Essay for “We Will Show you Fear in a Handful of Dust”

I wrote the accompanying essay for the collaboration that Nadia Afghani, Finishing School and I did at Occidental College in March 2014. The essay was distributed as part of the public build of the drone. Here’s a link to the essay in layout. The text is below.

We Will Show you Fear in a Handful of Dust

“If you do something for long enough, the world will accept it. The whole of international law is now based on the notion that an act that is forbidden today becomes permissible if executed by enough countries . . . International law progresses through violations.”
—Colonel Daniel Reisner,
former head of the Isreali Defense Forces Legal Department

Meet Your Predator

Remotely piloted, capable of long flight times, and armed with two Hellfire AGM-114 missiles, the Predator MQ-1B is designed for what the Air Force euphemistically calls “irregular warfare” operations against “high-value, fleeting, and time-sensitive targets.” By now we all understand that “irregular warfare” means “legally ambiguous” and that those “high-value targets” are people, some of them suspected terrorists, many of them not.

The military refers to the Predator as a system, and it is fairly evident why: it takes two remote split operations groups working cooperatively to operate a Predator. A minimal forward ground crew manages takeoff and landing from somewhere within the Predator’s 700-mile flight range, and a team of two or more remotely pilots the drone and fires its missiles via satellite link, most often by joystick in front of video monitors a few thousand miles away at either a Virginia CIA facility or Nevada Air Force base.

With this in mind, the Predator aircraft is only the mechanical extremity of a highly interconnected cultural and technological network of systems. In order to pin down the meaning or function of a weapon like the Predator, we necessarily must attempt to account for the abstract structures—the political, financial, cultural and technological machinery—that determine its overall purpose and significance. In this way,  we can treat the Predator as a metonymic abstraction or interface into the systems of which it is both a member and an index.

As a convenient term, we’ve adopted the coinage of technology theorist Lewis Mumford, who called this assemblage of living and technological machinery a technics. In envisioning a technics, Mumford allows no privileging distinction between human, social or mechanical constituent parts or operations, and therefore  you can’t separate a weapon’s form or purpose from the technics that gives it both function and meaning.

“We Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Dust” utilizes the fabrication of a replica of a Predator drone aircraft to trigger an investigation of this particular weapon’s technics, with the aim of proposing and modeling a possible act of resistance to the authoritarian machinery that powers it.

Regimes of dehumanized killing

As a generalization, drones do not target heads of state or commanders of conventional military forces. But then, the assignment of targets to the kill list is a matter of top-secret, judicially unreviewable deliberations. Still, the proceedings ostensibly adhere to international agreements that allow such killing in the face of imminent threat to the United States. ‘Ostensibly’ since there is yet no oversight into how that determination of threat is made, and the overwhelming anecdotal evidence demonstrates that most drone strike victims exhibit only a tenuous apparent connection to terrorist activity or threats toward the U.S. Further, among the victims are U.S. citizens who have been executed without Constitutionally-granted due process.

The apparent restraints of international war codes have already been bent and reconfigured to to the point of nonexistence, and the Obama administration repeatedly asserts its right to redefine “imminent threat” in terms most congenial to this Tuesday’s kill list. The list of planned drone strikes is subdivided into “personality strikes” (attacks on specific individuals from the kill list) and “signature strikes” (attacks on unknown individuals who will appear to fit the profile of enemy combatants). The bulk of drone strikes in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen thus far have been signature strikes with the identities, not to mention the activities, of the dead mostly left undetermined.

To be targeted and killed by a strike is to be assigned the unusual, vague legal status of already having been presumed to be an imminent threat. To be clear, this final assignment of identity and presumed guilt happens retroactively after the kill. The Bush-Obama policy classifies all military-age males in a strike zone as combatants, but that determination becomes relevant only later, upon counting bodies. The essential ambiguity of execution by drone is in the non-status of being neither civilian nor combatant. To be killed by drone is to be made the Other, an act that strips the victim of status and humanity.

The essential formal property of the drone strike, and the thing that sets it apart from other kinds of military assassinations, is that each strike (called a “tap” in the jargon) is carefully designed and executed to be but one in a repeatable series of strikes.  Assassination in the age of mechanical reproduction.

Whereas by comparison political assassinations are carefully calibrated against their post-kill ramifications, and invasions or occupations are weighed against the logistic investments needed to control cities and territories wrested, each drone tap serves more than anything as an identically reproducible event in an indefinite series of future taps. The social function of a drone kill is already always not just a theatrical declaration of potency, but also a warning and precursor to other strikes. Part of the gamification of killing that characterizes the drone warfare era—its specificity, anonymity, dehumanization, and repeatability—is that there is always a new weekly list of targets to assassinate.  Tap tap tap.

In this way, the function of the Predator is as exterminating agent for an unaccountable, secretive, and dehumanizing authoritarian technics.

The global killing jar

The drone warfare era introduces a novel element into the classical military equation that positions strategy against tactics. The conventional distinction being that strategy is primarily concerned with long-term control of a terrain—a territory, city, facility, feature, or border—while tactics are mobile, usually guerrilla, actions executed irrespective of holding fixed points of ground.

As a general corollary, strategic operations are necessarily public and theatrical — visible displays of potency and control over public spaces are hallmarks of holding terrain and a main strategic activity of the state. Tactical maneuvers tend toward the covert, since they always risk exposing fleeting or groundless positions. The drone upends this conventional military discourse because it is essentially a groundless tactical weapon that exerts a complete theatrical control of the ground—a sort of hybrid.

The Predator, and drones like it, acts as a zero degree of abstraction in the surveillance war machine, and as such, the Predator accomplishes a radical shift in redefining public spaces.  To better explain, it is helpful to draw comparison between military strike drones and two other weapons systems: the sniper and the nuke.

Snipers are the ultimate private, tactical killers, and rely heavily on networks of intelligence and surveillance. The sniper stalks its target methodically and patiently, becoming familiar with its routine, its body, and points of vulnerability. The immediate aim of the sniper isn’t to seize an asset or control a space, it is to extract and eliminate a specific, high-value human actor from the equation of the current objective. A sniper may kill a target in broad daylight in a town square, but does so from an inherently temporary and fleeting position. Insofar as the sniper stalks and hunts a specific human target, each sniper kill is unique and nuanced.

The nuke, on the other hand, is the bluntest, most absurdly public weapon currently imaginable. Thermonuclear detonations render any particularities of cultural, political and local texture at the target locale utterly immaterial and irrelevant, and deafly refuse to differentiate between biological, technological, or environmental carnage. As such, the nuke is the ultimate theatrical weapon, and operates in the most hyperbolic milieu of political brinkmanship. The threat of nuclear war depends entirely on a specific notion of an encompassing public identity and common terrain. A nuclear bomb doesn’t kill one person, it kills all of us.

The structural formal characteristic that connects the sniper and the nuke is their relationship to the public and public space, for which they each have ancient antecedents—whether the totalizing destruction of the natural disaster or the secret execution by assassin’s knife. Drone surveillance killing injects a new element unique to the age of global panoptic intelligence. The killer drone hybridizes the tactical specificity and intimacy of the sniper’s surveillance kill with the public, strategic theatricality of the nuke. Drones like the Predator are dispatched to kill specific individuals wherever they may be located in the most dramatic, public way possible, by raining down sudden death from the sky. In that way, the differentiation between killer drones and these other weapons is in its reforming ability to reshape the concept of a public space.

Under the drone’s exterminating gaze, all physical terrain and public spaces in the field of play now belong to the controlling regime. The drone is the ultimate icon and metonymic abstraction for the military surveillance state; it is a depersonal, remotely controlled killer that combines monitoring and destroying in a single activity. To be sure, this unique status relies on the drone’s larger, enabling authoritarian technics — most notably the state’s coercive regime that leverages financial, political and diplomatic assets to create a freely penetrable airspace for drone surveillance and operations — which allows the drones supremacy over an incontestable position from the sky.

As metonym for a global system of surveillance and intimidation, death by drone strike is the ultimate panoptic event, one which extends the estrangement of Otherness to any and all potential victims, wherever the expanding shroud of U.S. -controlled airspace allows, whether over domestic or foreign terrain. It collapses the distance between public and intimate, between paranoia and conflict. The ultimate aim of the state’s war machine has always been to circumscribe the entire globe within the abstract death video game, with all cartesian points located within the killing jar, the particularities and messy logistics of holding ground no longer a factor. Coupled with the secret and absurd, yet somehow accepted, unilateral agency of the administration to assassinate targets at will with no shred of due process, the message is: “All your space are belong to us.”

Resistance and sculptural form

“From late Neolithic times in the Near East, right down to our own day, two technologies have recurrently existed side by side: one authoritarian, the other democratic, the first system-centered, immensely powerful, but inherently unstable, the other [hu]man-centered, relatively weak, but resourceful and durable.”
—Lewis Mumford, “Authoritarian and Democratic Technics”

Mumford again, who was most concerned with the rise to power of various totalitarian powers in the 20th century, and so his positioning of two regimes of technics moralizes a distinction between small, democratic ones and the larger authoritarian, state-controlled megamachines (his term) which tend to subsume them.

But this process of capture and assimilation is no sure thing. Where there are regimes of power, there are always sites of resistance and escape. When invoking ideas about the authoritarian state, the concept of a public and publicness is always near at hand, since regulating and controlling public spaces and identities is one of the main ways the state regulates people.

This is a good point to acknowledge that public is a term that converges multiple meanings, and the way we use it regards public both as an adjective that describes socially accessible and commonly regarded spaces (public discourse, public space) and also as a noun—borrowing the usage of theorist Michael Warner—that reflects a self-organized relation among strangers created by the circulation of discourse, a crowd witnessing itself in a public space (a public, the public).

All authoritarian technics are inherently unstable since they require the perceived estrangement and powerlessness of contra-positioned discourses as a condition of their power. In slightly plainer English, the state requires that the public believe that it is only a public, a minor and relatively powerless part of another, vaguer body that is somehow more enfranchised. Public space is the main locus for this dynamic, unstable battle of perception.

If where the public and public space interact is a particular context for state dominance and assimilation (and if we can use the form of a Predator as a metonymic interface herein), then it is also the most vitally prized site for acts of resistance and subversion (and we can make a response that uses that interface as a starting point).

Experimenting with the contraposition of two technologies that Mumford describes, “We Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Dust” enlists and activates a resourceful, democratic technics to enter the fray.

Talk value

Anything that is or has a space also has a number of socio-sculptural forms that can be interrogated and messed with. So, the experimental aim of “We Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Dust” is to stack, conflate and interposition several kinds of these forms:

1. The sculptural form of our drone, along with the narrative associations that attend it.

We directly intend our drone to get in your way. After all, it’s 55 feet wide. It’s easily large enough to be spotted by drones surveilling campus, in fact.

We used a fairly exact computer model as the basis of our drone. But we were not interested in replicating it precisely. We were more interested in hybridizing a technological mode of production — the subtractive CNC process used to fabricate the core armature of our drone — with an age old, collaborative construction technique that has been used all over the planet for centuries.

We expect you to notice that this drone cannot move or fly. It has been weighed down and anchored to the earth.

We think you’ll see that while it may have a core armature that is fabricated in an exact manner by machines, its outer layer is a coating of earth that is mixed and applied imprecisely by hand.

We intend you to recall how other things are often coated in earth, among them the homes and buildings in most traditional Eurasian villages. Things are also interred in the earth as they are buried.

We expect that other associations we didn’t originally start with will enter into circulation.  Among them: that other items made from clay or mud are fabricated specifically to be targets for practice; that Occidental is only a few miles from many of the the locations where James Cameron’s The Terminator was filmed, a film which also featured a robot killer encased in a fragile, fallible shell;  that other figures of earth—nkondi, golems, and others—have historically and mythically held important social functions in warding off evil or injuring assailants; that the famous quote attributed to Einstein warns us that the progression of warfare will lead us all back to the stone age; and other associations not listed here.

2.  The form of the public, collaborative effort to assemble and finish our drone.

The participatory call and assembling of volunteers is a performative model for the kind of democratic technics that Mumford describes.

We could have delivered and installed a completely finished sculpture. It would have appeared one day and been assembled in the usual manner (safety cordons, pylons) that isolates so-called public sculpture from its public. Instead we chose to enlist a crowd of strangers to help us mix and apply the final coating of architectural grade mud to our drone.

In that way this project consists of, along with making a sculpture of a drone, modeling making a public of a particular nature. To be sure, all the people who physically or virtually view and respond to our drone are its public, the same way as with any work of art. But without the collaborative effort and the unquantifiable interactions that come with that, this would have been a different project altogether. To make a public, you set into circulation a body of discourse that strangers will reflexively recognize, modify and recirculate. Relative to the state-defined normative acquiescence to our national, authoritarian policies that govern our drone warfare program, we are not assembling the public, rather a smaller, necessarily subordinate counterpublic that exists temporarily in specific relation to this project.
3. The formal relationship between the sculpture and the particular public that will interact with it

It is no accident that we pursued the installation of this drone at Occidental as a specific site. Any more upstream would be the White House lawn, but it is better here.

The democratic call, assembly, and participation by this particular counterpublic that is needed to ultimately transform our drone’s machined armature into something made more unevenly and imprecisely by individuals is an important site for discursive circulation, and the heart of this piece.

To engage and incriminate a technics it is not enough to produce a sculpture that sits isolated or is part of state-controlled norms of protest. And the audience for this work is not the administration, it is the counterpublic that will help assemble it and create the discourse around it.

That discourse isn’t singular nor dictated by us. In fact, much of it will be undisclosed to us. It is a multiplicity of impressions, reactions, memories, and conclusions that carry multiple readings across the varying constituencies that we hope will extend the social circulation of our public’s space. Much of the circulating discourse will be created and passed around in terms we have not thought of, in language patterns we did not imagine, in ways particular to specific contexts that we are not directly part of.

4. The formal relationship of positioning (flaunting) this activity as part of an ongoing body of social practice.

When it comes right down to it, Finishing School does not primarily make objects; we make occurrences that naturally utilize rarified objects as a point of departure.  More precisely, we orchestrate models of interaction that poke at and penetrate accepted state-derived norms of acquiescence and control.

More often than not,  what we try to do is propose a kind of public-making and then flaunt it. The way it’s used here, flaunting is a kind of specialized term specific to counterpublics that denotes inverting public and private. Counterpublics articulate themselves with and through discourse. They model possible kinds of circulating communication — informally derived, usually hermetic — that are outside or underneath the gaze of larger, more authoritarian technics. A flaunt is always that private joke made public and formal, in a way that is similar to what Michel Foucault called a “performance criticism.” To flaunt a public-making involves using the subordinate status of a counterpublic as the origin of a discourse that can then be turned outward as a charged form of critique.

One of the defining characteristics of the particular field of social practice that we work in is the regard of publicness, public identity, and public spaces as a field of aesthetics with formal political, architectural, ethical, and social dimensions. The history of our tactical media and interventionist practice deals particularly with a specialized discursive model that repeatedly attempts to find novel ways to propose alternative or contesting ways to create, interrupt, or scramble public identities within public spaces.

“We Will Show You Fear in a Handful of Dust” is made possible by the Wanlass Artist in Residence Program, which is supported by the Kathryn Caine Wanlass Foundation. To them we we are grateful for the opportunity to present this project to the Occidental College campus and the larger community. We are also grateful for the generous support provided by the Remsen Bird Fund. We would also like to thank the faculty and staff of Occidental College. We also are extremely thankful for Steve Ross and his team at Foam Concepts their partnership in this project. And to Aandrea Stang, our friend, curator, mentor, sister, and collaborator, your continued dedication and support to our practice has helped us in ways that are difficult to summarize in words. We love you and thank you. To our own friends, families, and colleagues, thank you for your endless support and love.

Topotypes & Conjunctions at Boehm Gallery, Palomar College

Gallery Director Ingram Ober invited me to do this show at Palomar with the specific suggestion to prep two bodies of work for the two rooms in the gallery.

So with that in mind, I fabricated what became three new sets of things from two series that I’ve been working through lately. It’s all new work made specifically for this space.

Here’s a floor plan of Boehm Gallery.


I work in multiple series at the same time, and for this show I wanted to push along two series that I’ve been hoping to exhibit. Specifically, I wanted to make both 3d and 2d work and force the various ideas to intersect at the content of domestic organization.

I’ve written another blog post here about the Topotypes series, which are 3d models that originate from 8-letter words. For me, these objects wrench at the idea of self-referentiality and identity-hood. For this show I made objects based on the following words: bookends, armchair, tabletop, endtable. (I also worked on one for the word dishrack and planned out one for coathook and desklamp. If there had been more time…)

I also worked on images from the Conjunctions series, and this show is the first time I’ve exhibited that series. All those images come from photographs I’ve taken of people’s homes. More precisely, I go in and shoot images of the contents of certain kinds of containers — shelves, cupboards, bins, tabletops, drawers. I’m hoping to document a kind of loose, personalized organization schema. So the groupings of objects I’m shooting are organized and sensible to the person, but aren’t necessarily meant to be shown to visitors.

In my mind, this is pretty distinctly different than other series like Totems or Missed Connections, in which I’m drawing from contexts where people are explicitly crafting avatars or disposable identities for public display — via hookup ads, t-shirts, etc. I wanted to invert that here and try to delve into a different kind of identity-shaping enterprise: the internal/external dynamic couched in dealing with all the domestic objects that you see and interact with all the time. Where in other series I’m using generative or analytical procedures to abstract non-intrinsically-visible relationships from what I think of as a data set, with the Conjunctions I really wanted to work visually and formally. I wanted to deal with just the forms and spatial relationships as the data set.

So, I created two groups of work. The first is a set of photographic images that are cropped to behave formally more like dominoes than like photographs. By that I mean that I cropped them with an eye toward the possibility of moving them around and rotating them, trying to push compositional attributes to make the images more amenable to being repositioned. For me the guiding tactic here is to present an idea about the incompleteness and interpersonal transparency of the unfinishable process of that kind of domestic creative activity. It’s my strong belief that dealing with, organizing, curating, railing against, and living with your stuff is your primary and most enduring creative enterprise.

Here’s an installation shot and some of the images.

Opposite the photos are a set of five paintings that use some of those photos as reference material. I guess I should remark that I haven’t exhibited paintings in this vein before, and am pretty excited about them. Whereas I’ve for many years been working in hard-edge abstract practices, these are heavily gestural. Texturally they rely entirely on hand and brushwork, something I’ve been expunging in other series for a very long time. There are some reasons for that for this specific project. I wanted to refer to a few specific painters, people like Thomas Scheibitz and Juan Usle, that are grappling with the relevant practices that tie photography to abstraction in painting. As with all my work, trying to address exactly what abstraction is and how it works is central to these paintings. I also wanted to recapitulate the photographed objects along streamlined axes: vector, speed, friction, shape, contrast, counterpoint. And I wanted to present a suite of paintings that would bounce ideas off each other. This is an academic show after all, and I wanted to push out some new steps for my work and treat this set as a collection of formal and compositional propositions. Finally, I wanted to make the paintings hard to read in relation to the original photo. I was hoping to ride an edge of recognizability that provokes your eye into seeing those axes in slightly uncomfortable ways. “Like trying to blow apart objects with your mind” is how I’ve been attempting to describe the why and what of those paintings.

Sorry for the lousy color correction (fire the photographer!); in person you can see that while each painting is monochromatic, there are two kinds of black and a blue, as each painting is keyed to a dominant color in the apartment where the photo was taken.

I think the artist talk went pretty well, and some of the follow up questions helped me articulate things I sometimes don’t think to say up front. Yes, these are political and psychological works, as are all kinds of deconstructionist procedures. Yes, I feel that they try to engage a critical practice of examining yourself. No, I don’t think they’re ‘mathematical’ but yes I do use those tools. Yes, they’re meant to be portraits, albeit very indirectly, in the sense that I’m continuing to investigate the kinds of physical trails and remnants we leave behind as evidence of our lives and psyches. Yes, they’re personal in the sense that I feel philosophically tied to a practice of trying to find finer and more powerful tools to bust apart received practices about how identities are created and defined, and that dealing with the frisson inherent in any kind of descriptive (read: abstraction) procedure engages that.

Many thanks to Palomar, Ingram and my partner Todd.  Also would like to extend heartfelt thanks to Trevor Sigler, who helped me fabricate most of this work.


Mon 12:52

Interview with Ethan Ham

Originally published as part of project muster on May 13, 2008

MF: So for someone whose background is in gaming, and it’s in programming, and it’s in physical computing, what’s your sketching process like?

EH: Oh, figuring out what I want to do?

MF: Yeah. How do you come up with the next project?

EH: I don’t know if I have any real set way. Generally I come up with the idea sort of fully conceptualized a lot of times, although I do like the ones that are more fuzzy. I like the idea of developing them while I’m working on it, but that’s kind of far and in-between for me, you know? That’s occasional that I get that.

So usually I come up with the idea pretty fully conceptualized, and then I’ll have that idea, and often, most times, before I can even get around to it I sort of get tired of the idea. So then I’m like, OK, well that’s good, I’m glad I didn’t actually start in on that one.

And when I have time to work on something, whichever ones are still interesting, I’ll work on one. And a lot of times, even before I get finished with it, I get kind of tired of the idea, I have to push my way through it. Sometimes not, though.

I’d say, the Self-portrait one, that was probably fully conceptualized before I started it, but I felt like it had a lot of things around it, you know? It felt like it wasn’t sort of straightforward, necessarily, the concepts I was working with. So I like that one a fair amount. That’s probably more like around my ideal of how I come up with an idea and finish it, something along those lines.

MF: Right. How did you, in your mind, what’s the content of that? Like for that particular piece, what is that piece?

EH: Well, when I originally started out, I had never done really much personal art about myself, and some people had pointed that out in grad school. So I was thinking about that, and I was like, OK, well I’ll do something about myself, but I was also interested in my reticence to do it. You know, it’s like, I don’t really want to do art about myself, so one thing I was sort of interested in when I came up with that is, it’s about me but I’m not really in it.

MF: Right.

EH: So I thought that was kind of interesting. I also thought a lot of it has to do with privacy. It’s these people’s images, and I’m sort of going out and looking at them and grabbing them and showing them, and most of them have no idea I’m doing that.

MF: Right, sure.

EH: So I thought that was sort of the privacy issues.
I think there’s, some people had pointed out, like the security issue, like facial recognition
and the security that we’re facing these days, like going through airports, which I’d thought about, and I thought, OK, this is an undercurrent, but it’s not something I’m directly addressing, but, you know, I’m aware it’s in there.

MF: You know that that’s there, at least from my perspective looking at it online, and I’m sure its completely different in person, but it’s much more about sort of this, I feel like, this computer presence on the other side of this monitor trying to figure out who you are.

EH: Yeah.

MF: I think that’s the interesting sort of thing about that piece in particular.

EH: Yeah, I think so too.

MF: It’s not really about a political act, so much more as it is very about the implication that there’s another intelligence sort of working on your image the second that you’re presenting it.

EH: Yeah. Yeah, I agree.

MF: It’s just sort of weird, you know?

EH: And one of the things I was really, I agree, and one of the things I was originally interested in was this idea of vision, how we see things. And my thought was originally like, OK, the computer sees things completely different than us, you know? Our body image is sort of arbitrary.

Turns out, the computer actually, at least to my eye, is actually reasonably close to humans, in the sense that when I look through what it has picked out as me, generally, and maybe I’m just fooling myself because humans see patterns where there are none, but generally they have geeky glasses on, so I just feel like, hey it’s picking up something like that.

And generally the faces seem narrow and long like my own, so I feel like, OK, maybe it doesn’t have its own way of seeing things, maybe it is fairly close to humans.

MF: Sure. Well, and how much of that do you have any control over? Can you get into the settings and what it’s looking for?

EH: I can’t do that. I can make it more or less generous for how far from me it considers a match, and so what I sort of tried to do was something, I loosened it up, definitely, on what it would consider a match for me, and I kind of aimed for, roughly, for having a match a day, more or less. I think it does fewer than that, but I just thought finding matches is more interesting than not finding matches.

MF: Sure, sure.

EH: So that’s how I tuned it.

MF: I mean, that’s interesting, because then it’s not so much, and that’s actually pointing out something I feel like comes up again in lots of the projects that you had on your website, was there’s a point to which you’d almost be inclined to put what you’re doing in the same field or category as this sort of chance element of the randomizer element.

But then there’s an editorial step in your work, I think, that after that process has happened, it’s not so much just about John Cage rolling dice. There’s a thing that happens after you get your result, that you do heavy editorializing in what you’re doing.

EH: Yeah.

MF: Like you select pretty carefully, and it’s more like you curate from your results the things you want to display as the end product.

EH: Well, in a way, I do do that, but I curate ahead of time, you know?

MF: Yeah.

EH: I set the parameters for it, so every image that was a match for me ends up on the site. So, whatever it is now, 200, so they’re all there. Occasionally some disappear because people take it off Flickr, in which case I edit it out, but I don’t do, and I mean, part of it was the idea, this is generative art because the computer is doing the curating, but it’s true, I set up the computer.

And I think that’s really the tricky thing with generative art. I’ve been, actually, thing about this a lot, because I’m writing a chapter on random chance in art. And I think that is, the art in it is, how much control do you give up? If you don’t give up enough control, then it’s bogus. There is nothing there. It’s completely you, you’re the artist, there’s no generative aspect.

If you give up too much control, then it’s just garbage, you know? So that’s the balance.

MF: How do you know when it’s not enough or when it’s too much? Where do you draw that line?

EH: I don’t know. I guess, ideally, I mean my ideal, and I don’t know how often I’ve reached this, I guess I reached it on self-portrait, partly because I don’t really know what’s going on underneath. But for me, if I’m surprised, if it surprises me occasionally, then I feel like OK, clearly I’ve given up some control, because I’m surprised occasionally.

MF: Sure, yeah.

EH: Early, when I did in this with Art 25 cents, I didn’t feel like I was successful, in that I wasn’t really, I mean, I was occasionally surprised when, oh, this looks better than average, but not surprised like, oh, I didn’t expect it to come up with that.

So I think that’s it. What I’d really like to do is be able to create a machine which has creativity, you know? But that’s not going to happen, that’s sort of an impossibility.

MF: Right. We’d have to tweak our definition, at least.

EH: Yeah.

MF: Yeah. Right. OK.

EH: Or if it is possible, it’s not anytime soon that that’s going to happen.

MF: I think, when I was looking through your stuff and trying to think where is he locating the heart of his placement in the work, if there are so many generated elements, what’s the narrative for us in there?

And the conclusion I came to is that you’re somewhat of a surrealist, maybe? Just in terms of the kind of tones and themes that you seem to bring out in a narrative sort of play in what’s going on. I wonder if that’s something that you ever kind of thought of.

EH: No, I haven’t. Surrealism. How so?

MF: Well, I think I arrived at that because it was the closest thing I could figure out, in a sense that there is a certain, what I think of as almost a surreal coyness, or a surrealist coyness, to your relationship between wanting to step in front of the work in certain places, and step behind it in other ones, and in other cases wanting to be outside the room altogether.

EH: Yeah.

MF: But also in cases where there’s a sense of humor at play, where it’s meant to be riding the edge between whether or not it’s, they’re not precious, these things that you’re doing, but they’re funny.

EH: Yeah.

MF: But they’re funny in the way that that’s meant to almost propose a subconscious to the work.

EH: Yeah.

MF: Almost as if you’re trying to present that kind of membrane. That the plane of the mirror sort of physically is that sort of membrane between the real element of the performance of the piece versus the subconscious element or searching and groping and trying to release things into the world. Like the thing about the spam piece with the Styrofoam that was made out of, what was it?

EH: Oh, starch.

MF: Starch. Something really cleverly interesting. You were denuding this block of Styrofoam in a way that was very violently acted upon it by people who were sending it garbage.

EH: Yeah.

MF: There’s something sort of psychosexual in that.

EH: Yeah. Well that’s funny, because actually at one point I was thinking… When I was sort of thinking that I would get through, I knew all the elements I wanted to play with and I wasn’t quite sure how to do it. I mean, that it’s psychosexual is interesting, because at one point I was talking to a friend about doing it who was very interested in… She did feminist art, and I was talking to her about doing a sort of collaboration.

And I was like, well we could do something where… We were kicking around various ideas, but one was like, oh well we could have something where it was like a sex hotline or something like that, and people would call, but it’s not really, and then that will trigger this thing dissolving all that. And eventually what she said was… All the things were caught up with her portrait rather than this sort of problem. And I was like, yeah, that’s true.

MF: Sure, sure. I don’t mean to tell you how it’s reading, but I was trying to figure out, what in it is not procedural? You know what I mean? What is it that’s not generative, because it seems that there’s plenty of stuff that’s sitting pretty comfortably outside the normal rubric of computer-generated or other-generated or randomized elements, and there’s other things that are there. And I think, for me anyway, the things that are there, the narrative pieces, the choosing, the curating, and sort of the drawing together of the pieces.

EH: Yeah.

MF: And I thought that was kind of the interesting thing. Because they’re not pure, sort of Sol Lewitt, sort of let’s run through all the iterations sort of things.

EH: I agree. That’s actually something I think about a lot is the balance of how much of it is computer, how much is it me, and how much is the audience or some stimulus. And just trying to figure out a balance.

MF: And it’s almost like… One would assume that you’re looking at Tim Hawkinson’s work or you’re looking at people who had the same idea. It’s physical computing combined with a sense of humor.

EH: Yeah. Tim Hawkinson. I love his work. It’s funny, because I saw his show. When I was in grad school, we came New York, and it was he was at the Whitney. We went in, and one of the things that was sort of funny is I aware of most of his pieces, but at that time I wasn’t all that good at paying attention to artists’ names. So I didn’t realize it was all the same artist.

So I was first struck by all of this art that I liked and thought was all different people were the same one. But also I sort of realized, I’d been groping around in the dark, and I realized, OK, this guy has sort of felt ahead the way I was interested in.

I think what I really like about his is it’s not novelty art. I feel like the area I work with, the danger is it’s novelty, or cute, or whatever. And I sort of feel like his work has soul to it. There’s something always behind it beyond the obvious interest of, here’s a little mechanism.

MF: Sure, sure, yeah. And it almost seems like, especially considering that artists have the funds that they have to work with, you’re always almost in danger of the more technological it becomes, the more you’re really potentially threatened by just the march of progress. Where someone can actually subsume what you’re doing because a new chip has come out.

EH: Yeah.

MF: That’s one of the things I love about Tim Hawkinson’s stuff. It’s certainly dependent on a certain base level technology, but because he’s, I think, deliberately low tech about it, it’s not about what new thing can artists do with a piece of technology.

EH: Yeah, I agree. And I think that’s the real danger. That’s what I want to try to steer away from is, again, demo art or whatever… There must be some good word for it.

MF: [laughs]

EH: I think with a lot of new media, a lot of computer based art, a lot of it is that… I think right now it’s really obsessed with its own medium. So much of Internet art is about the medium, the Internet. It would be like if every painting was about paint. Some of it, occasionally that’s nice, but you don’t want everything…

MF: I almost sort of feel like, There are things that are happening so quickly now just in the field of UI. There are ideas that, five years ago even, would have been conceived as pretty great conceptual interpieces that are now sort of normal UI elements that somebody at Yahoo labs [sic], have sort of released to the wild. And it’s sort of like, oh, that’s kind of scary.

EH: Yeah.

MF: Like the idea that the graphic designers of the world who are working for a living have caught up to the high concept of what… It just points to the fact that I think that maybe those concepts weren’t quite as outlandish as we thought they were.

Let me ask you this. This is interesting. This New England Journal thing. The conclusion they got to, which I thought was pretty… It’s interesting, but I don’t know how I felt about what they concluded about Self Portrait. They talk about…

“His search program finds resemblances to him in men, women, people of different ages and races. There’s something wonderful and funny, and then forlorn about maybe desperate in this Internet quest for kinship. Often art about Internet ends up being about the web as a lonely, alien place. And Ham’s piece has some of that, but it also speaks to how the web, where we come together in all our random unedited democracy, creates community.”

I was wondering. I thought that was an interesting conclusion to draw that somehow, the piece was about how the web creates community. And I was wondering whether or not you had a take on that conclusion or not.

EH: I was really interested in that, too, because that was the first time I had really read someone writing about my work. Those thoughts, I don’t know if those thoughts were really in my head when I was writing it, I mean when I was creating the piece. But I liked… What I wanted that piece was for it to be open ended enough that it had some levels to it. So I liked that he came to that conclusion even if that’s not necessarily what I was thinking about.

MF: What were you thinking about?

EH: Maybe community. After the fact of reading that, I’m like, oh that’s interesting. Maybe it is about the artificiality of web based communities. But I was mainly thinking about it as a wacky way of doing generative art in that it’s… And I think I wrote this in a few places, is to me, photography is about the selection process in a way.

Its editorial aspect is a large part of the art. So then, I’m taking myself out of that part of it and giving that over to the computer in this automated way of doing photo selection. So that was interesting to me, the generative part. But I was also getting a little tired of generative art. I was feeling like… And I may even still be that.

I’m not sure how long I’m going to keep doing generative art. I think it’s limited in some ways. And I felt this was interesting in that I felt that this stepped outside of the problems of generative art. Which I think is there’s a tendency in people who do that to get overly focused on the formal aspect.

MF: Sure, yeah.

EH: It’s like, oh can I make a computer make something that looks like art?

MF: Well, of course. As long as you can set up a system that allows a computer to do things that qualify in your system, then yeah, you’re going to get what you tell it to give you.

EH: What it becomes focused on, but beyond that, is it becomes focused on the prettiness or… You know what I mean?

MF: Sure.

EH: And it’s like very little generative art is all that conceptual. I think a lot of it seems like it’s very modern in the artists’ intention, I guess. I kind of like this in that I thought, OK, there’s a generative element, but it feels more contemporary in its intention in that it’s appropriating and…

MF: Well not only that, but you give the computer a reason to be generating stuff.

EH: Yeah, that’s true.

MF: You know what I mean? It’s got a very strong narrative searching. So it’s not just creating images, but it’s got a reason to say whether or not it’s done it right.

EH: Yeah, exactly. You can evaluate its results.

MF: Yeah.

EH: Sort of, I mean one thing I did originally when I did that website is I didn’t have my photo on at all, because I thought, oh it will be interesting… What you’re going to have to do is deduce what it looked like by looking at all these other…

MF: Right. It would be great to see a composite of the work, you know?

EH: Yeah. And that bothered some people, so then I was like, OK, I’ll put my photo on but just a ghost of it, on a splash screen I put a ghost of my image so you could have an idea of it.

Yeah, I guess mainly what I was thinking about was the typical, for me, generative stuff. I thought, interesting to do some stuff with the procreation.

You know, I think the actual start of that, in fact I know it was, was a friend of mine told me that Flickr had an API, a way that you could hook in your program. I think the real start of it was, oh, what can I do with Flickr? And I don’t know how the facial recognition occurred to me, I can’t remember.

MF: There are certainly things now in the critical mass of things that are happening in Flickr, sort of astounding.

EH: Yeah.

MF: Now we’re at a point where, really, Web 2.-whatever is going to be about self-sorting and dealing with the ridiculous amounts of data that are out there, especially with Flickr.

You could almost… what was the thing called? You’ve probably seen it, it’s this demo piece that they did. I don’t know that it’s a working thing yet, but it was a Silverlight piece that Microsoft put together.

And it’s this thing that, what it does is, and the movie they had made a big splash when they first had this big launch presentation, and this was like, four or five months ago, and what they did is they take every, so let’s say for example, Flickr shot of Notre Dame, and they make a supercomposite based on all the Flickr photos in the universe of Notre Dame.

So then what you get is this giant Notre Dame that’s zoomable, because you can click and zoom in and it sort of [sound effect] like this ultrahigh-resolution composite piece that’s built out of, and it’s in three dimensions, and they’re all based on a different Flickr photo. It pulls everything from Flickr.

EH: Weird.

MF: So the notion that you could, in theory, pretty soon, go to Times Square and pull out every Times Square photograph snapshot to create a purely digital aggregate first-person narrative about Times Square, in three dimensions that could be zoomable in to whatever closeness you want to, or zoom out.

It’s like this twisted sort of thing that you’d think was a fantasy.

EH: Yeah, yeah.

MF: But they called it, like, diving in, and so this enormous movie, this teeny snapshot of Notre Dame, where all of a sudden it’s like, [sound effect] and you’re like, holy crap! You know?

EH: Wow.

MF: And the fact that somehow it knows how to do this and stitch these things together, it’s sort of this mind-twisting capability as we think, “Already, we can do this?” What happens when Google Earth is now a representation based on first-hand photographs? It’s kind of very weird and unusual.

Then you start to think, OK. In what sense is it out of the reach of a single artist or a small collective of artists to be able to pull off things like this? Is it just a matter of resources, or are there things that individuals can do, like are we artificially limiting our scope of what we feel like we can pull off as artists because of the things that we feel we have at hand?

EH: I think there are things as an individual artist you just can’t do. I mean, having worked on massively multiplayer games, not Everquest but things like that, yeah. No individual can do that. That’s just impossible for one person to do. Or, if you could, it’d be falling apart constantly. It would be a sandcastle.

MF: Right.

EH: But on the other hand, if you’re a trained programmer, there’s a whole lot you can do.

MF: Sure, sure. But it locates, in a certain sense, the artistic realm versus the purely engineering realm of it.

EH: Yeah.

MF: And it almost forces us to shift in the same way that I think photography forced painting to shift in a certain direction, or induced it to shift in a different direction. You start to wonder in what case, there’s almost, nowadays, there’s like a constant sort of interplay between the purely editorial/artistic and the purely engineering where they’re sort of dancing a little bit.

EH: Yeah.

MF: And I sort of wonder, we’re about to see very bizarre evolutions in what’s artistically possible, as it keeps to the side and in front of what’s possible in engineering sort of sense. You know?

EH: Yeah.

Well, that’s sort of a topic, someone who, one thing to do is collegiate art education and something I’ve been talking with some of my colleagues is, you know, if we’re going to be doing, if we had master students in new media or whatever it’d be called, I think most of us, my colleagues and I don’t like the term new media, but whatever that’d be, do they need to know how to program or not?

And my feeling is, they do. I feel like you need to know the tools. But then the other point of view, which may be correct, is you don’t, you just need to know you can get someone else to do that.

But programs are really expensive. I mean, they may be right, because it’s like, you don’t need to know how to paint. You can come up with the concept and have someone else paint your paintings, but ultimately I think that’s really limiting.

MF: But even the concept of programming is so broad.

EH: Yeah.

MF: There’s, you know, pick an environment and go in a direction, sort of thing.

EH: Well, that’s another argument I heard about it, is ultimately programming language will go away and there’ll be very approachable tools. I don’t believe that.

MF: It doesn’t seem like that’s what’s happening.

EH: Well, I mean it does.

MF: People are working on that, but you know.

EH: Well, it does, but then, the bar keeps raising, you know?

MF: Yeah, sure.

EH: It’s like, OK, now there’s drag and drop things I’m sure you can do today which years ago had to be programming, but then, those aren’t interesting anymore.

My feeling is the stuff that maintains interest, I mean, there’s stuff you can do with drag and drop that I’m sure is great art, and I’m sure there is, and maybe it’s even better because, again, maybe you’re getting away from the novelty aspect.

MF: Sure, sure.

EH: I don’t know, I program, so I think it’s important.


MF: And what do you program in?

EH: I use, god, nowadays, especially with the Internet stuff, I use a lot of stuff, Flash, C++, a little PHP, Perl, SQL. You know, there are whole bundles of stuff.

MF: So then the basic sort of, the web technology stuff?

EH: Yeah.

MF: Nothing too outlandish, nothing too esoteric, you know?

EH: No, no. I mean, I should learn Processing, because that’s what all the artists are using nowadays. So I don’t actually have that one.

Nowadays, I guess if I had to say what kind of programmer I am, I guess nowadays I’m a Flash programmer. C++ is what I’ve been doing for years, but it’s not very visual.

MF: But still, it seems, again, like most of this stuff, people who are doing sort of what they call new media are just, again, total misnomer, it’s been around forever, but the idea that it’s about information, it’s not just about pictures. It’s not about whether art’s on a TV screen or projected on a wall, it’s about the information.

That’s why I think Perl and PHP come into it so often, well, it’s about driving data and how you’re collecting it and how you’re processing it. Those are all scripting tools.

It’s not just about whether or not you want to hook up a DVD player to a thing to another thing to a robot arm.

Only a few, I think, more questions. One thing that I’m just curious, I ask everybody about, is how you think either moving to or living in New York, especially from Portland, how is that impacting either your general take on art, or your specific studio practice, besides the fact that here’s [points to kitchen table] your studio. You know what I mean? Which affects everyone in ways that has not yet been documented, you know what I mean?

EH: That’s a good question. I don’t know. I mean, I keep developing my ideas and wanting to, my ideas are definitely advanced. Like the idea of, I’m more nervous about novelty art. I’m more, I think I’m trying to stretch farther and get higher, but I don’t know. It’s hard to say where I would’ve been if I stayed in Portland, you know?

MF: Of course, of course. But also, you’re sort of, you’ve gone from being in school fulltime to working fulltime, which I’d imagine affects some sort of shift.

EH: Yeah. Well, it’s funny, actually coming here, because I’d worked fulltime in Portland for a year. So coming here, I don’t know, actually I think it probably evened out in my amount of time, because I worked there, but it’s also in many ways easier to live in Portland than it is in New York. So it kind of evened out I guess.

I don’t know. I don’t know. I think I’m still figuring out what New York has done. It’s certainly made me, I always sort of resented New Yorkers who kind of poo-pooed people, artists who lived elsewhere.

MF: Now you’re one of them.

EH: I don’t poo-poo them, but I think if they know what’s good for them, they’d come here.

MF: Right. Yeah.

Tues 5:50

Interview with Alan Bigelow

American Ghosts, Alan Bigelow

Originally published as part of project muster, Apr 26, 08.

>>MF: It seems like that over the last few years, both the format and the story texts in your projects have been evolving.  The earlier ones, especially and Saving the Alphabet feel somewhat more like illustrated digital ‘books’ compared to the more recent ones, which tend to be shorter, pithier and more visual.

>>AB: Over the past few years, my efforts have concentrated on making these digital stories say more with less. In particular, I try to have the elements of each story (text, images, and audio) be as archetypal as possible, to be sometimes less character-specific and more concept-focused.
For example, in When I Was President, the character talks about “emptying the Internet” and “painting himself gray,” not so much as realistic actions that accompany his character progression, but as prototypical statements that imply a larger goal, a universal longing, in an imperfect world, for something better.  Likewise, What They Said,  my most recent piece, is not just about how we perceive mass media–and the pervasiveness of authoritarian messages, both outright and subliminal, that dictate our future–but also how such messages (and our often lethargic acceptance of them) are common in all societies.
The visuals in What They Said and later pieces (like Lord’s Prayer, The and Because You Asked) are intended to synthesize better with the text. As you point out, earlier works like and Saving The Alphabet use visuals more as “illustrations,” and they do not provide as much of a dynamic synthesis with the text.

Do you draw a conceptual line to any other particular writers or artists working in the same way?

I am not conscious of any writers or artists that I draw a direct conceptual line to, but certainly there are writers who deeply influenced me in the past. The shortlist would include Samuel Beckett, Samuel Clemens, Jean-Paul Sartre, Laurence Sterne, Virginia Woolf, John Barth, Sophocles… the list goes on, with such wildly divergent authors (in terms of period, style, and subject matter) that my references to them are based pretty much on the fact that, at one time or other, I was voraciously reading them.  Artists are no easier: the Abstract Expressionists, Pop Art, Impressionists, Renaissance artists… I like them all.  When I was a growing up in New York City, one of my favorite pastimes was to visit the Met and deliberately get lost in its many rooms. My purpose was not to find my way out–it was to enjoy the art in an environment that had no exit and no entry, a seized moment in a place with no expectations other than those demanded by the art itself. Does that sound like how we feel as artists and writers when we are engaged in creating our own work?  For me, yes…

What for you is the advantage of taking this on in a web format as opposed to, say, a screenplay or performance? It certainly seems that some of your recent pieces riff off the monologue as a format.

In my view, Flash is a superbly streamlined and robust application with which to create work for the web. It seems that virtually anything I can imagine, story-wise, can be accomplished. It allows for the use of mixed media in the same way a live performance does, but typically only to an audience of one, and with only the illusion  of three-dimensionality.  I have done plenty of traditional text readings and some performances in the past, and live audiences are wonderful to work with, but right now, the web offers such promise: a world-wide audience, 24/7 access to my work, and the opportunity to work from home. So right now, writing for the web is my preference.

Could you take me through your sketching/drafting process? How do you edit ideas to decide what to make next?  And in what way does the format you’ve chosen influence your concept of ‘story’? What makes a good webyarn?

As any net artist will tell you, coming up with a story idea is often (if you’re lucky!) the easiest part of creating online work. The hard part is making your idea a reality…
The first step is the concept. I use this word advisably–at one time, when I wrote fiction for the page, not the web, I would have been thinking “character” or “plot line,”  or “situation.” With net art, for me it is still sometimes character or plot, but more often “concept.” By this I mean a more general idea–a political statement, or a commentary on art or a social structure–that provides the organizing principle for the work.
After the concept comes many hours of visual drafting, much of which is creating a user-friendly and (hopefully) beautiful interface. My work is all in Flash, so once an interface is created, and the basic “story” is down in text form, I get to the job of making what I want to happen, happen. In Flash, in addition to working with imagery and sound, this usually means ActionScript coding.  I am a text-based writer first, a relative newcomer to Flash, so this technical side of net art has always been a challenge.  Fortunately, there are many talented and generous Flash people on the net who provide open-source coding (i.e. free for anyone to use), so I often find the code I want on the web and then hack it to my needs.  For visuals–anything from still images to video–I either create them myself or also get them off the net.  As always, I am careful to acknowledge the source of any help on the credits page…
The last step in the creative process is testing the work on various browsers and computers to make sure the load times are quick enough and that the processor speeds are sufficient to make the story play correctly. A typical project might take several months to finish.
What makes a good webyarn? I wish I knew, because then I could make more of them…

In what ways do the challenges you mention shape the work you make?

Certainly, there are times when what I intend for a piece is not what eventually happens because of the challenges in coding. Sometimes, it’s because I run across a piece of coding that’s better than what I had in mind, and sometimes it’s because I lack the skills to do exactly what I want, so I go in a different direction. One criteria I always try to follow, within reason, is never to settle for anything less than what I consider to be the ideal choice for a piece: one way or another, no matter how much I might gnash my teeth or tear my hair out, there’s a snippet of code out there that will do the job.

Do you think that writing, finding or hacking code is now what you’d consider part of your writing process?  Do you think it has any implications for the sort of underlying genetic structure of your work–sort of another kind of assemblage or bricolage that’s in parallel with the collection of images and sounds you use?

Unfortunately (because I find no joy in it), searching for code and hacking it is part of the writing process. Fortunately, as I said, there’s plenty of coders on the web who are happy to share their work. I also, on occasion, find help from local artists/coders who know more about Flash than I do, and are happy to help. If I did not have such resources, I would be significantly restricted in what I do.
Imagining code as a genetic structure, a living organism, is the stuff of nightmares. Please wake me up…

Several of your works offer options for visitors to contribute, both guestbook-style and also by offering whole new works.  Could you talk a little about this decision and how it relates to your larger project?

There are three works at that offer the option for visitors to write into the story. is, as you point out, a guestbook which also generates a reply email from the main character to anyone who posts. offers readers a more ambitious option: to write a four sentence novel. First, they read some classic novels (Moby Dick, On The Road, Uncle Tom’s Cabin, and so on) that I have reduced into four sentences apiece and played against a Flash background of images and sound. Using these as models, the viewer is able to write their own four sentence novel–either a reduction of a classic novel or their own original novel–which is saved into a database so anyone visiting the site can read it (again, with varying backgrounds of images and sound). I am happy to say that over the past two years, many people from all over the world have written their novels into–it is thanks to them that the site continues to evolve.
Finally, is a site which offers visitors the opportunity to revise the Pledge Of Allegiance. The site gives them the first one to three words of each line of the Pledge, and they are invited to write the rest which, like, plays out against a backdrop of images and sound and is saved into a database. The project offers a venue for people to comment on the current political climate in this country (and the world), and leave those comments for anyone to see.
These write-in functions give readers a chance to contribute to the continued growth of the stories. Works like and don’t realize their potential without the contributions of viewers; they are meant to be ongoing public collaborations, and they rely on their visitors for additions to the collected works.  Without those contributions, the sites stagnate and, as digital fictions, miss one of the best opportunities the internet has to offer: the chance for anyone online, anywhere in the world, to have a voice on the web.