Organic Software: An Interview with Seth Price

Dr. Anne Luther spoke with Seth Price in an email interview about http://organic.software, an online database that the artist released anonymously in 2015. It contains profiles of over 4000 art collectors that the artist accumulated alongside images of their digital portraits, street views of their private address, corporate and private affiliations and political donations, educational bio and information about their net worth. The website displays a certain performative element through its visual language, anonymity and contextualization into jargon and vocabulary of software development and algorithmic analysis linking entities of an ecosystem of actors in the artworld and their political and economic contexts. The website was discussed in multiple published articles (Texte zur Kunst, Vice, Metropolis M) and was part of an exhibition at 365 Mission Rd in LA.

Seth Price is a multi-disciplinary artist who works in a wide range of media. His work has been exhibited internationally and was included in the 2002 and 2008 Whitney Biennials,  the Venice Biennale in 2011 and dOCUMENTA (13) in 2012. His video works have been screened at the Rotterdam Film Festival; Tate Britain, London; Institute of Contemporary Art, London; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; Eyebeam, New York; and Biennale de l’Image en Mouvement, Saint-Gervais, Geneva and in his latest exhibition at the Stedelijk Museum, among others. His work is included in the collections of the Kunsthaus Zürich, Zürich; the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York. (Seth Price biography, studio website).

Anne Luther: How did your interest to work with programmers evolve in your practice?

Seth Price: I got into in coding when i was in elementary school. There was a state-funded pilot program with donated Apple IIe computers, and over several years we learned rough concepts of programming, using Terrapin Logo. Later, in sixth and seventh grade, I programmed with MSBasic and tried to teach myself C, which failed. My interest was in making video games. The interactive gaming sequence in my video Industrial Synth uses the actual MacPaint files I made for one of these games in 1986. I took a class in C+ in college. But my brain is not built for math, or numbers, or that kind of abstract quantitative thinking! I can’t conceive of a calendar, or keep track of dates, or do simple computations. So I sucked at coding. For this site I hooked up with some people who knew what they were doing.

AL: You talked in an article in Texte zur Kunst about the project becoming a work of art a year and a half after you released the website anonymously. That’s when you put your name into the FAQ section, a signature of sorts. Would you ever release the algorithm or code that was developed for the work?

SP: Once, we released a Continuous Project issue that was the content of the HTML from our website. In this case, the piece is really about the site as a kind of experience (though there definitely was also a performative element in staging it as an anonymously created object.) I wouldn’t want to focus on the code.

AL: Could you describe why you chose to build a website that shows the data in its current form? I am interested in the choices of distribution, organization and access of the data. Would you release the data as open data or would you allow other individuals to scrape your website or work with an API of sorts?

SP: I feel like I walked away from the project. It’s an abandoned construction site. I’d be hesitant to get involved again, because I feel distant from it now. But it was definitely made to be a standalone site, a place, a kind of location, with a visual language and a feeling. That was as important as the data. This was not just about publicizing the data, or I wouldn’t have made it anonymous. Anonymity really works against any sort of socially conscious idea.

AL: You mentioned on the website that you are working on further development of the tool and other data sets. Is the work a ‘work in progress’ or in other words do you use the information in future works or are you developing any other collaborations that are data-driven/informed by large scale digital data collection?

SP: That whole anonymous ‘About’ page was fictional — the bad grammar, everything. I was never planning to develop the project any further, that was just part of the fiction of a North Korean/Iranian/Russian hacker working on some insane software project.

AL:  Was this work made with an ideal ‘use case’ in mind?

SP: I didn’t think about that. It was an experiment, an opening up of possibility. I now know that the ideal case, realistically speaking, is probably people who work at galleries or auction houses using the comments section to trade anecdotes about collectors.

AL: Organic Software links individuals, to their context of wealth and their affiliations in the art world. Do you consider this work as a form of institutional critique? Two works come to mind that also speak about art collectors and their wealth context and that are shown in galleries and are part of museums collections that they critique: Hans Haacke’s Shapolsky Et Al. Manhattan Real Estate Holdings, A real-time social system, as of May 1, 1971 and Andrea Fraser’s ACTIONS! Countdown from 2013, a slideshow that shows collectors, their political involvement and wealth context and their ‘role’ in the art world.

SP: I did talk to Andrea Fraser while I was working on it, and she told me about the project she was developing, though I don’t know if it had a form yet. She was speaking of it as a book in development, which still sounds great. We were going to compare notes and hook up, but it never happened. I don’t think of this as institutional critique. I tried to design the site in a specific way, so that it wouldn’t read as a social justice project, or internet art, or institutional critique. It was supposed to be blank, odd, and unplaceable. That was as important as the content: make a website that has actual useful information, but the framing is so weird and unplaceable that it doesn’t make sense.  So it’s context art, if you want to place it, but all of my work is a kind of context art, in that sense. It would be similar to the way I would make a painting or a sculpture: explore a language and existing situation, yielding a feeling, and a kind of possibility, and an unknowing, or a lack of sense. I don’t make art with a motivation or a concept or an idea in mind, and this was similar.

AL: A space outside or inside the art world that allows a critical voice towards the financial context of institutions and galleries is hard to define and carve in the current complexity of contemporary art. You talked about a sort of hypocrisy describing the project. Can you talk about this seemingly contradicting motivation for building and releasing the dataset as a work of art?

SP: The hypocrisy would come from someone who thought I am condemning a system, or individuals, while benefiting from it, and I recognize that’s a risk in making something like this. But I don’t think of myself as a critical voice, in doing this. This is more like a self portrait.

AL:  Can you talk about your motivation to build this website – was it motivated by changing the art world’s embeddedness in a current political, economic context or rather to make this embeddedness known in a more tangible and large scale manner?

SP: No, it was personal. Just exploring a feeling. I figure I could never change much in the way you’re talking.

AL: Has your understanding of the information that we find on the website changed in the past year (first year of the Trump administration)?

SP: I don’t think so.

AL: Is there an ideal scenario for the use of the tool for you or was there a certain urgency that informed the conceptualization and production of the work?

SP: You know, there was an urgency, actually, I forgot about this. The urgency was because in 2013 or ‘14 I learned that one of my galleries had sold a work of mine to an Israeli state museum, which I would not have allowed if I’d been asked. But then you get all sorts of questions: maybe museums and art represent the best in an otherwise objectionable state, or at least the possibility of dialogue and expansion and awareness. And then there’s the fact that any fortune is tied to objectionable behavior; many collectors have made their monies in “impure” ways. So I thought it might be good to have a place where one could at least do preliminary research. That was the impetus to start the project. Again, it was personal.

AL: How was the tool perceived in your group of peers? Did anybody use the tool as a frame of reference for changing their access to art works or affiliations to museums?

SP: I have no idea. I think it has been most helpful as a kind of basic ‘Face Book’ where people can see what a certain collector looks like, or go through the Faces page and say, ‘Oh, there’s that guy who was at dinner the other night, let’s find out who he is.’ Social reconnaissance, really. But that’s cool.

Evolution of the Data Artist

Defining Data Art is tricky. And for good reason. The mediascape that breathes around us is a terrain that shifts, distorts and transforms before it can be drawn. In such a space, defining can only be limiting. Jacoba Urist, in his comprehensive article in The Atlantic in 2015 explored the multifarious ways of the Data Artist.

Art is as much a product of the technologies available to artists as it is of the sociopolitical time it was made in, and the current world is no exception. A growing community of “data artists” is creating conceptual works using information collected by mobile apps, GPS trackers, scientists, and more.

                                                      Liberté (1963) – Joaquim Rodrigo 

In a series called Moodjam, (Laurie) Frick took thousands of Italian laminate countertop samples from a recycling center and created a series of canvases and billboard-sized murals based on her temperament … Frick is adamant that her work is about more than simply visualizing information—that it serves as a metaphor for human experience, and thus belongs firmly in the art world.

As Urist deftly puts it – working with (this) data isn’t just a matter of reducing human beings to numbers, but also of achieving greater awareness of complex matters in a modern world. Fast forward to two years later, Cynthia Andrews speaks about the role of Context in Data Art.

If you look at neural networks created by scientists with a creative eye you might see it as art. If you take it out of context, it could be a subway map or a series of rivers. It could be anything. It’s the non-creative context in which things are placed that makes people think they aren’t be considered art.

Andrews expands on a specific genre of Data Art that Urist mentions –

Artists influenced by self-tracking.

‘Waiting for Earthquakes’ by Moon Ribas. She has a sensor embedded into her skin that, using seismic data, vibrates every time there is an earthquake in the world, from anywhere, any magnitude. ‘Waiting for Earthquakes’ is a performance piece in which she literally just stands on stage and waits for an earthquake to happen and then interprets the feeling that she gets into movement. I don’t know if she considers it data art, but I do.

And then, there are artists like Shelita Burke, a pop musician who decided to use Blockchain and Music Metadata to not only get paid on time – but to organize a centralized system for distributing royalties across the production spectrum to the producers and writers involved.

Burke thinks it also has something to do with her use of data to her advantage, like when she determined  that 90 days was the perfect time to release new music in order to keep fans engaged.

“I really believe that every artist needs to understand data” Burke says.

Data Matters Interview Series: Kiersten Nash

Designer, artist, and educator Kiersten Nash likes asking questions. Asking the right questions has changed a lot for her, and getting the people who engage with her work to ask questions, too, is a big part of why she does the work she does. The question she’s been asking lately is “How can we raise awareness about groundwater?” She and her colleagues in the design collective Public Works Collaborative have been attempting to answer that through their recently completed project Livestream.

Livestream, an interactive sound sculpture installed in Lexington, KY’s Jacobson Park, is a project designed to get people asking questions about water—where it’s coming from, what’s in it, how is it being monitored. It isn’t just an artwork, though, Livestream is designed to actively monitor the state’s groundwater using a custom designed toolkit. This first iteration of the project, featuring sounds composed by musician Ben Sollee, “translates data measuring each spring’s conductivity, temperature and flow into sound.” I spoke to Kiersten recently about Livestream, her design process, and how “[un]learning” can be the key to asking the right question.

This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.

 

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Classic Album Covers, Redesigned

If you asked me, at least if you asked me today this very second, I would say that my favorite album cover is, without a doubt Marvin Gaye’s I Want You. It may just be the gold standard in album art. This cover has movement, it has life. I can hear the music before I even press play. There’s something ecstatic about it. Each body curving into the next. Arms, legs, backs twisted into expressions of joy, of freedom. It tells you something about this album, about its creator in ways that even reviews might not. Album covers do so much to elevate the work they surround. But as DJ Pangburn points out in his blog post at The Creators Project: “some truly great albums have absolute crap covers.”

Pangburn continues:

The online contemporary art store Hen’s Teeth Prints, along with This Greedy Pig and Choice Cuts, wondered what sort of album designs labels and artists would create if there were no boundaries in releasing an album from past or present.

The resultant project, Fantasy 12″, invited artists, designer, and record labels to re-imagine iconic artists’ album covers.

Artist: Donal Thornton. Album: John Coltrane ‘A Love Supreme.’

Artist: Stephen Serrato. Album: Frankie Reyes ‘Technoindigenous Studies EP No.1.’

See more images and read more about the project and the upcoming exhibit at The Creators Project.
https://www.instagram.com/p/BLYYZlhAlfL/

Unknown Histories

A few months ago, we began the early stages of re-conceptualizing the visuals for a project dedicated to preserving women’s intellectual history. How could we make this information more dynamic, more interactive, more collaborative? And, in turn, how could we make sure that this important, yet often unacknowledged history, becomes and remains a vital part of our educational standards? It’s an exciting project, for sure, but it’s also a project that reminds us that some histories aren’t as heralded as others. Names, faces, thoughts, and ideas. Movements, collectives, discoveries, and innovations. All of them here, many of them forgotten. Their works and their creations have either been relegated to footnotes, or continued on in our consciousness completely divorced from their makers.

The project’s director, New School professor Gina Luria Walker, noted in an interview with Broadly: “It’s too easy to blame the media, or blame big business, or capitalism, or white men. The issue is ancient. It is primordial.”

Simply: we don’t know these names because no one has ever told us that we needed to. But what if, from the very beginning, these names weren’t unearthed discoveries, but readily accessible knowledge? That knowledge has to come from somewhere, and it needs to start early.

——

Women in Science by Rachel Ignotofsky

Recently, I had the absolute pleasure of reading Women in Science: 50 Fearless Pioneers Who Changed the World (Ten Speed Press) written and illustrated by Rachel Ignotofsky. I suppose, that on its face, it may seem like a children’s book— it’s colorful, vividly illustrated, and contains short, easily digestible biographies of fifty women in science—it actually is perfect for the budding science-lover in your household. It would be a mistake to think that it’s only for kids, though (as evidenced by the excited ooohs and aaahs heard around the office when the book arrived). Honestly, how many us know the remarkable Annie Easley who, despite being subjected to the indignities of the Jim Crow south, went on the become a NASA engineer whose work formed the foundations for space shuttle launches? Or the work of particle physicist Sau Lan Wu who, against her father’s wishes, applied to college and later led one of the teams instrumental in observing the Higgs boson? For these names to become more recognizable, they need to be written about, read about, and spoken about by people of all ages. We can’t remember what we’ve never known.

9781607749769-1
Ten Speed Press

One of my favorite images in Ignotofsky’s book is an illustration titled “More Women in Science,” where she highlights eight additional women and provides short bios for each. But it’s the ninth figure on the page that gets me. She leaves this one in shadow, mysterious—”The next great scientist could be you!” she writes. That gets to the heart of it; these biographies do more than uncover history, they make inroads for the future. It’s not important to keep these names alive just because it’s the right thing to do (it is), it’s important because knowing them could mean the difference between a kid seeing the possibilities and, well, not. Women in Science is an important book to hand to a kid because they need to know—as soon as possible—that history includes all of us. It’s also an important book to keep for yourself because, sometimes, whatever your age, you might need a reminder of that fact, too.

Reflections on "Acoustic Ecologies"

continentIn their letter in the special issue on sound studies of journal continent. editors Jamie Allen, Lital Khaikin, and Isaac Linder contemplate the sound artist as a public artist. Sound, they argue, isn’t private. Rather, sound creates an ecology and an environment, one in which we can both choose to be a part of (i.e. music in headphones) and those which we do not (i.e. pretty much everything else). When much of our interactions with sound are an experience that we’re generally not choosing, what is the role of the sound artist? What is the role of sound that is intentional, space-specific, and intended for the public. The editors describe it this way:

We ask the question: through what devices, technologies, infrastructures and systems are the politics of public space debated? What are the mediations and interventions possible in an art involved in sound that are, in our troubled world of multitudinous crisis, necessarily addressing and controlled by states of emergency, homeland security sound systems, consumer prompting PA’s for the incentivisation of purchases and the effective affectation of Muzak.

Built around the theme of “Acoustic Ecologies,” the issue features articles from theorists and practitioners, each with unique approaches to the theme. For example, artist Gail Priest asks “What will art in the future sound like?” in her hybrid audiovisual and literature piece “Welltuned City”; artist and writer Byron Peters examines the force of sound (and silence) on networks and political movements; and Jan Philip Müller explores how radio broadcasts during the Vietnam War were spaces for resistance, compliance, points in between, and often, all angles at once.

In their letter, the editors pose an interesting question: “Yet, as with the non-death of writing that has become a hallmark of our digital age, perhaps we’re both sounding and listening now more than we ever have?” It’s an intriguing thought. Of course, the ways we listen have changed; technology has seen to that. And it’s not too much of a stretch to say that the amount we’re listening to has changed as well. As I write this, I hear the buzz of the air conditioner, the hum of electronics, the ever-present whir of the traffic below—many of those unrecognizable noise to someone occupying this space a hundred years ago. Sound is layered in every part of our days, building a particular environment for the listener. But it’s less about how these sounds are finding us, or how many of them we interact with, and more about what we do with them and how we craft our environments and actions around them. Each of us has the ability to be both listener and producer, creator and participant in our sound-rich environments. The entire issue is a remarkable look at the ways that sound artists and theorists are contemplating the role of public sound.

Work With Us!

The Center for Data Arts needs a New School student with a great sense of  typography and aesthetics to work with us on a UX/UI project. Both graduate and undergraduate considered. Please send cover letter and examples of your work to Katie Wanner (wannk858 at newschool.edu)

These New Temporary Tattoos Let You Create On-Skin Devices

DuoSkin capacitive touch slider made from gold and silver leaf.  (Photo: Jimmy Day)
DuoSkin capacitive touch slider made from gold and silver leaf. (Photo: Jimmy Day)

“I think there is no fashion statement greater than being able to change how your skin looks,” says artist/engineer Cindy Hsin-Liu Kao in the video explaining the idea behind the new on-skin interface DuoSkin developed by MIT Media Lab in collaboration with Microsoft Research. DuoSkin‘s wearable tech takes the form of user-designed, gold-leaf temporary tattoos. She goes on to explain that the designers wanted to make DuoSkin‘s technology easily accessible to anyone. The fabrication process “enables anyone to create customized functional devices that can be attached directly on their skin” using graphic design software, a vinyl cutter, and gold leaf

From DuoSkin’s website:

DuoSkin’s three-step workflow. Step 1: (a) Sketching skin circuitry with graphic design software. Step 2: (b) Fabrication, which includes (c) creating stencils of the circuitry, (d) applying gold leaf as the conductive material, and (e) mounting electronics. Step 3: (f) After completing the circuitry, we apply the DuoSkin device to the user’s skin through water-transfer.

 

 

DuoSkin allows users to create three types of user interfaces: 1) input on skin through capacitive touch sensing,2) output on skin through thermochromic resistive heating circuitry, and 3) wireless communication through NFC.  (Photo: Jimmy Day)
DuoSkin allows users to create three types of user interfaces: 1) input on skin through capacitive touch sensing,2) output on skin through thermochromic resistive heating circuitry, and 3) wireless communication through NFC. (Photo: Jimmy Day)

The tattoos can take one of three forms, input, output, or communication. The input interface is a lot like the user interface we all know, featuring buttons, sliders, and trackpads to control a music or video player, for example; output uses thermochromic pigments that react to the user’s body temperature to produce changing colors giving it a mood ring quality; and communication lets users read data directly off the skin using NFC tags.

The designers wanted their product to be user-friendly and customizable, both aesthetically and functionally, and by making the fabrication process so open, anyone with a desire to create uniquely beautiful devices on their skin, can. In a paper outlining the development and testing of DuoSkin they explain their hope for the tech’s future:

It is our vision that future on-skin electronics will no longer be black-boxed and mystified; but the will converge towards the user friendliness, extensibility, and aesthetics of body decorations, forming a DuoSkin integrated to an extent it has seemingly disappeared.

 

 

 

Letter Writing Meets Big Data in 'Dear Data'

Dear Data (Princeton Architectural Press)
Dear Data (Princeton Architectural Press)

In the world before ours, before our texts, emails, 140-character thoughts, before we could have conversations with long-distance loves during a morning commute, in that world, communication was something different, something more challenging. I’d hesitate to call it more meaningful—there can be meaning in even the shortest hello if we want there to be—but there is something more, let’s call it more purposeful, in the act of communication in a pre-electronic world.

Researcher William Decker describes how reading pre-telecommunication letters “requires acts of imagination and empathy, but even casual attention to their commonplace expressions reveals a sense of space and time different from our own.” To sit, to write, to send your thoughts to someone and wait, patiently, while your letters finds its way, and to play this process out in reverse while you await response requires an amount of purpose that we may have lost in an instant-communication world. But there’s something more to Decker’s statement, the idea that reading this pre-electronic letter writing reveals something unknown to a modern reader. We get a glimpse of something new; words we may not have known, a voice we can’t imagine, a new way of thinking, a different way of seeing. We are experiencing their world through ours, and perhaps even seeing our world slightly differently.

In their new book, Dear Data (Princeton Architectural Press), designers Giorgia Lupi and Stefanie Posavec are seeing their worlds in new ways. The book, a collection of postcards the two sent to each other over the course of a year, explores the very mundane data of our lives: drinking (Week 18), complaints (Week 7), swearing (Week 37), or times we wish for privacy (Week 51), and beautifully visualizes them.

From Dear Data website

 

As the two write in the book’s introduction, “We would spend the week noticing and noting down our activities or thoughts, before translating this information into a hand-drawn visualization.” Through the process of examining their worlds in new ways, and noting emotions, sounds, and thoughts Lupi and Posavec, like the pre-telecommunication era Decker writes about, reveal a sense of space and time that we’d never considered. Through their weekly postcard exchange the two got to know each other, and themselves. The world around them was data to be collected, to be examined. They continue:

Besides finding data in the world around us, we are all creating data just by living: our purchases, our movements through the city, our explorations across the internet, all contribute to the “data trail” we leave in our wake as we move through life.

Lupi and Posavec’s explorations are alternatively funny (Posavec’s strategy for remembering the animals she spotted on her bike ride ending in a shouted “Give me my PHONE!”) and vulnerable (Lupi’s privacy week postcard, presented as a sort of erasure poem— the absence of words adding weight to the revealed ones), and at all times thoughtful. In an era where our personal data is constantly being amassed, studied, packaged, and sold back to us as ads, initiatives, or motivators there is something very powerful about taking it back. And not just taking it back in the way that wearable technology promises to quantify our lives, but taking it back in quiet, tactile, and let’s not forget, analog ways.

Dear Data is a nice reminder that even in this hyper-technological, ever-connected world, there is a beauty and simplicity in returning to a way of connecting that both roots us to our world and to one another.

DataMatters Interview Series: Biome Arts

Biome Arts started the way that many things do—by asking questions. What would happen if we combined this with that? What would happen if I bring my talents into your field? And in the case of Biome Arts, what would happen if we bring the visual, the digital, the sonic, and the sociopolitical into our art practices? What could we create then? The Biome Arts collective was founded in 2014 by Sally Bozzuto, Saito Group, and Chihao Yo and brings together writers, artists, designers, engineers, architects, and activists whose work speaks to the ways that art, technology, and social justice intersect.

The result of the collective’s collaborations has been two large-scale installations that live at the junction of technology, art, and activism. Their first project was Eco_Hack 2014, which included the structure The Forest Pavilion. This structure served as a multimedia gathering and performance space that also housed several interactive, immersive digital and data art installations.

This year, the team is back with Eco_Hack 2016. They are in the process of constructing Greenhouse Theater aboard the floating food-forest and art installation, Swale. This space, like The Forest Pavilion, will function as a central hub on the project and will also serve as the data center for the space collecting, visualizing, and projecting data gathered from the plants growing aboard.

I met with four of the members of the collective to talk about their upcoming project, data privacy, and how they’ve melded technology, activism, and art into their practices.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

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