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Mash Smarter Not Harder: An Interview with Benjamin Berg

A DISTINGUISHED DATA-BENDER AND ACCOMPLISHED SOUND-PLUNDERER, Benjamin Berg (AKA stAllio!) has made a career for himself as a member of the Indianapolis-based art band Animals Within Animals (AWIA) since the turn of this century. Alongside of that, Berg’s also emerged online as the host of a rad radio program on Numbers FM, as the founder/curator of the Tumblr called glitchgifs, and even as a pillow-seller. Midwestern breakcore fanatics may recall seeing his name on bills back in the day alongside such legends as Doormouse or Xanopticon. AND It turns out he’s also a rather skilled skill-sharer. Monty Cantsin [AKA Rap Game Gertrude Stein], big fan of stAllio! since 2007, corresponded with the artist recently [11/2013] by email for this interview.

Montgomery Cantsin: How did you first encounter the “plunderphonics” approach? And, looking back over the last few decades, what (for you) are the highlights and stand-out tracks that define that particular genre?

Benjamin Berg: A co-worker told me about Negativland so I tracked down a copy of Escape From Noise. That was a game-changer for me, and still one of the highlights of their catalog. The Evolution Control Committee’s (ECC) Whipped Cream Mixes were hugely influential and still stand up better than most “mashups” made since (same goes for their track “Rocked by Rape”). I’d also list: John Oswald’s early work, like Plexure; pretty much anything by Orchid Spangiafora; Osymyso’s “Intro-inspection;” Wobbly’s Wild Why. To that list I’d maybe add something by Wayne Butane or Cassettboy for a touch of humor.

MC: What were some of the first projects that you worked on in that vein?

BB: We were maybe mid-way through the first Animals Within Animals record when I discovered plunderphonics, so the first experiments were on the first two AWIA releases (Yard Ape, and Mono a Mono).

MC: When ECC started, I think they were doing work using a simple dual-cassette system. Did you ever do any of that? I am stealing the name of one of your greatest hits, “Mash Smarter Not Harder,” to title this interview; was that track made using simple editing software? Because, by the time you made “Bust A Groove” (a similar sort of track) you’d decided to use Ableton, is that correct?

BB: A bunch of the first AWIA record was made on a 4-track, and at least a couple of those tracks used a pause-button sampling technique, so that was effectively dual-cassette. Also, a lot of my earliest video work was done with simple pause-button editing; I didn’t have access to real editing equipment, so I would just hook the camera up to a VCR and edit that way. On some of those I was very loose about where my edits were; I would just fast foward to some point at random on my source tape and copy a clip over The Mash Smarter Not Harder EP and the first few tracks I recorded for A Huge Smash were done in Adobe Audition. But after a while, it got to the point where I just had too many cuts and the program crashed. When I lost a track and had to start it over, I switched to Ableton, which not only performed better but also made it easier to sync my edits to the beat.

MC: Now what about your personal history of glitch music? This one is a bit harder to pin down, perhaps?

BB: Yeah I can’t name a particular moment when I discovered glitch music or a particular artist or release. It was probably something off of the Mille Plateaux label, if I had to guess. The early M^2 records were an influence for me, as well as early Kid606 (but not anything he’s done in the last 10 years). My favorites are Lesser, DISC, and Farmers Manual… anything by them is great. Ryoji Ikeda is really good, too.

MC: An old film projectionist once remarked to me that “digital failure is absolute.” I guess he was frustrated… when analog equipment falters it still often gives you something (some image, some sound) and can be worked with. Whereas sometimes with a digital system it’s more of a black box situation where it’s either on (‘one’) or it’s off (‘zero’). Does the glitch represent a sort of exception to this? Can you talk about glitch in the context of this–perhaps mistaken–notion that digital failure is “absolute?”

BB: I wouldn’t say that digital failure is always absolute. Sometimes it is, like clipping versus analog distortion, where you hit a sort of peak and can’t break things any further. But it depends on the system, and the assumptions that engineers make when designing systems. An obvious example would be your TV going to a blue screen when the picture is bad, instead of showing snow as they used to. There’s no technical reason why a TV has to do that. Hardware manufacturers decided that nobody would really want to watch a heavily distorted picture, and designed their devices not to show one. I like to say that glitch art is like dancing on the edge of a broken system. You want to break things enough that it affects the output, but not so much that your tools stop working or the system fails altogether.

MC: I have to say that “Fuck Windows” (your track composed entirely of Windows and Sim City samples) is one of my favorite audio pieces that you’ve done. What can you say about that one? …Are computer games what got you interested in fucking around with ‘data?’

BB: I made “Fuck Windows” in 1996, and it came about in large part because I already had those sounds on my computer. It seems weird to think about now, but back then samples weren’t so easy to come by. You either had to rip them yourself from a CD (and being in college, I only had so many) or record them yourself using a shitty computer microphone. The system sounds and video game sound effects were practically the only WAV files I had, so it seemed natural to use them. …I started using data as audio around the same time, but it didn’t directly spin out of that track. I was using a program called Impulse Tracker to compose/arrange music on the computer. Going back to what I was saying earlier about assumptions: most programs assume that unrecognized file formats can’t be read (or they make you explicitly tell them how to interpret such files). Impulse Tracker assumed the opposite, and let you open any file on your hard drive as if it were a sample. I discovered that pretty quickly and spent hours just browsing through my computer, listening to all the data.

MC:Blue Screen of Death” is another one of my favorite audio works that you’ve done. You describe this kind of work as ‘data-bent’? What is your process for it?

BB: These days I’ve taken to calling that style of music “data sound”. The general process is that I browse through my hard drive, converting data files to sound and trying to pick out the ones that sound the most interesting. Then when I have enough cool sounds, I arrange them into a track. My first data sound release, Dissonance Is Bliss, was done entirely in Impulse Tracker (both the sonification of the data and the arrangement of the samples). Then I switched to using WAV editors to sonify data, and loading the WAV files into other music-making tools. “Blue Screen of Death” was arranged in Fruity Loops. Everything on my newest data sound release (On the DLL) was arranged in Ableton.

MC: What can you say about chance? And, is there a distinction to be made between the data-bent and the glitched? Can something be a glitch if it is intentionally created? …This reminds me of a somewhat related question, that of “found objects”–can we rightly call them that if we specifically go out looking for them? [In surrealism there is the so-called “chance encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on an operating table.” It seems to me that it’s largely the chance aspect that is of key importance there–the notion that such objects could be juxtaposed unintentionally somewhere in the world and you could just happen upon them.]

BB: I think glitch is like the intersection between chance and formalism. In the 20th Century artists started asking questions like “What is music?” and “What is a painting?” And you had things like The Art of Noises, musique concrète… you had painters who were more concerned with exploring the nature of paint and canvas than with “representing” some physical object or scene. Glitch practices are like that stuff, but because digital structures are more hidden, you can do things where even if you know pretty much what’s going to happen, you don’t really know what the end result will look or sound like. It’s not really chance, because there are rules governing it, but it feels like chance because you don’t understand those rules. Even if you have a good grasp of something like JPEG compression, you probably can’t look at the code and tell what the image is going to look like. So it’s a way of creating things that you wouldn’t have thought of yourself, just as in the tradition of John Cage, Bryon Gysin, etc. As for the difference between a “natural” glitch and manmade glitch (or what Iman Moradi called “glitch-alike”): it’s an important distinction that had to be made, but it’s not one I find particularly interesting. For one thing, the audience generally can’t tell the difference unless you’re really obvious about it, so it’s mostly a question of what you feel comfortable with as an artist. Encountering a glitch in the wild (what Antonio Roberts and Jeff Donaldson call “glitch safari“) is exciting, but the idea that if it’s not a wild glitch then it’s not “real” is very limiting and precludes all sorts of interesting art practices.

MC: I wonder how is it that a whole industry (websites, music and art careers, academic conferences, etc.) seems to have sprung up around The Glitch. How can so much be generated within that narrow of a conceptual/aesthetic space?

BB: I’m not surprised by the growing popularity of the glitch. We’re surrounded by technology but we’re not that used to thinking about how it works, let alone how to deliberately misuse it. Glitch practices constitute a different way of thinking, and these kinds of ideas are infectious. You can apply glitch theory to pretty much any technology or system, so it’s widely applicable, and it tells us things about the world that might not be obvious otherwise.

MC: You are founder of glitchgifs Tumblr? Is it you alone?

BB: Yeah, I run glitchgifs. GIF is such a great format for glitch art, because it’s the only common shareable format that allows motion and looping without the user having to click anything. I run the blog alone, and I would actually love to invite other curators, but because it was the first Tumblr blog I created, I am unable to do so. To Tumblr, I am “glitchgifs” and there is no way to tell it otherwise, even though I have a blog at http://stallIo.tumblr.com that’s intended to be my “personal” account. There are those pesky design assumptions again.

MC: Plans for the future?

BB: I’d like to find the time soon to do some video work again. I have footage; I just need to assemble it and set it to music. Musically I have a release coming out (hopefully) soon on a German label called Betonblume. I’m really pleased with it and can’t wait for it to come out so people can hear it. After that, I hope to make some new post-mashup tracks and finish the follow-up to Wack Cylinders. I’m still going to be active posting new art on Tumblr, and my weekly show Active Listening / The Act of Listening on numbers.fm will continue at least for the near future.

MC: Finally, please tell me more about this big international show you are in right now, and about this amazing text generator thing you did for it.

BB: The Wrong – New Digital Art Biennale is a massive online art show, consisting of 30 individually themed pavilions. Bill Miller graciously invited me to contribute to his pl41nt3xt pavilion, which centers around art made with simple technologies like text, rather than fancy 3d environments or video processing or stuff like that. So I made a glitch text generator and text-art canvas. It lets you quickly generate “glitch text” out of combining diacritics (g͖̣̝͎̙͐ͅl̵̮̰̝᷇̑̾î̶̢᷾ͭ̈́ͩt̯̬̰̓ͦ᷁͋c᷿͖̙ͯ͛̊᷇h̳̭͓͛ͬ᷈᷄) as well as generate other fun stuff like ◞▀╗▪┐│╌╈◚┱▍▷▀╻▪╶ …plus it’s a text art canvas for making art out of the text you generate. You can even download the scripts yourself and add them to your own project.

MC: OK, stAllio! thanks for your time! Oh, one last thing: what is your favorite ‘dingbat’ or ‘wingding’?

BB: My favorite Unicode pictographs are in the Miscellaneous Symbols and Pictographs block. Not many fonts support this block right now, but it has some crazy stuff in it. Probably the craziest is Love Hotel. A love hotel is a hotel that is geared toward sex. The fact that there is a character for this in Unicode blows my mind. Another great one is Dancer, which looks like John Travolta on the cover of Saturday Night Fever. It’s so perfect. Travolta has literally become an icon.

In the Reading Club, reading is not unthought

This week the ReadingClub organised two live reading sessions with us at Furtherfield. The first performance with Aileen Derieg, Cornelia Sollfrank, Dmytri Kleiner and Marc Garrett, was based on a chunk of A Hacker Manifesto by McKenzie Wark [version 4.0]

The second session took as its starting point one of the ARPANET dialogues from 1975 -1976. What we first took as a historical moment, encapsulating the collision of modernist and postmodernist art world figures and the disruptive effects of digital network communications, turned out to be an ongoing research project by Bassam El Baroni, Jeremy Beaudry and Nav Haq.

Alessandro Ludovico, Jennifer Chan, Lanfranco Aceti and Ruth Catlow reenacted the historic collision in a contemporary context. The result – a new text called “Postinternet is net.art’s undefined bastard child”

You can view the recordings of both performances here:
ARPANET dialogues
Hacking, The Hacker Manifesto

Below we reproduce a translation of an interview by Annick Rivoire originally published in French for the publication PoptronicsRead original article here.

One might think (wrongly) that the “Reading Club” is a mixture of a “Fight Club” and a “Bookfighting” (book battles invented by a community from Orleans called Labomedia). Rather, the activity of the “Reading Club” is above all reading – an active, participatory, collaborative and performative reading on the Internet.

Annie Abrahams and Emmanuel Guez wanted this project to be nomadic and shared, so they invited, in addition to IRL institutions like the BPI Centre Pompidou or Le Jeu de Paume in Paris, network partners like Furtherfield, an art and digital resource center in London, and Poptronics. When Annie Abrahams (a challenging net-artist whose work Poptronics likes) told us about the “Reading Club”, it did not take us long to accept the proposition! This “interpretative arena” had a taste for experimentation.

So, in June began the first test (which I attended). Then, during the summer and early September, the device has been refined and made public. An extract from “A Hacker Manifesto” by McKenzie Wark, and snippets of the “Arpanet Dialogues“, these pre-chatrooms conversations from the 1970s attended by Yoko Ono, Marcel Broodthaers, Jane Fonda and a certain Governor Ronald Reagan, have been chosen for the fourth online session with Furtherfield on Monday 21st and Tuesday 22nd of October.

Annie Abrahams and Emmanuel Guez both have a taste for experimentation. The proof? They immediately organised a “Reading Club” session where the two of them answered me a few questions about their project! What you read below is the final version of this session. The writing process is visible on the Reading Club site (by clicking on the arrow at the top right).

Annick Rivoire: “Reading Club” is an “online performative reading experiment.” In this statement, what term do you prefer?

Annie Abrahams & Emmanuel Guez: Experiment, in terms of both the act of reading (and writing) in common and the audience to actively attend these readings through a chat window. Experiment, also in the sense that piloting the project and its various sessions allows us to experiment with different conditions of reading and writing.

Reading is generally considered something a little outdated (see: the complaints by publishers and teachers on the crises of the book and of writing since the advent of the digital). Is it to rehabilitate reading you’ve imagined “Reading Club”?

In the Reading Club, reading is not unthought, not a background. The text can be easily decomposed and recomposed. The radicality of text becomes visible. Words; the text allow what images can only indicate. They are closer to the temporality of thought, bring along a certain slowness, a return to attention. Text gives way to reflection. An image globalizes, leaks everywhere, encompasses but does not travel.

You invite critics, artists, performers to participate collectively, to share the “Reading Club” experience. Why?

Because without participation, the “Reading Club” does not work! It is a device made for people who love to read, who love to write and love to share. These three actions are combined and objectified in a single time and place. But the “Reading Club” is not restricted to the world of art and literature. We would love to propose a “Reading Club” to a wider audience over a longer period, for example in a series of sessions of 10 to 12 consecutive hours.

You explain that the “Reading Club” was inspired by the “Reading Group” of Brad Troemel and the “Department of Reading” by Sönke Hallman. Can you tell us more about these experiences?

Existing texts are at the center of both projects who ask to be payed attention to, to read and then discuss these together. Troemel proposed this on irregular intervals in the rather classical context of a workshop called Reading Group, whose archives unfortunately disappeared from the net. The project by Sönke Hallman, “Department of Reading” (2006), however is much closer to ours. It is an interface, a combination of a chatbot, written in python, and a wiki, developed to slow down and explore the act of reading and writing in a group.

Having participated in the first experiment of the “Reading Club”, I was surprised by the latitude of intervention of the “readers” to the text, which transformed this test session of shared reading into a writing session, or rather a writing “battle”. A very amusing, stimulating and annoying play with simple rules, which resulted in the complete rewriting and inevitably in the emergence of another text on arrival. Did you plan this “killing game” to revisit in color?

Please, take into account that the session in which you participated was a test session during our residency at Zinc (Marseille). We carefully chose which player was going to work on what tesxte (sic), but the interface had many bugs, so, we were forced to do only one tesxte with a group of very heterogeneous readers. It is true that the use of color leads to toying with the visual side of the interface, especially if the text is turned on itself, if it offers a thought biting its tail.

How did you set the cursors and determine, or even change, the rules of the “Reading Club”?

The setting is not fixed. For each session we redraw the reading modalities, the rules of the game. We can act on the identification of the readers (by removing the color, they become anonymous), the duration and length of the text and the number of characters to be used. For example, a short time will not allow a lot of thought. A low upper limit of the number of characters forces the readers to play with the letters rather than with sentences, etc. The choice of the readers in relation to the original text is also important. We know for example that a performer seeks to occupy space, to make the interface “shake”.

In the presentation of the project you mentioned the notion of the “interpretive arena”. One can not help but think of the violence of comments, tweets, the most aggressive sentences thrown as fodder on the Internet by the blogosphere, etc, in short, that other textual arena which is the Web as a whole and, even more, the social networks of Web 2.0. To what extent “Reading Club” is a criticism, a mise en abyme of that arena?

The “Reading Club” does not criticise the aggression you describe. Moreover, the “Reading Club” is not a critical apparatus, but something that makes possible a new form of criticism carried out jointly. What “Reading Club” reveals is that a shared reading and writing passes through emotions, through tensions, through power lines, but also through a certain euphoria. Any act of writing involves a certain symbolic violence. This violence is translated here by the control of the writing space (do not forget that the number of characters is limited). What remains in the end is a text and the whole session which we keep as an archive and which is visible through a timeline. They embody the thoughts, affects, the emotions of the readers at that time.

What is the status of the final text, who is the author, and how is this status questioned in the various experiments (in single or multiple configurations from Zinc to the Bpi Beaubourg)?

We have our specialist Antoine Moreau, one of the founders of the Free Art License, under which we placed all the productions of the Reading Club. We are less interested in the final text of a session than in the process of reading and the accompanying writing strategies. To answer the question, let’s say that the final text is both the product of the device we designed and a process that is the work of the invited readers, without forgetting the author of the original text (in French “texte originel”) – you will notice that we did not use the concept of “original” (in French “original”). We are therefore multiple authors…

The appointment, the performance, the text… All concepts that are being undermined on networks, where fragmented practices, the consultation and mass production of images (video, photo) push in a different direction. Doesn’t your project, which advocates writing (that of an author, those of the readers), promote something “old fashioned”, i.e. the weight of words rather than the shock of the photos?

If the question is “are we old fashion” (sic), we reply that it is cheesy to oppose text to image (it can not be seen but we are laughing). If you look at the timeline, you can see a film of a shared thought in the making.

Is the choice of texts the result of long discussions? The authors are (as far as the first editions of “Reading Club” are concerned) rather engaged personalities (artists or researchers). Are you inventing a form of controversy 2.0?

Not necessarily. The texts are selected jointly with the partner of the session. Sometimes it takes a long time, sometimes we immediately have an intuition that appeals to all partners. We aspire to have the selected texts reflect the concerns of the structure or the institution hosting the session (and ours). We do not seek controversy, it is already there all the time, everywhere. Rather we want to create a situation of confrontation, to ask the reader the question of how to choose his place, his attitude towards others who treat and mistreat the text along with him, to put him in the position to see evolve a thinking in which he participates, but can not control.

“Reading Club” goes international with this new edition with Furtherfield. How do you handle the issue of language? At the BPI, the selected text was signed by Mez, an artist who, as you explained, “wrote her names and texts as names of application and lines of computer code.” A solution to the issue of translation?

The language is that of the original text. Difference exists. Take a look at Mez 3.9.11 _i_dentity_x _or[s]c[h]ism_ (2005-09-29 06:17)

Bypassing Cartography- part 1

Featured image: XRay by Claude Chuzel

Introduction.

“One of the most consequential outcomes of this ubiquitous mode of organization of social life is that we have become so accustomed to relating to space in “either/or” and “here/there” terms that we have become mentally trapped inside this binary border-based model, making it difficult to imagine alternative ways of territorial organization.” Popescu [1a]

Maps inform us where things are situated. The borders depicted in each map propose a different view on the social conditions, attitudes, and interactions with others in the world. The AntiAtlas of borders project shows us different approaches for understanding “the mutations of control systems along land, sea, air and virtual states” and their borders. It has done this through the combined contributions of social and ‘hard’ science researchers and artists, all engaged in creative practices including Internet art, tactical geography, filmmakers, performers and hackers. The project also includes other relevant actors such as people working as professionals for customs agencies, surveillance industries and the military.

This is the first of two interviews with Isabelle Arvers who has collaborated with the IMERA team (the Mediterranean Institute for Advanced Research of Aix-Marseille University), to curate this expansive and dynamic project. The first interview discusses the operational side of the project and the next interview examines selected writings, artworks, projects and ideas featured as part of the project.

The Texas Border, Joana Moll and Héliodoro Santos Sanchez. Link
The Texas Border, Joana Moll and Héliodoro Santos Sanchez. Link

Marc Garrett: Before we begin the interview it would great if you could tell us when and where the exhibitions, events, publications and other parts of the project begin?

Isabelle Arvers: The AntiAtlas programme will run from 30 September 2013 to 1 March 2014 and will be composed of five initiatives: an inaugural international symposium, two exhibitions, a website and the publication of a book. The International Conference will be held from 30 September – 2 October 2013 at the New Conservatory of Aix en Provence. The main aim of this conference is to present the results of the interdisciplinary workshops that took place in the last two years at IMéRA et at the Higher School of Art of Aix-en-Provence.

The AntiAtlas of borders will present two interlinked exhibitions. The first will take place in Aix-en-Provence at the Musée des Tapisseries from 1 October to 3 November 2013. The second will take place in Marseille at La Compagnie creative arts centre from 13 December 2013 to 1 March 2014. The two exhibitions will present works developed in collaboration with social scientists, researchers in the hard sciences and artists. They will offer several levels of reading and forms of participation. Visitors will discover new works, engage with transmedia documentation and participate in experiments. They will interact directly with robots, drones, video games, walls and systems. The aim is to encourage everyone to reflect on how we are directly and personally affected by the transformations of borders in the 21st century.

Borders, Simona Koch. Link
Borders, Simona Koch. Link

The final version of the website www.antiatlas.net/eng is an online extension of the exhibitions. Most importantly, the website provides access to works of net.art and artistic interventions in the form of an online gallery of works. This website and its documentation will extend the progress and reach achieved by the project. It will act as an archive and documentation site for the general public, artists, researchers and institutions.

In 2014, an AntiAtlas of border publication will be produced, gathering publications of researchers and artists on different and selected themes of the international conference and the two exhibitions.

Dynamic Map of Foreign Citizens Detained at State Borders, Olivier Clochard (Migreurop) 2013. Link
Dynamic Map of Foreign Citizens Detained at State Borders,
Olivier Clochard (Migreurop) 2013. Link
Paparazzi Bots by Kenneth Rinaldo. Exhibition view.
Paparazzi Bots by Kenneth Rinaldo. Exhibition view.

MG: What has been your involvement with AntiAtlas?

IA: When I met the IMERA team (the Mediterranean Institute for Advanced Research of Aix-Marseille University), they were looking for a curator in order to disseminate the outcomes of the past three years of seminars they conducted on borders. I saw this project as a great opportunity as there was a political dimension within it that attracted me. Also, I am deeply interested in tactical media and tactical geography and by new forms of visualisation and new aesthetics related to systems of control like drones, robots, satellites or surveillance cameras.

I wanted to create a participatory event that would allow people to follow our work online and offline. I also wanted to mix different kinds of works from research in the hard and social sciences to artistic installations, websites, games and videos. To do so, we decided to create a website www.antiatlas.net that would gather artworks, research articles and interviews, an online gallery and also all the presentations given during the different seminars conducted by IMERA on borders during the last three years. Thanks to the website, we were able to launch a call for proposals as I wanted to get the testimonies and the voice of migrants about their vision on borders.

Cartographies by Hackitektura. Exhibition view.
Cartographies by Hackitektura. Exhibition view.
Close up - Tactical cartography of the Straits, in progress (Beta State - Side A) madiaq indymedia and hackitectura.net. Production: osfa
Close up – Tactical cartography of the Straits, in progress (Beta State – Side A) madiaq indymedia and hackitectura.net. Production: osfa

Very quickly we understood that we needed to get more funding and partners, so I offered to seek media, private and institutional partnerships as well as to manage the communication of the entire event. This fundraising was needed to promote a global vision of the antiAtlas of borders and to link all the parts of the event: from the website, to the call for proposal, till the international seminar and the two exhibitions. Because of my multiple engagements in the project, I became one of the 5 co-producers of the programme.

MG: This is a complex project. It is noticeable that there is a diverse and dynamic, cross section of different practices being bridged to make it all happen. Has it been difficult to combine all of these practices so they can relate to each other coherently?

IS: Combining all these different practices was a wonderful and exciting adventure. During one year and a half, we worked very closely with the scientific and artistic committee and tried to exchange as much as possible between different visions and ways of working. I learned a lot from researchers and was amazed by the deep understanding and knowledge they have on the subject of borders. Thanks to their research and to their approaches to this issue, I was able to get a very diverse understanding of this complex subject. From me, they discovered the online communication and the power of the web and social networks to diffuse and share the information. They also got a better understanding of the tactical media field and we learned so much from each other that this experience is already a beautiful success in sharing and learning from passionate human beings. I come from media art world and I tried to respond to a scenario that the committee conceived with artists’ works, which is a very different way for me to work. This time I had a script to follow; the way I did it was to try to find some ludic interactive installations, as well as documentary projects or games, in order to allow the experimentation of the subject by the audience. They trusted me even if it wasn’t a field they knew well.

Robot ADM8, Rybn, 2011. Link
Robot ADM8, Rybn, 2011. Link

MG: Do you feel that it has de-compartmentalised these varied fields of knowledge successfully?

IS: What was particularly positive in the last seminars on borders we organised was that they allowed plenty of time to discuss and facilitate the exchange between the different perspectives. A specific example is a game project resulting from the collaboration between an anthropologist – Cédric Parizot – and a interactive laboratory from the Superior art School of Aix-en-Provence, which is led by the artist and game designer Douglas Edric Stanley. The idea is to create a “crossing industry game” drawing on the data collected by Cédric Parizot on trafficking. The collaboration addressed the visualisation, contextualisation and re-appropriation of a field of knowledge through game mechanics. I think that this experience really enriched all the team. The anthropologist was able to analyse his data in a different way, while the interactive students got closer to the reality of trafficking as they were experiencing through a game.

There are many other cross-disciplinary projects made in the framework of the AntiAtlas. I would say that what we want is to multiply different experiences and forms of knowledge on borders across and between the separate but intersecting fields of art and science. The exhibition is conceived to mix everything: research through the documentation space, researchers’ interviews, counter cartographies, interactive installations on biometrics and surveillance technologies, applications to divert control systems and documentaries providing a wider point of view on multiple dimensions of borders and their representations. Artists and researchers meet three times per year, some of them collaborate on trans-disciplinary projects, so that the conditions to meet and de-compartmentalise these fields are created. This is only the beginning. The process still needs to be pushed and facilitated as the antiAtlas is an attempt to create a new kind of cross-disciplinary encounter, let’s see how it will evolve!

Conclusion.

This first interview with Arvers attended to organisational and operational aspects of the inter-disciplinary border-crossing within AntiAtlas project. The complex task of collating, sharing and collaborating to make it all happen at all could use its own map. The processes and engagements that evolved as the project took shape involved a collaboration of many different fields and practices, individuals, groups, organisations and cross cultural relations. This transdisciplinary approach helps us to unpack the deep levels of the meanings and value of crossing borders, in an organisational sense. Their dedication to transcend the seemingly ‘scripted’ blockages and restraints echoes a strong feeling that we need to re-assess the maps given to us, and what this means.

“What is needed to escape the modern mental “territorial trap” are ways of seeing and drawing that reveal what the geographical abstraction of the borderline obscures. It is only in this way, then, that we will acquire the necessary tools to think through a technologically enabled world of border flows and portals” Popescu.[1b]

Notes:

Isabelle Arvers is an independent author, critic and exhibition curator. She specializes in the immaterial, bringing together art, video games, Internet and new forms of images by using networks and digital imagery. She has organized a large number of exhibitions in France and overseas (Australia, Canada, Brazil, Norway, Italy, Germany) and collaborates regularly with the Centre Pompidou and French and international festivals. http://www.isabellearvers.com/

Machine visions: James Bridle on drones, bots and the New Aesthetic

Featured image: Drone Shadows by James Bridle

I met the London-based artist, publisher and programmer James Bridle in Oslo back in May 2013, as part of the conference The Digital City. Bridle was in Oslo to speak about drones, algorithmic images, and urban software. His most recent art projects, Dronestagram and Drone Shadows, have caught a great deal of interest by the popular press, with recent features published in the Wall Street Journal, Dazed & Confused and Vanity Fair. Bridle is no stranger to getting the timing right. Addressing issues of drone surveillance and invisible technologies in ‘leaky’ Snowden times, or manage to get a bunch of academics, writers and critics, to talk about the birth of a new movement – based entirely on a Tumblr-blog he called the New Aesthetic – surely qualifies as good timing. In our conversation, Bridle, or the New Aesthetic’s commander-in-chief as Vanity Fair calls him, reveals that he never really meant to talk about aesthetics. It is not the printed pixels on a pillow, so often taken to be emblematic of the New Aesthetics by its critics, that is of interest to Bridle. Rather, Bridle wants to encourage a conversation about the kinds of images and sensibilities that emerge from algorithmic and machinic processes, and the embedded politics of systems that make certain images appear (and disappear).

Dronestagram by James Bridle
Dronestagram by James Bridle

Taina Bucher: Hi James, would you care to tell us a little bit about your background?

James Bridle: I studied computer science and artificial intelligence at UCL, University of London. By the time I finished, I hated computers so much that I went on to work in traditional book publishing.

It quite quickly became clear through working as an editor and publisher that publishing was heading for crisis, because it is an industry that is full of people who are afraid of technology. So I went on to specialize in e-publishing, looking at what happens to books as they become digital, which gradually grew into an examination of other cultural objects, and what happens to them as they get digital and the nature of technology itself.

T: Do you think that your background in computer science influences the ways in which you think about art and artistic practices?

J: I consider myself as having a background in both, and I actually think that having the literacy in both is incredibly valuable.

T: Interesting, what does this literacy in art mean to you?

J: Being able to speak the language of it and to be able to communicate it. Not just having an understanding of it, but also to be able to talk to people in publishing and the arts about the Internet without scaring them, and also to be able to talk to people in technology. They are still two separate cultures but it is possible to translate between them.

T: Do you consider software or code to be the material of your artistic practices?

J: Sometimes. I do think though that this should be the last concern. There are different ways of describing the world; materials are just a way of expressing it.

T: How then does software influence the kinds of expressions that you create?

J: Not only the material, but also the ideas coming from software are important here. There are plenty of ideas coming from technology that become really valuable as they are applied in the arts, for instance from the tradition of systemic analysis. You know, breaking things down to basic principles, algorithmic type steps, is a really valuable tool of analysis. It is also a dangerous one, as it can give you a systemic engineering view on problems.

T: You’ve said that you’ve been accused of romanticising the robot, or rather, that the New Aesthetic has been accused of this. What do you think the critics mean by that?

J: Well I do understand it in a way, because one way of talking about these things is really to anthropomorphize automated systems. When you do that, you bring a whole bunch of other questions into it, like whether these systems have a separate agency or not, whether they truly see and understand the world in ways that we do not entirely understand, or whether they are purely tools of human imagination. In order to understand these things, I think sometimes it is necessary to take a position, you know, talk about it as if it is true, and then you learn more by finding out where that description breaks down and where it doesn’t apply.

T: What is the New Aesthetic anyways? An aesthetic of the digital, or a digital aesthetic?

J: I never really meant to talk about aesthetics. The New Aesthetic is not about aesthetics. One of the earliest keys to it was looking at some of these images that result from systems, looking at things like computer vision and how the world is seen through machines, but really this is a shorthand of how the world is mediated through technologies in all kinds of ways, not just aesthetically. The aesthetic is a starting point where you can visually notice these things, but I am really interested in what it reveals about underlying things. I am not interested in notions of beauty or the aesthetics of it.

T: We could also understand aesthetics in terms of ways in which something is made to appear in certain ways. To talk about software aesthetics in these terms, would imply the view from technology, as opposed to the view on technology.

J: Not only the ways in which these technologies influence the ways we see things though, but the ways in which we think about them and understand them is important. By using some technology you’re bound by some of its biases and if you don’t understand what some of these biases are, then you’re slightly fooled by them. There is always an underlying politics to these things, and if you’re not aware of it, then you’re a victim of it.

T: Is it the artists’ job to reveal these biases in a certain sense?

J: Don’t know about job, but yes, that’s why I am doing it. The interesting thing to me is to explore deeper levels of these things. Getting a bit closer to the meaning and the underlying biases.

T: How do you work with, or get at the biases of technology?

J: By exploring and getting a technical understanding of it, but also by looking at how technologies actually operate in the world.

T: Do you think that a certain sense of code literacy is needed then?

J: I struggle a bit with that. I think that I do, the way that I work. Having a technical understanding of how things work is really, really important. But I am always struggling to figure out if it’s possible to do that without having the possibility to read the code. It is hard to study a foreign culture without knowing its language. Put differently, great artists mix their own paint. They have a fundamental understanding of the material. I think that if you’re making work with and about technology, and if you don’t understand how that technology works, you’re going to miss out on a huge chunk of what the technology is capable of doing. There is a lot of digital art that is very, very basic, because the people who are making it don’t actually understand how it works.

T: Could we see your work as a kind of software studies?

J: Yes, probably could see it like that. Some parts of software studies definitely informs my work, concepts like code/spaces. My practice is situated between art and technology and the stuff that always interests me, is when domains like software studies meets other domains, for instance where software studies meets architecture. I’m really interested in architecture because it is such a situated practice. It is not like art or high-flown critical theory, which is kind of above the world; it really has to be rooted in the world. The crossovers are what are interesting. People like Eyal Weizman or Keller Easterling, who talk about how architecture shapes not just the physical domain, but also the legal and political spaces.

T: One of your projects that I really like is “A ship adrift”. Besides being a bot, how can we understand this “ship”? How does it work and which data sources does it use?

J: It is part of a larger art project in London called “A room for London”, which was a one-room hotel built on top of another building on the south bank of London in the shape of a ship. It was both a one-room hotel that you could book and stay for the night, and it was used for art things, music projects and other events. I was asked to do something that connected it to the Internet, to some kind of an online component. I didn’t want to do something that was totally separate, but something that was rooted in this idea of the ship, and its actual location. One of the major things is that it is a ship that doesn’t go anywhere. It fails at the first condition of being a ship.

A room for London
A Room for London by David Kohn Architects

I put a weather station up on the building to monitored wind speed, direction, and a bunch of other stuff, and took all the data from that, to drive an imaginary ship. For example, starting in January, and from the physical location of the ship: If the wind blows 5 miles an hour, my imaginary ship would move five miles east or wherever the wind was blowing. So this thing was driving friction-free. As it’s going, it knows its own location and searching the Internet for stuff nearby. It is looking for information on the web that also has a geographical tag to it. Good sources for that are Wikipedia as there are lots of articles that have a physical location tied to it, so you can look those up and read those in. My favourite source was Grindr, a sex network for Gay men that was geo-tagged. Unfortunately they did upgrade the security there three months into my project, so I no longer had access to that data. I was also feeding it other texts as well. There was for instance a sub-thread running through the whole project around Joseph Conrad who I’m a huge fan of. So I gathered all these texts and running really, really basic language generation text programs on it, the same kinds of programs that generate spam emails. So it is not intelligent in any meaningful way. It is really about how we read broken texts. I just quite love that, because it is really part of the vernacular of the web. It’s what language sounds like when it is broken through machines. It is also quite empathetic, and it makes us examine our own feelings towards technology.

A ship adrift, screenshot


A Ship Adrift by James Bridle

T: Let me just quote you: “Forget controlling the machine; impersonate it. Fake it till you make it, like horse_ebooks, like A Ship Adrift” (Impersonating the Machine). How far would you take your own aphorism? Did your bot actually make it?

J: You can pick your criteria of success. My criterion of success is to produce an emotional response in me and in other people as well. And in this case, other people were really following along, particularly on Twitter. It had it’s own voice, although it was still generated by a semi-autonomous software system. It is not a bot really, it is not intelligent, it does not have agency, but it is generating a feeling about machines, which I think is important.

T: How did people respond to the ship?

J: Someone called it a ‘Robot Polari’. Polari is a European argot, which is almost gone now. Polari was a secret language that originated in circuses, travellers and theatre companies in the 19th century and became the secret language of gay men. It was a kind of coded language they used to communicate. Argots like that served multiple purposes. On the one hand concealing communication from the outside world that may be hostile to it, but also within the group, in terms of creating a bond between its members. So for me, the ship adrift felt kind of like an argot to the machines; machines kind of identifying themselves to each other, semi-protecting themselves.

T: There is a tendency to treat bots as ‘fakes’, as somehow inauthentic beings, which is really being framed as an increasing problem online. Why are we so obsessed with this notion of the inauthentic of that which is not entirely human?

J: That is a really good question. This problem of authenticity and technology extends much further. The whole New Aesthetic project springs in some extent from trying to understand what people consider being authentic digital experiences. I think we have this quite big problem, which is that we are so unsure with how technology operates that we have a deep distrust of it.

I think Instagram is a really good example of that. The entire mechanism of Instagram is predicated on applying the filters of analogue cameras to digital photographs, which for me is a process of authenticating. We are aware on some level that these photos are apparently less stable and less persistent than the photographs you keep in a shoebox, some server going down could delete them any moment. There is a precarity to them. We’re all the time trying to authenticate stuff, and all of this is tied to our fear and confusion around digital things.

T: It seems that questions of the invisible, or making what is seemingly kept from view visible, is a core element of your artistic practice. What is it about the invisibly visible and visibly invisible that intrigues you so much?

J: Take the drone programme. It is a political programme. It’s a natural extension of our international relations and we’ve developed a set of technologies to address these relations. The drone is perhaps the most emblematic and also a largely invisible one. It’s really been going on for the past decade, but it has only very recently become a very political issue. This is due to the fact that drones are largely physically invisible. They are secret technologies that no one ever really sees. In all kinds of ways: You don’t see them in newspapers, until very recently, and you don’t see them in movies. The invisibility is conferred by them being seen as technological objects. Because they are technologies, they are not criticized in a way that a policy, or a person, or human actions can be. Even though they are all about policies and human politics. Because humans in general, are not technologically literate, they just back off from that. For most people, it is just the way it is.

Drone Shadows, image of a car park with the drawing of a drone on the ground
Drone Shadows by James Bridle

T: Would you say that it is the technology itself that is actually invisible, or the institutions and the kind of political work going on in the background of these drones?

J: Both of those things. This is where it gets interesting, because a lot of this technology materializes that political will. Stuff that would have been entirely secret previously, now exists as objects in the world. There is this incredible paradox, technologies both reify and materialize power and human desires, but are made invisible in a way that makes them beyond comprehension.

T: How have people reacted to your drone work?

J: Well, people have had discussions about drones they would not have had otherwise. But I hope that my work also raises questions about technology and the media on a deeper level, not just in terms of the drone programme.

T: Now that even our police forces are starting to talk about smart policing and using drones for surveillance purposes, what do you think would be an appropriate response?

J: I am not sure how the situation looks like in Norway. But London is the most heavily surveilled city on earth. Yet, we don’t talk about it much. For the most part everyone seems to be ok with that. It is a matter of technology, and thus easy for most people to ignore. If drones raise greater fears about surveillance, then maybe that will push back on all forms of surveillance. I’m not particularly more worried about drone surveillance than I am with cameras on a building. They are all functions of the same thing, but if it actually makes people think more about surveillance and control mechanisms then that is a fairly interesting way for it to go.

T: Maybe we’ll just end up in an overly visible state, where the amount of visibility goes counter to what it is supposed to do. If everyone is highly visible all the time, then the questions becomes one of analytics. How are we to make sense of this visibility?

J: The best I can hope for is a kind of democratization. We should all have access to them and be able to see through them as well.

T: What is up for you next?

J: I think I will have to take a lot of the momentum of this drones work and try and push it back up a layer to the political and legal space. I’ve never been interested in just the drones. I’ve always been interested in the wider implications of the technologies that they embody. So the drones are just the start, but there is a much larger conversation we should be having. So the question is how we can expand this conversation to those other areas and not just make it about weird sexy planes.

T: How does your work connect with social media? Do you use social media as a useful platform, or a point of critique itself? Does social media in any way change the possibilities of your artistic practice?

J: Yes, totally. I represent myself, and I have my own audience. It amplifies the things that I do, but I don’t theorize too much about it. That would be a whole rabbit hole to go down to. And I’m very well aware that I’m living inside, so it would be difficult to have such a critical eye on, because I’m so involved in it. I think that I will at some point though. One of the key tenets of my practice is not to perform manifestos, I don’t want to draw or come to any conclusions because I think we are at such an early stage with these social networks and social media, and the Internet in general that we don’t even have the critical frameworks to talk about it seriously, let alone come to any serious conclusions about it, yet.

Confessions of an A/V Geek: An Interview with Skip Elsheimer

Rick Prelinger, an expert on ephemeral cinema, was once asked to estimate how many educational and industrial films were made between 1930 and 1980, just in Canada, the UK and the USA. He gave a long answer but his ballpark figure was around 500,000. The true number may never be known, but it is safe to say that no single archive or university film library has collected them all. And in fact the trend in the last twenty years has been for institutions to get rid of their 16MM collections, given that the cost of storing and digitizing the material is so great. Many works have become “orphans,” having fallen through the cracks of official and commercial preservation programs, and having been abandoned by their copyright holders. Some such films suffer from having been poorly conceived and produced in the first place. Some have lost their educational value due to containing outdated information or out-of-fashion attitudes and imagery. But many are still worth watching (for various reasons) and nearly all can tell us something about an “other” history of cinema, and about the world and ideologies of the 20th Century.

Some 20 years ago, Skip Elsheimer stumbled upon a lot of 500 old films which he managed to purchase for a mere $50. And thus A/V Geeks, his Raleigh-based archiving club, was born. By now the A/V Geeks 16MM stash is among the most impressive collections in America–containing about as many titles as the George Eastman House (though not as many as Stephen Parr’s Oddball Films in San Francisco). Elsheimer now provides digitization services to clients such as Duke University and North Carolina State University, and has traveled around the country sharing gems (and stinkers) from his stacks. Earlier this month Elsheimer corresponded with Montgomery Cantsin (a fledgling archivist currently wanting to digitize 20,000 feet of 16MM) to discuss his experiences and knowledge in this area.

MONTGOMERY CANTSIN: So, you guys have 22,000 films?

SKIP ELSHEIMER: More than 24,000 now. I just got 400 films a couple of weeks ago and I’ve not updated the count.

MC: Which means what you have is among the largest collections of 16MM orphans in the U.S.A?

SE: Yes at some point, though, it’s less about how many you have and more about what you are doing with them.

MC: How long would it take a person to watch all of these films?

SE: I recently tried to figure that out–very unscientifically. I estimated that each film averaged roughly 15 minutes. It’s about 6000 hours. So 250 days of watching films straight through. If you devoted 40 hours a week to it, it would take you 2 years to watch them all.

MC: How many of these films do you watch in an average week?

SE: I watch maybe five or six new films. Unfortunately, I’m getting, on average, two new films a day.

MC: Did you study A/V preservation?

SE: Nope. They weren’t really teaching this stuff when I was in college in the mid to late 1980s.

MC: Have you found yourself to be eligible for grants to do what you do?

SE: I’ve not really pursued any but I think some are out there. I’m lousy at filling out paperwork.

MC: Any advice for emerging amateur 16MM archivists like myself?

SE: Well, my biggest recommendation is: don’t take on too much. It’s better to have a small well-curated collection than a giant collection where you’ve not seen most of the films. This is what I’m coping with. I basically bought a boarding house to house the collection and have to work to support it–this means that I don’t have time to watch those very films. It’s a little counterproductive.

MC: You raised almost $20,000 on Indiegogo. What makes for a successful crowdfunding campaign in your experience?

SE: Yes. Essentially, the crowdfunding project was a way to bring in money so we could block off time to watch and digitize the films in the collection that we hadn’t seen. It was very successful among the friends, family and fans of A/V Geeks but we really didn’t get word out as well as we could have.

MC: Alongside the well-established discourse surrounding “orphan” films, you seem to have initiated a study of the “bastard film.” Can you talk a bit about this?

SE: Well, I had always wanted to host a little symposium. Something were folks could show films and then talk about them afterwards. The first Orphans Symposium was like this and I learned so much then. So, as a joke, I said to some friends that we should have a Bastard film symposium–not really thinking about it as a genre. But after we announced the symposium, a genre started to appear.

MC: Was anything extraordinary unearthed at your recent conference?

SE: There was some amazing stuff. The schedule is still online. I liked the fact that we gave a loose definition of “bastard film” and folks ran with it. Everybody had a film that they’ve always wanted to show an audience but not their average audience–they wanted to be able to show the film to an audience of seasoned film archivists (collectors and academics who would get why the film was a bastard). Also, we made the seminar very screening-centric. We limited introductions to only five minutes (and had an official egg timer to time it) and encouraged discussion at the end.

MC: Was it you that curated the collection called Cartoon Propaganda? What can you tell me about that?

SE: Yes, it was one of my first compilation shows. I’ve since revised it–calling it Anxious Animated Agendas.

MC: Do you know of any evidence demonstrating that CIA fronts produced educational films during the cold war era?

SE: Well, there were a lot of conservative organizations that were making educational films in the United States–because there was a big conservative swing after WW2 and anti-communist slant. The United States Information Agency–our propaganda wing–made lots of films that were distributed around the world.

MC: Yes, since the CIA covertly funded much of that anti-communist “cultural” and intellectual activity, [as outlined by Frances Stonor Saunders in her book Cultural Cold War], I would think they would have had front companies devoted to film production.

SE: It’s possible but really probably wasn’t necessary! The status quo was so conservative and anti-Communist after WW2.

MC: How well-versed are you in copyright law and fair use? How much does it matter that you be well-versed in the laws to do the work that you do?

SE: I’m pretty well-versed–although I’m always learning something. To exploit the films for stock footage use, I have to know something. Also, it’s useful when YouTube issues a take-down of a clip. I have at times been successful in getting things put back up.

MC: Can you talk about one or more of these take-down cases? Did you cite Fair Use? Have they ever wrongly taken something down that was Public Domain?

SE: Yes, they have. The most recent one was where I posted a Sid Davis film called “The Bottle and the Throttle.” It was taken down within 24 hours because it supposedly had content from a Neil Young video in it. I looked at the Neil Young video and realized that it was a bunch of edited Public Domain films–and it even stated so in the video’s description. I appealed to YouTube and it took them about a month to respond. In the meantime, the video was down and I wasn’t allowed to upload anything over 10 minutes–as a punishment. Anyway, in this case, I didn’t have to cite Fair Use. The material in question was in the public domain.

MC: Isn’t your main purpose educational? Isn’t any educational re-use, even of copyrighted material, protected by Fair Use?

SE: There are a number of considerations before you can claim Fair Use. This includes the “purpose and character of the use;” the “nature of the copyrighted work;” the “amount and substantiality of the portion used;” and the “effect of the use upon the potential market for, or value of, the copyrighted work.” Posting educational films in their entirety on the internet knocks out three of the considerations. I’ve been very careful (I’m on my 4th YouTube account) to only post Public Domain stuff.

MC: Do you make ad money on Youtube?

SE: I make a little bit. Like, pennies per a video per a month.

MC: Have you been to Europe to show films?

SE: I’ve not. It would be a challenge to me as a lot of my programming deals with American culture and irony.

MC: Have you met any producers or directors of old educational films? I know Katharine and Bruce Cornwell just passed away recently here in Brooklyn. (I’ve been showing their 1979 film “Dragonfold” to audiences lately.) I know AFANA in San Jose, CA has profiled various makers on their website, such as the Cornwells and Bert Van Bork.

SE: Yes I’ve talked with a couple of producers and lots of people who appeared in the films. That’s one of the benefits of putting these films online–the filmmakers and crew come out of the woodwork and rediscover their work.

MC: Can you describe some special films of yours that are near to your heart?

SE: Depends on the day, but, right now, my most special is the A & B roll from my favorite music video of all time, Renaldo and the Loaf’s “Songs for Swinging Larvae.” Also, I like “Pride on Parade”–an Oscar Meyer film about high school marching bands and making lunchmeat. And, “Tire Rigging Demo”–a promotional piece to show off a new camera rigging that films automobile tires on the road.

MC: Take us through the mental process of determining what films go on to your digitization priority list.

SE: That also depends. With last year’s digitizing campaign, I let those that donated pick from a list of 2000 films. Then I would sometimes pick other films that fit with their lists. Now, its based on projects. If I am working on a project that requires digitizing some film, I’ll upload all the films that are in public domain. Also, sometime there’s a holiday or current event that will have me dig in the collection and try and find appropriate Public Domain films.

MC: Thanks for your time.

SE: Good luck!

FURTHER READING:

Learning with the Lights Off: Educational Film in the United States by Dan Streible.

The Public Domain by Stephen Fishman

Mckenzie Wark in Conversation with Montgomery Cantsin

Since the Nineties (at least), Mckenzie Wark has been writing colorful and critical texts that have raised the bar in countless conversations regarding networked culture, “weird global media events,” the philosophy of open source, game theory, and so on. He’s also been known for his active and ongoing engagement with a certain body of ideas associated with the Situationist International (S.I.)–a coalition of subversive thinkers and doers who coalesced in Europe around 1957 (to drift, drink, and détourn). Wark himself came of age in the (post-situationist) 1970s: a decade where, as he says, “everything turned to shit.”

…In spite of everything having already turned to shit, Wark kindly met with Brooklyn’s Montgomery Cantsin on the 16th of May, 2013, in Manhattan. Prior to a show and tell–of Wark’s 3D-printed Guy Debord Action Figures (“His action is smoking,” says Wark) and Cantsin’s metagraphic tattoo (from a design by Isidore Isou)–the two spoke briefly about philosophy, history, science, and technology. Wark was on his way to the U.K. where in addition to having an event at Furtherfield he’d also been booked for a speaking engagement for his new book (Spectacle of Disintegration–just published by Verso), where he’d be right alongside the Situationists Alice Becker-Ho and Jacqueline de Jong.

MONTGOMERY CANTSIN: According to Anselm Jappe, “technology levels a more telling critique of everyday life than does poetry, for it is able to challenge current everyday experience w/ realizable possibilities, not with mere reveries.” He also notes, though, that under existing conditions (of uneven development, etc.), technology “constitutes a new kind of alienation.” Your thoughts?

MCKENZIE WARK: First, we ought not necessarily think of the poetic and the technological as separate categories. They are always entangled with each other. The interesting moments in poetry–not always, but often–coincide with new technological affordances, new ways of communicating. I wouldn’t want to see those as either/or categories. (Poetry is a technology; technology is poetic.) It’s always worth looking for the breaks. When a technology is relatively new, no one usually knows what the fuck it’s for or what to do with it, and that’s kind of a moment to try to play with it and sort of elastically stretch out the boundaries of it and establish a beachhead for struggling around what it can be like and what you can do with it. At present though, we are entering more of a moment of consolidation with how technologies work. In the Eighties and Nineties there was this huge opening of spaces and possibility, and now an enclosure is returning.

MC: Facebook comes to mind here. Can a situationist perspective show us how to disentangle ourselves from that whole mess? Should we hope that there can be “situationist uses” of social media?

MW: Yeah Facebook wants to, in a sense, control historical time as people experience it. That’s what ‘timeline’ is. But there are always little affordances. Part of the legacy of thinking in the wake of the Situationists is that you have to understand what the tactical openings and gaps and spaces are that are available to you, and to in fact not see it as a sort of ‘expressive totality’ where everything is always and already saturated in advance with the totality of capital or spectacle. To some extent that is a correct diagnosis. But it’s also not the whole story. And that’s why, when one reads the Society of the Spectacle,[1] it is the second-to-last chapter that is the one that counts. The second-to-last chapter is about détournement, it’s about the way that you appropriate and use the whole of poetry and technology as always and already belonging to all of us. You act on that basis, self-consciously. That’s the struggle, that’s the strategy. And, to the extent that there’s a learned capacity to to struggle in and against things like Facebook, I say let’s credit the struggles of the Eighties and Nineties around free networked communicative cultures and practices. Those in fact originally started as an avant-garde (of thirty or so people); [such movements] seeded certain tendencies into the mainstream.

MC: If blanket surveillance of telecommunications is a given, if all our emails and texts are being monitored, I suppose one is forced to wonder, is there is any point in staying away from Facebook?

MW: As I’ve said elsewhere, it is the height of vanity to think that you are under surveillance. No one gives a rat’s ass about most of us. But yeah, we ought to just assume that data is being collected about all of our lives for possible future use. You can just kind of assume that. And so then [what’s called for] is a counter-tactic of a certain nuance and unreadability and opacity about everyday life–to not announce everything in advance, and to not be careless with language. To try pass silently in some things. You know, before the Situationist International was even constituted, the police arrived. And Guy Debord writes about this in a letter, I think to Gallizio. Reading his version of it, it looks like the way he avoided the police trying to proscribe them is, he pointed out “We haven’t even been constituted yet!.” So the S.I. as an organization was under surveillance before it even started! Even though the S.I. was a minor insignificant organization in its time–in the moment of its founding, it’s like half a dozen people–there was always a certain carefulness, an opaque quality. Not everything has to be said to just everyone. So, act on that basis.

MC: Can you say more about secrecy, or opacity? I wonder, what does Stewart Home (or Len Bracken) achieve by bringing up secret societies in the context of discussing the S.I.?

MW: Stewart Home is actually one of my favorite contemporary writers and his interest in the S.I. is in the context of an astonishingly broad knowledge of avant-garde art and literature, and the culture of his own city (London). As for the occult, I personally have no interest in the occult, but the idea of opaque social realms is something that Stewart has an interest in (and I do too). There’s a sense in which the S.I. at various stages is doing that. There’s a difference between the internal communication and the external one. And it’s useful to look at because it is so different from the spirit of our times where everybody is just tweeting to everybody every fuckin’ last thing they did. The idea that you can create this little circuit-breaker, this internal conversation that’s separate from the external one: it’s a kind of a useful valid space in which to operate. […] Not a secret society, but a discreet group. […] Interestingly, Stewart is extremely uninterested in the Debordian strands in the S.I., and to me he was a really important voice in moving away from seeing it as centered on Debord. And when I wrote Beach Beneath the Street,[2] his was one of the voices I was responding to. There I wanted to sort of synthesize the stuff about Debord with this anti-Debord strand of which Stewart’s a key representative–to put these two back together again. The second book, Spectacle of Disintegration, sort of does that as well. There’s like whole chapters on Sanguinetti and Vienet, and Vaneigem. And a lot of material on Debord’s films–with that I tried a lot more than I think Stewart ever would.

MC: Home claims that Debord’s films are sort of stuck in the avant-garde gesture–the whole “end of cinema” thing. But you show that Debord’s later work is actually not like that. It’s richer than that.

MW: It’s a valid point about his early films, though I think that they are defensible in other ways and there are resources you can get from looking at that stuff. I think it was really important for Stewart to say “No” though, because there was just so much repetition of this Debordian “specto-Situationist” stuff (as he calls it). He was right, it was boring. If you look at the people who were just imitating that: it was boring as all hell. (All they have to say to you, or to each other, is: “spectacle!” and “recuperator!” Its boring.) So, Stewart shuts that door and opens these other ones. And he’s doing a sort of détournement of that, into another space that’s much more Anglophone. Stewart draws this into a whole series of British and Anglophone traditions successfully.

MC: You note that that Simon Critchley views the Situationists through a sort of religious lens? To which of Critchley’s books are you referring here?

MW: Yes it’s in Infinitely Demanding.[3] One of Simon’s core propositions, and it’s an interesting one, is that “philosophy begins in disappointment.” There are two kinds: religious disappointment and political disappointment. He actually classifies Debord as almost a theologian of disappointment. (That’s my phrase, not his. But that’s how I’m reading what he does there.) So once you have a disappointment, then your consolation is philosophy as a high theory tradition. There’s also a low theory tradition though, and it begins in boredom with these discourses of disappointment. So, how does one–in an interstitial space outside of cultural and academic institutions–produce a critical language of the everyday itself, where what it’s going to do is write and think with extremely broad horizons? Well, the practice of the everyday will always fall short of that horizon. One is only disappointed though if one has a naive idea about thought’s ability to dominate life in the first place. The fact that you cannot practice what you can theorize: that is the very thing that makes both possible. So, it’s not a failure of praxis when your ideas and action don’t align. That is the praxis. The gap is the thing. You think that relation in its irreconcilability. Disappointment is just a moment in thought. And then one’s bored with that. You try it again, and in a sense you do not give up. As Asger Jorn says: “The avant garde never gives up!” That struggle of thought opens horizons which get foreclosed and then you open another one, so it’s kind of a tactic of reinvention.

MC: How can the S.I. assist us in addressing questions that are outside the realm of science, or maybe outside of the knowable?

MW: I think it was Andre Breton who said “Science is useful for the solution of many problems, all of them unfortunately of secondary interest.” (There’s a certain poetic hubris about that, perhaps even more evident in our time.) A scientific method isn’t going to deal with unclassifiable, undefinable problems–those are really more in the domain of a tactics. Where Debord is useful for that is in the way he thinks through Clausewitz. Clausewitz is one of his key figures. In Clausewitz there is a kind of continuum from pure unreflective action to rational strategic thought. And for him it’s kind of a hierarchical relationship where the state has a rational motive but the field commander is kind of responding in this kind of affective way, and troops are pure action. Strategy is in between, in a sense, mediating between reason and action. It also just happens to be fairly close to how Sartre thinks the situation as the space where consciousness and its other confront each other in a domain that’s not knowable in advance and that’s only discovered in the act. That’s why it was called the Situationist International, after Sartre. Debord borrows the word “situation” from Sartre, but more about the actual practice from Clausewitz. Clausewtiz doesn’t call it a situation, to him it is the friction and fog of war. I think Clausewitz is Debord’s main guy though. And I mean more Clausewitz’s descriptions of campaigns rather than On War. On War has this kind of pseudo-systematic quality, whereas when Clausewitz writes about Napoleon’s defeat at Waterloo or Napoleon’s Russian campaign you really get this sense of struggling with the parameters of the unknown. And there you need this other knowledge, this other practice. Debord thought the art of war was a good place to look for a ‘sober’ assessment of situatons, without the silly chatter of optimism associated with ‘politics’. Maybe in our time we could pay close attention to the applied sciences as well. In some ways the limit to the later, so-called ‘political’ phase of the S.I. is that it shut down dialog with different ways of knowing and acting–from architecture, urban planning, and so forth. It bought a certain theoretical rigor at the price of shutting down certain tactical elbow room.

MC: I’m waiting for someone to put Debord into conversation with Paul Feyerabend, given the latter’s discussion of an epistemological anarchism…

MW: Well, I don’t know what to say about Feyerabend, I haven’t read him in twenty-five years. But he is in fact back on my shelf here on the reading list as part of this opening back up to the sciences. I know he’s an important moment in getting us out of a sort of narrow idea that there is a (single) scientific method […] to pluralizing that and showing how it’s a class of experiment. Even dada is a metaphor we could use for it. A science is not like poetic dada. A science is bounded as a set of practices in a way that art isn’t. But yes he’s one of those really key voices in a kind of plural epistemology, that there are different kinds of knowledge. A problem of our time is knowledges don’t have hierarchies, they have relations. So, what’s the non-hierarchical relation between different knowledges that do different things? That seems to me to be a very contemporary kind of issue. The S.I. kind of fails at that and it’s kind of interesting to the extent that they do. (Some of the Clausewitzian hierarchy lingering, perhaps.) They’re sort of not able to weave together even art and writing–to transcend, to get out of them. It’s notable that Constant’s interest in a kind of speculative engineering approach to the world doesn’t fit with what would be Vanegeim’s more writerly version of unitary urbanism. In a way, they’re still stuck in this command discourse and it’s a certain theoretical one that I think’s not helpful, as if theory was in command. One needs to be able to put these things alongside each other and not try to reconcile them. Irreconcilable qualitatively distinct kinds of discourse can remain separate–they don’t have to be synthesized. They can have linkages and border conditions and things like that.

MC: It seems that the S.I. found itself incompatible with the early ‘cybernetic’ thinkers. Your whole body of work seems to suggest a certain potential for linkages.

MW: The situationist who got it first as far as what cybernetics implied was Constant. He was reading Norbert Wiener on the ‘Second Industrial Revolution.’ He pretty much “gets it” that something like the internet is going to happen and that it will totally spatially reorganize the planet. Constant arrives at that realization right in the early sixties, it’s astonishing. And look, every single great utopia or avant-garde always comes true. All of them are realized, but one element is always reversed. There’s always like the key that element doesn’t happen. With Constant, its a big one: it’s that we didn’t abolish private property. Communication spatially re-organizing the planet–that’s exactly what happened. But, it’s not re-organized in the way that he imagines. He was right about that–that the spatial reorganization would happen–but not which one. He was still thinking that we could abolish work, whereas what we did was find new pools of cheap labor. […] That’s gonna rattle on for another century, the exploiting of the last pools of cheap labor. Though it seems like Chinese workers are already bored with this whole thing, so capital (or whatever this is now) is trying to move to Indonesia and Vietnam and so forth.

MC: DARPA’s creating machines that mimic the most subtle movements of the human hand, but–

MW: –Right, but we’re not abolishing labor. It really is the case that these relations of production are a fetter on the achievement of another life. We have not made the qualitative break. But, the tools are there. There’s a strand in the S.I. that’s very interested in this: The fact that the means are there. It’s in early Debord, it’s in Constant. Jorn and the later Debord have a more anti-technological feel to the way they are writing. But still though: Debord’s using cinema–experimenting with that. Vaneigem does occasionally hint that cybernetics has the tools there to create the good life but it’s being used for the opposite purpose–being used for control. He doesn’t have a whole lot to say about it, but there’s this kind of intimation in Revolution of Everyday Life, there’s something there, which is kind of prescient. Its not quite as brilliant as Constant’s conceptual architecture though. Constant imagines a world of the control of things as the infrastructure for another cybernetics, the free play of the human.

MC: Anselm Jappe talks about two different strains in Marx: 1) Liberation from the economy and 2) Liberation by means of the economy. Can you talk about this, maybe in the context of your reply to Nick Land’s “Accelerationist Manifesto?”

MW: Well, you have to go through one to get to the other. It’s Marx’s version of Nietzsche’s “God is dead.” There’s no going back. What we take to be the sort of romantic pre-capitalist worlds that we would want to return to (and in the name of which we might resist) are illusions produced by capitalism itself. In a sense, the machine has to go to its end and break down in order to then use its resources to build something else. So if we restrict the meaning of Accelerationism to that, Marx is one of them. There isn’t a going back. There’s only going forward. There is no resisting, there’s only trying to push things in a certain direction as they sort of rocket towards the end. The thing I like about the Accelerationists, well the first thing, is Nick Land is just a joy to read. I read it as sort of a “fatal strategy.” Some people reacted badly to it, like “OMG he says that the machines have gone cellular and are evolving without us and we’ll just be redundant!” Well, it’s like pushing a certain rhetorical logic as far as it will go; it’s Baudrillardian. It’s really quite beautiful, and a delight. People have pushed back against that and tried to extract elements from it. And to re-animate the futurist element of the avant-garde strikes me as a really contemporary thing to do. The one thing that’s probably unassimilable to “contemporary art” is the futurists. (By definition–it’s outside the frame of there being a contemporary.) Is there a way to revive the futurist bit of the avant-garde legacy or to détourn it in a way that cracks open this now all-encompassing space of so-called “contemporary art?” That would be kind of promising and it looks like the Accelerationists have made gestures in that direction. So, it’s like, more power to ’em. Great.

MC: How are we to make sense of things like the recent London riots (or the Stockholm riots) maybe as compared to the Thailand revolts you bring up in Spectacle of Disintegration? You’ve characterized certain happenings (Tiananmen Square, OWS, the 1987 Stock Market crash) as “weird global media events”–

MW: –Yes, and each of those four terms is kind of key. Weird in the sense that these events are singular and there’s a strange space-time that’s specific to them. It exceeds the space of the city. There’s a global communicative space to which it’s connected. International relations, flows of money, flows of military force, and flows of information get drawn into the event. There are particular affordances of the media that are embedded in a particular space. You have to see media and the architecture as a continuum. Media’s not a separate element. Communication and architecture are the same thing, they’re cognate–just different dimensions–and you have to understand the particular arrangement of that. In the case of Tiananmen Square, we have to ask: How was the government able to insinuate troops into the city, and in which particular directions? What were people’s particular lines of retreat? How did the global feedback loop of international news media work? (People locally were relying on international circuits of news to figure out what was going on mere blocks away from them.) That sort of stuff. Then, as far as the last term in that phrase, it’s an event. (But not in Badiou’s sense, mind you.) Really what I think would be a better word would be situation–where some variables are known, some are not, and one has to act strategically and try to understand lines of force. “Weird global media events” are not a constant in the way that a riot is (there’s always a riot going on somewhere); these events break out of routine spectacular space and time. Debord is all about how the spectacle erases historical time. And yet I think he’s still holding on to the possibility that historical time erupts. We’ve seen that it does.

MC: So, not all events are necessarily immediately recuperated into the spectacle…

MW: One definition of ideology is: the story precedes the facts, and you fit facts into an accepted story. When you have apparent facts that fit no story, then all hell breaks loose! And you get these really interesting moments that are like breaks in transmission, wherein the spectacle has no idea what it is supposed to be narrating! And Tiananmen Square was one of them. It’s not that ‘the truth’ is there, it’s more like ideological confusion is there, where occasionally fragments of the actual event can be deciphered. Next time it happens, hit the RECORD button on everything and gather all that stuff! A classic example is 9/11. We’re now down to like three images of that event. If you watched it live on television you saw people jump out of fucking buildings. That image is completely censored now! It’s never to be experienced. But you saw it happen live on television. Astonishing stuff. There were people saying extraordinary things about what was going on around them but it’s all been sort of fitted back into this neat narrative about, you know, we have to keep insisting on the heroism of the first responders. The thing that can’t be uttered is the absolute confusion of the first responders! That the police and the fire brigade had no fucking idea what to do is part of the real story, but that is unutterable. So yeah, when the weird global media event happens, pay attention.

MC: Your new book looks at current terrorism as well as that of Italy in the 70s. The young Italian Situationist, Sanguinettii, was writing of ‘false flags’ some 25 years ago. That term ‘false flag’ is perhaps drained of its meaning at this point, largely associated with the loudmouthed paleoconservative buffoonery of Alex Jones (who you also mention briefly in the book). Do you think there are contemporary conspiracy researchers though who are worth reading? (Len Bracken’s book Shadow Government comes to mind as something that also considers 9/11 in relation to Italy and the “Strategy of Tension.”)

MW: It’s not something I pay attention to, and that stuff tends to be based on an image of states being able to create events rather than just react to them. I think the other line of thought is more interesting. It’s not that states have this omnipotent, omniscient ability. The opposite case (that states have this enormous power but have no idea what they’re doing anymore) is kind of a more interesting line of thought. The problem with Sanguinetti is that it does depend on there having been a conspiracy in a sense, that the Italian state directly produces the Red Brigades through manipulation of these activist cells, through agents provocateurs and so forth. There’s evidence that that might have been the case; Italy in the seventies is crazy. But what I think is a more useful line of thought is: it doesn’t matter if people are secret agents of the state. If they create terrorist cells, they’re acting as the state even if they don’t know that they are! They’re the dupe of the state. And not even of the state, but a ‘secret’ state. That strikes me as a more interesting way of processing that kind of Italian moment. Tracing down the actual who-planted-who-where part is much less interesting than the actual fact of these armed cells kidnapping people and murdering them. It’s a part of the state itself even if it is unintentionally so. It’s like a rogue cancer cell of statism being produced somewhere. That strikes me as having more purchase on the quality of those kinds of events.

MC: In Spectacle of Disintegration you make a distinction between Hegelian and non-Hegelian Marxism. What thinkers exemplify the latter category, Althusser…?

MW: Althusser would be one example. I think Asger Jorn would be another, because he gets his Marx mostly actually from Engels. Asger Jorn is underestimated as a theorist, he’s actually really interesting. There are other non-Hegelian schools. There were the Italians, like Della Volpa. There’s actually kind of several. And in English there’s a neglected Anglophone (mostly British) reading of Marx that goes through Ricardo and is much more attuned to the political-economic background and less interested in the philosophy. I’d also say that Marx himself is a master of détournement. I’d make the claim that that’s what he does with Hegel! It”s not that Marx is a “Hegelian.” It’s that Hegel is a useful thing to steal in order to describe the logic of the commodity. Literally Hegel’s Logic becomes the tool that is détourned to explain the commodity. But there are other parts of Das Kapital that aren’t Hegelian–that draw on other sources. Marx is oriented around a task–so he borrows heterogeneously from different sources and uses them. This is as opposed to being a philosopher who continues a tradition. So, of course all these different schools read different bits of Marx and re-assimilate him to the academic method. But that’s not what Marx himself is about. He’s not a philosopher; he’s not an academic. As Althusser says: Marx did not read ‘library Hegel’–he read the Hegel of the young Hegelian movement.

MC: Is Debord being a romantic when he makes reference to a “life lived directly?”

MW: Elements of the young Marx show up all over Debord, and that’s what Simon Critchley is drawing attention to also: this version of the young Marx that reads alienation as alienation from a species-being that pre-exists capital. I think later Marx lets go of this sort of skyhook idea of our species-being as an essence. He’s much more interested in our collective self-production of ourselves as a species. More in a Darwinian sense, as a population–where it is by and through capitalism that we are producing ourselves, and there is no pre-existing ideal form of the species-being that could act as a reference. Debord I think mobilizes the young Marx tactically. I don’t think those gestures in Society of the Spectacle are the essence to which I’d wanna reduce Debord. I don’t want to assimilate him to the Hegelian Marxist reading. I think he détourns the young Marx, where it seems useful to do so, and when it isn’t–someone else. The key to Debord’s texts and films is détournement as the method of composition, not picking particular fragments out of the construction.

MC: Anselm Jappe takes Lukacs to be a key influence on the Situs; Jappe’s book on Debord makes reference to this “minority tendency within Marxism that assigns crucial importance to the problem of alienation, considered not as epiphenomenal but as crucial to capitalist development.” You say however that Lukacs is in fact repurposed by Debord (rather than being cited in a traditional sense). Does Jappe miss this?

MW: First, it’s gotta be said that a lot of the secondary literature on the Situationists is actually really good. I think there’s enormous merit in all the stuff Ken Knabb did, and in Stewart’s provocation The Assault on Culture.[4] Sadie Plant’s book.[5] And Greil Marcus’s book, which of course really put this stuff back on the map. Despite what everybody says, this stuff is all great. And the Anselm Jappe book, well, he knows the Lukacs dimensions of this much better than anyone else does. It’s just that for me there’s a crucial difference between a citing of Lukacs and a détournement of Lukacs. To me, the key to Debord is détournement. It’s all about Lautreamont, not Marx. Debord absorbs all these Marxist elements into this avant-garde practice of détournement. And in fact Jappe is one of the great places to find out exactly what bits of Society of the Spectacle are détournements of what! He even has a little list: “Well, that chunk is straight out of Hegel, and there’s a bit of Marx, here’s a bit of Freud, right there.” He doesn’t make enough of that. To me it’s like “Oh, so what you’re reading is a kind of patchwork of chunks?” I think it’s that performative dimension of the book that is what really makes it. I give Society of the Spectacle it to students sometimes and they say “well it’s not really coherent.” Well, it’s method is absolutely rigorously coherent! You’re looking at the wrong level [if] you’re looking at the product and not the process. So, you have to look at the constant use of détournement as process. It’s the one thing Jappe is not quite attuned to in what I otherwise gotta say a really excellent book (from which I learned a lot). […] I think, even though there’s all this great stuff on the S.I. already out, the job’s barely begun of making sense of it in a way that can be used by people to produce new work. As far as the literature that’s there: there’s not enough keys to how to détourn the S.I. and produce something different in a qualitatively different environment.

MC: Is it possible that Debord’s melancholy and/or paranoia sometimes got the best of him, I wonder? Today he’d be called depressed. What would a therapist today even do with Debord?!

MW: Well a therapist would just say he’s a hard case, he’s a career alcoholic, you know. And it’s not to be gainsaid, one of his most beautiful pieces of writing is about drinking. “I’ve written much less than most people who write but I have drunk more than most people drink.” He writes so beautifully about it (although that’s probably détourned from somebody). Elsewhere he writes “There are those who got drunk only once but it lasted a lifetime.” I’m not recommending this by any means! I’m not a drinker. But it’s a certain kind of life. What is of value in the biographical dimension and why I don’t want to just write about theories but to write about the life-dimension to it, is, what are the ways that you can learn to create zones of autonomy in your own life? And they’re always gonna be partial. And perhaps should only be partial. (We ought to have obligations, perhaps.) But how can you have some autonomy in what your life is for and about? Debord’s just one of the great lessons in how to do that. It’s not that he owed nothing to anyone–he had patrons. There’s a way in which that may be a very 21st century idea (now that it’s just the “1%” and the rest of us). The rich really are different from you and I, and it’s not just that they have money. It’s that they live in a separate universe. But their lives become so boring; they wanna be patrons of things. In a sense we can no longer work in publishing or the university or journalism, all these zones are foreclosing. So, how to have a patron is something you could probably learn from Debord.

——————-

McKenzie Wark will give a talk at the Furtherfield Gallery about his latest book The Spectacle of Disintegration – Situationist Passages Out of the 20th Century.

Writer and academic Dr Richard Barbrook will give a short introduction to Wark’s work and to Situationism and its relevance to contemporary culture.

Saturday 25 May 4-5.30pm

More information:
http://www.furtherfield.org/programmes/event/mckenzie-wark-presents-his-latest-book-spectacle-disintegration

Other Publications by McKenzie Wark:

The Spectacle of Disintegration, Verso Books, 2013
Telesthesia: Communication, Culture & Class, Polity Press, 2012
The Beach Beneath the Street: The Everyday Like and Glorious Times of the Situationist International, Verso Books, 2011
Gamer Theory, Harvard University Press, 2007
A Hacker Manifesto, Harvard University Press, 2004
Dispositions, Salt Publications, Cambridge, 2002
Speed Factory, (co-author) Fremantle Art Centre Press, Fremantle, 2000
Celebrities, Culture and Cyberspace, Pluto Press, Sydney, 1998
The Virtual Republic, Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1997
Virtual Geography, Indiana University Press, 1994

Hybrid Cities: interviewing Roger Malina, Mariateresa Sartori and Bryan Connell

Roger Malina is a physicist and astronomer, Executive Editor of Leonardo Publications (The M.I.T. Press), and Distinguished Chair of Arts and Technology at the University of Texas at Dallas. Dr. Malina helped found IMéRA (Institut méditerranéen de recherches avancées), a Marseille-based institution nurturing collaboration between the arts and sciences.

Mariateresa Sartori and Bryan Connell are two artists recently based at IMéRA. Their work connects with human movement through the city, and addresses the intersection between technology and perception. Recent work by Venice-based Mariateresa Sartori has encompassed drawing and video. Bryan Connell, Exhibit/Project Developer at San Francisco’s Exploratorium, works especially with landscape observation devices and mapping.

Lawrence Bird interviewed Roger Malina, Mariateresa Sartori, and Bryan Connell about the intersection of their work with the city. Images above courtesy: Roger Malina, Rita Gambardella, Bryan Connell.

Lawrence Bird: Roger Malina, in your recent writing you make the case that science is no longer just a field of positive knowledge. Scientists are increasingly open to engagement with the arts — for example artists’ residencies at CERN. You’ve even argued that we’re in a crisis of representation as profound as that of the Renaissance or the 19th century, and this is “driving a new theatricalisation of science.”

Urban life has often been understood as performative – display, performance of social roles, presentation of oneself before others are all part of the public life in cities. How would you say that crisis of representation plays out with regards to this performative dimension of urban life? How is science implicated alongside art in the city, in these conditions?

Roger Malina: One of my arguments for the ‘crisis of representation’ really looks at Renaissance systems of representation — first driven by what the eye could see, and then the eye extended by microscopes and telescopes. These systems of representation were developed that led to a deep contextualising of the viewer in the world.

46m telescope, Johann Hevelius (1673)
Johann Hevelius’ 46m telescope (1673)

Today we are in a new situation because so much of our perception of the world comes not through extended senses but, in a real way, through new senses. This has been happening over a number of decades; the first wave of this was at the end of the 19th century when there was a cultural shock with the introduction of x-ray images, infra-red and later radio — which didn’t extend existing senses but augmented them.The most recent series of triggers maybe comes from the nano-sciences and synthetic biology — we now perceive phenomena of which we have no daily experience of (eg quantum phenomena). Field emission microsopy or MRI or some of the other new forms of imaging really don’t build on our existing experience — there are discontinuities and dislocations. Another element is of course the hand held device that leads to techniques for ‘augmented reality’ — I have a phone app that I can point at an aeroplane overhead and it tells me what the plane is, where it came from, and where it is going.

Coming to your question about the city — there is clearly a shift in map construction and reading — from the Cartesian map that we have been acculturated to. The ability to toggle between the bird’s eye view and the “street view”, and the ability to view maps that have multiple layers simultaneously are driving artists and others to develop new forms of representation.

Milan Cathedral, augmented reality device
Augmented reality app for iPhone 3GS, with Milan Cathedral; courtesy Grey Small Horse

Someone whose work is interesting in this regard is Bryan Connell in San Francisco, he just finished an art science residency at IMéRA in Marseille. He was working on a large urban trail project called GR13 — 300 miles through industrial, urban, sub urban, and wild landscapes (the city had a hell of a time getting right of way through these areas). Bryan is currently working on a web site for the Marseille European City of Culture events, where he’s working on some of these questions of representation. The project involves a collective of ‘artist-walkers’ that I think fits right into this question of performativity.

Bryan Connell: GR13 urban trail project stills C
Bryan Connell: GR13 urban trail project.

LB: There’s currently a great deal of interest in the connections between representation, digital technology, and politics, for example the current Hybrid City II conference in Athens. As you’ve pointed out, these often underline the connections between what digital media mean for artists and what they can contribute to citizens — what’s emancipatory about them. What can art offer civil life in this context? Are there any conflicts or contradictions in that relationship?

RM: One pertinent example is the work of Bruno Giorgini, a physicist, and Mariateresa Sartori (visual artist) who work on the “physics of the city.” They were recently in residence in the IMéRA Mediterranean Institute of Advanced Study which hosts artists and scientists in residence who want to work with each other. We now have access to incredible amounts of data on human mobility (pedestrian and various forms of transportation) so it is now possible to study human behaviour quantitatively. Sartori discovered that she could tell many things about a person just through the morphology or topology of their movements through the city. Girogini discovered that people’s movements could be predicted at the 80% level, but 20% of the time he had to introduce what he called ‘social temperature’; in discussions he also referred to this as a ‘free will’ parameter. Barabasi has found similar results analysing cell phone GPS data of individuals. So its interesting to think of the development of cities as 80% predictable and 20% serendipitous. This of course then highlights the role of the arts and culture in making cities part of the cultural imaginary that drives people to make choices. Recently Max Schich here at the University of Texas has analysed very large data bases looking at where prominent people are born and where they die over the last 500 years. Immediately you can see how suddenly certain cities become cultural ‘attractors,’ say the way Berlin or Hong Kong are now. And of course cities are now trying to ‘design’ this into the development of cities. Here in Dallas there has been a huge investment in the ‘arts district’ and in institutions of higher learning in the belief that healthy cities require such investments. See for instance the US National Endowment for the Arts Program; there are many similar programs in Europe.

Mariateresa Sartori. Place Jules Guesde, Marseille
Mariateresa Sartori: Place Jules Guesde, Marseille, movement map.

This doesn’t yet address your ’emancipation’ question. One of the things that is happening is that we are becoming a data taking culture (see the recent literature on ‘big data”). The cell phone has transformed every citizen (that has one) into a data taker. Of course much of this data is used by companies for marketing objectives. But many citizen groups are now able to take data for their social objectives. Some of this is captured by the ‘citizen science’ movement ( one example is here). There have been good examples of citizen’s taking data (on pollution, on illegal activities etc.) and then being in a position to challenge ‘authorities’ of various kinds whether scientific, political or economic (see for instance the way citizen groups have mobilised to collect data after man-made disasters such as oil spills, or illegal logging in forests).

A few years ago I wrote an open data manifesto which argued that I would like to advance a new human right and a human obligation:

1. Each of us has the right to the data that has been collected about ourselves and our own environment.

2. Each of must contribute to the knowledge construction by collecting and interpreting data about our own world.

Most scientific data collection is funded by public tax payer funding. The public has a fundamental right to all data collected and funded by public tax money.

LB: How do you imagine an artist’s training will change as these conditions evolve? And a scientist’s — could we foresee any kind of convergence?

RM: One interesting development is a cohort of hybrids, who have one degree in science or engineering and one in art and design ( for example J.F. Lapointe, a researcher at the National Research Council of Canada with degrees in molecular biology and dance) or degrees in Science or engineering and employment in art or design (like myself or Paul Fishwick, a key figure in the field of aesthetic computing). There’s been an emergence of art/science Ph. D. programs that take students from art or design or science or engineering. I suspect this cohort will grow over the coming years.

LB: Mariateresa Sartori, your IMéRA research project with Bruno Giorgini focused on mobility in the city. Can you tell us a little bit about how your work and Dr. Giorgini’s work complemented each other? What kind of evidence did you bring to the table as an artist?

MS: The project I worked on with Bruno Giorgini developed an exploration that began with earlier work in Venice. There I created a series of drawings using a rudimentary, even crude procedure: I traced out the movements of each pedestrian in the Piazza San Marco, drawing their paths with a felt-tipped pen on a transparent sheet placed over the computer monitor. I then faithfully transferred the results onto ordinary large sheets of white paper. The lines thus drawn in different directions created a space, drawing a St. Mark’s Square that is actually not there. As well as the actual physical space, it is also a drawing of our individual and collective manner of relating to space. Each single path determines the route of others, in a continuous and reciprocal game of influences that makes our collective progress.

At IMERA we developed this method for a new environment, a city more ethnically and culturally plural than Venice. Together we set up procedures and tools for collecting data about mobility networks there: nodes, links, chronotopi. These drew on the work of Bruno Giogini’s Laboratorio di Fisica della Città of the University of Bologna. We shot videos focusing on specific behavioural patterns where strategies of shifting, approaching and distancing play a decisive role; and we were also attracted by the places and situations of pedestrian congestion. Using the same technique as in Venice, I translated these into drawings of movement. These again created a space that marks out squares and places which are actually not there, each synthesizing space, time and humanity in a single image.

Mariateresa Sartori. Place Jules Guesde, Marseille, horizontal sequence
Mariateresa Sartori: Place Jules Guesde, Marseille, people coming from above; from above and from right; from above, from right, and from left; data from 4.53.00 to 5.10.03 pm, 19 Sept. 2011.

LB: Is there an emancipatory or governance-related dimension to this work? Degrees of mobility have human rights implications. How does your work as an artist connect with these rights, especially the notion of the right to the city?

MS: The first goal when I work as an artist observing reality is observation, i.e. a way of observing that implies a new attention. The result is always instructive because I do not have particular expectations. After lines have been traced following my process, something always emerges and what emerges can be a useful and indicative element for the emancipatory dimension of the urban condition. I would say that Bruno Giorgini is more involved in that dimension than me, especially in the notion of the right to the city.

LB: There’s a current preoccupation among researchers in a number of fields with the relationship between representation, often engaged with/through technology, and urban life. How has your latest work connected with this relationship?

MS: My way of working with technological instruments such as computers is very particular and limited. I use the computer as a technical tool strongly mediated by the senses, i.e. by human perception. I am very interested in modalities of perception: they are so imperfect, yet sufficiently perfect to make our existence possible.

la misura dello espacio, still
Mariateresa Sartori, still from “la misura dello espacio”, video at http://vimeo.com/63571834

LB: You described the way you work with technological instruments as “particular and limited.” Another way to look at this is that you make the technological system slow down by inserting yourself into the process… and the result is your drawings, which still movement. Might this be one role for art — to insert the human into the machine? Much net art focuses on flows of information, virtual movement, and representing that. While not quite glitch art, do your representations of movement in some sense intentionally put a brake on the machinery?

MS: I find your words enlightening, you describe my way of working better than me….. Actually I insert myself into the technological process…..but this is not a statement of a position against technology.

I can say that what interests me the most (and art’s relation to science is just one instance of this) is the thread of connection between specific cases and general theory, between subjective and objective. Between, on the one hand, the singularity of events and, on the other, general theory. The individual’s experience is singular, unique; but there is always a thread, even if fine, that leads each individual case to a wider generalisation. What interests me is this incessant – indispensable as much as concealed – mental activity that every day leads us to search for generalisations and regulating principles. What interests me is the human tendency to comprehend phenomena, even the most complex, via schematic representation, via a generalisation that leads to the identification of organising principles. I mean “Comprehension” in very wide sense, where emotions and feelings participate too in embracing reality, including reality. Maybe in this sense I put the human in the machine…

There is a discrepancy between how we perceive reality, mediated by our senses, and the truth decreed by science. On a rational level we recognize the truth, but we cannot internalize in a deep way this knowledge; this is beyond our human capabilities. I think that in my artistic research I find myself in this deep discrepancy.

Bryan Connell: GR13 urban trail project stills A
Bryan Connell: GR13 urban trail project.

LB: Bryan Connell, your work in Marseille addresses, among other concerns, technology and its relationship to nature. Do you see the urban environment as playing any particular role in that relationship — of having a particular status in our negotiation of it?

Bryan Connell: One of the things that intrigued me about the metropolitan hiking trail in Marseille is the way it plays with our sense of meaning and value in the exploration of contemporary landscapes. Most long distance hiking trails are designed to lead out of urban environments, not into them. We don’t usually think of carrying a field guide that illustrates the taxonomy of fire hydrants, electrical pylons, or urban weeds on an extended city or suburban walk. That kind of engaged, systematic attention is usually reserved for wild natural terrains. From a traditional environmental perspective, the less altered a place is by human technology, the more scientifically interesting, ecologically exemplary, and aesthetically rich it’s going to be. Without undermining the validity of ever-present environmental concerns, the trail functions as an invitation into a more challenging and complex relationship to the emerging para-wilds and novel ecosystems that are arising at the intersection of the natural world and the technological infrastructure of the built environment.

Similarly, the Marseille trail doesn’t really focus on the kinds of urban sites that are traditionally thought of as having significant historic, architectural, or cultural interest. Instead, the trail route incites visitors into an exploration of the everyday environments and working landscapes of the contemporary urban transect – a world of parking lots, freeway overpasses, suburban developments, abandoned railways, and semi-rural wildlands.

Bryan Connell: GR13 urban trail project stills B
Bryan Connell: GR13 urban trail project.

Landscape ecologist Earl Ellis argues that to better navigate our way through the current geohistorical epoch, the Anthropocence, we must expand the traditional ecological concept of regional biomes into the parallel notion of “anthromes” – biomes that are complex interconnected melds of human technology and natural systems. In a sense, the GR 2013 Marseille trail is a sketch or system of exploratory paths into what a publically accessible, anthrome based urban ecology observatory might look like.

LB: A similar question is in relation to the image, especially sequential images. What does it mean for our negotiation of the relationship between nature and technology? Between science and art?

BC: We increasingly live in a networked digital metropolis with an image and information density that both mirrors and exceeds the high population densities of the physical metropolis. One topic of particular interest to me is the role these images play in transfiguring the quality of our desire. To what extent do scientific or aesthetic images that increase our ability to find meaning and satisfaction in observing and understanding urban landscape phenomena mitigate our need to physically alter the landscape to conform to an idealized image of what it should or shouldn’t be?

For example, the Marseille metropolitan trail didn’t require much physical alteration of the terrain – it’s a conceptually designated network of pre-existing roads, paths, streets and highways. The trail’s function is not to alter place, but alter the cognitive landscape of trail users so they have a richer sense of place. If you are fascinated by the diversity of ways a para-wild plant population has adapted to a technologically modified environment, do you need to engage in an energy and material intensive re-landscaping of that environment with a palette of conventional horticultural plantings to make it more “beautiful”? In this sense, constructing interpretive images of landscape is more than a way of augmenting a recreational hiking experience, it’s a way of shifting and re-configuring what we think we have to consume and alter to find meaning and vitality in contemporary landscapes.

More about Hybrid City II.

http://uranus.media.uoa.gr/hc2/

Hybrid City is an international biennial event dedicated to exploring the emergent character of the city and the potential transformative shift of the urban condition, as a result of ongoing developments in information and communication technologies (ICTs) and of their integration in the urban physical context. After the successful homonymous symposium in 2011, the second edition of Hybrid City has grown into a peer reviewed conference, aiming to promote dialogue and knowledge exchange among experts drawn from academia, as well as artists, designers, researchers, advocates, stakeholders and decision makers, actively involved in addressing questions on the nature of the technologically mediated urban activity and experience.

The Hybrid City 2013 events also include an online exhibition and workshops, relevant to the theme

Hybrid City Conference 2013: Subtle rEvolutions will take place on 23-25 of May 2013.

The Hybrid City II events will take place at the central building of the National and Kapodistrian University of Athens.

This document was edited with the instant web content composer. Use the online HTML editor tools to convert the documents for your website.

A Life in AdWords, Algorithms & Data Exhaust. An interview with Erica Scourti.

Erica Scourti’s work addresses the mediation of personal and collective experience through language and technology in the net-worked regime of contemporary culture. Using autobiographical source material, as well as found text collected from the internet displaced into social space, her work explores communication, and particularly the mediated intimacy engendered by a digital paradigm.

The variable status and job of the artist is humorously fore-grounded in her work, assuming alternating between the role activist, ‘always-on’ freelancer, healer of social bonds and a self-obsessed documenter of quotidian experience.

Introduction.

Millions are blissfully unaware of the technological forces at work behind the scenes when we use social network platforms, mobile phones and search engines. The Web is bulging with information. What lies behind the content of the systems we use everyday are algorithms, designed to mine and sort through all the influx of diverse data. The byproduct of this mass online activity is described by marketing companies as data exhaust and seen as a deluge of passively produced data. All kinds of groups have vested interests in the collection and analysis of the this data quietly collected while users pursue their online activities and interests; with companies wanting to gain more insight into our web behaviours so that they can sell more products, government agencies observing attitudes around austerity cuts, and carrying out anti-terrorism surveillance.

Felix Stalder and Konrad Becker, editors of Deep Search: The Politics of Search Beyond Google,[1] ask whether our autonomies are at risk as we constantly adapt and tailor our interactions to the demands of surveillance and manipulation through social sorting. We consciously and unconsciously collide with the algorithm as it affects every field of human endeavour. Deep Search illuminates the politics and power play that surround the development and use of search engines.

But, what can we learn from other explorers and their own real-life adventures in a world where a battle of consciousness between human and machine is fought out daily?

Artist Erica Scourti spent months of her life in this hazy twilight zone. I was intrigued to know more about her strange adventure and the chronicling of a life within the ad-triggering keywords of the “free” Internet marketing economy.

Marc Garrett: In March 2012, you began the long Internet based, networked art project called Life in AdWords, in which you wrote and emailed a daily diary to your Gmail account and performed regular webcams where you read out to the video lists suggested keywords. These links as you say are “clusters of relevant ads, making visible the way we and our personal information are the product in the ‘free’ Internet economy.”

Firstly, what were the reasons behind what seems to be a very demanding project?

Erica Scourti: Simply put, I wanted to make visible in a literal and banal way how algorithms are being deployed by Google to translate our personal information – in this case, the private correspondence of email content – into consumer profiles, which advertisers pay to access. It’s pretty widespread knowledge by now that this data ends up refining the profile marketers have of us, hence being able to target us more effectively and efficiently; just as in Carlotta Schoolman and Richard Serra’s 1973 video TV Delivers People,[2] which argues that the function of TV is to deliver viewers to advertisers, we could say the same about at least parts of the internet; we are the commodities delivered to the advertisers, which keep the Web 2.0 economy ‘free’. The self as commodity is foregrounded in this project, a notion eerily echoed by the authors who coined the term ‘experience economy’, who are now promoting the idea of the transformation economy in which, as they gleefully state, “the customer is the product!”, whose essential desire is to be changed. The notion of transformation and self-betterment, and how it relates to female experience especially within our networked paradigm is something I’m really interested in.

Television Delivers People, Richard Serra and Carlotta Fay Schoolman, 1973, 05:55, U.S., color, sound
Television Delivers People, Richard Serra and Carlotta Fay Schoolman, 1973, 05:55, U.S., color, sound

As Eli Pariser has pointed out with his notion of filter bubbles, the increasingly personalised web employs algorithms to invisibly edit what we see, so that our Google searches and Facebook news feeds reflect back what we are already interested in, creating a kind of solipsistic feedback loop. Life in AdWords plays on this solipsism, since it’s based on me talking to myself (writing a diary), then emailing it to myself and then repeating to the mirror-like webcam a Gmail version of me. This mirror-fascination also implies a highly narcissistic aspect, which echoes the preoccupation with self-performance that the social media stage seems to engender; but narcissism is also one of the accusations often leveled at women’s mediated self-presentation in particular, despite, as Sarah Gram notes in a great piece on the selfie, [3] it being nothing less than what capital requires of them.

Girl with a Pearl Earring and a Silver Camera. Digital mashup after Johannes Vermeer, attributed to Mitchell Grafton. c.2012. [4]
Girl with a Pearl Earring and a Silver Camera. Digital mashup after Johannes Vermeer, attributed to Mitchell Grafton. c.2012. [4]

And as this project is a form of autobiography and diary-writing, it could also be seen as both narcissistic and as asserting the importance of personal experience and emotions in the construction of a humanist, unified subject. Instead, I wanted to experiment with a way of writing a life story that operated somewhere between software and self, so that, as Donna Harraway says “it is not clear who makes and who is made in the relation between human and machine”. Part of the humour of the project arises from the dissonance between the staged realism of the webcam (and my real cat/ hangover/ bad hair) with the syntactically awkward, machinic language, which undermines any notion that this diary is the expression of any authentic subject.

The demanding aspect of it is something I was interested in too, since it calls up the notion of endurance as a virtue, and therefore as a value-enhancer, which many artworks – from mind-boggingly labour intensive supercut-style videos to sculptures made from millions of pins (or whatever) – trade on. You just can’t help but ask ‘wow…how long did that take?!’ – as if the time, labour and effort, i.e. the endurance, necessarily confer value. So there is a parallel between a certain kind of ‘age of austerity’ rhetoric that valorises resilience and endurance and artworks that trade on a similar kind of doggedness – like Life in AdWords does.

And finally – it made me laugh. Some of the text was so dumb, and funny, it amused me to think of these algorithms dutifully labouring away to come up with key-phrases like ‘Yo Mamma jokes’ and ‘weird pants’.

MG: It ran until 20th January 2013, and ended due to system changes in the Gmail ad settings. How many videos did you produce and were you glad when it all had finally ended?

ES: Not sure how many I made – but I was 6 weeks short of the intended year, so definitely over 300. Actually I was infuriated and somewhat depressed when it ended without warning and in a moment of panic I even thought about somehow cheating it out to the end; but working with a system that is beyond your control (i.e. Google) necessarily involves handing over some of your authorial agency. So instead I embraced the unexpected ending and threw a kind of send-off party plus performance in my bedroom/ studio to mark it.

But this question of agency is obviously crucial in the discussion of technology and runs through the project in various ways, beyond its unintended termination. At the level of the overall structure, it involves following a simple instruction (to write and process the diaries every day and do the webcam recording) which could be seen as the enactment of a procedure that echoes the operation of a software program carrying out automated scripts. And on the level of the texts, while all the language used in the project was generated and created by the software, I also was exercising a certain amount of control over which sections of the diary I favoured and editing the resulting lists, a move which seemingly reasserts my own authorial agency.

Thus the texts are more composed and manipulated than they first appear, but of course the viewer has no way of knowing what was edited out and why; they have to take it on faith that the texts they hear are the ‘real’ ones for that diary.

MG: During this period you recorded daily interactions of the ongoing experience onto webcam. As you went through the process of viewing the constant Google algorithms, I am wondering what kind of effect it had on your state of mind as you directly experienced thousands of different brands being promoted whilst handing over the content once again, verbally to the live camera?

ES: I’m not sure what effect it had on my state of mind, though considering the amount of concerned friends that got in touch after viewing the videos, Google certainly thought I was mostly stressed, anxious and depressed. Maybe it’s just easier to market things to a negative mind state.

But also, the recurrence of these terms was no coincidence; early film theorist Tom Gunning has argued that Charlie Chaplin’s bodily movement in Modern Times [5] ‘makes it clear that the modern body is one subject to nervous breakdown when the efficiency demanded of it fails,’ and compares his jerky, mechanical gestures with the machines of his era.

So I was interested in if and how you could do something similar for the contemporary body; how can we envisage it and its efficiency failures in relation to the technology of today when our machines are opaque and unreadable, if we can see them at all. Maybe what they ‘look like’ is code (a type of language), so it would entail some kind of breakdown communicated through language rather than bodily gestures – though the deadpan delivery certainly evokes a machinic ‘computer says no’ type of affectlessness.

Also, Franco Berardi has spoken of the super-speedy fatigued denizen of today’s infoworld, for whom “acceleration is the beginning of panic and panic is the beginning of depression”. In a sense this recurrent theme of stress and anxiety disavows the idea of the efficient, ever-ready, always-on subject of neo-liberalism – and yet the project as a whole kind of sneakily joins the club too, since it obeys the imperative of productivity by turning a diary (personal life, non-work) into a ‘project’ (i.e. work).

As mentioned earlier in terms of the ‘transformation economy’, I’m really interested in this idea of efficiency also as it manifests in rhetorics of self-betterment, and its relation to the neo-liberal promotion of self-responsibility (if you’re poor, it’s your fault….). Diaries and journal writing – as well as meditation, yoga, therapy, self-help etc – are often championed in everything from cognitive fitness to management literature as excellent ways of becoming more ‘efficient’. The underlying belief seems to be that by unloading all the crap that weighs you down, from emotional blockages to unhelpful romantic attachments to an overly-busy mind, you’d get an ‘optimised you’. Why this is necessarily a good thing – apart from the elusive promise of ‘happiness’ of course – is never really discussed.

Tiqquun’s notion of the Young Girl, the model consumer-citizen, is interesting in this regard – taking good care of oneself reframed as a form of subservience which maintains the value and usefulness of our bodies and minds to capital. Their idea that the Young Girl (not actually a gendered concept in their estimation) “advances like a living engine, directed by, and directing herself toward the Spectacle” also points to the irony beneath what appears to be a very humanist/ individualist inflection to these discourses of self-realisation: they could also be read as a latent desire to become somehow more ‘machine-like’, as if we could therapise/ meditate/ journal/ jog away our mind-junk with the swiftness and ease of emptying the computer’s trash, thereby becoming more productive.

And yet I’m clearly complicit in this, as I write diaries, meditate, do yoga and obsess over my bad time management, as Life in AdWords makes clear both in the recurrence of all these activities in the texts and obviously in its structure as a daily journal project.

MG: Robert Jackson in his article Algorithms and Control discusses in his conclusion that even though “use of dominant representations to control and exploit the energies of a population is, of course, nothing new”, when masses of people respond and say yes to this “particular reduced/reductive version of reality”, as an act of investment it “is the first step in a loss of autonomy and an abdication of what I would posit is a human obligation to retain a higher degree of idiosyncratic self-developed world-view.” Alex Galloway also explores this issue in his book Protocol: How Control Exists after Decentralization, where he argues that the Internet is riddled with controls and that what Foucault termed as “political technologies” as well as his concepts around biopower and biopolitics are significant.

Life in AdWords, seems to express the above contexts with a personal approach on the matter. Drawing upon an artistic narrative as the audience views your gradual decline into boredom and feelings of banality. The viewer can relate to these conditions and perhaps ask themselves similar questions as they go through the similar experiences. Thus, through performance and a play on personal sacrifice on a human level, it elucidates the frustrations on the constant, noise and domination of these protocols and algorithms and how they may effect our behaviours.

With this in mind, what have you learnt from your own experience, and how do you see others regaining some form of conscious independence from this state of sublimation?

ES: I found Galloways’ explanation of Foucault’s notions of biopower to be some of the most interesting parts of that book – as he puts it “demographics and user statistics are more important than real names and real identities”, so it’s not ‘you’ according to your Amazon purchase history, but more ‘you’ according to Amazon’s ‘suggestions’ (often scarily accurate in my experience). Which is where the algorithms come in; they do the number-crunching to be able to predict what you might buy, and hence who you are, not because anyone cares about you particularly, but because where you fit in a demographic (a person who is interested in art, technology, etc..) is useful information and creates new possibilities for control.

Regaining conscious independence… hmm. I found it interesting that during the project, the people I explained it to would often report back to me on what keywords their emails had produced, and what adverts came up on Facebook, as they hadn’t really noticed before – so perhaps in these cases it made people more conscious of the exchange taking place in the ‘free’ web economy. Others took up AdBlocker in response, which is one way of gaining distance – by opting out. However, the info each of us generates is still useful, since even if you aren’t seeing the ads, your choices and interactions are still being parsed and thus help delineate a particular user group of citizen-consumers.

Despite this, my feeling is that opting out – if it’s even possible – can be a way of pretending none of this stuff is happening. I’m generally more interested in finding ways of working with the logic of the system, in this case the use of algorithms to sell things back to us, and making it overly obvious or visible. Geert Lovink asked whether its possible for artists to adopt an “amoral position and see control as an environment one can navigate through instead of merely condemn it as a tool in the hands of authorities” and his suggestion of using Google to do the ‘work’ of dissemination for you, in spreading your meme/ word/ image, is one I’ve thought about, particularly in other works (especially Woman Nature Alone). This approach entails hijacking the process by which Google’s algorithms organise the hierarchy of visibility to one’s own ends – a ‘natural language’ hack, as Lovink puts it.

In contrast, Life in AdWords makes visible the working of the algorithmic system more on the level of the language it produces. It also employs humour, and laughter has been one of the main responses people have had when watching the videos, for a number of reasons. The frequent dumbness of the language and/ or the juxtapositions (‘Where is God?’, ‘Eating Disorder Program’); the flattening out of all difference between objects/ feelings/ places (e.g. work-related stress, cat food, God, Krakow); and the lack of shame the software exhibits in enumerating bodily and mental malfunctions (blood in poop, wet bed, fear of vomiting) are all quite amusing in and of themselves.

That shameless aspect also echoes the over-sharing and ‘too much information’ tendencies the web (especially social media) seems to encourage, which Rob Horning has written about in his excellent blog, Marginal Utility. It also foregrounds that whatever the algorithms can do, what they still can’t do is emulate the codes of behaviour governing human interaction – including knowing when to shut up about your ‘issues’.

The frequent allusions to these bodily and mental blockages also point to the limits of the productivity imperative – a refusal to perform enacted through minor breakdowns – while bringing it back to an embodied subject, who despite her immersion in networked space is still a body with messy, inefficient feelings, needs and urges. And the comically limited portrait the keywords paint maybe suggests that despite the best efforts of Web 2.0 companies, we still are not quite reducible to a list of consumer preferences and lifestyles.

MG: What are you up to at the monment?

ES: Amongst other things I’m doing a residency with Field Broadcast (artists Rebecca Birch and Rob Smith) called Domestic Pursuits, a project which ‘considers the domestic contexts of broadcast reception and the infrastructure that enables its transmission.’

And I’m working on some drawings plus a video involving Skype meditation with members of the Insight Timer meditation app community, for A Small Hiccup, curated by George Vasey and opening 24th May at Grand Union, Birmingham- the video is being shown online tommorrow.

Also I’m attempting and mostly failing at the moment to write my dissertation for the MRes in Moving Image Art I’m doing at Central St Martins and LUX.

Extra Reference Material

Personal Web searching in the age of semantic capitalism: Diagnosing the mechanisms of personalisation. Martin Feuz, Matthew Fuller, and Felix Stalder.
http://firstmonday.org/article/view/3344/2766

Live Performance. KONRAD BECKER (aka Monoton) featuring SELA 3 themes from “OPERATIONS” (15 min.). Published on Jul 9, 2012. YouTube.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HMscYTAF4wY

About Erica Scourti

Erica Scourti was born in Athens, Greece in 1980 and now lives in London. After a year studying Chemistry at UCL, an art and fashion foundation and a year of Fine Art Textiles at Goldsmiths, she completed her BA in Fine Art at Middlesex University in 2003 and is currently enrolled on a Research degree (Masters) in Moving Image Art at Central Saint Martin’s College of Art & Design, run in conjunction with LUX. Her area of research is the figure of the female fool in performative video works.

She works with video, drawing and text, and her work has been screened internationally at museums like the Museo Reine Sofia, Kunstmuseum Bonn and Jeu de Paume Museum, as well as festivals such as the Recontres Internationales, interfilm Berlin, ZEBRA Film Festival, Antimatter, Impakt, MediaArt Friesland, 700IS as well as extensively in the UK, where she won Best Video at Radical Reels Film Competition; recent screenings include Video Salon Art Prize, Exeter Phoenix, Bureau Gallery, Tyneside Cinema and Sheffield Fringe Festival.

Her work has also been published in anthologies of moving image work like Best of Purescreen (vols 1, 2 and 3) and The Centre of Attention Biannual magazine.

more info – http://www.ericascourti.com/art_pages/biography.html

Jennifer Chan Interview: Interpassivity & Internet Pop Culture

Some have proposed Jennifer Chan to be part of what has been termed as the post-internet era. But, this is an inadequate representation of the spirit, criticality and adventure at play in her work. Chan’s awareness and use of the Internet reflects a way of life, that situates its networks as a primary resource. Chan lives amongst various worlds and engages in different shades of being; a self-described ‘amateur cultural critic’, a net artist, a media artist, and academic. Her work exists both online and in physical realms, it is always present and contemporary. This is because her work lives in a world where the scripting of official art definitions loses its power. People have exploited technology to facilitate new behaviours where the artist or art amateur redefine what art is on their own terms. We are now in a post-art context. It reflects a very real, societal shift. Mainstream art culture no longer owns the consciousness of art, Chan and others like her are pulling it apart.

Interview:

Marc Garrett: In your video Interpassivity a kind of docu-performance made for the exhibition REALCORE, you’re in a park spraying a brown cardboard box, silver. As you go through the process of walking around the box whilst spraying it, you comment on the object’s formal aspects. But, what you mainly discuss are your own personal views about contemporary art. It then becomes apparent that the box is a prop for the performance, enabling the subject to be explored.

Alongside your interpretations of the work my own thoughts on the subject feel as though they are included in the conversation. I know as a viewer, that the artist is not aware of my thoughts on the matter. However, it feels like there is space for me to be a part of the conversation. Not literally through a feedback system or interaction, but as an individual considering your personal questions. The artwork knows I am experiencing it, it knows that a consciousness out there is somehow engaging with its dialogue.

It is clear you are in tune with the feeling of dysfunction. You say, “I need to spit out some creative truth”. On hearing this, I was not sure whether this was a parady, irony or an expression of despair, or all these. You also say “contemporary art is removed from our everyday feelings”. As you express these words I begin the view the box as a symbol of contemporary art as a centralized, institutional monolith? So, before I unwittingly place my own meanings onto the work could you tell us what it means to you?

Interpassivity. Jennifer Chan 2011 - View video
Interpassivity. Jennifer Chan 2011 – View video

Jennifer Chan: Interpassivity is the instance of something cueing an audience to feel a certain way, such as canned laughter to stand in for humoured social reaction to jokes in a sitcom– even when it’s not funny. I titled it that because I felt like another art student trying to convince herself or the viewer what she made is art. I feel embarrassed about this self-aware but privileged complaining. A few people have found this work online and screened it, but I’m still mortified to watch it with them.

I made that video because I think a lot of contemporary art is sterile, mannered and removed from emotion. I wasn’t thinking of Donald Judd at that point but I could see the box standing in as a poor attempt at work, like his work. What I was working on (or seven years of art education) had little to do with what was happening in my life. (So to answer your question, yes, it is despair) Using my flipcam and talking over it was immediate for recording those ideas. It’s also a big trope of Canadian video art… a breathy voiceover conveys something serious and personal.

re: REALCORE. The title came about as a play on the idea of “real life”, or face-to-face life away from keyboard. Likewise, users would say “irl”(in real life), or “so real~” in Facebook comment threads to joke about the divide between online/offline contexts. The curator David Hanes felt the video was important to contextualize my use of sincerity and clichés, I was not being ironic in my intention. Arielle Gavin and Jaakko Pallasvuo thought it was questionably ironic and an emotive perspective on the Internet as a form of new sincerity.

I later found that someone wrote a paper by someone who coined “realcore” as a kind of amateur user-generated porn, which is a cool double-meaning. The “interpassivity” video was used to promote the show online but I showed my kitschy found footage videos on twisted pizza box plinths for the show. This was my fuck-you to geometric minimalism and boring white plinths, but I suppose it resulted in a different take of it…

A Pizza Box Plinth. Jennifer Chan. VSVSVS Toronto. March 16 2012.
A Pizza Box Plinth. Jennifer Chan. VSVSVS Toronto. March 16 2012.

MG: In one of your recent videos “Grey Matter” when watching it felt like I was immediately pulled into a remixed world of teenage celebrity, products and brands, dripping in an orgasmic noise of techno-capitalism. Most of it is found footage, images, video and sound remixed into an edited compilation. Running through the video in between the high octane fuelled cuts and glitches, are messages to the Internet user who chances upon the video. These messages feel like they are from an individual voice but also of a multitude – caught up in a constant state of mediated folk hedonism.

What intentions lie behind this work as an artistic explorer of the entertainment culture you have remixed?

JC: Grey Matter is a first person account on feeling politically inactive online while having access to a wealth of information. I wanted to use remix in a confessional manner, so I combined obscure nostalgic media with embarrassing statements. The video begins with sped up footage of early 3D simulator ride called “Millennium Bug”. Y2K was the first technological “crisis” I recalled with clarity when I was growing up. The rest of the video includes cynical commentary on online spaces I’ve engaged with in the past year. (shopping on aliexpress.com and lurking people on OkCupid) “Little Prince” is compressed 25 times and sped up by 400%. I included old profile pics and some summary text from my OkCupid profile–I thought it was quite telling about how I wanted to be seen online and irl. I think it’s possible to feel mutually exclusive feelings at the same time, or maybe the experience of being active on different social networks produces a kind of schizophrenia. Collaging Internet pop culture is a way to appreciate it-as artifacts-in a complex light, and to be critical of it by acting out within its language.

Jennifer Chan. Grey Matter. Featured at Transmediale 2013. Back When Pluto Was A Planet
Jennifer Chan. Grey Matter. Featured at Transmediale 2013. Back When Pluto Was A Planet

MG: What do you find fascinating about popular culture on the Internet?

JC: Anything minuscule has the potential to be popular amongst disparate users and they form vernaculars to talk about their interest in that. I find that desire relatable. That is what I think of as “community” online. It’s based on human interest and media fandom. Justin Bieber is made into something of a scapegoat for the first world’s shortcomings; people who like his image/music idolize him, and people who hate him are waiting for him to crack. Both are forms of fanaticism (one based on affinity; the other on hate-watching something.) Supercuts of Justin Bieber hairflips, object crushing fetishists, disease forums, long threads debating a detail…etc. I like the solipsism and intensity of all that.

MG: Can you share with us some of your critical insights and personal pleasures on this subject?

JC: Pop culture is paradoxical and audiences selectively enjoy it. (like  teens dancing to hip hop with irreverence to its violent or sexist content.) Consuming and sampling pop allows people to indulge into its meanings, and through this there is a reconsideration of what “the masses” find important. Like the use of “users”, “masses” is what cultural studies calls everyone or everyone except-you. But every “user” has a specific relationship with interfaces and platforms, so they aren’t so homogenous.

Pop culture is also political. There was a time when more people voted for American Idol than the US elections, and if 10,000 people showed up to the 2012 cat video festival, entertainment is generally more seductive than current affairs–until there is a gatekeeping emergency (like mainstream media not covering the early days of Occupy). In terms of “internet pop culture”, perhaps traffic with social networking has overtaken porn and gambling online, but social news is also a kind of entertainment.

Jennifer Chan. factum/mirage (2010). Edited and looped one-off webcam performances for the masturbating population on Chat Roulette, which are screenrecorded as video documentation. http://vimeo.com/15116352
Jennifer Chan. factum/mirage (2010). Edited and looped one-off webcam performances for the masturbating population on Chat Roulette, which are screenrecorded as video documentation. http://vimeo.com/15116352

MG: Olia Lialina and Dragan Espenschied in their book Digital Folklore they celebrate everyday people’s use of personal computers with “glittering star backgrounds, photos of cute kittens and rainbow gradients”. They value the non-professionalism and amateur spirit that has come about from millions of people enjoying the Internet since it started. There is a difference now, the Internet masses have been shifted and prodded into large web 2.0 frameworks such as Facebook, and an abundance of personal web projects have been lost since.

And, like them do you find reassurance or a personal connection with the Internet Amateurs of the world?

JC: In context of new media art, it’s probably more accurate to think of amateurs as people who don’t self-identify as artists or technicians. What non-artists do with software and video appears facile, sincere, and intuitive. I make amateur-looking work to dialogue with that.. I like to say something dumb to say something serious. Something that’s made simplistically and filled with kitschy references can be packaged as critique that also appeals to non-art audiences.

I caught the tail end of the homepage-o-sphere/webring 1.0 period. Non-artists made personal websites out of a genuine interest in something. tumblr and pinterest is used in a same way today–to collect indiscriminately. Like 2.0 frameworks, the early internet also had free webpage hosting that users relied on (Geocities and Lycos). Personal website design isn’t over either; net artists still make them or bind together to create their own sites (like tightartists.com). I think I have an idea of what you mean though; it was less commercial and there weren’t as many distinct “most-visited” places online.

I made a lot of gothy dark art on DeviantArt before I knew about contemporary art, and my sensibility towards Photoshop was more romantic and impulsive without the baggage of art education. Maybe this “revival” cult of amateur-looking digital folklore happened because I/we exoticize that kind of amateur production. Web vernaculars have also become stylized and this aesthetic is shared with seapunks and filmmakers. Artists need to adapt to that.

MG: What do you feel is still alive and open for everyday online expression and play, in respect of what Lialina and Espenschied perceive as Digital Folklore?

JC: I think a lot of emerging artists have a greater awareness of obsolescence and upgrade culture than we give them credit for–while still complacent to the socialization structures on Facebook. Many seem more interested in navigating these networks to question their inner control mechanisms than overthrowing them or innovating new ones. It can be simple things like friending as many users as possible, looping webcam feeds, archiving and re-uploading banned content on different platforms, having an anonymous/alternate personas/using multiple accounts…etc. People like glitchr and Ian Aleksander Adams are always looking for ways to use a system against its intended functions in the same way jodi did all the cheat moves in max payne CHEATS ONLY. I admire glitch practices for that.

There’s also the possibility for re-appropriating anything to rebrand or critique particular communities. I think Angela Washko and Jaakko Pallasvuo are doing this in a compelling way that covers a large territory between art and Internet culture.

MG: So, what are you working on at the moment?

JC: <–for some reason this sounds less perverted than if I were an old guy doing this to teen girls but its really just as perverse–>

I’m observing what young adult/teen boys do on YouTube: bulking up, performing dares, talking about how to pick up a White/Asian girls etc. I’m also making a video about Asian guys (both diasporic, Asian American, and more specifically, Korean and Taiwanese men) and their interpretations of mediated masculinity. There is something disturbingly tantalizing in terms of how they have learned to look at the webcam as if they are boy band stars yet they are not fully grown men. A lot of this is informed by growing up in Hong Kong, and knowing that fashion and romance, is inspired by many “neighbouring” cultural media from Japan, Korea and Taiwan even though American/British influence is also prominent in the club scene.

(also view main image on top of web page)
(also view main image on top of web page)

Here are two images from my late installation that will foreshadow this interest. It’s chat text over layered on modified fashion and makeup adverts targeted at Korean and Chinese men, and printed onto micro-fibred bedding. I feel like they’re treated as pleasant freak shows on tumblr but this imagery is a banal, idealized kind of masculinity in Asia. I think western facial features are really common amongst these popular images of Asian-ness, and most would tend to read it as aspiring to western culture, though the hyperfemme “doll” look or metro-masculinity has been a regional style since the 90s.

Conclusion

Chan’s work reflects an emerging condition described by Zizek as “interpassivity” in which our engagement with interactive experience has lost traction and is replaced with “its shadowy and much more uncanny supplement/double “interpassivity””[1], a “Fetish between structure and humanism”[ibid]. We are pulled into a paradox, where ‘interaction and passivity’ are joined together as spectacle of constant mediation. Millions have joined online centralized, megastructures such as Facebook, and this is not a black and white situation. Many are coerced from social and consumer pressures into the state of being seen as interacting. As the futuristic time machine streams onwards at high-speed, agency slouches into a spurious and distant dream. Others and the same are enjoying the flow for the sake of self expression within these scripted frameworks.

Chan’s work critiques, plays with, and exploits this networked, social intervention, as well as her viewers’ desires. Her imaginative palette revivifies questions about agency, passivity, sexuality, privacy, individuality, behaviour, networked consumption and its production. These remixed artworks have much material to work with, as the endless ether of everyday noise is uploaded and distributed through blogs and social networking sites; then returned into the ether as cut-ups where a transforming culture is engaged in its own mutation.

Its noise engages us whether we enjoy it or not, in the medium of “interpassivity”, and we all find ourselves caught within this spectacular enticement driven by the Netopticon. “On a holiday trip, it is quite common to feel a superego compulsion to enjoy, one “must have fun” — one feels guilty if one doesn’t enjoy it.”[ibid]

Jennifer Chanhttp://www.jennifer-chan.com/

Selected Projects by Chan

Heavy MetaVernacular video after the popularization of the internet
http://jennifer-chan.com/index.php?/curatorial/heavy-meta/
SELF-LOVE A non-consensual exhibition of emerging net art
http://jennifer-chan.com/index.php?/curatorial/self-love/
New Insularity Peer backpatting. A screening of works by friends and users whose works I admire.
http://jennifer-chan.com/newinsularity.html

Older

Feeling VideoThe affective appeal of antisocial video
http://jennifer-chan.com/index.php?/curatorial/feeling-video/
Trivial Pursuits Distracting “new media art”
http://jennifer-chan.com/index.php?/curatorial/trivial-pursuits/

Being in the uncomfortable middle and the continued need for physical space

About a year ago Eleanor Greenhalgh started her project The Dissolute Image (TDI), a speculative, poetic image hosting technique. By splitting images into individual pixels and distributing them, it enables banned content to be secretly posted on corporate social platforms. TDI enables users to post a single pixel on their own social media page. All the entries are tracked by TDI and each pixel will re-appear on a dedicated website, eventually re-forming the image. I asked Eleanor about her motivation and interest in censorship and hosting issues.

Annet Dekker (AD): Could you tell me a little bit about your background?

Eleanor Greenhalgh (EG): I did a fine art BA at Oxford Brookes in the UK where I started working on participatory projects. I consider myself somewhere between a curator and a facilitator, but it is a role that I haven’t quite worked out. From being involved in environmental activism, I became really fascinated by the way that these kinds of groups organized themselves. These were non-hierarchical groups that tried to avoid replicating the types of hierarchies which they’re opposing. It is a really fascinating process because it doesn’t always go so well.

AD: Could you give an example of such conflict?

EG: Facebook for example hides its ideological biases behind fluffy language of wanting to make it a community space that’s safe for everybody, so you’re not going to come across offensive material. Whereas you talk to an anarchist hosting collective, they will be honest and tell that they’re not hosting stuff that they disagree with, because they consider it part of their activism and they’re not going to give resources to a cause that they disagree with. So how does that relate to the demand for solidarity? It’s a recurring problem. If you believe in building some kind of alternatives, solidarity is essential. But where does your desire to show solidarity conflict with your own values, your own autonomy?

I think this is a source of deep ambivalence. On the one hand being autonomous, while at the same time being deeply vulnerable to the collective – whether relying on others to host your data, to back you up on a demonstration, or just look after each other on a very physical level. I want to expose this vulnerability, this ambivalence, which you find between the two extremes of total autonomy or total solidarity. Rather than choosing one of them, I’m interested in looking in the middle and asking, why is it that being in the middle is so uncomfortable, and why is there this temptation to flee to one of these two extremes?

AD: Why is being in the middle uncomfortable? Isn’t that the place that most people choose to be in?

EG: I think social life puts us in the middle, whether we choose it or not. To give an example from a campaign I’m involved with, for abortion rights: we use the rhetoric of ‘bodily autonomy’. Yet, this ‘autonomy’ relies upon medical care given by others. It can only exist because of other people. What’s uncomfortable about this fact is that it confronts us with our own vulnerability. The fantasy of an asocial autonomy is seductive (and dangerous); the idea that we could be self-sustaining, without the need to do politics.

AD: During your time at Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam you focused a lot on the issues of censorship and hosting, both in The Dissolute Image (TDI) and in Volunteer Hosts, where you asked people to physically host files which they didn’t know the contents of. What is your interest in hosting?

EG: I became interested in hosting from two angles. Firstly from a social angle, and the power dynamics of who hosts what and why. Secondly from a physical angle, the fact that data needs to live somewhere and our reliance on hardware and services that we don’t own and have little control over. I’m interested in how that relates to people who are trying to articulate an alternative. Also asking the question of whether hosting something is the same as endorsing it.

I have been watching for example the work that Freedom Box has been doing, developing a small server that you can carry with you. The emphasis is that this is on your body and it is in your house, which makes it harder to seize data because different laws apply when something is in your house. I am exploring or even arguing for the beauty of this kind of approach – the beauty of the continued need for physical space. Hakim Bey (who is good at rhetoric if not politics) said that ‘the question of land refuses to go away’. Meaning, if we want to build an alternative then it has to live somewhere – somewhere physical. And yes, that includes ‘the cloud’ – another rhetorical device which obscures this fact. I don’t think this need for embodiment is a weakness or an inconvenience, as feminists have long argued (Karen A. Franck’s early critique of virtual reality comes to mind). The fantasy of disembodiment – whether geographical, sexual, technological – usually serves those who want to avoid discussions of how these spaces and bodies are governed.

AD: What were the reactions of people on TDI?

EG: People found it really fun, which I didn’t expect. Although, the project is still in a very early stage so not many pixels have been adopted, and it’s not possible to see what the image is. If and when the image ever is completed I wonder how those people will feel, if they will retract their ‘vote’, or whether it will just be like so many other things online where you click OK and then you forget about it. But in the early stages people seem to be very engaged by it and they like this rhetoric of showing solidarity and being part of it.

AD: How did you select the image(s)?

EG: The question of motivation is what interested me in choosing an image, because its very easy to stand up and say, ‘I disagree with censorship’, for example, but I don’t think it is as simple as to censor or not to censor. By asking people to adopt part of an image I’m trying to ask them the question of where they draw their own limits. If they will host something purely in the name of solidarity, or if they need to know a little bit more about it before they are willing to give their resources or their endorsements to it. Without giving away too much, I have tried to choose images in such a way that they would challenge the audience, so that people who are likely to say ‘yeah that’s great, I’m against censorship’, would stop and think a little bit about what they are willing to give a platform to.

AD: What is the role of people who participate in your projects?

EG: The question I came up against with Volunteer Hosts was figuring out what the investment would be for the people participating in it, and also how to keep track of the files. Also would this count as an archive, if there is no way of tracking the files that have been put in it? I think that could be quite nice as a gesture: that you create an archive which then is scattered and you have no way of knowing whether these USB keys have just been immediately wiped and had put more interesting things on there, or whether people really have faithfully held on to them, and maybe that is where gathering feedback becomes really important. It seems quite important to know, although there is also a beauty maybe in not knowing and somehow just surrendering your files.

I’m trying to experiment with how much you can remove something from its context, where it still has enough meaning to be engaging. There is something for me really beautiful about single pixels of which you’ve really have no idea what it could be. TDI has over 95,000 pixels, so it is highly unlikely that this image will ever be completed and that’s obviously built into the design of the project itself. The fact that it would take so long, and take so many people, for me is a source of beauty. I think it can be fine to use a type of game-like mentality to engage people, if you get them to think about it. I think if you agree to participate in something without really knowing what it is, you are probably going to be quite interested in finding out what it is, as that thing is gradually emerging. It’s the inherent excitement of thinking you have a stake in something, and therefore perhaps it will affect you. It is fascinating to take a whole and break it into lots of tiny pieces, or take tiny pieces and bring them together.

AD: So your main interest is in the conversation or a discussion?

EG: Yes, I think it is important to have some form in which that conversation happens. I try to capture the reactions of people who participate in the things that I make. That is maybe part of my background in facilitation, and my interest in counselling. The truth of something is in the feelings that it provokes. It is in trying to find out what the subject position is, or feels like, of somebody who is called upon to transmit the content of other people. What are the investments in there, why would you do it? What are the dilemmas that they face? At what point will you stop doing it, or under what conditions? Would you either withdraw your agreement, or put more conditions on it?

I’d like to argue for the value of simply reflecting, but also acknowledging my stake in it as an individual. I feel I have to try and resist a pragmatic attempt to somehow merely utilize the information, or to identify it as an activist act; there doesn’t necessarily need to be an outcome. It can be quite uncomfortable to admit that maybe you don’t have all the answers, or maybe there are contradictions in your approach. I’m trying to get to that point where those anxieties and uncomfortable feelings sit.

AD: How do you relate that back to yourself, what is your role?

EG: I am heavily influenced by my training as a facilitator, using an anarchist model where the facilitator is not the boss or the chair of the meeting but they are really in service to the group. In this model there are two qualities needed by a facilitator: being assertive and being neutral. It is an immensely powerful way of thinking, that you could be really assertive in, for example, designing a project and setting boundaries (kicking out spammers, people who are dominating the group), but at the same time being completely neutral in a sort of psychoanalytic way, while looking at the content. Anything that comes in, you hold in that space. On the other hand it is a complete contradiction; how can you be assertive and yet also neutral? You are always making decisions about what counts as spam versus what counts as a valid input. Perhaps it is a parallel dilemma to the one I mentioned, between solidarity and autonomy. These are the difficult and interesting questions of doing radical politics. Or doing any kind of democracy. So, while it is contradictory in many ways, I have seen this technique of neutral facilitation being used to incredible effect, and it’s one that I adopt. I think not having the answers, not determining the outcome, and being vulnerable to other people are beautiful ethical positions.

—-
+ For more information about Eleanor Greenhalgh: http://eleanorg.org/

Foundland: Critical Stories.

Featured image: Journey to Ard al Amal (The Land of Hope). Screenshot box & video installation. Impakt festival & exhibition. Image Pieter Kers

Foundland, Ghalia Elsrakbi (SY) and Lauren Alexander (SA), is a multi-disciplinary art and design practice based in Amsterdam. With backgrounds in graphic design, art and writing Foundland’s approach focuses on research based, critical responses to current issues. While moving around in advertising, printed matter, the Internet, and off line art spaces they dig up interesting stories about Disney, SpongeBob and defected soldiers.

Annet Dekker: Where does the name Foundland come from, or what does it mean?

Lauren Alexander: We started working together in 2009 and at the time we had worked on a project about being stateless, so Foundland seemed fitting. It is quite literally a way of thinking about how to found a land and to create a space that we could use as a platform for thinking about ideas with some kind of visual output. For us, space is related to political scenarios, and also to something virtual, online, all these different places that we inhabit.

Ghalia Elsrakbi: Foundland relates also to finding and discovering something new, looking behind something. We are very interested in speculation, we speculate about images and their meaning, in order to find something unexpected.

AD: What is your focus, what are you trying to find and tell?

LA: We want to tell stories in new ways, because by telling a story in a different way, especially related to subjects which are often seen in the media, you are offering an alternative perspective.

GE: The exhibition we just did for Impakt festival is a good example. With the installation Journey to Ard al Amal (The Land of Hope) we speculated how popular characters and animations, dubbed from Japanese to Arabic, or adapted from Walt Disney, play a valuable role in imagining heroes and villains. We were looking at a history of cartoons. This isn’t obviously political, but when seeing how cartoons are used in Syria and other places, interesting issues came up and we constructed a story that reflected on the current situation. We looked for connections between the way people see cartoon characters now and how they are embedded in childhood memories. In the end what we present is a kind of imagined picture of how things could be, maybe as an alternative to watching the news.

Foundland at Impakt. Image by Pieter Kers for Impakt.
Foundland at Impakt. Image by Pieter Kers for Impakt.

AD: Can you elaborate a bit, what images did you see and how did you (re)use them?

LA: In the installation we focused on this specific case study of the apocalypse scenario which is sketched in a cartoon series called Adnan and Leena in Arabic. In an earlier research essay Simba, the last Prince of Ba’ath country, we extracted images and characters from Arabic websites and speculate on appropriation by showing original images, before they were photoshopped. In a talk we did, we were also drawing connections to the way that Western cartoon characters are suddenly popping up in news footage, and how activists use cartoon identities on the Internet.

GE: Currently there is a full swing of the way Western stories are adapted. For example images of Mickey Mouse or SpongeBob are painted on walls in Syria. In the talk we question whether it is still Mickey Mouse that we see, the one that we remember from our children books, or if it means something else? We compared and related these images to the way such iconography is appropriated and used by both activists and ruling parties. The reuse of symbols and images and how sometimes historical moments are turned into something completely different is very interesting. Such findings are what we are really focusing on.

Foundland. Simba. Image by Pieter Kers for Impakt.
Foundland. Simba. Image by Pieter Kers for Impakt.

AD: There is also a long and popular tradition of autonomous animation in middle east, how does that relate to what you’ve been researching?

LA: Cartoons are very differently perceived in Syria, and also in South Africa, unlike in the Netherlands, they pose a huge threat to those in charge. For example the government is continuously suing political cartoonists like Ali Farzat in Syria and Zapiro in South Africa because their cartoons undermine existing power structures.

GE: There are indeed many artists who create political cartoons or satirical statements but with these Disney cartoons it was about finding the hidden story of an image. We recognise the cartoons from a Western perspective and the local one. By making connections and telling a different story we want to give a different perspective and a better understanding of what is really happening. Actually I grew up with Japanese Manga, but today Disney is everywhere. This is also political because in the time that Hafez Al-Assad was running Syria there was no American culture at all, when he died his son opened the country a bit for the Western market and you started to see American programmes. Nevertheless, everything is dubbed to Arabic so children don’t necessarily view it as an American production because it speaks their own language and sometimes stories and words are changed in order to better relate to Arabic countries.

LA: The connection to America is not obvious, what we found is that characters like SpongeBob and Mickey Mouse are simply friendly characters. They are your buddy, they help and like you.

GE: That is why they are used in this process of freedom fighting. ‘Your friends’ carrying the freedom flag and are used to create a kind of identification with the message that they want you to see. I mean, it is difficult to hate or not to trust these images because they are icons of friendliness. Whereas the image of a politician or some other hero who is telling a personal story can easily be damaged, a cartoon image is unbreakable. It appeals to children involved in the revolution. So, these images consist of many layers and bring up interesting questions. We aren’t looking for the true answer, because in the end we create our own story.

AD: Could you speak of a sort of universal populism or at least a continuing iconography?

GE: There are many different images, from the Lion and the Father and the Son, to things you see in public space, or images that people grew up with. These are all reused in a digital form and become part of the revolution. People tend to think of them as new images, but when you compare them to older ones, the original, it reflects very much the ideology of the regime. By putting them in a different context we try to force people to question the images and the stories.

LA: I remember that I was in South Africa when we were working on the fiction interview with a propaganda makers text and I had asked my mother to read it. She commented that ‘This is what the government used to say during apartheid, I recognize this’. I guess this shows quite a universal context. We are so used to advertisement and iconography that we don’t question it and tend to ignore the meaning.

GE: Yes, it’s not so different at all, propaganda still uses the same techniques, they have not changed and people fall for it. I think it’s very good to expose propaganda makers.

AD: What new context are you giving it?

LA: Up till now our work has been presented in a western context within the framework of festivals or art spaces.

GE: We wanted to show it to a Western audience, but now we also want to see how it will work when we go to Syria or the Middle East. This will be a challenge because we need to find a way to make that translation back again.  We tried already a few times to publish texts for example, but the expectation is very different, stories are more direct and literal, you say exactly what you mean, not the way that we do it here which is reading between the lines.

AD: Is that also why you work in so many ways, from installations, to print, to presentation, to video?

LA: Yes, a lot of this is about experimentation with how things work. We often start from something that we have found online. We find a lot of information, which can be confusing, and then it is about finding the right moment, time and place to present it. Giving it all your attention to dig into an issue, know more and tell more.

GE: Each time we try to define the best way to present what we want to say. It is interesting to open and use the whole research process, it is not just about an end result that is presented. For example, now we are collecting a lot of defection movies from soldiers who are leaving the official army Syrian and joining the free army. What we notice is that the visibility of this free army is that it is only online, on YouTube. We are interested in how an identity of an army that exists on the ground and performs all kinds of operations, primarily takes place on YouTube. The videos of the defectors are almost like a physical performance of defection. We want to collect the story of it, to help people appreciate this image, why it was made, and think about what this means for us.

AD: Digging up memories and confronting people?

GE: When we started the cartoon project we noticed that people were hiding their identity online behind popular cartoon masks. It was really about how people used the Internet.

LA: We discovered that using the Internet is not always about the technical functions of connectivity, distribution, uploading and liking.

GE: If you look for example at how Syrians use the Internet, it’s really for emotional support. A few months ago there was no Internet in the whole of Syria, which was emotionally a big thing because people abroad couldn’t connect to people online and read their contributions. The revolution is nothing without these contacts. All of a sudden a Facebook campaign started called ‘Here is Damascus’. At first I didn’t understand it, but it turned out to be a reference to an event that happened in the 60’s in Cairo, while at war with Israel, the radios were cut off and there was no communication in the city. At that point the city of Damascus changed the name of their radio to  ‘Cairo radio’. A political statement, like a re-enactment, happened now on Facebook. The Internet has all these different kinds of layers, of reflecting on history and bringing events to life.

See more Foundland work and updates at www.foundland.info

Interview with James Lowne

James Lowne won the Animate Digitalis Prize in 2011, with his computer animation Someone Behind the Door Knocks at Regular Intervals. His latest animation, Our Relationships Will Become Radiant (2012) was recently screened at the BFI and Tate Modern, and is now available on DVD.

Sarah Thompson: First let’s talk about Someone Behind the Door Knocks at Irregular Intervals. How did you go about creating this piece?

James Lowne: Something that interested me was the idea of contemplation and distraction, how we relate to these contrasts in a space where images are in circulation. The production of gestures and poses that are prepared, cropped and then framed for output as media content. So for this film I tried to convey these themes, within a cinematic sense, by way of a narrative. A friend gave me a piece of music and I thought I would set down some pictures to this. I began to source pictures from different places, personal photographs, movie stills, magazine ads, and consider new arrangements of these, treating them as objects. For me this appropriation is an important part of the process.

ST: Appropriation of data objects?

JL: Images could be seen as condensed information perhaps, but what I find interesting is the effect of accumulation, like interchangeable tiles. A grand narrative of the exchange, and this is what becomes more important than the singular image. But conversely, and what I find incredible, is that always within the homogeneous there is this latent singular moment, where one image, an instance of infinite copies, presents itself as unique in a particular situation to a particular viewer. The image selects the viewer, not the other way around.

ST: It has the particular quality of exploring psychic space, which I think is a key quality of Computer Animation. Do you think this is why the medium suits you so well?

JL: Well, I think we should elaborate on the term psychic space. And also think about what we mean by computer animation. What is the working process? What is the form of presentation? Still it is being used within the parameters of filmmaking. Mainstream cinema CGI relies heavily on anthropomorphism, a long line of tradition from early cell animations. To move an object suggests giving it life of some kind, but the process of making the image move is different now, it’s much quicker for one. What the computer brings to the animator is the illusion of a 3 dimensional environment as a working space, the monitor resembling the camera frame. What interests me is the ability to very quickly explore what effects a camera can have over a subject and how the subject has been posed. Capturing gestures from different angles and rendering them into images brings the meaning of this body language into question. The computer can allow you to make these decisions at incredible speeds, whizzing the camera around the subject with your mouse and keyboard. You couldn’t do this so quickly with actual cameras and so a new selection process comes into play, and this for me suggests the relationship of space and surface, and you can work like a machine, running through infinite choices.

ST: So the relationship is perhaps more of a spatial one?

JL: Yes, but a simulated space. The computer allows us to enter into this space and this is with the use of an interface, and this is the fundamental difference from, say, drawing on paper, or painting.

Still from 'Our Relationships Will Become Radiant' courtesy the artist
Still from ‘Our Relationships Will Become Radiant’ courtesy the artist

ST: The characters in both films are ‘roughly drawn’ as though you were ‘feeling the way’ as you were making it. Is that so?

JL: Drawing and writing form a starting point for my work, and I am more interested in ideas. I didn’t have a camera or any actors, but I did have a computer. I had learnt how to use all these graphic software programmes from the commercial work I had done. It struck me that the software packages end up monopolising aesthetics somewhat, with a focus on simulating cinematic styles, animating figures in a certain way, and so on. To me this seemed rather pointless and I wanted to try and get a different connection with the machine, to see if I could apply drawing through the interface. I found it very tricky, really.

ST: But through this process you make acutely emotive characters. What sort of commercial work did you make?

JL: The commercial work I had done would involve applying motion graphics onto things, or manipulating footage in post-production. I would go through frame by frame watching the actors or models in corporate adverts and film trailers. Their stylised expressions and poses I really liked, you get to think about them differently when watching them over again, and freezing on a frame of your choice.

ST: Maybe this is why these works are both funny as well as saddening. There is also a strong filmic influence like Psycho, and Blood of a Poet…

JL: For me cinema is a greater influence than animation. I like the way film can generate mood as well as story, and often the techniques of production can overwhelm the overall form. This is what is great about the old, Italian horror films of Fulci or Argento, which have relatively low production values and often, dubious narrative coherence. But this is what is so empty and distancing about them, this form makes them incredible. And the fact that I would watch them on VHS copies of variable quality only amped up the level of horror. I think these old horror films straddle that feeling of humour and terror.

ST: Like Antonioni except horror?

JL: I am not familiar with the work of Antonioni. I know Blowup, and I want to see Red Desert. But I wouldn’t make a connection with him and someone like Fulci though, that’s a whole different ball game. Fulci’s lack of filmmaking skills is the wonderful aesthetic I think, rather than the other way around.

ST: It also has qualities of traditional animation, like leaves quivering in the breeze…

JL: Yes, I like that scene as a cut away. I like the fact that in films you can uses images and sounds of nature to set certain romantic moods. I was interested in the affect that the computer generation of this style would achieve. Is it the same? The leaves look like they are kind of flashing.

ST: The narrative is all implied; do you think this puts the emphasis on the psyche of the central character?

JL: Well, I was learning about cinematic techniques as I was making the film, trying things out. Editing a sequence is very interesting to me, the way subjectivity can be manufactured by putting things next to each other. I think we tend to think about films, web and TV in a natural way when looking at media content – that this is the correct way to order a sequence of images together to tell a story – but for me this is a problem and it lends itself to playing on emotions, and this is also how we are marketed to. Is narrative implied in the dialogue between the object of advertising and the subject of consumer? In the capitalist society we are put into a space to engage with the object of choice, we shift through many surfaces of appearances quickly to construct a reality. Maybe we should edit more films like this, reflect back the illusion and test out new durations. I love the way Warhol’s films have impossible durations, making us consider ourselves rather than the work.

Still from 'Our Relationships Will Become Radiant'
Still from ‘Our Relationships Will Become Radiant’ courtesy the artist

ST: We are very used to, if not inculcated in commercial object relations?

JL: I think Baudrillard uses the term absolute advertising, the form itself of advertising as an operational mode. He also speaks of the demand for advertising. I find it interesting in that we may try to determine our positions in the social sphere within this backdrop, even as we disregard it as meaningless, it has a role in mapping the coordinates in which media moves about.

ST: Do you think we see computer animation in a prejudicial way, and expect certain things from it?

JL: I think people expect certain styles and genres from their cinematic entertainment. I think we look for authenticity in things. We see computer animation everyday and don’t question it, for example on TV commercials, idents for the web, branding and corporate logos. Computer games are having an effect on cinema too. I think only if the context is changed people may question it.

ST: I mean that it’s possible to do things and say things with animation which wouldn’t be so realisable with film, animation is maybe more iconic?

JL: I think film and computing are very much as one now. Anything can be achieved in a post-production suite, and is quite often expected of film today. I think the aesthetics should cross even more rather than CGI trying to emulate film. The opening scene to David Lynchs’ Mulholland Drive for me is a perfect way of using computer graphics and film, and this achieves an amazing effect for the cinema.

ST: In Our Relationships Will Become Radiant there is a similar exploration of the psychic space between individuals to Someone Behind the Door but it is drawn out further and even more oblique. The characters have a special relationship with images in a frame? Like i-Pads almost. They find the ‘photographs’ lying on the ground.

JL: Well, I was trying to use narrative to look at subjects, to look at relationships within a network of some kind. I wanted to let the film generate some of its own relationships. In the narrative there is this kind of defined physical space that these people find themselves in, although they try to make this space limitless. I was interested in the idea that they lose their physicality somewhat, maybe disregarding their bodies, or appropriating themselves as images.

ST: Perhaps the specifics of the narrative ‘don’t matter’, it is as though you are finding the essence of manners of relating which can be more subtle in CG because you can manipulate the models more quickly?

JL: Certain narrative forms we take for granted as real, news reports or some big corporate event, the way these things are mediated to us we accept as a truth, the way that it actually is or actually happened, which is obviously not true. I think narrative forms should be explored to allow us to think about what we take for granted as truth, and even further, how do we act in the space of choice between different truths when the mediation of these subjects is the same?

ST: Is it that a narrative can be suggested, but it doesn’t actually have to be a narrative to have a narrational effect? And then it is sort of how we find meaning symbolically in pictures, and that helps us to make sense of life?

JL: Well, exactly. Questioning things is very important, especially if we are to live in a network of images. In conventional narrative forms emotion and passion can be exploited very easily, and maybe this helps keep those accepted forms of mediation in operation. Cinematic narratives can be reframed in new stylistic approaches to adapt to the present ideology, but are we breaking away from the conventional structures?

The DVD is available from the BFI shop, published by Filmarmalade, and it also includes a second new film, Corporate Glossy Warhol Burger, co directed with Gordon Shrigley

http://filmstore.bfi.org.uk/acatalog/info_24999.html

http://www.jameslowne.com/

Disrupting The Gaze: Art intervention and the Tate Gallery.

Introduction.

We live in a world riddled with contradictions and confusing signals. Our histories are assessed, judged and introduced as fact yet there are so many bits missing. We accept what is given through soundbite forms of mediation and end up using the easy bits as our defaults, and build up these assumptions as our ‘imagined’ guidelines. This article examines how these accepted defaults are being challenged by contemporary artists. Each have expressed their own particular (unofficial and official) form of interventions at the Tate Gallery. Featuring art works produced by artists’ and art groups, such as Graham Harwood, Platform, IOCOSE and Tamiko Thiel, we explore their connected enactments and critiques of the existing conditions. Whether it is based on economic, ecological, historical, political or hierarchical situations, they are making others aware of their creative arguments in different ways.

You will not see them accepting an award at the Turner Prize. But, their work has become as equally significant (perhaps even more) than, the mainstream art establishment’s franchised celebrities. There is now wider art audience out there, connected to the Internet and they are aware of the issues of the day. Yet, this context is not reflected back by traditional art venues and art press. Instead, we receive more of the same. The mainstream version of contemporary art has found its allies within a global and corporate culture, where business dictate’s art value. Critical and imaginative contexts contrary to neoliberal demands, are left aside. We cannot trust the ‘official’ art world to produce a realistic vision of what contemporary art really is. It is up those who are not reliant on or diverted by these powerful frameworks and elusive economies, to bring about a different set of examples of an existing parallel world which is thriving, and so much more interesting and relevant.

“Art is subject to a double protection. In the market, it is shielded from unwarranted treatment through controlled ownership. In the museum world, experts decide what should be seen, alongside what, with what interpretation and in what circumstances. A wide public is courted but allowed no power over what it sees. The very ethos of this culture—of exclusivity, elitism and control—is now at odds with the culture people make themselves.” [1] (Stallabrass 2011)

Uncomfortable Proximity.

Hogarth, My Mum 1700-2000 and Constable Haywain, Dad, Mud from the Thames 1800-2000, Composite image c. Graham Harwood 2000.
Hogarth, My Mum 1700-2000 and Constable Haywain, Dad, Mud from the Thames 1800-2000, Composite image c. Graham Harwood 2000.

“From adolescence I had visited the Tate, read the Art books and generally pulled a forelock in the direction of the cult of genius, on cue relegating my own creativity to the Victorian image of the rabid dog. We know well enough that this was how it was supposed to be. The historical literature on ‘rational recreations’ states that, in reforming opinion, museums were envisaged as a means of exposing the working classes to the improving mental influence of middle class culture. I was being inoculated for the cultural health of the nation.”[2] (Harwood)

In 2000, Graham Harwood[3] received the first Net Art online commission from the Tate Gallery London for the creation of his art work ‘Uncomfortable Proximity'[4]. Viewing the visual images/collages created by Harwood; reminds one of the moment when Dorian Gray in Oscar Wilde’s ‘The Picture of Dorian Gray'[5] views his disfigured self portrait. Considered a work of classic gothic fiction with a strong Faustian theme. The facade of his own idealised beauty is revealed as something less attractive and deeply disturbing. Harwood’s approach in offering the viewer to click on the image to see what lies behind shows the people he represents, to be seen as lurking secrets, as ghosts, mutants, lepers and outsiders.

Dorian in front of his portrait in the 1945 film The Picture of Dorian Gray.[6]
Dorian in front of his portrait in the 1945 film The Picture of Dorian Gray.[6]

“Tate Britain stands on the site of Millbank penitentiary incorporating part of the prison within its own structure. The bodies of many of the inmates remain concreted into the foundations of the building. The drains that run from the building to the Thames, a stones through away, bleed this decay into the silt of the Thames.”[7] (Harwood 2006).

Harwood brings to the fore the forgotten people. The lives of others, whose stories are now just distant markers of a past, dominated by a colonial history. These are the losers, the then ridiculed and exploited chavs of their day.

“‘Chav’ is an insulting word exclusively directed at people who are working class.”[8] (Jones 2012).

The first section of ‘Uncomfortable Proximity’ maps high society rituals of tastefulness and its inherent hypocrisy. The second, representations and histories of different people such as friends, family and others, who are unseen in terms of the institution’s remit of tastefulness. To do this he used the historically respected paintings (on-line images) on the Tate web site by artists such as Turner, Hogarth, Hamilton, Gainsborough, Constable and others.

My Skin and The Du Cane Boehm Family Group 1734-2000. Graham Harwood 2000.
My Skin and The Du Cane Boehm Family Group 1734-2000. Graham Harwood 2000.


“This work forced me into an uncomfortable proximity with the economic and social elite’s use of aesthetics in their ascendancy to power and what this means in my own work on the internet.”[9] (Harwood 2006) 

London’s Tate Britain area, before it was reconstructed into an art gallery, in the early 19th century was a national prison. The Millbank Penetentiary, was hailed as the greatest prison in Europe, at a cost of £500,000 it was finally built in 1821. It was Jeremy Bentham, the British philosopher and philanthropist who designed it using his pionering ideas creating the prison as a ‘panopticon’.

“At its centre was the Governor’s House, which allowed prison guards to keep watch over 1,500 transportation prisoners housed in separate cells in the surrounding pentagonal blocks. There were three miles of cold, gloomy passages: the turnkeys invented a code of chalked directions to stop getting lost in the maze!”[10]

Sentenced prisoners were processed in the prison each year and up to 4,000 would then be sent off to distant lands, such as Australia. Within the panopticon, prisoners would not know whether they were being watched or not.

“The panopticon Panoptic power built into the architecture of Benthams’ prison Prefigured what some refer to as the “electronic panopticon” or “surveillance society” which includes: the mass surveillance & collection of data by government on populations; the surveillance & collection of data on consumers for marketing purposes; the management surveillance & control of the workforce by industry.”[11] (Ballantyne)

Somehow Harwood manages to bite at the hand that feeds him, “the artist very deliberately used the work to question the role of digital media in promotion and collection. His Web site copied the Tate publicity site, with his own content inserted, causing substantial institutional disruption around the marketing department because the Tate’s Web site, in common with those of many art museums, was seen primarily as a marketing tool, then perhaps as interpretation, but never before then as a venue for digital art.[12] (Cook, 2001).

At his point it’s worth considering how some artists have experimented with the behaviour of parasites in order to explore their artistic autonomy at the edge of things. The rise of hacking and ‘art and hacktivism’ has brought about artists reimagining their creative intentions not in terms of existing within the frameworks of galleries and museums (although many do show their work in these types of venues as well). Many have chosen not to comply to the ‘official’ script of marketing demands and values imposed by mainstream art world hegemony, or concede to centralised web 2.0 structures dominating Internet culture and our mobile networks.

“The word ‘parasite’ comes from ‘para sitos’, meaning ‘beside the grain’, and refers to those animals that take advantage of grain stores to feed. […] they are not part of the restricted economy of exchange, profit, and return that is at the heart of capitalism, and to which everything else ends up being subordinated and subsumed. Thus they find an enclave away from total subsumption not outside of the market, but at its technical core.”[13] (Gere 2012)

Protest Becomes Art.

Haw under arrest before the State Opening of Parliament in 2010. Photo: Jeff Moore. Telegraph.[14]
Haw under arrest before the State Opening of Parliament in 2010. Photo: Jeff Moore. Telegraph.[14]

In June 2001, activist Brian Haw began his protest against the economic sanction on Iraq, opposite the Palace of Westminster in central London, until his death of lung cancer in June 2011. He earned himself a place in the history books for what he devoted ten years of his life doing, camping in a tent outside the Palace with numerous placards. First it started with only a few banners and then through the years the number of banners accumulated, with its content pointing out to the public and politicians, the huge suffering and killing of people in Iraq supported by the UK government. “Even as fresh attempts were begun to oust him, he won an award for being that year’s ‘most inspiring political figure’.”[15] (Stevenson 2011)

In 2006-7 British artist Mark Wallinger created an installation called State Britain, replicating all of the tents and banners at Parliament Square. Featuring it as his main entry for the Turner Prize at Tate Britain. “Faithful in every detail, each section of Brian Haw’s peace camp from the makeshift tarpaulin shelter and tea-making area to the profusion of hand-painted placards and teddy bears wearing peace-slogan t-shirts has been painstakingly sourced and replicated for the display.”[16] It also included copies of other people’s contributions, consisting of messages and banners amassed by Haw over the years, as a constant and dedicated daily protester, winning Wallinger the Turner Prize.

“…the larger hand-painted signs are defanged by their new context. “Beep for Brian,” once an irreverent call-to-arms taken up by many motorists plowing through the Westminster traffic, has become an absurdity, un-honkably sealed within the echoing marble box of the Tate. Never has the notion of the “lost original,” that timeworn legacy of Duchamp’s ready-mades, carried such a melancholic charge.” [17] (Street)

In contrast to his peers who also came out of the YBA (BritArt) movement in the late 80s and early 90s, which includes individuals such as Damien Hirst, Rachel Whiteread and Tracey Emin, Wallinger is a committed socialist. Damien Hirst was “the leading light in the YBA movement, is a famously good businessman and is now one of the richest men in England.”[18] (Shaw 2011)

“I did feel removed from the YBA thing. But it almost immediately raised people’s game. There was money and there was an audience. Or, to be strictly accurate, there was money – it really was a very targeted strategy to begin with – and the audience came along a bit later.”[19] (Wallinger 2011)

Wallinger’s comments about the audience coming along later rings true. The power of money and marketing created an audience that before,was not there, specifically for the YBA’s. Emerging artists at the time, who were not part of this elite where left out of the picture, not because of their art but because of their lack of connections with YBA circles. Many artists casted their creative intentions and values aside and re-invented their art in accordance to YBA themes, with a hope they would be accepted by this (then) new, mainstream art establishment. From the early 80s, and well into the 90s, UK art culture was dominated by the marketing strategies of Saatchi and Saatchi, a formidable force in the advertising world. The same company had been responsible for the successful promotion of the Conservative party (and conservative culture) that had led to the election of the Thatcher government in 1979. Saatchi and Saatchi Applied their marketing techniques and corporate power, with an accomplished parallel coup within the British art scene, creating an elite of artists who embraced the commodification of their personalities alongside depoliticized artworks.

Stewart Home proposes that the YBA movement’s evolving presence in art culture fits within the discourse of totalitarian art “the critics who theorise the yBa understand that by transforming art into a secular religion, rather than a mere adjunct of the state, liberalism imposes its domination over the ‘masses’ far more effectively than National Socialism. The focus, especially in the mass media, must be on the artists rather than the artwork.”[20] (Home 1996)

Platform and Liberate Tate.

“To be an artist is to contend with the present, and there are not many other careers that afford the freedom to radically examine life and society. To put it bluntly, if artists are studying and writing more about politics, culture, and education, it’s probably a reflection of the unprecedented dysfunctionality of the societies in which they live.”[21] (Deck 2005)

Every now and then something slips through the highly taught institutional web of marketed ideologies and it causes a state of ‘healthy’ unease. One such intervention is the recent collaborative project Tate à Tate.[22] It is a public intervention consisting of an audio guide that people can download onto their MP3 players or mobile phones. The material is accessible from http://tateatate.org – you download a selection of audio files and then take a physical tour to Tate Britain. It is best experienced if you take the Tate Boat to Tate Modern, or you can listen at home. The artists selected to make the sound works are Ansuman Biswas, Phil England, Jim Welton, Isa Suarez, Mark McGowan and Mae Martin.

Mark McGowan, through his daily and weekly online, video broadcasts on Youtube and Vimeo, has gained a large Internet based audience. His videos have appeared on the BBC and the Russia Today news channel. He is a performance artist and constant ‘angry’ critic of the UK government. He has never voted and, is equally critical towards whatever party happens to be in power at the time. Mcgowan’s antics have received interest because of the directness of his arguments. He speaks for and to those who do not have a voice. He reflects upon unjust situations happening in real life. He has become an alterantive force to a ‘politically’ corporate media, who offer no way in for those are not already connected with the elites of institutionalized power.

McGowan, has caused various controversies. In 2007, during Celebrity Big Brother when Jade Goody made what seemed to be racists remarks to her house-mate Shilpa Shetty; he publicised an event in support of Goody, which was a protest to burn an effigy of shetty. In the end did not take place.

His position, was that working class people were being used by the media as product to feed a machine, exploiting everyday people’s vulnerabilities. It is also an attack on the media invention of ‘Chavs’, a deliberate attempt to demonise the working classes of Britain. In retrospect, many viewed incident on Celebrity Big Brother as a clash of classes, and not necessarily a rascist issue. But, it was all too late, the media took control of what it saw as a chance to create a larger spectacle out of an already bleak situation.

“The media despised her. […] ‘Vote the pig out!’ demanded the Sun, which also referred to her as an ‘oinker’. Others taunted her as a vile ‘fishwife’ and ‘The Elephant woman’. As the campaign became a hysterical witch-hunt (indeed, one fo the headlines was: ‘Ditch the Witch!’), members of the public stood outside of the studios with placards reading: ‘Burn the Pig!’.” [23] (Jones 2012)

Dominant ideologies are cultivated hegemonically as part of the mainstream consciousness. And even though, the messages communicated through these channels do not accurately reflect real life, they do reflect stereotypes and easy packages of soundbite items on a cruder (lack of) understanding of what human values are, indivudally and collectively. These ‘mediated’ structures, socially re-construct according to ‘commercialised’ trends rather than looking at deeper resonances. Which should also include a necessary critique of their own roles and responsibilities, aksing what does it do to the psyche of a culture when you creating a spectacle out of the everyday; from fantasy into a permanant state of hyper-reality for profit?

Tate à Tate

“The poverty of the accepted culture and its monopoly on the means of cultural production lead to a corresponding impoverishment of the theory and manifestations of the avant-garde. But it is only within this avant-garde that a new revolutionary conception of culture is imperceptibly taking shape. Now that the dominant culture and the beginnings of oppositional culture are arriving at the extreme point of their separation and impotence, this new conception should assert itself.” [24] (Debord 1957)


In art, in politics, and in all avenues of power in our culture, the working classes have no voice. It seems that the only way to claim personal power is by submitting to the embarrassing scenario of applying as a contestant on what is ironically termed as reality TV. and, this involves singing someone else’s already ‘bland’, tedious songs, usually written by corporate music media. The divide of class is ever present as colonial systems prevail in exploiting not only foreign resources and the destruction of indigenous peoples’ histories and their ways of living; but also in the very states and countries where these corporate ‘friendly’ neoliberalist cults reside. In respect of oil and funding of the arts, Tate à Tate pulls these issues out from being hidden into a mainstream dialogue through their own interventions.

As the markets have gained an increasingly tighter hold on global economics and everyday people’s lives, a rise of international protests has also gained impetus. We have the Occupy protests which have spread from Wall Street to London to Bogota, in over 950 cities in 82 countries. We also have the UK Uncut protest movement challenging the government’s austerity cuts. The Internet has been a valuable medium, allowing people to connect and organise together. This has enhanced crossovers where artists have become activists and activists artists. New forms of ‘networked’ and ‘activist’ expression, exploiting the imaginative skills of artists (and others) has brought brought about a mix of ideas once used by the Situationists. If you are a typical gallery attendee or a purchaser of mainstream art magazines, awareness of current political and ecological issues through these cultural interfaces are rare. Interventionist art challenges this standard. Causing a social anomaly, fracturing the facade of what we are usually informed of as ‘national’ value.

Tate a Tate is a collaboration between the groups Platform, Liberate Tate and Art Not Oil. The work was a response to when BP was promoting its sponsorship activities in the run-up to the 2012 Olympics. Against the British Museum, the National Portrait Gallery, the Royal Opera House and Tate Britain, aligning themselves with BP (British Petroleum). By receiving sponsorship from BP they say these institutions are “legitimising the devastation of indigenous communities in Canada through tar sands extraction, the expansion of dangerous oil drilling in the Arctic, and the reckless business practices that lead to the deaths of eleven oil workers on the Deepwater Horizon. BP’s involvement with these institutions represents a serious stain on the UK’s cultural patrimony.”[25]

Below extracts of an email interview with Mel Evens from Platform:

Mel Evans, Platform: “Tate à Tate began from a creative impulse to install something somehow immovable in Tate. Platform and Liberate Tate were collaborating on the publication ‘Not if but when: Culture Beyond Oil’, which features international artists work in response to the BP Gulf of Mexico catastrohpe, and sets out the key debates on oil sponsorship of the arts. We had noticed our critics were often alluding to a kind of inevitability of BP sponsorship.”

“Liberate Tate’s spectacular performances, although headline grabbing, had all been swiftly cleaned up by Tate staff. Although we knew tough questions were being asked by the Board of Trustees, and 8,000 members and gallery-goers had petitioned Director Nicholas Serota to drop the sponsorship, we also wondered to what extent Tate could absorb our efforts into its own politically savvy artistic persona. So the idea of an audio tour seemed the perfect way for us to create a permanent installation in Tate, challenging BP’s continued presence in the gallery, and recreated by every participant that takes the free download and goes ‘undercover’ in Tate.”

“The process began with a call out for proposals which received a terrific response. From this we came down to three proposals that we thought were equally fantastic and sufficiently different to all warrant exploration – which is where the three chapter journey was born, from Tate Britain to Modern via Tate Boat. From the launch in March 2012 onwards we quickly learned that participants were keen to pick a favourite of the three, their choices were hard to predict.”

“For some, the water related narratives in ‘This is Not An Oil Tanker’, created by Isa Suarez featuring Mae Martin, Mark McGowan and Jasmine Thomas, make the piece the most emotive experience. Others prefer the structure and highly informative content of ‘Drilling the Dirt (A Temporary Difficulty)’ by Phil England and Jim Welton, and likewise other tastes feel most comfortable in the more meandering and evocative ‘Panaudicon’ created by Ansuman Biswas. Panaudicon by Ansuman Biswas at the Tate Britain is by far the most successful… its interaction with and interpretation of its environment is a lot more complex. As initiators of a project with which we want to reach diverse audiences, we’re glad there’s something in there for everyone.”

Other Art Interventions on BP:

Winner of the recent Greenpeace Rebrand BP Competition. Designed by Laurent Hunziker [26]
Winner of the recent Greenpeace Rebrand BP Competition. Designed by Laurent Hunziker [26]

You can understand why questions around the Tate’s association with BP is of utmost importance. Especially, when considering the oil company has had as many as 8,000 oil spills in the USA alone. There is a long list of disasters and much information linking BP’s troubling courtships with oppressive regimes. Shell, BP, Exxon, Gazprom, Rosneft and other companies, as I write this, are engaged in a frenzied rush in the Arctic risking yet another oil spill and threatening us with even more climate change. And all this effort is for only three years worth of oil.

‘”For over 800,000 years, ice has been a permanent feature of the Arctic ocean. It’s melting because of our use of dirty fossil fuel energy, and in the near future it could be ice free for the first time since humans walked the Earth. This would be not only devastating for the people, polar bears, narwhals, walruses and other species that live there – but for the rest of us too.” [27] (Greenpeace 2012)

Recently in 2012, BP agreed to pay the largest criminal fine in US history for its corporate negligence, in causing the catastrophic Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. “This was a disaster for the record books: The offshore exploratory well was the deepest drilling ever, plunging more than 30,000 feet through ocean and seabed strata, and the spill was the largest in U.S. history, spewing 206 million gallons of oil — nearly 20 times what the Exxon Valdez had dumped into Prince William Sound in Alaska a decade earlier.” [28] (Schiffman 2012).

In 2011, the New Orleans, LA. Attendees of the ‘Gulf Coast Leadership Summit’ witnessed a positive statement from a representative of the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) as he announced to everyone’s surprise a ban on toxic dispersants, and a new free health care plan for spill and cleanup victims. Not just that, there was also another progressive announcement by the BP co-presenter that day who publicly expressed regret for his company’s past actions, he said the oil giant would also pay the bill for the new health care plan.

Of course, it was all to good to be true. it was a hoax by the Yes Men [29].

“…except for the audience, everyone was a fake. The impostors Dr. Dean Winkeldom and Steve Wistwil, both Gulf Coast residents, collaborated with the Louisiana Bucket Brigade[30], an organization whose goal is to create sustainable communities free from industrial pollution. The organization decided to create a hoax to publicize what should be happening in response to the emerging health crisis.” [31] (Flaherty 2011)

“The Louisiana Bucket Brigade action was supported by the Yes Lab, a project of The Yes Men that helps activist groups carry out media-getting creative actions on their own. Four years ago in New Orleans, The Yes Men impersonated an official from the Department of Housing and Urban Development to announce, among other things, that HUD would re-open public housing and make oil companies pay up for wetlands destruction.”[32] (ibid)

BP Imposter Crashes Oil Spill Summit. To view the Yes Men Video on Youtube, click on here.
BP Imposter Crashes Oil Spill Summit. To view the Yes Men Video on Youtube, click on here.

Selection of responses about Tate à Tate project in the UK Press:

Morgan Quaintance reviewed it for Art Monthly and found that “the Tate Britain and Tate Boat works suffer from a confused sense of purpose… on the other hand, England and Welton’s Tate Modern piece is a note-perfect subversion of the standard form.

Meanwhile Kate Kelsall reviewing for Don’t Panic online reported “There is something irresistibly subversive about slinking around an establishment with your headphones in, taking orders from a voice that resembles a TomTom or sleep aid recording…

Jonathan Jones, after the Tate had renewed its deal with BP wrote in an article in the Guardian “Oh, give me a break. The campaign to stop Tate, the National Portrait Gallery and other museums from accepting money from Britain’s controversial petroleum outfit is the stupidest and most misplaced of supposedly radical campaigns. Why not do something useful like join Occupy? While protests around the world this year, from Wall Street to Tahrir Square, have picked the right causes and enemies, the BP art campaign is mistargeted, misconceived and massively self-indulgent.”