Over the past year Brad Troemel and Jonathan Vingiano have been steadily collaborating together to create platforms of digital exchange and dialog through their development of various browser-exclusive projects. These co-authored works have garnered a fair amount of praise and success lately, due in part by a 2011 Rhizome Commission awarded in early July. When initially approaching works like Blind Mist, a work which at first appears to be just a constant steady stream of randomly generated images, one cannot help but be curious how Troemel and Vingiano view the ease of digital distribution as a conceptual launching point for their shared interests. As one gets an opportunity to interact with this stream, however, audiences find that they can effect the content of these cascading images by submitting URLs into a database which then acts as a resource for an image scraping algorithm (a piece of code that goes to each inputted website and pulls images from that site to store in an accompanying database). This code later randomly pulls images from this stack and show those pictures within the visible queue. This reference list can also be seen on the site, as both a reference guide to what has already been submitted, but also to show where the content of the stream is being gathered. The images that are output to the feed are then linked back to their original location, and as a result provide browsers an opportunity to explore content that they usually might not be exposed to.

This project acts as a kind of critique of the ways in which social media publishing, and micro-blogging initiatives like tumblr, have created environments of very limited, and “heavily pruned” as Vingiano puts it, representations of online content. As a result, these network tools engender a somewhat dishonest perspective of the web due to the way they often get used as taste-making engine. This skepticism is a an acknowledgment of what Eli Pariser calls the filter bubbles: ways in which algorithms shape web content delivery based upon browsing history, cookies from other sites, our IP address, and various other information gathered by social networking sites. What Troemel and Vingiano propose is that image sharing on the web shouldn’t be so well curated or predetermined. Instead, systems of sharing and browsing should foster a more horizontal curiosity acting against the emerging hierarchical corporate web.

Blind Mist then operates as a step in providing a digital commons for artists, creatives, and everyday users to surf a stream that hasn’t already been predigested for some specific means to an end. The randomization of the site then combats the normally predetermined selection process that occurs online as a result of an algorithm based on “likes” and “notes” or a person aiming to depict a curated version of their online persona. Either way, Blind Mist – and similarly Echo Parade (which is currently on pause for maintenance) – abstract and partially remove the ways in which images can be distributed online and reallocates that decision-making to a computer script acting as a “fluxus injection” (paraphrasing Troemel from our conversation).

Early on in my initiation of this interview, the duo thought that this conversation could serve as a good launching date for their newest project, Surfcave. This chrome-extension project serves as a point of departure from previous works in that instead of a “truncated participation [that occur in previous work], there is now a real time participation.” Surfcave’s feed is more rapid than its predecessor, as the content is generated by the images pulled from participating users cache. Every time an image is loaded onto a users personal computer, that image data is then transferred to Surfcave for display. As a result, one can imagine that this feed then creates a voyeuristic/exhibitionist relationship between those watching the stream, and those using the plug-in. The agency on the part of participants – which can be both willing and unknowing (as this work can be downloaded and put onto public/shared computers) – relies not on an input that randomly effects the output of a project (as in previous works), but instead on the deliberate activation of the plug-in to display all images that load within your daily browsing. Troemel and Vingiano hope is that this process will enable a kind of transparency within the user-community, as well as show more “honest” glimpses at browsing behaviors.

A danger that I suggest is that users could just as easily use this tool as they would use a blogging engine. However, the duo asserts that either way, be it super conscientious or completely oblivious, all methods still speak to the ways they wish to address browsing habits and then the subsequent exhibition of that traversal of the web: “On Facebook, or at least especially on there, the idea is that your constantly having engagement with the content, both for yourself and for the public. So the lines between you viewing something and your friends being aware that you know about it have been cut really short, and with Surfcave the idea is to make that line non-existent.”

I suggest at one point later on in our discussion that these collaborative works offer a specific response to the current observable shift in the ways we browse and that that political gesture seems to be of significance. Both artists agree that this reaction to the work is not without grounding, and that borrowing from political/anarchic practices of sousveillance are certainly applicable to the development of these works. Vingiano continues along this strand near the end of our conversation:

We’re at this juncture where the tools for creating stuff online… have become much more available to people like Brad and I… I learned how to create stuff like this on the Internet from the Internet, and was all self taught… I think creating these systems that explore things like privacy are inherently political when we live in a web that is dictated by Google and Facebook and all these people who are owning their users and owning their privacy.

As Troemel and Vingiano continue to probe this territory of the web with a somewhat prolific inquisitiveness, combined with a tinge of mischievousness, users and participants might be able to see new opportunities and channels to work around (or at the very least, just outside of) the territories of an otherwise corporate-dominated web. When our actions online are already hefted with the burden of an opted-into system of personal-piracy, Troemel and Vingiano create opportunities to redirect that compromise into platforms of creativity and candor.

Nicholas O'Brien

Nicholas O'Brien is a new media artist, curator/organizer, and academic living and working in Chicago. Since getting his BFA from The School of the Art Institute of Chicago, Nicholas work has been included in multiple national and international venues including The Museum of Contemporary Art in Chicago, The Xth Biennial in Lyon net art project mybiennialisbetterthanyours.com, Lampo, Tank.tv, and the Centro Multimedia in Mexico City. He has also curated many screenings and live audio-visual performances within the Chicago area under many different projects including co-founding an alternative artist-run space called BUSKER which operated between 2005 and 2007. Currently, Nicholas is an adjunct faculty in the Department of Interactive Art and Media at Columbia College teaching media theory. More information about his work can be found at doubleunderscore.net