!Mediengruppe Bitnik, Artfully asking questions
Carmen Weisskopf and Doma Smoljo are !Mediengruppe Bitnik, an artist collective from Zürich, Switzerland. In this short video they talk about using art as a space for reflection and to ask questions rather than to propose solutions. Read the full interview about their approach to their work below.
Who is !Mediengruppe Bitnik?
Carmen: My name is Carmen Weisskopf. I'm part of the !Mediengruppe Bitnik which is an artists’ group from Zürich.
Doma: I'm Doma. I'm also part of the !Mediengruppe Bitnik, which is an artist collective. We started by doing very experimental stuff with our own computers, using the server. Basically, the group was formed at the art university in Zurich where we started to do wild experiments using a computer we called Bitnik which was a computer that was online 24/7.
We were just a bunch of people sharing a Linux computer. We learned about systems, we learned about servers and we loved the option of having something which is constantly online so we could always have a voice somewhere specific. That’s basically how Bitnik started.
Carmen and I are the only ones left from that group, but there are two other guys who we consider our accomplices. One is Adnan Hadzi from London. He's a documentary film-maker and researcher, and the other is Daniel Ryser, who is a writer, punk and poet. They are not part of day-to-day activities but they join us when we need them or when they have time. They have no arts background which is good because we can just ping ideas at them and see if they work for someone outside of the art or tech business or tech world. So it is basically us four, with Carmen and me as the core team of Bitnik doing all the daily stuff.
You position yourselves very strongly as artists, which also counts for the dark side of the art space. You could easily identify yourselves as artist-activists or political-artists instead. Why is your positioning as artists so important?
Carmen: Well, I guess for us it's not about labelling, but more about stressing the importance of having a field like the arts that can reflect on what's going on. For example, we don't exclusively work in the art space, or what you might call an art space - a white cube. We also work in public spaces. We have performative formats. We like to work in online spaces which are not dedicated spaces for the arts, but nevertheless we think that this aesthetic approach can bring something important to the table. That’s probably why we stress it. I didn’t realise that we stressed it that much.
Doma: We consider ourselves as conceptual artists also. Even though we do things, we think it's the story we tell which is the interesting thing. The theory behind it. Or the setting which it plays out in. And the outcome can be whatever. The project can fail. That is something we need to deal with too. At least in the area in which we work, we have the most freedom to do that. Because we are able to fail. It's okay to fail. Our field gives us options we wouldn’t get in other fields.
By labelling our work as art, the people who access it are people we mightn’t otherwise reach. Because we have different audiences. The audience at our live performances are totally different to our other audiences. We consider the art space as being a space which is a reflective space, which brings another quality with it. We like to position our works there because the story can then travel on without us. It doesn't need us anymore. It becomes something which is perhaps objectified, put into something which can travel. Into a form. This is just the realm of which we are working.
Carmen: The arts are really beautiful in the way they allow you to ask questions without knowing the solutions. Whereas when we talk to activists, they are often under pressure to know the solutions. They need to think of solutions. We don't. We're not under pressure in that way. We can just ask the questions.
Doma: And we can inspire people to think about possibilities for solving those problems.
Carmen: That's also the limitations of the arts. They can't really do more than reflect and ask questions - hopefully interesting questions. But they cannot find solutions.
Doma: We learned really early on that we are not good at building systems which are reliable or sustainable, systems that can survive! Like producing software for example. We had a lot of good ideas for software but we were never able to play with the length of time necessary to develop something that can exist without you.
There was a term called ‘social software’ before there was social media. We also tried to play with that and tried to bring code to people and give them tools to express themselves. We realised that we totally failed!
We are better at telling narratives, telling stories and producing a kind of freedom in that way, but something that is really temporary. These works create certain moments where things can light up. And then they go away. If you consume our work, you might see that something has changed because you had access to that work. So we are really trying to work out those moments, where things just seem different but maybe stay a while and then, they go away.
You work across many different fields, methodologies and spaces. Why is it important for you to mix these things up?
Carmen: I don't think we mix them, I think they are mixed! What we encounter is this very messy mix of all the systems mingling with each other. Actually, I feel what we do is to try to single out two systems and make them mix so you can watch the results, but usually it's all a tangle. It sometimes feels more like untangling something than really mixing something.
I guess we started out in a world where there was something called interactive art which often enabled people to do something in the art space. You would have something and it would be interactive. You could do something and something would happen. But it would always go along the lines of what the artist wanted to happen. And that, to us, seemed a bit boring and not very much like how the world works.
It's not what happens out there and so we thought it would actually be much more interesting to make things interactive but sort of force interaction on the various players within a system without them actually wanting to interact. To force them to interact and do it in a setting that's live so it becomes unpredictable. It's not what we think the outcome will be. Of course, when we create these situations we do talk about what it's like.
Though usually we talk about the worst case scenario. What's the worse outcome? We try to prepare for that somehow. But it usually turns out worse case in a totally different way. In a way we didn't think about or didn't predict in a certain sense.Doma: We like to play with those trust systems. We also heard that it might be possible for us to call the police to show up with the
Random Darknet Shopper
We've learned a lot from 4chan, from systems like 4chan because we studied their environment. We love the environment because it produces a setting where the story which you produce on that forum becomes really relevant and your identity is not relevant anymore. Because there is no archive and it deletes itself. This is an environment where you have to be precise to be seen. You are only there if you are seen and if not, then your posts get deleted. So, it forces you to be really precise in a really specific moment. And I love that because it's live.
We learn from that and we try to use those tactics and understand those tactics and apply them elsewhere. More within an art context, or within a cultural context which is maybe more mainstream or not so radical, but which can speak about political topics. So, we like to mix different things. I think you are right when you say that you see that connection because I think it's there.
Carmen: But it is of course a culture we grew up in too. It's this copy and paste culture, you can't get away from that. Also, for us as art students. The original, this talk of the original didn't make a lot of sense because it wasn't part of our experience. So, I guess, it sort of goes both ways. These online cultures are very formative for a lot of people. And they form our culture, I think, a lot more than people would like to admit.
You mentioned that you're open to failure and you incorporate failure in a lot of your works as part of the process because that's the way you can illustrate the process. But you also have other types of failure - how often do you have to give up on a project?
Carmen: We incorporate the type of failure that can help us with the narrative and the type of failure that stops the work, or where it means that we can't follow the work through or we have to give up on the research. That type of failure happens a lot. I think it’s also very normal in art.
It's very common for us to publish certain things and to not publish other things - that happens to us as well. I guess the type of failure that happens to us more often than to other artists is where we work with institutions and have works called off at the last minute because they're not willing to publish them.
That's probably the most frustrating type, because we've learned to deal with giving up on research. It usually just means it's not the right moment. But you don't totally give up on a topic. You carry it around with you for a while and maybe at some point, suddenly the time's right. You can go through with an idea or with a work or it's a slightly different slant on it. When we put in a lot of work and then have the institution call off the work, that's pretty frustrating because that's something we do try to address when working with institutions.
We know we're difficult to work with, we try to be as honest as possible and we try to prepare them for all the problems they may run into. We try to get lawyers to explain the field they're entering. Because of course, from a legal point of view, it's something entirely different when we do something as artists and when an institution does something. Totally different systems are affected, it can have totally different consequences.
So we try to think things through for the two of us [!Mediengruppe Bitnik and the institution]. When we fail there, it means we've lost a lot of time and energy. And money. So that's really frustrating. And it does happen once in a while. We had an idea to use this. We've had this idea for ages, and we've actually started talking to other artists about it. Because we know other artists as friends and they have been in the same situations.
We think it would be very interesting to put together a show of failed art, but institutionally failed art, the stuff that got censored, or didn't get produced, or the funding didn't come through or the institution stepped away. We could never put together that kind of exhibition. We would need an art historian or a curator to do that for us, but we think it would talk a lot about impossibility and possibility within the art system.
It would be really interesting to know what the failed projects of the Dadaists and the surrealists were. What did Deschamps fail to show in his time? Works that are possibly museum-owned today, and a very common sort of part of the canon, of artistic history. Art history - now.
Doma: Copyright is the thing which produces the most problems for us. Because we like to use cut-up techniques, or the cut-up culture, the copy and paste culture. We like to use that in our work. But that also means that things get messed up, ownership gets messed up.
For certain things, it's totally okay that it happens in an exhibition space. Because it's the space where you have the most freedom to do things. But as soon as you leave that space, and you say I want to work with your website, it's not possible any more. Even though you, as an artist, also consider that as a space where you should be able to do art. Four out of the five times we fail have had to do with copyright. I think this is something we should also look into. It can be also used as a tool of censorship.
Tension and controversy seems to be another two trademarks of your work. How do you work around these two? How do you define what the controversy will be, and how do you judge the risks?
Carmen: I'm not sure whether we aim for controversy. I think that we may have a slightly radical use of software and systems, and digital and non-digital environments. It leads you to the edges, it leads you to where failure begins.
Failing systems also talk a lot about normality. There’s this relationship, what's normal, what's sort of slightly off? We think it’s really interesting to look at the whole bandwidth or the whole breadth of a system. We like to push it to the edges, but there's a very aesthetical impetus to that also. I don't think that we are very theoretical artists. We don't think about things. I mean, we do think about things! I think failure for us is not an abstract category, it's just a part of our surrounding. I think it's always there.
I guess that there'll always be people who, I don't know, use a system like Facebook and they use it to connect with other people. Whereas we just belong to the type of people who will go to Facebook and try to find out how to break it. Where does it stop doing what was intended? So it's a curiosity to understand how systems work.
I think the easiest way to understand how a system works is to push its boundaries, to use it in a very radical way, try to make it do stuff that it might not usually do. I don't think we go about it theoretically. It's probably more just the way we do things. The controversy always arises at those edges.
Somebody said to us recently that our art informs law teaching, because at universities, our works can be used to think about laws. Do they make sense in this way? Should they be changed? What does this mean? Is this legal or not legal? Because it's not that clear. Of course, we don't make art for lawyers. I'm not interested in that system as a system; it just sort of happens. But it happens because you go to the edges. Sometimes, it's really strange.
Take our work where we played surveillance chess with CCTV cameras in London. We were just trying to use the system in a way it wasn't intended to be used in and doing that in a way that would take the hierarchy out of the system. So that would sort of position us, as the surveilled, as the people standing in the space that is being surveilled, at eye-level with the person watching us, by enforcing a game.
Surveillance Chess (2012) Hijacking CCTV Cameras in London, image by !Mediengruppe Bitnik
Doma: We hijacked their monitors and applied our own thing to their monitors. We thought that by playing a game, we would create something new. It's not me being observed anymore. It's something different and maybe it can change something, but more in the sense of the experience. Maybe it would be a new experience for us too.
We realised that by publishing this work, lawyers told us, that publishing this might be difficult for us because we don't have the rights to those images because it's not our camera. Even though I'm being filmed there in public space, I have no right to see that image and the images are being broadcasted. For me, that seemed kind of wrong.
But in this case, art helped us to find a way to express ourselves without having to deal with, in this specific case, copyright and say, ‘No, we are taking the risk, we want to do it. We are stealing their pictures, but just because we're the ones being filmed all the time and we should be able to work with that material because it's ours. It's basically also mine’.
Carmen: The TV hacking in Jamaica was actually really an accident, because we didn't realise that there was a relay antennae near the place where we were testing our broadcast. Together with a project called the Container Project, which is run, or was run, for kids by a Jamaican-British artist, we were invited to build a TV station.
We had been doing TV hacking for a long time at that stage, and with broadcasting media it is usually the case that you can use the receiving end and turn it into a sender. It usually goes both ways, and that's what we used to do. It's just common, store-bought stuff and we just put it together in a different way to set up a TV broadcasting system. TV broadcasting is regulated so it would became a pirate TV station.
We used it a lot because we found TV very inaccessible. We found it interesting to gain access, and we built very local pirate TV stations that you could control through a web interface as a community and broadcast your own TV programs. But, you know, very small, low range. The idea was always to create very confined spaces of reception for these TV stations, and to have a live feed that would be fed back live into a certain setting.
We used that a lot for performative actions too and when we went to Jamaica, the idea was to actually do the same thing. The only thing was that we had the relay station near us and when we started testing the TV station we had built up, people were beat-boxing, kids were just doing funny stuff all day.
We were trying to find out how far we were broadcasting. We were in a very rural setting in Jamaica so it wasn't that easy. In cityscapes you just go to the next building and that usually sort of also gives you a certain range, because those buildings reflect. But there we just didn't know, so we started, or they started calling neighbours, asking ‘Can you turn on your TV and see whether you are receiving our signal?’
The channel we were actually broadcasting on was empty, but they said, ‘Oh, but there's something funny going on on this other channel’. We realised there was a lag of about 20 seconds, and the lag of course also explains, or was explained, by the fact that the signal was picked up by a relay antennae and broadcast back to the whole island.
Doma: We were broadcasting on one of the two channels in operation then! We were afraid, but it was also fun because it was something that was out of our control. It was bigger than we were at that moment. There was a guy running around saying, ‘You're writing media history here. Nobody has done that before’. We were like, ‘Media history, oh’. Like it was the best thing that ever happened in Jamaican TV history!
The funny thing was that people really liked it because it felt natural somehow. We got a really nice response from people telling us it was interesting because it was something different. Maybe it's just small things which are enough to produce an environment where things are beautiful.
Wiping Out National TV Station, Jamaica (2008), photo by !Mediengruppe Bitnik