Femke Herregraven’s work is rooted in the tension between the material and the digital. Coming from a design background, the Amsterdam-based artist started travelling to remote offshore locations with the intention of mapping and making visible the infrastructures of financial markets; the ones kept away from the public eye. They’re what she calls “geographies of avoidance”, in an interview conducted through Skype from her location in the Netherlands capital, and they’re a part of the transatlantic cable communication network, begun in 1854 and triggered by engineers and financiers.
I’d come across Herregraven’s work at a panel discussion at this year’s Transmediale 2016, in Febuary where she presented virtual platform ‘Liquid citizenship’ (2015): a speculative parcour, a sort of obstacle course, through which a user with a randomly assigned profile can try out various citizenships, visas and passport possibilities. A participant can be an Afghan or Togoan national, for instance, aiming to reach a different country. The game reveals the difficulties of achieving such a basic condition for a non-wealthy and non-western citizen, as well as the artist’s interest in language, interfaces and politics. That same month Herregraven presented as part of the Neoliberal Lulz group exhibition at London’s Carroll/Fletcher, exploring the material world of finance, through sculptures and videos around trading algorithms, remote aluminium storages and tax evasion opportunities.
As a whole, Herregraven’s work tackles the material basis of economic systems and the relationship between human and machine, through affective algorithms and the creation of new geographies out of an intangible colonisation; one that takes over landscapes and off center locations through cabling systems and data centers. Places like the Arctic, Lannion in Brittany or Curaçao in the Caribbean are some examples of spots where these cables are located and are now places of Herregraven’s production, speculation and research. Because these infrastructures are invisible, her travel is purely a symbolic action; a starting point for reflection on markets and dislocated communication structures, developing into a focus on finance as a hyperobject: something that has an effect and a widespread presence, yet cannot be seen.
Ideas of potential of disasters becoming opportunities and ‘Black Swan’ events (as, in those that are outside of our own logical understanding and operational reach) are a core narrative to Herregraven’s work, as well as speculative ideas around value, and how immaterial elements, including language, can affect value-generation. There’s a hanging sculpture called ‘Subsecond Flocks – When you startle awake at four in the morning it’s not because you’re feeling happy’ (2016) made out of materials involved in these kinds of predictive technologies —acrylic stack and tubes, a hand engraved carbon stick and rubber cords —as well as a rudimentary digital environment, called ‘Sprawling Swamps’ (2016), which uses satellite photos and self-generated imagery to detect unstable territories.
Herregraven’s work reaches a wide range of formats and levels of clarity and abstraction, swinging from didactic, interactive interfaces and games, to sculptural and video works operating as poetic and more subtle gestures. Her political narratives reach a spectrum of topics, from tax evasion to citizenship bureaucracy, high frequency trading or financial speculation. More and less obvious configurations navigate the reciprocity between technology, nature and society. As she explains, Herregraven consciously explores the possibilities of the mediums available, in order to become either more didactic, or more cryptic. The way her work is mediated, or is calculated as mediation, affects the way we perceive things, revealing that many things are not where we think they are, thus triggering our imagination.
Tell me a bit about your research regarding the material side of telecommunications technology and financial markets in offshore locations, and the reciprocal effect between nature and technology in terms of infrastructure.
Femke Herregraven: On the one hand, you have certain locations functioning as remote places out of sight, catering the physical, backward infrastructure and legal framework of financial markets. These remote locations are a very strong base for the financial world. Places like Wall Street have become mainly symbolic, whereas other places, which are part of the actual operations and infrastructure, remain dislocated.
At places like Mauritius or the Arctic there is this anti-climax moment, as you spend around 15 hours in order to confine yourself with this massive global infrastructure but there is nothing to see. It is a moment of disenchantment and, as I can’t rely on seeing anything, I usually work with coordinates, which is the interesting part of it. Those locations are also conditioned by the nature of the matter they are composed of: like ice or a temporary island that emerges from the sea because of a submarine volcano, or a swamp.
I am interested in the swamp’s immateriality and its functions through language because, looking at it symbolically and historically, it represents a place that we morally condemn and lock out. There is sickness, insects and dirt in it… Gossip is a sort of information intelligence in a social network. By gossiping and rumouring we also, as humans, get an idea of where our position is in a social group. Recent trading algorithms are structured around how people gossip, which is symbolically connected to the swamp. Underlying a sort of communication structure for these algorithms, they process the way gossips spread in society.
Your work ‘Subsecond Flocks – When you start awaking at night it’s not because you are feeling happy’ at Carroll/Fletcher reminded me of Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s Black Swan theory around the unpredictable and the random. Is that an influence in your work?
FH: For that I was interested in the notion of this whole sub-second world with random events that can only be accessed retrospectively and in the fragments of the world that can’t be perceived or accessed but are thus very influential. I am looking at how these trading algorithms increasingly scan other data than just financial data, like Facebook or Twitter and how they scrape online audios and interviews.
As an example, the Associated Press Twitter account got hacked by someone who tweeted something like “the white house has been bombed, the president is injured”. Four thousand retweets happened in a very short time and the trading algorithms detected the panic, taking over that emotion. In a few minutes billion dollars evaporated, due to these trading decisions. Algorithms can be very smart but not on that time skill: they are, either fast and dumb, or really smart and much slower.
For this work, I was interested in creating a material evidence or witness and introducing the idea of contingency and of how emotions are exchanged between human and machinic systems. It also speaks about the unpredictability of events that are really out of our reach, coming through the concept of the ‘Black Swan’, in a more literal and also perhaps more poetic way. I am increasingly interested in creating my own visual language and vocabulary to explore and produce this kind of fictional material.
Regarding the titles, you get sometimes more literal and other times more symbolic, reaching some abstraction through the way you use language.
FH: That is something that I was recently exploring. Through my education and research in design, I’ve learned to clarify things, make things visible and understandable. But, at a certain point, I am realising that things are not that simple, or that black and white. The moment you allow more ambiguity in the work or more space for things that we don’t know, you also give a place for art. In art there is an inherent acceptance of the ambiguous and the uncomfortable, whereas in design it is often about compensating that or minimising that. This shift is reflected in the titles as well.
The range in the choice of formats is varied: sometimes you use online interactive interfaces and other times more sculptural, static or closed, there is no place for interaction…
FH: At the moment I am aware of this diversity and I would like to keep it in my work as it arises many questions, which requires constantly switching mediums and formats. I was educated as a graphic designer within a certain medium. When I started looking into finances, not anymore as this field where ‘oh…everything is happening and what is happening in there is bad…’ but rather getting to understand certain philosophical questions that lie underneath: questions of time, differentiation and exclusion, which I think are very contemporary, in addition to the whole thing of artificial intelligence, autonomy, what happens when capital flows become so big that we can’t control them anymore, etc.
The moment I get into these types of questions, each work acts as an experiment or attempt to answer or tackle them. I could never commit to one format only. The tension between the material and the digital is very productive in my work. It is great to explore not only from a conceptual or research-based point of view, but also an aesthetic one, while practicing new things and new techniques.
I sometimes don’t want to reduce the complexity whereas in other works things are not really accessible, only if you make an effort. It’s also about this push-and-pull effect, in terms of how much you reveal the research and how accessible you make it to the viewer. Sometimes it is good if there is a not didactic experience. With the work ‘Taxodus‘ (2012-2013), which is very didactic, I found myself within this contemporary art realm and I knew I wanted to communicate that back then but now, I’d rather be more speculative or produce other ideas or fictions, or uncertainty.
In your work, ‘Liquid Citizenship’ (2015) for instance, you tackle ideas of citizenship and rights. There is this idea of nature-human-technology melting at the same time as the inaccessibility to basic rights.
FH: Yes, the notion of citizenship is a privilege and not something that you have access to by default. There is a tension between the innovations and discussions in the Netherlands —where I grew up —and the situations I encounter when I travel. When I have to travel for the cable landing points, I see the clash between this immaterial world and the questions of the financial world, which interact with places and islands, communities who have to fight for very basic things every day.
There was this place where farmers were thrown out from their homes for this new cable landing point, due to a small data centre behind their village. Often, whole communities, which can’t read or write are dislocated by governments, sent to caravans where they are introduced to computers and the technology for which the invasion of their space is needed. In order to create progress on one side of the world, we ruin another part. Progress is based on exploitation.**