Aram Bartholl“The Internet: transforming society and shaping the future through chat.” (Dave Barry writer and humorist)

Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit, Rabbit!

It’s a ‘buzz’ word for the moment – ‘social networking’. Millions of us are currently, yes right now, cosied up in front of a computer screen – chatting! Chatting online, through chat rooms, applications, devices, platforms, forums with ‘friends’. That is ‘friends’ in the digital sense! Friends we know, friends we don’t, friends of friends, friends we’ll meet, friends we won’t. Back in the day, social networking was achieved whilst quaffing free champagne and devouring delicate volovants off a silver platter. But that old style interaction is the new ‘disconnected’! It’s a new era. As my ‘friends’ (that’s category A, the ones I actually really know) will attest to; I’m rarely offline. In fact my ‘Away’ or ‘Not Available’ status is truly reserved for those occasions when I’m loitering in real-time on terra firma, really quaffing champagne (albeit not free) with my non-virtual group of category A’s!

It is true! Google it! Almost everyone is into it. This new digital era where time, space and the continuum divide is lost. You can find and chat to just about anyone – that is anyone hooked up – about anything, at any time and from anywhere.

But where will this all lead? This “transforming and shaping of the future”. Is there a point where the ‘Online’ and ‘Offline’ converge? Berlin based artist, Aram Bartholl, through a number of his – I’ll take over this public space – exhibitions, including the exhibit ‘Chat’, is posing these very questions. “In which form does the network data world manifest itself in our everyday lives? What comes back from cyberspace into physical space? How do digital innovations influence our everyday actions?”

Aram Bartholl

In the true essence of online chat – we chatted online!

[16:11:33] Aram Bartholl:
ok, here we go

[16:11:40] Aram Bartholl:
chat chat 😉

[16:11:44] Deborah Causton:

[16:11:47] Deborah Causton:
how’s it going?

[16:11:53] Aram Bartholl:
fine thx

[16:11:56] Aram Bartholl:
and yourself?

[16:12:04] Deborah Causton:
all good here…

[16:12:24] Aram Bartholl:
you are in Luxembourg now?

[16:12:35] Deborah Causton:
yeah… have you been here before?

[16:12:49] Aram Bartholl:
no, I haven’t

[16:12:56] Aram Bartholl:
and it’s a pity I am not coming myself to perform ‘Chat’, because I am busy with a workshop in Berlin

[16:13:15] Deborah Causton:
it’s a fantastic little place… very beautiful

[16:13:23] Deborah Causton:
yes, that is a shame

[16:13:34] Aram Bartholl:
yes, but next time I will

[16:13:40] Deborah Causton:
I do love Berlin, very creative place!

[16:13:55] Aram Bartholl:
yes, it’s a good place to live

[16:14:03] Deborah Causton:
I thought about it, moving there, maybe one day

[16:14:21] Aram Bartholl:
yes sure, everybody is thinking of that! 😉

[16:15:06] Deborah Causton:
moving to Berlin, I’m sure… it is still affordable housing, unlike the rest of Europe

[16:15:22] Aram Bartholl:
yes, it’s cheap but most people earn money somewhere else, economy is not so good

[16:15:55] Deborah Causton:
money is not everything 🙂

[16:16:34] Aram Bartholl:

[16:18:08] Deborah Causton:
anyway… the first question I have as an opener

[16:19:00] Deborah Causton:
was – you’ve stated before you are trying to establish a link – “What I try to do is to establish a connection, a link between the digital, virtual world and the real world.” What would you say would be your fundamental purpose in this objective?

[16:19:16] Aram Bartholl:
I think somehow it is the other way around. The potential of the social web is that all users can start creative projects and share them with everybody. From the masses to the masses. Somehow leaving the art business on the side, so art comes from the public!

[16:20:44] Deborah Causton:
But do you not feel that the public need guidance, in that not everybody is creative nor thinks with a creative purpose?

[16:22:03] Aram Bartholl:
The tools / languages are maybe a bit limited. YouTube, for example, is just small clips and it is all about attracting attention to your clip. But, this development is definitely a new cultural era!

[16:22:12] Aram Bartholl:
to your question… I’m not so interested in really connecting on and offline, in a sense of…

[16:23:30] Aram Bartholl:
(one moment)

[16:24:43] Aram Bartholl:

[16:24:48] Deborah Causton:

[16:25:11] Aram Bartholl:
…streaming media in the net and out again. I’m more interested in building bridges. To think about how we use the net and how it relates to everyday life. For example; it is very normal for us to chat right now. Yet it is a big difference to talk face to face (even on the phone is the first virtual step).

[16:27:01] Deborah Causton:
Would you consider it almost a social experiment?

[16:27:31] Aram Bartholl:
hehe, yes a very big one. but in fact it is not an experiment. It just happens and we have to learn how to use these new communication channels and be aware of the difference.

[16:28:48] Deborah Causton:
How important is this evolution of social networking in its ‘virtual’ form on your work? Do you see it as an ongoing reflection of what you will do?

[16:30:04] Aram Bartholl:
In fact it is funny that everybody is so excited about the NEW social web because the social aspect is not new at all. That is something very old, basic… families, groups, villages. Social is human! But in opening up these new channels and platforms (which do have advantages to real life) everybody is excited about it. The social web development is just one of the branches I follow with my work. I’m curious to where this development will lead.

[16:33:00] Deborah Causton:
But the reasons now, why we network, do you think they have changed, developed, differ? Is that something you consider?

[16:33:54] Aram Bartholl:
Sure, online relationships differ very much to offline friendships. The online world has its very own culture and develops much faster. But, our day to day life in public space is not yet influenced so much by these networks.

[16:35:07] Deborah Causton:
Do think they will be in the future?

[16:35:32] Aram Bartholl:
I think so, but it will take more time. Although web development is so fast!

[16:35:58] Deborah Causton:
How do you imagine the digital (virtual) world becoming more integral to the offline environment?

[16:36:30] Aram Bartholl:
The majority of people on the net use email and standard web as the main thing. Twitter and all the new services will take more time to get accepted by the masses. It is a good question. It is always a question I am posing, but I don’t yet have a unique answer to it. But the literal way I’m transforming online symbols to offline objects exactly addresses this question. Google, for example, will not put up big red markers in a city [‘Map’ Project]. But, I’m sure at some stage someone, like Google, will address billboards with location awareness advertising.

[16:40:14] Deborah Causton:
So your work, in a sense, begins to address this issue, bringing a possibility for people to socially network, grasp virtual possibilities in public places?

[16:41:28] Aram Bartholl:
Yes, that’s one part of the idea. To think about the different rules we use on and offline. To be aware of the difference in meeting somebody face-2-face in a cafe or just on Facebook or Skype 😉

[16:42:29] Aram Bartholl:
(I can’t see you. I can’t hear you. What is your body language…?)

[16:42:52] Aram Bartholl:
Are you pretty… 😉

[16:42:56] Aram Bartholl:

[16:43:03] Aram Bartholl:

[16:43:13] Deborah Causton:
I don’t look to dissimilar to my avatar…

[16:43:14] Aram Bartholl:
There’s a good example.

[16:43:21] Deborah Causton:

[16:43:27] Aram Bartholl:
I dare to say things like that on chat but I wouldn’t do it in reality.

[16:44:16] Deborah Causton:
What are your personal views about the way people interact… do you think you gain more from a telephone call or a real meeting than, for instance, this kind of chat?

[16:45:17] Aram Bartholl:
Of course!

[16:45:29] Aram Bartholl:

[16:46:27] Aram Bartholl:
Ok, back!

[16:46:39] Aram Bartholl:
That’s the difference with online chatting…

[16:47:01] Deborah Causton:
What about Second Life is that not one step too far? In that you really are creating another dimension, almost a fantasy…?

[16:47:53] Aram Bartholl:
(To the question before…) Sure to meet and talk in real life is still the most important… I think! While giving a workshop like ‘Friends’, the communication around the table is an important point to the piece. People who don’t know each other not only get in contact, but work together. Something very classic, it just doesn’t happen that way on the net.

[16:49:18] Aram Bartholl:
At least it is different. Yes Second Life, for sure it is one step too far. But it illustrates very well the classical idea of cyberspace, or as I prefer to say digital space! We are not just talking about 3D and games, but also Facebook, Flickr, YouTube and there is much more happening right now!

[16:52:09] Deborah Causton:
Do you consider what you do to be artistic demonstration? Or are you more interested in just making a statement about the ways we interact?

[16:53:06] Aram Bartholl:
hmm it’s hard for me to interpret myself. But I’m more interested in making a statement. Although the statements in my projects are very subtle, just underlying. People read different messages into them.

[16:54:47] Deborah Causton:
Would you say you were ‘for’ or ‘against’ virtual/digital worlds?

[16:55:19] Aram Bartholl:
I used to tell my personal story on this whole topic. I grew up with computers and games. I graduated in architecture, then hung around on a machine for +4 years. I did web design, flash, video and all that stuff. But at a certain point I got sick of it! When you lose your hard drive all the work is gone! A fancy 3D model is outdated half a year later! I love the seductive universal machine… but I also hate it and want to try and get away from it…

[16:57:57] Deborah Causton:
You want to create a new trend?

[16:58:02] Aram Bartholl:
My initial drive was to get back to physical objects and projects. Work you can touch and feel but that still has a relation to digital space.

[16:59:30] Deborah Causton:
Do you think artistic interpretation needs to represent a technological understanding in order to survive/keep up with the times, remain relevant?

[16:59:42] Aram Bartholl:
“hey hello, are we living in that rectangle on the desk?”

[17:00:23] Deborah Causton:
Here I’m guilty, a little, of that! 🙂

[17:00:33] Aram Bartholl:
He he

[17:01:06] Aram Bartholl:
hmmm… that question applies very much to the media art <-> visual art relation/discussion

[17:01:35] Aram Bartholl:
‘New media art’ was all about the technology and its influence on society. It somehow separated itself from the contemporary art field which has its very specific rules. Right now I’m more based in the media art field, although my work involves very little technology, but talks about the use of it. In fact the art field discussions are not that interesting. The work itself is the most important, although for the ‘art business’, behind the scenes, it could be important in which field one is working…

first virtual step! (At this point we switch from the online environment to the telephone….)

Aram Bartholl

I prefer this way!

it was an experiment; just to see if it would work!

Good experiment!

Aram reiterates that he spent a lot of time on the computer. The development of the projects stems from that. He was asking himself – ‘How you can translate the digital world into everyday life, and if this can actually have any influence in ‘real’ life?’ When asked if he wants people to evaluate the outcome and not pigeonhole the concept, Aram says, “It’s definitely the outcome of the project. It’s creating an image, taking rules/ items from the web, the virtual world and placing them into context in real life, in a real space with the purpose of bridging these different places.”

Aram doesn’t really let political motivation play a part in his work. The underlying idea is ‘Hey look it’s not all about online!’ He goes on to say, “For me, my whole thing is more about what’s human, what’s social, and what this means.”

There also isn’t any intention to avoid gallery space. Rather that the work presents itself better in public spaces hence his popularity at exhibitions and festivals. “Somehow it is true that the classic white cube is very disconnected from what is happening on the street. It is more a question of how to best represent the work, so I often do performances and workshops.”

At the 2008 FutureSonic Festival the hot topic of debate was ‘Social Networking Unplugged’. Aram, who was present there with his ‘Friends’ exhibition, reiterates, “It is so funny, because this is what was discussed at that festival. Everything we learn to do whether in family or school is all about social networking. It is how we function. Everybody is so excited about the possibilities of social networking online… it does, of course, have an advantage with new developments, new opportunities which are different to what you get in real life.”

When reflecting on his own work Aram goes on to say, “It is a bit exaggerated to suggest that I’m attempting to bring online to offline through these projects. Yes I want to interact more in public ‘real’ space. It is something we do anyway even if the communication is not that lively on the street. Screen based interaction simply cannot compete with sitting in a cafe, talking face to face! That is, and should be, much more normal and much richer. For example at the drop-in workshop (Friends Book), people would come along and it would take 45 minutes or 1 hour to make their book. There would be 6-8 people sitting round a table and they would get into all sorts of topics and this is not something that was set up or had anything to do with a digital process. The digital process is more a catalyst to encourage the standard thing.”

With a growing catalogue of works based on questioning online interactions and digital processes in real time, what important discoveries has Aram made? “Probably the fact there are so many different channels going on in the digital space. We have to learn a lot on how to use them! The privacy discussion, and how you behave on the web and what it means for your real life. We have to learn how to deal with those things. There are also the big brother topics and the surveillance laws are getting stricter and stricter. There are all these people who talk about their private life, put personal details online and then leave all that information on the web just like that! It is an interesting field to talk about and what will happen there.”

So the internet and these social applications bring a whole new meaning to the ‘freedom of information’. Inevitably people will start to ‘lock-down’ as they become aware of their information floating in cyberspace? As Aram points out, “As an example, we throw up all our pictures on Facebook. There was a woman who wasn’t employed as a teacher (in the States) because there was a picture of her online holding a beer. People will realise, they’ll start to understand some of these things. The ways they are doing it is too public. It all comes back in the end. Google will never forget what you said on the web.”

So for the moment the social networking ‘buzz’ remains at the forefront of the internet’s development. There are new ‘social networks’ being reported daily. Places where you can go and develop new ‘friends’ with similar/dissimilar people. Chat, chat, chat! “That is the whole point of the internet… not just since Facebook but all the forums and mailing groups. The spacial/geographical space is just not there – I can connect to anyone on the web. For example, who is out there interested in butterflies? That is the power of the web… no boundaries! There are no time problems and you communicate in a totally different way. We wouldn’t be having this interview right now if there was no web – if I had no website, if my work was only known to my neighbours. I’m really aware of that. I’m not against the digital space I just think it important to combine the good things from both worlds. Maybe spending so much time on the computer – the way you think, the way you see the world will change. We will try to apply digital rules to the real world. For example, with Facebook I could ask you to be my friend. To be a friend on the web it’s ‘yes’ or ‘no’, there’s nothing in-between! There is much more variation now in our types of friendships. But in real life, it still remains much more complex.”

Since 1995 Aram Bartholl lives and works in Berlin. In his art work he thematises the relationship of net data space and everyday life. More information about the artist and his various works can be found here

This interview was first published in SALZINSEL magazine in October 2008. SALZINSEL is an independent magazine covering culture and arts in Luxembourg, its regions and beyond. It includes articles on various themes, events, institutions and artists, but also creative texts, music and visual arts. The purpose of the magazine is to serve an effective exchange between people involved in these fields. For more information or join the group on Facebook.

Photographs courtesy of Aram Bartholl