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FutureEverything Festival 2012 - Image by TAPE

This year's edition of the FutureEverything festival in Manchester brought a much discussed phenomenon to the fore: participatory culture. From Wikileaks to Iceland's crowd-sourced constitution, to the Arab Spring, participatory technologies have demonstrated their powerful political potential. The world of culture is harnessing the same connected energies with projects that involve citizen scientists cataloging celestial bodies in the Milky Way galaxy, crowd-curated photo exhibitions and of course the many projects created by artists and designers who either directly use collective action or bring it under a new light.

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FutureEverything Festival 2012 - Image by TAPE

The festival is over but the exhibition, titled FutureEverybody, remains open till June 10. It is hosted in the spectacular 1830 warehouse, the world's first railway warehouse, part of the Museum of Science and Industry.

The show obviously focuses on the artistic dimension of new participatory technologies, giving a tangible and very approachable dimension to a phenomenon we tend to associate mostly with online practice. FutureEverybody opens with the work of an artist known for putting them spectacularly into practice: Aaron Koblin who, a few years ago, teamed up with Takashi Kawashima and thousands of online workers to create a $100 bill. But you all know Aaron's work so let me call your attention to some of the projects i discovered in the show:

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Daniel Jones and James Bulley, Maelstrom. View from the exhibition of the FutureEverything Festival 2012 - Image by TAPE

Over 48 hours of user-created audio is uploaded to the internet every minute, a figure that is increasing exponentially. Maelstrom by Daniel Jones and James Bulley draws on these audio-fragments in real-time and broadcasts them through suspended speakers. By organising these fragments based on their tonal attributes, they collectively form a vast instrument, whose properties are affected by global internet activity.

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Moritz Stefaner + Dario Taraborelli + Luca Ciampaglia, Notabilia, 2011

Wikipedia articles, especially new ones, are reviewed by the community to determine whether or not they meet Wikipedia's notability guidelines. Articles nominated for deletion are discussed collectively by the editors before they decided in favor or against keeping them. An administrator then reviews the debate and makes the final decision.

Moritz Stefaner, Dario Taraborelli and Giovanni Luca Ciampaglia analyzed Article for Deletion (AfD) discussions in the English Wikipedia. The result of their research is Notabilia, a visualization of the 100 longest discussions that stemmed from the proposal to delete an article.

I was less interested in the data visualization (which is obviously clear and competently designed) than in learning about the articles questioned and the reason put for forward for their remotion from the online encyclopedia. The entries deleted ranged from the surprising (Islamophobiaphobia) to the downright absurd (List of songs about masturbation, List of Playboy Playmate with D-cups or larger breasts). I've also noticed the high number of articles exposing dubious political or religious agendas.

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Jamie Allen, Refractive Index. FutureEverything Festival 2012 - Image by TAPE

Jamie Allen's Refractive Index is an ongoing art-research project that uses the large scale public media displays as a kind of camera obscura; inverting typical uses of the screen, and showing us what our screens "see" when they peer into the night sky. I'm not sure i understand what makes it a project that deals with collective action but i loved the rigorous research behind it as well as the way it was documented.

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Lawrence Epps, Human Resources. FutureEverything Festival 2012 - Image by TAPE

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Lawrence Epps, Human Resources, 2012 (in Switzerland)

Right in the middle of the exhibition space was a heap of miniature ceramic figures hand-made by 
Lawrence Epps. A few days before i visited the show, the Sykey Collective distributed 8,000 of these tiny workers in the streets of Manchester. Passersby were then invited to bring them to work, home, on business trips, holidays and document the figurines journey online, either on www.sykey.org and via twitter #littleclaymen.

I wanted to steal a figurine from the exhibition pile and take it with me on the train to London but being a stupidly well-behaved girl, i just looked sadly at them and walked away empty-handed.

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Jeremy Hutchison, Extra! Extra!. FutureEverything Festival 2012 - Image by TAPE

Jeremy Hutchison's Extra! Extra! is a collection of newspaper advertising boards with headlines written by Facebook users on the project's Facebook wall. The messages are printed by the Manchester Evening News, and plastered on newspaper billboards around the Museum of Science and Industry site.

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Blast Theory, I'd Hide You. FutureEverything Festival 2012 - Image by TAPE

Blast Theory was premiering their new game I'd Hide You. As is often the case with the UK collective, I'd Hide You is an online/offline game. Only performers play in the streets while the public can log online, follow them and play. Rules are detailed in the trailer:

Who wouldn't want to be one of the three performers with the cool outfits and gadgets running in the streets of Manchester?

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Helen Pritchard + Winnie Soon, Jsut Code. FutureEverything Festival 2012 - Image by TAPE

Previously: An Ant Ballet at FutureEverything.

Entrance to the FutureEverybody Art Exhibition is free. The show remains open at 1830 Warehouse, Museum of Science and Industry, in Manchester until 10th June 2012.

More images by TAPE. I take photos too!

Sponsored by:





The Transparency Grenade! A name like that was bound to get my attention.

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It might look like a Soviet F1 Hand Grenade, but what the Transparency Grenade contains is 'just' a tiny computer, a microphone and a powerful wireless antenna. No explosive then! Except maybe the information that the device is capable of blasting to the world. The Transparency Grenade fights against the lack of corporate and governmental transparency. It captures network traffic and audio at the site of closed meetings and anonymously streams the data to a dedicated server where email fragments, HTML pages, images and voice are extracted and displayed on an online map.

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Browser-based map interface to Transparency Detonations

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Browser-based map interface to Transparency Detonations

The device was created by Critical Engineer and artist Julian Oliver, author of works such as a modified analog colour television able to capture and screen images downloaded by people on local wireless hotspots, a wall plug that messes with the news read by other people on wireless hotspots and a software platform for replacing billboard advertisements with art in real-time. Now i'm left wondering why i didn't try and interview him for the blog before...

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Hi Julian! What strikes me with your latest project is the way it looks. It is miles away from the 'bastard in beige' newstweek. Why did you decide to give the work such a threatening design?

I gave the Transparency Grenade this design to signify some of the conversation around cyber warfare, 'information weapons' and the Cyber Soldier divisions marching out from national defense budgets worldwide. It can be considered a functional weapon in a symbolically representative container.

We've seen the transformative power of network-leveraged leaking in the last decade, first with the incumbent Cryptome and then much more recently with Wikileaks. The very idea of an immaterial explosion with the power to shake the walls of institutions, businesses and political cultures - moving matter and people in its wake - is naturally attractive, not only in the conceptual sense.

The volatility of information in networked, digital contexts itself frames a precedent for clamouring (and often unrealistic) attempts to contain it. One could even say it's this desperate fear of the leak that produces images like my grenade, images that will continue to take violent forms in popular culture, journalism and Presidential speeches in time. In fact the metaphor of a Transparency Grenade is itself not new, first used publicly by Mike Taylor in the Observer, a few months after I drew up this project. A timely coincidence.

Most importantly however it is the hyperbole and fear around containing these volatile records, of the cyber burglary, that increasingly yields assumptive logics that ultimately shape how we use networks and think about the right to information. Just as record companies claim billions in losses due to file sharing, the fear of the leak is being actively exploited by law makers to afford organisations greater opacity and thus control.

This anxiety, this 'network insecurity', impacts not just upon the freedom of speech but the felt instinct to speak at all. All of a sudden letting public know what's going on inside a publicly funded organisation is somehow 'wrong' -Bradley Manning a sacrificial lamb to that effect. Meanwhile civil servants and publicly-owned companies continue to make decisions behind guarded doors that impact the lives of many, whether human or other animal.

All we have left from the Bin Laden assassination, for instance, is that photo from The Situation Room, a bunch of contradictory reports of what actually happened and a body being eaten by sea lice somewhere in the Indian Ocean - or was it the Indian Ocean? How much did that assassination cost American tax payers? Of course we wonder what was said in that room! Somehow such a significant event has now been reduced to a little black box and scrapbook..

I believe quality journalism has never been so important as it is today yet at the same it's never been so threatened, both in and out of a democratic context. Given great reductions to the freedom of the press recently it's only natural that we see them adopt guerilla tactics - especially given new discovery vectors opened up by digital communications. It should come as no surprise many of their tactics will be technically illegal or even ethically corrupt!

As we saw with the News of the World scandal, they are competing within an economy where news has capital value, itself a deep and driving flaw. Under such conditions, and baited with possibility, news corporations will increasingly look for points of exploit with exit strategies (and/or apologies) prepared.

With the Transparency Grenade I wanted to capture these important tensions in an iconic, hand-held package.

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Julian Oliver and Danja Vasiliev, Newstweek, 2011

Has anyone tested it in some corporate or governmental place? Is this something you plan to do one day?

Even if I planned to I certainly wouldn't mention it here!

It is perhaps worth mentioning however that from the software side I haven't implemented anything new. Network packet capture has been around for decades, digital audio streaming for quite some time and TCP stream reconstruction also. Rather, I've wrapped up a variety of command line utilities in scripts that allow for the whole thing to work, both on the device and the server. An upcoming project 'Covert Peripherals' will explore this, as a canvas for productive paranoia. You'll never trust your mouse again..

Because of the simplicity of the design it is relatively trivial for me to port the Transparency Grenade back-end to the Android platform, something I'm working on currently thanks to a generous hardware donation from Australian based developer Scott Robinson. This will allow activists (or those simply sick of the relative opacity of their organisation) to deploy Transparency Grenade like functionality on their rooted Android phone and send the data over an encrypted channel via their GSM provider to a publicly available map, displaying the detonation as data from that site.

I will not offer the public map interface and data mining parts as a service (that'd be illegal, wouldn't it!). I will however provide code for people to install on their servers and or study.

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Who'd be your dream 'target'? Who do you think has secrets worth unveiling?

Governments aside I certainly think we need a great deal more transparency in the Agricultural sector. A lot of effort is being exerted, including laws written, to ensure we don't know where our food comes from, alongside the impact of that food on the environment and our bodies. A year ago Senator Jim Norman of Florida proposed a blanket ban on video or photography of farms, even from the road! We have to wonder why. The meat industry is especially aggressive in this regard, their lobbies very powerful.

The arms industry, the rampant privatisation of publicly owned infrastructure, pharmaceutical industries, are also increasingly opaque in their business dealings. Why are cures, for instance, such highly guarded secrets? Symptom relief is often vastly more profitable.

What has been the reaction to the Transparency Grenade so far? Newstweek garnered much media attention and i suspect the TG, because of its functions but again also because of the way it looks, might distress and worry some people.

I've heard words like 'gorgeous' often enough for fearful responses to not dominate, thankfully! We had around 2000 people to the exhibition opening of our show and I listened in on a lot of responses. Many were a fortunately complex mix of fear and attraction..

I wanted it to look elegant, a bottle of high-class perfume, as much as a weapon. Thanks to Berlin-based Susanne Stauch, who modeled the metal components in high-grade sterling silver, that aesthetic carries across I think, at least when you see it in the flesh.

I'd like to add that my conversations with writer and journalist Marta Peirano greatly nourished my thinking around this project, this interview alongside.

Thank you Julian!

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View of Weise7: the incompatible laboratorium

The Transparency Grenade was created for the Weise7 Studio exhibition, curated by Transmediale 2012 Director, Kristoffer Gansing.. You can visit it at Labor Berlin, Haus Der Kulturen der Welt, until Feb 20, 2012.

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Photo credit: Anne Roquigny

Last weekend in was at iMAL in Brussels for a WJ-Spots afternoon (that ended at midnight). Almost 20 artists, theorists, activists, bloggers and journalists were asked to give their view on the history and future of artistic creation on the Internet.

Is the Internet a disenchanted space for artists and creative people or is there a future for online arts and critical creative actions? If so, what are their possible forms and directions?

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Photo credit: Anne Roquigny

The event followed the WJ-Spots format: during our speeches, webjays used a custom-built platform to navigate live through a list of websites that we had selected. The result was shown around the speakers on several large screens. That was both exciting and a bit of a disaster for me. I tend to throw some slides together and half improvise over them. This time i had to do the opposite.

Anyway, i had a brilliant time with some of the most talented people on planet internet and scribbled a couple of links and notes along the way. The talks are online but here are a few quotes and ideas that caught my interest:

Florian Cramer opened the afternoon by telling us something most of us tend to forget (or simply ignore): the internet is not the world wide web.

For Josephine Bosma, net.art doesn't have to take place or be made on the internet. However, it can be linked to the internet in a conceptual way. For example Alexei Shulgin's 1997 Vienna performance, Real Cyberknowledge for Real People for which he printed out and handed out to passersby copies of 'Beauty and the East' / ZKP4, published online by the mailing list nettime.

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Tobias Rehberger, Seven Ends of the World in the Italian pavilion of the Venice Biennale, 2003

Or Tobias Rehberger's Seven Ends of the World, lamps that glow with an intensity that corresponds to local light conditions in various places around the world, relayed over the Internet.

And of course there's also Aram Bartholl's giant Google Maps marker that doesn't need any time of internet connection.


Alexei Shulgin, Form Art [Tank], 1997

Alexei Shulgin was by far the artist that speakers referred to the most. Gordan Savičić showed Shulgin's Form Art before discussing the fact that nowadays the web is more about consumption than production. He mentioned a recent(ish) Wired article about the decline of the World Wide Web: Over the past few years, one of the most important shifts in the digital world has been the move from the wide-open Web to semiclosed platforms that use the Internet for transport but not the browser for display.

Paolo Cirio made a noteworthy point when he said that net.art pieces as performances. Mostly because they are time-based, they are getting shorter (e.g. a twitter neatart piece that would last a week) and need to be documented.

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Le 9ème collectif de sans-papiers & Act Up-Paris

Nicolas Malevé showed posters that were plastered a few years ago in the streets of Paris. They had the face of Nicolas Sarkozy and the slogan "Vote Le Pen." The poster was designed to denounced the far-right tendencies of Sarkozy (who was then Minister of the Interior.) 6 members of the collective were arrested because, allegedly, the photographer of Sarkozy's portrait didn't agree with its use on the posters.

Rafael Rozendaal presented some of the most successful editions of BYOB, or Bring Your Own Beamer. The exhibition format invites people to bring a projector and create their own exhibition for one night, screening images onto spaces and exploring ways to free digital work from the screen. Each edition reinterprets the format in its own way.

Julian Oliver gave a brilliant talk on the 'ideology of seamlessness' and the infrastructure that sustains our dependency on internet, even if we tend to forget/ignore their existence. Nothing can exemplify his point better than the Submarine Cable Map. Or Newstweek, the project he developed together with Danja Vasiliev and that looks at the infrastructure of the internet as a material.

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In his presentation, Alessandro Ludovico talked about how Jodi compelled him to 'print net.art'. In December 1999, he interviewed the duo for the 16th issue of Neural magazine. They answered every question with a .gif showing clipped screenshots featuring bits of their own games and artistic software, or manipulations of webpages, etc.

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Image courtesy of Alessandro Ludovico

Jodi also gave a text to speech performance at the end of the evening. Brilliant! These two are brilliant!

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Photo credit: Anne Roquigny

Domenico Quaranta would probably agree with my over-enthusiastic comment since he started and ended his presentation with them. The ending was particularly memorable: he had the WJ-S webjays open http://oss.jodi.org/, one of the websites he would most miss if ever it disappeared because, he explained, "it keeps destroying my browser :-)"

Heath Bunting found a victim to fill in an Identity Bureau questionnaire.

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Miltos Manetas, Thank You Andy Warhol, 2007

Miltos Manetas (one of the very few artists in media art who has a real sense of style) painted joysticks and websites at a time when websites and joysticks were regarded as the oddest subjects to paint, created machinimas when no one had heard of machinimas, dreamt of an "electronic orphanage" where digital creatures could meet and do things together long before Second Life made the headlines of newspapers.

All that is history now, he added.

WJ-Spots Brussels was curated by Anne Roquigny et Yves Bernard and the video archives are online: part 1 and 2.

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While in Amsterdam last weekend, i went to see The Art of Hacking at the New Media Art Institute. The exhibition presents art projects that subvert, improve on or circumnavigate 'official' systems and practices and offer alternatives. I first thought of writing a report about the whole show but the work Identity Bureau ended up grabbing all my attention. That's what happens when Heath Bunting has a project in a collective exhibition.

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View of the exhibition space at the Nimk, Amsterdam

Identity Bureau builds upon The Status Project (2004-2008), an inquiry into the construction of our 'official identity', as a collection of data and how it influences the way we can move around in social space, the internet and private or governmental databases.

One day Heath Bunting realized that in the UK it is legal to have several identities, if they are not for criminal purposes.

He set up an 'Identity Bureau' to allow ordinary people to buy new, official and legal UK identities at reasonable cost (500 euros.) It might start with something as banal as a supermarket loyalty card and from there, a new identity builds up that gets more and more coherent. The identity is based both on intangible and tangible materials. Bunting hands the ready-to-use identity inside a suitcase where the buyer can find supermarket loyalty cards, transportation cards, a mobile phone number, letters sent by governmental departments to an address in the UK, etc. The identity also exists in a less tangible way as the new person is inserted inside a web of shopping, library or transportation cards, bills, government correspondence, and other "personal" data. The person also belongs to a network made of other people, organizations, and institutions. The new identity allows you to have a bank account, free health care and a social security number in the country.

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Photo: Stefanie Grätz

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Photo: Stefanie Grätz

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Photo: Stefanie Grätz

Identity Bureau challenges the idea of personhood by showing how materially produced an identity is.

See also the conversation between UK barrister Bob Colover and Heath Bunting.

The Art of Hacking is open at the New Media Art Institute in Amsterdam until November 26th, 2011.

Last week, i was dragged out of bed at the most scandalously early hour to participate to the final jury of the projects presented by the students of the Master in Media Design at the Geneva University of Art and Design, aka the Head. The programme has been launched two year ago and a first class of students were finishing their cursus. We had seven projects to review and mark. The one that really stood out for me was Matthieu Cherubini's rep.licants.org web 'service.'

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rep.licants.org allows people to install a bot on their Facebook and/or Twitter account. The bot will combine the activity the user is already having on other channels such as youtube or flickr with a set of keywords selected by the user to attempt and simulate that person's activity, feeding their account with more frequent updates, engaging in discussions with other users and adding new people to their list of contacts.

The bot does not provide a fictitious identity, but will be added to the real identity of the user to modify it at his convenience. Thus, this bot can be seen as a virtual prosthesis added to an user's account. With the aim to help him to forge a digital identity of what he would really like to be and by trying to build a greater social reputation for the user. Moreover, this bot can be perceived as a threat by defrauding even more the reality of who is really who on social networks and by showing the poverty of our social interactions on these so-called social networks.

Here's a short video introducing you to the service:

But since, Cherubini already has a rather promising portfolio, i took the liberty of digressing a bit and asked the artist to talk to me about a couple of his other projects as well:

Hi Matthieu! This Summer, you are going to exhibit one of your previous projects at the FILE festival in Sao Paulo. The Afghan War Diary "connects to a Counter-Strike's server and retrieves in real-time frags (when a player kills another). These frags trigger a search by chronological order in the Wikileaks database: Afghan War Diary, which contains over 75,000 secret US military reports covering the war in Afghanistan. According to the retrieved data, the website shows the location of the attack on Google Earth."

Is this the database the project is using http://www.wired.com/threatlevel/2010/07/wikileaks-afghan/? it can't seem to be possible to access it right now. Does it affect your piece?

Yes, my project uses this database. When Wikileaks published these stolen databases it was possible to download them in order to install them on your own web host. It is what I did and hopefully it doesn't affect my project.

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Afghan War Diary

What is fascinating with AWD is how you managed to put together 3 potentially subversive issues: online first-person shooter video games, war in Afghanistan and Wikileaks. What did you wish to say, highlight or denounce with this work?

When Wikileaks released their data set I was kind of surprised by the enthusiasm of people for these data because if you forget the "top-secret" part, they got absolutely nothing special nor divulge any over sensible information. Actually you can find a lot of similar database related to war in public data banks which were created way before the release of the Afghan War database.

However, except some information designers, statisticians or journalists who needed specific information for an article, nobody ever cared about this kind of information.
And suddenly Wikileaks arrives with its leaked databases and everybody is interested in it, probably just because they are labeled as "top-secret". It somehow reminded me of reality television, we enjoy to watch misfits doing casual things just because we are in a voyeurism situation. And in my opinion, Wikileaks could be just that: voyeurism. In an age where almost every individual is paranoiac about their own private data why do we demand governments to be transparent ?

Wikileaks supporters claim "Information wants to be free" however most of them are the first to hide behind a mask of anonymity.

All of this gave me the idea to do a project that is a sort of reality television based on Wikileaks data where actors are unconscious virtual soldiers and spectators passive towards this kind of events.

Because we are terribly passive towards this kind of events -and that includes me, having an interest for Wikileaks data is not an act of interest towards war atrocities but an act of interest for what the government hides from us. 

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Conversation with ClairNotClaire. Bot: jimmyl0izeau. Conversation start: 24-06-2011. Conversation end: 25-06-2011

Now let's discuss rep.licants.org. This is a "web service allowing users to install an artificial intelligence (bot) on their Facebook and/or Twitter account. From keywords, content analysis and activity analysis, the bot attempts to simulate the activity of the user, to improve it by feeding his account and to create new contacts with other users." One of the objectives of the projects is to improve the social reputation of the user. Is it that clear-cut? Can a bot really make you a more interesting person in the eye of twitter or facebook users?  

In someway yes. Social networks are the first medium to display our social status to everybody with a simple statistical number (number of friends on Facebook and number of followers on Twitter). Those numbers are a kind of digital validation about what we are really worth, for example a user with a low number of followers will be regarded as not interesting. On Twitter getting a higher number of followers isn't that difficult, you have to post aggressively, follow a lot of users, retweet, get retweeted, etc. All those actions can be done by a bot. If suddenly the bot finds and posts an interesting content, it can become "viral" and you will get more followers. Of course we can argue that those kind of things can be done by the user and that's true. However a lot of user are digitally shy, introvert, etc. The bot has been programmed to be extrovert so it doesn't worry about posting ridiculous or interesting contents, contacting users that it doesn't know or contacting users that you wouldn't dare to contact. All those things put together will help the user keep an activity on social networks which make them visible to the others. That is why i like to compare the bot as a virtual prosthesis for introvert users.

But it is disturbing that a bot can be more sociable than yourself on social networks. So all those social interactions we virtually have, and that a bot can do better than some of us, are they really sociable ? Or is the word "social" in "social-networks" just a way for the designers to pull the wool over our eyes?

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Conversation with majosemf. Bot: elburdino. Conversation start: 25-06-2011. Conversation end: 25-06-2011

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Conversation with tom_watson, Bot: SingleEndedLoop. Conversation start: 19-06-2011. Conversation end: 21-06-2011

What is the feedback from the people who tested the 'service' so far?

I'm happy with the feedback of the users, some really interesting things happened which i couldn't have imagined. For example, one of the users couldn't recall if it was him or the bot who was posting messages; another began to interact with his own bot. There is a case where the bot contacted a random friend of an user on Facebook and it was actually an old friend of him whom the user never thought about contacting. The fact that the bot started to discuss with that old friend allowed the two users to have a real discussion together.

There is also, sometimes, interesting conversations between the bot and a user who doesn't know that he is speaking with a bot. Some excerpts of those communications can be seen on the bot's diary.

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The Pursuit of Happiness

Looking at your portfolio, it seems that rep.licants builds on previous projects which also investigated social networks. The Pursuit of Happiness for example. With the project you hacked into some Facebook accounts in order to steal users' private messages. This was a bold move. Were the people whose fb account was hacked aware of what you were doing? And more importantly, what did you try to achieve with this project?

No, they weren't aware of that but as i have deliberately put their contact (email and/or phone number), it happened once that a girl contacted me and asked me to remove all the information related to her. Someone warned and contacted her but i do not know whom!

My first aim with that project was pretty similar to rep.licants.org: i was fascinated by the relation in between Facebook's users and the kind of communication they have. I was motivated to find why so many people use for so many hours per day social networks while they are whole day already constantly surrounded by real social interactions. Having a look at the users private messages was a way for me to have a look at the real use of Facebook because the public part is not relevant. For example, no one is going to say that he uses Facebook as a way to flirt (flirting is almost never mentioned on the Facebook's users studies) however i was impressed by the number of users who where using Facebook as a flirting tool. Unfortunately I don't really feel I could achieve those initial aims because most of those private messages were extremely poor. I then made the decision to centre my project on the poverty of dialogues between the users, who mostly used Facebook several hours by days.

But now, after all that Wikileaks buzz, I think this project could open some discussions because it is basically a Wikileaks of the individuals instead of the governments.

Are you planning to improve rep.licants.org? offering new services, features, etc.

Yes because the bot is actually using very basic rules and features and it doesn't pass the Turing test with some "experienced" users. There is still a lot of research to do for trying to close the gap in between a bot and a human on social networks.

Merci Matthieu!

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Robbie Cooper, Immersion, 2008

Last week i came back from Florence completely gutted because i hadn't seen Snooki. As much as i like the alluring little lady, i was in town for an entirely different reason: the opening of the exhibition Virtual Identities at the Centre for Contemporary Culture Strozzina.

CCCS is part of the Fondazione Palazzo Strozzi which has the mission to give the city of Florence an international contemporary culture varnish. As far as i'm concerned, the initiative works like a charm. I now find myself taking the train to see exhibitions in Florence far more often than to, say, Milan. Each year, CCCS produces a series of thematic exhibitions which blend together recent scientific researches, current societal issues and the big as well as the emerging names of contemporary art.

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Les Liens Invisibles, Seppukoo.com, 2009

The new exhibition, titled Virtual Identities enquires how digital culture is redefining the characteristics and boundaries of our identity, both personal and collective.

Franziska Nori, director of the Centre and curator of the exhibition, has been investigating new media culture for over a decade. You might remember I love you computer virus, the seminal exhibition she curated when she was digitalcraft's Project Director. Nori started thinking about the Virtual Identities show 8 years ago. 8 years is such a long time in the history of the 'network culture' that it compels you to have a look back at what online life was a few years ago. So much has changed. Second Life doesn't make the headlines of newspapers anymore, and when MySpace does, it never brings any cheerful news for the social networking website. On the other hand, 8 years is not a long enough lapse of time to allow for the temporal distance necessary for a serious critical assessment.

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Chris Oakley, Video still from The Catalogue, 2004

Virtual Identities is therefore a snapshot of the relationship of man with digital technologies. The crucial role that virtual life takes in our society is naturally embedded into the work of young artists who grew up using the internet on a daily basis but it has also spread into the work of some of the most widely recognised names of contemporary art. That's why the exhibition will take you from Michael Wolf's amazing Paris Street View prints to the facebook suicides offered by the young duo Les Liens Invisibles.

One of the first works you encounter as you enter the show is Immersion, a video in which Robbie Cooper captures the powerful emotions that are manifested on the faces of children and young people interacting with a screen as they play computer games. The camera was incorporated into the monitor displaying the images that captivate the young players. The observer is thus face to face with children who ignore them, enwrapped as they are in the action that takes place on the monitor. We never get to see what they see, only the sounds of the game reaches our ears here and there.

Cooper's work creates a dual feedback: the players react intensely to the images they see on the screen, whereas we - the observers - react with our own feelings to their powerfully emotional facial expressions that to us, in turn, are just another image on a screen.

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Evan Baden, Katie with LG Chocolate, 2007

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Evan Baden, Lila with Nintendo DS, 2007

Evan Baden's The Illuminati is another example of one-sided exchange. The series focuses on the facial expression of young people whose attention is entirely focused on their digital devices. Their face is bathed in the light emanating from their device, the effect evokes the way light hits the face of the subjects of Georges de La Tour's paintings. The luminous halo strengthens the impression of an intimacy between the piece of electronics and the teenager holding it, leaving viewers in the position of outsiders.

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Although it was not part of the exhibition, i'd like to mention another series in Baden's portfolio because it shows in a striking way how much the internet has overthrown the boundaries of the personal sphere. For Technically Intimate, Baden tracked the young girls who had posted on the internet intimate photos of themselves. The photographer re-staged the scene, and the encounter between the sexually explicit images and the girly teenage rooms is quite unsettling. In a charming way.

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Image etoy.CORPORATION

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Image etoy.CORPORATION

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The TAMATAR installation brought me back to more familiar territories. TAMATAR is part of MISSION ETERNITY, a long-term project by etoy.CORPORATION that involves a mobile cemetery tank which allows for the archiving and re-location of the massive body of digital information that up to 1000 M∞ PILOTS leave behind them throughout their life.

TAMATAR (a contraction of the Japanese term * TAMA that refers to spirit or soul and of the word 'avatar') are spherical carriers created for the resurrection of dead MISSION ETERNITY PILOTS.

Previously recorded memories of the M∞PILOT are used to detect characteristic elements and to derive behavioural pattern for the TAMATAR. This code is combined with voice recordings and ca. 16 giga bites of data collected by the PILOT, his friends/family and etoy.AGENTS to generate 16 TAMAS*.

In a ritualistic art performance, the TAMAS (software) are uploaded into the 16 TAMATAR (hardware: the spheres acting as the transport layer for digital content). The TAMA-SOFTWARE starts to posses the new bodies. The physical carrier is able to move (roll), to talk with the original voice of the dead person and to make use of telepathy (wireless communication). The simple set of possibilities of expression is the base for complex physical, emotional, intellectual and poetic interaction with living human beings, other TAMATAR (the dead) and technical components (on- and offline).

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Nicholas Felton, The 2009 Feltron Annual Report

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View of the 2009 Feltron Annual Report in the exhibition space

In 2005 Nicholas Felton started to record and document facts and figures regarding his everyday life: how many miles he has flown on planes, how often he visits a museum, how many birthday parties he attends, how often he has been sick, etc. At the end of each year, the navel-gazing data he as collected is turned into a series of statistical diagrams and charts that quantifies his lifestyle. He then publishes the result in a corporation-style report.

This conceptual work of infographics has met with so much attention that Felton has teamed up with Ryan Case to develop Daytum, which allow the aggregation, and visualization of their data. Felton's work has much in common with the practice of data mining, a strategy used by companies to predict the buying behavior of potential clients. That's probably the reason why facebook has recently hired Case and Felton.

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Diana Djeddi, I Am Neda, 2011. View of the exhibition space

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For Virtual Identities, German-Iranian photojournalist Diana Djeddi was commissioned a new work that traces the tortuous online path that lead from an anonymous video of the murder of a young woman to a global story where all control over content and identity gets lost.

I am Neda charts the story of Neda Agha-Soltan, the woman shot to death in 2009 during the protests in Iran. Her death was recorded by a witness with a mobile phone and published on the internet where it quickly became the emblem of the human rights movement in Iran.

As somebody in the video can be heard shouting the girl's name, albeit indistinctly, the search to establish her identity led to a tragic error where a basically apolitical and very alive English literature teacher named Neda Soltani was mistakenly identified as the murdered woman via her Facebook profile. Her photo was published by the international media and used as a rallying cry for the revolt against the regime. The Iranian government pressured Neda Soltani to admit that she was an actor and collaborator, forcing the young woman flee the country and travel to Germany where she currently lives as a political refugee.

Neda Soltani's story is representative of the logic of online communication, based on the rapid sharing of fragments of information that are not always verified causing misinterpretation. Her loss of control over the content that she herself had uploaded to the internet and therefore over her public image reveals the principle of flows of information, images and news that acquire autonomous dynamics that can no longer be controlled as soon as they are made available to the online public. In other words, with a certain degree of public exposure, the individual loses control over the right to the privacy of his or her own image, and with it a part of his or her personal identity.

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(Image source)

Virtual identities is on view at CCCS-Strozzina in Florence until July 17, 2011.

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