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Artists turn junk e-mail into spam show

Artists have turned junk e-mail into a spam show using a variety of different art forms.
Artist Mike Rosenthal worked with artists Daniel Greenfeld and Jesse Jarnaw to create an exhibit about Spam.
Artist Mike Rosenthal worked with artists Daniel Greenfeld and Jesse Jarnaw to create an exhibit about Spam.Frank Franklin II / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

Instead of just cursing the steady assault of junk e-mail in their inboxes, some artists have put spam on parade. They've even found poetry in it. "Reimagining the Ordovician Gothic: Fossils from the Golden Age of Spam" considers how future historians might see us if the only window into our culture they had was a vast collection of e-mail effluent.

There are backlit flow charts, dioramas, a pile of pornography.

A classification scheme, true to the paleontological theme, divides spam into such categories as Real Estate, Urgent Messages, Work at Home, Goods and Personal Appearance.

The three 25-year-old artists scrawled excerpts from e-mails graffiti-style over an entire stairwell and filled suitcases with the goods advertised in spam to represent the medium's empty promises. Diet pills and house blueprints both feature prominently.

"Spam is something an enormous number of people end up having in common," said Daniel Greenfeld, who created the show along with fellow artists Mike Rosenthal and Jesse Jarnow. "My father understands very little about computers, but he understands what it is to get spam. He understands what it is to be annoyed by this onslaught."

The spam assault
About half of all e-mail traffic is spam, according to companies that filter out the unwanted messages. About 58 percent of the 80 billion messages analyzed by Brightmail Inc. in December were spam. The onslaught has led the White House to revamp its e-mail system and Congress to pass an anti-spam law, which took effect Jan. 1 and is widely maligned as ineffective.

In the exhibit, scientific-looking flow charts show how spammers employ various "cloaking schemes" including personalization, narrative and robotic humanity.

But just as today's paleontologists are likely to err when trying to recreate the real Ordovician period, which ended about 443 million years ago, many of the exhibit's conclusions are wrong.

"But a lot of that is the point," said Rosenthal. "We get things wrong. We interpret what we find as historians or anthropologists."

As one plaque reads: "Little is known of the physiology of the Ordovician body, but the outward appearance was greatly enhanced by drugs which shaped one to look more like those celebrated in Ordovician PORNOGRAPHY. These pills occasionally took the form of patches and other accessories. It is believed that, for a time, these patches took on significance as ultimately ceremonial jewelry."

Unlimited supply
The e-mails in the exhibit were culled from thousands collected by Harrold Tuttledge of the Center for Anthropological Computing, a small Boston-based organization that pleads to anachronism itself because it lacks a Web site.

The artists indeed found poetry in the strings of nonsense that spammers include in messages to evade anti-spam software. Here's one near-haiku:

Subject: (SPAM?) read this-i have a new cream for stretch marks
"a new you / communicating with server / fast shipping / bergen salvar/
unaligned nicht ausgerichtet, krum(Adverb) "

Like all good curators, the artists also employ dioramas. In some, dangling photos represent the Third World scammers who profess to need us so urgently.

You can then pick up a phone to hear a grainy voice plead with you personally as a "God fearing person" to help keep a recently found sum of $25 million from being repossessed by the Nigerian government.

"There are a million different letters like this and they're all perfectly ridiculous, but what's interesting is that the people are all real political figures from African history," Rosenthal said.

Installations in the show pay homage both to the solicitors and the unwilling receivers of spam.

A wall of testimonials to the effectiveness of spam ("MASS EMAIL WORKS") faces a wall of confused and frustrated recipients, including one from 1982 in which the writer doesn't seem to know what do with this new phenomenon, much less what to call it.

"There was an early age of this stuff, when people were really getting these e-mails for the first time," said Rosenthal. "There's this losing of digital innocence. Once everyone is cynical about this, once there are no more grandmothers who are going to believe all the things that they are getting in their inboxes, what happens then?"

Maybe that's when spam truly becomes history.

"Reimagining the Ordovician Gothic" is showing its half-truths at Spaceworks Gallery in Manhattan through Feb. 7.