Re:Interview #015:
Ever-Changing Chains of Work | Constant Dullaart

Constant Dullaart, YouTube as Sculpture (2009)

For Constant Dullaart the Internet serves as a medium as well as a subject of artistic production. His main strategy is the exploration of the multifaceted languages of contemporary images circulating on the Internet and their re-contextualisation as found material in a medium of its own. With his artworks, the Amsterdam- and Berlin-based artist digs deeply into the caches of a networked cultural production without limiting the medium to simple technological traits: the default style of Web-based platforms, their widespread and often unscrutinised use as well as the popularity of globally standardised interfaces are manipulated with the aim of investigating their social potential.

Dullaart’s practice ranges from art made with and for self-explanatory domain names such as The Revolving Internet.com or The Sleeping Internet.com and video works such as YouTube as a Subject as well as the adoption of this series of short loops for the real space under the title YouTube as a Sculpture. Furthermore, he deals with site-specific installations such as Multi-Channel Video Installation, where projector mounts where borrowed from art institutions and taken to an exhibition space to serve as sculptural elements, as well as dealing with digitally manipulated images as in the series No Sunshine, where he applies the Photoshop default techniques to remove the sun from romantic sunset pictures found on Flickr. Brian Droitcour writes for Art in America magazine: “Dullaart’s ready-mades demonstrate his interest in what might be called ‘default’ style—the bland tables of sans serif text and soulless stock photography that frame ads for some of the most common search terms (auto insurance, cheap airline tickets, pornography), baring the underbelly of the Internet’s popular use.” . . . and the circle is turning and turning and turning—with no end in sight.

You make your birth certificate available on request on your website. Any enquiries?

Not yet, only remarks such as these. I figured out that some people just know it is my real name and some people think I have changed my name in my passport and forged my birth certificate.

How important is authorship in your daily artistic practice?

Quite I guess, but this is a complex question. What do you mean? My authorship, or that of others? In general I think authorship should be respected, mentioned if needed, but should never prohibit someone from using the fruit of anyone’s labour as source material for new works. I think the cultural and social impact of a fruit of labour is of importance for my respect for its authorship. If the author is publicly known and part of a larger social canon, then mostly I don’t bother mentioning it. Most of the time these authors are impossible to contact. But if I can find their e-mail addresses and if they respond personally, then I start to care. Especially when I see they would benefit from the accreditation.

I will give an example. In my work The Revolving Internet.com (2010) I’ve used a famous pop song (playing from a Chinese server somewhere, really easy to find out) without specifically mentioning who made it. But in the source code of the work I do openly thank the artist Chris Collins for making Uneven Google.com (2010), a Google page slanted by one degree. His code inspired me to continue with my set of animated Google search pages, which I started with The Disagreeing Internet.com (2008). Some people responded to this first work without linking back to it. I felt this was a shame. First of all, because the audience missed the complete chain of works, and the discourse could have been highlighted. Seeing how works relate to each other is what I enjoy about comment threads on surfing clubs such as Nastynets.com for example. People respond to an initial post, and sometimes the response is even better then the original work, but it cannot be seen separately. Second, because these people were friends or colleagues and now there was confusion in our audience about who started this way of using Google in an iframe with Javascript changing the DOM (document object model) values. That is why I mention Chris Collins in my code. He inspired me, and I respect his work, I want people to know that. There is nothing mystical about my authorship; I am inspired by good works and people. All the attention The Revolving Internet.com received included links to Chris’ work. I enjoyed that.

I think it is respectful to let an author know that you have made a response or that you have used his work. But even more important is mentioning (within the context of the work, in its presentation, in the code etc.) the inspiration or the source of the work. Especially when the work is not yet part of a larger social canon, and when it has the power to encourage a discussion. Just like re-blogging something, you credit the source, not the author per se. We should always highlight discourse, the chain of works, not be greedy with credit or respect.

The variation of products—especially in the field of information technology—has become an important component of a globalised culture. Only shortly after their introduction, online services are expanded, reformulated and refined with the aim of producing different versions for different markets and different users. Equally your artworks can be seen online in the form of websites and videos as well as offline in the form of installations. Are there different markets and different users in the art world too when it comes to talking about Internet-based and traditional art?

Yes, although recently I think it has to do more and more with the age-old story of people interested in the avant-garde versus institutional and conventional people who have the money that defines the market. The wish is of course to have your work overcome these limitations and speak to audiences that are not defined by banal money dialectics. Only recently I met a young, seemingly smart curator with an expensive business card who did not have a clue what to think when it comes to talking about Internet-based Art. It will take a long time before the general public figures out that the Internet is a medium with medium specific qualities. Until then we will see different markets.

This is similar to Conceptual Art, which found different paths to commoditisation—think of Seth Siegelaub’s The Xerox Book (1968) for example. Conceptual Art would not exist without Seth Siegelaub, not an artist himself, but a dealer. He managed to find buyers for conceptual works, the catalogues, the remains of performances, the instructions for pieces etc. The Xerox Book is actually a catalogue made of an exhibition that never opened. The catalogue could be photocopied as much as you wanted. But now an original photocopy is priceless (Seth told me he makes new photocopies to be able to sell the old ones.) Siegelaub embodies the possible commoditisation of Conceptual Art; under his guidance, the ideas of Conceptual Art found the material form through which they could be contextualised in the canon of Contemporary Art. I guess Internet-based Art is in a similar struggle at the moment, and I wonder which curator with a regular income has the guts to jump in and make it happen.

Which of your online works would you consider the most appropriately ‘versioned’ for an offline setting and why do you consider it as such?

I guess that would be YouTube as a Sculpture (2009), a project I developed for the Netherlands Media Art Institute, NIMk. It was based on a previous project called YouTube as a Subject (2008), where I animated the YouTube play button in videos that I put back on YouTube. Those videos looked as if the play button remained after it had been clicked to view the video, and it started to fade to black, move around or shake. This triggered the responses from other artists, such as Martin Kohout (recently nominated for the YouTube Play Guggenheim award with that video), but especially Ben Coonley. Both of them animated other elements of the YouTube video interface.

For the exhibition space, I versioned this visual discussion by making a physical copy of the YouTube loading animation. A large space was covered in black theatre fabric, the kind that seems to suck the light out of a room. I hung eight Styrofoam balls in a circle to form the loading animation, with their size in relationship to the ‘aspect ratio’ of the back wall. When visitors entered the space, all the elements made it look as if they were encountering an enormous YouTube video. Inside they saw just eight big Styrofoam balls in a circle, illuminated one by one by eight spotlights and a simple disco light mixer.

The best thing about this piece was that the audience started versioning the sculpture themselves by filming it and uploading the documentation to YouTube, because this is what it reminded them of—and thereby completing the circle of production and reproduction. The success of the sculpture meant that audience members documented the sculpture and finally became the uploading medium for my participation in the visual discussion set in motion by YouTube as a Subject a few years earlier.

When you created YouTube as a Subject did you anticipate the (video and other) comments as a part of your work or did this rather happen accidentally?

The comments were one of the biggest compliments I have received in my life. I felt like I really needed to make the videos and upload them before someone else did it. But when the comments came into my inbox late at night, all seven of them one after another, notifying me of the responses made by Ben Coonley, I knew I had hit a nerve. I laughed myself to sleep. It was a great surprise.

Why is your YouTube channel designed with white typography on a white background?

Oh . . . the YouTube profile is something that follows me around, I never wanted it, but for YouTube as a Subject“>YouTube as a Subject I needed to keep it. I always hated the set up and the design of YouTube. When I was making my profile, I put a GIF file in the background with a white and a black frame alternating, to cause a stroboscopic effect and to chase people away. Suddenly YouTube decided that they wouldn’t allow that anymore, they wanted cleaner profiles I guess, less MySpace-like (I like the historical fact that the possibility of the animated background and all the MySpace tweaks were unintentional, seeing that they forgot to prohibit the use of HTML in the profiles). Finally I ended up with this result, and I like it.

Since Internet-based Art began to emerge in the mid-1990s there has been a lot of theory about its ephemeral, fluid and performative characteristics—about its immateriality to mention one of the keywords surrounding this discourse. In contrast, you claim that you are dealing with the Internet as a material. How do you explain this?

Well, I definitely see the performative aspects. If you document Internet-based Art, it is mostly best documented from the viewer’s perspective. Saving the work itself is almost never the best way to archive a work. Internet-based Art can often be seen as a machine that is performing for or set in motion by the artist. In comparison, Performance Art is also very material, for example the age of the performer’s body, the trained or untrained muscles, the materials next to the body, the audience, the space etc. The same goes with the files of Internet-based Art: how they behave in different circumstances, how a script behaves in different browsers. Scripts can stop functioning, just like paint can fade or a performer’s body can stop functioning. The Internet is the medium for watching, sharing and publishing files, and its materiality is changing every day.

The term Post Internet—sometimes also used to contextualise your artworks—has been described as a condition, “when the Internet is less a novelty and more a banality […] or when the photo of the art object is more widely dispersed viewed than the object itself.” Is it important to define what you are doing and what such a definition might be useful for?

Yes this is very important, although I don’t like being associated with the term anymore. I think the novelty aspect has not worn off for me in my research, there is too much left to explore. It might be beneficial for the acceptance of Internet-based Art as a valid art form as well as for the Internet to be considered a banality. But the term seems to be used a lot by people that only take content and inspiration from the Internet but do not work with the medium-specific qualities it has to offer. I regard this as limiting. It is more than a passing fad that needs to be incorporated in traditional and extremely conventional ways of making art. It seems that a lot of people still believe they can only create a valid social alibi as artists if they make paintings and sculptures. It is easy to use the Internet as a hip inspiration without confronting oneself with the real challenges that are ahead in using this medium for making art.

Making offline art with the knowledge that the Internet exists, of course I also do that, but using the Internet, which is still evolving, is a big part of my practice; I do not want to disconnect myself from it. I agree much more with the term Internet-Aware Art, coined by Guthrie Lonergan, to describe what I am doing. So it does not suggest that what I make is something that comes after the fad of the Internet, but I am consciously using the Internet as one of my works’ main components.

Currently you are developing a concept to contextualise Internet-based Art by recording users in front of their screens as they interact with the artwork, which is then documented. This seems to offer a brilliant way to shift the focus from the technological condition of Internet-based Art to its use in everyday culture—can you explain the aims of this project more in detail?

I was often asked to advise institutions on archiving Internet-based Art, and I never knew what to say. There are so many different kinds of works, and only a very small percentage of the works are static enough to archive through copying or backing up the data. Also most of the works are very, if not fully, dependent on the context in which they are viewed if they are to function as intended. Think of works in domain names, works that exist on video or blogging services, generative works etc. To draw the comparison with Performance Art again, I felt as if people were trying to archive the body of the performer to be able to archive the work. As if you would freeze Marina Abramovic. In collaboration with Robert Sakrowski, art historian, former head of the Netart-Datenbank.org at TU Berlin and currently running the initiative Curating YouTube, I am making a template for how to document your own private usage and viewing of Internet-based Art.

This would include filming the person using the computer with an over-shoulder shot and a screen recording, even including audio commentary. I am talking about the users in their natural setting, at home, in private, with all kinds of stuff on their desks, or watching in bed, doing and looking however they want. Alongside that we will collect these documentations on YouTube and create curated playlists. We will initiate the documentation of old art works that are still online ourselves and hope to find partners in archiving this documentation footage next to putting it on YouTube. We decided to use YouTube because we don’t have to run extra servers and the services are a safe and easy bet in archiving video for the future, easily accessible by other participants, including the possibilities for tagging and managing playlists. Although I am worried about their censorship issues, so we will always make back-ups and keep our eyes open for other options. At the moment we are discussing with the Netherlands Media Art Institute, NIMk, and looking for other interested institutions and people. The most important part is the template, so other people can participate in this subjective guerrilla archiving. By documenting pieces they have made themselves, which they love or they hate, and putting the documentation of art works online.

You argue that everything that pops up on your screen belongs to you—how many files do you ‘possess’ each day on an average?

Ok, I just looked in one of my caches and 4529 files were mentioned. Today was an average day, and it’s not over yet; I use multiple browsers, so I would say between 10 and 15.000 files per day.

Thank you very much for the interview!