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Interview with Jennifer and Kevin McCoy

Josephine Bosma, 1999 (Josephine Bosma interviewed Jennifer and Kevin McCoy about their project Airworld via email July 1999)
"There is a creepy utopianism developing with Airworld that is no accident."--Jennifer McCoy

Josephine Bosma: What got you started in electronic art? Were you doing any other kind of artwork before it, and if so, was a shift to electronic art necessary in the development of your work, or was it a new direction for you?

Jennifer McCoy: Both of us come from experimental filmmaking. Kevin also had a lot of background in computers and with music, so using electronic media was a way to handle all these concerns in an integrated way. Both of us have made interactive performances and installations as well as single-channel videotapes. When we started making work together, about 1990, video seemed like a way to really dive into the image formally in terms of the image-processing tools that were available. Also, we are both interested in conceptual projects, and the way video began in the United States seemed to fit more with conceptual work than anything going on in the film world.

Kevin McCoy: We studied a lot of critical theory, too. I first studied philosophy.

JB: Are new media the most interesting choices for conceptual artwork today? If yes, why is this so for you? What are the specific qualities of electronic media that make it useful for conceptual artwork?

Kevin: I have always felt an affinity for working electronically because it is such a fast way of working. Speed is the essential thing; working with images/sounds at the same speed that you think about them. There is an instantaneousness of the electronic image that echoes the instantaneousness of thinking. For me, this is what makes electronics good ground for concept-based work--it is a different kind of conceptual art than the conceptual art of the '60s, but I still think it is an apt description for it.

JB: How would Airworld be perceived by, say, an audience that goes to your exhibition, but also surfs the Web?

Kevin: The piece intentionally adopts a very designed look. For the non-art viewer who happens by, there will be little initially to suggest it is not a commercial site. But then the poppy sound loop starts; the voice starts reading texts that don't make much sense; crappy images of products and business people move by, intercut with images of people in strange suits making cryptic gestures. . . . People will be confused. Since the only user-driven functionality is to either move between categories or hit the "reinvent" button, people will realize quickly that they can regenerate new nonsensical messages at will. We like how this positions the viewer toward that commercial culture, and I think it will make for a good experience.

For the show [Airworld] up at Gallery 9/Walker Art Center, there is no other part of the project beyond the banner ads and the website, but in developing these ideas they have expanded to a number of different forms. These forms will be presented in other "versions" of Airworld at other exhibition spaces. We have made a videotape (called Airworld Probe) that will be shown at a screening here in New York City in August, and we are working on a performance that will happen in September.

JB: Your work seems to have a strong performance aspect. Your text about Airworld reads a bit like a description of a play. It reminded me of JET LAG, by Diller + Scofidio and the Builders Association, which dealt with the effect of endless air travel on human life. (JET LAG was shown at the 1998 Dutch Electronic Art Festival.) Could Airworld be compared to theater? What time span does it cover? And is Airworld in any way an extension of your previous work?

Jenn: Airworld is really a new project and is under development on the Web, in video work, and in some sculptural projects that involve the fashion design we've done for the project. We see it, at this point, as open-ended. What began as a mock company is turning into a real organization from which we can critique global economy and feel more agency as artists than we have felt working independently in the past. We've involved a wide range of talented friends and electronic neighbors in this project.

As we told Steve Dietz, we are interested in what will happen with merging video and the Net. We are both interested in ways in which the Net can provide new and more successful distribution for video projects.

Kevin: The most important part of the work is the searching and the combining of algorithms. The results of this process are presented within a smooth, slick (corporate) frame. The time of the piece is the real time of the Internet. The idea of working in real time has been important to our work since the earliest days. It is another tie-in to performance.

JB: What you mean when you say, "The most important part of the work is the searching and the combining of algorithms"?

Kevin: As artists, we are providing two things to the audience through Airworld. I would call the one a frame and the other a "curation." The Airworld frame is the evocation of a corporate presence through language and graphic layout. This "sets the stage." Subsequently, the most important things are the texts/images/sounds that pass through that frame. All of this "content" in Airworld is generated dynamically. It is the product of software that searches, collects, and collages based on parameters that we have defined. The tone, the feel, and the resonance of the work comes from these montages. In this way, we are functioning like curators and it is here that the "artist's hand" comes in. The basic structure of these combinatory possibilities is what we control. This is the primary question for the artist in interactive art: What kinds of combinatory possibilities did the artist create, and what is the tone and implication of those possibilities?

JB: I always get a bit uncomfortable when people say they want to use the Web for distribution. Wouldn't it be more appropriate to put the exploration of video in the Internet/World Wide Web environment first?

Jenn: We agree completely! "Distribution" is perhaps a tough word. The point is this: With the Web there are new possibilities for creating and transmitting work (distributing, if you will). We have no interest is using the Web to send out preset videos. Instead, there are other things to explore. Airworld is an example of that. The video that each person sees is edited on the fly from a collection of basic sequences. They are not pre-edited in any way. They are dynamically generated. We are not even providing much of the material. Most of the images come to Airworld through a search engine, just like the texts do. In this way, Airworld samples the current, banal state of business on the Internet. This is possible only by using the Internet. It is completely specific to the medium and represents a new model for creating and transmitting work.

JB: I quote from your text: "Airworld occurs beyond the point of a specific, discrete location. Applying this idea to net art means that the act of creating a distinct 'art site,' then bringing people to it, is fading."

This made me wonder how you position yourselves as net artists. Do you have to explain to a traditional art audience what art on the net is like, or has net art held onto art institutions more than is necessary?

Jenn: Your question brings up a lot of issues for us ... about the position of art on the net and art in general, for that matter. I'm not sure we do position ourselves as net artists. I know that we love to experiment with untapped areas of communication and expression. I think the Net is resistant to that in general, meaning that the overall face of the Net seems to be becoming more and more like the phone book and resists the kind of psychoanalytic structure that one finds in films and videos. This is not so much a problem as an opportunity to find metaphors that work better. With Airworld, we realized that instead of creating a fabricated metaphor, it was far more powerful to sample from the Internet directly. That's why the text for each section is pulled directly from the business sites where the banner ads will go. We couldn't believe how seamlessly the languages of different technology and business sites flowed together to create essentially meaningless statements. The fact that these are read to you with a synthesized voice underlines the sick comedy of it all.

What is exciting about art on the Internet is the lack of a frame. Being associated with the Walker's Gallery 9 provides an art context for the site, but coming to it directly from the ads provides this ambiguous experience. We have another site called Maintenance Web, which we did for The Thing with Torsten Burns, another video artist. We had tons of email from people who had no idea what this site was. Most probably had never heard of net art but they thought all kinds of things about it: that it was just some wacky sci-fi hobbyist's site, that it was a failed commercial site ("I can't figure out what you're trying to sell" was one of our favorite replies). We thought that was great, although art-world speaking, the work was so anonymous as to be kind of a wasted effort. So I guess the lack of frame is a double-edged sword!

Kevin: The art world, like most things, functions on having a single proper name attached to things. I don't like to think too much about being "net artists." We're artists exploring a variety of different worlds. As Jenn says, we like to experiment with unmapped areas of communication, and we like to explore areas where there is a lot of linguistic invention happening. Of course, each of these areas has its own questions and methods. So when making art projects for the Net, one has to be aware of "net.art."

JB: I realize it is a difficult matter. One is a net artist (in my eyes) the moment one uses the Internet (or any large computer network) or its culture as a strong influence in one's work. The moment you do this--at least for the time being--it has implications because of the net's relative novelty. I was curious how you see it.

Kevin: Airworld is a "reactive" project. It is using the Internet to comment on the commercialization of the Internet (and culture in general). I guess that positions us a certain way. I think this kind of self-reflexive approach to the Net is important now. Otherwise, you are just using it for "distribution" of preset ideas and material.

JB: With Airworld you choose the atmosphere and style of corporate business. This has a tradition in net art. There was the American Express site and list by Heath Bunting; the 7-11 site and list by Jodi, Bunting, Alexei Shulgin, and others; and groups like RTMARK, which uses a complete corporate structure (to name just a few). The difference between these projects and yours seems to be that whereas they use corporate style as a mask or mockery, something that is outside the artists' world, you express the fear that we are already silently "incorporated" ourselves. Aren't you placing doom over your head with such an assumption?

Jenn: I think we are incorporated and it is naive to think otherwise. If we weren't there'd be no way to really understand the situation. Practically speaking, I think most net artists in the United States work within the corporate world to earn a living; they use its tools and benefit symbiotically from technological advances made there. Doom, however, is not on our minds too much.

There is a creepy utopianism developing with Airworld that is no accident. We shot a lot of footage at the World Trade Center in New York City and at La Defense in Paris trying to capture a bit of the zest and excitement of progress that inspired these (OK, doomed) projects. On a larger level, we love being artists but admit that, in the United States, artists occupy a highly marginal place in society. Opinions about social change are not generally solicited from artists, who are, oddly, usually content to push from the "outside." As I said before, creating our Airworld network of people allowed us access to the excitement of the "start-up" without the baggage of money and success.

Kevin: I don't think there is as much distance between them and us as you are suggesting. If we really believed that we were all fully "incorporated" already we wouldn't be doing art; we'd be working and trying to make a bunch of money at some Internet start-up! But I do agree with the statement that we are already "incorporated" in the sense that it is difficult to escape the predominant economic models. The easy adoption of mockery doesn't really set one apart from anything. I am struck by how thoroughly the corporate world has adopted previously "avant-garde" attitudes. Mockery and masking are now basic modes of operation at most media corporations. You have to be a lot more sophisticated now. As a result, our stance is very subtle. In our net art projects we don't announce anything. We try to present the material in an unassuming manner. Playing it straight. But what we present I think then leads to confusion. Confusion is the real weapon against the corporate world. Brand identity is king in the marketplace today--brand confusion must be avoided at all costs! We like confusion. Jodi is confusing, but people know right away that it is something strange. The strangeness of Airworld sneaks up on them.

JB: With your banner ads you perform a kind of counter-contamination, but from a sick body. You act from the role of the oppressed rather than the attacking party.

Jenn: I think the banners are funny and motivational in a kind of self-help way. That's why I like that you said "sick body." "Sick building." All those ways in which oppression happens silently. We have a studio residency in the World Trade Center now and I think of that all the time. I guess it isn't an overt attack ... it's pressure.

Kevin: The banner ads are intentionally very ambiguous and obscure. We could have opted for a "Barbara Kruger" approach and made the ads with clear, confrontational messages. Instead, our messages are strange: "Are you lost? Reorganize" "Option: business as usual" "Welcome, we are air."

I imagine people will be confused, but this confusion is an interruption in the monologue of the market. Because they are banner ads, they will turn up only in places that accept banner ads--that is, places that are already commercialized. So I don't think that they are coming from an oppressed position.

I think our net art is most related to RTMARK, but with a difference of intention. The RTMARK creators are activists. When they copy the Shell Oil site, they use it as a vehicle for presenting real counter-information; the same with their gwbush.com site. They draw attention to the powerful presence that the corporate world has in the democratic process, the environment, etc. We would agree with them about the power of the corporate sphere, but we are not activists in the same sense. Rather than present tactical counter-information, we just try to show that the corporate media sphere is not a seamless entity, that there are cracks and interruptions there.

Our idea is that personal freedom is in those cracks and interruptions. So presenting strange, confusing messages under the guise of a corporate model suggests that there is a sphere outside of the corporate world. At this time, this is an important idea. I suppose we could be critiqued as being not overtly political enough, but I don't agree. And I certainly see our projects in solidarity with those more overt political projects such as RTMARK or floodnet/e.d.t.

JB: Another quote from your text: "The use of banner ads to distribute Airworld across the network will not constitute the only Web presence of the project. The Airworld website itself will also use formal devices to underscore conceptual issues of content. The site will be composed of several sections, mirroring the usual corporate site architecture." With this in mind, where does the most important part of your work take place?

Jenn: In the language/jargon of the site and in the implication of another layer of business (the sci-fi expert team scenario).

Kevin: All of the text in the site and in the banner ads is created automatically. For the banners we have a phrase generator that combines basic words that we find to be "power words" used in business/motivational contexts. The text at Airworld comes from the business sites that host the ads, but it's cut up and combined. The breakups and nonsense of the text are crucial as they are the "interruption" of the corporate monologue.

The text in the demo, which you viewed, was made early on. At that point we weren't collaging the text very much at all. We realized that it was too clean, not ironic enough. We are implementing these changes in the new version of the "jargon machine" (that's what we call the perl script that harvests and mixes the texts). This idea of automatic content creation is a very important idea for us.

JB: Why is it so important?

Kevin: This is just starting to come into the horizon of our thoughts and work, but it is becoming more and more important. The idea of automatic content creation is the next problem brought on by global, real-time computer networks. The speed and capacity of these networks are outstripping the human ability to provide material to supply them. This happened to the general economy before it happened to the media. For the economy to continue to grow at expected rates, mechanisms for buying and selling had to become automated, abstracted, and accelerated. The sophistication of electronic trading networks matured well before the Internet. Now the net, as the vehicle for the information economy, is catching up. There is a real need on the part of media businesses to create abstract, machine-driven algorithms that can produce material that is readable and meaningful to humans. It is cheaper, faster, and more efficient for business. The media are the last refuge of the craft trades: Writers, editors, artists, musicians, and filmmakers are like the blacksmiths, carpenters, potters, etc., of previous centuries.

They are manufacturing the basic raw materials of the economy, and for that economy to continue to grow, the processes need to be automated. I am just outlining a certain line of analysis here. I am not in any way in support of this trend, but I do see it fast approaching--even if we are in the earliest stages of automated content creation. It is another facet of the post-human world we are entering (the most avant-garde stance to take today is to be a humanist). As an artist I want to explore this trend. By trying to create such systems I feel like I am showing their limitations and, at the same time, putting myself in this future world in order to report back on what it is like.

Jenn: Airworld will recombine playlists of video and audio on the fly from a database of images we've made and appropriated. It's harder than we thought.

JB: What is harder than you thought?

Kevin: First, I think Jenn's comment was technical here. It is really hard right now to dynamically generate playlists. It is taking some time and effort to make this thing work the way we had envisioned.

But more important, the reason we are concerning ourselves with corporate culture at all is the fact that, at the level of language, there is an incredible leveling-out and equalization happening there. The fact that you can sample from so many spheres of business and it all more or less sounds the same is a disturbing trend. Why is it that you can talk about finance, travel, computer technology, and fashion all in the same way?

In some ways it's like what Orwell pointed out in 1984--by controlling the language, reducing the amount of words, making a "low resolution language," you are taking away a lot of options for resistance. We want to fight that.

Jenn: As it is developing, Airworld will be a living site that will process and handle as much content as is available from the sites it feeds on. It will combine text from other sites, video from us, and images pulled by using search terms like "networks," "lines of flight," "distribution," "hubs," "soft architecture," and "global capital." As the piece has come along, we have become much more interested in simply putting these words together with their net representations to see what the machine creates.

Kevin: Airworld is evolving to be a series of small projects: The banner ads, the website, a videotape, an interactive video installation, probably a photo project, too. We have consistently worked across several mediums during our artistic lives.

As usual with our work, our ideas are boiled down to a small, dense soup!

Josephine Bosma, 1999. First published by Gallery 9/Walker Art Center for Airworld by Jennifer and Kevin McCoy.