“It’s the wu tang syndrome. You can’t have 11 dudes in a group, go on tour, and everybody comes home happy with each other, and everyone is rich and famous. There is already such little money in the arts, and dividing a small pot into even smaller sub-pots just doesn’t work.”—Evan Roth
Evan Roth: Co-Founder, Graffiti Research Lab + Free Art & Technology / New York NY
“it’s the wu tang syndrome. you can’t have 11 dudes in a group, go on tour, and everybody comes home happy with each other, and everyone is rich and famous. there is already such little money in the arts, and dividing a small pot into even smaller sub-pots just doesn’t work.”—evan roth
How would you describe your time at Eyebeam’s OpenLab?
The OpenLab has a big place in my heart. I graduated from Parsons in New York, and then I applied to the OpenLab shortly after graduating. Unlike any artist residency or fellowship that I have been a part of, they were looking for open-ended research. They didn’t treat art like a deliverable. They treated it like a research process, which I am really grateful for, and it influenced me to move past deliverables. Applicants apply with two pieces, and I applied with a project called Graffiti Analysis, which was an extension of my thesis where I met with graffiti writers in New York and motion-captured their tags. Another project was Explicit Content Only, an audio project where I took N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton album and removed everything but the curse words. It was three minutes of curse words.
FAT Versus Google
courtesy of grl
The setup there was really interesting. Jonah Peretti, who co-founded the Huffington Post and BuzzFeed, also started Eyebeam. His idea was to bring a bunch of great people together and fund them to make work, with the only stipulation being that the work had to be totally open. If it was media, you could use Creative Commons. If it was a hardware project, you could release a how-to guide. The MacArthur Foundation granted money to a bunch of creative people that were then going to give back to the public domain, so it was a good investment from a cultural standpoint.
When you have a whole lab full of people that are all working in that model, the ownership of the work becomes irrelevant. It doesn’t matter whose project it is. I worked a lot with friend and collaborator James Powderly. We ended up not even putting our names on anything that we did together. One person would throw out an idea, and then another person built back onto the other person’s documents and comments. It was a cool way to work, because you could take the ego out of the equation.
How did the Eyebeam environment facilitate your interaction?
Jonah went to MIT, so there was probably a little Media Lab influence. But Eyebeam was just a room in this old semi-warehouse space in Chelsea. It was equipped with desks and computers and Internet for everybody, and there were common tools. It was incredible to be sitting in a room with a laser cutter and a 3D printer at the time. There was also a wood shop. From there, it was project-to-project. If we needed stuff, Jonah would try to get us money to make it. The projects were coming from an open source, DIY mentality, so a lot of the projects really didn’t need that kind of funding.
Laser Tag: Hells Kitchen
courtesy of grl
Can you talk about the Graffiti Research Lab project?
That started in the first meeting that we had at the OpenLab. I presented some of my graffiti research that I was doing and some of the software that I was working on. Then this other guy, James, who had worked on several robotics projects, volunteered his skill set and experience. Most of the stuff that I had been doing up until then was software-based and screen-based; I hadn’t yet branched out into physical hardware when thinking about graffiti and new technologies. He provided the materials and hardware expertise, and I provided the software side and access to the graffiti community.
It was work that was a bit harder for people to support institutionally, because we were messing around with spray cans and things that connect with technology, and it was unclear where it was headed in the beginning. We saw ourselves more as Q Branch than James Bond. We would be the person who supplies the tools, rather than the person who uses them. We were thinking a lot about public space, and who gets to communicate in public space. Our idea was that we wanted to make tools that would level the playing field between the kind of scale that cities and advertisers could take on, versus the people who live in the city. Especially in New York, where there is so much advertising, but very little communication from people who actually live in the neighborhood. You might be living underneath a giant billboard, but you would never be able to dictate what it said. The other goal was to expand the sphere of what we were doing with open source. How could we get a bigger group of people interested in open source as a concept?
Our first project, LED Throwies, ended up being a pretty big hit for us in terms of how it traveled around the web, and it was one of our first big projects on Instructables. We kind of grew up with Instructables, which is a DIY community. The way we released that project set the tone for how we would tackle other projects. We would have a pop media piece or a video that was meant to be passed around blogs, but we also had source code, or how-to guides, that we paired with that media. The idea was that you could click on something, regardless of the politics, just because you wanted to watch it, and at the end there would be something about source code or a link.
The one thing we realized, was that the technology as a meta-project was more of a cultural hack than anything physical or digital. We realized that the projects that we were doing got reported on by the media disproportionately to what they should have been. We were filling a story that the media wanted to report on. We didn’t set out to do this expressly in the beginning, but the media wants to write the story that we are living in the future. We talked about flying cars a lot. If you had a flying car, you would be on the cover of everything, because that is a signifier to everybody that the future is NOW. Another one of those stories is when graffiti artists get their hands on technology. We figured out that if you just sprinkle lasers and LEDs on stuff, the chances of getting your political message spread were a lot greater. Then we started thinking about Graffiti Research Lab as a project being about social hacking more than physical hacking. The tools that we were making didn’t matter, as long as they shined enough to show up in a nice photo.
courtesy of grl
Did you go from GRL to FAT?
I always had a solo practice going on while I was doing the collaborative work. FAT happened exactly because of that. We realized that if our goal was to further open source culture, and further access to tools, then we didn’t have to make it all about graffiti, because in the end, the graffiti was just a pop-culture mechanism. FAT was an extension of Graffiti Research Lab, where we removed the constraint of everything needing to happen in public space. We considered public space as being more than just streets but also the Internet. A lot of the projects that happened with FAT, easily could have been Graffiti Research Lab projects, but they addressed the web in a more considered way.
How important is it to have solo projects?
I made an intentional decision to keep solo projects going as well. A lot of my solo projects engaged with an online audience or were open source, but I made them on my own. If it was a collaboration, it was more like a distant collaboration versus someone sitting in the room next to me. I was so invested in the collaborative work, that I needed to have something for which I was responsible for all of the decisions. Collaborative projects don’t work if you’re just doing what you could have been doing on your own. A lot of times, they turn out better because of trying something different. However, it is easy to hide in collaborative projects. With GRL, it was never our name or our face on the front, so it was like an alter ego that you would have in a graffiti practice. We could act in a certain way and publish content in a certain way that maybe we wouldn’t have been comfortable with if it was us on our own and operating under our own names. But at the same time, it’s good to have a body of work where I have to defend the rationale behind everything, because it’s me that ultimately made all of those decisions.
Kopimi Totem (w/ Piratbyrån)
courtesy of grl
Can you talk about the work that you did with The Pirate Bureau?
One of the underlying premises of their work is the idea of Kopimi. It is similar to Creative Commons, only it is less of a nerdy legal construct and more of a religious approach to sharing data. Creative Commons gives permission to copy under certain conditions; Kopimi argues that copying adds to the life cycle of the piece. The logo for Kopimi is a pyramid, so I made a sculpture that was a pyramid composed of Wi-Fi routers. The routers were running an open source project called PirateBox, which creates an offline network in which you can only communicate through the routers directly. You can connect to any router in the sculpture with a smartphone or a laptop, and you can download pieces of The Pirate Bureau’s archive, or you can upload pieces of your own data. I thought of it like a totem, a physical place you can go inside the gallery to commune with The Pirate Bureau. It was cool to work with them because they were so open. People who are really strong and have passionate ideas are sometimes hard to work with because of their motives, but The Pirate Bureau has these strong and interesting ideals, while they are also interested in other ideas. They are flexible with their thinking.
Who else has influenced you?
Before I even knew what The Pirate Bureau was, I knew what The Pirate Bay was. People know The Pirate Bay, just because they want to download a Harry Potter movie, although they don’t know that there is a political statement embedded in that structure. You might have felt you were doing more than just illegally getting content. It did feel like you were taking part in a movement in a weird way. Kopimi Totem is my all-time favorite piece, whether you call it activism, art, design, or technology. The Pirate Bay and Edward Snowden are the two main things that have happened within my lifetime that have affected my view of the data landscape. It is so open, and you can just go and join the revolution by downloading movies. I love that. I love that it is simple for people to become a part of it. I am interested in activist work that is approachable, or easy to take part in. I went through the Bush years in the US, and I went to a lot of protests and held up a lot of signs. But I see people like The Yes Men and The Pirate Bay and Banksy making content that is engaging on its own. You want to take part in it no matter what your view is. I saw that kind of work having more of an influence on people and drawing more people into a cause than just carrying a sign with a message that people have already read a hundred times. This is what James and I were trying to do with Graffiti Research Lab. We wanted the work to go outside of the tech blogs and political blogs that we were all reading, and that is why we were thinking about networks like YouTube, and how we could get one million views of a graffiti writer writing “Fuck Bush.” We were trying to get the mass media talking about these issues, such as data monopolies and public space, while reaching people as they drink coffee.
How do you create accessible activism?
How do you get something to go viral on the Internet? Whether you are trying to sell sugar water, or you are trying to put a new government into place, it is the same approach toward the Internet. A lot of it is simple things, like allowing others to insert themselves into your project. Openness ended up being a good way of getting content spread, because people realized the project was something they could do. Throwies was a big learning curve for us, because the how-to guide, not the video, went crazy online.
We were excited in the same way that software developers get excited when their user base increases. It’s a sign that your tool is useful. You see people doing this with viral marketing campaigns too. It’s the same approach, unfortunately. The other thing that we did that was a no-brainer: you just can’t make something and put it on the Internet and expect it to take off. Email blog editors. This is the step that people leave out all of the time. Our projects don’t always need to be bounced around the web to be successful, but that is important for many activist-based projects.
It was much easier to have viral breakouts back then because there was such little competition. That’s the bad news. I think the good news is that the internet still loves honest content. It is extremely good at smelling bullshit. It is hard to make a fake viral video these days because internet commenters will snuff it out in the first three comments. I remember when product placement first started appearing, when people started putting candy into movies and Coke cans into sitcoms. It didn’t fool anybody. I feel like the internet ended up filling this void for people where they figured out that reality TV was not reality. We were hungry for something like YouTube, and places online that offered really honest content. It was just kids in their bedroom saying shit to the camera. It felt really raw, and it is super hard for companies to mimic that kind of sincerity. It is hard for them to make something that feels honest in the way that you can as an individual, as an artist, as an activist who doesn’t have anything to sell.
What are some threads you have been interested in recently?
I was an adult before the internet really dropped. I am part of the straddle generation, where I understood a before and after scenario. The revolution of our times, for better or for worse, is an information revolution. It is a digital revolution. It is not film or music or art; the revolution that we are in is a network revolution. Thinking about how to make art within that is what I have been addressing now. How do I make work when everything is changing so quickly and technically? Monitor sizes are changing, operating systems are changing, ifnternet protocols are changing, so it is hard to stay on top of all of that. I have been making work that visualizes what is happening right now, and freeze it for a moment in time, so that it says something about our culture now, and 50 or 100 years later, we can look back and understand the moment. There was us learning how to touch computers for the first time. There’s us learning how to communicate in a browser. I have been living so long with that publish button being my fix, logging into WordPress and wanting to hit publish as soon as possible all of the time. I still have that part of me, but I want to tell a story on a longer timescale.
Has the nature of your collaboration changed?
I now view the collaborative side of my practice as non-professional, in the sense that I don’t try to earn a living on the collaborative work. When I work on collaborative pieces, it’s because I really want to, because it’s fun. Collaborative models that fund food and rent are really difficult. It’s the Wu Tang syndrome. You can’t have 11 dudes in a group, go on tour, and everybody comes home happy with each other, and everyone is rich and famous. There is already such little money in the arts, and dividing a small pot into even smaller sub-pots just doesn’t work. When we shifted from GRL to FAT, it was a move toward taking the money issue totally out of the equation.
courtesy of grl
Even in my solo practice, I will make work that I know has no chance of making any money. The more you can remove money from the creative process, the better. Everyone is broke as shit in the arts, scraping for meager amounts of money that trickles down from the government, companies, or individuals, all of which are underfunded in terms of the money that actually gets to the artists. When you throw a few breadcrumbs at a bunch of hungry fish, of course it is going to cause ripples.
Is there a feasible way to maintain those kinds of projects financially?
There are two main worlds. There is a commercial art market. And there is a new media art market, which in the past, has been primarily funded through festivals or the government. If you look at the top 200 most successful living artists with the highest selling work, you are never going to see more than one name on any of that stuff. The world does not understand how to support collaborative practice. But the new media art world is really good at supporting that kind of practice. There are a series of art festivals that happen around the world, which helped fund a lot of the work that James and I were doing. In the arts, there is an expectation of doing a lot of things for free. It’s tough. Even having been a part of a project that was popular, it wasn’t easy to live in NYC. Even with just two mouths to feed, and being very high at the top of that scene, it was super hard to make rent. There is not enough money to sustain any more than one person.
I hate to be the one that says this, because I am a big proponent of collaborative work; it is a big part of my practice. But that being said, collaborative work is not something that I can make a career on. I don’t know how to do that. But that is not a depressing thing to me. In a way, it makes the collaborative projects even more fun, because the stress of how to feed yourselves does not come into it. It can be more pure.
Is having a solo outlet essential?
It is good for me to have an outlet where I don’t have to make concessions. Graffiti Research Lab got frustrating to me at one point. We realized that as the FAT website got more and more popular, it became more stressful for us to publish things because more people were looking at it. We couldn’t just throw things at the wall, making things and publishing them at the same time. The amount of negative comments that you are going to get on YouTube is increasing exponentially as the popularity increases. To be respectful of the people you are collaborating with, you don’t want to start publishing content all of the time, because it is a singular voice with multiple people behind it. The rate of publication started to get slow. Instead of James doing his thing and me doing my thing, which could have happened really fast, we decided that we should both agree on all of the content that was published by the group.
What would be a dream project?
For me, it got really hard after Edward Snowden. What he did, and what The Pirate Bay has done, seem so important to me, so relevant, and they are changing the conversation globally. That is the goal. It is a really intimidating bar to set for yourself. I would like to grapple more with the information that has come out from the NSA leaks. It is such a huge thing and hard for people to deal with. We are all wrestling with being sucked into using services like Facebook and Gmail that we may socially and morally disagree with. How do you take part in that? What does it mean to use these services? Is it to be a part of the culture? Are you then promoting it? These are issues that I would like to continue dealing with in my work.