Andy C. Deck, net artist and pioneer of conceptual art on the net, has been active for more than a decade and is not a character that needs a lot of introduction. A New Yorker, Andy Deck got his degree in English Literature at the University of Michigan, studied in Paris at the “École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs” and in 1993 he obtained his MFA in Computer Art at the “School of Visual Art” in New York, where he is now a professor, as well as teaching New Media & Theory at the Sarah Lawrence Arts College in New York and at New York University.
Andy Deck’s rich and prolific artistic activity is manifested in all his exuberance surfing those web platforms that now function as an archive of his work: Andyland.net and mostly Artcontext.net. Wittingly mixing the typical domains of net art, critical thought, collaborative processes, activist inclinations, the use of code, aesthetic detournement, defamiliarization of the medium and interactivity, halfway through the ’90’s Andy Deck developed what he himself defined as: “public art projects”. Where the public space activated by the artist is not the physical urban context where we live (on which Lettrism, Situationism, Public Art, Street Theatre and more concentrated on in the past century), but the virtual space of the Internet.
Staying true to the idea of developing artistic projects that can activate a dialogue between art and political and social activism, for many years Andy Deck has focused his attention on the main themes of collective interest that are highly mediatised: from consumerism to pacifism, to environmentalism to contemporary man’s passivity toward means of mass communication. Never dull, supported by a deep irony that is typically Yankee, Andy Deck makes the active participation of the public, his responsibility toward his work of art, and the thought-provoking emerging social and cultural themes the central elements of his poetic stance.
In my opinion, these are the characteristics that make Andy Deck’s work terribly current and efficient, compared to what happens to most of his renowned colleagues who have got a bit lost in the past few years on the thousands of paths of life and the market. From online collaborative drawing projects (like Glyphiti , Collabirynth , Cogs, Cages, Clusters and Knots, Open Studio) to a series of aesthetical-political thoughts about decoding systems and units of measurement of digital images (Icontext , Screening Circle , Surge Cycle , Bardcode and the beautiful Lexicon), from artistic works against war (especially AntiWar404 and General Vision ) to thought-provoking projects about environmental and ecological themes (Aquanode , Ecoscope and the very useful portal Fix News), to those about being anti-corporations & advertising (like Space Invaders and Ad Mission), Andy Deck’s work surprises for its variety and coherence.
Andy Deck’s projects have been presented at main international artist events, like Ars Electronica in Linz (1998), Net_Condition at the ZKM in Karlsruhe (1999) or the recent Web Biennal in Istanbul (2005 and 2010) just to cite the most important ones. Deck’s works have been shown at New York Short Film and Video Festival (1996), at Mac Classics (1997), at the Kentler International Drawing Space in New York (1998), at the Prix Ars Electronica in Linz (1998), at the Machida City Graphics Arts Museum in Tokyo (1999), and in various exhibitions at the PS1-MoMA in New York, the MACBA in Barcelona and the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis (Art Entertainment Network, 2000). In 2006 some of Deck’s works were held at the HTTP Gallery in London, in his own dedicated space entitled: Open Vice/Virtue: The Online Art Context.
Deck has also curated the online event Catchy Name: An Idiosyncratic Concept (2000) for Turbulence, and received commissions from Rhizome, from Tate Online as well as the Whitney Museum. In 2001 he was one of the founders of the eco-art collective Transnational Temps (winner of the second prize at Vida Life in 2001), which was then a part of the EcoMedia exhibitions between 2008 and 2009 in Germany, Switzerland and Spain. He recently won the second prize at the Ibiza Biennial (2008) and his works are currently on a world tour within an exhibition about gamer art, currently on show in Australia (Garden of Forking Paths, 2009).
His most recent work, the pretext for this long interview, is called Artistic License: with his usual irony and intelligence, the artist suggests a reflection on the capapities of becoming an artist today thanks to the ease with which digital tools can be used, giving a real laminated card that can be designed through a simple web interface. From the online archive of Licenses of common people, the usual yearly calendar was made (Andy Deck has been producing participatory calendars for many years). The project can be openly collocated inside another branch of the artist’s research, that of collaborative projects about posters and calendars that had already lead to the production of projects like Imprimatur and Panel Jct.#2.
Marco Mancuso:Ok, let’s start from your most recent artwork, which could also be a good starting point within your long and productive career. Would you like to tell me more about the Artistic License project? Just your thoughts about it, when and how the idea started, what is your point of view behind the project? Let’s speak about it freely.
Andy Deck:To begin with, I have a weakness for puns. The title Artistic License refers not only to this odd artifact — a bit like a driver’s license — but also to the expressive liberty that artists sometimes take to achieve an artistic end. I’m drawn to this kind of title because it signals a hybridity in the work,– multiple ways of understanding and approaching it. Openness is practical in the online medium where just about anyone could pop in for a look see. Why Artistic License?
I saw a sign once at a copy shop that said “laminated cards last forever”. Maybe part of me believes it. A friend mailed me a squeaky old card laminator about twenty years ago, and I finally pulled it out and decided to use it for this project. I began making ID cards when I was too young to drink alcohol, and around that time I started to laminate small drawings and texts with the same plastic sleeves. In the 90s while living in Paris I learned that artists there had artist cards they could use to gain admission to art museums.
I took newspaper clippings about my artwork to the Musée d’Art Modern de la Ville de Paris and they gave me a warm welcome. I can’t guarantee that an Artistic License will work as well, but I hope so. I like the idea of culture jamming the mania for secure identity that governs our access to buildings and other private spaces today. We are increasingly regulated as we move about with biometric data and other cryptic codes. It’s all so serious. One woman at the department of motor vehicles wouldn’t even let me smile for my picture!
Marco Mancuso:Artistic License can be considered as the latest chapter of a long journey inside your artistic research. You had always been one of the few pioneering net artists that really and honestly focused on collaborative possible relationships between people through the platform of Internet. With Artistic License you didn’t change your approach to the world of Internet: as with some other previous projects, you look at a collaborative work as a process of creation of a new artistic “public space”. So, how had your feedback been this time? Did you feel some differences from the past? How do you feel Internet and net connections have been changing in the last 5-10 years?
Andy Deck: I still feel that what I’m doing is public art, but the notion of creating ‘space’ in electronic media is pretty abstract. Using the term ‘public space’ in this context is probably more confusing than helpful. Nevertheless I supported initiatives like the Creative Commons. I hate to see everything we play with online become a commodity. It excludes the billions of people who can barely afford electricity and connectivity. With respect to Artistic License, I have changed my approach a little. It’s the first time I’ve invited people to use portrait photos and play with their identities.
There’s a kind of built-in fascination that this kind of tinkering holds for many people. In an earlier moment of online interactivity more people were interested just to see what images they could make, but now I feel like the enthusiasm for exploring and discovering has waned. With the rise of the social networking systems, it takes some effort to get people to spend time outside of the usual online routines like checking email and tuning into tweets.
Marco Mancuso: About that, you work in direct contact with networking human dynamics, what do you think about the possible future of the Internet? I mean: what do you think about the widespread enthusiasm on web 2.0 dynamics, about its capacity to create connections, sharing & information freedom VS the possible risks of a media controlled Internet? What is your point of view and, why don’t you seem interested in developing artworks using social networks and integrated mobile technologies? We could say many pioneering net-artists don’t seem interested in that…
Andy Deck: If we asked the same question about the book, we might observe that it expanded literacy enormously. Is the book counter-hegemonic? Does the book get credit for the late 18th century revolutions? Blame for the holocaust? It may have appeared that almost any use of the Web in the mid-90s was progressive, because of the dominance of broadcast media corporations, but as we move forward, corporate media power now operates through the Internet.
I think there’s still potential for tactical media interventions, but the low-hanging fruit is harder to find. With respect to mobile technologies and social networking, I have certainly considered intervening in those contexts. I’ve been tinkering with a version of Glyphiti for cell phones.
One thing that’s held me back is the complexity of addressing a universal audience in mobile phones. You’re obliged to choose one company’s products or another’s, and it’s been a headache to avoid becoming a partisan, a “developer” for a particular platform. The WWW sprang rather suddenly from Berners-Lee’s rib and wasn’t calibrated, at first, to meet the marketing objectives of the various media conglomerates. Phones have evolved very differently.
Marco Mancuso:At the same time, shifting a little bit to the sphere of activism, I think the Internet will be more and more important to develop new economies and professional structures, which really will become alternative and potentially dangerous to multinational and corporation businesses. I’m speaking about some phenomena never discussed in new media art meetings & festivals like platforms for international cooperation open source software developments, or peer to peer and crowdfunding economies, or again the new models of free information based on citizen journalism & crowdsourcing….
Internet has never been so active and full of potential, so mature, and net artists seem to ignore or sometimes don’t understand it. Something similar to what happens when my mother is in front to the analog videorecorder: which is the right button for fast forwarding?
Andy Deck: Stanley Aronowitz was on the radio recently talking about the generational divide between himself and his daughter, who believes that Internet-based activism is more sensible than traditional methods. I’ve certainly seen the failure of street protests against the Iraq war in the past five years in the U.S. Marches and protests were not being covered in the mass media, so people lost interest in coming out. The last protest I went to in about 2007 was dismal and pathetic. I made a work subsequently called AntiWar404 that features hundreds of abstracts lifted from pro-peace and anti-war websites that have disappeared in the past five years.
What I’ve learned from following the online aspects of the anti-war movement is that there are moments when people will move out of their ideological comfort zone to endorse resistance, and when that moment passes, it’s much more difficult to build a movement. Unfortunately at present it seems that this arc of enthusiasm is governed largely by the corporate mass media coverage of current events. But to the extent that social media, independent media and other cooperative initiatives can be used to catalyze social actions, there is some potential to bypass the futility of the spectacular idiocy that prevails today.
Marco Mancuso:Anyway, activism also always has been of the key point of your artistic research. Possibly integrated with Internet connective potentialities. Altport, to make an example, is a perfect example of how to use Internet in a non-passive way. Also the anti-war archive or the FixNews portal, are really important in a specific activist key.
The question is: first, where do you find time to do everything (as Digicult director, I’m very sensitive about that), and second, how do you still consider being active on the Internet important outside social networks platforms where you’re as cool as your friend if you join the right cause or your post the right rebel news against your “favourite” politician? In other words, do you consider yourself as a white fly, or do you consider yourself and all the people like you as a utopian race at risk of extinction?
Andy Deck: There are aspects of my work with art and interactivity that I feel are counter hegemonic — the effort to develop less passive ways of using electronic media, for example. Even so, war and environmental collapse have a way of making you think about the limits of aesthetics. As you point out, I’ve explored various uses of the Internet as independent media. In response to the ecological crises and the ‘war on terror’ I’ve wanted to expand my activities to address a wide range of concerns that I have about the present and future. It is difficult to keep momentum going in several directions at once, though…
The Bush years were such a waste. Like many people I worked to avoid his presidencies, and a lot of the energy that I poured into that didn’t lead to much of lasting value. Some of the projects from that period, like FixNews and the Anti-War Web Directory have endured better. Since 2001 I’ve been part of a collective called Transnational Temps (transnationaltemps.net) and we have tried repeatedly to bridge art and activism.
I feel like today there’s less resistance to ecological themes in contemporary art. That may be considered a minor victory for us, and thousands of other artists and activists who have moved along a similar path. It’s easy to be despondent about the endless warfare and the political failures of Copenhagen. It’s tempting to recoil into the limited sphere of formalism that I can control. But that’s not the journey I embarked upon. I’ll continue to adapt and expand my aesthetic and political projects in the context of rapidly evolving media systems.
Marco Mancuso: Let’s speak a bit about Fix News: one of the most recent big struggles of the hacktivist international sphere is the eco-war against global warming, deforestation, pollution, extreme weather and so on. Digimag also pays attention to that, and I’m also looking for some reviewer who touches these items for the magazine. I decided to focus on the last COP15 in Cophenhagen, that is also an item inside FixNews of course.
Ok, my questions is: how thin is the boundary between fake official media communication about a key point (like global warming to make an example) and some struggles by the hacktivist international sphere? In other words, how much hackvitism (and we think hactivists should be the most careful people to not fake and miscommunicate about official global media) can sometimes be the victim of its own rhetoric, finding itself fighting about a fake row exaggerated by the media? I’m obviously speaking about the ClimateGate affair, discovered by some Russian hackers on this website.
Andy Deck: One of my side projects, developed in part through a class I was teaching, is Greenwash.biz. It has led me to look a lot at the ways that corporate public relations now use green and environmental symbolism. There’s greenwashing, astro-turfing (fake ‘grass roots’ action), deceptive industry front groups, etc. This asymmetrical information war spreads confusion and mystifies our relationship to the environment. I think the ClimateGate affair can be understood in this context.
The scandal concerned scientists who strayed from scientific objectivity to employ the tactics of information warfare. In the absence of the power to communicate effectively, it makes sense to engage in propaganda. Part of our mission as Transnational Temps is to bridge the gap between scientific consensus and public understanding regarding extinction, global warming, and other ecological issues. Scientists are rarely prepared or inclined to promote their findings, but there’s a lot of free environmental data sitting on servers that can be used by artists and media specialists to visualize the urgent need for behavioral change.
Marco Mancuso: One of the aspects that really fascinated me about the Artistic License project, is the level of irony. You said in a statement: “Instead of biometrics and radio frequency ID chips, Artistic License embraces freedom, collaboration, sharing, and imagination as keys to a more appealing modernity. Your “Artistic License” doesn’t require you to look like yourself, and it does not impose factual restrictions”.
I think you targeted one of the key points of hyper-modern hi-tech net-connected brain-washed society: everyone requires to be different, to not look as his/herself, to not have any restrictions to fantasy. Its much more powerful than Virtual Worlds and much less stressful: you don’t need to recreate an aesthetic mask, you need to create a social mask, trying to be different (more cool, more sexy, more trained, more sporty, more intelligent, more comfortable, more successful) than the poor normal person you are……
Andy Deck: I agree. I couldn’t say it much better. At the same time, though, in a work like Artistic License the last thing I want is to make it feel over-determined. I’m playing with hype, and I think that’s fairly clear. As consumers we’re good at recognizing hype. But this thing I’ve made doesn’t fit neatly into the usual product or service categories, so the marketing rhetoric generates more questions than answers.
Marco Mancuso:Someone can read, behind the Artistic License project, a hidden critique of the contemporary art system. You also said: “with Artistic License anyone can be an artist today, there’s no need for hard work or deep training. No need to know tools or instruments, theories or backgrounds”. Is there any reference to contemporary digital and hypertechno availability of tools to create art without expression? What do you think about it?
Andy Deck: It’s not quite “expression” that motivates me. That term, to me, has a whiff of a romanticized, stereotypical artistic identity that I’m not terribly invested in sustaining. What I’m driving at is something that I think is more fundamental and broadly applicable to how we communicate and invent. The question of who’s in charge when we actuate the interactive ‘language’ of software concerns me. Here’s a metaphor that may speak to italians: the ‘cyber’ in cybernetic comes from steering (Greek kubernētēs ‘steersman’).
Maybe it’s too much to ask to steer on an open sea, but if what we’re steering through is more like canals, there’s good reason to ask who built them, and why, and where they go. Through software, what people think of as ‘creativity’ has the potential to degenerate into a kind of pre-training for shopping: select your wardrobe and home furnishings, kids! The creativity that I would like to sustain is not dependent on commerce or marketing. Even creativity mediated by software doesn’t need to lead to more and more predictable, ersatz ‘inventions.’
With Artistic License I’m trying to examine some of the complexities of creativity, and the bifurcated role of the artist as it’s mapped onto a collaborative online software system. I’m not saying that, despite appearances, interactivity is a one way street. There are aspects of the participation that are unexpected. That’s important and fascinating. But at the same time I’ve systematized and anticipated almost all the forms of feedback that are possible, so my work with interactivity is also about forms of control and freedom within the unusual, cybernetic dynamics of collaboration.