Interviews

Somewhere Between Cyber and Real: An Interview with Aram Bartholl

by Jillian Steinhauer on August 20, 2012

The DVD Dead Drop at the Museum of the Moving Image

The DVD Dead Drop at the Museum of the Moving Image (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

Somewhere along one of the exterior walls of the Museum of the Moving Image, there is a slot. It’s barely noticeable — a small, dark crevice cut into the wall, incredibly thin and not more than five inches long. If you happened to see it, you’d probably think it looks a lot like a CD/DVD drive — and you’d be right. It is a drive, meant for blank discs. If you bring a DVD, insert it into the slot and then wait a few minutes, the drive will eventually return your disc to you. On it will be a curated exhibition of video art — for the next month, at least. After September 15, the content being offered will change. It will change again a month later, and then again, and on and on indefinitely (or until the museum decides to uninstall the drive).

This installation, titled “DVD Dead Drop” (2012), is the work of German artist Aram Bartholl. Bartholl uses his art to explore the line between the digital and physical worlds, often bringing the former into latter in an exaggeratedly literal way. For a project titled “Are You Human?” he took web-based CAPTCHA images and turned them into text sculptures installed on the street and in galleries. In this way, his work both embraces digital culture and questions what may be missing from it.

The DVD drive at the Museum of the Moving Image isn’t Bartholl’s first dead drop. In 2010, while in residence at Eyebeam, the artist embedded 5 USB flash drives into the walls of buildings around New York City. Those were the first dead drops: free, physical file-sharing networks available for public use, if you could find them. The idea has spread massively — there are now almost a thousand dead drops worldwide. But this is Bartholl’s first time using DVDs. I sat down with him at the Museum of the Moving Image to discuss the new project, as well as some old ones, and whether there’s any difference between cyber and real anymore.

*   *   *

Aram Bartholl

Aram Bartholl

Jillian Steinhauer: This isn’t your first dead drop. The other ones, the USB ports, seem to be much more about file sharing: you load whatever you want and take whatever you want. Is that where the idea came from?

Aram Bartholl: There’s many layers to this whole development. Dead drops started, for me, with this picture of your flash drive in the wall, and just the gesture of — you walk up with your laptop and you connect it to the building, to the city. The files are literally cemented into the building, instead of all this server-based connection. You have to go to the place, you don’t know what’s on there, it’s dangerous because there might be a virus — it has all these implications.

But it started with a picture, and back then I wouldn’t know what to put on there, and I was like, “Oh, it’s empty and everybody can put something on there. It’s file sharing, actually.” So it kind of came up as a second step. And it made so much sense with the whole idea of having it in public, accessible to everyone, and the internet censorship discussion.

For the history of the DVD dead drop: I think at the very beginning, there were people from Brazil, for example, journalists writing, “Oh, that’s a great idea, but you can’t really do it here, because not everybody has a laptop and you don’t pull out your laptop in the street.” So there was always this question of, “Hm, what are the other ways to do it, to make it more accessible for everyone?” That was the start to think about DVDs.

Also, I had a piece before the dead drops where I had a USB device in a drawing, and you could get files on the drawing with a USB — it would copy on your stick. Going to dead drops kind of flipped the whole thing, that the USB drive is in the wall and you have to bring your whole computer. Of course, to embed a DVD drive in a wall, you need a computer in the back; it involves more effort and structure. And still, it’s not magic, right? It’s feasible.

Then doing this in the museum takes it to another level. It also makes sense that it’s the museum dead drop: it gives away content, it’s not bidirectional anymore. Although there are many options. Now there’s the idea to have a monthly cycle of curated content on there, but there’s other ideas, like to have conference videos. Instead of going to all these conferences and there’s one good talk, you pick these talks and make a nice collection of the best talks of last year on a certain topic or something. Or just showing very old CD-ROM art on DVD as a collection. Or have maybe one month where people can bring their things, and we read everything, and the following month we release again. I also still have the five dead drops, USB drives, which were at the MoMA last summer in this show called Talk to Me, and there’s a lot of content on there. So I was thinking maybe at some point I would release all the content from the MoMA dead drops on the DVD here.

One of the original dead drops

One of the original dead drops (image via deaddrops.com)

JS: What kind of content did people put on there?

AB: The dead drop content is always super random. It starts with pictures from people being on the dead drop with their computer.

JS: That’s very meta.

AB: This whole thing of, “I was here.” And people leave their projects. From the very beginning, I always encouraged people to leave their art on there. Especially for the MoMA dead drops, I made this blog post like, “If you want to be able claim you had art in the MoMA, you can just go now and put something on there.” Always thinking, in the back of my mind, about this whole discussion of how digital art is still not on the same level as paintings on the wall. So just to be super natural about, “Oh, you put your art on there? It’s files.” Of course it’s files; why not? It’s to make a statement, sort of, with that.

JS: Part of what’s interesting about this one is, like you said, it’s not really bidirectional anymore. So in some ways it just seems — and I don’t mean this in a negative way, but it just seems much more institutional. It’s art, it’s curated, it’s being given away. With the USBs, it seemed a lot more disruptive.

AB: A little more radical, yeah.

Bartholl’s “Map” (2011) at Rencontre Arles From Here On (pics by Anne Foures, via datenform.de)

JS: Yeah, more radical. When you conceived of this one, did you want to do it more like the other ones, or did you want to try something new?

AB: On one hand, it came from the basic idea of what I said in the beginning, that you just need to bring a DVD instead of a computer. Also the whole discussion of this dying medium, because people don’t have drives on their new laptops anymore. But then, true, it’s sort of the proper, institutional one. Still, I was surprised that they were going for it. Cause for example, with the dead drops at MoMA, I wanted to have them outside, but of course it’s not possible. Not even in the lobby.

For me, it’s like a spin-off project from the dead drops. And still it deals a lot with … it’s open 24 hours each day; at night, you can walk up to the museum. The way the museum interfaces with the public, it’s totally different.

JS: What’s the story behind the first DVD show, Hot?

AB: The basic question is, what’s digital art and how is that perceived in the art field? That’s one very important point for me. The first show on here now is about video, but not just video; it’s about all these people from net art who worked in that field for a long time and approached this very classic moving-image idea from different ways and fooled around with it. But is it a show or not? It’s the same discussion with all these online galleries: is it a gallery? Because in fact it’s just a website. But it’s curated content, it’s people behind it, caring about it. Most of the videos which will be on the disc are online; four or five are new works. So then it’s this whole paradox of putting this on a DVD again to have it available offline, at the moment when — I don’t know, the bigger picture’s always like, “Oh, when the internet at some point breaks.” Or on the smaller level, YouTube censors some video and then, boom, it’s gone. But maybe you have it on DVD, right? So there’s something there.

With the dead drops, it was good to open them up for file sharing. But torrentfree.com or the main file sharing blogs were like, “Oh yeah, this is a funny idea, but it’s not very efficient.” And it’s true. It’s like 2 GB or 4 GB, and you have to go to that place …

JS: Ha! Well that’s sort of the point, right?

AB: Exactly. So it claims it’s file sharing and uncontrollable and radical, but at the same time, it’s very limited in its capacity and capability. It’s also surprising that way more people discuss dead drops than actually use them. You come back and you can see maybe five people were there. At the same time, the blog post about it had thousands of visitors.

JS: That’s so funny. That seems to get to the heart of so much of your work — your whole point is that you’re bringing this digital stuff into the real world, but then it requires this effort that it doesn’t require online.

AB: Of course, it’s doing an event, and you need visitors and to put out invitations. But that’s the whole point about making this kind of art, that you start the discussion. On the other hand, in countries in Europe there are all these different laws coming up, and the European Union also has some major law about copyright. France became the first one with three strikes regulation, so when you get caught file sharing, you get one letter, a second letter and the third step is they cut off your internet. So [dead drops were] … quite popular in France. And there’s also other spin-off projects, like the PirateBox, which is a wifi-enabled dead drop, and they’re actually using it for file sharing.

JS: How do you feel about copyright? I know that’s a big question …

AB: Yeah, it’s a big question. The best way to discuss it is — I can give you my sunglasses as a present, and then you have them, and I don’t have them anymore. But you can send me a copy of the recording after we talk today, and we both have it. Isn’t that great? There’s such a big advantage that we can share these things. And now 3-D printing comes in, and the sunglasses will be the same as the file. Of course, on the other hand, there’s industries and very classic functions of how the economy works, and they don’t want to lose their business. That’s obvious.

JS: But this is curious to me, because you’re an artist, so you theoretically make your living off of being able to make things and then make money off of them, right?

AB: But now the laws are kind of biased by industries. It’s not so much about helping the artist make a living, it’s about saving the way to sell something which is, I don’t know, 80 years old, and the artist who made it has been dead for a long time. Of course there need to be models how to value creative people. I’m not against authorship and all this. You can discuss the whole art world system of commercial business, which is pretty difficult, too, and has its own very irrational way of working.

Aram Bartholl, "Are You Human?" public intervention

Aram Bartholl, “Are You Human?” public intervention (this and following image via datenform.de)

JS: Do you see yourself as a digital artist? You work so much with the digital realm but you also make these very physical objects.

AB: It’s about digital. I’m making art about these questions. My career started through all the media festivals, and I have lots of friends in that field, so I feel very connected. At the same time, I have a very critical eye on a certain way of working. Like, “Oh, I have some new technology, what kind of art piece can I do with it?” When you go that way, it’s difficult, because then it’s some art with new media, so that’s very simple and a dead end.

JS: Right, and a lot of what you do is putting things in physical space in a way that net artists don’t. I was looking at your website the other day, and I don’t remember the exact wording, but the banner on top was something like, “new media space versus the real world.” Do you see it as one or the other? Do you think we’re going lose to the web? Singularity?!

AB: It’s funny, the title bar on the page is from 2005 or something — it’s really old. We make this difference between analogue and digital, cyber and real — you have always that pair of words. You can’t make that distinction anymore. It’s totally leaping into each other. It’s already starting with identity theft and the fact that your online part became way more important over the past five years. There’s no real border.

At the same time, we’re still humans, right, made of flesh? There’s a difference if we sit at a table now and talk or if we just met on Twitter. So it mixes up, but I always like to point out the human aspect of it. I read a text by the curator of Documenta — she was saying something in the interview about how all these new technologies are so much embraced and help us a lot, but also it separates us way more than it brings us together. I think on a certain level that’s true. You feel so connected, but at the same time, you’re alone. Maybe that’s not only the internet, it’s also society, but there’s something in there.

Bartholl’s “Online Gallery Playset” (2012) (via datenform.de) (click to enlarge)

JS: Yes, definitely. I read an article where one researcher talked about how living in a big city can harm people’s mental states because it’s that feeling of being surrounded but alone. They were saying how the internet is analogous to that.

AB: I also had a thought a couple weeks ago. When you have a problem with your device or something technical, you can learn so much and find out so much on the web. But on the other hand — I have a family, two kids … just relationships in general. Does the internet help on the social level? I’m not sure. Do you get answers for life questions? Of course there’s forums and stuff, but it doesn’t translate the same way. “Oh yeah, my start-up screen, something is wrong,” and then you type it in and you have the solution, and it’s so great. But “Oh yeah, with my girlfriend, I’m really stuck,” and maybe you get … recommendations?

JS: That would be a great project! If you made a search engine where people could put in life questions and then you provide answers from the web.

AB: I mean, this is Reddit, you know? I think there are places where people do these things. But there’s always these very basic human questions which are not so much improved as the other things improve.

I was thinking something before, about the physical … another example is the Speed Show series, which I started two years ago. With this whole idea of being online and making art online and all these Tumblr kids and making GIFs and you share everything, you also stay in that bubble very easily. Trying to find a connection to the fine art world and galleries is always tough. But [the Speed Shows are] this idea of, go to the internet cafe and take all the computers over and have an opening there one night — have a social event again.

So that’s like, pulling these things from digital space and having events, having people around. There’s a workshop with this piece called “WoW,” from World of Warcraft: we make our names on cardboard and mount them on plastic strips and walk around in the street. So you’re in the museum with 20 people, doing this workshop, and most of them are gamers. But you sit on a table, and you work with your hands, with scissors and glue, and at the same time they’re discussing games and the virtual world. This is what I like so much, to have people not really even thinking about it while they do it. The social web is so social, right? But the moment you have 10 people at a table for three hours — there’s nothing more social than that.

Aram Bartholl, "WoW" at Laguna Art Museum

Aram Bartholl, “WoW” at Laguna Art Museum, July 2009

JS: But that’s why — I mean, obviously you’re not going to be able to put a label on yourself and call it a day, but that’s why the question of you being a digital artist is so interesting to me. It seems like you’re emphasizing less World of Warcraft and more people sitting around a table. It’s almost like you’re using the digital as an impetus to get people out of digital space. With the Speed Shows, I love that partly because even just the idea of an internet cafe speaks volumes about where you come from. When I was traveling in Nicaragua, yeah, I went to use internet cafes. But when I’m here, who uses an internet cafe? It’s New York, everyone has wifi.

AB: I saw one on Broadway, or Steinway, one of these streets. It said “internet cafe,” and then I looked inside, and they had one machine.

JS: Yes! My internet stopped working recently, and I had to get on a computer, so I went to the postal store that has one computer. It felt so old school.

AB: There’s a very good article by Olia Lialina; she does this research in Rotterdam about internet cafes. She makes the point that what we call an internet cafe is a place where you sit in a cafe, and you have internet. And that’s Starbucks.

JS: That’s true! It also strikes me now that it’s related to your artwork in the sense that we’re on the internet but in a physical space together. You’re not necessarily interacting as much, but you are in public space; you’re not just on your couch.

AB: One element of how it came up was, I studied architecture, and after two years, we were mostly doing digital things. It was the mid 1990s, the internet was there, and of course it was way more interesting to code the plans as 3-D and play a game instead of learning to draw in ink. But then I had this experience of losing data. Burned CD-ROMs wouldn’t read anymore, and I think everybody has had this experience, when your laptop gets stolen and suddenly things are gone. There’s all these projects, and now they are gone, so where are they?

This is one of the basic questions of what’s in the title bar of my site: how can I make these things tangible again? What does return from this seductive universal machine? You can do so many things, but what does really influence a house? When you walk on the street to the corner shop, what’s the influence on the city? These are all the questions I had. With all these projects, I make proposals: what would it be like to carry your name? I mean, next year we’re going to have Google glasses; it’ll be like that, sooner or later.

JS: That sounds a little scary. I know it’s inevitable at this point that the “real” and digital worlds are intertwined, but I don’t know how I feel about the two becoming one completely.

AB: I think that’s one of the main questions — like, it’s two different worlds; no, it’s one world. I mean, everything that I do is my reality, right? There’s no real and virtual. When they’re speed-trading software, going nuts, this is very real. Plus they lose half a billion dollars. At the same time, we notice when you play computer games all day, or you’re just on Facebook and then you meet later in the night, people have nothing to talk about anymore. (laughs) Or maybe it’s the opposite: they have more to talk about.

JS: So this might be a dumb question, but where did the term “dead drop” come from?

AB: It’s a very classic term from Cold War spy games. A dead drop is where you leave information hidden in the ground or somewhere, and then the second spy — you don’t want to meet or be seen together in public — comes later to pick up that information, the microfilm and the capsule. There are many examples from movies, too, from the 1990s, where it’s not the microfilm anymore. They’re like, “Oh the disc! Give me the disc!”

JS: Yes, the ubiquitous disc. That context gives the project much more meaning. How long will it be installed at the museum — it’s indefinite?

AB: Right. It’s probably going to be limited by how much effort they want to put into it, to maintain it.

JS: I was thinking, too, that technology moves so fast these days. DVDs aren’t obsolete yet, but it feels like there’s a time limit on it.

AB: Totally. I think the USB port will survive a bit longer, but when you look at this whole cloud thing, you can’t connect the device anymore; it’s all online. It’s most convenient to have it in one place instead of carrying it around, but it also has disadvantages. There was this one example, one of the writers of Gizmodo was hacked, and he got his iPhone, iPad and Macbook remote wiped. They got into his iCloud account and his gmail account, and he couldn’t prove his identity to either Google or Apple because with no phone …

And then of course they have these stories, like the Amazon Kindle — I think this is two years old: They had 1984 from George Orwell in the shop, and at some point they had legal trouble, and they needed to take it offline. So they remote deleted that book from all the Kindles that had it on. So you’re buying a book and you have it on here, but you don’t own these things. We won’t own those things anymore.

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  • mkhajdin

    DVDs are more archival than USB drives. The ink on DVDs does fade, but it’s a safer form of storage than a USB drive, which will potentially lose all your files if it breaks. Not everybody uses a laptop, either. (Said one artist whose computer is a huge wheezing ATX tower. Don’t judge. It’s about airflow.)

    This idea intrigues me, particularly the anonymity of it. What is that mysterious little slot in the wall? Most people will walk past without even seeing it. In a world where everything seems to be bigger than life and in your face, it is interesting and different to have this small art source, available only to the truly observant.

  • ben valentine

    Some part of me that loves the internet hates the idea of Aram Bartholl cementing files into a wall, it is so against the qualities of the web; the potential for sharing information and connecting to a global audience. But with all my time online blogging, talking, sharing, etc.. I now feel like I need to find a balance to the amount of time or how I spend time online with my IRL time. Neither are better or worse, and I love this work because it creates a way to look at digital space in a very physical straightforward way. Bartholl’s work always opens up interesting conversations.
    great interview.

    • http://twitter.com/jilnotjill Jillian Steinhauer

      Ha — “Some part of me that loves the internet hates the idea of Aram Bartholl
      cementing files into a wall, it is so against the qualities of the web.” We don’t need to share everything with everyone! Not everything needs to be online! I don’t think the web is (should be?) a life philosophy.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100001225802951 Matt Leaf

    Love this guys work… I always get a good chuckle out of it, the mash of physical/virtual… simple ways of showing the creeping of the virtual into the real…

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