Have you recently ventured into the Contemporary Gallery at the NBMAA? Wondering what the futuristic sound-dome is all about? LIsten in as the artist-mastermind behind The Road Not Taken, Jason Huff, and Curatorial Intern, Emily Sesko, discuss the work and muse about art and life.
Emily Sesko (ES): A few of your projects “zoom in” on an interaction between literature and algorithmic computer functions. How would you say your experiences with these projects, like “AutoSummarize” or “The Road Not Taken” have affected your perspective on literature, or have they not?
Jason Huff (JH): I think about literature differently now. I keep trying to imagine the 30 million or more books on Google Books, plus all of the other texts on sites like Project Gutenberg, and it’s overwhelming. When I created “AutoSummarize,” I was interested in Markov string generators and how computer algorithms could learn English-language grammars. I was curious to find the algorithms’ limits.
In “AutoSummarize,” I use Microsoft Word’s summary algorithm to create the summaries. It was absurd to me that software engineers had built a tool that would let users summarize any body of text to 1% of its original length. (Maybe it makes sense for business documents, but I’m still not convinced.) When I started using Word to summarize entire books, the results were unexpected. Suddenly, I was reminded of all the Cliffs Notes I read in high school, of classic books, only these summaries were even more succinct — ridiculously so. The summaries felt like parodies of the originals, but also true to the way reading and writing has changed over the years.
Microsoft added AutoSummarize to Word in 1997. Each new version includes some upgraded version of the function. There are some basic rules that apply to the summaries; word count, capitalization, etc. Outside of those rules, the algorithm is a bit of a mystery. Making the work was my way of trying to understand two things: one, how Word’s AutoSummarize function produces its summaries, and two, how an algorithm can tell stories.
To me, it is fascinating that algorithms are making content decisions. It’s not a big secret; everyone knows that algorithms power things like Google Search and grammar-correcting word-processing programs. What is interesting is how often people take these complicated equations for granted. If we start to think of them as authors of content — or co-authors — that collaborate with us to generate meaning and poetry, things start to get a lot more interesting. “The Road Not Taken” really points to this idea. It asks viewers to pause and think about the millions of other people and entities who co-create search suggestions, including the algorithm itself, their own personal search histories and current location notwithstanding. The scale of conditional factors is really tremendous, and the way the resulting prosaic language (in the case of Google search suggestions) is presented is meant to feel like a default choice. It’s designed to be seen and clicked, but not really thought about. It’s like Google saying, “Follow the easy paths. We know you like them.”
So I think there is a second author hiding in plain sight, and remixing not only our very interesting historic literature, but also the everyday junk language we use to search the Web. I think phenomena like Google search suggestions are just as influential to pop culture as a pop-novelist whose writing reflects a particular moment. Our own everyday story is being told back to us in these fractured web- and software interfaces all the time. It is its own kind of literature.
ES: To focus on your diagrams for a moment: do you feel that the relationship between artist, culture, and Internet is a positive one, or a negative one? Is the constant-access, instant-gratification nature of the web a help or a hindrance?
JH: I think the relationship between those three is complicated. I make the diagrams as an attempt to both understand the complexities and didactically poke fun at the whole system. The interactions between the three subjects feel precarious. The ubiquity and quickness of the Internet creates some artistic hyperactivity while aesthetic influence is nearly liquified. Sometimes I feel intimidated by the amount of content online, and other times it feels very freeing and full of ideas waiting to be picked up. Overall I would say the relationship is positive, but it can be paralyzing if you become overwhelmed or burnt out. It’s worth nothing that because of the two things you listed in your second question, constant access and instant gratification, it’s surprisingly easy to burn out and feel disenchanted.
ES: What would you say is your greatest muse? Is there anything or anyone in particular that especially inspires you?
JH: Technology. It’s simple but all-encompassing.
ES: Do you spend a lot of time online? What sites do you find the most interesting, or useful, and which ones do you find the least?
JH: I do spend a lot of time online. I like reading blogs like Rhizome, The New Inquiry, and YouTube. My most interesting moments online happen when I’m just poking around and experimenting with different sites and maybe messing with the code in the browser’s web inspector.
I think there was some truth in the work created by the surf clubs from the early 2000s. Sites like Nasty Nets have faded out now, but I think the concept is still a useful method for exploring the web. Spirit Surfers had an interesting methodology that made it a little different. That surf club site was inactive for a while, but it looks like folks are posting there again. I used to look at vvork.com often too, but that wrapped up last December. It’s still a fascinating archive to explore.
ES: Would you say that contemporary art has undergone a complete overhaul with the arrival of a new technological age? Keeping in mind Andy Warhol’s famous words, “Art is what you can get away with,” do you feel that artists today can “get away with” something entirely new and different than artists of generations past? Have we, in a sense, redefined art in general with the new influx of digital art, street art, and other non-conventional forms of expression? Is art more relevant to the masses, or connectible, now than ever before?
JH: First, I don’t think that art has undergone a complete overhaul because of our new technological age. I do think, however, that traditional ways of producing art are augmented by new technologies and platforms. I’m thinking about the way 3-D printing can extend sculpture, the way iPhones can extend photo and video, and maybe the way a network can expand performance — I’m thinking of Ed Fornieles’ 2012 piece “Dorm Daze”. Maybe a performance by 30-plus people on Facebook is something new you can “get away” with? For me, it feels like performance art in a sense, but extended and dispersed. I think Seth Price was writing about this in his essay “Dispersion” at the dawn of the moment we are now experiencing; I think that essay is still relevant now.
All of the traditional methods of making are now kind of wrapped in a network. If there is anything an artist in this moment can get away with that they could not before, it is the ability to be radically influenced — and, simultaneously, radically influential at a scale that was not previously possible. That’s most important. With that in mind, you can imagine that the idea of remix, which has been around since the early 20th century, is voguing in a kind of steroidal and so-ubiquitous-it-is-not-noticeable? kind of way. Artists pick things up from the web and they become materials and methodologies. It all feels pretty fluid.
Can artist get away with new things they couldn’t in the past? I kind of feel like artist are obligated to use non-conventional forms of expression as well as conventional ones. It certainly is a paradox, but I think that’s okay. It seems to me that we’re experiencing more of a cultural shift caused by technological innovation and connectivity that is subsequently influencing art. I think this thought kind of points back to the diagrams as a way to wrap my own head around how the artist and art-making process relate to the cultural moment of post-Internet and global connectivity. Ideally, they are inextricably bound and work things out in a call-and-response kind of way.
I feel like the question of art being more relevant to the masses, or more connectable than ever before, is a huge question to answer. Frankly, there have been a lot of interesting and failed attempts to “bring art to the masses” via the internet. I think the verdict is still out on Artsy.net (Art.sy) but you can see other, bigger companies, like Amazon, jumping into the market. Then there are online art fairs. To me these art-market startups highlight an extreme, which is the market side of the art world. By doing so, they forego the important bits of the actual, seeing-art-in-the-physical-world, off-screen experience. I think the word “connectable” that you used in the question is really interesting here, because in one way people can experience (and purchase) more art than ever together on the Internet. That answer satisfies the networked reality of these new art-market startups — and, in a more humanitarian sense, the mission statements of many online art movements and things like the Google Cultural Institute. But I think there is another face-to-face part of the connection that is required. I’m probably getting some of this wrong here, but I don’t think a satisfying answer to the question is; “Yes, it’s all more connected, and easier, and better, and I can see more openings because I have an app on my iPhone.” There is more nuance and struggle between the various parts that help us understand what it means to be connected to art, both as artist and viewer.
What does all of this access really mean? Does it create a generous critical understanding of art? Does it produce inquiry and inspire more artists? I think the answer here is a soft maybe. You could argue that access produces just as many skeptics as it does devoted fans, which widens the continuum of what you can “get away” with, and makes it more interesting. Because in the end, who determines what you can “get away” with, anyway? You do: you, and the person accepting what you make as a work of art. And that is always changing.
ES: You wrote a couple of years ago about Cory Doctorow’s keynote speech on copyrights and the restrictions that DRM vendors set, perhaps inadvertently, on the creative industries and on creators. One of Doctorow’s points was that we “copy like we breathe,” and there’s a well-known quote by Picasso—“good artists copy; great artists steal.” With the web’s, and computers’ in general, help in the creation of trends like fan art (fiction and otherwise), Photoshop manipulation and collaging, and ease of borrowing and adaptation, do you think the concepts of stealing and copying are in need of redefinition? Is this a new problem/practice, or is it an old one in a new, high-tech costume?
JH: I think copying is old school. It’s been around for such a long time. The moment copying became a serious problem to me, was the year that ideas, images, and words could be legally copyrighted — some 200-plus years ago. I think the pervasiveness of copyright is what was driving a lot of Cory Doctorow’s thoughts in his talk. I remember a course I took a few years ago with Mark Tribe on open-source culture. During that class, I came to the conclusion that copying as an artist was, to use McLuhan’s quote that Warhol borrowed, “anything you can get away with.” To point back to Picasso’s quote though – I think that the difference between copying and stealing relies on a certain amount of cleverness on the artist’s part and, in the end, subjectivity from the viewer. I think copying is pervasive now because it takes little effort to accomplish. I guess that makes it both old and new. Although it’s important to keep in mind that it is both easier than ever to copy, and easier than ever to catch people who are copying and breaking the law. So as one changes, the other catches up, and the advantage either method has is eliminated. I’m thinking of the algorithms that remove YouTube videos right after you upload them because they include copyrighted music. That practice isn’t going to slow down anytime soon. There was also that hilarious lawsuit in which the apparel company Supreme wanted to sue Barbara Kruger for infringing on their brand aesthetic.
Certainly, a large part of art relies on borrowing from your peers and from art history. The boundaries that define copying and stealing pop up when authors enforce their ownership over content. Before that singular action happens, it’s all up in the air. So yeah, it’s kind of an old trick with digital technology making it a more obvious issue for both artists and enforcers (each can play the enforcing role). I do think copyright law needs revision. Mostly because it keeps getting extended by large corporations to fit the lifetime of brand characters (e.g. Mickey Mouse), and in general doesn’t fit the current landscape of peer-to-peer media sharing.
ES: What is your vision of the future? Do you think the present generation of children raised online will have a radically different view of art than Generation X or the Millennials? In other words, do you feel like growing up online will change the way children experience or value the arts?
JH: I think growing up online definitely changes the way you experience the arts. Hopefully you feel like there is simply more art to see and experience than ever before. I’ve noticed galleries making more serious efforts to have an online presence that is curated; Klaus von Nichtssagend Gallery had a sequenced group show that allowed each artist to design the web space to fit their work. Now it looks like they are using that space to show an e-book by Body By Body, which is interesting. Some of the best examples are the Google Cultural Institute and the Metropolitan Museum’s online collection viewer. You can really experience art online in a different way. Sometimes you can look even closer at the work online than you can in person because of the high-resolution documentation. I would imagine that there are more people casually encountering art, whether they know it or not, in Google Image Search too. Who can really say if a generation of people will hold the arts in higher value because of these new tools? I think we’ll have to wait and see what happens.
ES: If you had to sum up your mission as an artist, or the primary takeaway you’d hope to convey to an audience, perhaps just focusing on “The Road Not Taken,” in five words or less, what would they be?
JH: Take nothing for granted.
ES: If you were transported to another time of technological innovation, where do you think you would find yourself? Would you be most interested in experiencing the Age of Exploration, the Industrial Revolution, Proto-Pop/Pop Art, or some other time?
JH: I would choose the future. I’ve read about history, and although I know what actually happened is subtly different from what was recorded, I’m most curious about what happens next. What will happen to all of the data we’re accumulating? What happens to privacy? What happens to all of these social platforms we use? How will machine learning and algorithms change the way we interact with each other, books, and culture at large?