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<nettime> Interview with Amy Alexander
Tilman Baumgaertel on Wed, 18 Dec 2002 12:05:36 +0100 (CET)


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<nettime> Interview with Amy Alexander


Ultimatively, everything becomes video games

Interview with Amy Alexander / By Tilman Baumgärtel

Colorful letters crawl across the screen like insects or fly like birds.  
American net artist Amy Alexander directs the swarms of words from the
internet with a remote control and her mighty Mattel Power glove during
her performance piece “B0timati0n” (http://videopolis.botimation.org/). In
“B0timati0n”, Cut Up writing meets Oskar Fischinger, Konkrete Poesie is
cross breeded with a psychedelic light show, and all that is turned into a
VJ set. After a performance of the piece in Berlin at Raum3, I talked with
Alexander about "B0timati0n" and her previous works.

?: You did a performance last night here in Berlin. Can you describe 
"B0timati0n"?

Amy Alexander: "B0timati0n" is a performance search engine. I am
UeberGeek, the internet VJ. I have a program that is really a front-end to
a commercial search engine. I type in search terms, and it grabs search
results through the search engine, which than animate in psychedelic
colors. As UeberGeek I sort of conduct this thing, waving my arm. I have a
lot of geek toys, like my Mattel Power Glove, a remote control and an air
mouse.

?: It almost looks like a light show. Have you performed at clubs and
discos with it?

Alexander: So far I have mostly done it at media arts festivals, but I
want to bring it more into public places. The most public places I have
performed in so far were storefronts in Munich and Los Angeles. Those were
good spots, because people were just passing by on the street, and they
didn't know what was coming up, and all of a sudden there is this weird
performance in their face.

?: The performance looked very slick and could be dismissed as eye candy?  
Are you trying to make a point that goes beyond a good looking VJ-type of
show?

Alexander: Yes, you have to be careful - you never know what someone will
sneak into eye candy nowadays! "B0timati0n" is about the juxtaposition
between geek culture and pop culture. The stereotypical geek is really
obsessed with computers, is not very interested in the rest of the world
and doesn't have very good social skills - a geek used to be this cliché,
nobody wanted to be thought of this way. But that has changed: programmers
started making a lot of money, and all of a sudden they had this cult
status. They started to appear in popular culture, with websites like
"Slashdot" and so on. So suddenly it became cool to be a programmer. Of
course, that was initially money-induced, during the dot com boom...

Even pop culture and leisure have become really geeky. Rock'n'roll used to
be about electric guitars and smashing things. Now the coolest things are
laptop techno (which is typing) and DJ-ing (which is turning knobs). The
tools of toil have become the tools of leisure. In the States, people are
going to coffee houses with their laptops, and they "relax", while doing
work on their computer. There are also gaming rooms, that are replacing
the arcades, where you see teenage boys playing computer games. But they
are sitting in this office furniture, typing away. Somehow, this
commercial, technical culture has made leisure culture really boring.
B0timati0n is the answer to the tedium of DJ-ing! (laughs)

?: Are you geek yourself?

Alexander: It is hard to say. I guess in real life, I'm a backwards geek,
because I actually started out making music and then film and realtime
video art and hating computers. But then I ended up programming my digital
media projects. I got very tired of programming, and I felt like a geek. I
was working on these art projects, but there was a lot of tedium.  
Programming, even on art projects gets tedious - well a lot of ways of
working on and experiencing - digital art get tedious and geeky - at least
for somebody hyperactive like me who is used to doing things more
kinetically. So, I started looking for ways to combat that - or at least
tweak it!

?: To me it also seemed like the performance was also an attempt to
dramatize the mundane interface of the computer…

Alexander: Yeah, I am trying to dramatize, tongue-in-cheek. There is this
interface level, but there is also the content level. People used to watch
movies in cinemas on these large-scale screens, and now they are sitting
in front of their computer, watching little Quicktime-Movies and DVDs on
the laptop screen. The web is supposed to be so cool and programming is
supposed to be so cool, but the content is all mostly about commercial
content and commercial culture, of course. But it's the juxtaposition of
the two that I think creates the web's aesthetic. The crux of "B0timati0n"  
is typing in these search terms, abstract concepts like "Love" and
"Safety"  or sometimes more political things, like "War Games"... and what
comes back, in some authoritative way, are these commercial, "webified"  
definitions of these terms. Watching how the individual searchterms come
back is important though, not just, OK, here's some arbitrary commercial
trash appropriated into something. These terms are being redefined.

?: One of the search results that appears most frequently are things like
"Copyright by"…

Alexander: Yeah. And a lot of the content we have on the web is just
things like: "You're browser doesn't support frames." And a lot of what
comes up are people trying to sell you some web-based service. The web
tends to be very self-reflexive. I am very interested in search engines,
because they are this universal, worldwide meta mass medium. It becomes a
very big propaganda tool. The way they are structured tends to be very
incestuous, despite what you read about the democracy of Google's page
ranking system.  Companies that own a lot of domains can link all their
domains together, and so they come up very high in the ranking. So if
somebody looks for something, this corporate version of the answer to his
question is what comes up the highest, and individuals are ten pages out.

So it is quite interesting to me to use search engine results as material
for this performance. This is supposed to be cool culture, but what comes
back is a lot of trash. I have it animated, it looks like video games, so
there is this friction between what I - as UeberGeek - want to be cool and
the reality of the content. And the same thing happens with my geek toys.  
They are very physical, but ultimately I am waving around a mouse and
controlling onscreen this horrible web texts that says: "Looking for love?
Try the love calculator!"

?: Is there also the idea to make data accessible again in a sensual
fashion, to enter into the data space?

Alexander: It is about the attempt to enter into the data world or have
data enter our world. Of course, this is a ricidulous proposition. As
UeberGeek, I continue to try, because this is the epitomy of cool for me
or her. Sometimes people ask if it's a reference to Stelarc. In some ways
it is. It is about the obsolescence of Stelarc. (laughs)

?: There is a obvious connection between the way you use text in your
performance and the Cut-Up-technique of people like William Burroughs. I
sometimes think that this kind of high art concept from 20. century
avantgarde movements have turned into pop culture by computers. A high art
concept like "cut up" can become material for a psychedelic light show
like "B0timatiOn".

Alexander: Yep, I guess it's true that everything becomes pop
culture.Ultimatively, everything becomes a video game, is another way to
look at this. All these pop culture elements are homogenizing, like the
Web homogenizes everything. In some of the remixes I am doing, I mix songs
from the 80's with sounds from video game themes. When I put in search
terms, I use words from the songs or games that often also have meaning in
another context. "Doom" is a real word, but most of the responses to a
search queries of the word "Doom" don't have anything to do with the real
meaning of "doom", but rather with the game "Doom". Thanks to search
engines, the meaning of every word gets changed into a Web-Culture-ified
or Game-ified redefinition.

?: You only use text, but technically it would also be possible to use
images. Why do you rely on text exclusively?

Alexander: That is something I thought about a lot. Not that I would never
use images, but I don't want to use them for the sake of being visual. For
now it is going to stay only text, because it is the ultimate reduction of
the content. And also it is also the best representation of nerdiness and
dryness. Low tech is the ultimate high tech, text is the ultimate cool
technology. When I was a kid, the adults used to criticize the kids,
because kids wouldn't read and would watch TV all the time. Now the new
pop culture is reading on the internet. Everything is text: the web,
instant messaging, SMS. But still the adults complain about the kids -
these text-based technologies are going to turn your brain to mush!

?: The name of your website is plagiarist.org and a lot of your work is
about the issue of intellectual property.

Alexander: The idea of intellectual property in the digital age is that of
course when you are stealing you don't take anything away. That is one of
the tenets of Open Source. If you steal a car from someone, this person
doesn't have the car anymore. If you steal a website, they still have the
property and you have a copy too. My attitude with plagiarist.org is that
it is a moot point.. At some point appropriation was a big deal in the
arts, but now that has become just a part of the fabric. You either
appropriate or you don't, it is just something that it is there. If I am
stealing from anyone, I am stealing from the search engines, because they
already stole it from the original authors. One has to look at it that
way.  My point is that it's ridiculous to worry about these issues.

?: In fact most of your work wouldn't possible without other people's
data.

Alexander: Yes, but it is ironic, not for shock value. "Plagiarist" on the
plagiarist website is this imaginary character, always stealing from
others and hoping to get away with it. In 1999, when there was a lot of
hoopla around the zero one group stealing other people's site, Plagiarist
decided that it would be a good chance for a plagiarist to get into the
act. Plagiarist felt this duty to settle the whole damned thing by
stealing the whole zero one site and then announcing it to the net art
scene as a Christmas gift. We wondered: would they steal it back, and in
fact they did. What was interesting and funny and sad all at the same time
was that this was a prank about how self-reflexive things have become in
the net art community. I wondered would this get a disproportionate amount
of attention, and in fact it really did. That was really sad. (laughs)

?: Do you think that this would change, if the community would open up
more to the general public? That there should be more museum shows with
net and software art?

Alexander: I don't think that's really it. The art world still wants
something that they can put into a gallery and exhibit, and not something
that is just on the net. When the "Multi-Cultural Recycler" was in gallery
shows, people would say: 'Can you make a custom version of the
"Multi-Cultural Recycler" that the rest of the world can't post to?' And
of course this was just the point that everybody could participate. There
were a lot of shows that wanted to print out the images and hang them on
the wall. And the funny thing about these images is that they are really
nothing. The user just clicks on some buttons, and it is ridiculous to
hang them on the wall. It would be the equivalent of a sound bite.

I also know some art gallery people, and they find it difficult to present
the pieces technically. Net art is a strange animal for art museums. Some
net artists are very much against art museums. I am not, because as much
as I am interested in the net as public space, I also think that art
museums are public space I wouldn't want to exhibit just in an art museum,
but if a gallery asks to show my work, I usually let them, because there
is some segment of the population that is going to the art museum, that
won't see it on the net.

As far as net art is concerned the problem is not how accepted it is in
the art world, because I think it is not such a big deal. To me it is more
important to be accessible to the public. Net art has this big advantage
of automatically exhibiting in a public space. There are a lot of artists
who are working heavily in that area, to make it publicly available, so
that the general public can see it, and it doesn't become just an art
piece and it is not just about staring into its own belly button.
Obviously the work that is about net art has a little tougher time in that
area. It doesn't mean that it shouldn't exist. I did things like the
"Interview yourself" project, that are just net art community projects. I
wouldn't want to do fifty of them, but I think it is OK to do some things
that just relate to this community.

?: You considered to be a public space for the presentation of art, but
unlike in the early days of the net, there is now so much stuff on the net
that it is so much harder to find these projects. How do you deal with
this fact?

Alexander: That still happens, projects appear in "Slashdot" and so on. Of
course, it is much harder, but then again there is a proportionally much
larger number of people looking at the projects, too. For example, I get a
lot more hits from search engines now than I used to, because people are
looking up things like "plagiarist" or "bot" or "geek". I look in my log
and I see what strange links people are coming from. And they are rarely
looking for net art, but more often for intellectual property thieves! So
actually it should be easier to reach people. Often people can use the
strategies that big corporations do to increase their rankings in the
search engines, and that can be desirable - depending on the situation.

?: There used to be these buttons inside the Netscape browser "What's
hot?"  and "What's new?" that presented links to interesting and weird
sites. I would think that things like the "Multi-cultural recycler" got a
lot of exposure over these channels.

Alexander: Yeah, that was in a lot of "What's hot", "What's new" lists,
Yahoo, etcetera. I had a couple of hits like that with other projects. I
mean it's fleeting, it is fifteen minutes fame for sure, and you disappear
after that. But it is useful.

?: Then there is your project "Netsong", which is a very interesting
interface between internet data and browser. Tell me about it…

Alexander: “Netsong” sings the web. It is the second in a series of
projects that use software bots. The first one was "The bot (One investing
the horse)". Bots are the software used by search engines to create their
indexes. They are also called spiders, and these programs are used by
search engines like Altaviasta, Google, all of them. They crawl around on
the web, they follow links from page to page and they gather all this
data, and that becomes the searchable index. So if you look for a search
word, you type in "dog", and the results for dog come back. But you never
see any of this underlying stuff - the links the bot followed to get
there.

Sometimes artists have become interested in visualizing these process, and
not just artists, but all kinds of web geeks. They make these graphical
projects with diagrams of web spider links, which I think is interesting,
but ultimately this comes down to data visualization - you can only see
the data in an abstract and aggregate way. I am rather interested in
anti-data visualization. I am interested in making it
hyper-representational, looking very closely at the content. This happens
in "B0tmati0n" of course, where there is this over-highlighting of web
text, but also in some of the other projects.

In theBot and Netsong, I took up the stereotypical temptation to
anthropomorphize software. I have the bot being this creature that runs
around in the net and is really very excited to read all this text, and
that's why it reads it so enthusiastically. I layered speech synthesis, so
it reads web text sort of like some strange beat poetry, even though there
is this underlying boredom to it, too, as with most speech synthesis. And
there is this weird cadence while reading the URLs: http:// whatever dot
com. The bot is sort of ritualistic. It sort of creates this narrative. If
the web has a story, this is it. And the only person that gets to read
this story, is the bot - this spider.

In the second project, I collaborated with Peter Traub, who is a composer,
net artist and programmer. We decided that the bot would be now be
inspired to start singing. It works like a radio program - different
people can tune in to one another's "requests". And the music is complete
with lyric sheets in case you can't understand what it is singing.

?: These bots feel so helpless, you almost feel sorry for them.

Alexander: Yes, you can't help but feeling sorry for him. But he claims he
has a good time. In fact he must have a good time, because he has stamina
for this endlessly.

?: It seems that you use a lot of characters in your work, like 
"UeberGeek", "Plagiarist", "The Bot".

Alexander: I'd love to say that this is a brilliant strategy I came up
with, but in reality I just do this. Maybe it has to do with the tendency
to anthropomorphize computers. I need to psychoanalyse myself at some
point to find out why I do that. But I do seem to do it a lot. (laughs)






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