I suppose the main way I coped with it at the time was to see
the history of philosophy as a sort of buggery or (it comes to
the same thing) immaculate conception. I saw myself as taking an
author from behind and giving him a child that would be his own
offspring, yet monstrous. But the child was bound to be
monstrous too, because it resulted from all sorts of shifting,
slipping, dislocations, and hidden emissions that I really
-~Letter to a Harsh Critic~, Gilles Deleuze
Post modern theory…
The Nazis, among others, burned books. This image of a pile of burning books horrified the bourgeois intellectuals of my parents’ generation. That horror lends a certain radical appeal to the practice of book burning. In the sixties and/or seventies William Burroughs did cut-ups. His destruction of the book to generate a new form was accepted. It’s been asserted that the computer could do a better job than Burroughs in the cut-up genre, but lacking the visual, spatial-temporal, and tactile cues associated with the paper form, I find it hard to understand how a computer could do this job as well as a man with a scissors and a glue pot.
The interview posted below is lifted from a morass of links that are rotting even as we speak. The research around Burroughs’ cut-ups led me into this evaporating swamp of disjointed bits and dreaded 404’s… will someone in Toronto please go snap an image of a highway 404 road sign that we can use as replacement for the more conventional dead end? TYVM, now on with the shew!
Hacking the art operating system
|Cornelia Sollfrank (D) firstname.lastname@example.org is an artist, lives in Hamburg/Berlin/Celle, is lecturing at the University of Oldenburg. Central to her conceptual and performative works are the changing notions of art, the advent of a new image of the artist in the information age, gender-specific handling of technology, new forms of disseminating art, and communication and networking as art.
She was a member of the women artist groups ‚women and technology‘and ‚-Innen+‘ and initiated the cyberfemininist organisation ‚Old Boys Network‘. Her project FEMALE EXTENSION (1997) (http://www.obn.org/femext) was a hack of the first net.art competition initiated by a museum, in which she flooded the museum’s network with submissions by 300 virtual female net artists. Her net.art generator (http://www.obn.org/generator) automatically produces art on demand. She published the readers “First Cyberfeminist International” (1998) and “Next Cyberfeminist International” (1999). Sollfrank is currently producing work on the subject of female hackers. http://www.obn.org/hackers)
homepage of Cornelia Sollfrank with further information: www.artwarez.org
Cornelia Sollfrank interviewed by Florian Cramer, December 28th, 2001,
during the annual congress of the Chaos Computer Club in Berlin.
FC: I have questions on various thematic complexes which in your work seem to be continually referring to each other: hacking and art, computer generated, or more specifically, generative art, cyberfeminism, or the questions that your new work entitled ‘Improvised Tele-vision’ throw up. And of course the thematic complex plagiarism and appropriation…
CS: It’s the relationship between these complexes that is so interesting and difficult – and which I often find myself arguing about. To keep an eye on how these various activities link together is not easy, all the more since I am sometimes more involved in one field and then more in another.
CS: Both. I’ve come increasingly to the conclusion over the last four, five years in which I have been involved in hacking, that hacking culture always has something bordering on a national…(laughter) flavor. That’s why it is interesting for me to visit other countries and especially Italy, where it appears as if there does not exist the slightest fear of contact between artists, activists, philosophers etc. They coexist there naturally, dialogue with each other and create a common language in which they can communicate (laughter), which is something I haven’t experienced in Germany. As a female artist in the Chaos Computer Club, I have come face to face with some of the worse preconceptions, accusations and verbal abuse of my life (unfortunately).
FC: You said: as a ‘female artist’ in the Chaos Computer Club. What do you put the emphasis on? Being an ‘artist’ or being ‘female’?
CS: On both. As far as gender goes there is a basic frankness involved. When one deals with the same themes identically and speaks the same language, gender means less hurdles to cross. (laughter) Since that is seldom the case it becomes one. The bigger problem however is art. That left me utterly dumbfounded. I was having a nice chat with someone at one or other of the Chaos Computer Club’s parties and was asked what I do. When I replied “I am an artist”, the reaction I got was a hoarse exclamation: “I hate artists”.
FC: You did an the interview with a female hacker at a Chaos Computer Congress in 1999.
CS: …Clara SOpht…
FC: …right. And you are working on a comprehensive video documentation of this theme!
CS: I’m making a five part series. Due to my experience in the CCC, I narrowed my research down and tried to find women who see themselves as hackers. However they just didn’t exist. That’s when I switched from the journalist-research modus to the artistic-modus and said to myself, I have to try and reshape this boring reality. And that’s why I did the interview with Clara SOpht for example, who doesn’t really exist. (Laughter) I just started to invent female hackers.
FC: Oh, I see! (laughter) Great!
CS: I gave a talk at the CCC congress on women hackers and showed the interview with Clara SOpht. It was pretty well attended, including a lot of men, who watched everything and then attacked me for not defending sufficiently Clara Sopht’s privacy, because she had stressed that she did not want details about herself being publicized. At the end of the event
I mentioned casually that the woman did not exist and that I had invented her. Some people were gobsmacked. Quite unexpectedly they had experienced art, an art which had come to them, to their congress, and talked in their language. I found that very amusing. These little doses of ‘pedagogy’ can trigger off a lot and no doubt help CCC to develop itself further.
FC: In the early nineties the art critic Thomas Wulffen coined the phrase ‘art operating system’. Can you relate to that in any way? Or do you find it problematic? Your artistic hacks that you’ve mentioned do not engage directly with the art operating system!
CS: I can relate to that in a big way because what interests me most in art is it’s operating system, the parameters which define it, and how they can be changed and what the possibilities of new media contribute to this change. What also belongs to the operating system is the concept of the artist, the notion of an artistic program, an artist’s body of work, and last but not least the interfaces – who and what will be exhibited and who will look at it. This system is actually what interests me most in art. To intervene and be able to play with it I have to know how it functions.
FC: But then isn’t it difficult to be a net artist as well? In the example of net art, one could see how in the very moment in which no new objects were being produced which lent themselves to being exhibited, that it (net art) lost its footing and was not given proper recognition in the
art world. I still find it astonishing how much net art has to fight against this in order to be taken seriously in the first place by the art operating system. Is that not difficult for you, as an artist, to want to try and hack the art operating system, and to do as a net artist?
CS: First of all I do not see myself solely as a net artist, but rather as a kind of concept artist. I find the net indeed very interesting, and to be active in it fulfills many of my wishes, but that aside, I also work with video, text, performance and whatever else is required for a
particular project. That net art is not recognized in the art world and has problems there is primarily due to the fact that, in my opinion, there are no pieces/objects which can be exchanged from one owner to another in a meaningful way. An art which is not compatible with the art market is hardly of any interest, because in the last analysis the market is the
governing force in the art operating system. Another further difficulty is the ability to exhibit. What justification is there to show net art in the ‘White Cube’?
In that way all curators have to ask themselves: why should we actually show net art here in our museum? Some net artists quickly understood that they wouldn’t get far with their non-commodifiable, difficult to represent art in the market, and expanded to working with installations. That has worked well – just as it did with video art. It is not a new phenomenon
that is happening to net art. Before it, there was also ephemeral art, Fluxus and performance art for example, or technically perfect reproducible art forms such as video and photography. All these art forms had enormous problems at the beginning, but then opportunities
surfaced in the market and certain intermediaries really supported them and managed to create a space for them. And when everything becomes too much, another decade of ‘new painting’ is heralded in order to let the market recuperate.
Nevertheless I think there is an interest regarding net art in the art world. For a long period it was given a lot of hype, and at the moment I see a kind of consolidation. Ultimately there are a few big institutions like the Guggenheim, the Tate Gallery or the Walker Art Center that commission new works. What goes wrong in net art is that artists – I’m talking mainly about the group net.art and that scene – have not developed collective strategies as to how they should deal with the art system – which was one of the great strengths of the Fluxus artists. There is missing a willingness to accept that a problem even exists in the first place.
In 1997, a further symptom of this occurred in the form of the first competition for net art a museum has launched: EXTENSION by the Hamburger Kunsthalle. Like the introduction of net art at the documenta x, artists here were very uncertain and didn’t know how they should deal with the idiotic and incomprehensible conditions. And so they contributed half-heartedly. This was the time when it would have been easy to hack the art operating system. It was definitely a missed opportunity.
FC: I ask myself whether for you in ‘Female Extension’ – where you submitted several hundred art websites under different female artist names to the net art competition EXTENSION, and which were in fact generated by a computer program – the generative is simply a vehicle, a means to an end. ‘Female Extension’ was also a ‘social hack’, a cyberfeminist hack of the net art competition. How your generators were programmed was actually pretty irrelevant!?
CS: In principle, yes. (laughter) At the start I intended to make all the web sites manually, using copy and paste, because I was not capable of programming them. The programming happened more by chance through an artist friend of mine. I was very happy with the results; the automatic generated pages looked very artistic. The jury was definitely taken in by it, although none of my female artists won a prize. Through ‘Female Extension’ and the social hack I got caught up in the idea to conceptualize the generators in even more detail. Three versions have now been around for some time now: one, which works with images, one which combines images and texts in layers on top of each other, and one that is a variation of the ‘Dada Engine’. This one is specialized in texts and invents wonderful word combinations, sometimes even with elements from different languages. Two more are in development for
FC: Is it then necessary to use labels like ‘net art’ at all when the medium is not so relevant?
CS: I think it makes sense to use such labels in the beginning, when a new medium is being introduced, and actual changes come along with it; in the phase where the actual medium is explored like jodi did for example with the web/net, or Nam June Paik with video.
FC: Looking at your art, isn’t it the case that projects like the net.art generator develop their concept, their systems of ‘social hacks’ from the media?
CS: That’s true in this case. But it is not necessarily the way I work. The term ‘net.art’ functioned also as a perfect marketing tool. And it worked until the moment it gained the success it had headed for. Then everything collapsed. [laughter]
FC: In your new work ‘Improvised Tele-vision’, you are referring to Schöneberg’s piece ‘Verklärte Nacht’, its recoding by Nam June Paik, who let the record run at a quarter of its normal speed, and then its recoding by Dieter Roth, who restored Schönberg’s music to it original tempo by speeding up Paik’s version. That immediately reminded me of the literary theory by Harold Bloom, his so-called influence theory, according to which history of literature is the product of famous writers, who each in turn adopts to his/her predecessor as an oedipal super-ego (laughter) … and who then again manages to free him-/herself from the predecessor.
CS: Oh really? The sub-title for ‘Improvised Tele-vision’ originally was ‘apparent oedipal fixation’, which I then discarded again. (laughter) And it was the ‘apparent’ which was important to me.
FC: That is what I assumed. There are – from my point of view – these tremendous artists, like Schönberg, Paik and Roth, who take each other down from the pedestal in order to put themselves on that very pedestal.
CS: Exactly. [Laughter.]
FC: But is that not the tragedy of every anti-oedipal intervention, that it automatically – whether it wants to or not – becomes inscribed in the oedipal logic again? That’s what I see in this piece!
CS: If that is the case, then that’s definitely tragic. Probably that’s the reason why I’ve made it into such a theme. I find the public’s reaction amusing, which was partly very aggressive. I received such accusations as: “You don’t want to be any different than they are”. (laughter) What it is actually about, however, is showing the processes involved, how it functions. That I cannot extract myself from it, if I want to be part of the system, is logical.
Another example for this, which once again leads us back to the market compatibility of net art, is the invitation of a five-star hotel to partly decorate their interiors. Actually I was always fairly sure that I was the last possible artist anyone would invite for such a task. But it did
interest me and I began to experiment with this. Fortunately I have the net art generators which endlessly can produce for me, which meant I just had to find a way to materialize the ‘products’ being created. I ended up making prints on canvas or paper and frame everything. That’s how I create a series, series of images, and it is astonishing what actually transpires. It is through the arranging however that I manage to tell stories, which of course is massive manipulation. In that way I find the idea of the rematerialization of net art interesting – by packing it into accessible formats and then seeing what happens.
FC: Is that still concept art?
CS: Yes, of course. At least for me it is. First of all the money on offer is interesting. But over and above that, this will be the first sale in the history of net art that is worth mentioning! [laughter].
FC: I want to try to make the jump from here to cyberfeminism, which is difficult… Perhaps I should begin like this: what always troubled me with the term ‘Cyberfeminism’ was less the ‘feminism’ than the prefix ‘cyber’. Does that have to be?
CS: [laughter] That’s amazing! If the feminism had troubled you I could have related to that. (laughter) But you seem to be pc… (laughter). The theme ‘cyber’: that is “what it is all about”. I first heard about Cyberfeminism rolling off the tongue of Geert Lovink, and I said to him:
what kind of nonsense is that? That was back then when everything went ‘Cyber’: ‘Cybermoney’ ‘Cyberbody’ etc.
FC: Yes, that’s the point.
CS: There was not much available on Cyberfeminism in 1995/96. Geert Lovink sent me sure enough a reference from Sadie Plant and VNS Matrix – and ‘Innen‘, which was a female artist group which I was involved in myself. He sent me back quasi my own context as a reference. That was a real little surprise. That he had done this was definitely no coincidence. So I thought to myself, OK, I assume he knows [laughter] which references he sent to me. I kept mulling over that in my mind. Then came the invitation to ‘Hybrid Workshop’ at the documenta x. Once again Geert was involved. He wanted me to plan a week or block – not on Cyberfeminism, but rather on one or other female/feminist issue. And this invitation was the catalyst for me to start working on the term ‘Cyberfeminism’. By then I had found real pleasure in it and discovered that there was an enormous potential involved and which both Sadie
Plant and VNS Matrix had not capitalized on. They had only dabbled in a few areas. Taking a pre-fix that has popped up out of a good deal of hype, and what’s more using it and attaching it to something else, creates a real power.
FC: The difficulty I have with this no doubt stems from an academic point of view. We are in the midst of a discussion about net culture, which includes mailing lists like Nettime and other forums, where one no longer has to discuss the absurdity of ‘cyber’ terminology. That’s been done. Then along comes something that one knows is not to be taken completely seriously. However when I set foot in academic circles, I found myself being criticized – like I was at the Annual German Studies Convention – for debunking dispositively the terms ‘cyber’/’hyper’/’virtual’ which are still used there as discursive coordinates. These terms have gathered their own dynamic and have been written down and canonized for at least the next ten years. And it is precisely here that ‘cyberfeminism’ fits in, as a term which does not sound so experimental or ironic when one puts it into the context of something like Cultural Studies.
CS: But what do you mean? Is that actually a problem?
FC: Well, isn’t it the problem that one thereby creates a discourse which in academia can gather its own dynamic and then no longer…?
CS: …in that case, yes. I fully support you there.
Our main idea was not to formulate a content with a concrete political goal. Instead we considered our organizational structure as a political expression. To be a cyberfeminist also makes demands on us to work on the level of structures and not just to turn up at conferences and hold a seminar paper. On the contrary, it means to tend to financial matters, or to make a website, a publication or create an event – hence to engage in developing structures. And ‘Politics of dissent’ is a very important term.
FC: In 1997 Josephine Bosma asked you in an interview: “Do you think there are any specific issues for women online?” – and you answered: “No, I don’t think so really”.
CS: [Laughter.] I still believe that.
FC: Yes? – That was my question.
CS: After four and a half years of Cyberfeminist practice and contexts such as ‘Women and New Media’, and a series of lectures and events, I’ve come to the conclusion that one can divide this topic into two areas. One is the area of ‘access’, meaning, whether women have access to knowledge and technology, and which is a social problem. The second area is if the access exists, and the skills are there, what happens on the net or with this medium? What factors determine WHAT is made? About that there’s very little which is convincing. Mostly it is a lot of arid ill-defined essentialist crap, with which I want to have little to do with because it reaffirms the already existing and unfavorable conditions rather triggering something new…
There are not that few female artists whos’ approach is the idea that women have to develop their own aesthetics in order to counteract the dominant order. But I’ve always had problems with that and didn’t know what that could be without predicating myself again in strict roles
and definitions. That is the problem with essentialism. The claimed difference can easily be turned against women – even when they defined it themselves. That doesn’t take you anywhere and is just another trap. Besides one of the miseries of identity politics was that the identities certain communities and groups had developed seamlessly got incorporated,
for example by advertisement, what meant a complete turn around of its actual intentions.
FC: What I have noticed is that women are amply represented in the code-experimental area of net art.
FC: From what I’ve seen, yes. Jodi for example is a masculine-feminine couple, the same goes for 0100101110111001.org. Then springs to mind mez/Mary Anne Breeze or antiorp/Netochka Nezvanova, which we now know has a woman from New Zealand forming the core figure.
CS: I’m currently working on an Interview with Netochka Nezvanova in which she tells me everything! What she thinks about the world – and especially about the art world. [laughter]
FC: That is someone then who also fascinates you?
CS: I find it extremely interesting as a phenomenon, and ask ‘her’ things such as… how much does her success have to do with the fact she is a woman… Ultimately though there are several people involved in forming the charactero. I have asked so many people about her, and everyone had contradictory information about her. The last theory that I heard led me
to the media theoretician Lev Manovich as the core of N.N. It is great what Netochka Nezvanova triggers in the minds of other people. Therefore, it is a good concept. But I am working on finalizing this concept. I want to kill ‘her’ by doing an interview in which she reveals all of her strategies – something she would never do anyway.
FC: Would it be possible for you to work in any context? We met here at the annual conference of the Chaos Computer Club. But would it also be possible to meet at the annual congress of stamp collectors, and this would be the social system you would intervene?
CS: Theoretically, yes. [laughter] I think anyone who managed to get along with the hackers, the hacker culture doesn’t shrink back from anything – not even stamp collectors or garden plot holders.
FC: … or hotel corridors.
CS: No, theoretically a lot is possible, but not practically. My interest is not just formal and not only directed towards the operating system. It is an important aspect, but when the arguments and the people within the system are of no interest for me, I can hardly imagine to work there.
FC: That would mean at the hacker’s convention your reference would be that people here play with systems, and critically think about systems?
CS: And what’s also interesting for me is the fact that hackers are independent experts, programers, who work for the sake of programming, and are not in services of economy or politics. That’s the crucial point for me. And that’s also the reason why hackers are an important source of information for me.
FC: But that takes us straight back to the classical concept of the autonomous artist coined in the 18th century, the freelance genius. He is no longer employed, and gets no commissions, but is independent and does not have to follow a given set of rules.
CS: Maybe you’re right, and my image of a hacker has in fact a lot to do with such an image of the artist. But reflecting upon the role of art in society in general, I would prefer to consider art as autonomous, to considering the individual artist as autonomous – given that the
idea of autonomy per se is problematic. The idea of art as observing, positioning oneself, commenting, trying to open up different perspectives on what is going on in society is what I prefer. And that is exactly what is endangered. The contradictory thing about autonomy is that someone has to protect/finance it. And it is most comfortable when governments do so, like it was common here in Germany over the last decades. I think this ensures the most freedom. Examples which illustrate my theory are Pop Art and New Music; in the 60s and 70s artists from all over the world came to Germany because here was public funding, and facilities
to work which existed nowhere else. I consider it as one of the tasks of a government to provide money for culture. And the development we are facing at the moment is disasterous.
A short time ago somebody asked me how I would imagine the art of the future, and after thinking for a while I got the image of an open-plan office, packed with artists who work there, all looking the same and getting paid by whatever corporation; the image of art which is completely taken over and submitted to the logics of economy. This does not mean that I would reject all corporate sponsoring, but it should not become too influential.
FC: Doesn’t the new media artist make the running for the others, because they are so extremely dependent on technology?
CS: Absolutely, and I think this is really a major problem. They make the running for the others…
FC: … but in a purely negative sense.
CS: Basically yes. It is a difficult field to play on. Some artists are thinking of work-arounds, like low-tech, and as another example,I would highly appreciate if ars electronica, which obviously suffers from a lack of ideas and inspiration, would choose the topic of Free Software. They could do without their corporate sponsors, and only give prizes art works which are produced with the use of Free Software. It would be really exciting to see what you can do with it.
[At his point we switched off the tape recorder and kept on talking about the necessity of doing things on the one hand side, and discarding them again on the other hand. During that the conversation turned to Neoism and its internal quarrels.]
CS: Such quarrels can become very existential, very exhausting, and weakening. Things tend to become incredibly authentic – something I try to avoid otherwise.
FC: But this is important. When I hear standard accusations, saying that dealing with systems, disrupting systems through plagiarism, fake, and manipulation of signs, is boring postmodern stuff, lacking existential hardness, my only answer is that people who say this, never tried to
practise it consequently. Especially, on a personal level, it can be deadly. You have mentioned the group `-Innen’ before, a group you have obviously been part of in the early 90s, before the days of net.art…
CS: Yes, this was in ’93-96.
FC: And, if I get it right, it was also a ‘multiple identity’ concept.
CS: Yes, and although we handled it very playful and ironic, it started to become threatening – so much that we had to give it up. We had practised the ‘becoming one person’ to an extreme by looking exactly the same, and even our language was standardized. And then we felt like escaping from each other, and not meeting the others any more.
FC: Is this the point where art potentially becomes religious or a sect?
CS: Maybe, if you don’t quit.
FC: Designing such systems also has something to do with control and loosing control, right? In the beginning you’re the designer, you define the rules, but then you get involved and become part of the game yourself, and the time has come to quit.
CS: Well, certainly I do have my ideas and concepts, but the others might have different ones. The whole thing comes to an end when the debates and arguments aren’t productive any longer. With the ‘Old Boys Network’ we are currently experimenting with the idea to release our label. To think through what that actually means was a painful process. You think:”Oh god, maybe somebody will abuse it, do something really awful and stupid with it. That’s shit.” But if we want to be consequent, we have to live with that. One big trap for us was, that we called it ‘network’, although it actually functioned as a group.
FC: But this seems to be a very popular self-deception within the so-called net cultures. I also say that also ‘nettime’ and the net culture it supposedly represented was in fact a group, at least until about 1998.
CS: And that is the only way it works. There’s no alternative way how a network can come into being. At some point there have to be condensations, and commitments. And ‘networks’ don’t require a lot of commitment.
FC: So, how do network and system relate in your understanding?
CS: I think a system is structured and defined more clearly, and has obvious rules and players. A network tends to be more open, more loose.
FC: One could claim that purely technical networks as well as purely technical systems do exist. Your work alternatively intervenes in social and technical networks. But, in the end, your intervention always turns out to be a social one. Can you think of networks and systems – referring to the definition you just have given – without social participation?
CS: Not, not at all. Because the rules or the regulating structure always is determined by somebody. Like computer programs are often mistaken as something neutral. ‘Microsoft Word’ for example. Everyone assumes it just can be the way ‘Word’ it is. But that’s not the case. It could be completely different.
FC: There’s also earlier experiments within art, on designing self-regulating systems. Hans Haacke has built in the 60’s his ‘Condensation Cube’, made of glass. On it’s side-walls water condensates corresponding to the amount of people who are in the same room. Such a
thing would not be of any interest for you?
CS: No, I don’t think so. It is also typical for a lot of generative art that one system simply is being transformed into another one. I find this totally boring. For me, it is important that the intervention sets an impulse which results in – or at least aims for a change.