The Transparency Grenade! A name like that was bound to get my attention.
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.
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...
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.
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.
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
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!
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.
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?
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Jodi also gave a text to speech performance at the end of the evening. Brilliant! These two are brilliant!
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 :-)"
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.'
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
Virtual identities is on view at CCCS-Strozzina in Florence until July 17, 2011.
I've stopped publishing interviews a long time ago but once in a while i stumble upon someone whose work and ideas sound so relevant to my interests that i immediately get back on the interview track. A couple of weeks ago, Rui Guerra answered one of my facebook rants (which usually target museum press people who refuse to give me access to press images because i'm a blogger therefore 'images are not safe" with me) with a comment so smart and informative that i wanted to know more about his opinion about online strategies for cultural spaces.
Guerra is teaching, working and collaborating with the likes of V2_, Laboral Art and Industrial Creation Centre, Piet Zwart Institute and the Royal Academy of Art in The Hague. He is also the co-founder of ʻItʼs not that kindʼ (INKT), a studio focused on developing online strategies primarily for the cultural and creative sector. Besides working commercially, INTK develops artistic projects that explores the intersection of art, technology and society.
You're working on developing online strategies for cultural institutes. You've recently worked for two institutions that are beacons in the world of new media art, V2_ and LABoral. Can you explain us what you did for them? And if working for a cultural institute specialized in art and tech is any different than working for a more 'traditional' cultural center? Do they have different expectations and requests?
Rui Guerra: Cultural and heritage organizations, including new media art organizations, often regard their online presence as a marketing strategy. Their website and other online activities are traditionally run by a communication department (or public relations). This led to the current situation where websites are regarded as announcement platforms or brochures. Surely, there are exceptions but the current rule is to use online technologies as a marketing tool to attract visitors to physical locations. This scenario is changing rapidly. In 2001, the number of people who visited the four Tate museums was approximately twice as large as the number of visitors of the Tate website. In 2004, for the ﬁrst time in history, the number of online and ofﬂine visitors was comparable. Five years later (2009), the number of online visitors was three times as high as the number of people that visited all Tate museums combined. The rapid growth of a 24h/7 online audience is awakening organizations for the fact that websites are much more than just mere ﬂyers. An online platform with a growing world wide audience might very well be an extremely valuable ʻvenueʼ. Wouldn't it be ironic if in the near future, ofﬂine exhibitions would be just a marketing strategy to attract visitors to websites?
Online platforms have changed so rapidly that it might be important to revise current strategies. The online strategies that we at INTK develop together with organizations start from the point of view that a website is a platform in itself and that it is meant for an online audience. This is not a unique point of view, see for example, the ten principles that John Stack published at the Tate Online Strategy for 2010-12. The resulting online strategies can be quite comprehensive covering aspects in terms of content, context, business model, identity, interaction, communities, software and maintenance. So the changes that might occur due to a new online strategy are not just in terms of software but also organizational. Based on my experience, the ability to adopt new technologies does not depend directly on whether organizations include technology in their subject of interest but rather how fast and ﬂexible they are in adapting to changes and new ways of working.
In a previous online conversation you mentioned the catalogue issue and how institutions invest time, money and energy to print beautifully designed catalogues but pay little to no attention to the possibility of publishing the same content online.
What arguments do you use to convince them to modify their attitude? What can art institutions gain from providing their web visitors with an online catalogue? Does the catalogue have to be available for free?
Rui Guerra:I was often surprised how efﬁcient institutions are in collecting information to print in catalogues and how clumsy they are with publishing similar content online. Most of the organizations we've worked with do not need to be convinced to publish their content online. It is well-known that via the internet you can reach an audience that would be unthinkable 10 years ago. The urge to publish online is already there, what is missing are online publication models ﬁne-tuned to the speciﬁc needs of cultural organizations.
Let me describe some of the challenges my colleagues at V2_ and me have encountered while developing their online strategy. V2_, Institute for the Unstable Media, just like many other organizations, had two different websites: one used to announce news and events and an online archive where all activities are documented. This approach not only divided the visitors, it also doubled the amount of work for the already scarce human resources. The solution passed through merging the two websites. The announcement platform and the archive platform had to be one and the same. Now it sounds like a no-brainer but it was not obvious back then. How can you present fresh news while at the same time show a rich archive of the last 30 years? How can you stay light and engaging while at same time remain informative and interesting? These were some of the questions we had to answer. New content needed to be historically contextualized using archived information while at the same time visitors searching for historical content should be informed about recent developments or events.
We needed a model that would be simultaneously temporal and semantic. We implemented a system that allowed editors to relate content in a semantic manner and presented it in a well structured page. Besides that it was also important to include relations that only emerge with time. With that purpose in mind, we developed a ʻrelated contentʼ system that is presented in all pages and is driven by meta-information. All content is documented with tags but instead of showing the tags to the visitors, we use them to search for archived content and to generate a related items list. This is not much different from youtube related videos or from what a lot of bloggers do by manually linking new blog posts to previous related ones. It sounds like the obvious thing to do but when you think about it, you realize that such systems are not commonly used. The new website was developed using existing open source software (Plone) and new functionality was added as open source modules. The new software was in place within the ﬁrst 3 months followed by progressive adaptations until we achieved a quite stable system that can be downloadable from http://www.culturecab.org Currently, you can use V2_'s website as a research tool or at least as a comprehensive catalogue of their activities. Since the new strategy has been launched, V2_ online audience has tripled last year and recently, they had a video on youtube that has reached more than a million views.
About making content freely accessible online, we think that each organization needs to carefully think about a sustainable business model. Overprotecting content might drive you to oblivion and exclude society from a fundamental part of culture. On the other hand, you do not want to see others deriving proﬁt from your assets at your own expenses. There is a beautiful publication freely available online that is a great introduction to business model innovation for culture heritage (PDF.) Business models are an important part of a thoughtful online strategy.
How about the audience? Do we already expect to ﬁnd PDF of catalogues? Would we be curious enough to visit the online version of an exhibition? Or do we still cling to our old habits?
Rui Guerra:There are fundamental differences between an exhibition, a printed catalogue and an online platform. They have different goals and serve different needs therefore they are not mutually exclusive, in the contrary, they complement each other. You could say that exhibitions and catalogues are like snapshots of a given cultural context, they happen or are published at a certain period in time. Online platforms have the potential to be dynamic to evolve along with time. Theoretically, websites offer an unlimited amount of information and multiple views offer that information. With so much potential, one wonders why websites that offer a great cultural experience are so scarce? Again, I think we are lacking beﬁtting models. You can ﬁnd online exhibitions modeled after a book, after a DVD, after a physical space, after a geographic map, even modeled after an archival database. Applying old models, or dumping catalogues in PDF format online, is not going to get the job done.
We've recently launched the new online platform of LABoral, Art and Industrial Creation Centre, in Spain. LABoral exists only for approximately four years. In such a short time, they have organized more than 40 exhibitions, presenting more than 700 artworks and invited approximately 600 artists. During that period thousands of images, texts and videos were created. LABoral exhibitions are overwhelming in terms of information. The new online platform had to reﬂect that proliferation of content while at the same time take in attention the visitor's online experience. The website that resulted from their new online strategy uses a minimal design, basically it lives from its content. The pace of the
What could be the beneﬁt for a museum or an art gallery to have their online audience grow? Why, for example, would they want to reach people who might never be able travel and visit their shows?
Rui Guerra: The main beneﬁt of having a large online audience is surely not to attract visitors to ofﬂine shows. An increasing online audience might lead to a raise of the number of ofﬂine visitors but we think that is just a side effect of something more relevant. There is a clear interest in consuming information and in experiencing art online. In 2008, people under-25s already spent 36% of their leisure time online. Art organizations realize that it is essential to tap into this audience in order to reach a younger and broader public. To adapt to this new audience is their urge. The beneﬁts are diverse and might be not only for the organizations but also for the public in general. For example, the artworks that are accessible to the public represent just the tip of the iceberg when compared to the collections owned by cultural organizations. Either from space limitations or any other reason a large amount of our culture is not easily accessible. Organizations are already publishing much of their collections online, the process has been slow mainly because most works need to be digitalized. Currently digitalization techniques are relatively cheap and governments have been funding a big part of this process so you can expect an increase in speed. Nobody can predict the impact of this process but you can expect big changes. Think for example what Taschen has done in its early period when it published less known artworks in a magazine format.
The full beneﬁts of an online audience can only be harvested once organizations realize that websites are not just publishing channels but more importantly they are interactive platforms that allow audiences to engage with art in unique ways. The nature of an online experience is radically different from an ofﬂine one.
It cannot be expected that art originally made to be hanged on a wall will perform equally good on a screen. Adapting artworks that were made with one medium in mind to another medium does not always result well. The full potential of a medium can only be explored by works that have been conceived with that medium in mind. Such artworks are no longer rare and in fact there has been an impressive proliferation of digital artists communities making works that can only be fully perceived once experienced online. These art forms surely deserve more attention.
Over the past few years, curators, artists, other individuals or institutions have experimented with setting up galleries that exist purely online. Is that an experience you'd regard as meaningful and timely?
Rui Guerra: Yes there has been important precedents. Adaweb and runme.org are two examples that ﬁrst come to my mind. Runme.org is an online repository for software art which in a way represents an important generation of software artists. There also have been successful initiatives run by cultural organizations, such as, the Intermedia Art by the Tate and Artport by the Whitney Museum. However, once artists control both the means of production and distribution, as it is often the case with software art, one might question the role of institutions or even the role of online exhibitions. We have participated in an exhibition organized by JODI where these concerns where dramatically expressed. As curators of the show, the duo decided that no computers would be presented in the gallery. Instead a silent manifestation was organized where the URLs of all projects were paraded in gigantic banners throughout the streets of Dordrecht in the Netherlands. Art projects that are available online can be easily accessible as long as their internet address is known. Some of these projects have been created taking in mind an audience that would access them from their own computer, so it is logical to question the typical white cube scenario.
Consciously or not these works are deﬁnitively reshaping the relationship between artists, cultural organizations and the public.
You recently won ﬁrst prize in the competition ARTE 2.0 VOCENTO: the art of exhibiting art online. Your proposal "Everybody is a curator" challenges current hierarchies in the art world and explores new forms of interaction and participation among the general public. Can you tell us more about the project and what you tried to achieve with it?
Rui Guerra: The proposal Everybody is a curator is integrated in a long term research focused on the relationship between software and curating. The prize was quite important for INTK not only in ﬁnancial terms but also as an impulse to experiment with techniques and approaches for which we might not have an obvious business model. We think it is important for artists to explore alternative ways of presenting and distributing their work. In a nutshell, the proposal explored the notion that websites cannot be perceived as isolated islands and in fact they are nodes of a larger network. To give an example, INTK has been developing a series of creative interventions meant for existing websites. So rather than presenting works on our website, we prefer to install our projects in a guest website for a speciﬁc amount of time. This approach introduces several novelties. We can reach different audiences depending on which website the work is installed on. The website regular online audience has certain expectations, they are accustomed to the interface and aesthetics so the changes that our interventions introduce often create a strong impact.
For example, last November there was a national protest in the Netherlands against planned cuts in government arts funding. In order to increase the awareness among an online audience, we released a script that could be included in any website. The code literally tilted the website in order to reveal the national campaign in the background. To our surprise in less than 24h several organizations and individuals had their website tilted. We are quite fascinated about this approach. While we should be searching for a renowned gallery to represent our work, we prefer to spend our time checking websites that we would like to run our scripts on. In terms of audience numbers, it might be more interesting to show our work on google.com than let's say at moma.org but until now cultural institutes have been more receptive to our interventions than other organizations.
Is there any contemporary art institution you think is in need of a serious
Rui Guerra: Haha! Half a year ago, we made a survey of the 100 most visited museums and inspected their websites. You can still ﬁnd the screenshots in a Flickr set. We think that most of them are in urgent need of help. But seriously, creating an online strategy means to work closely with an organization, so rather than pick up the desperate cases we would prefer to work with organizations that challenge us. We imagine that eyebeam.org would be a great place to experiment and try out new models.
On the other hand, we have been increasingly interested in online platforms for recurrent events, such as, festivals and biennales. It strikes us, this approach of creating an new website for each edition of a festival. We really would love to see a platform that could evolve along with the festival. Besides that, we think such events are an intensive social experience and that online platforms could play a larger role before, during and after the event.
And one that sets the example?
Rui Guerra: I do not think that there is any cultural organization that can be a role model in its entire online strategy. There are several isolated initiatives that can be praised. The videos published on the Tate channel work really well online. They are short and engaging. I've been watching them for a while now and I can't get enough. Ubuweb, which is not an institution but an endeavor of a small group of people, have done an amazing job in terms of publishing art related content. It has become an essential tool for any art educator. One could say that, they are the art wikileaks. Guys if you are listening; backup all that data and release it on a peer-to-peer network before is too late. Google art project is at the same time encouraging and disappointing. It is nice to see museums open up in this way but quite disappointing to see that google approaches all information with an standard methodology. To google it does not seem to make any difference whether we are talking about the earth, the human body or art. I could go on mentioning isolated initiates but these are just pieces of a puzzle that no one has managed to put neatly together into a cohesive online strategy.