Simon Denny: Part of your practice seems to be concerned with categorization. There is the obvious example of your website to draw on, which divides the material in the main menu by file format. What makes these kind of divisions a relevant point to enter your process?
Daniel Keller: I think early on, we organized our output on our website by its filetype as a little rib towards the convention of portfolio-style artist websites that have separate sections for their segments of output… like “Photography, Painting, Drawing”. So maybe, yeah it started as a bit of a naïve joke, but then I guess our work started moving past some of the easy issues of “online vs offline” and trying to get towards a more radical breakdown of ontological barriers into a totalitarian info-materialist “it/bit” world-view. The idea being that basically anything is convertible into anything else… of course with lots of room for noise and miscommunication.
Nik Kosmas: Yeah and we are slowly working on the transition to a blog, changing the format of the site completely. We’d like to integrate Facebook and try to get more traffic. But yeah, in the beginning we felt that all our content was experienced on the same level, via a laptop, and also saw web-inspiration and our documentation blurring together very smoothly, cyclically. So I guess we thought that file type was one of the best, ‘natural’ demarcations at the time.
Thinking about categorization in a different way I think that we’ve always been intrigued by market research and trend watching and there is an impossible project that we are been planning where we’ll use a program like Lexalytics to do semantic analysis on a database of art writing in order to create “meaningful” descriptions of artworks. Then we’ll work with someone to write algorithms that, based on those descriptions, create instructions for new artworks. And then finally we’ll exhibit the works and analyze the audiences opinion and behavior. In tune with the market, making the market… it’s some absurd attempt to make a cybernetic feedback loop which depends on reductive categories to find meaning.
SD:”A totalitarian info-materialist “it/bit” worldview” is quite a mouthful. I remember hearing a story of how your potent name was agreed upon, somehow also relating to an analytic program? Is the shift in website format to more closely relate to models like blog/Facebook then indicative of a shifting focus of Aids3d to concerns with marketing? This website-structural shift could also maybe be seen to mirror a general shift for brands across the board… I just met a guy the other day whose sole job is to do the Facebook page for Nivea (a brand one might not think of as the first that would be interested in interactive online marketing). One can read about this general trend in popular advertising trade blogs. But what is your relationship to these kinds of models? To ask a stupid question, why mirror developments in the advertising world so closely?
Nk: Hmm, no I don’t think we are following the advertising world, but getting more swept up by the techno-tsunami of Social. It’s much bigger than just advertising.
Dk: Haha, yeah I guess it’s a bit of a mouthful, but it;s not merely buzzwords. Although, I do especially like the phrase “It from Bit” which was coined by the late John Archibald Wheeler, the same physicist (and PR Master) who also came up with the terms “Black Hole, Wormhole and Quantum Foam.” All it means is that one can look at everything as inherently informational…Maybe I mean Monist more than “totalitarian” but I feel like they have similar meanings albeit with very different connotations.
Our work has always been on the margin of being a marketing gimmick. The name of course is somewhat of a joke on “viral” marketing, and the earliest work was always designed to be photogenic, to exist primarily as idealized documentation. Recently, we’ve gotten more and more direct about our interest in, let’s say, the magic of capitalism, which can be seen especially in our last shows Ideal Work and Exotic Options. The advertising industry is an innovator when it comes to novel communication of content, and I think it’s fair to say that our job as artists is pretty much analogous…. Also, I’d like to say that the Like button is the best form of social capital ever invented, and I want to add like buttons all over our site (and I think having a physical like button that you carry around would be pretty nice too).
SD: Right. This is maybe what I am asking, like how you view those models– and it sounds like what you’re saying is that you see advertising as a kind of hub, developing creative solutions for large scale communication, innovation in the general field of speaking to large audiences?
NK: I think we’re following developments in a global-megatrend towards social networking, not operating the Nivea cream profile (who wants to be friends with that?). But the data-mining done by the advertising industry and whoever else, through social networks, that I’m extremely curious about. I hope personalized marketing works, and that by listening closely to our data, producers can learn to predict what we think we need. There’s a name for these people that comes from a modification of Quant, those mathematicians that write the algo’s which fuel 80% of stock trading. They are called Wants, the people who poke around in data, hunt for trends, and figure out formulas that will put the right ad in front of the right person. I guess it’s not that hard to think of any artist in similar terms, which brings me back to asking if there are some data analysis tools that could help with art production, probably not but I’m curious to explore the possibility. And thinking about market research in another way, I’m reminded of something I read about a US strategy for selecting prisoners to place in Guantanamo. They captured people who were close to conflict areas, regardless of their status as civilian or soldier, and extracted exhaustive information about the place they were from to build databases of relationships so that they could predict future action by Afghan fighters. I think that’s a fascinating but absurd strategy, to fill a machine with incidental details and then wait for relationships to be shown to you. I guess it’s obvious but that feels like some of our strategies for making work, absorbing a torrent of surface info and then trying to extract analysis and an artwork from the noise.
SD: One thing I always noticed in the way you present yourselves is the way you inscribe your name. Often on press releases, and particularly with shows in galleries, your name is Aids-3d/Keller/Kosmas. To me this always seemed a key thing– having both the collective title and the names. This could be contrasted to other collectives’ approaches, where the people responsible are not totally secret or anything, but there’s an understanding that the artist identity is a kind of separate entity from the people, that seems to help the way these groups are able to operate. What’s the strategy here?
DK:Well my guess is Bernadette Corporation or Claire Fontaine were more deliberate when they became a collective (and a bit older). Our project started sorta organically, Aids-3d was one of a few sites we had with various random stuff on it…then, of course, we ended up using that site primarily, and before you know it became our identity. The problem is of course making any real delineation between our collective artist identity and our actual identities… There are plenty of collectives or more specifically duos who go by Name/Name, and I think in the long run it’s just easier. We will preserve Aids-3d for certain situations, but in many ways I think it’s outlived its usefulness. Plus it’s exhausting to answer questions about your name before you even get to discuss your work, you know? It’s like if people asked you for a report on the Denny genealogy every time you had a studio visit.
SD: Sure– I can imagine that’s totally tiring recounting reasons for decisions made long ago. When I ask about the name I was not only thinking of dominant figures in the international marketplace now, but also collectives of the past, Group Material, General Idea, the Guerrilla Girls, but also groups I encountered where I came of age, in New Zealand and Australia. These artists used identities to do things they couldn’t do as specific people.
And to Nik, totally, no-one would want to be friends with the Nivea page that I know, especially the guy maintaining it. I mentioned that to underline the ubiquitous nature of this kind of strategy in advertising, which may seem selbstverständlich (self-evident) to many, but was news to me recently. Just to say that the question was posed with moments from your current press release in mind also. An artist duo that states their aims for a show being “deciding, juxtaposing and networking to effectively manage their risk while providing unique works which attempt to satisfy market criteria” cannot, in my mind, have no relationship to advertising. My imagination of the revere you might have to advertising is something I read as being productive. Some might be hesitant about data-mining and it’s outcomes, but this is something you seem totally optimistic about, and to me that’s worth discussing.
DK: Yes I think the difference is that those collectives were launched with clearly defined ideological agendas and therefore could be more self-contained without the individual members feeling nailed down and limited. In our case, our agenda is really informed only by personal interests, which of course are more fluid and less dogmatic than say The Guerilla Girl’s… Also, it’s not without precedent for a tarnished brand to reinvent itself to remain relevant, for instance Phillip Morris became the totally innocuous “Altria Group”. Maybe it is time to re-consult our automatic branding software…. Love-4G.
NK: I didn’t want to imply that we have no relation, I just wanted to make clear which aspect of the industry we are inspired by, and I think we’re more into the part that attempts to quantify the subjective experience of what gives people pleasure and motivates them to consume. Regarding that quote, we wrote that while thinking about how young artists continually produce new works that are supposed to go up in value and fuel the sick market in contemporary art, a market which is totally infected by capitalism, which sounds silly to say, but the explosion of art fairs and the rampant speculation on art produced by people with three-year careers seems unstable to me. At the same time, the rich are gettin’ richer and they seem to enjoy the social cache and so… probably… we’re actually in a safe industry. And once you are accepted in… It’s in the collectors’ interests to keep you showing to secure the value of their investments. And with the rise of the private institution and collectors who are also art producers… it’s easy to see how these things feed into each other.
DK: Yeah, I think it’s hard for me to consider art as a field suitable for true ideological critique. We are all extremely complicit. I think the most effective critique of the art world is to leave it and ignore it and let it remain the culturally marginal elitist black market designed to launder blood money that it is. I wouldn’t say we’re optimistic about data mining and increasingly invasive marketing techniques. But just going ahead and fully embracing it, (playing the straw-man) is far more appealing to me than writing diatribes against it. Anyway we all should try to make some bank before the young-art ponzi scheme finally collapses.
SD: That take on the situation seems to be one that allows you to act relatively freely in a certain territory. To speak more directly to your current show, and the material you’re producing, the “camouflage-like compositions of semi-distracting privacy films displayed on sneeze-guards, a type of sanitary barrier for buffets” that feature prominently in “Exotic Options” in Naples to me beautifully display an idea of safe distance. What are the processes one flirts with in producing luxury items in a world that demands higher fences around wealthy estates?
DK: Yes, that’s a nice connection there for sure, in fact the idea for the sneeze-guards originated from being in Miami for the art fairs in December. We were staying in this classic hotel Eden Roc designed by Morris Lapidus, the hyper-American mid-20th century fantasy resort architect. The story is, Lapidus designed the adjacent hotel, the Fontainebleu, first, before agreeing to build the Eden Roc for a competitor. The owner of the Fontainebleu was so enraged by this that he built a giant tower (now referred to as ‘The Spite Wall’) on the border of the two properties, effectively blocking the sun from reaching the Eden Roc’s pool after 10 am. The wall facing the Eden Roc was left as unadorned cement except for one panoramic window at the top where the boss could watch the shadowy pool and gloat. This view-controlling power grab lead us tangentially to focusing on sneeze-guards and teleprompters, which are (particularly American) tools which elegantly divide and process information, instantly creating a power dynamic depending on your relative position to the device.
SD: Like Obama’s recent teleprompter faux-movie trailer, “the President’s Speech”? To return to something you said earlier, “…the idea that basically anything is convertible into anything else… of course with lots of room for noise and miscommunication” could be something that seems increasingly the case in a Facebook world. Noticing that more exhibitions in specific places has brought a newer focus for your practice on materials which one might see up-close as opposed to only online, can you outline your process for converting opportunities into exhibitions & “misappropriations” of economic terms into sculpture?
DK: I think our work has always been focused on material. But yes, it’s very different game to make objects for sale vs photos of objects for distributing. Much of our early work capitalized on the fact that they were made of super-photogenic material (glowing stuff) and installed in dark rooms or seen online. It’s often a humbling process to conceive of work conceptually and then attempt to “download” it into a space.
NK: Humbling and frustrating, especially as our process has become so reliant on outsourcing, it’s not unusual that we are seeing work for the first time when we arrive to install, and since a lot of the time we are asking industrial companies to produce things in slightly different ways than they normally would, we run into all kinds of issues that can’t be predicted or clone-stamped out. Because of this, we’ve been slowing down our production and trying to carefully refine and reinforce reoccurring motifs in the work, and to utilize the experience gained from “first attempts” in a way that we didn’t in the past, because we jumped around so fast from process to process. At the same time, maybe that’s also a strength. I really like being unpredictable, and I think it can even add length to a career. So I guess our current strategy is to both improve gradually and stay unpredictable. Also when you say, ‘focus on materials’ and ‘specific places’, it makes me think of a trend that I’ve been seeing, I think, which is artist acting as “exhibition designers” in a very professional, industrial way, always making 3d models of the space and maybe working with a production ‘team’.
SD: To my knowledge the practice of using exhibition designers and production teams is kind of standard when there is enough of a budget… And artists doing exhibition designs is maybe not so new… But then maybe it becomes more visible, something more standard of late? I’m not sure… I do think it’s really common now for artists to plan an exhibition using sketchup or something similar… certainly a lot of artists I know work with this kind of software very regularly.
NK: yeah that’s true that it’s not a new thing, ok… well maybe I’m just speaking about a personal development. I think it’s something about a zoomed-out view of the process, for example, maybe in the 3d model you have a grey rectangle and it’s labelled photo-print, you haven’t exactly figured out what the image is going to be yet, but you know its gonna go there and what size it is…It makes everything feel like problem solving.
SD: You both seem to follow a wide variety of current events as a key part of your process–your Facebook posts bring a wealth of material from different sources. What are some of the sources of information you pay attention to the most?
NK: There are a few science news sites, kurzweilai.net and sciencedaily.com which I’m an avid reader of, there is a financial blog called zerohedge.com which is scary good, but sometimes the articles are written in a financial lingo that is impenetrable and I also really like aldaily.com for book reviews, quality journalism and opinion writing. But actually… thinking about media sources reminds me of something we’ve been discussing lately. We want to open up a new division within Aids-3d, I’m not sure what the name will be, maybe Aids-3d Alpha, but basically it should be an options trading desk. We were thinking of asking our new intern to research upcoming events like corporate mergers and predictable weather patterns that will affect crop production, and to do that we’re going to have to really take our online research system to the next level. At the same time, as the entire financial system is completely broken and manipulated by people with trillions and government-grade AI, maybe it would be more of a performance research project, or a fantasy paper-trading thing. But I do believe in investment and making your money work for you, and I would like to imagine that what makes us good artists could somehow make us good investors! My other more practical, finance-related idea would be a concept album, working title: Financial Trance, a collection of “the harder styles” with epic breakdowns related to fiscal concepts and economic news, designed to pump up young momo traders and quants.
DK: Yeah, maybe it sounds ridiculous to say this on the Kaleidoscope Blog, but I often feel a bit like outsider artists. I have to admit that I for the most part don’t care about reading about art, and I am infinitely more interested in these types of sites Nik mentioned.
SD: I think lots of artists are more into other knowledge areas, and this has always been part of research processes, but yeah, point taken, you both seem totally attracted to knowledge areas broadly surrounding finance and technology.
I’d like to finish by mentioning an article I was just reading that proposes a potential change in the way businesses evolve in the current situation (Link) . The theory is kinda that businesses are finding large scale success through ideas and risks of a smaller scale than they have in the past, and that many successful businesses tend to establish their operations with one idea, and research and constantly reinvest small amounts into developing smaller ideas while running. The example given is Odeo, a relatively average podcast business that invested in one of many small ideas, one of which became Twitter. Comments?
NK: I think that there are a lot of good ideas, implemented in one form or another, and then someone comes out with a slightly better version and wham! Billion-dollar IPO. Just look at the legacy of Friendster to Facebook, overall very similar stuff, but majorly different impacts. Another example of this is Groupon… We saw the boss man giving a speech and he said at first they were trying to develop a social-action platform, where you could basically create flash-mob political demonstrations, or something along those lines, and then somehow it became local coupon stuff and voilà, fastest growing company… ever…I think the small-idea take-a-chance process is more competitive, being flexible and making tons of small attempts, it’s more in line with evolutionary processes somehow, you get more generations of an idea and that allows you to get fitter ideas. Oh wait, I’m actually reading the article now and they definitely just said the same thing, well so yeah, I’m really into the evolution of ideas, and the idea of the meme-pool, which says that the human brain is a generator of random novelty and that the resources it draws from are the total cultural heritage available to an individual, analogous to the gene-pool of genetics. Our minds are continually drawing memes from this pool and messing with them to throw up novel memes, because of the randomness of the process, a lot of new memetic information seems bizarre or irrelevant or banal, but once in a while, some useful novelty is generated by the recombination and mutation and it can then be transformed into cultural innovation and transmitted to other individuals. I think this explains the effect described in the article because there are often situations where there are discoveries ‘waiting to happen’. What is then required is less a supreme creative inspiration than the clicking into place of the final meme necessary for the innovation to be produced.
DK: Yeah, the problem with this model is encountering the law of diminishing returns… With the last tech-bubbles we were left with this all of this newly developed infrastructure, which became the foundation for all of the social networking, video sites etc. Now however, I think it’s quite possible that the next round of innovation will not come out of Silicon valley, because the most brilliant people there are working on optimizing ad-revenue on Farmville, and making billions from it. It’s hard to see how this will lead to anything as impacting as the PC or even Youtube.
That being said, it is really awesome that companies like Google have this 20% policy, where employees are encouraged (required) to spend part of their time developing pet projects. In fact 50% of Google’s products came out of this research, including gmail. I do think that Nik and I had a sort of advantage by not being afraid to spread out and research many small ideas, some of which we continued to develop and many which remain as one-time experiments.