By Eva Kekou, 4Humanities International Correspondent
Alessandro Ludovico is a media critic and editor in chief of Neural magazine since 1993, for which he received an honorary mention from the Prix Ars Electronica in 2004. Hi Alessandro!
Eva Kekou: Can you give us some info about your background, work and how you first got interested in digital culture?
Alessandro Ludovico: I studied Computer Science, but I was passionate about zine publishing, experimental music and arts (especially underground and mail art). Digital culture was the perfect synthesis of all of that, proposing a new networked platform onto which I could develop and connect contents from a very new perspective.
EK: I know your work as a contributor and founder of Nettime and Mag.Net. Could you please enlighten us a bit more your work as an author or contributor for Neural Magazine?
AL: In 1991, I worked as a graphic designer for Minus Habens Records, an underground electronic music label, and we published a slim printed guide to virtual reality, called ‘Virtual Reality Handbook’, which was packed with an inspired music CD. It was quite successful, and it sold out in less than a year. Then I decided to fund, together with the owner of the label, a new magazine about the cultural implications of new technologies. That’s how Neural was born, and we were able to print the first issue in November 1993, just five months after the first Wired issue.
We covered topics like cyberpunk, electronica and BBSs at large, but we also tried to give them a proper visual frame. We cared a lot about design and how it could have expressed the electronic culture in a sort of printed ‘interface’. Since the beginning, I’ve made most of the interviews, but we’ve involved many people in contributing to the magazine. In a way the magazine benefitted a few years later from the cultural boost of the Nettime list and the net.art movement, as well as it was important to form the Mag.net network of magazine editors dealing with new media art.
Furthermore, when I started Neural I didn’t want to start a community, but to serve an existing community, with the most idealistic journalistic approach: connecting info and ideas to let people find inspiration in order to develop their own projects, working with others, in a sort of open info-node.
EK: I am myself very interested in Neural Magazine. I understand that is hard today to maintain both an online and a print magazine as well as to maintain a wide audience worldwide. I would like to get more details about this as well as about your future goals for Neural Magazine and how it could contribute more to the current media art scene. Do you think that online magazines take over print ones in addressing an online audience?
AL: It’s not easy of course. The printed Neural is distributed through four major distributors in Europe (covering parts of Asia), the U.S.A., Canada and Australia/New Zealand. It’s printed in 4,000 copies. It has around 500 subscribers from all over the world, and among them 180 libraries. The Neural website, which is fully translated into Italian, went online in 1997 and it hosts more than 6,000 pages visited by around 190,000 unique visitors every month.
The two media (print and online) have different roles: the print magazine is meant to be a long lasting medium, with different reading characteristics and complying with a few journalistic standards. The online magazine (we also have a cheaper digital edition on sale online) is meant to be searchable, updated daily (including the social network channels we use) and to be more flexible. I don’t think online will take over print (I’ve researched this quite extensively in the Post-Digital Print book). My mission is to let Neural evolve (as it’s evolved till now), to continue to contribute to the media art debate and scene, embracing new challenges.
EK: Together with Uebermorgen and Paolo Cirio you have created the artistic project ‘Google Will Eat Itself.’ Could you give us some more details about the project, particularly about how Google viewed the project and reacted to it?
AL: In 2005 I developed the project ‘Google Will Eat Itself’ with Paolo Cirio and Ubermorgen that was based on a simple but effective hack. We produced a fake website formally focusing on online marketing culture and then subscribed the website to the Google AdSense program. This program let you publish Google-served advertisements on your website. Google then paid you a small amount of money for every click on such advertisements. What we did then was to open a Swiss bank account that automatically bought Google shares as soon as the sum obtained with the Adsense program reached the latest Google share price.
So, in a bizarre but perfectly working way, Google was giving us the money to buy itself (through its own ad program and its own shares). We choose a Swiss bank account, indeed, because Google was worth more than the Swiss bank’s total value. After a while, Google shut down our first AdSense accounts, so we developed a software that automatically made so-called ‘fraudulent’ clicks every time a visitor accessed the website. It was accomplished by simulating an abstract average visitor’s behavior, and strangely enough, it definitively worked.
However, GWEI is a conceptual artwork, and that should be summarized in the note made by a Village Voice journalist in his review. He wrote: ‘at the current rate we’ll need more than 200 million years until GWEI fully owns Google.’ Google didn’t react in the beginning until we got a substantial number of responses from the press. Then Google Germany sent a letter which was not written in the usual ‘Legal Jargon,’ but more or less stated: ok, we understand it’s art, but you have to stop it now. We simply ignored it.
EK: Ιt seems to me you look at the online corporation with irony. From this irony emerged ‘Amazon Noir’ and ‘Face to Facebook.’ Can you brief us about both projects, the concepts behind them and where they got exhibited? What were your aims and how did Amazon and Facebook react?
AL: In ‘Amazon Noir,’ we wanted to experiment with text and copyright, i.e. the intrinsic technical paradox of protecting an electronic text from unauthorized copying. Amazon had a book selling killer feature: it was called ‘Search inside the book’ and it offered the possibility of searching the entire text of the book with keywords, returning sorted results of every found occurrence. We exploited this mechanism, stressing it to its own limits, writing software that through 2000-3000 queries obtained the whole book text and automatically saved it as a pdf. We weren’t able to obtain pictures, but in the end we had the same text as the original with a few codes that Amazon database software adds at the beginning and end of each page.
So, we stole some books, made them freely available through BitTorrent files and made an installation with an incubator containing a reprinted version of one of the stolen books, with a sign outside stating: ‘The book inside the incubator is the physical embodiment of a complex Amazon.com hacking action. It has been obtained exploiting Amazon’s “Search Inside The Book” tool. Take care because it’s an illegitimate and premature son born from the relationship between Amazon and Copyright. It’s illegitimate because it’s an unauthorized print of a copyright-protected book. And it’s premature because the gestation of this relationship’s outcome is far for being mature.’
What we did next was to narrate this whole process through a Noir narrative, a classic 20th century genre and very appropriate to describe ‘crime’ as we did. We were the bad guys (that in the end lose), Amazon was the good guy, and we were both fighting for the Femme Fatal attention, that in our case was embodied by the media. ‘Amazon Noir’ were exhibited in quite a number of exhibitions, also winning the 2nd prize in the Transmediale Award 2008.
‘Face to Facebook’ was the final piece in the trilogy ‘Hacking Monopolism,’ developed by me and Paolo Cirio. Through special custom software, we collected data from more than 1,000,000 Facebook users. What we collected is their ‘public data’ – some of their personal data (name, country, Facebook groups they subscribe to) plus their main profile picture and a few friend relationships. We built a database with all this data, then began to analyze the pictures that showed smiling faces. The vast majority of pictures were both amateurish and somehow almost involuntarily or unconsciously alluring. And they are almost always ‘smiling.’ It’s also evident that the majority of users want to look their best. They are acting on Facebook’s mandatory mechanism: establish new relationships. Facebook is based on the voluntary uploading of personal data and sharing it with friends. The more friends the better. Being personal and popular, a Facebook user is exposing him/herself to many others, continuing to establish new relationships.
Once the database was ready, we studied and customized a face recognition algorithm. The algorithm used self-learning neural networks and was programmed to ‘group’ the huge amount of faces we collected (and their attached data) in a few simple categories. The categories are among the most popular that we usually use to define a person at a distance, without knowing him/her, or judging based only on a few behaviors. We picked six categories (‘social climber,’ ‘easy going,’ ‘funny,’ ‘mild,’ ‘sly’ and ‘smug’ – working definitions), with some intuitive differences, for both male and female subjects.
The software effectively extracted 250,000 faces that were connected to the relevant public data in our database. After grouping them, we started to dive into these seas of faces, with all the perceptual consequences. And we started to think about why we felt so overwhelmed.
So in combining all this information, we wanted to make this further step easier for everybody. We established a dating website (www.Lovely-Faces.com), importing all the 250,000 profiles. This step builds the virtual land that Facebook is always close to but never explicitly becomes, being just an enormous background to the active process of searching for potential sexual relationships. The profiles are definitively ‘single’ and available, in a fairly competitive environment, with real data and real faces that users have personally posted. Their smiles finally reach what they unconsciously really want: more relationships with unknown people, attracted by their virtual presence. The price users pay is being categorized as what they really are, or better, how they choose to be represented in the most famous and crowded online environment. The project starts to dismantle the trust that hundreds of million people have put in Facebook.
We were then threatened by Facebook with a lawsuit for eight months, had to take down the dating website after 10 days and thousands of personal reactions, and got more than 1100 press responses.
‘Face to Facebook’ was exhibited in many exhibitions and festivals in different cities in the world, winning also an Award of Distinction in Prix Ars Electronica 2011.
EK: What do you think about digital art, media art and culture in Italy? Can you inform us about big festivals and organizations that take place in Italy? How is digital art and media art understood in Italy? In your view, what is the advantage of these mediums and/or what do they lack?
AL: In Italy there are people and events that have been important, if not crucial, for media and digital art. There are some unique private and public video art collections, and there have been different initiatives in the last couple of decades. Just to name a few: the Nettime list was founded during the Venice Biennial involving protagonists of the Italian scene, net art pioneers like 0100101110101101.org, Tommaso Tozzi, and younger but widely recognized net artists like Paolo Cirio, Jaromil, Molleindustria or Les Liens Invisibles, and very specific festivals like Interferenze or Share. And if we extend the field a bit, we can include mail art pioneer and historian Vittore Baroni, media art icon Gianni Toti, Programmed Art movement artists, and less known artists like Pietro Grossi, who made the first telematic live music performance in the sixties. But the problem is that, in Italy, we have such a huge classic art heritage that there’s almost no room nor public funding for contemporary art, including digital art. So it’s something that is made for an elite, but this elite is usually very fond of what’s happening and, as abroad, the community includes smart people with very different backgrounds and who engage with quite a range of disciplines.
These artists embody in their work a specific political approach, which seems connected to the history of this country and its distinctive relationship with the media, especially with media art.
EK: In your experience, how do big organizations and conferences abroad compare to the ones in Italy?
AL: It’s quite different, especially considering scale and the amount of funding involved. But usually people involved in this kind of events in Italy are, or have been, part of the ‘scene’ so they are doing their very best to get the most from any opportunity (institutional or independent), and sometimes the quality achieved is surprisingly high compared to the resources (the same also happens in various other places around the world).
EK: Ι know you teach interface aesthetics at the Academy in Carrara. Can you give us some more informatin about your teaching, how you see your role as an instructor, and your relation with students?
AL: My teaching is quite open, mostly different (and updated) each year from the previous one, and I try to involve the students as much as possible. The instructor should give students something that they can’t find online, mainly his experience and vision, being able to communicate both to them, and so speaking a language that can be understood. The majority of my students have been quite responsive during the last ten years and in some cases I’ve offered some kind of support after they graduated. I don’t know how it’s going to change, but I can see how students now seem to think that everything they need to know is online somewhere and how their attention span has slightly decreased during the years. My impression is that more than technology, what is going to radically change in education is attitude, being able to question assumptions and prove statements at the same time.
EK:. Coming from a southern European country, I am very interested to know what the situation in academia is in Italy. What do you think about the universities, opportunities they give to teaching staff and students, their academic plans and their connections with the artistic scene or market? What is the difference between universities in Italy and universities in central or northern Europe or United States? What do you gain the most as a lecturer at an Italian university?
AL: The academic environment in Italy is not idyllic at all. There is an established pyramid system that has never been seriously challenged, with old professors maintaining power over infrastructures and research, sometimes also through their relatives hired in strategic positions. It’s a kind of a feudal system, which is killing a lot of brilliant young minds who are escaping abroad and expressing their great attitudes there. There are a few who resist, but they are able to accomplish a lot. The fine art academy system (where I teach) is a bit different. It’s more open to contract-based collaborations, and there are good initiatives that last for quite some years.
Academies are a bit more connected with artistic scenes and the market, but mainly through a few active persons within them. The truth is that for students, there are very few chances to develop curricula for contemporary art in Italy. What I gain as a lecturer is the relationship with the students that can be enriching on both sides, and it’s exactly the same with some colleagues. I think that sharing knowledge with the new generations is extremely important for the future.
EK: What projects are you working on now?
AL: I’m quite busy with various projects, which are stemming from book I’ve recently published: Post-Digital Print – The Mutation of Publishing Since 1894 (the result of a fellowship a the Willem de Kooning Academy in Rotterdam and that can be downloaded for free from here: http://monoskop.org/log/?p=4165). In fact, on the same topic, I’ve been co-curating four days of workshops within Transmediale 2013 with Florian Cramer and Simon Worthington. And for one and half years (until March 2014) I’m curating the online exhibition “Erreur d’Impression” at Jeu de Paume in Paris (http://espacevirtuel.jeudepaume.org/erreur-dimpression-1674/), which includes new commissioned works, lectures and public performances.
Concerning Neural, the new website (which is being built by two members of the Libre Graphics collective) will include our most important new project at the moment, called ‘Neural archive,’ which is about publishing a ‘catalogue of publications’ references dealing with new media art. Since Neural is almost 20 years old we’re going to publish this catalogue by spring with references to everything we have received during all these years, including index and cover pictures. It’ll be a free resource for scholars and researchers and hopefully also a way to implicitly promote and historicize the work of those who have worked in this field for a long time.
EK: What are your future projects, aims and plans?
AL: Among my commitments is of course the continued production (and evolution of) Neural and the development of collateral projects (some of which I’ve mentioned.) Furthermore, I’m doing a special PhD at Anglia Ruskin University in Cambridge, which connects to my main research at the moment: the historical, artistic and industrial relationship between traditional and online publishing. I hope to find a place to continue this research, which seems quite promising and vast, but nevertheless crucially important.