Jack Strange and the spinning beach ball of death

Apparently I have a thing for the British artist Jack Strange. After my post about Strange’s g and a follow-up, I’m back with more amateur (or should that be amateurish?) analysis of Strange’s work, this time his Spinning Beach Ball of Death. As with my first post on g, this is a cold reading without the benefit of seeing any artist’s statements or critics’ analyses.

Spinning Beach Ball of Death is one of those works that most decidedly depends on one’s knowledge of external facts to elicit a proper appreciation. The naïve viewer will see simply a rainbow-colored paper circle spinning around. Clearly the circle is reminiscent of a beach ball, and as a first order analysis they might note the incongruity between the image of a child’s toy and the mention of death and conclude that the artist has given the work this particular title in order to invoke a particular set of emotional associations (e.g., a sea-side vacation tragically interrupted by a child’s death by drowning).

However in this case a naïve viewer would be very hard to find. Anyone who’s ever used a Mac, which includes pretty much everyone in the artworld, would immediately recognize the image as being that of the spinning wait cursor (to use its official name) that indicates that an application running under OS X is being unresponsive. The name “spinning beach ball of death” was not created by the artist, but is instead one of the many colloquial terms coined by Mac users to refer to this cursor. (Others include “pinwheel of death”, “marble of doom”, and so on).

OK, we get it: Strange has simply appropriated the image and placed it in another context to make an artwork. The work’s title, rather than being arbitrarily incongruous, reflects the dread Mac users feel when they see the cursor appear and know that the application they’re using may have some sort of unrecoverable problem. Of course this emotion can’t really be equated with the true dread of mortality, but that’s part of the joke: It’s a toy sort of dread, and as such its representation by a childish image is quite appropriate.

But let’s not stop there: Why instantiate this particular image in physical form, and a rather crude form at that? One possibility is that Strange is making some sort of statement about the contrasts between the virtual world and the physical world. (Or, alternatively, viewers might plausibly infer some sort of statement, whether intended by the artist or not.) What might that statement be?

Let’s go back to the original context: An OS X application showing the spinning wait cursor is not literally dead, i.e., it hasn’t crashed or abended (to use a delightfully antique term). On earlier Mac operating systems predecessors of the spinning wait cursor (e.g., the image of a watch) indicated that the application was engaged in some lengthy operation. We can imagine users impatiently glancing at their own watches as the virtual watch is simultaneously displayed onscreen.

However for OS X Apple not only gave the wait cursor a more colorful and dynamic appearance (perhaps to give users something prettier to look at while waiting?), it also changed the meaning of the cursor. To quote Wikipedia:

Rather than being an indication that an application was performing an action it expected to take a while, it meant that the system software had noticed that an application had stopped responding to events. This could indicate that the application was in an infinite loop, or just performing a lengthy operation and ignoring events.

Put simply, in OS X the spinning wait cursor indicates that the application is in a digital coma. It may wake up and resume normal functioning, or it may stay forever in the virtual equivalent of a persistent vegetative state. The dread associated with the spinning wait cursor is a dread provoked by uncertainty, both of what might happen and of one what should do. Should one simply wait to see what the application does, or should one deliberately terminate (force quit) the application (and thus risk losing one’s work)?

So, as with g, Spinning Beach Ball of Death can be seen as a kind of memento mori, reminding us not of death itself but of the possibility of being trapped in a “living death”, becoming a “vegetable” suspended in a state between consciousness and final oblivion.

All cultures have a rich iconography of death—skulls and skeletons, tombstones, the sickle of the Grim Reaper, and so on. There is no exactly analogous iconography for comas, persistent vegetative states, and related syndromes, perhaps because historically it would have been rare for anyone to exist in a prolonged coma: People lacked either the technical or the economic means to keep a coma victim alive for any length of time, so that the idea of the sleeper who would not wake was for the most part confined to legends and fairy tales, for example Briar Rose (“Sleeping Beauty”) or Snow White. In contrast, modern medical technology and economic affluence enable us to keep people in persistent vegetative states alive almost indefinitely. Spinning Beach Ball of Death provides an emblem for that state, one drawn from the world of technology—a fitting choice, given the role of technology in prolonging the coma victim’s life.

This may help account for why the work is physical in nature, not virtual. But why is it executed so crudely—the paper not cut in a perfect circle, the colors seemingly filled in using crayons (not painted), the spiral lines irregularly drawn? (The crudeness is reinforced even more in an unauthorized YouTube video of the work.) Perhaps it echos the crudeness and messiness of physical being: In the virtual world the unresponsive application persists in perfect stasis, and given a suitable computing substrate could remain so till the world’s end. In the physical world coma victims are nothing like the perfectly preserved princesses of fairy tales: they urinate and defecate, their bodies atrophy and decay, just as Spinning Beach Ball of Death will eventually decay now that it has been removed from its virtual origins. There is also something pathetic and even a bit tawdry in the crudeness of the work that reminds one of the public controversies that raged over the comatose forms of Karen Ann Quinlan, Terry Schiavo, and others.

A final contrast between the world of the spinning beach ball of death and the world of Spinning Beach Ball of Death: Even if you have to force-quit an unresponsive application you can still re-launch it, and if the application is well-designed you’ll lose little or even no work—the application might have suffered a brief spell of virtual amnesia, but nothing more. In the real world if one is forced to pull the plug (again, note the technological metaphor) then the resulting death is final and irrevocable. Some may have faith in the resurrection to come, but Spinning Beach Ball of Death provides neither hint nor hope of it.

Like g, Spinning Beach Ball of Death was acquired by MoMA for its permanent collection. Again I think they made a good choice. I’ll be checking out more of Strange’s art, but of what I’ve seen thus far these two works have made the most impression on me and provoked the most thought.

UPDATE: Fixed the URL pointing to the MoMA site.