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>

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Better than a robot

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Photo: Peter Yang

I logged into virtual worlds and began working inside them at the beginning of 2007. Those days were filled with tapenipulation, drumbots making, and a bit of circuit bending. I didn’t really liked working with computers back then. For me they were boring, and perhaps too easy. Modular synths and tapes seemed so much more interesting. Then I realised I didn’t liked computers because they allow much more intuitive ways of working. Everything is easier and simpler. All the work of building a synth, studying music, none of it matters when using computers. The knowledge might help, but it’s not necessary. And that’s our current reality. It’s very easy to become an artist nowadays if you use computers.

Suddenly, I had an epiphany: I rejected computer generated works because they were menacing my field of expertise. I think I even thought their existence was something unfair. This made me remember the words of a piano teacher (which I had considered too conservative): “Synths doomed musicians. The work of 90 can be done by them, so people prefer to pay the work of one, than the work of 90.”

I realised my thoughts were not very different from my professor’s. So I decided to act the opposite. Then I began making music with computers and inside virtual worlds and net communities. I realised the true beauty behind computer generated works, is that anyone can do them. Suddenly the web has been flooded with songs of unknown musicians thanks to myspace and soundcloud. And that’s amazing! One can visit soundcloud and listen to songs that were uploaded seconds ago. You just have to write that name on a browser to call them up. More than a collective place, the internet is a land where anything is possible.

After visiting a friend in New York, and seeing the shows in all the museums, as well as the galleries in Manhattan and Soho, I realised all the art they house is so contemporary. And it’s time for it to be that no more. That’s why since the beginning, S.T.A.R.S. has acted like a Trojan horse for reality. Our ultimate goal: to bring the art world together with the 21st century’s reality through the internet. The internet is all that the art world wishes, and claims to be. And thanks to its possibilities we’ve envisioned another art world. A new reality – one that offers a different future, to a “contemporary” art world that is still stuck in 1648.

Most of the people working with computers are not contemporary artists, so they haven’t been stuck to a specific form. They’re trying all the buttons and all the combinations. And that’s the beauty behind Digital Maoism. All the information on the web, each song, each image, each algorithm, they were all done by people. Nothing’s magically created, but somehow authorship disappears. What matters are the benefits that the network gets out of data. And that’s how art is gonna be. Art is becoming useful for people. Since the beginning we’ve done everything wrong, and the internet is giving us a chance to change that. Inside the internet, art may be free. And by free I do not mean cost-less, but rather the freedom to copy art and then adapt it to one’s own uses.

Franz Zubizarreta <franzubizarreta@gmail.com>