MM: May we think about the collaborative work as a process of creation of a new artistic "public space"? Could we consider the building of a community through these works? Collabyrinth (2003) is one of the works selected for our analysis. I'd like to ask you to answer a few questions about your creative process as well as your theoretical reflexions about it. How did you become interested in the artistic creation for the Internet?
AD: After concentrating on digital media for a few years, the emergence of the World Wide Web provided a fascinating means of addressing people around the world with almost no distribution costs. It didn't take long to see how certain kinds of potential offered by the global network could fit together with the drawing software I had been developing. Actually, when I showed people early prototypes for online drawing, the first thing they asked was whether people could draw together on the same image. So it seems there were immediately some new forms of interaction that people wanted.
MM: At the beginning, what were your inspirations for creating Net Art works? Do you consider any work or artistic movement as a forerunner?
AD: I was probably more inspired by theories than by any specific artwork or movement. Essays by Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Guy Debord, Vilém Flusser, and Walter Benjamin were influential in developing my interest in the politics and phenomenology of media. But it is undoubtedly also true that conceptual and dematerialized art colored my thinking. Over time I began to see the gallery and collectors as elite gatekeepers of culture, and I felt that by working through the Internet I could be more responsive to my intuition and less concerned about the conservatism of institutions.
MM: In the on-line interview for Furtherfield you said that you «used to make sculptures at parties with stuff that I had collected. I did a lot of requests.» Were requests and collaboration from the public always a form of artistic creation, or did they become more common with the use of telematic technologies? How do these computer technologies interfere with your work, in the creative process?
AD: One virtue that those sculptures had was spontaneity. Working with telematic spaces is slow. It takes a lot of time to develop an artwork that is technologically complex. Many of the interesting decisions have already been made before anyone collaborates online. In my work I try to balance the intriguing possibilities afforded by the new with the specter of unwanted characteristics that almost always enters into our experience of technology. This oscillation between pleasure and frustration as it relates to technology is a subject matter that compels me to work. As such, I don't see computer technology only as a form of interference: it is an important part of the subject matter. Romantic notions of the artist also play a role in my work. By disowning the traditional image-making responsibility and foisting it on people who may not consider themselves artists, I am provoking people to confront their relationship to art and to enter into the practice of representation.
MM: Do you see in Collabyrinth, and in other collaborative artworks in the Internet, the building of an artistic “public space”, in a sense of a free, open space, for sharing and creation?
AD: As you probably know, I've posed this type of question in the statements I've attached to the work. In a strict sense there is some accuracy in this description of Collabyrinth ("a free, open space for sharing and creation"). But if you were to estimate the amount of software development that is dominated by business logic versus critical theory and aesthetic reflection, would you say that art comes out in front? I would say that anything approaching a public sphere in Internet "space" must be developed with open source code and licensed to stay that way. Significant strides have been made in the development of open source operating systems and tools, yet the cultural sphere has actually undermined that work by treating "open source" as a meme rather than a funding priority. There is a strong tendency to reproduce the system of the spectacle in telematic spaces, and I'm afraid a corporate-dominated vision of media infrastructure is prevailing.
MM: In your recent creations you’re stressing more on activism pieces. Is there a theoretical relationship between the collaboration and activism? Is there a search for the same goals or it is in fact a new way of using and creating through the net ?
AD: I was born in May 1968, so I guess my star sign is Situationist. Generally speaking, I see my work as an antidote to the mind-numbing commerciality of most of the media that people encounter. For me, art cannot depend on selling automobiles and beer, so it's essential to find ways to sustain art online without commercial sponsorship. The power of media to distort the public's perception of reality is not mere potential. I've watched as major news media in the US have distorted their coverage of the anti-war movement, and I've watched the major networks celebrate wars that were justified by pretentious lies. I've watched them ignore global warming and simultaneously play an endless array of advertisements for gas-guzzling sport utility vehicles. They ignored genocide in Rwanda and now in Darfur. This distortion engine is impossible to resist alone. I've seized some recent opportunities to focus attention on issues that concern me by helping like-minded people to collaborate online. Most of this has been done parallel to my art practice, but there are points of convergence. I try to cross channels a bit, sending people who arrive looking for art in directions that are political and sending people who arrive looking for politics toward more aesthetic experiences. This may sound like I'm just being difficult. Really I'm interested in getting people to slide a little outside of their ordinary activities. It's more interesting, I think, if I can get people to collaborate online who don't have exactly the same expectations about what they are doing together. People who are participating in my art projects sometimes generate ideas, and they usually contribute to the so-called "gift economy." We can debate the quality of the contributions and whether what is produced is coherent and sophisticated, but there's no question that it's a departure from the passive viewing of television and advertising. It's this calling forth of a more active subject that joins the art practice and the activism.
MM: When you say that "working with telematic spaces is slow. It takes a lot of time to develop an artwork that is technologically complex. Many of the interesting decisions have already been made before anyone collaborates online", it's interesting to notice that the authorship is still very present in the collaborative pieces. What would be the new status of the public, if he is neither a passive viewer, nor a collaborator really engaged in the creative process?
AD: Software can be developed collaboratively with input from the public, or it can be developed in consultation with cognitive-scientists-for-hire, strictly in the interest of producing habitual, captive audiences. So the type of subject that's called into being by software can range widely. I believe that the online pieces I've made pose interesting questions about what creativity means in the context of software. Whether it is 'true' creativity is arguable. Hopefully, through an engagement with artistic software people will become more attuned to the ways that their agency and behavior are coerced by the decisions that have been made by programmers. If people don't perceive that their creativity is bounded and predictable, the resulting 'collaboration' may be practically indistinguishable from the passivity of broadcasting.
MM: Do you see Collaborative Art as a step of a process that tends to a greater incorporation of the public in the creative process?
AD: In my work with online collaboration the degree of creativity of the public is a persistent problematic. I've tried to suggest through works like Lexicon that the path to creativity in computer-mediated interaction is more complicated for most people. It's much easier to coin a neologism with natural language, for example, than it is to write code. So while there is a potential for collapsing distance -- and even using the voice as a medium of interaction -- most forms of creativity are actually more exclusive when they involve software.
MM: «I would say that anything approaching a public sphere in Internet "space" must be developed with open source code and licensed to stay that way.» You pose the open source at the basis of the construction of an artistic "public space", that could be an alternative to the corporate vision in Internet. By working in this direction, can you see what are the perspectives for enlarging or achieving the artistic "public space"? Do you think that Net Art is already too attached to an institutional logic to make it possible?
AD: I think that in spite of all the great work that has been done to develop an open source infrastructure, there is a crisis unfolding. Net artists, if they want to address an audience of any significant size, are bound to adopt the technologies that are in wide use. Increasingly these are privately controlled media frameworks like Flash and Windows Media. I have little faith that cultural institutions will be effective in reversing this trend. I feel very strongly that accepting an infrastructure that is not based on open source code and open protocols is a costly concession to planned obsolescence. It will obstruct historical persistence in digital media and lead artists to conform to the language of the spectacle.
|Questions and comments
from Maria Dubini
Maria Dubini is a scenographer. She lives in an underdeveloped country and is obsessed by the cultural crisis. She writes the Art section of the magazines Superlab and Original Voice, and carries out a permanent course of videoconference meetings between argentinean artists and artists from other countries. Maria lives outside of Buenos Aires, on a farm, with two beautiful dogs.
MD: Artists have always cared about social, political and cultural issues, but it seems that nowadays contemporary artists have decided to get more involved with global problems, not only expressing themselves through their visual works but also studying and writing about politics, culture, education, etc. Why do you think that artists (including yourself) decided to play this role?
AD: The reasons are bound to vary from artist to artist, of course, but there are historical trends that are relevant and worth considering. The specialization that has occurred in all fields of knowledge has left us with very few public figures who speak authoritatively about anything other than a single specialty. Scientists are virtually unanimous in warning us about global warming, but business-friendly media conglomerates do not focus much attention on the issue. For scientists to engage effectively with public opinion would mean abandoning the practice of science as they know it and entering instead into the media spectacle. It's only the rare individual like Einstein or Chomsky who is able, to some extent, to defeat this authority principle. The growth in the power of the transnational corporation is also a factor. It is taboo for people who are part of the mainstream corporate media culture to engage in contested political issues. The actor Sean Penn was ridiculed by the right for his audacity in speaking against the Iraq War, and he was satirized by Hollywood "liberals" like Trey Parker (Team America: World Police), too. I think the broadening scope of artistic activity is partly a response to this situation, which has produced a lack of public intellectuals. 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.
MD: You say that we are living a "general sociocultural emergency in progress." Which are for you the most important items of this emergency?
AD: The issues that I've addressed most have been militarism, media-induced passivity, and environmental sustainability. But really, there are so many disturbing conditions, from racism to human trafficking to inequality and corporate unaccountability. That is why I used the term "general."
MD: What could be done to fight this emergency? How does Artcontext.net work against it?
AD:There are some approaching these problems from legal, governmental, and humanitarian relief perspectives. Those pursuits are certainly worthwhile. But there are dimensions to our social condition that are new in this generation and, in dealing with these differences, imagination and creativity can contribute a lot. Take for example information war. Information is part of a system of violence now and this isn't something that's broadly understood. The commercial media are, for the most part, willing engines of distraction and propaganda. Basically, I see my activities as related to these problematic conditions in the media, working to reveal and understand them. I am part of a broader resistance. There are many people who inspire me and who have unbelievable energy for pursuing justice and so forth. In some ways what I'm doing appears quite arcane by comparison. My work connects different spheres. It's not just activism. It's an attempt to bridge the discourses of activism and aesthetics. Artcontext is by turns seductive, fascinating, and confrontational. It's stealth philosophy. It demonstrates problems and technical possibilities that condition the public's expectations about the future.
MD: You wrote essays about the inclusion of violence and weapons in our daily life through every possible way (videos, games, media, etc.). Who is responsible for this? Who wins (and what) with these war tendencies?
AD: Nobody wins. But there are clearly some very cynical people who do profit from selling arms, exploiting fear, contracting reconstruction, looting natural resources, etc. Public money that should be spent for health care, schools, social security and, yes, the arts, is being wasted on wars and insanely high military spending. Bush has declared that the "war on terror" will last a generation, if not more. The media and entertainment sector plays a role in habituating people to this idea. People are taught to forget that peace is possible. It's quite Orwellian. The American military is having trouble getting young people to volunteer these days, so they are using video games to recruit and pre-train teenagers. I have been trying to assert that this is a cultural failing, that the narrative component of these games is a form of brainwashing. By making an issue of violence in my writing and art projects, I'm trying to alert people that this is not normal or acceptable social behavior.
MD: Many of your works are conceived for interactivity, and this open participation implies that the artwork will always be changing and that there will not be a signature author. Why do you consider interactivity and participation an important subject to work on?
AD: The sudden emergence of the World Wide Web in the mid-1990s demonstrated that there are technical ways that power can shift in the media. All of the sudden I had access to a communication mechanism that allowed me to reach people around the planet. But it soon became clear that people were not looking for essays and pictures as much as for on-line experiences. What I've been doing over the past decade is trying to figure out ways to invent experiences that are not passive like television, that engage people in the process of producing the artwork. This is not only a gesture of rejection toward the elitist notion of artistic genius. It is also a practice that's based on the belief that people are capable of adopting more active roles in representing and understanding the world if they are confronted with a culture that invites this.
MD: Works like Bardcode, where music, theatre and art play all together, are a demonstration of the million possibilities that digital tools offer (some of them impossible in real physical terms), but still there are a lot of people who cannot understand Media art as a new expression of art, a result of the evolution of history. What do you explain to those people that are still focusing just on old academic arts?
AD: I think Walter Benjamin put it best when he pointed out that people who asked whether photography is art were asking the wrong question, because art itself changes in response to changed historical conditions and technology. Honestly I don't lose much time thinking about this anymore. Anyone who adheres to the idea that art encompasses only painting and sculpture is clinging to the past for some personal reason. Art changes over time.
MD: Digital is impossible without technology. Taking into account that there is a big part of the world population under the poverty line, do you feel that technology is an inclusive or an exclusive tool?
AD: The corporations that produce computers and all sorts of electronics are not, generally speaking, operating according to what I consider to be a healthy social contract. They are oriented toward short term profits and little else. This is also true of the oil industry and the emerging water industry. Oil and water are not technologies, and yet they are subject to some of the same problems. I would argue that technology, insofar as it is designed and produced under the conditions of capitalism that now prevail, will continue to embody the forms of exclusion that we see today. I won't pretend to have all the answers about how to structure a world economy to deal with present conditions, but I do feel that it's one of the jobs of artists and writers to try to imagine better ways that we can live together. With respect to on-line media and media culture, I am concerned that laws are capable of turning free information into exclusive property. As a matter of fact, if Bill Gates has his way, all of the information super highways will be toll roads. I give away the source code for the software I write, and I develop work that is compatible with free operating systems (like Linux) because I'm convinced that in those cooperative projects known as "open source" we have the seeds of a freer media system that can be more inclusive. Too many people, many of them artists, are seduced by the phenomenological spectacle of media technology that will tend to entrap us through secrecy, licenses, and royalties. It is important for people who are involved in building and developing the next phases of technological deployment to be conscious of the political stakes of their decisions.This interview has been published in Spanish in ¨Original Voice¨, a latin american publication dedicated to promote contemporary cultural expression.