Ben Grosser contacted me one day about doing an interview. I’m thrilled that he did because he’s brilliant www.bengrosser.com. He works with “new media,” which may be an unfamiliar term to some, but we all know it very well. Please read on and find out more about Ben and his work.
MICHAEL: Hey Ben! New media? If you said this term to the average person on the street, I'm not sure which would give them more pause ... "new" or "media." How do you define "new media" and what exactly do you do with it?
BEN: I tend to think of new media as media that are going to become old soon - they just haven't done so yet. For example, when painting first emerged, it was a new medium created using cutting-edge technology and it enabled an entirely new method of image-making. But over time, painting became an established medium, painters developed its long history and technology (mostly) moved on to other things.
So in some sense, new media are those ways of making that are contemporary to our time and engaged with current technologies. Thus things like software art, robotics, interactive installations, video games, etc., all fit within this description. But I think what distinguishes today's new media from yesterday's is the fact that it's fundamentally intertwined with the everyday experience of humans. The technologies that drive new media art are the same ones that drive our interconnected digital world, enabling everything from social media and web searching to cars and smartphones. In other words, our lives are now enhanced by, dependent on and subject to the same technologies that new media artists use in their work.
However, the digital technologies that power our lives are not neutral - they are designed by humans and thus come with intended and unintended biases. As an artist, I tend to focus on the specific role of software - the brains behind these technologies - looking for its cultural, social and political effects. I use these same technologies as my medium, constructing interactive experiences, machines and interventions that make the familiar unfamiliar, revealing the ways that software prescribes our behavior and thus, how it changes who we are.
MICHAEL: I would imagine that one of the main challenges for your work is making it relate-able to people. I mean, most people who work on their computers, watch TV or listen to the radio aren't really interested in knowing how those things work. They simply want them to work for their intended purposes, no?
BEN: I find that using everyday technology as my medium and subject works both for and against me when it comes to making my work relateable. As you mentioned, many just want to use the tech without thinking about it. But increasingly, people are starting to wonder who their tech is working for. It it for them or for someone else?
One of my primary strategies, which works for both camps, is alienation of the familiar. For example, in my work Facebook Demetricator, I take the same interface we use every day and change something about it. In this case, I remove all "metrics," such as like, friend and comment counts. No longer can we see how many people like our photos or how much people like our status. This subtle, but significant change reorients the user, drawing attention to something that wasn't previously in the foreground.
By using a platform like Facebook as a space of manipulation, my viewer/user base opens up significantly. Many come to try Demetricator without thinking about it as an art project. As a result, some find it annoying. Some find it utilitarian. But others, including many who didn't expect much at first, find themselves focusing on how Facebook metrics are changing their use of the system.
While some of my works are more easily understood than others, I always aim to provide multiple points of entry. When I use common platforms like Facebook or Google, this is perhaps a bit easier than when I don't, but with every work, I try to make tangible connections with everyone's technologized experience.
MICHAEL: People these days seem to be more interested in making “connections” rather than true communication. And if they do communicate, which requires some commitment - however limited - they expect to get something out of it. You may not agree, but to me, this permeates everything, including art. Thoughts?
BEN: I think humans have always sought out connections with others, but to me - and I think to you as well - the interesting question is how has this changed lately? How has the value of a connection changed in light of Facebook, Twitter, email, texting, etc.? And what is the relationship between connection and communication?
To take Facebook as an example, its very design encourages constant connection-making while at the same time discouraging communication. When you first join Facebook you have zero connections and thus, your news feed is silent. The more you make new connections ("friends"), the more your news feed lights up with something to look at. However, eventually, the more friends you add, the noisier the news feed becomes, and thus, less useful. Facebook's response to this is to algorithmically cull that news feed, trying to predict which of your friends' communications are most relevant to you and cutting out the rest. All the while, the one thing Facebook doesn't encourage is removing friends. The system is designed for you to always accumulate more, and this is constantly reported to you in the form of a metric: e.g. "412 Friends", "29 likes", or "8 shares".
These constant enumerations of connection and interaction play right into what I refer to as our capitalism-inspired "desire for more." This isn't surprising as we're living in a time when our collective obsession with metrics plays out as an insatiable desire to make every number go higher. How much money did I earn? How many choices do I have?
I would argue that this desire for more, in the face of social network metrics, is changing how we act not just inside Facebook, but outside of it as well. We are becoming more focused on accumulating connections than developing them. And as you mentioned, this reaches into the art world as well. What kind of art produces more "likes" and more "shares"? How is our desire for more thus changing the art we make in the first place? In art, as in life, more is becoming the goal.
MICHAEL: Ben that is brilliant. And what this ultimately means is that we're not even living in the moment. People are so busy striving and attaining that they CANNOT enjoy the achievement or even those new designer shoes. Maybe that's one of the reasons why art is so difficult for people ... because it forces them to stop and "BE" for a moment with no promise of anything?
BEN: No doubt. Presentism, as Douglas Rushkoff has coined it, is rampant. I really don't need to know that my friend's meme post went live "23 seconds ago" rather than "49 seconds ago", or that my colleague ate her banana "23 minutes ago" rather than "30 minutes ago". But these constant enumerations of age - an interface fixture of systems like Facebook and Twitter - reveal an ideological preference for the new and a disdain for the old. These streams of information come so fast that it can be hard to absorb them. I think this is one of the reasons I like working within these present-focused spaces - that the insertion of art into them forces a kind of reflection that might not be happening otherwise.
MICHAEL: Very interesting. What concepts and principles are you exploring now? What's going on in the world and in your life that has you inspired and wanting to create and express?
BEN: I've been thinking a lot about Google lately. How does the design of Google's indexing algorithm change what we write and how we write it? As the world's information becomes increasingly accessible only via search, how will we adapt our outputs to match the search system's desired inputs?
My obsession with metrics continues unabated. How does showing us our friend count on Facebook change our definition of friend? What would our physical interactions be like if we displayed our friend counts there too? On Twitter, would we follow as many as we do if we weren't shown follower metrics for ourselves and others? What kinds of competition emerge from the revealing of these numbers?
Also on the topic of metrics, I'm thinking about all the Facebook metrics we don't see. For example, users aren't told how many things they "like" per hour, how many ads they click each day, or how effective the "People You May Know" box is getting them to add more friends to their network. But they're there, informing Facebook's internal algorithms. I'm wondering if I can estimate these in some way.
Along the same lines, I'm intensely following the recent revelations about the expanded surveillance we're subject to by the National Security Agency. How will widespread knowledge of the PRISM program change our behavior online? How is the software we use everyday enabling the government to watch us? I'm working on a piece related to this now. And in a related way, the topic of agency is very present for me right now. As all of these software systems gain increasing levels of intelligence, as they are made to make their own decisions about the things they see and hear - where does agency lie? Is it with those who program these systems? Is it with the corporations that pay for the programmers? Or is it with the systems themselves? To what degree are these intelligent systems developing their own interests and acting on them? This has been a thread throughout many of my works in the past (and present, as it's a topic in a work I'm going to release shortly). But in light of PRISM, autonomous drones and other government technologies, my focus on agency is becoming less theoretical than it used to be.
MICHAEL: Wow. Ben, your work seems most concerned with processes and how things work which is cool, but how do you convince people that this is art? As you know, most folks have very traditional ideas about what constitutes art and they're not even buying into that!
BEN: I guess I don't spend much time trying to convince anyone that what I make is art. Some of my installation works more directly fit what people expect art to look like, due to their direct engagement with the visual and the types of spaces they inhabit like galleries. But other works of mine are more involved with computational aesthetics than visual aesthetics and thus don't have the traditional look of an art object. However, they do what I want art to do, which is to provoke questions about something important and to reveal a bit about my position on those questions. Through strategies of interaction, I try to enhance that provocation, enabling the viewer to experience the matter at hand for themselves. Hopefully, this exchange gives them a glimpse of how the system at issue is changing their own experience of the world. I definitely don't sell much, though I also don't focus on it. I've released some of my code as open-source, so that opens up interesting questions about ownership. Would someone ever want to buy Facebook Demetricator, for example? What would they be buying if they did? I'll happily have this discussion with anyone who wants to name a price, but so far nobody has.
MICHAEL: Many talented artists don't sell as much of their work as they would like. Do you feel this is a function of how people view contemporary art today?
BEN: I think artistic labor is taken for granted, especially in the US. Musicians, composers, visual artists, everybody wants their output for free these days. I suppose work like mine only confuses the issue, given that I don't always produce a thing that can be exchanged for capital. Of course, we're now living in an era when most of us produce creative work for free all day long. The texts we type into Twitter, the images we post on Tumblr and the email we send with Gmail are all used to make money, but only for the corporations who own these systems. Facebook would be nothing without its billion+ users typing away all day long, liking this, sharing that. But outside of academic discourses on digital labor, you rarely hear anyone complain. While most Facebook posts aren't made with the care of an artist's painting or sculpture, I think our comfort with giving free labor to corporations spills over into other spaces, leading us to expect others' labor to be free as well.
MICHAEL: Boy, did you say a mouth full there. It's way too late to change the current model unless everyone wakes up and decides to do things differently. Doesn't it seem like everyone is so busy "doing," but no one seems to be thinking about why they're doing it or the long term consequences? Most people are intelligent enough to figure this out. I totally don't get it.
BEN: Yes, I think the model that we'd need to change is capitalism itself. Capitalism encourages production without reflection. It's always about do more, make more, consume more. Capitalism creates an obsession with more because its very survival is dependent on endless growth. That doesn't mean everyone is having identical reactions to this pressure to consume, but we're all subject to it in one way or another.
Software systems like Facebook reinforce this desire for more by quantifying everything. Facebook constantly foregrounds how much of anything and everything you have, keeping you focused on quantity over quality. I hope my own work (w/ Demetricator) helps people break out of that cycle a bit, but as a work of emancipatory politics, it's a relatively minor intervention. In other words, Demetricator won't change the world to be sure, but hopefully it creates some of that thinking you're looking for.
MICHAEL: Your robotic painting machine is genius. When, why, where and how?
BEN: Thanks so much! I had the idea for this piece many years before I finally decided to build it. But the scale of doing so was big enough that I wasn't sure how to start. At the time, I was mostly consumed with a very absorbing full-time career and I just couldn't see a way to build the machine and have the job too. So I took a leap and left the job in order to build the machine. After about a year of working on it, but not making lots of progress (due to working on other pieces as well as non-art related tasks), I decided to get a new studio outside the house and applied to art school to get my MFA.
This got me into high-gear and I was finally devoting all of my time to building the machine. But the scale was still daunting. I had to learn about robotics - controllers, stepper motors, etc. I drew from an open source plan to build the Cartesian robot at the base of it, but adapted the plans to make it as fast as possible. I fabricated every piece, mostly out of MDF. I researched components and assembled a controller box out of old and new parts. I selected an open source controller software package that would take care of the low-level manipulation of the motors (e.g. getting the machine to a specific X/Y/Z position).
After all of this building and researching, which took months of full-time work, I entered art school with a mostly figured out physical machine that could move where I told it to, one command at a time. But it was dumb. It didn't know what to do and had no brains to help it decide. At this point, I was developing my interests in questions of agency. Given that our everyday interactions are increasingly mediated by technologies (phones, chat systems, social networks), and that these systems are designed to anticipate and support our needs and desires, I wondered how the "intelligence" built into those systems was changing our interactions? Moreover, how might they be evolving to have their own needs and desires?
That last question served as my launching point for developing the brains of the system. Does an art-making machine of my design make work for me or for itself? How does machine vision differ from human vision and is that difference visible in its output? Is my own consciousness reinforced by the system or does it become lost within? In other words, would a machine that makes its own paintings be alive, with agency as yet another piece of the technium, or is it our own anthropomorphization of the system that makes us think about it in these ways?
So to make the brains I used what's called a "Genetic Algorithm" (GA), an artificial intelligence strategy that is patterned after the workings of natural genetics. I wrote code to enable a series of movement patterns, such as lines, points, arcs, and fills. I tied these "gestures" into the GA, allowing the system to consider these gestures as evolvable entities. In other words, one gesture could combine with another to form a new gesture. Finally, to help the machine decide which gesture was better than another (e.g. survival of the fittest), I gave it ears so it could hear what was going on around it.
What I ended up with was an Interactive Robotic Painting Machine that uses artificial intelligence to paint its own body of work and to make its own decisions. While doing so, it listens to its environment and considers what it hears as input into the painting process. In the absence of someone or something else making sound in its presence, the machine, like many artists, listens to itself. But when it does hear others, it changes what it does just as we subtly (or not so subtly) as we do when influenced by what others tell us. In other words, the machine doesn't directly map sound to paint, but rather acts as an artist who can't help but digest what it hears while painting.
The machine functions in multiple contexts. In an exhibition environment, it listens to the viewers in the room. In this kind of a setup, I often critique it in real-time, telling it what I like and what I don't. Interestingly enough, I find that I tend to dislike these paintings more than others it makes, suggesting that listening to a constant critique of one's creative process may not be productive!
I've also used it in a musical performance context. In addition to creating paintings the machine also makes sound. I've amplified all of its motors and the speeds of those motors are just as considered by the GA as the color of paint it chooses. So it's really a musical instrument in addition to being a painter. On a work titled Head Swap, I collaborated with an old friend and colleague, Zack Browning, who wrote a score for a violinist to play with the machine. The violinist had to watch what the machine painted in order to know how to play the score. At the same time, the machine listened to the violinist and was influenced by the sound. So you ended up with a feedback loop, where each one influences the other over the course of the performance.
I spent my whole first year of art school writing the software to give it its "brain." The musical performance happened at the end of that year. So from idea to finished work, it took about four years. But from the first cut of MDF through all of the coding and other pieces it was about 1.5 years of work.
MICHAEL: Wow. Ben I could go on chatting with you for quite some time, but let me wrap it up and ask you ... what's the point of art? Most people don't get contemporary art anyway. Isn't it all just a waste of time and money that could be spent on something more productive like the law, medicine or high tech startups?
BEN: I'm all for better health care, more humane laws and high tech solutions to everyday problems. But as a country, we spend more money on health care than everyone else, but don't have the best health. Congress debates endlessly about our laws, but it doesn't protect us from constitutional violations imposed by government. High tech startups sometimes produce things of use, but many propose solutions to problems that don't exist. In other words, despite an ever-increasing focus on those areas, they aren't necessarily getting any better.
I'd step back to your previous question about a general lack of reflection in society. Why don't people stop and think anymore and what is that absence of contemplation doing to our culture? Capitalism drives us to do more and this drive is at odds with a reflective frame of mind. I think at its best, art resists capital's imposition of a desire for more. It is art's lack of usefulness that makes it interesting. We don't need it, so why do we make it? Yes, a few artists make a living from their work and some art ends up as an object of trade within capital markets, but much of it serves as a non-monetized method of cultural exchange. Artists use art as a way of sharing their untraditional research about the world. Instead of providing answers, artists provoke questions. Art gives us a second or two during which we can break out of the prevailing systems of thought and commerce, a moment in an alternative space that enables new ways of thinking. I aspire to make art that works like this and I wouldn't want to live in a world without it.
Thanks so much for the great discussion, Michael. It's been a blast!
MICHAEL: It most certainly has. Thanks Ben. You’re brilliant.
Check out Ben Grosser at www.bengrosser.com.