It seems that Constant Dullaart's name is everywhere in creative circles at the moment. This young Dutch Internet artist has been in residence at Hackney's SPACE Studios and given a “Rave Lecture” at Liverpool's FACT.
He has returned to London for what is possibly his biggest show of the year, at Carroll / Fletcher gallery. In conversation with Matthew Fuller, he talks about the social, political, and artistic underpinnings to his work.
Your show brings together key elements in contemporary visual and computational culture. The ways in which software as metaphor, as structure, as process, are addressed. What's the background behind your thinking?
CD: We're going through enormous changes at the moment. We're trying to regurgitate these changes. It's like dreaming. Every day is intense but you still need to sleep, to dream, and re-experience all these different things, to see people in different circumstances, and to put everything 'into place'. I'm trying to figure out how to respond to the cultural paradigm shifts, but also how to interact within this steadily-changing networked environment: how to learn from these changes. We read in the news that a new startup might make a lot of money, but we just know about its $100bn investment. We need to start figuring out the ethical choices which we have, and what exactly is changing. It's incredibly intense, and we have to dream in public to deal with this. That's the essence of what I'm trying to do.
The unsung heroes within technology have been so important and they have changed so many people's lives, that they can't remain in one place.
What is the impact of these unsung heroes in everyday life?
CD: The first photograph used to illustrate the capacities of Photoshop was selected by the two brothers that had been developing it. It was called Jennifer in Paradise. There was one image which seemed really important to one of the two brothers, John Knoll. He chose that as the image, as there were not many digital images around in 1988. It's a completely different mindset, not to have access to a rich archive of digital images. Knoll had to choose an image which he could use, then go to someone at Apple who had a scanner.
He took an image of his girlfriend which was taken a day before he proposed to her. For Knoll, it's a remarkable and personal image, but he used it to illustrate the capabilities of the software so he could show it to clients - you can clone her, copy her. It's quite remarkable that you could 'make' a version of your girlfriend, anonymised, show it to your future clients... to have an object version of her. This first image... he could have used a bike, a tree, any object, instead of the female body. That's the first image of a person authoring this tool, the first decision that he makes... what does that say about the software?
I'm also interested in software semantics. Photoshop has something called the "Healing brush". It's taking the "sickness" away from images. These semantics are once again in vogue – such as making a picture "awesome" on Google. YouTube can auto-stabilise earthquake videos to take the shaking out. It's an idea of improved reality, how we are living in a world where our reality goes through this, and how we share with friends around us. How people read and apply filters, and how histories are recorded. This has an affect on how we see reality. My niece looks at a situation and knows by heart what Instagram filter would fit best if the situation were represented.
These filters become part of a permanent process. What your show draws out is filtering as process, not simply as the producer of a separate image. It's an ongoing state of being in contemporary culture.
CD: It's far broader than contemporary culture. That's how we are experiencing it... accepting this mediation, potential manipulation, in our lives. It has become part of how we read everyday life. How we look to the street. It becomes part of the vision of the world.
When I come to London, I see a much more sexualised environment than what I am used to in Berlin. People are way more dressed up. How do I get out of this medealized environment? There are images around me of being in a good relationship, healthy, and strong, young forever, or being a successful artist with the right instagram filter... it's also about looking good and eating and drinking the right thing... it's quite extreme, this "improved reality".
What is the ethos, way of understanding, interrogating this environment? Is that an underlying argument of your show?
CD: My show celebrates failure. The algorithm's failure to analyse music, when the score becomes too complex for the software. It can be copied perfectly by a computer, but it can't be analysed back to note form. I feel that there are more important questions to be asked when interacting with software, even if you are just an 'end user'.
It's about not buying into the prescribed culture which is implicit within the system. There was an article in The Guardian about me finding this image, questioning this image in terms of how strange it is to objectify your girlfriend. But then if I read the comments - nag, nag, nagging about this shit again. It becomes a thing of "Just fucking accept that this happened. It's just the way that the world works now". I think that we still need to figure out this shit, how these tools can be used for good and bad, and what it means. Celebrate manipulation, but celebrate mistakes while you're at it. You should also celebrate what's fucked up in terms of how to engage.
When you use Skype, it means something more than free communication.... there's politics behind it. It involves Governments spying on innocent citizens. This becomes part of it and I think that the social impact of software needs to be celebrated, and to be said louder than a small article which refers to Skype as participating with the NSA's Prism program.
Photoshop is beyond creating pictures. Bill Atkinson's action grammar might have something to do with it. What do you find most interesting in terms of reframing concepts such as visual grammar within contemporary culture?
CD: Atkinson was trained as a neuroscientist, but was convinced by Steve Jobs to work at Apple while they had something like 30 people. He moved with Jobs to work on the Macintosh, and developed some basic principles of how graphics appear on screen. He wrote the original QuickDraw routines.
Atkinson was also partly responsible behind how we use and apply Undo. With his colleagues, he initially proposed a separate undo and redo key, but they figured out that it would require more keys. So, they made a key combination based on a hot key. For so many people, this is normal. One of the things that I focus on in this exhibition is that he came up with the idea of the dashed line to select a part of the image. It was initially developed at Xerox PARC, but not well thought through. He saw a "Hamms Beer" sign, included in the show, in a bar with its moving waterfall, and that prompted him to use the visual cue of a moving dashed line in a particular frequency.
I had the opportunity to have a phone call with him. He's 62 now. I invited him to visit the exhibition, but he had personal challenges to get here.
You're taking processes that are normally digital and turning them into objects. What does turning them into an object do?
CD: There's the danger that it becomes an illustration of an effect. An algorithm can do this, and the work just shows what the algorithm can do. Misusing it or using it in a different way shows the extent of what's possible.
When Google released colour filtering in their image search, I thought "why the fuck would I want that?" then I started to look for blue versions of cancer, or red versions of property, or whatever. I was freaked out that horrible things happen in the world, and they became a shitty thumbnail in Google Images... like bad acid trips. Quantifying everything means processing it into a shitty filesystem and not even caring of the value of what you're representing. I found red images of Yves Klein's Blue. What use does that have? Then I think that it's nice to celebrate it, like poetry. Poetry exists to celebrate different meanings in language trhough syntax. The challenge of algorithms is to find things which are intellectually or culturally more challenging than just a good way to find the nearest pizza outlet.
The HyperCard software, written by Atkinson, enabled people to write hyperconnected software, and was written during an acid comedown. The programmer produced it after the acid wore off to an extent that he could use their fingers again, and it was programmed in two weeks. It seems acid also gave birth to the associated thinking that we can now use every day in networked environments.
It's a way of generating connections in synapses.
CD: Is it worth taking different types of drugs to see what would come out? [!] Maybe it was just the period.
Another component of the show is the balcony. What is the proposition that you are making here?
CD: The simplest way to explain it is that we are not on the threshold of a new era, but we are on the balcony of a new era. We can't really enter this new environment. For me, there's a rich confusion between public and private space. We walk around and can't differentiate; our movement is recorded by CCTV cameras. We don't even know if the camera works, or if the camera is operated by a public or private organisation.
Two weeks ago, we were watching the World Cup by Liverpool Street. It felt like a public space, but it was private. We could only drink certain products which were purchased in that space. You realise that you're in a corporate, private environment but feel like you're in a public one. It's now very hard for kids to realise if they are interacting in public or private spaces.
Nowadays, the most popular platforms are the courtyards of these private corporations, and we pretend that they are public spaces. We are in a hectic, transitional period where there are many issues. There's a guy in the Ecuadorian embassy who represents that problem. Assange standing on the balcony was - literally - a media platform. It's not officially Ecuadorian territory, and it's UK territory, but the British authorities cannot go in there because they would breach some rule which is probably not even written down. It's a space outside of society. The balcony was a bridge between these realities, so I thought that, maybe, we're all on the balcony.
About 30 years ago, many of us struggled with mass media. Everyone's now part of it now. We're leaking information from our phones and we don't know where it goes. I live in Berlin, and listening to conversations there about Google, for example, about how they were affected by the European court case for personal record removal, people actually talk about nationalising Google. If something is so important, should we have rights over it? It's a conversation which I have never heard outside of Germany. However, there's a step in the middle, where we could demand insight into the algorithms. Access to information is being controlled by American corporations - why don't we figure out how they decide as to how some information is more "legitimate" than others? In the same way that many of us don't want to eat foods which contain pesticides, maybe we should consider just dealing with companies that are open in terms of how they filter our information.
What would it require to have such a debate?
CD: It's about having politics which are slightly more literate - for people to know more about what's going on. For law students, there should be an aspect of digital literacy in their studies. Everyone should be taught digital literacy in school: to know which systems are fucking with you.
Constant Dullaart's exhibition “Stringendo, Vanishing Mediators” runs at Carroll / Fletcher in London until 19/07/14.
Further information on Constant Dullaart is available at his website, and he is @constantdull on Twitter. Matthew Fuller is Professor at the Centre for Cultural Studies, Goldsmiths, University of London.