Lubljana Interview with Heath Bunting

published: 
June, 1997

So net.art is hot this year [1997], and the net.artists have mixed feelings about it. In Lubljana the part of the program dedicated to it was not satisfying the curiousity that the net.art thread on Nettime had evoked. What it is or isn't is not the main question at the moment and it probably never was. There are other things at play, which unfortunately were not spoken out loud at the conference. This of course is the choice of anyone involved. When you read this interview however, I think you will see just like I have, how more openness could have made the 'secret' part of the conference, the part where the members of Nettime discussed Nettime's future, even more interesting. Is the list too big? Is it turning into a political platform? Will art-postings be barred from Nettime? Is Geert Lovink secretly an artist? These were some of the questions that came to my mind while typing this out.

The interview was made Tuesday the 27th of May, on the balcony of Kud, one of the Nettime conference meeting places in Ljubljana, Slovenia. Diana McCarthy, Vuk Cosic and others were working somewhere in the building on the last of the conference work, Luka Frelih, who had been running around for all kinds of practical things like guiding guests and arranging technical stuff was getting some well deserved sleep, Geert Lovink, Pit Schulz, Peter Lamborn Wilson, Critical Art Ensemble, Konrad Becker, Marie Ringler and Linda Wallace left that morning for Venice to do a press conference and the dutch delegation was to leave the next morning in an early summer cloudburst.

 

 

Q: I haven't spoken to you about your work for quite a while. Could you tell me what you've been doing from August/September last year up untill now?

 

HB: It’s probably easier to work backwards: At the moment I am working on a closed circuit television camera project across the Internet whereby you can watch various city centers in various countries of the world, for instance Tokyo, Dublin, LA and London. Each of these cameras is linked to a webpage and on that webpage you are encouraged to watch these street locations for various crimes. If you see anything you can type the details into a text box, click a button and this information will be sent directly via fax to the local police station, for instance at Leicester Square. So it’s somehow encouraging people to police themselves and save the police some labour, so they don't have to watch other people.

 

A project slightly before that was a project to do with junkmail whereby you could go to a certain webpage (or it could equally live just as well on a piece of paper) and it could be assigned a fake address, so that you could redirect all your junkmail to this new address. All these addresses aren't actually made up; They are addresses of people that send junkmail, so all junkmail will eventually be transferred from one junkmail company to another.

 

I am currently working on an algorythmic identity. The purpose of a name is to somehow create investment, which is somehow a definition of civilisation. Your name will appear on many databases and this will somehow control you. If a name is algorythmic and changes every time, and if it’s used over a regular time period, it defeats any attempt to track you or your identity. For instance for junkmail companies, that I mentioned before, after one month my identity will become obsolete. Therefore my adress will be obsolete. The form my new official name will be taking now is the first three letters of the month followed by the year. My current identity is may97. So if you want to email me, it will be may97@irational.org. After one month that identity expires and all the messages will bounce from that address. People who know me, human beings, will be easily able to calculate my current identity, whereas computers and static databases will not be able to.

 

Q: What happens to email that is sent to your old adress then?

 

HB: It gets sent back. I don't actually get it. The other day I got fourteen email messages, ten of them were junkmail. This will solve that problem just in one go. Next month, for anybody that somehow has my current identity, will find it worthless.

 

Q: You organised some conferences in the Backspace gallery, London, also. Can you tell me something about that?

 

HB: Backspace is a kind of undefined space with technology in central London, in the bussiness district. These lectures and meetings were centered on networking in the broadest sense. For network politics we had people from road protesting and mail art and Internet obviously. We just tried to broaden these network strategies. I totally lost control of the net.religion meeting. The formula of the meeting went in a way that I had not planned, which is fine, but it is funny to loose total control of something you've organised. People enjoyed it, but it turned into a normal lecture style: someone spoke and everybody listened and there was a discussion afterwards, which I was trying to avoid desperately. Peter Lamborn Wilson, Toshyo Ueno, Hari Kunzru and James Flint were the lecturers. They all wanted a certain style of presentation, which I tried to subvert. I managed that with the net.art meeting, I think. The last one, the net.politics meeting, was the most succesful one because I got everybody drunk first on free gin. There was a kind of celebraty atmosphere. With politics, people get too serious, so that was the idea of getting people drunk: so they were quite happy to say stupid things and risk something. Also, everybody was only allowed to speak for five minutes. There were a few people that broke those rules, but they were poked in the ribs regularly until they shut up. Geert Lovink was one of them, also Richard Barbrook.

 

 

Q: Why do you not want any discussions?

 

HB: It’s not that I don't want discussions. The whole idea of the meetings was to create some discussion, but if you create a certain form of meeting it quite often always follows the same discussions. For instance here we had a meeting about net.art the other day and due to the form of the meeting we got to that age-old discussion: what is and what isn't art. You have to somehow create different forms of conversation, to avoid that and somehow facilitate new discussions. With the 'anti with e' format I tried to have each time a different form of meeting. Every speaker was limited to five minutes and was branded MTV type presentation. People were very sceptical about that to begin with, but once you had sat there for a few hours and had gone through thirty presentations and everybody knew what everybody else did..it seemed to work, people were surprised that it worked. People had to formulate their ideas and present them very concisely and clearly in five minutes. Some people couldn't manage that at all. The worse thing is when you go somewhere and someone rambles on for an hour and you forget what he or she said and they forgot what they said and you're bored and then you want to leave. If a group of people makes an interesting presentation, very short and snappy, you remember it. I won't say there aren't problems with this form, but for me it worked very well.

 

Q: Could you say you are kind of changing territory, from mostly working on the Internet the last year onto other media now, like junkmail, (that is also snailmail right) and conferences?

 

HB: I am always changing. I have had two major threads in my work. One is communications or networking or whatever you want to call that. For years I have been doing things with sending things in the post or via fax or just somehow trying to create theatrical spaces in the street and then the other side to my work is creating meetings, where other people can do things together. It is just that I became quite well known at the same time as the net became popularised. In the city I used to live in, Bristol, I was well known there for many years for doing these things. But I wasn't well known in Amsterdamn then for instance, where as i am now. That is the power of the Internet. Now I am trying to retire. I have been professionalised, I have to think about my future a lot and worry about money and things: I never did before. So I am trying to retire from being a professional artist. One way to do that is run of to Australia this November and not have a future.

 

Q: But you are going to do some work there right?

 

HB: I have tried doing nothing but it doesn't work. I only get more ideas, so I will certainly carry on doing similar things, but I will try not to do it in a professional manner. I can give lectures, but I won't plan them six months in advance. They won't appear on my CV anymore and stuff like that. Its a subtle thing, a thing of form. When you become professionalised you loose the whole essence of what you were before and what you were trying to achieve. I am trying to get back to what I was, but obviously that is not possible. So I will carry on doing the same things but I will just abandon all the nonsense. Professionalism is seen as a step forward from amateurism, but for me it doesn't work. You loose a lot of things when you gain your professional status. You become totally integrated. This year I am in Ars Electronica and Documenta X, which is interesting to go to, but I don't want to become a commodity artist. I am listed in the top whatever 100, 200 artists in the world this year, which means I am a good investment: I don't want to be a good investment. I just want people to see what I am doing and not think about how much it costs.

 

Q: You say you wanted to go back to what you wanted to achieve. What was that then?

 

HB: I like playing. Yesterday I was walking around climbing on things, drawing little drawings with chalk. That’s just as valuable as having a big commission, maybe more so. You actually enjoy it and you're not stressed. You're just being yourself (if that’s possible). I spent many years just walking around the streets. For instance when I had no future at all I would meet all my friends every day. Now I have a future I have to make appointments and I don't meet them very often. I got to a stage in London, where I would fill up my diary with appointments to see friends, and none of us would be able to keep the appointments. So I have abandoned that. Now I just bump into them by accident. It’s about this future thing: you can spend all your life worrying about your future and not living now. Certainly if you engage with the artworld, you get into worrying about the future all the time: Is your work going to be ready for the opening? Are people taking you seriously? Should you do this, should you do that? I just want to leave that behind.

 

Q: Let’s talk about Nettime now. What did Nettime mean to you?

 

HB: In the past? When I first got involved in Nettime it was a context for things that I did. I seem to remember it as a small group of people that did similar things but that now seems to have changed into a very large group of people, which I cannot really consider my context anymore. For instance, there was somehow a bit of a restructuring, and I think the original people have realised that they were missing their context, so we got back together again just by sitting around eating dinner. With my work for instance, it is very difficult to say: what do you think is this idea?- in front of two hundred people. But when you're with ten people and you've known them for years you can develop your work quite a lot. Nettime has shifted from the original, it sounds a bit strong but, it’s changed. It works for the majority of people but it doesn't really work for me anymore. So I resigned about four weeks ago. We will meet regularly. We don’t have a group. There has been some kind of talk about the net.art conspiracy group, which is totally not the case. We don't want to take control of anything or be a faction. It’s just important for us to have a context. For instance Alexei (Shulgin - Moscow WWWART) has just done a new piece of work, called form art, which makes reference to Jodi's work (www.jodi.org) and it makes a bit reference to mine. We all make reference to each other’s work and I couldn't do my work in isolation, so it is important to have people around you that you can communicate clearly with and see their work. I thought originally that was the point of Nettime, for people to somehow exchange those things. Now it seems its a bit too big for that and it’s intentions are other than that. I am not sure to what, but they have changed.

 

Q: Of course Nettime has grown and it is still a meeting place, but there are many more people around, which brings upon it new problems, along with new benefits and challenges. I can imagine that for the kind of work you do it’s quite challenging to work in such a big group of people.

 

HB: I would say that for me, Nettime has gone from a context to an audience. In the past I would post something to Nettime and people would respond to it. They would know why I had done it and they would make comments and take the work forward. If you post something to Nettime now: you get silence. Maybe you even get an angry message from the moderator stating that you have made an inappropriate post. It has gone from something very informal to a very rationalised, academic textual environment. Most things are very long. I won't say that’s bad, but it has changed. I am not an academic reader, I like to see short things. People on the list seem to think short things are not as valuable as long. I will not fight or try to change it. I will just find another context or create a new one.

 

Q: Yesterday someone said to me that net.art is the flowers on the table of Nettime. I wouldn't like to see those flowers disappear.

 

HB: It is the flowers on the table now, but it didn't use to be. Maybe my memory is faulty. When we sat down in Venice with people like Paul Garrin and myself and Pit Schulz and Vuk Cosic, they are all people that are somehow working artists. Even when that word obviously has problems. For instance Paul Garrins Name.space project: some people say it’s a commercial art project. I think it’s an art project. He is doing something now and he is engaging with a real environment. I try to do the same and other people try to do the same. But Nettime has somehow changed; most of the people on the list are not that kind of people now.

 

Q: What kind of people?

 

HB: It is very difficult to say what kind of people.

 

Q: Couldn't it be that net.art just needs a stronger presence maybe?

 

HB: I could have exerted my presence more forcely at this meeting but I am not here for a power struggle. For me it is easier to go away and do something else.

 

Q: I am not saying power struggle, I am just saying have a presence. When we meet and you stay silent, its like you are not there. If you engage, join in on a conversation that means that you are part of the community.

 

HB: There are things you say internally and things you say externally. I am quite happy to talk about art and things amongst my friends, but I wouldn't necessarely say that I am an artist in a certain public context. Then you bring a whole group of associations that might actually work against your work. A lot of the things with net.art, is that it is an invisible art, it tries to not have that bagage. A lot of the work is about hoaxing or faking or rewriting. So if you say: this is an artwork, you've blown the cover immediately.

In a group of a hundred people I won't tell why I do these things or tell my techniques, because they are now the audience and not my context. It’s very difficult to discuss your work when you have an audience. I don't say its bad, but it has changed, we crossed a border. I think we crossed the border last year in Budapest. The meeting obviously didn't work for the people I know, but it worked for most of the people there. It certainly didn't work at this meeting anymore. Thats why we for instance went off and had dinner and did not argue with people. We just talked about arty things (laughs) that a lot of the activists or political types here would not be interested in or would find maybe even repulsive to talk about (different colours and things like that, different forms). Jodi's work for instance, if you look at the political content of their work, it doesn't line up with a lot of political theories that have been discussed here, but their work is very interesting from an aesthetic background. They are strong formalists. I would say I am not or very rarely a formalist. There was very little sense for them coming except for talking to the other net.artists. What is their interest with the changing political situation in Albania? There is none for them. And for me, maybe there is one day. In Nettime things like that seem to be the main thing, to bring all these underground political groups together that use networking sometimes as a tactic or to solve their problems. It has shifted.

 

Q: I have the feeling that you are acting from a prejudice about other people. I mean you push these 'activists' in a corner and generalise in a way that you do not want to be judged yourself. So I really think, although I can understand a choice from your being an artist to unsubscribe (because you think its not a proper context because you as an artist don't feel like you can expres yourself there), still I don't think it is completely impossible for you to work in such an environment. It’s a matter of overcoming on all sides always.

 

HB: I try not to generalise and I hope I'm not prejudice about these people. But in a conversation, when we talk about four hundred people its quite difficult to not generalise, unless you name everyone specifically and what they do. That is almost impossible anyway, because I know some people that you could not even catagorise if you tried until you were blue in the face. It’s not a question whether you can work or not in that environment, it’s about actually producing the work. It is very difficult to produce work in a public environment, to somehow mess around and try things out and fail. That’s what I mean by the context, so you do that amongst friends and other people engaged with similar things. After that you bring it to an audience. Nettime has gone from my context to an audience, because of its size and also the way it has changed. Obviously somehow, I am a theorist or whatever, I am not sure. Some of these things I develop might be very useful for these very real problems that people have, like in Albania were things don't work, or maybe they won't. It is very important that people have a water supply. I would never say that the aesthetics of a webpage is more important then somebody's physical health. But it is not what I am good at, I am not working at doing the plumbing. Sometimes its good to come together and work together with plumbers, but not always, I am not a plumber-artist.

 

Q: So you are changing to more various networks now?

 

HB: I am always looking to do that. Nettime is not the only reason to be on the Internet.

 

Q: I was wondering whether for instance your experiments with these conferences you organised is connected to frustrations you may have with this mailing list and the way things are developing in the net? HB: Not really, I think I do as much work on the net as I ever have done. I think once you're known for one thing your other work becomes invisible. I have been walking around doing grafiti here but most people don't know that. I also quite like that, because then this work that I do with chalk is not really a public thing. People see the work for itself; I don't do lectures about it. I would like to say, on the subject of Nettime, even the leaders of Nettime, who claim they are not leaders, I like very much as individuals. You have to distinguish between individuals and groups and organisations. There has been some discussion about Nettime, and even argument about it, but I have no bad feelings towards the individuals involved in that. For instance I am going to Berlin and I will be walking around the streets with Pit, having a nice chat about things. But maybe we were bitter enemies here, as our roles: he was the moderator and I was the bad schoolboy (laughs). You have to see the differences, what roles you are put in by other people and not take them too seriously, somehow subvert them.

 

Q: What do you think of the whole discussion by non-net.artists about net.art?

 

HB: I did pose a question to Geert Lovink about this audience thing. I think it is a valid tactic to say to an audience you're not an artist. It relieves you of historical bagage. But then when you are in a group when you are trying to develop work and exchange ideas, I think its quite often distracting to say you're not an artist. You have to communicate with people to develop things. So I challenged him on this, but he still claims he is not an artist. I find that quite interesting, since his appearance at Documenta. Maybe he is not an artist is private AND public, but I haven't managed to get my head around that yet. These things of denying and saying one thing and not the other are very useful, but when you are doing it to yourself or other people you are trying to include within your secret, to communicate your secret to, it confuses people, me included. When someone says: you're an artist? in private, I would probably say yes, but in public I say no, I am just nobody. Depends on the context.

 

Q: But the net.art thread on Nettime: there was David Garcia, Carey Young, Rachel Baker, me, Robert Adrian, John Hopkins and more...that discussion.

 

HB: I think net.art this year is a very tricky subject. It has been picked up by institutions, Its like money, people want it but when they get it they are still not happy, because it is a symbol for something else. Money symbolizes many things. People talk about things, but they are really talking about something else. I think there are many hidden agenda's and hidden desires and frustrations that come into play when something becomes institutionalized or succesful.

 

Q: You mean hidden frustrations from the people that try to discuss it?

 

HB: I think everybody on the list have different reasons to be on the list. When something becomes hot, they all bring their bagage along.

 

Q: But it is not a matter of *hot*ness is it? That sounds like it is a fashion to me. People react from quite a primary feeling to what they think is not right.

 

HB: Net.art is hot this year. I remember saying at the first 'anti with e' thing (the net.art secret conf), "this is the year for net.art and we've got to be very careful. It is very easy for it to be picked up and hyped and then discredited and that’s the goodbye to our context. So we have to somehow play it very carefully this year." So I digressive it back to the list. It is just a difficult year and with difficult issues. The term net.art, for instance, for many of the practioners is a joke and a fake. Somehow it has been taken seriously though.

 

Q: It was not completely a joke.

 

HB: No, but for instance if you talk to Alexei Shulgin about what he will do next, he is one of the main people to take net.art forward, whats he gonna do next: he's going to Brazil and photograph children. He is looking for a new context. He is from Moscow and he is an eastern artist. He fits perfectly in the Nettime rethoric of charity for impoverished artists. He has succesfully exploited that. He comes to these meetings, he says very little, just goes out eats dinner. He is in another country. He never talks about politics really, he talks a little tiny bit about art issues and that’s that. It has been a good zone for him to use. He will probably drop that soon. That is the problem with investment; a lot of people come to these media just as a temporary thing, just as a temporary tactic. They devote a lot of energy to that and taking up investment. Then they stay and then they somehow lost their original intention. Someone like Alexei is succeeding I think, he has jumped from many things, from the video art context to the computer context and he will go to the next context. Each time being the impoverished Moscow artist. When he used to sell images, you know, things on walls, it was because he was from Moscow that he would get them sold. People go:" O Moscow, that must be a very interesting place!" "Those pesky soviet union types..." He does the same now. I am the same as well. People think that I am from London and that I must be very interesting, because there is a good music scene at the moment.

 

Q: I think you have most of your 'charity' built on your grafiti-past. Or your street artist image.

 

HB: But I don't fit in the fashionable street art thing. I don't wear certain baggy trousers. I don't listen to hiphop. That was the area that was very fashionable. I just walked around doing little things with chalk. It’s a bit of a cynical comment and a bit of a joke, but there is some truth in it.

 

 

webcam neighbourhood watch project

http://www.irational.org/cctv/

 

junkmail project

http://www.irational.org/junk/

 

Anti with E lectures

http://www.irational.org/cybercafe/backspace/

 

 

 

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