“All the viewer really needs to recognize are a few features and a legitimate branded framework, the rest is filled in by hype.” - from Altmann's Soft Brand Abstracts: Closer Than Ever Before
When the NSA completes the Utah Data Center, the $2 billion complex will collect, decrypt, analyze and store nearly every piece of accessible data that you create for the rest of your life. Programs like Stellar Wind, begun post-9/11 and authorizing total surveillance of domestic targets, demand attention for the paradoxes that emerge from and underpin the realities of unchecked encroachment of network and algorithmic efficiencies into all areas of life.
The work of artist Kari Altmann explores and defines techniques of communication emerging from hyper-capitalism and affective labor's (think likes and double-taps) creep into our most intimate relationships. Altmann's work defines a generation unsurprised by and unafraid of Stellar Wind; for whom privacy, like politics, has become a purely aesthetic concept.
The majority of Altmann's work lives (and is often edited without warning) on the web, although many of these pieces are cloaked demos for possible future physical iterations. In fact, she rarely makes physical objects at all, until a curator or collector is interested in staging a show or purchasing an edition. Similar to paper architects that complete plans on spec for competitions, much of Altmann's work remains “unrealized”, and yet even in its nascent digital form, it retains tremendous power.
Altmann's work defines a generation unsurprised by the NSA's Stellar Wind; for whom privacy, like politics, has become a purely aesthetic concept.
Her recent collaboration with Fatima al Qadiri, a series of response videos that utilize al Qadiri's track “Jemsheed,” was first presented as “Translation #1.” Made in Powerpoint for Global Art Forum 6 in Dubai, the work condenses what her incredible series of collaborative Tumblr projects hinted at: emergent spirituality and arcane desire underpin the mundane gestures and aesthetic tropes of contemporary communication technology.
Altmann's appropriation of the language of consumption, from Powerpoint to product-demos and 3-D render files, defines the product launch and trade show as sites of worship that prey on evolutionarily determined desire for smooth, wet, clean surfaces and orifices. By using the language of branding and corporate communications, Altmann's work creates a powerful critique that is all the more devastating for its nimble use of the very systems which it destabilizes. Motherboard sat down with her to sink deeper.
Motherboard: How is your work manifesting itself physically at this point and how does that relate to exhibitions you've participated in in the past?
Altmann: There are some projects that require specific resources, physics, or equipment I don't have access to yet, maybe that don’t exist yet. In the meantime, there are alternate options through the making of demos, samples, or concept imagery. Sometimes those things can be stunt doubles for the work on their own. Lately I like making things that autonomously morph, they’re really acrobatic.
How to Hide Your Plasma, Handheld Icon Shapeshift for Liquid Chrystal Display. Chrystal Gallery, Gentili Apri, Berlin, 2010. All images courtesy Altmann.
A lot of my practice is about serial occurrence and mutation, so there is not too much pressure on one instance or one piece. The larger evolving view is often where the big “image” or “form” really takes place over time. I keep my own live archive as a daily work of its own and even the small instances scatter through other platforms, grow their own audiences, then make their way back in altered forms with new baggage.
Again, sometimes those small instances become seen as works or memes all on their own. You never know! It was 2007 or so when I really gave in and started making documentation images, demos, or title listings for my “artist website” as the work itself. What you see on my site now is often a 50/50 mix because as many projects start there as end there.
Things evolve constantly in my cloud but it’s part of other ecosystems too, so there are a lot of ways for the content to be socially molded. I think a lot about algorithms, tags, brands, and genres. The networks between content, the teams, are usually another structure I’m hammering out, so one .jpg or one video is not always a whole scene. I’m also highly reliant on cloud-shared resources: funds, links, production, etc. A lot of times it’s the network of viewers and DIY curators that are responsible for taking work beyond the proof of concept.
Rapidshare: NRG Transfer, Catalogue Array, 2012
This is an approach that inherently still makes me a cloud-based artist, beyond what the tag of “net artist” has sort of come to represent. My work interrogates lots of vocabularies, not just those related to the web or branding, but I still ultimately rely on the cloud to give things structure and movement as collateral. I definitely use what’s available to devise a practice, and there is commentary on those mediums, but I don’t feel the need to attach to one topic or gimmick in perpetuity...it’s richer and more integrated than that and honestly all my output is still related to a very personal, lived trajectory through cultural settings.
Being cloud-based also means being able to work laterally instead of in a linear project-to-project way. I can spread risk, resources, and energy across a wide field of projects at once, I can manage an endless amount of identities, and focus in different ways every day. I think a lot about cognitive surplus or the idea of allocating your own “extra” processing power based on the requests of others. Each area of my cloud has its own life because the audience is just as diverse, and can keep things going even when I lose interest or disappear for a while. Crowd response or my own repeat visits cause the works, even old ones, to continue to evolve. Everything is live.
Host Majed Aslam with a locale-specific “print out” of
Rapidshare: NRG Transfer in London, 2012
Shows are usually gathered around one idea, or one mutant team of content, by request of a host within their own parameters, and involve a lot of “printing to real life” in preparation. Until there’s a show, if there’s no reason for something to be anything other than a file, it stays that way and stays fluid in my process. This is partially because resources are so scarce. Art product can be too slow and cumbersome to feel vital, especially in the precarious production environment I live in. Not all work starts that way, I have more tactile production spaces too, but everything passes through a state of filehood and editing at some point.
A lot of exhibitions of this genre of art tend to have things translated to gallery format just for the event, which is only up for a short time. It’s like another software, another medium, that you have to export to. Projectors and prints don’t always do the job or have the same impact—this is really a sculptural workflow, often a rapid prototype process, that is 100% reliant on a temporary context that molds it. For a lot of my output, I have to think about all the material formats it can exist in, and move it through them based on crowd requests and limits. Lately I’ve been dependent on a huge mass of non-drying black clay which I work into different forms then collapse for the next show.
Production for this stage becomes a performance open to all kinds of danger and possible outcomes. A lot of my recent shows haven’t really been “exhibitions” to me, they are something else...the content in the room is not always meant to be read as discrete art pieces, even though it’s posing in that format.
For instance in this show, Core Samples, what was really on display was the customized algorithm, which was a vocabulary and art direction of its own. You’re not seeing my personal logic on display, you’re seeing a kind of scripted action. The room was full of “sample packs” and “demo reels” from test runs of that process, as well as a few supporting props. I couldn’t sum this up in an explanatory text at the time, as the show was part of the experiment. Budget and resources were minimal so this is the rawest way that the work could be rendered into actual space and still hold together in representation of a larger entity elsewhere, which the title plays on.
Dis Magazine requested a supporting content page afterwards and I’m not sure which one is a more accurate representation of the project. They’re both equal and there could still be a lot more variations. It’s really flexible, because it’s always growing and can be held together by proximity and context. Not all my work is like this at first but it can enter this format very easily. Other kinds of presentations feel truer than show printouts at times, but it depends.
Screenprint from Core Samples Behind the Scenes for Dis Magazine
The printed show or the online release is usually the first breath in a newly expanded social life for the work as it then begins to continually morph. Sometimes that means you don't have the usual kind of product for some bigger system and that's fine with me for now, though I do feel the burn of that from time to time. There's pressure to sum up a lot of things at once in one final video or sculpture, to be more easily cherry picked into group shows and more prestigious venues, as well as market systems. I'm usually working differently: letting my social network structures hold things together, which lets things change daily based on an expanded audience, etc., as this answer explains. Even when combinations start to happen, they’re distilled down to a single scene or object in the cloud again. In general I want these continually requested shows to be more social experiences, too, like “live shows” or sets, with final “exhibitions” being something else.
I’m always toying with these formats and their surrounding channels of display. I’m only half joking when I say my genre is meta, and it’s the web that makes that approach so easy.In my mind these presentations have mutated into something other than what a lot of pre-existing systems are set up to deal with, even in 2013. I don’t even like still images as documentation, which is de rigueur—I prefer roving videos and live webpages, and I like to add and tweak things in post...forever, which tends to change the original work beyond recognition over time. Host platforms love this.
Hitachia Venom ID Kiosk (Custom Algorithm) at Collect the
Wwworld, New York, 2012
What question about your art do you wish people would ask, and why? What would your answer to it be?
Too often people assume my website as a showroom when its primary purpose is production. Maybe the same goes for shows, too. I guess I want more people to ask for background before asking for files, but in a way letting those small instances scatter is part of the point I’m making about context and constant evolution. I deal with a lot of Gmail curators who I’ve never spoken to before, and I often have to nudge things into a broader discussion of the back end when they thought they were just shopping. This is why I add certain Alibaba.com style language to my site, and I recognize that even that primary lure is still a positive thing.
I think moving back to a big city will help change that, though. It will be nice to be more present, as I’ve actually been a bit off the grid for the last few years in a way that people don’t always understand. A lot of the things listed are meant to incite progressive assistance, not simply reblogs. Outsourced translation (and mistranslation) has become a normal part of my process, too. When you’re relying on production that includes a lot of distanced strangers in other cultural backgrounds, the way they interpret and render things will always vary.
I’ve let that happen in some cases, because there’s no possible way to muscle all the ideas through border patrol...and sometimes it’s fascinating to just let it fly, or to submit works that will specifically play with those forces. I can be open to danger, open to conflict—those are thinking processes, too. Ultimately though, there’s a difference between these kinds of “shows” and projects, which is hard to denote on a CV.
Why don’t you think people ask you more questions about your process and the flow of results?
Audiences tend to take art they glean online at surface value and incredible speed at first. Everyone can still become overloaded and it can be hard to create a controlled environment without over-manipulating or erasing the ecosystem from view. It's hard to know when you've seen the whole picture because everything is being re-framed and re-aggregated, and the contextual lens keeps zooming in and out. That’s the game.
I’ve learned how to make a quick and deep impression, but ultimately I’m creating surface lures into a series of larger molded contexts over time. That’s the cinematic trail I’m authoring, and I’m trying to establish a proactive relationship with my audience. Click everything, troll often, then email me and let’s share. You’re a part of this cloud commune, too.
ROMANTIC GESTURE, 2011-ongoing
Do you see your process keeping pace with the internet's expansion?
I guess I can keep up with the web's expansion, but I'm not sure if host institutions can. I have to accommodate that system too, and act as a translator between them.
Can you elaborate regarding the performative editing that you exercise over the content exhibited on your sites?
This depends on the site. I let things misappropriate, colonize, battle, aggregate and die over time and am continually re-titling or re-imaging the output. Things get reordered based on how I travel through them every day or how others contribute, and titles of works usually include a series of changing tags that show which areas they’re currently grouped in, as well as a date range like “2011-ongoing”. It's all just a reflection of my own content management system, which is a bootleg social network of its own.
So what are we left with?
Lots of blurring boundaries, which is always a good sign. The fluidity between all these forms and tropes feels more commonplace as a discussion among the post-internet genre now. Still, I think a lot of what I do in show spaces today will involve a lot of stand-ins—a lot of props. To carve out new formats and a different kind of practice you’re more reliant on peers than pre-existing institutions and we are still pulling ourselves up.
You’re expected to do offline shows, and my process is even dependent upon them in some ways. It’s fun when each one is a new network in a new custom format, and it’s really freeing when they’re in rapid-fire succession, so that each one doesn’t hold too much weight. I really do have that much content and that many options... I could give all these identities and directories their own solo shows.
However, audiences will sometimes need a background with the work online to frame what they see in actual realms, so I might have to find new ways to bring it into the room. Until smart objects and AR are super available, or until gallery spaces have as much equipment as a Best Buy, conditions are always going to be limited, and the presentations will reflect that.
"Most work happens for me in a virtual space, an actual space, a publication, and scattered content moving through social networks all at once, locked together in a single experience."
I have to ask the audience to be okay with extreme scarcity and material thinness at times, to recognize how much capital or compromise is required to move things from my natural, more freeform file environment into another, and to understand when I’m specifically working without it. I’ll always try to find a way to game the limits of what’s available, but the result will usually be a reflection of the host context and its production climate.
American Medium is one example of a host that really gets this and has shown interest in working with me at that next material level, but we aren’t even sure how to make some things yet, or if we should at all when we could leave them as imagery. A morphing helmet seems possible but it’s just beyond reach, you know? Which iteration would be more accurate? It will take time.
Because of this networked approach there are also some projects which have aggregated other people into the mix and might not make sense to present in a solo way, like R-U-In?S. A solo presentation is still a kind of status symbol, but I don’t always find its market logic appropriate, since it tends to involve the erasure of supporting roles or wider genres in a way that amplifies over time. Online at least, it’s very easy to keep things linked. The group show format comes with its own brand of issues, too, though, so it all requires vigilant customization.
Most work happens for me in a virtual space, an actual space, a publication, and scattered content moving through social networks all at once, locked together in a single experience. The task ahead is to start to make that more blatant and cohesive, and if possible more visceral, inside the social spaces of host venues without killing the lure that leads people to dig deeper into the cloud. It’s through this digging that a more positive artist-to-audience relationship is established and the cloud keeps evolving.