Aram Bartholl – Blog

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Rhizome Interview

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[Recent interview with Joanne McNeil published  on Rhizome]

Artist Profile: Aram Bartholl

Turning a digital object into a physical one is often part of your practice. Dead Drops and the 2004 version of de_dust blurs the boundaries between the physical environment and digital worlds. Do you think that there is a place anymore where one world ‘ends’ and the other begins? Can we ever stop playing Counter-Strike?

In 1995, I had to walk over to the Technical University TU-Berlin campus to get my first email address. I was permitted there to use the UNIX computer pool while studying Architecture at the UdK (Art School Berlin). I only had one friend in Hamburg I knew who had an email address I could write to. Back in the day a lot of people were like  “Yes that is cool, but what really do you need the Internet for!?”. Today it is more like  “You are not on Facebook, why?!?” being asked from more or less the same people. Obviously there was a rapid development over the last 2 decades in terms of Internet and Computers. The digital space grew bigger and bigger and takes over big parts of our life today. It becomes more and more the extension of ourselves, like McLuhan put it. And yes, you are right:  One can’t tell anymore today where one space ends and the other one starts. The classic distinction of digital-analog, real-virtual and online-offline doesn’t work anymore. Those worlds mix up and leap into each other and we are in the center of it. Everything I do every day is my reality.

While studying Architecture in the 90s my focus was bound to the early web, computers and games. Working in these worlds was much more attractive with all the possibilities of the universal machine. Why draw plans by hand when you could design impossible spaces in 3D (and play first person shooters in them)? I was then interested to combine the spaces. How would digital space influence real life in the city? What would return from virtual worlds into every day public life? In my thesis project “Bits on Location” I was interested to combine city space and the Internet and I developed a series of proposals for how Internet could unfold in physical world. Back then this was called ‘Location Based Services’, today a lot is already in the field or on its way. (FB places, 4sq, Gowalla, navigation etc).

In the early-mid 2000s I started building objects like the Counterstrike crates de_dust. It seemed like the next logical step. Will it look like this when virtuality bleeds into real life?! A lot of the works from that time inherit this question. Later this gesture of reenacting/rebuilding computer space became sort of a cultural ‘mainstream’ on the web.  Just search for IRL Super Mario on Youtube. I’m not exactly sure how to put it but it feels like this was an era where we needed to reprocess the digitalization of society, a way to achieve ‘post digital consciousness’. The gaming community was one of the first ones to go through this phase of awareness but for a big part of society the process is still going on.

One thing I found interesting about Dead Drops was that it seemed to invert the romantic imagination of ‘cyber space’ as a mediated virtual reality like the Matrix and early William Gibson novels. In reality, cities are the real networks. Dead Drops seems to force a ‘slowing down’ by making the speed of transfer happen at a human, rather than digital pace. Did you conceive of dead drops as being a means of protest against continued ‘cyber space-ing’ of our cities?

Yes, you are very right. I don’t believe much in the sort of classic idea of cyberspace like in the Matrix. I don’t see us floating in sodium liquid our brains directly connected to cyberspace. This won’t happen soon. Second Life represented this vision for a short moment but Facebook today is much more likely our ‘Matrix’ although it works in a different way. It is interesting to study how digital space unfolds in physical space in the city and in communication.

Like the de_dust crates from 2004, Dead Drops is very much a symbol for the unfolding process of Internet in Real Life. I love the gesture of directly connecting your $3000 notebook to the dirty curb and the image of the USB port in the brick wall. A house or part of the city literally becomes data storage. Yes, I like very much the slowness and simplicity of these kind of projects. “Hmm… I need to go to that place and I don’t even know what’s on there…maybe even a virus!“ It is interesting how people perceive a flash drive in public as dangerous because it is in the street but most viruses are on the Internet, not on flash drives. We are connected all the time through all kinds of services, devices and clouds and it is very much foreseeable we are getting more and more dependent on them. Besides the slow down effect Dead Drops is also a lot about freedom and uncontrolled communication.

The politics of digital technologies, especially in relation to physical space and the city, are vital in much of your work. Is there a necessity to ‘raise awareness’ through interventions for the public about the changing fabric of our cities and homes?

I think we are living in a very crucial time period. Many decisions are taken currently regarding privacy, censorship and Internet freedom. Governments, politics and content industry (etc) try to get a grip on free communication and would love to be able to limit, filter and control the digital more than ever. Anonymous, Wikileaks and ongoing revolutions have shown lately the power of the net. Besides the city-becomes-internet-effect, Dead Drops is also a reminder to keep thinking about independent networks and open source technologies. Those might come handy in the future when everything will be buried behind filter and pay-walls. Sooner or later local ports like the USB plug will be extinct. “Save the USB port!“ ;) Local file storage will be yesterday. The iPad is a good example of how things move to the cloud currently and at some point we won’t have the saving of our data any more.  “Sorry, we had to delete 7 movies, 24 music albums and 18 ebooks of your cloud space of which we couldn’t find a purchase certificate for. We would be happy to offer you the ownership of the files in question for just $29.99 flaterate, except the PDF document ’How to run a file server.’ which is rated as illegal. Best regarfs, your iCloud legal team!” ;)

Yes, I think it is important to raise awareness about these issues although I don’t want to be too moral about it. Let’s discuss this but no need to panic. The Google map marker piece should make people think about tech-society-privacy relations. ‘Map’ in a way symbolizes the massive position of Google’s gate to local filtered information and its influence on our perception of the city. Instead of building map markers it is much more likely though that Google sooner or later will enter the interactive billboard market. Greetings from ‘Minority Report’, it is all in the making…

Is there something about de_dust or Counter Strike in particular that you like? Why not cs_office or even Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six? Is its role in the history of First Person Shooter games (before Halo but after DOOM) what interested you?

Like in most of my works where I translate a situation or set of rules from a digital space to real world, a game always represents a whole genre of games or services. The floating names in the “WoW“ intervention i.e. is a very common interface feature which can be found in almost any other MMO. But then it was also interesting to take a closer look at World of Warcarft and the reasons for its popularity. Of course there are a massive number of first person shooter games out there and yes, the classic ones like DOOM II, DukeNukem3D, the Quake series or UT would be worth looking at as well.  On one hand choosing Counterstrike for such a project is very much a personal decision. It represents an important milestone in my personal ‘gamography’. CS is sort of the last game I really actively played during my school-time in the late 90s early 2000s. We spent many hours of intense gaming on the very popular map Dust back then. It was one of the first 5 or 6 maps in the early beta release of Counterstrike back in 99 and will give a nostalgic feel to any gamer when you mention that name. It is funny how people responded by email when the Rhizome commission of Dust was announced. “Why aren’t you choosing Dust2 (the successor), it is way more balanced! But for historical reasons you are right: Dust was epic“ It is one of my personal old dreams to see one of these maps we spent so much time in as a real building, made of ‘blood and flesh’ (architecture analogy for concrete…)

But besides my personal memories there are also a couple good reasons why such an undertaking of building a virtual space as IRL scale 1:1 (museum-)scultpture makes sense. If this proposal comes through some day (it won t be finished by next year, read the full project description) I wouldn’t mind at all to continue and honor DOOMs first level with a real life representation (or Quake or Wolfenstein3D). Everyone who played these games will also remember the pure game-functional architecture. Why not this one? Yes, it is very much part of cultural heritage as well.

The thing is, Counterstrike was (as far as I know) the first real team play first person shooter. In a certain period of time, beginning in the 2000s, Counterstrike was certainly the most played online game and Dust the most popular map within it. Just think about how many people have seen Times Square or the Kaaba or been at Tiananmen and how many people have been in Dust. You need to know a map like Dust very very well to master the game, to win with your team. Every corner, door, crate, crack and line of sight plays an important role. Compared to games nowadays like Battlefield or the COD series, the space in Counterstrike was quite small back then. An almost compressed space of pure egocentric, game-play-optimized, virtual architecture served as a perfect playground for an endless chain reaction of emotional bursts. You spend hours and days in the same space, playing over and over the same routines with minimal variations in movement and speed, that is where the true art of game-play comes in, a high-end ballet of eye-hand coordination and decisions taken in micro seconds. Sport! Bystanders never understood that “You still play the same level!?! Thats so boring!” …

On a daily routine you happen to miss a stop or exit the wrong floor in an office building. Many places look very much alike and we use navigation systems to find our way. I always hate it when the supermarket rearranged all their products to a new supposedly much more effective and customer friendly consumer maze. Why is ketchup and mayonnaise not next to each other? I’ll never get that! (at least in DE it isn’t.) But the virtual spaces we LIVED in, spend our precious youth in are like memories carved in stone, like a Mayan temple hidden in the jungle, like a faint tattoo but full of memories from the first day. They are way more transparent and clear to us, in their artificial complexity, than all the multi-generation airport sprawls we get lost in again and again.


I was born in 1972, Bremen, Germany.


I have been based in Berlin since 1995

How long have you been working creatively with technology?  How did you start?

When I was a kid we mostly played games on C64, Atari ST and consoles etc. I never was a real coding geek but the whole trouble shooting, getting things to run and hacking topic involves quite some creativity, I believe. Doing my own projects on the web, in 3D or Flash started during school time at UdK in mid-end 90’s.

Describe your experience with the tools you use. How did you start using them?

Back in the day, I was keen on learning all kinds of programs and software. I used a lot the usual software you deal with in architecture, DTP and web but it was fun to experience the evolution of those. “Oh look, there is more than one undo now! great!” (imagine!) It was quite a striking experience to lose data and projects by badly burned cheap CD Roms. “Oh! I just lost a whole semester of 3D experiments! where is it?!?“ (DropBox keeps so many versions of your files, you’ll never be able to delete them for real)

Where did you go to school? What did you study?

1995-2001, Diploma in Architecture at University of Arts Berlin.

What traditional media do you use, if any?  Do you think your work with traditional media relates to your work with technology?

Although I question digital space and our entanglement with it all the time most of my work is in a way very traditional. Objects, installations, interventions, workshops, video, tangible matter, very basic electronic devices, lights (or candles ;). None of my pieces are made for the screen or in software (some collabos excepted) – although most people know my work through documentation online. That’s where the ‘Katze beißt sich in den Schwanz’ (to chase one’s own tail) ;)

Are you involved in other creative or social activities (i.e. music, writing, activism, community organizing)?

I give a lot workshops and talks at conferences. Since the Speed Show series started a year ago I am also involved more into curating and creating events. I am part of F.A.T. Lab since beginning 2009 and I very much enjoy the style of work there. My own work in terms of Speed Shows or Dead Drops network is very much a social activity and involves a lot community involvement.

What do you do for a living?  Do you think your job relates to your art practice in a significant way?

I live from my art, fees for talks, workshops, grants etc. only! I quit all my jobs in 2006/7

Who are your key artistic influences?

I am very much influenced by a political driven youth, hanging out at Chaos Computer Club congress and hacker events. I was part of a group called ‘Freies Fach’ during architecture school which questioned public-private partnership city development and ran different interventions during the 90s in Berlin. I am not specifically influenced by a certain artist but I always liked a lot the work of Gordon Matta-Clark or projects like the Rachel Whiteread – House

Have you collaborated with anyone in the art community on a project? With whom, and on what?

I have of course collaborated a lot with members of FAT Lab; as a group on projects like the fake Google car or individually like with Evan Roth and Tobias Leingruber on Chinachannel. Ariel Schlesinger is a good friend and excellent artist i ve worked with on Looptaggr. I recently collaborated with Bruce Sterling and his AR team to have Dead Drops getting its own layer on Layar. And I just finished a book about my work, edited by Domenico Quaranta, desigend by Manuel Bürger (‘Digital Folklore’) which will be published by Gestalten next year. Was great working with you guys!

Do you actively study art history?

I am very practical. I love to create things, work fast and kick around ideas for projects. Art history and art theory is certainly not my biggest focus although I always enjoy a good essay on topics I feel connected to.

Do you read art criticism, philosophy, or critical theory?  If so, which authors inspire you?

Hennesy Youngman is the best!! ;)

Are there any issues around the production of, or the display/exhibition of new media art that you are concerned about?

The question of how to display digital art has been around for a while. Sure, there are all kinds of options. Classic considered the Internet as the true place. You just need a computer and Internet and you can access the art from everywhere. The moment you put a web based piece in a show with maybe a big installation next to it, visitors often happen to look at the install and then check their email/FB on the computer instead of clicking through the piece. The Speed Show exhibition format which I started in June last year addresses these issues. Let’s take the show to the Internet Cafe, the dedicated Internet place where you won’t get distracted by ‘old media art’ ;) I’m not saying there haven’t been smart solutions for these questions. It depends a lot what generation of digital art we talk about and how they define their medium etc. Maybe your work is just on the Internet i.e. spread over Tumblr? Or maybe it is a piece of software running offline in a dedicated machine+display hanging on a wall with an on/off button. Maybe your work is inevitably connected to a bigger service and can’t be watched separately or offline.

When it comes to art market and digital art it’s getting even more interesting. Like in photography or video there is that basic problem that you can’t really say how many copies are around. The uniqueness or edition for a photograph is assured by the gallery/artist certificate. That works actually quite well because there is at least a physical piece. In digital art, it becomes more interesting. Do you just sell the files on a drive with certificate? Sure, why not. Are the files a representation of a web/online-piece? Yes, why not. See: “My Boyfriend Came Back From the War“ by Olia Lialina 1995. Is it a multiple? Sure, Olia’s piece comes in an edition of 5 as files on a drive (4 sold!!). Does the piece stay online? Yes it does, but there is no connection to the URL. How about selling the piece with the URL as a bundle? Rafael Rozendaal is best known for that practice today. The collector is even bound by a special contract to maintain the work (keep it online) but he would also get offline files.

It is interesting to study the different ways how digital art could be sold and there’s been a lot of discussion around it lately. The reflex of trying to limit access to a piece is understandable since limitation has always been a main base for art markets. For example the MoMA was interested in showing a piece by JODI in an exhibition a couple years ago but they wanted to show an offline copy of the piece. This makes sense in the classic exhibition logic but for it feels like fraud. (… eventually JODI declined to be part of the show.) But since things move on I hope that institutions like MoMA become more aware soon on how digital art and online art works. Rhizome i.e. always played an important role in supporting and maintaining digital work. ‘Keeping it online’

A lot of artist experiment with market or offline questions currently, like the by Kim Asendorf & Ole Fach or the offline by Michael Manning. I’ve also been thinking about the dilemma of limitation and accessibility for digital art and came up with a proposal, which I started to discuss with artist friends. Is there a way of serving both interests? How about an independent peer to peer network which by encryption in bitcoin-style would be able to approve a limited edition of a piece, i.e. a gif? The file itself would become unique and at the same time there could still be millions of copies on tumblr just representing the piece. The piece doesn’t need to be bound to a URL. It might also be interesting to look up the collections a piece is in while you find it on Tumblr. Yes true, you just can put the piece on a flash drive and hand it over with a paper certificate. But why not keep this process in the medium it belongs to? I would love to see this happen in a pure digital way and I think a system like this or similar could be a big opportunity for digital art to become more present in the commercial field.

Written by Aram

September 7th, 2011 at 7:38 pm

Posted in press

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