Interview with Angie Waller
By Jonah Brucker-Cohen (firstname.lastname@example.org)
A few months ago, I wrote a Net Art News for Rhizome about LA based
artist Angie Waller's project: "Data Mining the Amazon". The project
(released as a book available from Waller's website) catalogs and
graphs relationships between books customers bought on Amazon.com and
music CDs purchased by users with similar tastes. Waller's approach
adds a political slant by profiling relationships between liberal and
conservative titles, popular books among the US military, and
profiles on world leaders such as George W. Bush and Margaret
Thatcher. Her aim is to repurpose a supposedly helpful customer
service into a window of collective reflection on popular culture and
values. The project also asks how media and commercial trends
disseminate into public opinion through both national and global
outlets like Amazon.com. My main interest in Waller's work comes from
the focus on subverting networks from one purpose to another by using
existing information to draw new types of correlations and reactions.
Below is an interview I conducted with Waller about the project and
her motivation as an artist, avid consumer, and data cartographer.
Name: Angie Waller
Location: Los Angeles, CA
Occupation / Title(s): Artist
JBC: How did you start the "Data Mining the Amazon" project? What was
AW: I started data mining Amazon.com as a loyal customer. I am a
sucker for e-shopping and I never checkout with only one item. As a
frequent shopper, I started to develop a very specialized home page
on the site. I became more and more interested in the movies and CDs
recommended to me based on my purchase history of art theory and
computer programming books. One day a friend and I were talking
about some band she had never heard of and I described them by saying
"if you like band x and band y you might like band z." She knew
instantly what I was referring to, and I realized that Amazon.com had
become a huge influence on my vocabulary.
JBC: Your work seems to pick out cultural memes and play around with
them. Is this intentional or do you see it fitting into a larger
exploration? If so, what?
AW: I think the next morning I woke up with the idea to hit the
political memes. Aesthetics and culture used to be of high importance
in the political sphere, but these days we are being led by
philistines. As an artist, I have a problem with that. Exploring
Amazon became an easy way to relieve some of the tension.
Popular culture such as movies and CDs are the strongest cultural
arena and I was excited to find associations between pop culture and
books that described a specific political ideology. Although we all
consume a lot of the same popular culture it is also a way to
describe our aesthetic tastes. It is a bit of a teenager mentality
when looking over your friend's CD collection. But there is still
some truth in what type of person listens to what types of things.
JBC: The political angle of the piece is really striking since most
people would probably overlook these connections. Why did you focus
on political icons vs. any other types of relationships?
AW: After the last election between Bush and Gore, it seemed like the
party lines were fading together. The Bush and Gore debate became
more about their personalities and presentation. During that
climate, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to start
pin-pointing the differences between democrats and republicans based
on the types of music they listen to. I am sure the Amazon database
it not the most diverse sampling, but it couldn't be inferior to the
election polls we are already accustomed to.
JBC: What was surprising or unexpected about the results you found?
AW: At first I had a few surprises. I was surprised that books about
military battles and corporate takeovers pointed to the soothing CDs
of Enya and Sarah Brightman. But, on second thought, it was not so
unusual. I also enjoyed the eerie specificity with some of the
bigger figures like Hitler and Mao Tse Tung.
JBC: Did you find that people who saw your correlations were
surprised by the connections? If so why?
AW: A lot of people use the charts to see if they fit one profile or
the other which can be entertaining. A lot of people look for truth
in the information and are defensive when they see what music they
are "supposed" to like. Then the charts become about profiling and
how none of us really make a perfect fit even though companies place
a lot of importance on this information.
I have taken a passive attitude towards companies profiling me.
Sometimes I buy things because they were recommended to me.
Sometimes I fantasize that the schizophrenic profile I created is
triggering a flashing red light at some corporate headquarters
causing a database shutdown and an internal investigation. I
probably suffer a little paranoia.
JBC: Why should people be interested in your findings?
AW: People should be interested in my book because we would all love
to know what George W. has in his CD collection. It creates the
opportunity for consumers to profile leaders in a similar way we are
profiled as voters.
JBC: I know this is an older piece, but what (if any) future
directions could this work take?
AW: Maybe companies like Amazon will have more fun with the free
associations that their database provides. I see an excellent dating
service on their horizon. On a grander scale, maybe our current
administration will make their tastes public knowledge. I would love
to know what they are reading, listening to, watching and if there
are any artists they like.
Personally, I am only visiting Amazon to shop these days. My art
work has a tendency to use tools against their original intentions in
search of greater things. I am sure another database project is on
the distant horizon. The book will be different things over time. It
is my first publication and I like that it will not be outmoded by
technological progress. I am certain it will always be interesting
to look at, it gives an unmediated look at the political climate of
2001-2002 with a popular music twist.
http://www.simpletext.info - performance in UK - Nov 27-29!