Symbology I of the site, which gives philosophical accounts of the power and operation of images and symbols (and which are of course accompanied by images and symbols, including the most potent ones of Cross, breast, and dollar.) After what we have been looking at, the eyetit image (that is its filename) is almost an inevitability-- Napier also uses the plastic bosom with eyes as wallpaper. But it conveys a looking back at the reader--the voyeur vu--which is more sentience or personality than Napier wants to attribute to Barbie/Barblie. "A face that takes no stand./Without conflict./Without loss./A conquering tribe" he says in the thoughts branch of the site. So it makes clearer sense when he substitutes the torso of a flesh and blood beauty on the main page using this idea. "Is it my boobs you are looking at, or my eyes (in my boobs)?"

Clicking on the primary image of each page takes you to the next page in strict linear order, but there does not seem to be a strong narrative or argumentative thread developed through the nine pages, which resemble epitomes of Suzanne K Langer. Rather, the arrangement of the images in the matrix seems to have more to do with visual design: the three strong diagonals in the first row, the three figures looking out at you in the second row, and the compositions based on arcs left and right in the bottom.

Distorted Barbie is a rather small but noticeable site. It was noticed by Mattel Corporation, which took exception to Napier's distortions of its trademarked image, and wrote threatening letters to Napier's Online Access Provider demanding the immediate removal of the Distorted Barbie site, which had by this time acquired a substantial following. Word was quickly spread of Mattel's threat, and arrangements have been made to place Distorted Barbie on many servers to thwart Mattel's exercise of corporate muscle. Mattel has let up on the heat, and Napier has put up a revised form of the site ("Distorted Barblie") that removes some images and further distorts others so that they are not recognizable as distorted images of Barbieš and that is covered with various plastered on signs with the text "Barbie is a registered trade mark of Mattel Corporation" and so on. The large collage with is the eighth frame in the series thus bears the mark of Mattel and of its violence against art and free speech. This collage, running as it does from Jiminy Cricket to George and Aunt Jemima (the last I am sure also a trademark) is our final schnitt but, one hopes, not Mark Napier's.

George Dillon

top splash for clickme end return to head menu splash screen TOC--9 pic grid born into fat fat flab--advert creditcards--transfigure moodsuit butt is a muscle Luther Glibb's method BodySculpt snuff club fit cross credits