An Interview with Vincent Charlebois

, 31 March 2014

Vincent and I met over Skype, him being in Montreal and me in Berlin. He was the first of my interviewees to automatically turn the Skype video function on, the others having, through the silence that followed the suggestion, taken the option out of the equation. I was caught off guard, still in my pajamas. As the video turned on, I was stuffing a banana into my face.

Vincent’s artistic oeuvre is about as whacky and miscellaneous as you would expect from someone who works predominately on the Internet. There is DANCING WINDOWS, in which a handful of minimized dancing windows invade your screen in jerky, back-and-forth motions; there is DDITADO, a daily Wikipedia-fed website comprised of various Wikipedia entries Vincent has deemed interesting; and there is his Twitter feed, made of two-word phrases that invoke humor and poetry, amassed and animated in banner form and featured on our aqnb website. There’s a lot more, but that’s the point.

What’s more interesting even than this range is what Vincent chooses to title himself on his official website, which consists of only one page that in turn contains only one graph-like illustration and these words: digital performance software art intermedia practices environmental integration digital drugs computer choreography data objects forest fabrication downloadable artist. It’s funny, yet entirely serious, seemingly unaware of itself and how much its directionless, spanning titular role speaks of the future.

"DDITADO3" by Vincent Charlebois. Image courtesy of Vincent Charlebois.
“DDITADO3” by Vincent Charlebois. Image courtesy Vincent Charlebois.

As we speak, Vincent is preparing for his attendance at the third annual installment of The Eternal Internet Brotherhood, a nature-meets-virtual residency for Internet artists that has for its two previous installments seen the coasts of Anafi in Greece and the surrealist park of Las Pozas in Mexico. Contentious name aside, the project is open to both sexes; to everyone, in fact. Situated for this year’s edition in the naturally striking and politically problematic Dead Sea area of Israel, the video trailer, narrated by the a female voice augmented to sound like a robot, describes the residency manifesto as such:

“In 2012, we imagined a place where artists, writers, and researchers would think and make works on the spot while swimming, sleeping and chatting. These people would forget their daily operations, gather in nature to explore the specials signs of the physical world through data, dreams, feelings, knowledge, light and sounds.”

The very ideas of materiality and physicality, of the public space, of virtual living, are beginning to collapse, brought into question by the sweeping effects of the Internet. In a increasingly and overwhelmingly material world, the advent of the Internet artist can become a powerful antidote. The potential ephemerality and dynamism of the medium speaks to this, as does the increasingly conceptual approach to not just artworks or mediums but to the very idea or branding of the artist herself. It is in the creases of the collapsed forms, the grey and lost spaces between disciplines, that modern art happens. And for every artist, who is a human above all, these gray spaces can exist anywhere, including forest fabrication.

Eva Folks:  I wanted to know your thoughts on The Eternal Internet Brotherhood and what keeps you going back.

Vincent Charlebois: I discovered the project on the Internet. I spend my springs tree planting, so I spend a few months on end living in a tent, being disconnected for the most part. And then I saw there was this event of people using the Internet as a creative tool but going into this physical space. The first edition seemed so full of promise and so I jumped into it without really knowing what I was getting myself into. So there has always been this promise of improvisation and exchange that I really like. And the diversity of participants is always fascinating to me.

EF: Did you notice any ways in which taking part in it influenced your relation to your work or your interaction with the world at large?

VC: Well, I should say that at the residency, we present our work to the group, and I had really the best feedback I’ve ever gotten from a group of peers. We have, regardless of where we come from, the same culture and a similar background in so many ways. Maybe we follow the same blogs! [laughs]

EF: It seems to combine the idea of a natural retreat in a physical space with online living in a way you don’t see often. The two seem like they are at odds with each other.

VC: I’ve seen Angelo [Plessas], the creator of The Eternal Internet Brotherhood, use it more and more in terms of the presentation videos he does. We’ve been betrayed by the Internet, which has so much promise and yet we see it fill with these corporate ads. I feel that that is a common theme: seeing such promise and then seeing the damages and how this hyper-connected world can be so sad sometimes. I think we are still trying to find this balance at the Brotherhood. Where do we draw the line?

Photo by Vincent Charlebois. Image courtesy Angelo Plessas.
Photo by Vincent Charlebois. Image courtesy Angelo Plessas.

EF: It seems that people are starting to ask those questions, to study and think critically about the ways in which living online influences your relationships and your identity. There are more artists that are pointing back to that in a very referential way.

VC: Often there are people whose works I follow or interact with online but have never met. And once we do met, it forces a very different type of interaction that we would never have online. There are different levels of interaction, and there are different levels of criticism as well. Questioning whether something “needs” to go online, for one. But critical thinking is experimental as well. It is a tool but a trap as well.

Angelo is really open-minded and I feel that it is just starting to become interesting. Like we’ve been practicing for something that is just going to get better in the future. Someone there once said that it was like sex: the more you know your partner(s), the better it gets. So yes, The Eternal Internet Brotherhood is like sex.

EF: I’m going to have to quote you on that.

When I was doing research on you prior to this interview, I came across a quote of yours in which you referred to you and your computer as “we”. I thought that was funny, or reads as funny and then becomes increasingly less funny the more you think about it. How do you understand your relationship to your computer and to the online world?

VC: I’m kind of glad and scared at the same time that you brought this quote back. [laughs] I guess there is some irony in there; I hope there is! I’d say that most of my art stems from a computer; it is taking root in some sort of digital form. And more and more, I’ve been programming interface or software in which the computer acts by itself. It takes decisions and uses algorithms and I’ve increasingly been giving my computer some decision-making power.

EF: Could you give some examples of that?

VC: The Twitter cloud or the Twitter feed. I’m not interested in composition. I just program a machine that feeds a kind of virtual canvas. The composition is either random or was created by the computer at the time. So I guess that is where the thoughts behind that quote stem from – the programming of a computer to make art for you.

EF: So kind of like a collaborative effort between you and your computer?

VC: Yes, definitely. But also the fact that we now see our electronic devices in a sense as part of our family.

EF: I mean, I’ve seen people cry more over their iPhones then the deaths of their grandmothers, so yeah.

VC: [laughs] Yup.

"DDITADO1" by Vincent Charlebois. Image courtesy Vincent Charlebois.
“DDITADO1” by Vincent Charlebois. Image courtesy Vincent Charlebois.

EF: There was this quote in Data: Salon II in which they likened your work to that of a graffiti artist in a public space, occupying the persona or place in the art post-internet world that a graffiti artist would have in the physical world.

I understand that to mean that you make things that are not meant to be preserved forever, and also that you go into spaces thought to be public to leave your mark. How do you feel about that characterisation?

VC: I remember that quote, but you just gave it with your short statement more importance than I ever thought. I wasn’t initially sure about the use of that term but the way you just brought it in makes a lot of sense. I guess there are two elements in what you’re saying: the ephemeral, changing aspect, and then the public space aspect.

There is a big joy in deleting. I remember making music with a friend of mine who had just gotten back from India. And I guess influenced by the Buddhist culture there, he would insist on deleting the recordings after.  And that was a simple and yet challenging thing to do directly after creating something.

There is this shift where you go from archiving every moment to, like: who is going to watch and listen to all this shit, anyway?

EF: How do you understand the idea of physical versus virtual space?

VC: That’s such a tough questions! [laughs] Well, there are the Pirate Bay guys who didn’t like IRL because they said the Internet is real, there is no real life and then the Internet. And they started using AFK, or “away from keyboard”. But when everyone has smart phones, your keyboard is always with you, you are never away from it.

I think with those augmented reality tools – the physical, the virtual, the idea of public space – there is not much interest in me in drawing a line. I see just a big space for expression and experimentation, either online or offline. It’s really tough for me to see the distinction.

EF: But I think that is the interesting thing. Whereas people before would have made a distinction, now it seems like they are not at all.

VC: Exactly.

EF: The banner above that you did for aqnb that was gleaned from your Twitter feed. Was it a sort of criticism or reaction to the limiting nature of Twitter?

VC: I kind of laughed about that project so many times. I discovered this service recently when you can find your first tweet, and my first tweet was: “I don’t know what to do with this thing.” [laughs] But I guess the initial impulse was a criticism in a sense, or a reaction to its limiting nature. Sort of like a, oh I have 140 characters? Nah, I only did two words. But also the good ol’ less is more drive of seeing the poetic potential of two words put together, and the Twitter feed exists as a list of ongoing combinations.

I just did it and kept doing it, and it took a while before I followed or was followed by anyone. And it builds. I think I started that in 2009 and even before, it took those words and brought them somewhere else. It was an ongoing non-project.

EF: Because that theme can be seen in a few different places on your website. Like the TERNET project, for instance.

VC: I kept changing it. I think I was working on it at the first installment of The Eternal Brotherhood, and then one night, I did this kind of, like, guerilla projection. And from there, I kept tweaking it. But it is something that is only now starting to become interesting.

I always really like talking about this because it started just as a twitter account with no clear vision, and then became this project. And has it even started yet? Maybe next year, I will find something, the actual thing that I want to do with it. **

The Eternal Internet Brotherhood residency is running in the Dead Sea, April 1 to 10, 2014.

Header image: “Twitter data archive” by Vincent Charlebois. Image courtesy artist.