Features Image: “Dead Copyright” installation view, 2015
Antonio Roberts is a digital artist based in Birmingham. In 2011 he has completed his Masters level studies in Digital Arts in Performance at Birmingham City University. His artwork focuses on the errors and glitches generated by digital technology. An underlying theme of his work is open source software and collaborative practices. His video work has been screened in Chicago, Illinois, at GLI.TC/H, Notacon in Cleaveland, Ohio, and Newcastle Borough Museum and Art Gallery, amongst other places.
In October 2015 he opened his first solo exhibition, “Permission Taken“, at Birmingham Open Media and in these weeks is taking part to “Jerwood Encounters: Common Property” (15th January – 21st February 2016, Jerwood Visual Arts), a group show curated by Hannah Pierce focused on the limits of Copyright when it’s about visual arts, with two projects: the installation “Transformative Use” and a collection of four works, “I Disappear”, “Blurred Lines”, “My Sweet Lord” and “Ice Ice Baby”.
Filippo Lorenzin: You’ve been always interested in how corporate and industrial logics affect daily life and art. How did you get interested in these questions?
Antonio Roberts: It’s a by-product of my interest in open source software and free culture, something which I’ve been interested in from as early as 2002 but only started taking seriously around 2007. One of the main motivators of this was my reaction to Adobe Photoshop and its influence on creative practices. My experience of studying Multimedia Graphics – and I’m sure the same can be said for Graphic Design, Illustration and any creative practice – was that it seemed more like an exercise in how to use Adobe products, not how to be creative with tools. It felt like Adobe software had gone from being one of the many tools for creating art to the art in itself. This corporate sponsorship of course has many implications for how we create and disseminate art. It poses restrictions and dictates who and who cannot create art.
FL: Copyright issues are one of the main focuses of your research and this fascinates me because of your age. You (as me, by the way) have experienced probably the most troublesome period for Copyright systems, with the wide spread of p2p networking and remixing approaches to cultural industry products. What do you think?
AR: I’m inclined to agree. I’ve had access to the internet since I was around 14 years old and in that time I’ve seen the internet and culture as a whole change drastically. For me the rise and fall of Napster, spearheaded by Metallica’s very public outcry against it, signalled the beginning of the end of the free internet that I had only known for not even a year.
Around that time Digital Rights Management (DRM) became a hot topic. The entertainment industry saw it (and suing everyone) as the only way to protect their property and so kept bundling DRM with their products, which often at times resulted in a broken experience for the user. One example that springs to mind was the attempt to make CDs unreadable by computers (and so prevent ripping), by adding in corrupted data at the beginning of CD. Whilst it did temporarily stop people to using it on computers – you could simply use a marker pen to circumvent it – it also prevented some CD players from using the CD and in general was obtrusive. This cat and mouse game is still going on to the point where simply attempting to bypass DRM to watch/listen to something that you have purchased, can be an illegal act.
As mentioned before, It wasn’t until around 2007 that I began to reconsider how Copyright affected my work. By this time I saw that there was more weight being pushed behind open source software, free culture and things like the Creative Commons licences, and so I started to get involved myself. The first stage was ditching all proprietary software (which I did in 2009) and then licensing my work under Creative Commons licences.
FL: “Jerwood Encounters: Common Property”, curated by Hannah Pierce, is a group show that seeks to investigate the new borders of Copyright, especially in regard of art. How would you define the state of these questions in UK?
AR: I think Copyright as a whole is in a terrible state. As Cory Doctorow suggests in the exhibition programme (which is in itself an excerpt from his book “Information Doesn’t want to be Free”) Copyright as we know it isn’t written for artists or any individual. Its verbose terms and complexities cannot be understood and are probably not even read by most of us. They are written for other lawyers. If, in order to go about our creative business, we are expected to read and understand the terms and conditions and law – it is estimated that it would take 76 days to read all of the Ts and Cs of websites we use – what time do we have to be creative?
FL: What’s your point of view, from your position as an artist?
AR: I think Copyright is a mess because it tries to dictate how we should be creative. Creativity is free-flowing. Copyright, and its cousins patents and trademarks, justify their existence by saying that these restrictions encourage innovative new ideas but what they do is just stop us.
FL: “Dead Copyright” reminds me some reflections by Walter Benjamin on the shock of the city, about how advertising assaults our senses 24/7 with louder and louder messages – until it reaches a state of entropy. At this stage the message isn’t actually more important than the media itself, quoting Marshall McLuhan, and all the brands create a single, colourful ambient. How much this reality has been voluntarily planned by corporations, in your own opinion?
AR: I think it’s all completely planned. The more pervasive the advertising becomes the more we accept it as part of our every day life and culture. On the other side this does mean that they have to try ever more invasive methods to get our attention. Think about the uproar over the Coca Cola van at Christmas, or Cadbury’s at Easter. They have usurped the original holidays and are more important.
FL: The reduction of brands to colorful simple shapes created something that visually reminds some of op art works, a movement that experimented with visual perceptions and that has been an important inspiration for fashion and design. I was just wondering what you think of this similarity: is there any real connection between your work and those works?
AR: Yes, certainly and this comes through with my use of glitch art techniques. In glitch art we’re often trying to find signal in the noise, and I find that many successful glitch art works (however you define successful) have some resemblance to the original yet are transformed and destroyed in way.
FL: With “Transformative Use” you use shapes that recall not just brands, but a wider imagery. It’s as if you’re focusing on other targets: can I ask you how did you get interested in this new research?
AR: I recalled all that I had learnt during my residency at University of Birmingham and during the CopyrightX course. From this I paid particular focus to the Sonny Bono act from 1998. This effectively extended the Copyright terms so that it won’t be until 2023 until works from 1923 begin to enter the Public Domain. This act is sometimes called the Mickey Mouse Protection Act, which led me to use them as a focus point for the work. Mickey Mouse should, by now, be in the Public Domain but they’ve fought to stop this in order to “protect” their brand.
People in favour of long or perpetual Copyright terms usually point to it allowing artists to reap the benefits of creating work. In truth, however, only a very small percentage of works made will be profitable in the future. To put it another way, how many books published today will see reprints? I don’t have any official statistics, but I know it would be a small percentage. So, extended Copyright terms only really benefit the small percentage of artists or publishers, whilst harming everyone else.
FL: What does it mean to deal with corporate imagery within such a chaotic and in a somewhat charming ambience? I mean, what remains a logo or a character when it gets lost within this borderless blob? Are the corporations losing their borders too, maybe?
FL: As discussed before, “Transformative Use” has been inspired by two previous projects: do you think that in future you’ll make a work that will update for the fourth time these reflections of yours?
AR: Most certainly yes. “Permission Taken” will be having an iteration at the University of Birmingham in March 2016 and will feature new and existing work. Aside from this I will continue to work with found materials but with a more explicit intention to provoke discussion around Copyright.
In a mysterious pine forest, inhabited by half-human, half-animal creatures, the dismembered white body of a furry god is slowly reassembled. A creature with the head of a black bear pulls down the decapitated body from a tall rock. A red-robed character with a crimson wolf’s face, decorated with sharp white teeth, fetches the severed head. Another brings the eyeballs; another, the skull. Finally, in an illuminated multi-coloured tent glowing in the darkness of the woods, a character with the head of a triceratops and a cloak of many-coloured feathers performs a ritual involving magic crystals and a dead bird doused in blood. The film ends with a single glimpse of the white god’s foot, planted in a field of snow, sufficient to suggest that he, she or it has been brought back to life.
I first came across Magic Blood Machine as one of the staff picks on the Vimeo site in October 2014. It was on a list of spooky videos for Hallowe’en. The rest of them looked fairly conventional, but the still for Magic Blood Machine stood out: the red-robed character from the film standing amongst dark pine trees, looking a bit like a Roman Catholic Cardinal, a bit like Anubis – the jackal-headed god of Egyptian mythology – and a bit like Reynard the Fox. When I watched the video, I was struck by the same mixture of associations: it seemed to combine elements of the crucifiction and resurrection of Jesus, the dismemberment and restoration of Osiris, and the Green Man myth. Folk-stories, mythology, the occult, the macabre, and even a touch of science fiction were all in the mix. But its visual design, filmic and narrative qualities were just as striking. There are no words spoken, and the pace is slow, but nevertheless the film exerts a powerful compulsion, partly because of the expertise with which each sequence unfolds and leads us to the next, and partly because it’s so full of unanswered questions. The actions of the strange characters in the pine forest seem charged with hidden meaning, as do the characters themselves, sharply-differentiated from one another as they are by virtue of the brilliant costume-design. There is a strong sense of place in the outdoor filming, and a strong sense of the tactile as well: the way the characters stroke the dead god’s fur, fondle the magic crystals or pour blood over the breast of the dead bird, for example. And despite the use of expressionless masks, there are moments of powerful emotion. When the red creature, having retrieved the white god’s severed head, lays it next to the rest of the body and then sits beside the corpse, holding its hand, it eloquently conveys a sense of love and grief.
Magic Blood Machine was made by a Norwegian artist and film-maker called Ingrid Torvund, in close collaboration with her partner Jonas Mailand, and with music by Jan Erik Mikalsen. It took three years to make (2009-12), and a sequel called When I Go Out I Bleed Magic – which Ingrid describes as the second part of a trilogy – was released earlier in 2015. For me, When I Go Out I Bleed Magic is less compelling than its predecessor, but if anything the design of the film, in terms of costumes and settings, is even more impressive. Ingrid makes almost all the costumes and props herself, and they are works of art in their own right, some of which she has exhibited separately. She has also exhibited her drawings and published many of them in a book, again with the title When I Go Out I Bleed Magic.
Ingrid’s work strikes me as an example of the enabling power of the Web, which can sometimes allow genuinely original artists to reach international audiences they would have found it very difficult to access at any time before the 1990s. It also allows the likes of me to get in touch and start up a conversation out of the blue. Accordingly, I contacted Ingrid via email to ask about her work, and the results are reproduced below.
Edward Picot: Can I ask you about the making of the costumes and props for your films?
Ingrid Torvund: I make the costumes and props myself mostly, sometimes I get some help from my friends and family, if it´s large set pieces and so on. I like to take my time making these things, it`s a slow process but it´s one of these things that makes life worth living.
EP: Were you at art school, and if so did you study art, textiles, film or all three?
IT: I went to Oslo National Academy of the Arts,where I took a bachelor degree in fine art. While I was there I made my first short, “Magic Blood Machine“, and I worked on it for three years. I took courses in film, philosophy and many other subjects.
EP: Can you describe your creative process a little bit? Do you start off with an idea for a story, or with sketches in your sketchbook?
IT: it’s really random how I find inspiration, but sometimes I find a nice tactile material that I want to work with and I start by just trying out how and then I can make something that gives the audience the same feeling I got when I first saw it. And sometimes I get a picture in my head of a scene I want to make and then I try to figure out how to make it, then I draw it (but not very detailed and not very good 🙂
I wish I could say I plan out projects better, but I usually just make what I want to make. Over the years the planning of the filmprojects has become more detailed, but this is because I have to [plan things out] when I apply for funding and it’s a real creative killer.
For the last film “When I Go Out I Bleed Magic” we (me and Jonas) made a long storyboard with many scenes, but in the end we didn’t get to make them all due to lack of funding, lack of time and plain exhaustion.
EP: You say you like to take your time making the costumes, props and so forth. Does this mean that your ideas about the film you’re going to make grow quite slowly and organically as you’re in the process of making things?
IT: Yes it does, it’s a long process and I usually try to finish one little part at a time: a costume, a set piece and so forth. But when the time comes to shoot the scene, I have to but all the pieces together, and then I have a time limit. In the two films I’ve made so far I’ve been borrowing my dad’s place, because there I have the space to actually build a little studio in the summer. But since this is his workplace normally, I have to clean it out before they come back from their holiday 🙂 So the summer is a really intense period in the year for me and I have to plan it out more, due to the fact that when I go to work there, I can’t get away, so I must buy all the materials I need before I go. I don’t have a car or a licence and it’s in the countryside. We do have a little boat that I can take to the grocery store 🙂
EP: You mention you’ve got a boat – and lo and behold, there’s the red character rowing a boat in Magic Blood Machine. I’m guessing from this that the boat in the film is your own boat, and the lake which appears in both films is the lake where you live.
IT: Yes, most of the places in the movies are from around where I grew up. I also think that it’s important to find inspiration from real and often personal things in life. it feels important to me to know that the project has some kind of root in something real. At my last exhibition my mother gave me some very old school books that I had made some drawings in, and it was almost disturbing how much some of them resembled some of my more current drawings!
EP: Let me ask you about Jonas. How do you work with him? How did you get to know each other and work together, and do you write together, or does he do the camerawork while you put on the costumes and do the acting?
IT: I met Jonas while we were going to an art school in Oslo seven years ago, at the time I was already making characters and installations and we started to date while I was building a forest installation inside a room. He has always had great interest for films and making them, and at that point I was thinking of trying to bring my characters to life by making them into costumes I could wear. After a year we started working on Magic Blood Machine. From that point he has done all the camerawork, while I do all the costumes, set pieces and “acting”. We usually edit the films together and sometimes we make an edit each and then compare them, and choose what we think works the best. I’ve been asked before how we collaborate on these projects and sometimes I find it a little difficult to answer, because we live and work together and we have no rules on who does what in these films. But I do know I spend most of my time thinking or working on these films and Jonas takes part in that if I ask him to. Without him I would not be able to make films like these and my life would suck.
EP: Lastly, would you like to say a bit about the mixture of mythological references in your films?
IT: I have always been fascinated with the mixture of pagan and Christian culture. When I was young I found a book called “Norske Hexeformularer og magiske opskrifter”: it’s a collection of spells and magical recepies from 1600-1900. The spells are collected from small black books found throughout the country, often hidden away. Some would put them under the church steps in an attempt to get rid of them. My films are inspired by these rituals and the conflict between nature and religion. I grew up going to church a lot and I think the mix of church and folklore is something I use as inspiration when I make films.
I think I find the history of how people lived and their traditions even more fascinating then fairy tales, for example people used to think that their newborn babies sometimes got exchanged with a person from under the earth.The child then got some kind of physical change,like a weird growth or huge eyes or it suddenly looks very old. The only way to fix it was to lure the under earth person to tell you their real age. You did this by doing weird and absurd stuff, like making porridge in an eggshell or making blood sausage in an catskin. Then it would suddenly tell you how old it was and then it would die. Leaving a little lump of ash and bones…
More information about Ingrid Torvund can be found on her website, http://torvund.tumblr.com/. Magic Blood Machine is on Vimeo at https://vimeo.com/44936472, and When I Go Out I Bleed Magic is also on Vimeo, at https://vimeo.com/44936472.
Featured image: “Binoculars” at CHB in Berlin (2013)
Varvara Guljajeva & Mar Canet have been working together as an artist duo since 2009. They have exhibited their art pieces in a number of international shows and festivals. As an artist duo they locate thermselves in the fields of art and technology, and are interested in new forms of art and innovation, which includes the application of knitting digital fabrication. They use and challenge technology in order to explore novel concepts in art and design. Hence, research is an integral part of their creative practice. In addition to kinetic and interactive installations, the artists have also experience with working in public spaces and with urban media.
Varvara is originally from Estonia, and gained her bachelor degree in IT from Estonian IT College, and a masters degree in digital media from ISNM in Germany and currently is a PhD candidate at the Estonian Art Academy in the department of Art and Design. Mar (born in Barcelona) has two degrees: in art and design from ESDI in Barcelona and in computer game development from University Central Lancashire in UK. He is also a co-founder of Derivart and Lummo.
Filippo Lorenzin: Open culture is one of the main points of your research and activity. Could you describe how this influences your art practice?
Varvara & Mar: We are living in very exciting times. Open source has introduced democratization of production and creation. Now you can build your own 3D printer, laser cutter, knitting machine, make a light dimmer circuit or develop a body tracking system. Some years ago we couldn’t even imagine this and now we have access to this knowledge. People share their creations and these process, which is incredibly inspiring for us and many more people. Thus, knowledge is built on top of knowledge. We make use of open source marterial in our work and we try also to contribute back. This is the whole point of open source in our mind. And if one looks in the perspective of art to open source projects, then really many open source projects have artists on board, for example, OpenFrameworks, Processing, and more.
Open source also has an educational aspec. We do many workshops with people and teach what we know and how we work. We think open source culture is largely based on the spirit being open to sharing knowledge with many others.
FL: I’m really fascinated by your interest in textile fabrication. it reminds me the early industrial developments that were deeply connected to in the textiles industry. How and why would knitting be integrated these days as part of a makers’ culture?
V&M: The process of integration is well under way. There has been a good number of makerspaces who have dedicated areas for textile production, like WeMake in Milan and STPLN in Malmö. And believe it or not this simple thing helps to introduce gender balance in these kind of places. We’re not just talking about innovation, which can boost gender equality when you introduce knitting to hacking. We’re also talking about the democratisation of production, when thinking about clothing too. This area is quite vital and commonly understood. 3D printing toys is a cool activity for a weekend, but then it becomes boring. Knitting a sweater or a scarf has real value and the quality is always higher than a typical mass produced factory product.
For 3D printing we cannot say the same. Don’t get us wrong, we are not against the 3D printing. We love it and have six printers in our studio. Our point is that the areas of concern for digital fabrication are not complete, and the founders of FabLab have overlooked the whole area of textiles.
V&M: First of all, we like to teach and interact with our students. Second, preparing a workshop, allows us to research more about the field, and organise and share our accumulated knowledge and experience.
And finally, workshops are one part of our income. We don’t have any other jobs on the side, and exhibitions and commissions are not regular and do not always pay well, and yet the bills keep coming in. Hence, workshops help us to pay our bills.
FL: One of your works which most fascinate me is “Sonima” (2010). It’s a project that takes in account questions that have become quite recurrent in last months, mostly linked to Anthropocene discussions. The soft coexistence of technology and nature which is organic and artifical. Which is one of the main topics of your research: why are you so interested in this question? It looks like you’re trying to develop experiments for an utopistic future in which humans and nature live in symbiosis. Am I wrong?
V&M: Yes, many of our works express our futuristic thoughts or imagination where the digital age will lead us and our planet to. It is nice that you have noticed this. I would say this kind of concept in 2010 was quite subconscious. I (Varvara) was very interested in organic form but with mutational origins but still adapted by nature.
More conscious approach towards anthropocene epoch can be seen and felt in “Tree of Hands” (2015), which is one of our recent works. However, it looks like we have touched quite a taboo topic. For instance, “Tree of Hands” was rejected by jury of PAD London fair because of its depressive concept.
FL: “Shopping in 1 Minute” (2011) is another project I would like to ask you about. This work is about consumerism at its finest (or worst), turning one of the most typical capitalistic places (supermarkets) into ludic spaces. It’s a piece of social art that presents itself without informing the public what is right and what is wrong, but it rather suggests in a more subtle way the perversion at the base of that system. What do you think?
V&M: Yes. What we are doing is the absurd exaggeration of the same action (buying) to a maximum with one but: not buying and playing instead. There is a saying that shopping is 5 min happiness. The artwork tries to create a synthetic feeling of satisfaction of the ability to buy. The shopping centers are doing everything to stimulate our consumption needs, and our artwork manages to get inside their ecosystem and playfully releases that artificial desire to buy.
FL: With at least a couple of projects, you’ve also worked to the redefine hurban landscapes by looking at the invisble while at the same time taking on rather specific forces such as mass use of Wi-Fi networks becoming part of the everyday. I can’t help thinking that this is somehow related to privacy questions, probably because one of the most notorious scandals some years ago was Google’s secret recording of Wi-Fi networks with their Street View cars. Am I wrong?
V&M: Not really. But definitely Google has played a role in feeing our concerns about being watched, spied, hacked, scanned, etc. For example, the last scan for WiFi router names we did last summer in Tallinn some people were quite freaked out seeing a person on a bike with a camera on its head and tablet in front. I was even once asked if I worked for Google. 🙂 Anyways, the project was great fun for us, and we got to explore the city and discover the whole invisible communications networks and the self expressive layers of it all. After the Tallinn scan we even changed our minds about the 32-character local Twitter that the WiFi router SSID could be used for. The Tallinn experience showed us the new tendency: where people would use radio waves for semi-anonymous graffiti, communicating sometimes silly, protective, racist or political messages.
Talking about inspiration for this project, we got our interest for WiFi names from one article talking about the ability to track down pro- and contra-Obama communities by just looking at WiFi names in the neighborhood. This was before the US president election. Then we started to thinking of an art project on this topic.
FL: “The Rythm of City” (2011) is another project which is also ‘subtly’ related to control issues. The idea that someone can depict the state of a city by looking at data deducted from social media and web platforms. This type of thing is real now isn’t it – what do you think?
V&M: Definitely it is. However, the work’s main intention is not to talk about control issues rather about big data and its applications. Perhaps the main intention of this work is to offer to the viewer(s) a birds eye view on different cities in real time. In other words, The Rhythm of City allows you to zoom out and witness the larger picture on the current situation. And this larger picture is formed by everybody’s activity on social media, which is tracked down every minute. We call this action ‘unaware participation’ by digital inhabitants. The urban studies of Bornstein & Bornstein from early 1970s served as an inspiration for this artwork. They had discovered a positive correlation between the walking speed of pedestrians and the size of a city. Simply put: the bigger a city, the faster people move. The artwork demonstrates our interpretation of a city’s tempo through in its digital form or life. Hence, The artwork talks about pace of life in different cities at the same moment when the piece is viewed.
FL: What have you been working on these last few months and what plans do you have for 2016?
V&M: We are working on a series of new works talking about money. When we have completed “Wishing Wall” in London in 2014, since then we have noticed that the majority of people, especially a younger audience, wish for money. This really caught our attention. The ongoing hard economical situation in Europe pushes forward the need for money and also introduces a growing gap between the economical classes. So we’re investigating people’s desire for money and its connection with happiness. Making use of interactive technology we are aiming to approach playfully and magically the desire for becoming rich. At the same time, we cannot let go of knitting. At present, we are working on an open source flat knitting machine, which will be able to knit patterns also. Besides the new productions, we are showing our existing works in various exhibitions. For the confirmed ones, “The Rhythm of City” will be part of “REAL-TIME” a group show curated by Pau Waelder in Santa Monica museum in Barcelona from the 28th January. In February “Digital Revolution” (the touring exhibition by Barbican), which “Wishing Wall” is part of, moves from Onassis Cultural Center in Athens to Zorlu Center in Istanbul. And hopefully we get couple of other shows and new productions that are in the air at the moment and still to be confirmed soon.
Featured image: @mothgenerator by Katie Rose Pipkin and Loren Schmidt
Taina Bucher interviews artist and bot maker Katie Rose Pipkin about her most popular Twitter bots, how they work and what they mean. Indeed, what are bots, who else is engaged in artistic bot making, and how will social media bots evolve?
Meet Tiny Star Fields. Several times a day, the Twitter account publishes a field of stars in different shapes to a dedicated 51.000 followers. The latest tweet, published 53 minutes ago, has already been retweeted 151 times and gathered 114 favorites. Tiny Star Fields is a Twitter bot. During the last few years bots, or automated pieces of software, have becomes an integral part of the Twitter platform. As some recent reports suggest bots now generate as much as twenty-four per cent of posts on Twitter, yet we still know very little about who these bots are, what they do, or how we should attend to these bots. Admittedly, star-tweeting bots like Tiny do not belong to the kinds of bots that are most talked about. When people usually think of bots they mostly have a specific type of bot in mind, one that animates feelings of annoyance and disturbance. The spam bot, however, is but one kind of bot.
As Tiny, and many others like her attest to, bots are just like people. They are different, tweet for different reasons, have specific audiences and engage with the world in various ways. Guided by their human programmers or taught to learn from existing data in playful ways, bots are legitimate users of platforms. But bots would be nothing without their creators, their makers who have conceptualized and brought these digital personas ‘to life’. So let’s not just meet Tiny Star Fields, but also Katie Rose Pipkin, the 24-year old artist and creator of Tiny Star Fields.
Katie, why don’t you tell us briefly about yourself and your background?
I grew up in the woods of Austin, Texas, where I also attended university for my undergraduate degree in studio art. Most of my work there was focused on drawing and installation, but I was also curating internet ephemera and beginning some rudimentary code projects at the time (albeit in isolation from others doing similar work). I also have a history in curation, and have run creative spaces for many years. I’m currently pursuing my MFA at Carnegie Mellon, in Pittsburgh.
What got you started with making Twitter bots?
I started making bots in the summer of 2014. I had moved to a very tiny town in rural Minnesota (population 900) for a longer-term artist residency, and was quite isolated. I didn’t have a car, there was no bus or train, and I didn’t know anyone there. I was used to being alone on residency, but often I had friends near enough to visit or a local coffee shop to haunt. Here, with no other options, I was home and online almost constantly. The internet has always been important to my practice (and my social life), but I really attached myself to it as a lifeline in that period.
I was already following twitter bots (@everycolorbot, @youarecarrying, @twoheadlines, @minecraftsigns, @oliviataters, @prince_stolas and I’m sure many others), but being online constantly shifted how I thought of them; rather than just seeing their occasional statements as charming non-sequiturs in a human space, I started to notice their underlying personalities, the structure of code that differentiated one from another; when they posted, the kind of source materials used, how they interacted with others. With nobody to keep up with locally, I also began sleeping in erratic structures- some nights for 5 hours, others for 14. As a side effect, I would catch off times on twitter, where everyone but the bots were asleep. These timelines of automation had a striking effect. I was particularly fond of the bot chorus around the turn of the hour- bot ‘o clock, as some call it.
I had been following and aware of @negatendo’s #BOTALLY posts (a sort of # organizing structure for bot-related news and resources) for a while, but I also started following @thricedotted, @inky, @beaugunderson, @tullyhansen, @aparrish, @boodooperson and @tinysubversions (and many others!) in this period. There were new bots almost every day, all unique, and I was really taken by the ways in which people interacted with them, and how they operated in that social space.
How did you go about making your first bot?
You waited for the sky to clear and become sprinkled with starts again. In the meantime you made your own digital sky, that’s cool. Did you do a lot of programming before starting with making bots?
I suppose that depends on what you mean by programming? I had worked in and around browser-based experiences for years, but I had never taken a structural approach to learning code. Every new idea and project had a particular set of problems that I attacked with utter naivete, writing vast messes that were honestly pretty shocking when they worked. Looking at my source code for those projects now is very much like looking at an outsider-art approach to computer science. Which is, I suppose, what they are.
I still sometimes struggle with basic concepts just because I haven’t run into them before- I learn best when directed at a goal, and sometimes those goals skirt fundamental structures. My knowledge is a funny hodge-podge assemblage of extremely difficult concepts I needed for some project or another, while I may forget the syntax for a basic sentiment. I keep telling myself I’ll read a book or take a course on putting code together properly, but so far I just keep learning what I need. I am sure I will feel the same way about my current projects in a year or two as I do about my older projects now. My first bots are very embarrassing inside and it has only been a year and change.
You’ve said that @tiny_star_field is your most popular bot, but that your personal favorite is @feelings_js. Would you care to elaborate?
Neither of those bots came from a particularly well-considered place technically; they were the first I made and I was learning. I think I was tickled by the idea of a bot that did nothing but emote; it seemed like a charming inversion of the coldness that often creeps into automata. Tiny was a simple reflection of my unicode character habit; I have a hobby of making little vignettes or dioramas with combining characters and atypical symbols and I have been enjoying automating them. (I am also now a member of the Unicode Consortium and am working with these characters structurally.)
That comment about favorites was from a long while back and my favorite bot is probably now Moth Generator (@mothgenerator), which was a collaboration with @lorenschmidt. Its different than many of my bots; it’s really just a wrapper on an image generator; but it is the first bot I’ve made that I felt used @-replies in a truly useful manner. It takes the text of the tweet sent to it to seed the generator with a unique number; therefore, the ‘moth’ moth will always look like every other ‘moth’ moth, while a ‘bot’ moth would shift in many ways. A ‘moth bot’ moth would share characteristics of both.
How do these bots work?
Feelings.js (and a few others like it) is basically a fill-in-the-blank Wordnik wrapper. It has a variety of possible sentence structures on a switch statement, and then pulls parts-of-speech from the dictionary API. I have a few structural rules in place that slightly favor alliteration and a few other cute tendencies (as well as blocking offensive words), but it is basically madlibs.
Tiny is even simpler; it has a large array of star and space options and pulls randomly from the available options. The biggest challenge was just finding an ideal balance between character frequencies. I tweak it occasionally and don’t feel that it is quite ideal yet. I am tempted to make it sparser. I am also in the process of making a Tiny Star Fields clone that uses actual astronomical data at varying scales, so the tweets will be a literal patch of sky.
What has been the response to your bots?
There is certainly an audience of bot-appreciators; sometimes I will see people who follow 30 or 40 bots but none of their makers. Bots also have their own secret lives outside of intention. Tiny auto-followed people back for a while (something like the first 6k), and this made for a truly wonderful sample! Very few of them are in the bot-community; I think the vast majority are One Direction fans. It is a fascinating slice of social lives I would never think to seek out myself.
What is the bot community that you are referring to?
Gosh, what is the bot community, good question. I suppose it seems to be a loosely associated group of folks interested in social bots, for whatever reason? People seems to come from all walks- programmers, game developers, linguists, writers, artists, analysts, poets. Making the skeleton of a Twitter bot is a fairly simple exercise and doesn’t inherently have the high knowledge overhead of some other creative programming tasks. They are also incredibly flexible in content and process and I think that mutability allows a certain wealth of intent from bot to bot. These two avenues of openness mean that they are used for all sorts of things! As entities, they are as unique as the people who make them.
In general, I’ve found folks who are organized around making bots to be nothing but supportive, kind and interested in helping others get started with producing their own work in this realm. Within that community structure are also all the folks that might not make bots (yet) but know what they are, and are interested in their processes, or write about them, or consider them valid as artworks or creative entities.
What, indeed, are bots?
What are bots? Gosh, this is an even better question than the one about bot communities. So, there are a lot of ways to think about bots, and in my opinion they are stackable and do not refute one another. But here are my thoughts:
Firstly, they aren’t new- automata has been around for a very very long time. One can look at examples of clockwork machines or candle-powered toys from over 1000 years ago. Even beyond physical examples of automata, the idea of bots is pervasive culturally; stories about golems and enchanted armor or physical objects imbued with personality have been with us since stories began.
Digital bots (especially bots that live in social spaces) fit into this long history of objects granted almost-humanness. They fill in for a part of human action, the slice of person granted to digital representations of ourselves. Just like the golem that guards a passage, their tasks are programmed, but because they do these tasks on their own (guard, tweet) we grant them entity. Perhaps this is as much doubt (“Is it /really/ a bot, though? Maybe it’s just a person pretending?”) as it is gift.
Secondly, I do think there is an aspect of doubling or mirroring that these bots employ. They are widening the reach of their creators; they are automated versions of a specific slice of their creators. Many many bots fall into this category. Something Darius Kazemi once said first got me thinking this way. It was advice to a want-to-be botmaker who didn’t have an idea for a bot. Darius suggested ‘come up with a joke that is funny but formulaic and automate it’. This type of repetitive production is not just seen in joke bots, but almost all bots that are not attempting to emulate humanness. The maker would have made the joke once; by making a bot, it is made many times (but also, perhaps made better than it would have been the once).
To expand; the goal of work-by-generation is a fundamentally similar, but shifted process from that of work-by-hand; rather than identifying and chasing the qualities of a singular desired artwork, one instead defines ranges of interesting permutations, their interpersonal interactions, how one ruleset speaks to another. Here, the cartographer draws the cliffs that contain a sea of one hundred thousand artworks. And then one searches for the most beautiful piece of coral inside of their waters.
So, I suppose this is where bots are truly interesting to me. Because this kind of making (the looking for the best moment in a sea of automated possibilities) is a methodology of construction that feels, in some ways, new.
I like the notion of bots leading secret lives. Are you ever not in control over your bots? Or what does this secrecy entail?
I take a pretty lax approach to keeping up with my bots. I almost never log into their accounts or closely monitor what they are up to. I censor certain words I find offensive, follow them on my own twitter account, and hope I catch it if they break. This means that their notifications never reach me; the things that are said to them (or their own replies) are often invisible to everyone but them.
In what ways do people or other bots interact with your bots?
Most (although not all) of my bots are non-interactive, meaning that they do not @reply back when spoken to. That being said, they are absolutely interacted with. Tiny star fields in particular gets a ton of messages; lots of people will have conversations in the mentions. I find them pretty charming and will occasionally peek at what people are saying to one another. Since I generally keep @replies off, I don’t get the bot-to-bot eternity loops that you’ll see sometimes with the image bots or ebooks bots or others that reply. But I always like it when spam bots or reddit bots find mine by keyword search. The best example designed bot interaction might be Eli Brody’s tiny astronaut (https://twitter.com/tiny_astro_naut) which inserts spaceship emoji into Tiny star fields’ tweets, or its conceptual sibling, tiny space poo (https://twitter.com/tiny_space_poo).
How many of your bot’s followers do you reckon are other bots, and is bot to bot interaction different to how humans interact with bots?
I haven’t done the numbers, but it seems like there is a slightly higher percentage of bot to bot followers than human to bot. I would guess this is a combination of auto-following routines and being manually directed to follow entire lists of other bots. Perhaps also they are more patient with repetitive or nonsensical tweets, and stick around longer.
Most bots now have conversational abandonment built in, but this was not always the case- it was once pretty common to see two replying bots get into a conversation with one another that would last hours or days, to the tune of thousands of tweets, one every few seconds. I once got accidentally caught in the mentions of one of these cycles and had to wait for one of the bot’s owners to wake up and reset their servers. It was amazing and I also had to turn off all notifications on every device I own.
Now, I think most bots use more intelligent replying- just to one person, or randomly across their followers, or only every 10 hours, or perhaps replying to keywords or requests. This has made bot to bot interactions feel, to me, a lot more human.
Do people ever wonder about you, the human behind the bot?
I think many people that follow Tiny Star Fields do not understand that it is a bot! Or that bots are even on Twitter. The predominant interaction that seems to occur runs along the lines of “DO YOU SLEEP” or “what is this” or “i love these thank you so much for making them all the time”. I find that disconnect pretty delightful- the assumption of a (very) dedicated human somewhere. I’m also fond of the interpersonal conversations that happen in the comments, often having nothing to do with the original stars at all- it seems to occasionally function as a bit of a forum for strangers to connect.
Where do you see Twitter bots, or social media bots in general, evolving?
I have found myself moving off of Twitter and back into non-social spaces for a lot of my work. Part of this is probably personal; my interests shift project-to-project. Part of it is intrinsic limitations in the media, the 140 character limit, the difficulty of keeping up with Twitter’s often evolving terms of service. I am interested in physical robots, or the housing of digital spaces- where these bots actually live- and a lot of my studio practice is in exploring actual tangible machines right now. Some of the best bots I’m seeing out of others use neural nets, or very clever source material. In my own work, I am looking forward to more physical-digital integration, especially as I pick up some new toolsets required for more complicated work. I have an interest in biological emulation and in the hidden data that Twitter links to every tweet (perhaps my next bot will not be readable on the Twitter webclient, but instead comes alive in an API call?).
There is also a small part of me that feels like others have taken up the call (and doing it better than I ever could have). This is to say, Twitter bots are in a kind of renaissance- tools like George Buckenham’s Cheap Bots Done Quick (which uses Kate Compton’s Tracery) and the plethora of tutorials and frameworks have radically democratized the process, and it seems like every day I see someone new to this space building interesting or beautiful things. I am learning as much from newcomers to the form than anything!
In short, for the future- who knows? But at the moment, bots are serving as a fascinating space to test out new ideas, construct entity and artwork of generated text and data, and publish those experiments to an audience who are excited to see them in the world. What more could one hope for?
Finally, what are your favorite bots at the moment?
https://twitter.com/CreatureList – automata bestiary from @samteebee
https://twitter.com/FFD8FFDB – image-processed security cameras by @derekarnold
https://twitter.com/imgconvos – a @thricedotted answer to image-bot loops
https://twitter.com/everycolorbot – the first bot truly dear to me still going strong, thanks to @vogon
https://twitter.com/reverseocr – a @tinysubversions bot that randomly draws until it hits whatever word it is trying to match in an OCR library
https://twitter.com/ARealRiver – the only real way to view this (very clever) bot is in its own timeline, probably on mobile. from @muffinista
https://twitter.com/LSystemBot – l systems by @objelisks
https://twitter.com/INTERESTING_JPG – a bot-form of deep learning, which attempts to describe human images with computer vision, by @cmyr
https://twitter.com/park_your_car – compelling use of google maps highlighting available car-space by @elibrody
https://twitter.com/wikishoutouts – shoutouts to the disambiguation pages of wikipedia
https://twitter.com/soft_focuses – a very quiet mysterious bot from @thricedotted
https://twitter.com/TVCommentBot – attemped image recognition of television, @DavidLublin
https://twitter.com/GenerateACat – procedural cats – @mousefountain and @bzgeb
https://twitter.com/pentametron – a bot that looks for tweets in accidental iambic pentameter by @ranjit
https://twitter.com/RestroomGender – @lichlike’s gendered restroom sign generator
https://twitter.com/digital_henge – this bot by @alicemazzy tweets moon phases, eclipses, and other solar and lunar phenomena
https://twitter.com/a_lovely_cloud – digital cloud watching from @rainshapes
https://twitter.com/the_ephemerides – computer generated poetry with outer space probe imagery, @aparrish
To find out more about Katie Rose Pipkin’s latest projects, please visit http://katierosepipkin.com
French artists Émilie Brout and Maxime Marion contribute three pieces to The Human Face of Cryptoeconomies exhibition. Gold and Glitter is a painstakingly assembled installation of collaged GIFs. Previous installations have featured the GIFs displayed on a gold iPad atop a pile of collected gold trinkets; at Furtherfield Gallery now a single golden helium balloon hovers in front of a floor to ceiling projection. Nakamoto (The Proof) is video documentation of the artists’ efforts to try and place a face on the elusive Bitcoin creator, Satoshi Nakamoto (but is it his face in the end? We don’t know). Untitled SAS is a registered French company without employees and whose sole purpose is to exist as a work of art.
Brout and Marion’s work can be situated among artists and art practices who have grappled with how to think about value and objects—or more precisely, how objects are inscribed (and sometimes not) into an idea of what is valuable. In a recent article for Mute Magazine, authors Daniel Spaulding and Nicole Demby point out that “Value is a specific social relation that causes the products of labor to appear and to exchange as equivalents; it is not an all-penetrating miasma.”1 Value is a process by which bodies are sorted and edited but it is not a default spectrum on to which all bodies must fall in varying degrees. This clarification makes explicit the fact that while the relationships productive of value allow “products of labor to appear and to [be exchanged]”2 this is not an effect that is extended to all products of labor. Attempts to isolate the underlying logic of this sorting mechanism are often at the heart of art practices dealing with questions of value and commodification. Like Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes or Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, these artworks become interesting problematics for the question of art and value for the ways in which they are able to straddle two economic realms—that of the art object and the commercial object—while resisting total inclusion in either.
The Human Face of Cryptoeconomies picks up these themes in an art context and repositions them alongside digital cultures and emerging digital economies. In Brout and Marion’s work alone, concepts of kitsch, identity, and human capital have been inhabited and imported from their originary realms into the digital. Answering questions remotely, Brout and Marion were kind enough to give us some insights into their work and process. My goal here has been to draw out some points about the operation of value that are at work in Brout and Marion’s practice, as well as to point towards an idea of how value is transformed, or even mutated, in the digital age.
* * *
Brout and Marion open up with an interesting provocation. They explain, “When we showed the project [Glitter and Gold] in Paris this year, people stole a lot of objects, even if they were very cheap. Gold has an incredible power of attraction.”
It is telling, to some extent, that Brout and Marion’s meditations on gold have an almost direct link to the visual metaphor used by Clement Greenberg in his 1939 essay Avante-Garde and Kitsch to describe the relation between culture—epitomized in the avant-garde—and the ruling class. Greenberg writes, “No culture can develop without a social basis, without a source of stable income. And in the case of the avant-garde, this was provided by an elite among the ruling class of that society from which it assumed itself to be cut off, but to which it has always remained attached by an umbilical cord of gold.”3 This relation is subverted in Gold and Glitter, which takes for its currency—its umbilical cord of gold—a kind of unquantifiable labor that is seemingly (and perhaps somewhat sinisterly) always embedded in discussions of the digital.
For Greenberg, kitsch always existed in relation to the avant-garde; one fed and supported the other, even if the way in which that relation of sustenance worked was by negation. And while Greenberg’s theory relies on his own strict allegiances to hierarchical society, privileged classes, the values of private property, and all the other divisive tenets of capitalism that we now know all too well can be destructive. Kitsch remains useful to us for the ways in which it allows the means of production to enter into a consideration of aesthetics. Here the recent writing of Boris Groys can be useful. In an essay written for e-flux titled Art and Money, Groys makes a compelling case for why we should persist in a sympathetic reading of Greenberg. He argues that Greenberg’s incisions amongst the haves and have nots of culture can be cut across different lines; that because Greenberg identifies avant-garde art as art that is invested in demonstrating the way in which is it is made and it doesn’t allow for its evaluation by taste. Avant-garde art shows its guts to us all, and on equal terms—“its productive side, its poetics, the devices and practices that bring it into being” and inasmuch “should be analyzed according the same criteria as objects like cars, trains, or planes.”4
For Groys this distinction situates the avant-garde within a constructivist and productivist context, opening up artworks themselves to be appreciated for their production, or rather, “in terms that refer more to the activities of scientists and workers than to the lifestyle of the leisure class.”5 In this way Glitter and Gold, like Brout and Marion’s other artworks, is to be appreciated not for any transcendent reason but rather for the means by which it came into existence. ‘The processes of searching and collaging golden GIFs sit side by side with the physical work of accumulating the golden trinkets for display: “We collected these objects for a long time” the artists explain, “some were personal objects (child dolphin pendant, in true gold), others were given or found in flea markets, bought in bazaars … We wanted to have a lot of different types and symbols, from a Hand of Fatima to golden chain, skulls, butterflies, etc.”
Furthermore, Glitter and Gold can be understood as the product of compounding labors: the labor of Brout and Marion in collecting their artifacts, the labor necessary to create the artifacts, the labor of GIF artists, the labor of searching for said GIFs, the labor of weaving a digital collage. These on-going processes forge, trace, and re-trace paths during which, at some point, gold takes on the function as aesthetic shorthand for value. As Brout and Marion explain, “Here the question is more about the intrinsic values we all find in Gold, even when it just looks like gold. Gold turns any prosaic product into something desirable. [Gold and Glitter] is less about economics than about perceived value.”
Groys provides his reading of Greenberg as a means of pointing towards a materiality that is always in excess of existing coordinates of value. If value always reveals the products of labor as they enter into a zone of exchange, it is something else proper to contemporary art that reveals another materiality beyond this exchange. For Groys, this something else is at work in the dynamics of art exhibition, which can render visible otherwise invisible forces and their material substrates. This is certainly a potential that is explored by Brout and Marion. In Nakamoto (The Proof), the viewer can watch the artists’ attempt at creating a passport for the infamous and elusive Bitcoin creator Satoshi Nakamoto. At present, it is unclear whether Nakamoto is a single person or group of people, though the Nakamoto legacy as creator of Bitcoin, a virtual currency widely used on darknets, is larger than life. Adding to this myth, after publishing the paper to kickstart bitcoin via the Cryptography Mailing List in 2008, and launching the Bitcoin software client in 2009, Nakamoto has only sporadically been seen participating in the project with others via mailing lists before making a final, formal disappearance in 2011, explaining that he/she/they had “moved on to other things.”6 Nakamoto’s disappearance, coupled with the fact that Nakamoto’s estimated net worth must be somewhere in the hundred millions Euros, has given rise to the modern-day myth of Nakamoto, and with it an insatiable curiosity to uncover the identity and whereabouts of the elusive Bitcoin creator.
Brout and Marion make their own attempt to summons the mysterious Nakamoto back to life by putting together the evidence of Nakamoto’s existence and procuring a Japanese passport using none other than the technologies that Nakamoto’s Bitcoin both imparted and facilitated. When asked if they feared for their own self-preservation in seeing this project through, Brout and Marion answered, “Yes, even if we were pretty sure that it would be easy to prove our intention to the authorities, and that the fake passport couldn’t be useful to anybody, buying a fake passport is still illegal.” They add, “But we also wanted to play the game entirely, so we made every possible effort to preserve our anonymity during our journey on the darknets.”
However Brout and Marion have yet to receive the passport; as they explain, “The last time we received information, the document was in transit at the Romanian border.” When asked if they expect to receive the passport, they respond, “No, today we think we will never receive it. We are completely sure that it has existed, but we’ll surely never know what happened to it.” What, then, will they do if they never receive the passport? “Maybe just continue to exhibit the only proof of it we have!” they exclaim. “There is something beautiful in it: we tried to create a physical proof of the existence of a contemporary myth, using digital technology and digital money, and the only thing we have is a scan!”
If Brout and Marion’s nonchalance seems unexpected then it is because the disappearance of the passport for the artists marks just another ebb in the overall flow of their piece; a flow that began with Nakamoto, coursed through their clandestine chats via a Tor networked browser and high security email, and now continues to trickle on while we wait in anticipation for the next chapter of the Nakamoto passport to reveal itself. In this respect, the anticipation of the passport is a poetic and unforeseen layer added to the significance of the piece: “Maybe it is even better [that the passport should not arrive]” Brout and Marion comment. “It’s like it was impossible to bring Nakamoto out of the digital world.”
If value is always formed by way of a social relation, then how do digital modes of sociality also deliver this effect? This becomes a particularly fraught question when considering that, as Anna Munster has written, the sociality that takes place on the internet can be understood as the interrelation of any number of subjectivities, both organic and inorganic. Brout and Marion’s ambivalence to the purloined passport highlights just such an expectation: “Here the lack of identity delivers a lot of value. Look at Snowden: journalists ask him more about his girlfriend than about his revelations. Making something as big as Bitcoin and staying perfectly anonymous? These are strong attacks to two of the most important issues of our societies: banks and privacy.” What their statement suggests is how a collective movement towards transgression, here seen as compounding maneuvers of avoidance of physical world boundaries and institutions, might hold within it the promise of its own set of value coordinates. As Brout and Marion further explain: “For us, Nakamoto is absolutely fascinating. The efforts he made to prevent himself from being turned into a product are incredible. Especially when you know the importance of [Bitcoin’s] creation, and that only a few men in the world are smart enough to create something like this. Adding to that the fact that Nakamoto is probably a millionaire, you have one of the only true contemporary myths, something hard to find credible even if it was just a fictional character in a movie. So this somewhat absurd attempt to create a proof of Nakamoto’s existence was, for us, an attempt to make a portrait of him, to put light on his figure. And, in some ways, a tribute.”
Brout and Marion mount a final probe into questions of value in their piece, Untitled SAS. Untitled SAS is the name for Brout and Marion’s corporation whose purpose and medium is to exist as a work of art. In France SAS means société par actions simplifée, and is the Anglophone equivalent of an LTD. SAS companies have shares that can be freely traded between shareholders. Untitled SAS, in Brout and Marion’s own words, “has no other purpose than to be a work of art: it won’t buy or sell anything, there won’t be employees, its existence is an end it itself. The share capital of the company is 1 Euro (the minimum), and we edited 10,000 shares owned by us (5,000 for each one). Everybody can freely buy and sell shares of this company.” Brout and Marion are clear: in no uncertain terms, “Untitled SAS is a work of art where the medium is a real company, and the corporate purpose of this company is simply to be a work of art.”
Untitled SAS is a tongue in cheek commentary on the situating of artworks as outside of the rational space of the market while still being subject to selective norms of economic behavior. Brout and Marion explain, “Untitled SASis obviously a metaphor for the art market, and the market in general: it is a true, fully legal, and functional speculation bubble. Companies usually try to create some concrete value, they are means. The art world has fewer rules than the regular market, the price of some artworks can radically change in few days without any logical reason: their intrinsic value is completely uncorrelated to their market value. We wanted to reproduce and play with these systems in the scale of an artwork.” At this level, what Brout and Marion uncover is further proof of the condition of the contemporary art period as Groys sees it: a time in which “mass artistic production [follows] an era of mass art consumption” and by extension “means that today’s artist lives and works primarily among art producers—not among art consumers.”7
Crucially, the effect of this condition is that contemporary professional artists “investigate and manifest mass art production, not elitist or mass art consumption.” This is the mode of art making precisely employed by Brout and Marion in the creation of Untitled SAS. It has the added effect, too, of creating an artwork that can exist outside the problem of taste and aesthetic attitude. Companies tend to eschew taste qualifications in favor of brand associations. Untitled SAS becomes readable as an artwork, as Untitled SAS, when the expectations and regulations of a nationally recognized business are made to butt up against the inconsistencies of the artworld as an economic sphere. The art object then becomes rather a means of accessing the overlapping paths of art and value as they are uniquely enabled to circulate in and out of the art & Capitalist markets.
* * *
Brout and Marion note that, “In our work we often use algorithms and generative ways to produce things, but here we wanted to something no machine can do, something hand-made, too, finally a simple and traditional work of art.” These kinds of generative technological processes and sorting algorithms have been central to many debates on how contemporary culture is absorbing the boon of big data: from ethical questions on predictive policing to dating apps and ride-hailing startups. As one Slate article posed the question in relation to Uber, these algorithms are more than just quick and efficient modes of labor—they are reflections of the marketplace themselves.
So what, then, might it mean that both values and services in the digital age are predicated on the power to sort and categorize, and that this power is ciphered through its own dynamic of social relations, but that in one scenario what emerges is a sphere of the valuable and in the other a software that asserts itself as benign and at the behest of an impartial, impersonal data? Perhaps the rationality of value and market circulation vis a vis the art object was always going to be a little too tricky to take on: too many exceptions, too many questions of subjectivity, taste, and judgment. But as the works exhibited for The Human Face of Cryptoeconomies might suggest the rationality of value and the products it chooses to incorporate is of high importance. If value works precisely because of the specific interrelating of social subjects then we can consider the realm of the digital as a concentrated form of such a relation.
Against this we must consider the new subject that is produced and addressed by the intersecting of these discussions. Spaulding and Demby make the case that, that “Art under capitalism is a good model of the freedom that posits the subject as an abstract bundle of legal rights assuring formal equality while ignoring a material reality determined by other forms of systematic inequality.”8 Karen Gregory, in The Datalogical Turn, writes, “In the case of personal data, it is not the details of that data or a single digital trail that are important, it is rather the relationship of the emergent attitudes of digital trails en mass that allow for both the broadly sweeping and the particularised modes of affective measure and control. Big data doesn’t care about ‘you’ so much as the bits of seemingly random information that bodies generate or that they leave as a data trail”.
The works of Brout and Marion exhibited at the Human Face of Crypotoeconomies exhibition places the intimacy of the body front and center. They speak to the shadow and trace of the body by appropriating the paths of the faceless, or by giving a face to the man (or entity) without a body, to becoming the human face of the market player par excellence by inserting themselves into a solipsistic art corporation. Brout and Marion’s practice understands that while value may not be an all-penetrating miasma, this is not also to say that the effect of value is not still inscribed on the flesh of each and all, organic or not.
1 Demby, “Art, Value, and the Freedom Fetish | Mute.”
3 Greenberg, “Avant-Garde and Kitsch,” 543.
6 “Who Is Satoshi Nakamoto?”
7 Groys, “Art and Money.”
Stanza is an internationally recognised artist who has been exhibiting worldwide since 1984. He has won so many prizes you’d have trouble fitting them all on one mantlepiece. He has exhibited over fifty exhibitions globally and is an expert in arts technology, CCTV, online networks, touch screens, environmental sensors, and interaction. His artworks examine artistic and technical perspectives, within the contexts of architecture, data spaces and online environments.
Recurring themes throughout his career include the urban landscape, surveillance culture, privacy and alienation in the city. Stanza is interested in the patterns we leave behind, and real time networked events, that are usually re-imagined and sourced for information. He uses multiple new technologies so to create distances between real time, multi point perspectives that emphasis a new visual space. The purpose of this is to communicate feelings and emotions that we encounter daily which impact on our lives and which are outside our control.
Much of his work has centered on the idea of the city as a display system and various projects have been made using live data, the use of live data in architectural space, and how it can be made into meaningful representations. See Publicity, Robotica, Sensity, as well as a whole series of work manipulating real time CCTV data to making artworks with them: See, Velocity, Authenticity, Urban Generation. These works reform the data, work with the idea of bringing data from outside into the inside, and then present it back out again in open ended systems where the public is often engaged in or directly embedded in the artwork. Interactive and visually appealing, his style also maintains the substantive power through multi-facetted content.
Marc Garrett: Could you tell us who has inspired you the most in your work and why?
Stanza: I don’t really get inspiration from the “who” question, I prefer the “what” and “why” questions. As a professional artist I look at loads of art so to understand what art is and can be, and it’s always an ever changing and fluid response. I also spend a lot of time ignoring stuff and material; (focused ignoring) because it has become harder and harder to see though the fog; the noise of it all. Maybe it’s better to think of a working model for inspiration, Andy Warhol had one. Just make the work. That’s what I do. I am not a part time artist in academia or an artist with another job, I’ve done this for the last thirty years, inspired by and in response to the world around me.
This dogmatic commitment to my work comes from my believes that the system you have to trust and invest in yourself. Inspiration, quite literally is everything all around you all at once, all at the same time, moment by moment. This is what inspires my work and it influences the creation of real time information flows, and works in parallel realities. It allows me to stand back at a distance and work with complex data sets while at the same time making meaning from them. Forming data into a shape, because this confluence might inspire a repositioning of thought and values while at the same time unlocking a hidden meaning to enable the viewer to feel and experience something new or to do something creative with the results.
MG: How have they influenced your own practice and could you share with us some examples?
S: There’s a saying be careful what you wish for. If one reverses this then it could be wish for what you want and need. Influence is problematic because it’s both negative and positive. The idea of influence seems causal, but my own practise isn’t based on influence but in research into certain themes. This enables me to get into both sides of particular questions or debate, so to frame the work I make. Works like these have been inspired by this focus…
The Singing Trees, focus in the invisible things and the environment http://stanza.co.uk/tree/index.html
MG: How different is your work from your influences and what are the reasons for this?
S: I have been researching smart cites, urbanisn, and have collected ‘big data’ since 2004. I have been building my own wireless sensor network. This eventually manifested itself in an artwork called Capacities in 2010 which then influenced all the others in the series until it now has this form.
Capacities: Life In The Emergent City, captures the changes over time in the environment (city) and represents the changing life and complexity of space as an emergent artwork
Which led to…
The Nemesis Machine- From Metropolis to Megalopolis to Ecumenopolis.
“A Mini, Mechanical Metropolis Runs On Real-Time Urban Data. The artwork captures the changes over time in the environment (city) and represents the changing life and complexity of space as an emergent artwork. The artwork explores new ways of thinking about life, emergence and interaction within public space. The project uses environmental monitoring technologies and security based technologies, to question audiences’ experiences of real time events and create visualizations of life as it unfolds. The installation goes beyond simple single user interaction to monitor and survey in real time the whole city and entirely represent the complexities of the real time city as a shifting morphing complex system.
The data and their interactions – that is, the events occurring in the environment that surrounds and envelops the installation – are translated into the force that brings the electronic city to life by causing movement and change – that is, new events and actions – to occur. In this way the city performs itself in real time through its physical avatar or electronic double: The city performs itself through an-other city. Cause and effect become apparent in a discreet, intuitive manner, when certain events that occur in the real city cause certain other events to occur in its completely different, but seamlessly incorporated, double. The avatar city is not only controlled by the real city in terms of its function and operation, but also utterly dependent upon it for its existence.”
MG: Is there something you’d like to change in the art world, or in fields of art, technology and social change; if so, what would it be?
S: It’s the museum I would like to change or engage with. It seems that anything and everything will end up in the museum. We have become the museum. We are the sum of our collections catalogs and archives. Since the current trend is for public engagement we will see a mix of these new technologies aiding and abetting this and various dialogues.
Therefore these questions need to be raised more vocally. How do visitors interact with each other and artworks? How do visitors behave in public space and what patterns or communities do they form. Can these outputs reshape our experience of public space and the art?
So, new immersive technologies could be used to investigate how visitors interact with art works, with each other and what impact their experiences have in forming new user interactions within public space. This space could be made more social and lead to new real time artworks based on visitor interaction and new visualizations of the gallery space based on gathered data.
Artists used to occupy specific issues but now there aren’t many topics artists haven’t engaged in or reached out to. The issues that will resonate will be the ones closest to the issue of the day…. and, they will be economics, the environment and migration. Because of this I would like to less focus on public engagement spectacle or entertainment and more on the quality and public engagement rooted in intellectual rigour.
Technology affords new ways of working with audiences and curators as participants in artworks. The concept of the exhibition as an active site for experimentation and collaboration between curators, artists and audiences prefigures a general cultural movement towards the centrality of experience and away from the reification of the object.
However, how audience activities and movements can be used as the subject of new artwork as well as modify engagement with existing collections is a cultural and technological challenge.
SeePublic Domain: You Are My Property, My Data, My Art, My Love.
The Public Domain Series involves using live CCTV systems that are already installed then using these cameras to enhance gallery space and the audiences experience of the gallery. http://stanza.co.uk/public_domain_outside/index.html
Visitors to a Gallery – referential self, embedded. Stanza uses a live CCTV system inside an art gallery to create a responsive mediated architecture. Anyone in any of the galleries and all spaces in the building can appear inside the artwork at any time.
The social challenge within urban space is one I like to play with. In The Binary Graffiti Club, is a project I set up to try and work in this area. The Binary Graffiti Club are invited members of the public at each location for each event; they are given the hoodie to keep as thanks for their participation and contribution. The Binary Graffiti Club set off across the city and create artworks.
“Youths dressed in black hoodies swarmed the historic city streets of Lincoln during Frequency Festival 2013, their backs emblazoned with bold white digits, the zeros and ones. Their ominous presence was marked with a series of binary code graff-tags on official buildings throughout the city; messages of insurrection for a digital cult now active among us or analogue reminders of the digital soup of signals we wade through on a daily basis? There’s an engaging playfulness and an aesthetic pleasure to Stanza’s work that pays rewards on deeper investigation. His urban interventions remind us of the invisible occupation of the cyberspace around us and encourages us to ask whose hand manipulates these systems of control.” Barry Hale, Festival Co-Director of Frequency Festival 2013: Stanza: Timescapes/Binary Graffiti Club.
MG: Describe a real-life situation that inspired you and then describe a current idea or art work that has inspired you?
The invention of the toothpaste tube caused a revolution in painting.
The greatest discovery of the age was that the world is full of atoms.
Doing many small things instead one on big thing.
We seam to victimise out children we give them ASBO’S and anti social behaviour orders. For a while I wanted one. They actually give you a certificate like rockers, mods punks etc. The hoodie is a symbol of youth culture as well as being anti social. My new artwork the Reader and the idea of reading books and being anti-social led to this project.
The Reader is a large six foot sculpture of the artist Stanza wearing a hoodie reading a book. The artwork is a metaphor for the engagement of reading in the digital age. The sculpture acts as a focal point for community and public engagement and has taken over one year to make and design; it has been commissioned to act as a focal point for the identity of the library. The reader reads all the books published since 1953 inside a data body sculpture. http://stanza.co.uk/TheReader_web/
MG: What’s the best piece of advice you can give to anyone thinking of starting up in the fields of art, technology and or social change?
S: Make work, make more work, and remember nothing lasts forever except true love.
Re: Art, Study it
Re: Technology. Learn it
Re: Social change . Be part of it.
MG: Finally, could you recommend any reading materials or exhibitions past or present that you think would be great for the readers to view, and if so why?
Yes the Books…
The Bible The Quran And The Torah.
Because…they are the most influential books ever written and have guided the lives of billions so it’s a good idea to have had a read… at least “view” them.
Lost in Translation. This custom made robot responds to a series of texts and makes drawings unique to each reader. The work questions not only the meaning and interpretation of text but just who controls our understanding of the outputs and indeed what is Lost In Translation. This is a very playful user friendly work and actively engages the audience not only to think about the text but the meaning of how automation and networked technology is changing the control of understanding. http://stanza.co.uk/lost_in_translation/
The negotiation of the commons takes place in two distinct realms that are increasingly reaching into and shaping one another: the long history of the landscape commons both in cities and in the countryside, and across digital networks. In both realms we find the continued project of the enclosures, appropriating forms of collectively-created use value and converting it, wherever possible, into exchange value. In this conversation Ruth Catlow and Tim Waterman discuss the ‘Reading the Commons’ project together with Furtherfield’s work on understanding the commons.
Ruth Catlow is an artist and co-founder co-director of Furtherfield. Tim Waterman is a landscape architectural and urban theorist and critic at the University of Greenwich and Research Associate for Landscape and Commons at Furtherfield.
TW: I’ll start with a little background. ‘Reading the Commons’ is an ongoing project which we initiated that seeks to find a place of power in order to defend the continual project of the creation of the commons in all realms in the future and to augment and magnify other similar endeavours by other groups and organisations. We knew that there is already a lot of work being done in and around the idea of the commons, so we were less interested in staking out any intellectual ground than we were in making connections and finding ways of sharing research and experiences amongst ourselves and other interested parties. So far two groups have been assembled to read and discuss. The first was convened in the summer of 2014 at Furtherfield Commons, the community lab space in the South West corner of Finsbury Park, and was composed of a broad range of academics and practitioners from different disciplines. It met once a fortnight for several months and discussion was wide-ranging. The second was in the Summer of 2015 and involved a group of Master’s students in curation at Goldsmiths under the direction of Ele Carpenter. Future incarnations of the group will each try for different configurations of people, disciplines, and callings.
RC: The first group was very diverse – from backgrounds in geography, sociology, law, political science, technology, landscape architecture, art, and more. We faced an immediate challenge talking across the boundaries of all these disciplines and philosophical and cultural traditions. This was illustrated immediately in the first session. One of our group, a scholar in Law and Property, was irked by our early introduction of two Americans , Garrett Hardin and Yochai Benkler. We had introduced these theorists along with Elinor Ostrom, Oliver Goldsmith and Michel Bauwens. The law and property scholar was irked for a number of reasons, but particularly because they represented a bias towards a US and UK (English speaking) over other European traditions- of property and ownership over civil liberties. Another participant, with an established practice in arts and technology looked pained throughout. I think this was because we seemed to be scratching the surface of topics, works and discussions that make up the discourse around the network, and the digital commons.
TW: We partially remedied this problem by asking the participants to provide readings for future sections and to give a brief verbal introduction.
RC: For instance Christian Nold led a show-and-tell at the second session, based on a book, Autopsy of an Island Currency (2014) that he had worked on with Nathalie Aubret and Susanne Jaschko. The book problematises a project called Suomenlinna Money Lab, a participatory art and design project that worked with money and local currencies as a social and artistic medium and that sought to involve a community of people in a critique of its own economies. This reinforced for me the contribution that situated practices have to make to theories of the commons, as the book tells a revealing story of resistance to critique in a place and community with an established interest and investment in the cultures associated with private ownership.
TW: Nevertheless there were a lot of times when people ‘looked pained’, because basically we had just jumped in and started discussing the idea of the commons without realising that we were all speaking with different understandings of basic terms. In other words, we were all operating on different registers that sprang from our hailing from different philosophical and disciplinary roots and traditions. It might have benefited us to begin by trying to map out our terms. On the other hand, this might have prevented us from ever even starting! This mapping, perhaps, is a project that we need to figure out how to undertake.
RC: The difficulty of wrangling different registers was also exacerbated by the seemingly unbounded scope of the discussion. The relatively recent growth of the World Wide Web introduces enough material for months of readings about how the digital commons has helped to shift thinking about the commons away from merely the management of material resources to knowledge and cultural work.
Still, we felt – perhaps because Furtherfield’s physical venues are located within a public park – a sense of urgency to think about the social layers of physical and digital space in relation to the commons, as a way to resist the unquestioning total commercialisation of all realms.
RC: To take a couple of steps back….There are misconceptions about the commons that require rectification. Political economist Elinor Ostrom showed, in opposition to Garrett Hardin, that in theory and in practice, the collective co-operative management of shared socio-ecological resources was a lived reality in many localities (1990). While her research drew on management of material resources her Eight Design Principles for Common Pool Resources, shares many characteristics with digital commons.
Hardin’s (1968) essay “The Tragedy of the Commons” had argued that commonly owned resources were doomed to exploitation and depletion by private individuals; therefore justifying the role of hierarchical, centralised systems of power to maintain private ownership. On the other hand, Jeremy Gilbert in his book Common Ground (2013), quotes radical economist Massimo de Angelis, to define the commons as social spheres which help protect us from the market. This becomes particularly useful to help us to recalibrate our definitions of “free” and “sharing” as we reveal so much of our private lives (so nonchalantly) via ubiquitous, proprietary digital devices and commercial social platforms.
TW: Hardin’s one-dimensional projection of the commons as unworkable and disastrous was based upon an understanding of human relations that assumed that competitive individualism is ‘human nature’ and that all such ‘experiments’ were doomed to failure as a result. This is Darwin’s survival of the fittest rendered as ‘dog eat dog’. The voice almost contemporary with Darwin’s that I think most clearly articulates how evolution (human and otherwise) is based upon cooperation is Peter Kropotkin’s, in his amazing book Mutual Aid (1902). Evolutionary science and theory is moving ever more towards Kropotkin’s conclusions rather than Darwin’s, or at least Kropotkin’s work is becoming ever more relevant and complementary to Darwin’s. For me, it’s also impossible to imagine how cultural evolution could work at all except through the cooperation, sharing, and processes of negotiation that characterise the commons.
The landscape commons has always been about more than just material resources, and this is perhaps the most reductively oversimplified register on which we might speak of the commons. So if the problem is to align the different and more meaningful registers along which we all discuss the commons so that a truly collective and collaborative project can emerge amongst many disciplines simultaneously, we should have a go at pinning in place a few core understandings of the commons? Shall we give that a go?
RC: Yes! From my work with Furtherfield, my feeling for the commons is strongly influenced by the cultures of freedom and openness in engineering and software. In 2011 we created a collection of artworks, texts and resources about freedom and openness in the arts in the age of the Internet. “Freedom to collaborate – to use, modify and redistribute ideas, artworks, experiences, media and tools. Openness to the ideas and contributions of others, and new ways of organising and making decisions together.”
If we can agree that the commons are those resources that are collectively produced and managed by, and in the interests of, the people who use them, then the digital commons, as set out by Felix Stalder, are the technologies, knowledge and digital cultural resources that are communally designed, distributed and owned : wikis, open-source software and licensing, and open cultural works and knowledge repositories. Licences such as the GNU General Public License and various Creative Commons licenses ensure that the freedom to use, adapt and distribute works produced collectively is preserved for the future.
Discussions of the commons have, in the liberal tradition, centred around how to produce, manage and share scarce material resources in a bounded geographical locality. This is fundamentally changed in the post-industrial, information age, where cultural and knowledge goods can be easily, cheaply and quickly copied, shared worldwide and transformed. It has brought about a massive shift in the way economics, politics and law are practiced.
As distinct from the users of the majority of corporately-owned search, sales and social media utilities (think Google, Amazon, Paypal, Facebook, Twitter) and digital entertainment platforms (think Netflix, iMusic and Spotify) the community of people involved in developing the digital commons ‘can intervene in the design and governance of their interaction processes and of their shared resources’ (Stalder) – think Wikipedia, Freesound, Wikihouse. This has long continued to be an area of intense critical inquiry, unfolding, and practice for artists who are creating digital and networked artworks that take the form of platforms, software, tools and interventions such as : Upstage software for online “cyberformance”; Naked on Pluto, an online game whose ‘players’ become unwitting agents in the invasion of their own and others’ privacy ; and PureDyne, the USB-bootable GNU/Linux operating system for creative multimedia.
Consumer cultures invite us constantly to outsource responsibility for knowledge, information and cultural works to the markets. Artists and technologists involved in the digital commons make these otherwise abstract (and often invisible) shifts in power and social relations “feelable” for more people. In this way they are asserting alternatives to the prevailing economic models – often privileging collaboration and free expression that disrupt outmoded models of copyright and intellectual property.
Discussions about the role of affect in the development of the commons will be the subject of the next explorations of Reading the Commons, and we will certainly come back to these.
TW: Let’s look at this from another direction. In landscape terms, the idea of the commons has evolved a great deal over time, as, for example, feudal forms gave way to different hierarchical forms based in capitalism and private property, and now in late capitalism and neoliberalism’s adaptation to, and cooptation of various forms of horizontality, especially in managerial practices. The importance of the commons has also shifted from defining notions of shared ownership and management of agrarian resources to include various manifestations of urban life, most recently and compellingly, perhaps, in the dogmatically horizontal democratic organisation amongst participants in the Occupy movement.
Ultimately, the commons, for me, is about dialogue, sharing, and the relationship between people and place. The earliest expressions of the commons were all about our relationship with food; its procurement, preparation, and consumption. A beautiful historic example is the importance of the chestnut tree to the inhabitants of the Cévennes in southern France, and how it not only embodied the commons, but symbolised it as well. It’s not possible to romanticise this story, as it’s one of very hardscrabble survival, but it does illustrate the point. As a staple food, the chestnut was a matter of survival for the inhabitants of the Cévennes. It would seem, metaphorically, that the idea of rootedness would follow naturally from this as a characteristic of the commons, but the reality is more nuanced. Chestnuts were introduced to the Cévennes by the Romans, and then tended centuries later by monks, who would share plants with the peasants with the expectation of future tithes. Labour-intensive chestnut orchards were farmed not just by locals, but by migrant workers as well. If we fast-forward to the 1960s, chestnuts were rediscovered by those wishing to get ‘back to the land’, reviving agricultural practices that had withered away during the years that capitalism had lured people from the countryside into towns.
This shows a very complex picture of the commons: one in which colonization and imperialism, monasticism, peasantry, migrant labour, and then finally arcadian anti-capitalist mythologies of the 1960s each play a part – and I’m skipping over a lot of historic detail and nuance. There is a tendency nowadays to see the commons as exclusively autonomous and horizontal, but historically the commons have been inextricably bound to patterns of ownership and domination. Far from discounting the commons, this shows how the commons can exist within and exert pressure against prevailing forms of domination and ownership. We need not wait for total revolution or the construction of utopia or arcadia. We can get to work now and make a shining example of what is possible, making use of existing networks and existing places. The anthropologist David Graeber, in his book The Democracy Project, (2014) calls this ‘prefigurative politics’: the idea that by acting out the model of politics and human association and inhabitation that we wish to see, that we work to bring it about.
RC: Yes, and while sociality, rootedness and affinity are all associated with embodied experience, they bubble up again and again in the critical and activist media art community who take digital networks for their tools, inspiration and context. Take for example the Swedish artist/activist group Piratbyrån (The Bureau of Piracy) established in 2003 to promote the free sharing of information, culture and intellectual property. Their entire 2014 exhibition of online and physical installations at Furtherfield Gallery highlighted the centrality to their work of cultural sharing and affinity-building. In his recent conversation with Tatiana Bazzichelli about networked disruption and business, Marc Garrett discusses the importance of affinities in evolving more imaginative, less oppositional (and macho) engagement with regressive forces; and quoting Donna Haraway says “Situated knowledges are about communities, not isolated individuals.”(Haraway 1996).
But Tim, I think you were on a roll. Why don’t you keep going? Why is the commons important now?
TW: The exploitation of people and resources that marks the practices of contemporary capitalism is very much a continuation of the project of the enclosures, whether it is to skim value off creative projects, to asset-strip the public sector which is increasingly encroached upon by the private sector, or to exhaust land and oppress workers in the Third World. The commons, however, are being created continually, and they represent not just a resource to be enclosed and exploited, but a form of resistance that has particular power because it is lived and acted. It’s not at all a contradiction to say that what is common is simultaneously enclosed, exploited, and liberatory. It’s a matter of tipping the balance so that the creation of the commons outpaces its negation.
RC: As people negotiate systems for renewal and stewardship of the resources over time they also arrive at an expression of creative identity and shared values.
TW: A moral economy …
RC: By freely surrendering all collectively created culture, from use value for conversion to exchange value, our shared ecologies of knowledge, culture and land are dismantled.
And with this we stand to lose the ability to attend to the nature of co-evolving, interdependent entities (human and non-human) and conditions, for the healthy evolution and survival of our species.
We are seeing a resurgence of collective and collaborative efforts. Our ongoing DIWO (Do It With Others) campaign sets out to adopt the verve and tactics of DIY culture, but to move us on from its individualism towards imaginative and experimental artistic collaboration. We construct more varied social relations (than those set up by pure market exchange) into the proliferation of connected sensing, communication and knowledge tools, in order to facilitate new forms of trans-global relations and cooperation. Most exciting is the Robin Hood Asset Management Cooperative,an activist hedge fund (and the project of economists, critical theorists, artists and financial experts) which distributes shares to members and its profits are invested in pro-social and commons-focused cultural projects.
TW: The point about use value is an important one. Capitalism, in the familiar equation, seeks to convert use value into exchange value. This process abstracts and simplifies value into purely financial terms. The language and action of the commons resists this because it is so often emplaced and embodied. The commons are local, experienced, shared, and negotiated, and they exist within networks of friendship, family, and civil society, which operate as moral economies, not purely monetary ones. I should probably also make the point that the Greek root of the word ‘moral’ signifies custom – which suggests that morals exist in the relational realm of everyday life, rather than in abstract ‘higher’ realms or in abstract financialised realms such as ‘the market’ – and that ‘economy’ comes from Greek again, the oikos, or household. Another firmly embodied and situated idea that is also incontrovertibly relational.
RC: The digital is becoming embodied and situated in a number of ways. Where once the boundaries between the worlds of atoms and bits were marked by screens and passwords, chips and implants are now on or in our bodies, devices and appliances. People and things are becoming increasingly expressive as nodes in the machineweb. Again, this gives artists a vital role in making these effects more legible, feelable and visible. Our actions are tracked, our utterances and exchanges are monitored, and our behaviours inform the design of future media, systems and products. This is the cybernetic loop. We also see a growing awareness of the geo-political questions surrounding the physical infrastructure of the Internet and its role in global markets. The problematisation of the web through heated debates about ownership and control of infrastructure and data, privacy and surveillance expressed in the SOPA debates- the Edward Snowden affair; Tim Berners-Lee’s campaign for a Magna Carta for the web; calls for a Digital Bill of Rights; the development of decentralising blockchain technologies that underpin Bitcoin, Etherium and (many other projects; artistic projects with a Situationist verve such as those of Piratbyran and F.A.T Lab- these all help us to clarify our place, the opportunities and limits for agency and action as we straddle the physical and digital layers.
So then we come back to the question of resistance and the commons. If, as you’ve described above, the continued project of the enclosures sets the scene for new acts of resistance, how Tim do you see these acts taking place in landscape space?
TW: The fact that democracy and the commons both take place (literally a historic act is situated by its taking place) by occupying space as well as by initiating dialogues and negotiations is important. Occupying digital space is important, as you have shown Ruth, and resisting the forms of surveillance and control that seek to close down the digital commons. I take hope from the fact that even if it takes generations to end capitalism, or at least to shift it from a form of global governance to a competitive economic system more appropriate to the scale of the farmers’ market, that the commons will never be fully enclosed, because capitalism is dependent upon the commons to create value that it then marketises and financialises.
Defending the digital commons also occupies physical space. It will be, from time to time, necessary to occupy the streets and squares of our cities in protest to stand up for them. In doing so we stand up for the physical commons at the same time. Governments have all sorts of tools against public demonstrations, such as the British government’s recently renewed hostility to trade unionism and its desire to further limit strike powers. Strikes will happen whether they’re legal or not though, as history amply demonstrates. Often many instances of land occupations are seen to have failed, however they have to have succeeded, at least temporarily, to register in the historical record as symbolic moments. These moments have immense power. The Diggers, for example, followers of Gerrard Winstanley, were proto-anarchists who organised horizontally in their land occupation in Surrey, Northamptonshire, and Buckinghamshire in the mid-1600s. Their planting of vegetables on common land, though a brief experiment, lives on powerfully in the discourses of democracy.
More modern incarnations of this power include the access to land gained by the mass trespass at Kinder Scout, the long-term encampment at Greenham Common, and the incredibly powerful and highly visible symbolism of the Occupy movement in various places from New York to London to Istanbul and beyond. A recent echo of the Diggers is the occupation of Grow Heathrow, which seeks to prevent the airport’s expansion by peacefully living on land proposed for a third runway and growing food there.
RC: So our next steps both for Reading the Commons and in our acting out of the commons are to define and map, for the purposes of resistance in the ongoing creation of commons; digital collaborocracy and an exploration of affect, agency, embodiment and the commons. Creative practices under capitalism have long contained elements of both creation and resistance (or defence), and now these actions, both positive and negative, take place across the digital and situated realms as well as what might now be termed the ‘situated digital’.
TW: I’m pursuing ideas of what Kate Soper calls ‘alternative hedonism’ so that sustainability can be conceived of as joyful. I think satisfaction – the fulfillment of desire – can have radical transformative potential for prosperity as a collective pursuit and is perhaps the only way to tip the balance away from liberal and neoliberal individualist competitive models. My idea of the commons and commoning includes freedom, democracy, nice cups of tea, evenings spent drinking wine and talking, the elimination of poverty, and the flourishing of human habitat and human potential.
RC: Let’s all drink to that!
Axelrod, Robert (1984), The Evolution of Cooperation, Basic Books, 2006
Barnes, Peter. (2001) Who Owns The Sky? Our Common Assets and the Future of Capitalism, Island Press
Bauwens, Michel. (2013) Class and Capital in Peer Production.
Bauwens, Michel. (2005)The political economy of peer production. http://www.informatik.uni-leipzig.de/~graebe/Texte/Bauwens-06.pdf
Benkler, Yochai. (2011) The Penguin and the Leviathan: How Cooperation Triumphs Over Self-Interest.
Boal, Iain. The Long Theft: Episodes in the History of Enclosure (forthcoming)
Bollier, David. Think Like a Commoner: A Short Introduction to the Life of the Commons and/or Viral Spiral. How the Commoners Built a Digital Republic of Their Own. New York, London, New Press, 2008 http://www.learcenter.org/pdf/ViralSpiral.pdf
Caffentzis, George. (1973) “Introduction to the New Enclosures” in Midnight Oil: Work, Energy, War.
Clare, John. (1827) From ‘April’, The Shepherd’s Calendar http://www.johnclare.info
DEFRA. (2003) Countryside and Rights of Way Fact Sheets http://adlib.everysite.co.uk/adlib/defra/content.aspx?doc=63428&id=63430
De Angelis, Massimo. (2003) ‘Reflections on alternatives, commons and communities’ http://www.commoner.org.uk/deangelis06.pdf
De Angelis, Massimo and Stavrides, Stavros. (2010) ‘On the Commons: A Public Interview with Massimo De Angelis and Stavros Stavrides’ http://www.e-flux.com/journal/on-the-commons-a-public-interview-with-massimo-de-angelis-and-stavros-stavrides/
Dragona, Daphne. (2013) ‘Artists as commoners in the years of indebtedness’ http://ludicpyjamas.net/wp/?page_id=815
Federici, Silvia. (2004) Caliban and the Witch: Women, the Body, and Primitive Accumulation (Book) http://libcom.org/files/Caliban%20and%20the%20Witch.pdf
Gilbert, Jeremy. (2013) Common Ground – Democracy and Collectivity in an Age of Individualism
Goldsmith, Oliver. (1770) ‘The Deserted Village’ http://www.poetryfoundation.org/poem/173557
Graeber, David. (2013) ‘A Practical Utopian’s Guide to the Coming Collapse’ http://thebaffler.com/salvos/a-practical-utopians-guide-to-the-coming-collapse
Haraway, Donna. (1983) ‘The Ironic Dreams of a Common Language for Women in the Integrated Circuit’ http://www.egs.edu/faculty/donna-haraway/articles/donna-haraway-the-ironic-dream-of-a-common-language-for-women-in-the-integrated-circuit/
Hardin, Garrett. (1968) The Tragedy of the Commons http://www2.geog.ucl.ac.uk/~mdisney/teaching/tutorials/hardin_1968.pdf
Harvey, David. Rebel Cities (2013) http://mappingthecommons.wordpress.com/2012/11/13/the-creation-of-the-ur…
Hyde, Lewis. Common As Air: Revolution, Art, and Ownership. 2010
Kropotkin, Peter. Mutual Aid and/or Fields, Factories and Workshops Tomorrow. 1898 http://www.complementarycurrency.org/ccLibrary/Mutual_Aid-A_Factor_of_Evolution-Peter_Kropotkin.pdf
Lessig, Lawrence. Code and Other Laws of Cyberspace.1999 http://codev2.cc/download+remix/Lessig-Codev2.pdf
Lessig, Lawrence. (2004) Free Culture http://www.free-culture.cc/freeculture.pdf
Linebaugh, Peter. The Magna Carta Manifesto: Liberties and Commons for All. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2008 http://provisionaluniversity.files.wordpress.com/2012/12/peter-linebaugh-the-magna-carta-manifesto-liberties-and-commons-for-all-2008.pdf
Linn, Karl. “Reclaiming the Sacred Commons” and/or Building Commons and Community. Oakland: New Village Press, 2007 http://nccommunitygarden.ncsu.edu/Karl-Linn-ReclaimingTheSacredCommons.pdf
Marx, Karl. (1844) Private Property and Communism. http://www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1844/manuscripts/comm.htm
Massey, Doreen. (1994) A Global Sense of Place http://www.unc.edu/courses/2006spring/geog/021/001/massey.pdf
Merchant, Carolyn. (2006) The Scientific Revolution and the Death of Nature http://nature.berkeley.edu/departments/espm/env-hist/articles/84.pdf
Morris, William. News From Nowhere 1893. http://www.sfu.ca/~poitras/Morris_News-from=Nowhere.pdf
Mumford, Lewis. (1964) Authoritarian and Democratic Technics http://www.nyu.edu/projects/nissenbaum/papers/authoritarian.pdf
Nold, Christian and van Kranenburg, Rob. (2011) The Internet of People for a Post-Oil World. http://www.situatedtechnologies.net/?q=node/108
Olwig, Kenneth. (2002) Landscape, Nature, and the Body Politic. University of Wisconsin Press. http://avblivinglandscape.files.wordpress.com/2011/01/olwig_1996.pdf http://dlc.dlib.indiana.edu/dlc/bitstream/handle/10535/77/commons_and_landscape.pdf?sequence=1
Ostrom, Elinor. (2010) “Beyond Markets and States: Polycentric Governance of Complex Economic Systems,” American Economic Review, 100(3), pp. 641-72.
Ostrom, Elinor and Hess, Charlotte, Eds. Understanding Knowledge as a Commons: From Theory to Practice. The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts, 2006.
Ostrom, Elinor. Governing the Commons. 1990 http://wtf.tw/ref/ostrom_1990.pdf
Ostrom, Elinor, and Gardner, Roy, and Walker, James, Eds. Rules, Games, and Common Pool Resources. Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 1994
Platt, John. Platt, J. (1973). “Social Traps”. American Psychologist 28 (8): 641–651. doi:10.1037/h0035723.
Rexroth, Kenneth. (1974) “Communalism: From Its Origins to the Twentieth Century” http://www.bopsecrets.org/rexroth/communalism2.htm
Sennett, Richard. (2012) Together: The Rituals, Pleasures & Politics of Cooperation.
Ward, Colin. (2012) Talking Green or ‘Play as an Anarchist Parable’ from Anarchy in Action. http://libcom.org/files/Ward_-_Anarchy_in_Action_3.pdf
Winstanley, Gerrard (1649). A Declaration from the Poor Oppressed People of England http://www.bilderberg.org/land/poor.htm
Copyright has been a relevant topic since the development of the printing press. It grants the author the exclusive right to reproduce, publish, and sell the content and form of intellectual property. The copy & paste mentality of the Internet user brought chaos to the system. Blockchain technology should now manage the author and marketing rights in a way that is more transparent, completely free of Bitcoin and monetary background. The idea had its origin in the art scene.
The Internet is a space without horizons or frontiers. It has changed our environment and also, thereby, our sensory perception. In ‘the real world’ we are confronted everywhere by people gazing deeply into smartphones: on the street, on the subway, in airplanes, in queues and cafés. Interpersonal dialogue is increasingly being conducted in the virtual sphere. How does the art scene react to new technological developments in arts? I asked Alain Servais (collector), Wolf Lieser (gallerist) and Aram Bartholl (artist.)
AD: Alain, you are collector of digital art since many years. How actively do you use the Internet and the possibilities that it brings for research into art?
AS: I have the opportunity to generally be able to experience art in the real. This is still an indispensable element in the process of acquiring. I’m a big user of the Internet when it’s a question of looking for information on art that’s of interest to me. The key information I always try to gather before acquiring a work is: – a document collating the works which have marked the evolution of the artist’s practice –a piece of writing by an academic, curator or critic contextualizing the artist’s work – an interview with the artist, as I want to hear his/her ‘ voice’ speaking about on his/her art – and a biography.
AD: Wolf, how much do you use the Internet and its possibilities for better marketing in the art scene?WL: We have a presence on various social media and websites, for example, FB, FLICKR, Bpigs, ArtfactsNet, etc. But we try to limit it to those pages that are relevant to art. As an actual communication medium we primarily use Facebook.
AD: Aram, killyourphone.com provides relief and a critique of technology. What would your subjects be without the Internet?
AB: Despite rising levels of communication across devices and networks, I nonetheless notice how, when friends express their opinions on the social media channels, they do so ever more consciously and selectively. We’ve come to understand that all of the commentary and spontaneous utterances on Twitter, FB & co no longer just disappear, but are saved, analyzed and used. ‘Private is the new public’, said Geraldine Juarez recently. The belief that the net makes the world fantastically democratic and offers an equal chance for everyone has, at least since Snowden’s revelations, been finally buried. To that extent, the theme ‘how would it be without the Internet?’ is very interesting! How could we communicate without central, monitoring services? Which low-tech DIY technologies are available in order to exchange data ‘offline’? How can we live without Google?… (A self-test is strongly recommended).
The interplay between the old and new environments leads to numerous uncertainties and generational conflicts. While some nostalgic digital immigrants still assess the advantages of the digital world as being synthetic, alien and unsocial, to the generation of digital natives, the digital abundance is felt as entirely natural. For them, the new technologies were with them in the cradle.
AD: Alain, you are a digital immigrant. What was the first media work in your collection? When did you buy it and why?
AL: My first experience with digital art was with bitforms gallery in NY, more than 10 years ago – at a time when it was really under the radar. I went to an exhibition by Mark Napier from whom I acquired a work at that time – one of the “Old Testament” pieces. That was very natural for me, because I was looking for some new kind of art. I knew enough of art history to know that every important movement in art was always linked to a social, economical, technological, psychological development in society. It was a time, when I was trying to collect works that were really addicted/connected to the actual world, the world around us. I was thinking, ok let’s put myself in 2150: when I’ll be using my third heart and my second brain, what will I say was important in the year 1999/ 2000? Without any doubt it will be the computer and the Internet 2.0 with Facebook and social networks and everything. Eventually I thought: wow people were creating art and it is digital. I immediately considered it to be a very important development for the arts.
AD: Wolf, you procure and sell digital art. What do you think today is the greatest obstacle to understanding the effect of new media?
WL: The sale and procurement via the Internet leads to superficiality. This is, at least, my perception. Experiencing art on a website, interactively or not, is often characterized by shorter cycles/loops compared to viewing the same website here in the gallery. I think we need, as we always did, a balance between the real and the virtual. And actually, this makes sense, because we ourselves do embody both. It’s a reason why the digital natives often express themselves in analog media – it’s no coincidence!
AD: Aram, your works stand at the charged interface between public and private, online and offline, between technological infatuation and everyday life, whereby you teach us how to better understand our new environment. ‘ Whoever sharpens our perception tends to [be] antisocial …’, said media theorist Marshall McLuhan. Is it true?
AB: Especially TODAY it is more important than ever to sharpen perception with regard to the effects of technological development. Two and a half years after Snowden the public discussion on privacy and mass surveillance continues to level off. While the big secret services use their hefty budgets to snow us under, and to lock the doors to the NSA, the interest in further explosive leaks from the Snowden documents is fading. ‘Nothing to hide’ is the mantra of the ‘Smart New World’, in which we can neither see nor sense the complex mechanisms of surveillance. In contrast to the dystopic Matrix scenario, our world will ever be fluffier, smarter and more comfortable, unless one has the wrong passport or sits on a bus next to a presumed terrorist. Then reality will be brutal. Precisely for these reasons it is so important to make the hidden, abstract data world understandable, whether through concrete images, objects, or installations. If you were to hold 8 volumes with 4.7 million passwords of LinkedIn users in your hand hand, you would suddenly understand the significance of the security of our online identities.
Copyright has been a relevant topic since the development of the printing press. It grants the author the exclusive right to reproduce, publish, and sell the content and form of intellectual property. The copy & paste mentality of the Internet user brought chaos to the system. The blockchain technology should now manage the author and marketing rights in a way that is more transparent, completely free of Bitcoin and monetary background. The idea had its origin in the art scene.
AD: Alain, do you think the further development of the blockchain lead to more transparency and protection against forgery?
AS: I would not use the word forgery, but certainly [against] an unfair use of material or a copyright infringement. I suppose that the blockchain is one path that should be investigated and tested for the copyright protection of online works of art. I believe in a transformation of the economy of the market for online art towards the direction of a wider distribution through, perhaps, a ‘renting’ of the work rather than an illusory acquisition (taking into account the copyright stays with the artist anyway). i-tunes and Spotify both adapted well to the online art economy.
AD: Wolf, do you make use of these new possibilities within the marketing of digital art? And have you already thought about a new currency model?
WL: I’ve already been confronted by this and I think that it makes sense. With my artists though there’s as yet no need or willingness. I’ve yet to engage with new currency models.
AD: Aram, to what extent is the blockchain and Bitcoin really discussed within artist circles?
AB: Services like Wikipedia, the Open-Source Software movement and, in principle, the entire World Wide Web wouldn’t exist at all today had Telco-payment-services pushed through its fee-based BTX/videotext with pay-per-view, in the 1980s. Naturally the possibility turns the never-ending reproduction of classic markets on its head, and in recent years, there have been extensive debates about copyright and intellectual property. We shouldn’t forget though, that a large part of the software that operates the Internet and millions of devices came about in the spirit of the sharing-culture. The blockchain is a powerful tool, which introduces a form of artificial scarcity into the digital environment. It’s up to each artist himself or herself whether and how he or she chooses to distribute their work. The art market and the demand will certainly create some model or other for the sale and distribution of art that only exists in bits and bytes. Let’s wait and see…
Angela Washko is an artist, writer and facilitator devoted to creating new forums of discussions in spaces most hostile towards feminism. She is a Visiting Assistant Professor at Carnegie Mellon University. Since 2012, Washko has also been facilitating The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft, her most known project: it’s a series of actions taken within the virtual space of World of Warcraft (“WoW”), an online video game set in a fantasy universe in which people play as orcs, knights and wizards. Her research is focused on the social relations between the gamers, with great attention towards on how these relate with feminism and women, who are becoming more and more numerous between the players of this game. Washko investigates also how design elements of the game influence the relationships of the people who inhabit it; it’s a social study on a community expanding more and more widely, and acts within a limited set of rules designed by video game producers.
Filippo Lorenzin: I’ve read in some your previous interviews that you started playing WoW in 2006, so we can say you’re a veteran gamer. In the same interviews you pointed out many important elements linking to some of my own research. First of all, the fact you didn’t hesitate to make a parallel between IRL public spaces and online public spaces makes me think you’re part of a generation (as me) that doesn’t care of this division. You create situations and opportunities to let people discuss: it’s as if you meant online gaming as a social activity, rather than a set of rules designed by programmers in which people interact as NPCs (“Non-Player Characters”). What do you think?
Angela Washko: I wouldn’t say that I don’t make a distinction between online and offline space… rather, that these spaces are so integrated and much less separate than the outdated “it’s online/digital therefore it’s not real” model. Online gaming is a very general term and they each have a specific way of operating with contexts that have particular ways of allowing players to communicate to each other. Some of those games are designed to institute high degrees of collaboration in order to get to the most difficult content. World of Warcraft falls into this category. This coercive collaboration breeds a social/chat structure which makes the game as much of a social space as a play space.
My work in WoW is about analyzing the user’s social culture created within the otherwise fantasy oriented landscape and talking to players about the way that it’s developed. So of course there are thousands of things I could have focused on within WoW (and in The World of Warcraft Psychogeographical Association I focus more on exploring the landscape free from quest suggestion/utility and drift about exploring), but for The Council on Gender Sensitivity and Behavioral Awareness in World of Warcraft I was driven to work the way I did due to the treatment of women by the community within the space once players establish their self-identified gender behind the screen. At least on the servers I was playing on.
FL: Your use of WoW mechanics in order to raise questions about sexuality and identity makes me think of situationist approaches. As they wanted to create new urbanism refecting the grounded needs and identities of the people, and your actions seem to lead to the creation of a new gaming system, based on players/people who aware of the characteristics of the game and their results in the definition of their identities. Am I wrong?
AW: I guess in WoW I was wondering why the politics of everyday life outside the screen had to govern the rules of this otherwise epic and otherwise not-human-like landscape. I wondered why women were excluded or treated as though they were inherently unskilled (naturally/biologically non-gamers) and at the same time were rewarded for being willing to be abstractly sexualized in guild hierarchies and elsewhere. After being asked to “get back in the kitchen and make [insert player name here] a sandwich” enough times, I stopped playing for a bit. And then I returned, determined to figure out why this was an ubiquitous approach to talking to women in the game space. So I wanted it to be in a place where we could openly discuss and potentially become more considerate about communal language to the point that it could become a much more inclusive space for everyone, and maybe a more diverse social space than we all curate for ourselves in our everyday (physical space) life. Why did our identities outside the screen still have to govern how we are treated as orcs and trolls and whatnot? This game still holds onto a lot of the qualities of the avatar-hidden web 1.0 persona…
FL: Debord wrote that “the construction of situations begins on the other side of the modern collapse of the idea of the theatre. It is easy to see to what extent the very principle of the theatre – non-intervention – is attached to the alienation of the old world. Inversely, we see how the most valid of revolutionary cultural explorations have sought to break the spectator’s psychological identification with the hero, so as to incite this spectator into activity by provoking his capacities to revolutionize his own life. The situation is thus made to be lived by its constructors.”.
As you can see, it looks like he’s describing your work and I’m really curious to know your opinion.
AW: Well, I have thought about this work (and the psychogeographical work that came slightly later) as definitely linked to Debord and Situationism. I think I became tired of just being able to show the injustices women face everyday. Just prior to the WoW work, I was making videos from replaying single player RPGs from 1992-2003ish showing only women’s storylines and the ways women were represented. I think the work shocked the gallery audiences who saw it because they weren’t gamers and instead of making them think about why the ways in which “women are supposed to act” are embedded in all of our cultural artifacts – it made audiences ask me why anyone would play video games? This frustrated me because I hated the 90s stereotypes that existed about gamers being delinquent and lazy and so I wanted to have conversations in game spaces themselves among the communities that I was involved in rather than just taking from games and then putting them into an art context to be exoticized by art audiences. This is changing a lot as more people identify as gamers and more academics realize the massive amount of people that play games and the cultural importance of games themselves. But I wanted to be able to create a space for discussion with the playerbase itself directly and make that the work rather than making some kind of insightful commentary – to give voice to the community itself to let it speak for itself (regardless of my point of view on the matters discussed) and at the same time try to make sense of how it ended up the way that it did.
FL: The players are being involved in discussions about sexuality and identity. Could you tell your art and cultural references? I can see a lot of ’60s and ’70s approaches…
AW: Oh yes – I mean artists like Valie Export, Adrian Piper, Lynn Hershman, Sophie Calle and the Guerrilla Girls of course, in terms of performance and visibility of women and feminism/feminist activism but in terms of public/media intervention and social practice I think of people like Paper Tiger TV, The Yes Men, The Center for Post Natural History, The Institute for Applied Autonomy, Dara Greenwald, Ant Farm, Kristoffer Orum and Anders Bojen.
I also feel very indebted to remix/appropriation artists like Craig Baldwin who have reclaimed what can be used and how we can rethink existing pop cultural material as sites of intervention for artwork. I also feel like I’m even more influenced by diaristic women writers– particularly Phoebe Gloeckner, Kathleen Blee (sociologist), Elfriede Jelinek, Chris Kraus, Kathy Acker…
FL: Though question: do you think artists have (or “must have”) a social role? And if they take a stand, what should be their goals?
AW: I think for me interesting artists have a social role! I don’t think that all artists have to make socially engaged work or have to have some kind of service responsibility. I think what was appealing to me about pursuing art as a context for the things I aspire to do is that it is so broad! I mean you have so many “art worlds”, this is a really broad question! So I would say no, but I think artists are in a unique position to have so much flexibility in what you’re permitted to do in your work. In a sociology context, my work would require so much paperwork it would be impossible to get every player I talk to in WoW for my research to sign the necessary papers outside of the game space! So art affords me the flexibility, spontaneity and responsiveness to context to experiment, and really get in there in a way that other fields don’t. So I have found for someone interested in looking at why women are treated the way that they are in fields that are ephemeral and difficult to document, and wanting to have direct discussions about it…art seems to be the field for me to do it in.
FL: What did you learn from your projects?
AW: Things that I learned which I think will be beneficial for me in the future:
– Be responsible and respectful to everyone you work with.
– Be flexible and responsive. Recalibrate your expectations and be prepared to be wrong about every assumption you’ve already made.
– Think about power. Remember that by being able to capitalize on what you collect, you are in a position of power – make efforts to put yourself in positions of vulnerability. Acknowledge whether or not what you are doing is exploitative. Make everything you do available to all participants who are interested.
– Be clear about what you are doing with the people involved. Be upfront with your participants.
FL: As you previously stated, feminism is a really important element of your research. Did you notice any change between 2010 and now? I’m especially referring to how feminists are portrayed by society, the opportunities in which you can debate and share ideas with somekind of new wave of young artists and critical thinkers who are also deeply involved in these discussions.
AW: When I first started the project, “feminism” was the worst possible word you could say in WoW. Everyone went crazy – feminists were widely described as man-hating whores, flat-chested ugly bitches, women with hairy armpits and worse. But I’ve definitely noticed over time with more mainstream visibility and more writing and a younger generation of artists and celebrities identifying proudly as feminists…the discussions about feminism have become much more complex in WoW and there are many more perspectives and a lot more people self-identifying that way in the space.
Outside of WoW, it seems like more and more women are identifying as feminists and a lot of young writers are really making space for feminism in mainstream media. However, I think it’s been quite polarizing and alienating as well. More and more Men’s Rights Activist groups and nearly militarized manosphere communities are popping up. So with the growth of feminism we also have the growth and visibility of self-identified counter-feminist movements. I think the fact that feminism is a part of mainstream media vocabulary in a way that is a bit more dimensional is definitely positive. The ideas of what a feminist and what a woman can be/do are shifting and evolving and that’s exciting to see.
FL: Products like WoW are designed for a masculine audience but looks like it’s not so evident for most of them. With your actions you push other players to discover this aspect, so I wonder if you would define your research as critical art, and or an art that helps others to see the reality behind what the system teaches them).
AW: I would definitely call my work critical art in regard to what you’re proposing! I think in all of my work I am looking at systems and trying to reveal the way they work, using an approach that is accessible to wider audiences than the systems typically reach. I like to approach cultural artifacts by exploring and then dissecting them and then translating/excavating those findings from the site and sharing them as widely as I can.
Choose Your Muse is a series of interviews where Marc Garrett asks emerging and established artists, curators, techies, hacktivists, activists and theorists; practising across the fields of art, technology and social change, how and what has inspired them, personally, artistically and culturally.
Annie Abrahams was born in the Netherlands to a farming family in a rural village in the Netherlands. In 1978 she received a doctorate in biology and her observations on monkeys inspired her curiosity about human interactions. After leaving an academic post she trained as an artist and moved to France in 1987, where she became interested in using computers to construct and document her painting installations. She has been experimenting with networked performance and making art for the Internet since the mid 1990s. Her works have been exhibited and performed internationally at institutions such as the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, New Langton Arts in San Francisco, Centre Pompidou in France, Academy of Fine Arts in Helsinki and many other venues.
Through the years we have got to know Annie Abrahams via various online, networked artistic collaborations. In 2010, she had a her first one woman show If not you not me in the UK at Furtherfield’s earlier gallery space, the HTTP Gallery. Since then, she has shown at another mixed show at Furtherfield’s current space in Finsbury Park, London. This exhibition, Being Social included other artsists such as Karen Blissett, Ele Carpenter, Emilie Giles, moddr_ , Liz Sterry, and Thomson and Craighead.
She is known worldwide for her net art and collective writing experiments and is internationally regarded as a pioneer of networked performance art. She creates situations that reveal messy and sloppy sides of human behaviour; capturing real-time moments to illucidate a reality and opening it up, making it available for thought. In an interview with Bomb Magazine in 2014 Abrahams said “My first online performance was my first HTML page. Even then I considered the Internet to be a public space, and everything that I did in that public space asked for a reaction.” 
Marc Garrett: Could you tell us who has inspired you the most in your work and why?
Annie Abrahams: Life itself, the people I meet. Until now my basic needs in life have hardly been threatened and so the only real problems I encountered were relational problems. Who are you? Why are you different from me? What does it mean to respect you? Is opposing you necessary? And if so, how can I do that?
MG: How have they influenced your own practice and could you share with us some examples?
AA: My practice was always based on the difficulty of having to live in a world where I don’t understand anything. Every person I meet opens up another view on this impossibility. Sometimes I write short posts about my encounters. Lately I did one on Shirley Clarke and one on Ed Atkins’ No-one is more “Work” than me. aabrahams.wordpress.com
MG: How different is your work from your influences and what are the reasons for this?
AA: My work is made from these influences. In the beginning I thought this was not ok, because I was educated with the idea that you have to be “unique” and make unique artworks. But now I am proud of my sensibility for what others say and do and the way I work with that.
MG: Describe a real-life situation that inspired you and then describe a current idea or art work that has inspired you?
AA: Last summer I made a book called from estanger to e-stranger. Ruth Catlow described it as “all-at-once instruction manual, poetry and a series of vignettes of contemporary encounters in language-less places”. There you can find ideas and art works that inspire me, but in general I am not driven by inspiration, my acts are driven by irritation, my art by incomprehension. Art works sooth, make things bearable and sometimes incite to look beyond habits. Btw I am still continuing my research on how language shapes culture, society and me. http://e-stranger.tumblr.com/
MG: What’s the best piece of advice you can give to anyone thinking of starting up in the fields of art, technology and social change?
AA: Stay close to your own concerns, to things you can have a concrete influence on, observe the results of your actions, pay attention, adapt, and always smile to your neighbour in the morning.
MG: Could you recommend any reading materials or exhibitions past or present that you think would be great for readers to view, and if so why?
AA: For years now every now and then I’ve come back to Darren O’Donnell’s book “Social Acupuncture” and always again I say to myself, “yes, you can think and act art and politics together. Please have a look at the Mammalian Diving Reflex group’s (he is their artistic director) methods. http://mammalian.ca/method/
Annet Dekker interviews Template, a graphic design and digital development studio run by Lasse van den Bosch Christensen and Marlon Harder. They engage in both client oriented work and initiate their own critical design related projects.
‘The contemporary interface of many digital collections shows images merely in neatly divided grids. How can we create context and meaning for these images?’
As sociologist Mike Featherstone puts it, ‘Increasingly the boundaries between the archive and everyday life become blurred through digital recording and storage technologies’ (2006, 591). Whereas the paper archive has always been the place to store and preserve documents and records, and has functioned as a warehouse for the material from which memories were (re)constructed, its digital counterpart is changing the meaning and function of an archive. The archive’s traditional representational relationship to social identity, agency and memory is challenged by the distributed nature of networked media. Initially designed as a mirror of physical collections and paper archives, the digital repository became a collection itself. A new set of values is presented, but it often remains unarticulated at the cultural and scientific level. What are some of the new understandings of the relationship between the software by which online archives are coded and the social, commercial and organisational practices of what is still considered the archiving of documents? What are the roles of users, in all their manifestations as the meeting point of cultural value and technological systems?
Numerous terms are used to describe the ‘new’ types of archives, for example ‘living archives’ (Passerini 2014; Lehner 2014, 77) or ‘fluid archives’ (Aasman 2014), what is commonly acknowledged is that archives are no longer stable institutions. The terms ‘living’ and ‘fluid’ point to the following characteristic of online archives: openness (they are constantly changing and accumulating), self-reference (hash tags have replaced traditional categorisation), and they represent – like many other online platforms – the shift from passive audiences to active users. Due to their transient quality, it could be argued, these archives are not designed for long-term storage and memory, but for reproduction. As media scientist Wolfgang Ernst explains, the emphasis in the digital archive shifts from documenting a single event to redevelopment, in which a document is (co-) produced by users (Ernst 2012, 95). Whereas the source may remain intact, as in the original archive, its existence is changing and dynamic.
One of the main reasons for this change in archiving is the practice of a variety of non-specialists who are ‘archiving the everyday’ and creating endless ‘personal archives’. This has often given rise to statements about the ‘democratisation of archival practices’, which allows a broad range of individuals, communities and organisations to document, preserve, share and promote (community) identity through collective stories and heritage (Cook 2013; Gilliland and Flinn 2013). What does it mean when archives are thought of in terms of (re)production or creation systems instead of representation or memory systems? Whereas this question has many consequences for thinking about the archive, the design duo Template focuses on how these changes affect the agency of users, by addressing the ways in which users engage with online archives and playfully interrogate and subvert systems such as archives to produce new knowledge concerning their social, cultural and commercial values. With their project Pretty old Pictures, Template addresses the future of online archives and collecting. Whilst critically analysing web 2.0 innovative platforms, particularly Flickr Commons, their aim is to present potential consequences of openness, unclear copyright and ownership legislation, and loss of context in a playful manner.
Template [http://template01.info/] is a graphic design studio established in 2014 and run by Marlon Harder and Lasse van den Bosch Christensen. Marlon studied graphic design as a bachelor at ArtEZ in Arnhem, the Netherlands, and Lasse did his bachelor studies in communication at Kolding School of Design, Denmark. They met during their master studies at Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam, the Netherlands. With their studio they both engage in research and client practice. Their research projects often relate to their own practice as designers. For example: how labour, especially digital labour, is in flux and how ‘fun’, playing and making friends are new ways to conceal this. Or how the idea of the creative individual seems omnipresent (everyone is a maker) and how digital ‘template-promoting’ tools are stimulating this tendency. However, they argue, instead of the promised individuality these tools generate a very bland sameness. In their client-based work, they do almost everything that relates to visual communication: from web programming to areas where digital translates into analogue (or the other way around), such as Automated books and the conversion of HTML to print.
Annet Dekker: Can you describe the project Pretty Old Pictures and in what way it represents a ‘new’ archive?
Template: With our project Pretty Old Pictures we are looking into the archive of Het Nieuwe Instituut. Along with many other institutions Het Nieuwe Instituut shares part of its image archive on Flickr Commons. This section of the photo-sharing platform Flickr hosts images with either none or unknown copyright restrictions. The interface of Flickr is extremely visually focused, often displaying an endless amount of imagery lacking any original context. We wanted to explore what potentially can happen to this rather overwhelming content. In a way, these images only exist in the present and attain meaning when a user starts working with them. As such, we believe the ‘present moment’ will very likely become more important in the future where content is extracted from archives and presented as single images unrelated to each other and seemingly without a past. Our intention is to print out specific selections of the images and sell them in nicely packaged bundles.
What were your intentions? What do you want to achieve?
As graphic designers we are fascinated with crowdsourcing platforms and what they stand for: the promise of creative empowerment. You spend four years in an art school learning a trade and then in the real world it is of course not easy to find work. You become part of a broader creative category and especially online there are numerous platforms that turn your trade and your livelihood into un- or underpaid competitions or games, albeit not always in an obvious way. Already at the Piet Zwart Institute [Media Design and Communication in Rotterdam] we became interested in this type of ‘crowd sourced graphic design.’ Take the example of 99Designs. 99Designs is a platform that organises competitions around specific design jobs. For a mere 250 dollars a client often has over 500 designs, made by hundreds of designers, to choose from. For a week we participated in 99 design competitions and made 99 designs that fitted the briefs. During the process we exhibited the designs together with the rejection letters – none of our designs were selected. Rather than being cynical about it, we sincerely wanted to follow this prescribed anticipation of 99Designs and see where it would lead us.
We were interested in how feasible it would be to make the designs, how many hours it would take and in return what our profit would be. Secondly, how much exposure it would generate and if it would broaden our network, which is a main motivation pushed on to designers using these platforms.
Similarly, we looked at other business models like Etsy that all have this same promise of generating an income for your ‘unique products’. When browsing their database it soon becomes apparent that the products are not unique; there even seems to be a very specific Etsy aesthetic. In the end, these platforms tell you more about a specific period in time than anything else. From these experiences we became interested in starting our own company to see how we could benefit from the trend. And then we saw all the content on Flickr Commons and how hardly anyone is using it in the way these other platforms are using content. We wanted to see how easy it would be to make a business out of it: to live the dream of creative entrepreneurs!
Basically we want to comprehend how these institutions are dealing with their digital archives, especially when publishing the content online. In the meantime we confront them with what could potentially happen. There are many possibilities, from selling to copying and changing the images. We want to investigate the consequences of those actions. For example, what does ‘open’ content mean, what are the consequences not only in terms of copyright, but also for the institute and its archival tasks. Are museums following a general trend or are they idealistic about spreading information, or both, and what does that mean in relation to traditional methods? More generally, what are the effects of a changing image culture with regard to new ways of dealing with decontextualized content, appropriation, or even the influence on cultural – and individual – memory? With this project we want to poke at all these issues by actually doing and setting up a business.
At the same time, we are interested in the influence of the online platform that is used. What happens when you give away content to a commercial business, which then becomes a co-owner of the material? This is not necessarily a new question, but it is becoming more urgent now that bigger platforms are offering these easy solutions. In a way it resembles the Google Books project in which many libraries and publishers gave away rights just to have their books digitised. These issues are far less resolved within Flickr Commons, or by those uploading – or downloading – the content. It all happens without people being truly aware of the consequences.
Why did you focus on Flickr Commons, rather then other large repositories, databases, or archives like, for example, Europeana?
We started looking at what sort of external databases and platforms Het Nieuwe Instituut is using, and found out that Flickr Commons is one of the more central, and definitely the biggest. Flickr Commons is interesting because of the promotion of public domain and ‘openness’, using guidelines on copyright that seem purposely unclear. Each image under Flickr Commons is tagged with ‘No known copyright restrictions’, meaning that either the image is in the public domain or that the author cannot be verified or found. Additionally each participating institution has its own rights statement, some of which loops back to the Flickr statement and therefore remains ambiguous or even contradictory. This leaves room for interpretation and opportunities from both Flickr as a platform but also other third parties, like us.
The interface of Flickr also caught our interest. Once you enter the website you see a vast amount of images, infinitely scrollable. Some museums have millions of images on Flickr, which is served up visually as an extremely fragmented image collage. Rather than offering the original context of an image, the system functions primarily through visual linking. That’s how a new context and meaning is made. Of course if you know what you are searching for and manage to type in the right search query you can get relevant results, but this will never match the expertise or human-provided knowledge that is found in a traditional archive. This is what we found fascinating when visiting the physical archive of Het Nieuwe Instituut, where the archivist explained all kinds of relations between documents, offering additional information that you would not necessarily be looking for. We realised what is missing in many online archives or databases right now, and more so in the future, since this kind of human knowledge, built up over time, does not transfer easily. Of course there are descriptions, categories, and keywords based on folksonomies on Flickr, but there are no stories – at least not yet.
Do you use specific criteria for the selections you make?
At first it was merely based on our own favourites. Now we are also looking more at things that are popular, that sell on platforms like Etsy. Often these are the regular things like nature, space, and architecture of course, but we are still testing. For Het Nieuwe Instituut and other institutes partaking in Flickr Commons, Pretty Old Pictures creates custom packages. These are sold in their museum shop, perhaps used as business gifts, merchandise or advertisements. Design-wise we grasp the DIY [Do It Yourself] spirit and this is essential for our strategy. For example, we make our own envelopes for the images we sell, which neatly transforms into an image-frame. They even smell of the laser cutter that we used.
There is such an overall emphasis on all kinds of retro trends, from old school barber haircuts and beards to riso prints on vintage book pages and moustaches on t-shirts. Trends we do not necessarily try to understand, but feed into our project. We are at the same time following the hype and trying to create hype: all in pursuit of a genuine creative business.
What is your relation to the material you selected? Is it ambivalent, or are you complicit – buying into the creative promise?
It is both. On the one hand we feel a bit ashamed, because at times it comes across as ripping someone off. On the other hand we are very excited about the project and looking forward to what may happen. There is a tension between these elements, which we also want to enforce and play with.
Your studio Template also seems to have two sides. On the one hand you make a critical nod to templates and on the other hand your work is about playing and using templates in slightly different ways. Similarly, an interface directs what you can do, and now you are building your own interface. You work seems rather paradoxical.
Yes, we use templates as topics for our research, but then we refuse to use them in our commercial projects. You know templates exist and it is really hard to avoid them. Because of their ease of use it is also completely understandable that people use them. It does not make sense to be completely negative about them. However, of course we like to be critical and subversive in our use of templates. Often the very limited possibilities or options of the template enhance the feeling of having made something. You created something original, that no one ever thought of or will do again. However, you created it within a framework that dictates what you can and cannot do. All these platforms and DIY mechanisms very much play on the assumptions of the importance of the original, the authentic and the individual. Essentially, these are still important beliefs in art traditions and our culture at large.
Most of these discussions also link to the debate on free labour; sometimes you feel in control when using all these readily available tools, but at the same time you are losing your power, because you are giving up the content and work that you create. We have no idea what 99Designs, for example, will do with the 99 designs that we made: they might sell them to different parties, use them to create new templates, or just delete them. Then again, communities get formed on platforms, and seeing other people’s work might in turn benefit you in some way or another. Some platforms even organise special lunch meetings, and the relationships between users have been known to outlive the platform itself. It is too easy to just be dismissive of it all.
Where is the breaking point for you; when will you, or the user, become more powerful than the other?
For us it is important that the design part of the project functions in the way it should. We want to create something that is convincing. In more general terms, it is important how people are addressed, what agency they get and how much freedom they have to use what they created in other ways or places. Of course the failures never receive any attention: the focus is on the success stories as they help promote the platform. That is the point where things start to derail. It may also go wrong when more obvious commercial stakes become apparent. For example, at a certain point Flickr started to sell images from its users licensed under the Creative Commons, causing a scandal amongst angry users who saw their content being commercially appropriated by Flickr. Likewise, we would also be very happy once we can sell the archive back to the organisation to which it belongs! Then again, we would just continue the cynical part of the project, which is not the most interesting part. It would be more interesting to discuss the situation the organisation has created for itself.
I am particularly interested in the idea of sharing and circulating images and other information that is made possible with Flickr Commons as a new form not just of distribution but perhaps also production – and archiving. In what way do you play with these kinds of mechanisms? Do you think it brings out a new potential in archiving?
These collections of images are open, so essentially you can do what you want; digital archiving is really made for interpretations. It demands a much more active role from its audience. They can provide context to the images without having to follow any rules. This would be unthinkable in a traditional archive. At the same time it brings up the question of what the role and function of an archive is. The relation to the past seems to disappear. It is only the present that counts, which is linked to the near future; the excitement of other people’s reactions and how they will respond. Most likely the two ‘archives’ will exist simultaneously, because at a certain point we will need to go back into history. The real question is how we will be able to return to the past in a digital archive, in which context is very scattered, and based of rapidly changing folksonomies rather than standardised categorisations.
In a way it could be argued that your project follows the same ideas as many creative industry start-ups: focusing on future business, economic models and sometimes even utopian perspectives. But at the same time, you work from the present, which may not be obvious to everyone, but is still very relevant as it is changing the way we deal with property, archives and memory.
One of the main things that is often missing in these discussions are the users: they are somewhere in the background, invisible. However, in this project we are replicating this system by focusing on the platform, and not necessarily the users. The physical archive of Het Nieuwe Instituut was a valuable experience for us. It became so clear that the knowledge the archivist possesses is unique and this kind of contextual information is hard to replace in a digital environment. Rather than trying to bring that into a digital environment we wanted to expose other layers, other ways of using and perhaps abusing the content that is void of context. Essentially today’s image culture is hard to grasp, it is partly steered by mechanisms and systems that are working in the back-end, which makes us use images in different ways. Archives are transforming from places where memories are kept to databases in which the present and near future are becoming more important. It is all about the now, presenting and sharing your, or other people’s images with friends and strangers alike. The context of an image is not important anymore; it is all about form and ease of distribution.
This, of course, throws up interesting questions: how do we relate to these images, how does this culture influence us, now and in terms of how we think about the past? Are we taking the image – and its content – for granted? In a way images – and perhaps archives – also become meaningless, or at least the importance shifts in favour of relations and communication between people. We tend to think that selections are still important: similar to the archivist we make selections that may seem random but the constraints generate meaning. Not necessarily the same ‘original’ meaning, but a selection brings something new, it makes people think in a different way about the images. Connections are thought of and narratives appear. Such creative thinking is of course easier with a selection of five than with hundreds of images. This new way of dealing with the content of the archive is no longer related to singular objects but meaning is generated through different constellations. Similar to oral culture, events and histories are now retold in different ways. As such it could be argued be that the (future) digital archive has more in common with oral traditions than with its paper version.
Pretty Old Pictures is commissioned by Het Nieuwe Instituut as part of their ongoing research ‘New Archive Interpretations’ (curated by Annet Dekker). For more information see http://archiefinterpretaties.hetnieuweinstituut.nl/en
Template are part of the exhibition: “Algorithmic Rubbish: Daring to Defy Misfortune” @ SMBA in Amsterdam, with Blast Theory, James Bridle, Constant Dullaart, Femke Herregraven, Jennifer Lyn Morone, Matthew Plummer-Fernandez, Template, Suzanne Treister. The show runs till 23 August with a final day discussion that includes Template and Constant Dullaart, moderated by Josephine Bosma. For more info: http://smba.nl/
Featured image: A is for Art, B is for Bullshit: A history of conceptual art for badasses, book by Guido Segni 2015
“Outside of the Internet there’s no glory” Miltos Manetas”
Guido Segni, is an Italian artist whose activity began in the fields of hacktivism and Net Art in the 90s. As part of his practice he questions the nature of identity that resides on the Web (acting under many fake identities, like Dedalus, Clemente Pestelli, Guy McMusker, Angela Merelli, Anna Adamolo, Guy The Bore, Umberto Stanca,Silvie Inb, Fosco Loiti Celant, Guru Miri Goro, Leslie Bleus, Luther Blissett) and the value of digital activity with projects like 15 Minutes, anonymous, and The middle finger response.
The Internet and lists are two things that have always been together, especially now many of us use social networking platorms such as Twitter and Facebook. We can’t track how and when the first “Top 25/10/5” appeared on the Web, but it’s for sure one of the most frequent ways to gain a lot of attention from Internet users, and it can make you feel as if you’re trapped in a never ending, online fast-food loop. However, when I found out that Guido Segni had created his own version of a top 25 list I was naturally intrigued, so I decided to ask him what it was all about.
Filippo Lorenzin: How and when did you start working on Top 25 Expiring Artists?
Guido Segni: It all started in 2013 after a discussion with Luca Leggero, an artist friend of mine who was working on a piece about the ephemerality of internet art pieces, and it stimulated in me many thoughts on the subject. In the beginning I just wanted to create a sort of memento mori, a list of all artists’ expiring websites. It was only a few months later I introduced the idea of it as a competition, transforming the work into an ironic top artists ranking list, based on the expiration date of their websites.
FL: Could you tell us how it works and how are artists ranked on the list?
GS: It works as many of the other ranking lists you can find on the web. The difference stands on the criteria. While many lists circulating on the web (Top 10 young artist to follow, Top 5 internet artist, etc) are often based on unintelligible criteria, in TEIA (Top Expiring Internet Artists) the criteria are as clear as useless and absurd: the whole list is in fact ordered by the expiration date of the artist website. The nearer is the website expiration date, the better ranking the artist website will obtain. It’s a democratic but very competitive race where everyone can reach the first position even if just for a day. Top 25 Expiring Artists is automagically updated every day – you can only see the top 25 but actually the project counts more than 50 artists. To be included in this list an artist just needs to make an email submission sending the URL of his/her/its website.
FL: This work has many interesting points to talk about, but I would start with lists-related questions. Does ranking artists on the basis of their aim to be not forgotten mean to highlight a typical behavior of all online users or does it specifically relate to web-based artists?
GS: Actually, the piece is mainly focused on web-based artists. Working with digital based technologies, I’ve always had to face the problem of ephemerality: every year I need to renew the subscription to the hosting service of the many website I own, I periodically have to upgrade the technical environment of my works and often I also need to recode them from scratch in order to keep them all working. That’s why I decided to transform this everyday battle with technology into an ironical and nonsense race for artists, aiming to survive to time.
FL: In the list there are only artists mostly interested in digital issues and I know most of them by person. I have even worked with some of them in previous years and this makes me quite comfortable, like if it was more a sort of reunion with old friends, rather than a competitive race. Is this part of the project or would you like it to be more harsh?
GS: Remember the list is a top 25 Internet artists, so it was natural for me when I started the project to choose the first group of artists mainly involved in digital issues. That said, apart from that memento mori feeling which I’ve discussed before, I was also interested in creating a believable and ironical representation “of the state of hypercompetition and anxiety of contemporary artists inside (and outside) of the Internet.” Probably it’s because I’m a nostalgic of the early days of the Internet – the period of the net utopia – but what I see today is more and more a rising feeling of egotism and selfishness. So what I tried to do is just to stress this contraposition between the brotherhood – what you call the reunion with old friends – and the competition, a perpetual struggle between peers for not being forgot.
FL: This project is ironic. You can say this just by seeing how you mimick aesthetic and text styles of online services like Klout or Google Rank. It seems to me that this is a recurring feature in your works – like in The Middle Finger Response. Is it true?
GS: It maybe depends on the fact that I’m from that particular area in Italy (Tuscany) where you can’t either take yourself too seriously. Or maybe it depends on the fact that irony itself is an important feature you can find over all the formats on the Internet. But I agree with you that willing or not the use of irony is a recurrent and strong component of my works.
FL: I’m interested in how people (me too, yes) sign to online services that promise them to rank their online lives on the base of their influence capacity. It’s like watching a mirror made on quantification premises, built by the same system that push you to post more and more about yourself and your incredibly unique existence. In which way this project is related to this phenomenon?
GS: The main intent of the project is to ridicule lists of any sort. But said that, I think the reason why lists – as a cultural form – are so popular is that they have the power to simplify the representation of complex phenomena of reality. So the various “Top artists to discover”, “Top 10 rock bands” or the “Most influential person in the world” are just examples of a fictious narration which give the apparent comprehension of the real. And this is particulary true in an over-polluted space like the Internet.
FL: In the brief conversation we had previously on Twitter, you said to me that you would like to make other versions of this project. Can you tell me something about this?
GS: I have many ideas about these new versions but unfortunately I’m a very slow man and I still don’t know how and when they will be released.
FL: You worked on the branding of people also with 15 Minutes, anonymous. Could you tell us if and how there is a connection between that work and Top 25 Expiring Artists?
GS: To be honest, at that time I hadn’t in mind these connections. From a certain point of view I think they are very different form each other, but it’s true that they both implicitly move around the concepts of fame and anonymity in opposite directions. While in Top 25 Expiring Artists the expire date is an ironic way to reach a sort of fame – even if only for a day – in the case of 15 Minutes, anonymous I focused on the algorithmic aspect of transforming a very large number of pictures of pop symbols into anonymous and abstract pictures.
FL: Again, the anonymity and the individual are two of the main questions in your research. This happens also with Proof of existence of a cloud worker, and I recall me Middle Finger Response. What do you think?
GS: Between 2013 and 2014 I made several experiments with crowdsourcing and, yes, Proofs of existence of a cloud worker and Middle Finger Response have many points in common apart from that they are projects based on Amazon Mechanical Turk platform. Basically they both document and display what crowdsourcing is from the point of view of the workers dispersed through the new digital frontiers of leisure and labour. I think you got the point when you talked about anonymity and individual. As all the efforts of crowdsourcing platforms are to hide and anonymize the crowd, what I tried to do is to give them back a face and a voice. In The Middle Finger Response I focused on the spontaneous pose and gesture captured by the webcam, while in Proofs of existence of a cloud worker I used a more abstract and apparently nonsense approach as I asked them to re-enact a clip found on YouTube which shows a person claiming “Pics or it didn’t happen”.
FL: What will you be doing in the future?
GS: As I’ve already said I’m a very slow guy and I’ve been working on this particular project for almost 2 years. But I think we’re almost there and in a few months I’m going to release it. It’s a project about failures, datacenters, space/time travels and desertification of communications. Stay tuned 😉
Featured image: Zombie Academic haunts the Market of Values
Critical Practice, a group of artists, designers, curators and researchers based at Chelsea College of Art recently organised #TransActing: A Market of Values – a pop-up market made up of over 60 ‘stall holders’ invited to creatively explore and produce alternative economies of value.
During my visit, I first encountered a neo-liberal zombie academic, haunting the market with laments over the demise of an expensive art-education system, which extracts maximum value from students, whilst encouraging them to sell their creativity back to the market. At Becky Early and Bridget Harvey’s ‘Mending for Others’ stall, I was taught to darn, and repaired a hole-ridden Sonia Rykiel hat. Here, mending was framed as ‘giftivism’, a way to build or reinforce a social bond.
At Speakers’ Corner, I heard trade union United Voices of the World represented by Percy Yunganina, one of the #southerbys4. He gave a first-hand account of being banned from site by Sotheby’s auction house for having joined a protest over sick pay and an end to trade union victimisation.
Nick Bell and Fabiane Lee-Perella invited me into Early Lab’s economy of promises, inspired by their work with the Norfolk and Suffolk NHS Foundation Trust: in exchange for a cup of delicately flavoured water, I pledged to make a small intervention to help combat stigmatic preconceptions about mental health.
After these encounters, I #transacted with Critical Practice member Marsha Bradfield, to think about the implications of the Market of Values more deeply:
Charlotte Webb: In critiques of ‘free labour’ on the web, it is claimed that the affective labour of Internet users is exploited by the market. Did you see the Market of Values as a scenario in which the possibility for exploitation was circumvented?
Marsha Bradfield: The short answer is, no. This became acute as building the market ramped up in the days before the event. We became more and more aware how the project embodied our labour, with the vast majority of it being not only unpaid but also affective. We wondered together and apart: To what extent did saying ‘yes’ to the project, sticking with it and honouring our commitment to our peers and community, entail a form of self-exploitation—of us as individuals and as a group? I mean, #TransActing happened and was extraordinary because so many people cared so much—both about the project and each other. And this is, of course, a well-known secret in the worlds of art beyond the art market: their reproduction depends on the widespread exploitation of affective labour. But this isn’t sustainable in the long term. So it’s a valid critique, I think, that #TransActing didn’t exactly buck this trend. Even though we did manage to secure money from the Arts Council and CCW to pay many of those involved, this remuneration was a pittance for what they personally invested. Like others in Critical Practice, I loathe the thought of every transaction being monetised, and in a way this was exactly the conundrum that #TransActing sought to explore by shining a light on types of value that aren’t often valued, precisely because they’re non-financial and cannot easily be accounted for in pounds and pence.
CW: I was intrigued by the uses of the terms ‘value’ and ‘evaluation’ in CP’s description of the event. Are these terms interchangeable for you, or do they carry important nuances? I wondered whether there was something about the measurability of values at stake in the project?
MB: The project was initially called ‘The Market of Evaluation,’ which originated with our research on how value is produced and distributed. We considered, for instance, ‘the value of waste’ by walking around the Isle of Dogs with environmental lawyer Rosie Oliver. She helped us appreciate the social practices of evaluating, well, crap, and how they’re situated, localised and embedded in specific places, buildings, systems, institutions, cultures and histories. The more research we did on evaluation, the more opaque it seemed when generalised. The word has managerial connotations too. So assuming evaluation is, in broad strokes, the assessment of value and that valorisation is the attribution of value, we realised that ‘value’ was the turnkey for our interest. Or rather, it was ‘values’ that so intrigued us, with this plurality opening up space for multiple ones to exist. We also began to appreciate values as transacted through evaluation and valorisation and with this shift, the Market as an event for showcasing these processes gathered steam.
Rather than foregrounding any singular value or type of exploration, our model of distributed curating meant that each Critical Practice member worked with several projects. Each of these explored value in ways that we personally and collectively valued. With 64+ stalls in the market, no one exploration or practitioner dominated. I think we needed this critical mass to make #TransActing a valuable event but not everyone agrees.
Commodification is another way of thinking about the value of #TransActing. The anthropologist David Graeber helped me to crystallise a distinction between value in the singular and values in the plural. David talks about the commoditisation of labour by markets, comparing this with labour like housework and other kinds of care that aren’t commoditised. Of course, it’s money as the so-called universal equivalent that not only allows but entrenches this split. So there’s (singular) value, like that of money that depends on equivalence. And then there are (plural) values, like care, loyalty, generosity, faith, etc. that depend precisely on their refusal to be commensurate with each other.* And so coming back to your question about the measurability of value in #TransActing, Charlotte, I guess that’s the heart of the matter. How do we, on the one hand, take stock of that which must be measured for our work, health, etc. while at the same time more fully appreciate things that can never be measured, but give meaning and significance to our lives?
CW: Critical Practice created bespoke structures for the event, which inevitably created a kind of ‘aesthetic experience’. This brought Claire Bishop’s critique of participatory art to mind – how do you see the role of ‘aesthetics’ playing out in a socially engaged event like this?
MB: You’re right. Tricky questions gather around the aesthetics of social engagement as art practice, especially in the long shadow of the participatory paradigm in contemporary cultural production. Enter politics. As one of many collaborators involved in this project over several years, the ‘aesthetics’ of my engagement has ebbed and flowed over a myriad of micro decisions that together form a kind of slipstream of experience. This makes decision making a prism for organising my insider’s perspective: how I see, hear, and feel this process as it unfolds through sensations of togetherness and shared joy but also tension arising from disagreement.
Much of the decision making that led to #TransActing wasn’t visible on market day. But I’d like to think that ‘aesthetic markers’ maybe signaled it in some way. By these markers I mean indicators that point to the project’s process and all the considerations that it entails. Like the tip of an iceberg, the look and feel of the Market’s stalls, for instance, which were made largely from recycled materials, in collaboration with the stall holders and the art/architectural practice Public Works, pointed to the complex material, conceptual, technical and social processes involved in the Market’s making. I think markers like this help to explain why many who came to #TransActing acknowledged it was ‘a lot of work!’. At the same time the residue of this labour, which filled the atmosphere, gave the impression that doing it was fun.
Decision making was a big part of the participants’ experience too. So many different things were happening simultaneously at the stalls. You had to make moment-by-moment decisions about where to focus. Decision making leading to the market and what occurred on the day seem quite different, though. Much of the will and commitment to make this happen was based on long-term personal relationships. Many of us in Critical Practice are friends and have worked together for years. Exploring the aesthetics of decision making with reference to these tight ties and in contrast to the looser ones organising the experience of #Transacting as a one-day event strikes me as a revealing way to tap the complexity of socially engaged art as cultural production.
*For a concise discussion of theories of value in anthropology, see David Grabber, ‘It is value that brings universes together’ HAU: Journal of Ethnographic Theory 3, 2 (2013): 219-43.
Critical Practice is: Metod Blejec, Marsha Bradfield, Cinzia Cremona, Neil Cummings, Neil Farnan, Angela Hodgson-Teal, Karem Ibrahim, Catherine Long, Amy McDonnell, Claire Mokrauer-Madden, Eva Sajovic, Kuba Szreder, Sissu Tarka and many more besides.