You’re a self-described “dude who is just trying to make things a little better.” Some other terms that have been used to describe you are: urban alchemist, rapid prototyper, and mischief-maker. Taken together, where do these designations put you on the spectrum of creativity?
You’ve been involved in a large variety of creative projects: producing digital media, unauthorized alterations to real-life, pain-in-the-ass issues with city dwelling, hilarious pranks, generous pranks, subway installations, and participatory events. Was being such an interdisciplinary, big picture thinker and do-er always the plan?
Oh man I wish there was a plan or something. I’m just making this shit up as I go along. Really, I’m just completely drunk with the enormity of the world and its infinite possibility and I can’t bear to focus on one small part of it at the exclusion of the rest. I thought focus would come with age, but if anything I’m falling in love with more, not less.
You’re also the Associate Curator of Digital Media at the Museum of the Moving Image. How do you negotiate your institutional role as a curator and your independent role as a cultural producer?
This is a tension I’ve always been sensitive about, but I’ve begun to understand how my roles overlap in the area of “participation.” At this point, referring to any moving image as “digital” is redundant, so professionally I’m interested in video games, interactive art, net art, and all the ways people are using creative acts to construct communities and express themselves online.
I’m lucky that Moving Image gives me a lot of room to explore topics that might be risky for a museum to touch. This results in fun projects that some of my friends accuse of being art, like We Tripped El Hadji Diouf and Under Construction. And you know, if an artist called those installations art, maybe someone would believe them. But I think they’re more interesting in the historical context I’ve set up. Thankfully the Museum isn’t an art museum, so I’m not burdened by that set of rules.
But because my field is the medium of participation – about the act of engaging – I have to participate, too. That means not just curating video games, but trying my hand at making them. Not just watching how people use animated GIFs, but creating and using them myself. Because getting your hands dirty is the whole point. Participation is not an end product, it’s an ongoing process.
You have moved fluidly between highly technical digital media work and very simple, low-tech interventions, and similarly, the “sites” of your work have gone between the public spaces of the internet and the public spaces of New York City. I think many people today struggle with finding a balance between virtual and real interactions. Has this been something you’ve maneuvered naturally, or has there been a deliberate push to find a balance?
There’s a “classic” moment from the 2009 Pirate Bay trial when the prosecutor, in a weird attempt to appear hip, used the term “IRL” (In Real Life). Peter Sunde replied, “We do not use the expression IRL. We use AFK.” (Away From Keyboard).
Which is to say the challenges we frame as real vs. virtual are just about proximity and mediation and self-presentation/performance, which are issues we’ve always faced since our species became self-aware. The only difference is the tools.
Every generation is comfortable navigating the world with the tools they grew up with and every generation feels uncomfortable with the tools they didn’t grow up with, and there’s a simple evolutionary reason for this: Our brains are elastic during our youth as we figure out how the world works, adapting very easily to new tools because, well, everything is new to us. And our brains become more firm as we age so we can more efficiently do the things that ensured our survival. And in age, we can interpret new tools as threats or we can adapt and relearn behaviors. Historically this was not much of a tension, because, e.g., it took thousands of generations to perfect agriculture. Today, the tools change a little faster.
Up until this point, the balance has all been very natural for me. But my synaptic pruning is just starting to ramp up. I’d like to think that I’ll still passionately take up new tools for the rest of my life, but who knows? In the end, I’m at the mercy of my body.
You clearly enjoy a good laugh. Humor and play can build a sense of community, which you also obviously value, but can it also function as a small act of resistance?
Of course. Most of my heroes fit in the middle of that Venn diagram, except their resistance is often quite big: Abbie Hoffman, John Law, Stephen Colbert, etc.
Is it really easier to beg for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission?
Yes. This is known as a game of “imperfect information” in game theory. Unfortunately, this usually doesn’t work in our favor, for example America’s surveillance state (companies/governments compile data about you for the benefit of the powerful) or our culture of litigation (companies/governments limit possibility to reduce the likelihood of lawsuits).
Your recent work, Concision, Concision, Concision, “sold” for a 5,000-word essay on the value of concision. That’s not very concise.
Speaking in broad terms, the theme of human relationships recurs in your work. The dialog around socially-engaged art has gained momentum in the past few years and in many cases, shares similar concerns with your projects including: shared authorship, participation, utility, public engagement, et cetera. Is this a conversation you find any interest in?
I tend to zone out whenever these terms pop up, primarily because the “a” word (“art”) signals a narrow approach that I’m not very interested in. I mean, I guess I’m glad people with some amount of power who are not evil are paying attention to this stuff, and I suspect their validation will do more good for humanity than the subjection does harm.
But I’m interested in things that are necessarily transgressive, and I don’t think they can exist in the same systems that use words like “socially-engaged art.” A lot of people start out making daring, exciting work because they having nothing to lose, because nothing is at stake. And then they become recognized for it and suddenly something (their livelihood, usually) is at stake and they can’t take big risks anymore. But I want to always exist in a space where nothing is at stake, where I can risk everything. Is that adolescent contrarianism? I don’t know. Maybe. But I have to follow it where it takes me.
That said, I think getting more people involved in the production of our shared culture is always a good thing, as long as the primary benefitting party is the participant, not the institution or the instigator as is the case with much “participatory” “art.”