Brett Stalbaum is a research theorist specializing in information theory, database, and software development currently working for C5 corporation; Lecturer at the University of California, San Diego, Department of Visual Arts. A serial collaborator, he was a co-founder of the Electronic Disturbance Theater in 1998, for which he co-developed software called FloodNet, which has been used on behalf of the Zapatista movement against the websites of the Presidents of Mexico and the United States, as well as the Pentagon.
Stalbaum has been part of many other individual and collaborative projects, written on net art and its context/aesthetics, and is a past editor of Switch, the new media journal of the CADRE digital media lab. Current projects revolve around landscape experimentation and theory, both in collaboration with C5 and with the painter Paula Poole. Recent theory work includes Database Logics and Landscape Art. Current projects include GIS software development focused on the creation of a database, related libraries, and utilities for use with GPS, digital elevation modeling, and other applications.
Gun Geo Marker, Brett Stalbaum, Mobile App.
Katia- What were you working on before you co-founded the Electronic Disturbance Theater (EDT)?–
Brett- I was exploring a number of different ideas as a graduate student in the CADRE MFA program at SJSU in the mid 1990s, but around that time (97) EDT became one of three sorts of trajectories that are still part of the practices and projects I choose to remain involved with today. Ricardo Dominguez and I met online. We were on an email list, which was the social network of its day, and long story short, we just started working on EDT performances with a tool I wrote with Carmin Karasic, Floodnet. Other projects that were important to me at the time included C5, where I developed an engagement with locative media that outlives C5, and live on in some form in the more recent walkingtools.net lab that is managed between UCSD and UNIFESP. But especially important to me was the opportunity at CADRE to teach – as instructor of record – CADRE courses. This was a unique aspect of the CADRE MFA; instead of being guaranteed TAships or anything like that, we were able to compete for full responsibility teaching gigs. And really, teaching in the Computing in the Arts field is my core passion.
K- How did Zapatismo influenced your work?
B- We were safe here in the United States watching these courageous people take on the Mexican military (and its US advisers) with wooden prop guns and a paper airplane airforce. As Mexico murdered, the Zapatisas responded with creative strength, immense humanity, and courageous front line protection of their own communities. And poetry! And their own media. So you can imagine what we learned from them, their example ended up deeply influencing the development of the electronic civil disobedience. When you see people risking everything, it was suddenly not hard to facilitate virtual sit in protests (share in by tens of thousands of people) against the then President of Mexico and Pentagon.
Zapatista Floodnet, Electronic Disturbance Theater.
K- On 1997 you participated in Landscape Painting as Counter-Surveillance of Area 51. One year later you programmed the Zapatista Floodnet. For you which is the importance of incorporating tactical media into art?
B- I think you might have some sense from my earlier answer just how good an experience – and I think my cohort would agree we all had studying with Joel Slayton and CADRE generally. The Area 51 project was a performance that intersected both network spaces and physical spaces. We did a plein air landscape painting performance for the private security contractors who guard the border of the no longer so secret base, but why? Because the signs said no photography or sketching, but nothing about landscape painting. And it was a really affective experience for us all personally to be engaging a very remote border that was more like landart and performance art that landart and performance art. I have been a back country and desert exploring type for much of my life, but suddenly so many of the things I had been studying (land art, outdoors life, performance art, technology in the landscape, the internet) all were able to interoperate in this productive and sometimes scary way. I was investigated by the FBI for a project having to do with emailing just about everyone at Nellis Air Force Base with spam about our project. (The story of how I attained the emails really reflects the internet we still know today.) Another project by colleagues in the program was legally threatened off of the web. (Until it somehow reappeared many years after;-) And we got to work with the legendary Area 51 land use activist Glenn Campbell, who unknown to us at the time was working with and artist by the name of Matt Coolidge at the Area 51 Research Center. Later when Matt qua CLUI was supporting Paula Poole, Christina McPhee and myself with this GPS Expo 2006 thing that happened, we discovered that missed connection. I have written a lot here, but yes that was a very important project to me personally.
Transborder Immigrant Tool, Electronic Disturbance Theater.
Now as to your question about tactical media, it and art have really been historically bound since well before the former term was uttered. Dada, Happenings, Media Jamming, Flash Mobs, Memes. All enclose tactical interventions designed to ephemerally rewire what Norman Klien calls scripted spaces and of course, scripted media. Art is at its core about rewiring, redefining, and reinterrogating itself as it explores new frames. It is not teleological as much as it is testing ranges of possibilities experimentally and constantly. Its role in the research university has become behaving as strange attractor, re-situating not only what art is or might be, but also productively intersecting with (and sometimes productively misunderstanding) other fields, while entailing them in some of our strengths (project/studio based research, a culture of critique and ideation, and spirit of experimentalism and adventure…) So art – at least at the the research university – is always tactical. Artists are also relatively inexpensive as researchers go, and researchers with big grants sometimes peel off a little for artists to explore new possibilities for their discoveries. So when you are relatively poor, many kinds of light, quick, parasitic and totally necessary maneuvers come to replace the kinds of long term strategic chess playing that many other fields and departments have the resources to engage with, but overall it creates a lot of complimentary relationships and interdisciplinary research opportunities.
K- Why is it important for you to work with geolocation?
B- For me geolocation is the best way get at the intersection of the real that data has long derived from, and more recently the data effect. The effect which data itself actively enters into a conversation with the real to produce the actual. Data engages in a feedback loop from its original, through us, back to its home ground (literally its home ground in the work I am most interested in), culminating in the production of our cultural and even geophysical experience. There are so many powerful things that can come from data interoperating with landscapes (physical and social), and I think we have only recently begun to understand this or scratch the surface of possibility, including political possibility.
K- Why do you think it’s important not only for arts but for our entire society to be conscious about the role of data and the data effect in our daily life and social structure?
Transborder Immigrant Tool installation, Electronic Disturbance Theater.
B- A lot of the reasons I think this is so are fairly apparent, the larger democratic implications government and corporate data surveillance. What is curious to me however is that the public largely views privacy as a right, but at least in the U.S. context most of the already fairly limited rights to privacy specified in our constitution were largely eviscerated by the U.S. Supreme Court under our previous Chief Justice, William Rehnquist. Today, there are very many in my country who just don’t understand that their perceived “right” to privacy really largely does not exist. There are a few notable laws like HIPAA where our legislative branch has passed privacy laws, certainly. But what limited privacy protections that do exist are very piecemeal. And I understand of course that the situation is very different within almost any latent nation state or, for example, the EU which has been a leader in privacy rights.
There is also an important reverse side of that coin to examine as well. What about the public’s right (including individuals, governments, corporations) to observe the commons? Police have always been allowed to follow people through the commons as part of investigations, for example. Yet to many, newer databasing of the public commons using technology from cameras to license plate readers feels like an invasion, as if the quantitative and dromological aspects of the technology have created a dangerous new qualitative reality. And that is likely the case. But does the practical given that surveillance is now too easy and too ubiquitous override the “right to observe”? If you believe the fundamental notion of the commons – which in the U.S. are our First Amendment protections for the press and freedom of assembly – then you can’t jettison the role of observation in the public domain. It is a fundamental property of the commons. I’ll admit I find the EU’s concept of a “right to be forgotten” a very regressive and dangerous concept.
Gun Geo Marker, The Gun Geo Marker UI shows nearby gun danger sites reported by users.
So if indeed data mining and search have indeed substantially transformed our older legal assumptions about what our rights to be databased or not should be, then first we need to embrace that it is our 18th century notions of private and public are themselves seriously broken, and totally unable to address the contemporary situation. We need newer concepts that are more nuanced and granular, because the naive notions of a “right to privacy” that many carry with them also implies a loss of rights to look, see, observe and record. A terrible example of this in the United States have been “Ag-Gag” laws, where some states have passed laws making it illegal to record images of (sometimes disturbing) agricultural practices from the public commons. For example animal rights activists using drones to observe and report animal cruelty, even if the drone or a photographer remains on or above public property. Or especially tedious are police assertions of an equally imaginary right not to have their activities in the public commons recorded by the public who employs them.
Artists have of course been active in creating provocations on all sides of these contradictions.
K- Why is it important for you to keep your works with data running on a tellurian level?
B- Well, we live here. Our spatial experience, where we are, where we go, the neighborhoods, or wildernesses, and by extension the totality of our cultural and economic experiences is perhaps the most deeply personal and constantly present phenomenological aspect intersecting our identities. Everything we experience happens somewhere we are, including the collapse of space enabled by networks because we can have these simultaneous windows into there(s) at the same time as the here. And through simulation, virtual heres. How space becomes an expressive form is an ancient and most certainly evolutionary and neurobiocultural aspect of at least humanity, if not every living thing that moves. Locomotion is the primary biological concern for our entire kingdom (in a biotaxonomical sense of kingdom), so moving through this world has roots far deeper than the experience and works of the first locative media artists who were prehistoric, small scale non-industrial societies who have been creating rights-of-passage, pilgrimage and other mediated walks probably since our ancestor species first stood up, but clearly in the prehistoric archaeological record of Homo Sapiens. So to me, it seems very natural to explore what the new possibilities are. That is our job as artists. How is the most ancient form of art (sorry painters) altered or otherly enabled by the confluence of database, GPS, ubiquitous mobile networks and the incredible computing power that can be held in one’s hand today? And augmented reality, I’m just stopping a really long enumeration here. For me, my the question is how can we walk, indulge in syntagm with our feet, and reorder our realities with our contemporary technologies of inscription? (I’m not rejecting “virtual worlds”, I just don’t work with them.) It was hundreds of years before Guy Debord cut up the Cartesian/Mercator map and introduced us to the walking remix, and discovered the power of getting lost. What can we do to re-explore our world with big data in ways that big data was not intended to be used? I love this thing we live on and want to know it new ways. For a lot of traditional environmental artists this is a little or a lot transgressive, but I’d rather align myself with eco-sexuals who are not afraid to get a lot transgressive with the earth. It may sound odd because my more formalist work is not, not, not about sexuality at all in fact, but I do draw a lot of inspiration from Beth Evans and Annie Sprinkle. In my own way I’m interested in opening up good new ways to love this thing we walk on too, and making it better to walk on. Differently, but with the same love.
Analogous Landscape by C5.
Installation view San Francisco Camerawork, 2005.
And you know, I work with collaborators – EDT 2.0 in particular – to try to make this a better world to walk on through spatial intervention and critique of the horrors of dislocation. This is not formalist work at all and really is about intervening as a group in some of the murderous neo liberal aspects of human spatial experience. But that work too, I would argue, is quite parallel in its spirit of transitivity and code switching. But this is perhaps better explicated by any of my many collaborators or all of us as a different mixed voice than any one of us, especially me given the narrower kinds of coding work that tend to be my larger contributions to those projects.
K- Do you believe in concepts like cyberspace or singularity? I imagine you do not, but could you tell me why you don’t, or if not why you do?
B- I’d rather just use “virtual” than cyberspace actually, something which I view as bearing a much closer relationship to the actual than the mistaken notion that the virtual lies in opposition to the real. I’m a Deleuzian in that regards. The singularity is a fun idea to bat around and I do think something will happen. But when it does, if it has not already because we tend not to notice the moments of transformation, it is going to be noted somewhat more prosaically than many take it to be beforehand. We will talk about it like we discuss the transition from hunter-gatherer to agriculture, or agricultural societies to industrial ones, or industrial to information or information to experience economies. And like most futurist projections, neither our worst fears nor our best hopes will really work out exactly the way we thought they would even if aspects of either do pertain, and our economies will have to evolve amidst a lot of new uncertainties. I think it is time both to think about AI as something that possess equal rights, while at the same time not necessarily fearing for it. We should be expecting it, like parents might joyfully expect a baby. We will need to develop a better sense of working through problems and developing a shared objectives of progress, progress which I think we will certainly agree necessitates preservation of biological ecologies and solving a lot of really difficult problems. I would start planning for a social wage now, because we will see intense new waves of layoffs and displacements of how people live, but of course it is fair to say that this is already part of a long term trend since at least industrialization. All in all, it will be an overall win for humanity and the machinic phylum together, nevertheless with shitstorms similar to all past economic, political and cultural transformation.