I get the feeling that Aram Bartholl is much more open to the digital realm than I am. After all, in being a practicing net artist since the 90s there’s no sense in switching off the screen of our video chat, offering a glimpse of his face from his webcam before going black, for my sake. I wonder, what happened that, I, of a later generation, am less comfortable with digital technology than he is? Maybe, it’s simply a matter of personal preference, age difference or some queer reversion to this classical notion of one’s image being something sacred. But perhaps it’s a part of the rising swell of mass anxiety about the internet, those long lingering science fiction fears about the digital world’s capabilities for civilian surveillance coming to fruition with the NSA scandal, Snowden affair and Manning trial. Going offline doesn’t seem so unappealing anymore; the desire to migrate away from the social networks that are being usurped by corporations in exchange for our online identities, a sensible one. Digital culture has well and truly established its place in the collective consciousness and the art world has consequently reached a crucial point in critical discourse.
That’s why Bartholl’s two exhibitions, the solo Hello World! and group OFFLINE ART: Hardcore (an extension on his previous OFFLINE ART show in Paris’ XPO Gallery earlier this year), running in tandem at Germany’s Kasseler Kunstverein, is such a relevant dual event. Juxtaposing Bartholl’s personal and long-running preoccupations with the blurred lines between the analogue and digital, cyber and ‘real’, worlds, with the radical net art pioneers like Vuk Ćosić and Eva & Franco Mattes, alongside their younger counterparts, Deanna Havas and Constant Dullaart, the two exhibitions express a fuller picture of yesteryear’s effect (or lack there of) on the present. Expressed through offline routers, accessible by its viewers’ handheld devices but not by the internet, OFFLINE ART: Hardcore places its artists and their concerns, alongside Bartholl’s own works around the more ubiquitous agents of Google Maps or gaming in Hello World!. It’s as if, with the spread of digital control and the rising awareness of our places within that system, it’s important to recognise the influence the web has on our daily lives in order to maintain control over it. Because as Bartholl says, “it’s hard to tell where it ends and where it starts.”
aqnb: I was quite struck by one of the ideas from Hello World! talking about 3D printing actualising the virtual world.
Aram Bartholl: It’s a thing I’ve been doing for quite a while now. It’s not only 3D printing, but this whole gesture of taking these 3D objects and reinserting them and discussing them in public space.
It’s very much about how this whole digital discussion has finally arrived on a very large scale, with the Snowden leaks, the Arab Spring and all this stuff that has happened over the past three years. When I started working with these topics, it was still very much fresh and new, maybe ‘sexy dot com’, but a lot of people still didn’t know what to do with the internet. Nowadays, it’s sort of taking over or it’s just there. It fits very much the situation we live in right now because there’s Bitcoin, spying, the copyright discussion, the digital revolution happened some years ago but the impact is right now.
aqnb: When you mentioned that you end up outside of the system if you’re not on Google Maps, it reminds me of the gentrification of the internet; communities of online artists being commodified through the corporate takeover of social networks.
AB: It’s like a neighbourhood, which gets taken over, right? It’s interesting. There’s always been these terms, before it was called ‘blog art’, which is art that is actually made for blogs, to be ‘re-blogged’. I dont look much at Facebook but there’s a lot of art happening there too. It’s probably important to follow these things, like when there were projects on MySpace ten years ago and it was very vibrant, but you’re always depending on these big companies and if there are some boobs, or something that they don’t like, they will censor you. I don’t think it’s right, this enivornment, to work as an artist. You can do it but then you also need to know what to do technically and to know how you’re censored and maybe find other ways to express yourself.
aqnb: It’s also the fact they own your images.
AB: Yeah. When you look at the terms of licensing of these things, you can’t do it at all. But I totally understand because it’s very fast, it’s very well-connected to all your artist friends, it’s very influential, high-speed; there’s group art going on and has a lot of attention, I totally get that.
With the routers on the wall [of OFFLINE ART], it’s the opposite, in taking things offline. It also has implicitly this discussion where there are these moments in Net art where people have sold work so it’s always a question of, ‘do I take the work offline or not?’ The very classic pioneers, they would have never taken their work offline but the younger generation is more tending to do it. Either way is fine, people can choose freely.
It works the same way as for the music industry: ‘how can you lock down these files?’ Because there will always be a copy somewhere. There are platforms like s[edition] where they bring in new models of collecting art that are sort of questionable but, on the one hand, it’s my topic of giving these situations, or artistic forms, a physical gesture. The net art is actually on this router, this object. There’s this USB drive on top of this router, so it’s really on there.
Also, in terms of commercial business, I like the idea that I would hang a router like this. I’ve swapped pieces with Evan Roth where I would have a piece of his on my wall and I like, very much, this notion of having it as a piece you can hang. At the same time, of course, it’s ridiculous.
aqnb: That connects to what you said about 3D printing and the actualisation of the virtual in the physical. Because, with music for example, if you actively avoid producing mp3s and only put your product out on vinyl, it’s still possible for someone else to copy that record and disseminate it digitally.
AB: It’s like this whole discussion in big industry, like music and movies. The next thing, with 3D printing, will be sneakers and other professional items. There are already these court cases over people who have created Final Fantasy figures from computer games or tabletop games, where they start suing them for that.
In art, of course, this discussion has been already around with photography, where you can reproduce it all the time, it’s not a painting anymore. As an artist, I would say, ‘look, here’s a gif, it’s an edition of three and you get a contract’, or maybe you get a customised flash drive and certificate and you have a collectors item but it’s still on 4chan, it’s all over the Internet. You cannot lock it down, and that’s not the way art collecting works.
aqnb: I suppose that already happened a long time ago with fashion, when you could produce clothes en masse.
AB: Exactly. There are many other examples. It’s just that, in terms of market, which is not the most interesting thing to discuss about art [laughs], but our market is very conservative, we all know that. Paintings to hang on the wall are still the most sellable thing but maybe not the most interesting.
aqnb: With all this reproduction going on, on a basic ecological level, the multiplication of all things spells the ultimate end of all things too.
AB: Yeah. On one hand there’s all these technologies to reproduce things and I also think there’s a lot of opportunity in there, open source, DIY, instead of driving cars with gasoline, people ganging up now to produce better technology in terms of the environment and in terms of how they’re made, but at the same time where living now in this super global capitalism now and it’s the overkill for the earth.
It depends on the point of view. You could maybe call it now the Paradise some tribes envisioned many years ago because we have all things but I think most people are quite aware that we are pretty much on the edge. Probably, it’s going to continue for much more time somehow but it will be very unequal for different groups of people, like what it is today already.
aqnb: This myth that the internet has somehow made the world more equal.
AB: There’s this promise that the internet will democratise everything and, to a certain level those things happened, or improved, there’s been Arabic erosions and Occupy –not because of Facebook but because people have the tools now and can gang up easily –but at the same time there’s governments and big interest groups that are very capable of doing what the NSA does. They can use the same tools and they can use them much more efficiently.
Less politically, there’s also this way of seeing these ideas. It used to be this idea of ‘cyberspace’ and ‘we’re going to hook up to the ‘net and fly’, all these movies from the 90s where you’re connected to the grid and you’re in this black vast space with all these cubes floating around, which is a very classic science fiction ideology or fantasy. But what’s happening right now, which I think is more interesting, is that this whole digital space is unfolding on to the real world, on to us, on to cities. When I built these objects for my solo shows, like this Google Map marker and these things, it was always about this question of, ‘how does this take effect in real life and what is visible?’ **