“A ten years old optimistic take on the internet may look childish in a post Snowden society.” Interview by Pina Gabrijan


Some days ago, Slovenian writer Pina Gabrijan sent me a few questions for an article about Aksioma‘s series of conferences and seminars Tactics & Practice, that have been taking place for ten years. It was a good chance to discuss about time and technologies, the recent history of digital culture and media art, automation and hyperemployment, and of course NFTs. The article is now online in Slovenian, and the English Q & A is available below.

Automate all the Things! at the Academy of Fine Arts and Design of the University of Ljubljana and Moderna galerija, Ljubljana, January 14–15, 2020. Photo: Domen Pal / Aksioma

It has been a decade since Aksioma started its series of conferences and seminars Tactics & Practice. Which are in your opinion the key changes in the field of digital culture and media arts, to which this series is dedicated to?

Time is a key factor when we speak about media and technology, and as a consequence, about the artistic practices dealing with them both as a socio-cultural environment and as a tool. Change in technology happens, for some (i.e. the Moore’s Law) following a linear progression, according to others (i.e., Ray Kurzweil’s Law of Accelerating Returns) at an exponential rate. Either way, this means that ten years can completely reshape the environment you are dealing with and the tools you are using for your work. As living beings, it’s difficult to realize this, as we are always focused on the present, and we have no time to look backwards or onwards. Douglas Rushkoff calls this condition “present shock”. But if you look at the recent history of media art, the rate of obsolescence and decay is frightening. And I’m not talking only about technological, material obsolescence. A ten years old optimistic take on the internet may look childish in a post Snowden society. For decades, net based media art played with the opacity and disintermediation offered by the internet to construct narratives and play with truth: what happens to the reception of these works in a Post Truth world where Putin and Trump could set up a fake news masterclass?

So, where to start from? Along this decade, we had at least three technological hypes (virtual reality, artificial intelligence, and the recent hype around the blockchain and NFTs) and a number of historical events that revealed some key features of our technologically-improved contemporary environment: Wikileaks and Anonymous, the Arab Spring, the Snowden revelations, Cambridge Analytica, the Pirate Bay trial, the Trump elections and, of course, a pandemic that forced most of us to work and socialize online. Bitcoin was worth one dollar in 2011, it’s worth 41.448 euro right now. Instagram was a newborn app with vintage filters in 2011, it’s one of the main social media tools today.

How much and in which way did the development of technology in the last decade influence the inclusion of digital culture and media arts in our everyday lives?

Of course, an increasing presence of technology in our life forces us to learn more about it, to become more informed and aware. We usually adopt new technologies seamlessly, when some new gadget appears on the market and it looks cool and attractive. We are like guinea pigs exposed to a new treatment, and after a while we realize that it has side effects and get more critical and careful, but on an individual and a social level. So, I think most people today perceive digital culture as a consistent part of our contemporary culture.

As for media art, that’s a different story. Of course, along the last decade media art stopped being perceived as an artistic practice interesting only for a dedicated community, or for a younger generation, as it happened for most of its history so far. As long as people started realizing how much influence technology had on their lives and social interactions, they became more open to works dealing with these topics, tools and aesthetics. But what we call the art world has still a solid relationship with the physical object, and dealing with all that’s digital, relying on devices to be experienced, processual, ephemeral and interactive is still perceived as problematic. The main outcome of this increasing interest in the art world along the last decade has been the institutional and commercial success of post internet practices, that often embrace physicality or at least more established technical media such as video installations.

And how did the aesthetics of digital culture and media arts change in these last 10 years? Which are the changes / shifts / new phenomena, that surprised you the most and why?

Along the last three months, I took a deep dive into this emerging scene of crypto collectibles: digital assets – from memes to virtual property, from in-game assets to works of art – that are artificially made scarce by being associated to a record (known as NFT, Non Fungible Token) and a smart contract on the blockchain. I studied it a lot, in order to figure out if it’s a short-lived hype fueled by crypto investors or the beginning of a process that will completely change the acceptance and economy or digital native artistic practices. I don’t have an answer yet.

Last year’s focus of this Aksioma’s series was also the topic of automation i.e. to exploration of crucial contradictions implicit in the increasing automation of work. And work is also a sphere that changed drastically in the light of the pandemic. Would you say that some of the changes of the work sphere happened faster and differently because of this, and in which way if so?

The pandemic accelerated a process that has been ongoing for years. If, the first day of lockdown in Italy, I was able to set up a class on Google Meet and involve most of my students in it, that means that all the tools and abilities required to switch to distant learning where there, ready to be activated. In the following months, many workers had to adapt to smart working, and among those who kept getting out from home – those who philosopher Paul B. Preciado calls “vertical workers” – couriers managed and payed by an app (be it Amazon or Deliveroo) became crucial to allow the majority to keep living and working from their breakfast table or bed. Now many of us are wondering if there is a way back from here, or if some changes are more likely to become permanent. Another topic of Automate all the things! and the related framework Hyperemployment around which the pandemic raised a broader awareness is that everything we do on a wired device is somehow monetizable (and can thus be understood as labor even if it doesn’t generate an income). This becomes really clear when you see that, after a year that brought many on the edge of poverty, social media companies have become richer than ever.

Could you maybe name some of the Tactics & Practice series’ topics / participants / exhibitions / projects, that you found most interesting?

I wasn’t lucky enough to attend all of them, and I was involved in a few; but Aksioma’s amazing effort to document all sessions often brings me, for personal interest or teaching meeds, to discover bits of the previous conferences. I loved The Black Chamber for its focus on the contemporary panopticon of surveillance and data mining, and Proper and Improper Names for its ability to draw a connection between old and new forms of media hacktivism, from Luther Blissett to Anonymous. James Bridle is an amazing artist and thinker and his Transnationalisms conference was a great take on the topic of borders in a world in which physical borders apparently collapsed, but many invisible, insidious borders have been raised here and there. I’m also enjoying a lot each single episode of the current (re)programming, which I usually listen to when I’m driving. The speaker’s selection is great, and Marta Peirano has a keen ability in bringing them to deliver their message at best.