With Brett Stalbaum.

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.






Interview with Amy Alexander.



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>

Better than a robot


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>