On extracting data, and its art and craft.

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Data art started long before the internet, but for some of us, facebook (fb) for a long time served as our Cantarell Complex. On 2012 I accidentally began leaking it when I created drik magazine and later its archives. Today, quite more consciously, I can say beneath my internet data projects a reservoir of information has been formed, and this has happened on different data-based projects by other artists too.

Servers are attached to our soil just as onshore platforms are, soaking on data from all of their users. The internet is the equivalent of a pipeline but with the shape and function of an ouroboros. It’s a two-way pipeline, draining information from us and vomiting it back through our computers. Data flows through the internet into and from same wave territories (Santiago de Chile, Lima, DF, Nuevo Leon, Costa Mesa, and Washington DC) where we distill it through our computers in order to gather our resources, just as it happens in the rest of the world. The internet isn’t on the sky; we do not store data in clouds, we store it in servers. The floating internet concept is a lie in order to prevent us from realizing that the internet is grounded by a powerful tellurian nature.

On Cyclonopedia (Reza Negarestani), Dr. Hamid Parsani identifies oil as a tellurian lube. It’s the element that allows mankind to happen (contemporarily), and that is abundant on the gulfs of Persia and Mexico (among other places). Oil represents power and wealth, hence it represents control and sabotage too (ex: the Nationalization of Mexican Oil, the Arab Oil Embargoes, Saddam Hussein’s burning of the Kuwaiti Oil Wells, the Energetic Reform in Mexico, etc).

Data is quite similar to oil. Oil is the product of the passing of thousands of years, and information stays exactly the same. Oil wasn’t magically formed, and data inside the internet (and outside it) is never borne out of nothing. It is always the result of human life, and that is precisely why Lanier coined the concept of Digital Maoism (DM).

Sites like fb are considered great exponents of DM, since all the data they hold (and which constitutes the tellurian lube of the digital) has been uploaded by its users. At a glance it seems only fb profits from the data we gather for it, and in most cases this is true. However, fb and other companies’ profits depend on the behavior of its users. We need to fill DM with holes. We need to transform it into swiss cheese; then wait for data to fill the void and drain fb and other DM sites with no mercy.

Since the presentation of Swarm at ARS Electronica ’98 on the hands of the Electronic Disturbance Theater, in support of Digital Zapatismo and the victims of the Acteal massacre, art underlined how the concept of sitting gained effectiveness if it blocked the flux of data instead of the flux of people. In 1967, just a day after the Six Day War had begun, countries like Iraq, Kuwait, and Bahrain decided to use oil as a weapon and embargoed the US and the UK for supporting Israel. This led to the formation of the OAPEC, an organism that in 1973, executed a second embargo. This time the oil price was raised by 70% and the Arab countries stated their oil production would be reduced by 5% each month until Israeli forces left occupied territories in Syria and Egypt, which had been gained by Israel during the Six Day War. The embargo had little to no effect on the economy of the Arab nations, while all major markets of the rest of the world faced the 1973-74 Stock Market Crash.

We can use data as a weapon too. DM is not a house for data, data lives outside it. We control the production and digitalization of data, the tellurian lube that allows the existence of fb and other DM companies. We can pump data through it in order to drain what we’re looking for, and then pump it out in order to profit from it. This is why I believe 21st century art needs to be data-based.

The art world came into existence since the French Academia as a Napalmic entity, one made of an inextinguishable fire that can flow/flood into every corner of culture and won’t disappear until it consumes itself. It is this very nature which requires it to burn out. But it is its hunger for recognition and legitimization what has inspired it to generate strategies to keep the fire burning perennially. It’s because of this that art and culture have been burning all that surrounds them for centuries, becoming one of the communities of the world’s greatest enemies, and burning them ceaselessly too. This way, not even painting or sculpture were our friends. However this doesn’t mean they can’t ever be.

Data has been flowing through art since the beginning of art, just as oil has been there since the beginning of civilization. Art has also been used to gather data for centuries. We do not need to transform art into a data bank. Art has been a data bank since the beginning. We need to start controlling the data and its flux. Data has a liquid nature too; it tends to flow wherever it can, and we can make it flow through the art world (which today occupies important territories in education, power, business, economy, banking, and tourism, among other areas). The art world is nothing more than fog of war. It is the same fog described by John McTiernan’s The 13th Warrior, covering the Wendol and their serpent of fire while they murdered humans to consume them. By using data as a weapon and incorporating it into art, we can transform art into a gigantic tank in the fight for freedom that uses the same fog of war to strike with a powerful backlash. Art should no longer be a trigger for action, its time to counter back and use art as a war machine.    

alonso cedillo <ceo@nimda.co>

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Interview with Amy Alexander.

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Katia Haus – One of the things I’ve noticed recently on contemporary art, is how this kind of trend established by fluxus, of mixing contemporary art with music, is regaining popularity. I believe this has to do a lot with platforms as soundcloud and bandcamp, and also with softwares like Logic and Live. I guess this has to do a lot with what you have said about how software becomes part of our culture, specially as it becomes much more accessible.

 

Amy Alexander – I don’t think this practice ever really disappeared since Dadaist collage. Think of 1960’s light shows that improvised multi-layered visuals in real-time to music, scratch video of the 1980’s and 90’s, and so on. Software has made this type of practice more accessible, and no doubt it’s transformed it, as software brings its own conventions, authorship, etc. But people have been remixing media since at least the early 20th century – I think the media themselves inspire/frustrate/instigate people to respond to them by repurposing them. 

 

K- I know you have a background on music. So the first thing I wanted to ask you is if the background was before or after your involvement with software and internet art? And how did both fields, music and internet, influenced each other on your work? Has software played a key role on it?

 

A- My earliest background was in music, then I studied film and real-time video, then started working with software later. This is because I am very old; we didn’t have computers back then!  Well that’s half true – I did take some programming classes in high school and college around the mid-80’s. But I didn’t like it much and didn’t start using programming in my creative work til graduate school in the mid-90’s.  The upshot of this is that I mostly think about things in terms of time, movement, and performance.  Software is mainly of interest to me as a time-based process – loops create rhythm, theme and variation; software is an instrument played by a performer, and so on.  I think considering software as having temporal flow applies not just to “artistic” software, but also to the way people use a lot of software. Think about how often people prefer to jot their thoughts down on paper rather than typing them out – even though they might type faster than they write. Software sometimes breaks the flow of your thoughts – why is this? Does it get it interrupt them with menus and dialogs?  Do thoughts flow better when you can scribble out errors rather than backspace? Is the layout of lines on the page a problem? The keyboard? I think there’s still a general assumption of most software as “static” but we should probably rethink that. 

 

K- How did you decided to start blending, or perhaps highlighting, the performative act in working with computers and then take it out of the usual computer room into other spaces like in Discotrope and CyberSpaceLand??

 

A – Software comes to us originally from the military, but it’s more recent and familiar tradition is from the business world. In the 70s and 80s, computers were things in offices, and people sat at desks and worked on them: it usually seemed sort of dreary. As I mentioned, I started out as a musician and filmmaker – I’m not really good at sitting on my butt. I played pretty gestural instruments as a kid – violin, drums, guitar, bass – and I was used to the iconic character of the “sweaty rock star” (or even the “passionate violinist!”)   When computers started to show up in contexts like music and visual performance, I noticed they still had a lot of the “baggage” of their history as business machines. Meaning, it was actually hard to perform live on one (music visuals, etc.)  and not look like you were sitting there programming a database. What happened to the sweaty rock star? So I started thinking that a) this was boring for audiences and b) if people at leisure get conditioned to behave like they’re working, they might become so obedient it could spell the end of countercultural activity – we can’t have that! 😉 So, with CyberSpaceLand I set out to create a performance setup that exaggerated performativity, by creating gadgets that would be performed by VJ Übergeek, a character who was very geeky yet a “sweaty rock star” wannabe.  Getting back to the idea of spaces: with CyberSpaceLand, Discotrope, and the initial SVEN street performances, we were interested in performance outside of usual art spaces like galleries. But this is also the case with anything you do on the Internet, since the Internet is not in general an art space either. 

 

K- Does this has to do with how other projects of yours like Multi-Cultural Recycler and SVEN were exposing people behind or recorded by webcams?

 

A-I’d say there’s a connection as they’re all, in one way or another, about performance. The Multi-Cultural Recycler and SVEN are on one hand about surveillance, but on the other they’re about exhibitionism. People like to be watched on camera – to perform for it – more often than they’re willing to admit.  I’m interested in that awkward space between the two – where being a passive subject turns into being a willing performer. (This is also a theme within Discotrope.) 

 

K- One thing that has always caught my interest is how Multi-Cultural Recycler needs the visitors’ clicks to generate its pictures. Although the work of art is the Recycler itself, it may only be activated and renewed by its users. Perhaps software art (and all kinds of software too) is more close to design than what it is to art, speaking on terms that it’s something built to be used. What was your goal while building not only works of art that could be used, but works of art that needed to be used?

 

A- It’s probably better if I answer as separate questions. I made the Recycler in 1996, so back then I wasn’t really thinking about it in terms of software. I was thinking about it as process though. Most art on the net then was static, and I was thinking about how the net ran on computers that “run” and do things — so I thought it made sense that this art should do things. So in that sense, I was thinking about software. But as far as the software convention of clicking:  At the time, “interactivity” was a big buzzword. It was supposed to be this really great thing — artists were told they should make everything “interactive.”  But this dictum was usually presented fairly uncritically, as though interactivity was automatically good. It didn’t seem to matter whether the interactivity in a project had a point to it or not.  In the Recycler – well, there was actually a functional reason for the button click: so that the software only generated a live image when it had a viewer (it was too network and processor intensive to run continuously.) But the option of posting it to the “gallery” and putting your name on it was sort of my sarcastic/frustrated way of protesting compulsory and pointless interactivity — since all the user did to create an “artwork” was click a button. 

(For more thoughts about interactivity from around that time, see Alexei Shulgin’s interview with Tilman Baumgärtl – “ I don’t believe in interactivity, because I think interactivity is a very simple and obvious way to manipulate people.” http://kunstradio.at/FUTURE/RTF/INSTALLATIONS/SHULGIN/interview.html  

Also, jodi.org did a lot of projects around this time addressing the topic of compulsive button clicking.)

 

Anyway – It wasn’t until a few years later, when I started making desktop software, that I really started thinking about it that way. My first desktop software was CueJack (under the name Cue P. Doll) around 1998 or 1999. (http://cuejack.com) It was software written for a free barcode scanner, but CueJack made the scanner do the opposite of what it was supposed to do (get people to buy products.) It wasn’t really that I objected to advertising – what I objected to was the assumption that people would choose to actively use software (and hardware) to advertise to themselves. I felt a line had been crossed there…  My next desktop “utility” I think was “Scream.” (http://scream.deprogramming.us/) That one was more specifically about software – in this case, the idea that software assumes rational, unemotional users who do utilitarian things like write reports, make spreadsheets, maybe even videos. I wanted to imagine more realistic people – they have anger, frustration, dysfunctionality.  It was hard for a user to go online and find software that would be useful in popular human endeavors like screaming. 

 

 

K- Most artists are sure art can’t exist on the form of music or VJing, assuming art it’s all about making weird sounds or replicating the Philips Pavilion after 56 years. Your work is a proof of how wrong they are. I wanted to know why did you chose music and VJing as your mediums, and not sound art or conventional audivisual performance?

 

A- I don’t have anything against either of them. I don’t think genres can be inherently “better” than other genres – it’s not what you do; it’s how you do it. For sound art, I guess I haven’t tried it because I don’t have a deep background in either sound or working with space (i.e. my visual background is in film rather than studio/gallery art.)    As for “conventional” audiovisual performance vs. VJ’ing:  If you mean “live cinema” type of performances – I may do these in the future. The reason I got interested in VJ’ing first is that I’m very interested in non-art “public” spaces. When you VJ, you get to perform for example in clubs, where people aren’t expecting “art” – you get to work with different audiences and in a different way than in art venues. It’s a similar idea with software art and net art, which at least in the 90’s and early 2000’s had a “general” audience on the Internet. Nowadays, online audiences are much more fragmented, so it’s harder to reach a broad audience than it used to be (still possible, but you have to make a different kind of effort and probably depend a lot more on luck.) 

 

K- Software needs users, and a vj/musician needs public. Which is the importance you see in the connection (through the internet or while performing) that your works establish between them and their public?

A-I guess this is different in each case. For example, I was saying that  CyberSpaceLand is different depending on whether I’m doing it in a nightclub or at an art event. At a nightclub, I’m performing for an audience that’s expecting to dance, drink, etc. People are coming and going, chatting with their friends, and so on.  So how does one do a show where the visuals are textual narrative?  Obviously a dance club audience is not going to stare at the screen.  So I structure  those shows as a loose, ambient narrative that sort of washes over you. It doesn’t matter if you miss something; you’ll still get the idea. It’s sort of analogous to song lyrics (although structured nothing like them.) You can go to a club or a concert and still make sense of the lyrics even if you don’t catch every word of them. Also, at clubs, my physical performances tend to be relatively low-key, since I’m probably performing for at least a couple hours, and I’ll be sharing the stage with DJ’s and musicians. So my “rock star” VJ character is more a background musician  than a lead in these cases. On the other hand, if it’s an art gallery or festival show, or some other show where I’m the “headliner,” then audiences expect to watch me and the screen most of the time. I do shorter, more structured shows, that are a bit more theatrical.   It took me a while when I first started out to realize I had to adjust the show and the character for the audience. Also, sometimes I guess wrong as to the audience expectations and have to adjust on the fly. I don’t always get it right, but I like always trying out new things with the audiences anyway. And there’s some things that I like to try on both types of audiences – like wandering away from the computer and performing in the middle of the crowd. 

 

So I guess the summary is – connecting with the audience is like connecting with anyone you first meet: you try to plan, you play it by ear, and you only get it right sometimes. 🙂

 

Katia Haus <katiahaus@aol.com>