Interview with Jens Wunderling

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Jens Wunderling is interaction designer and media artist based in Berlin. In 2009, Default to Public, his graduation project at the University of Arts, Berlin, won an award of distinction in the Interactive art category at Ars Electronica. This artwork explores the discrepancy between people’s modes of self-revelation online and their simultaneous desire for privacy in the real world in three different modules, focusing on the microblogging site Twitter. This interview was conducted over email during February and March 2011.



Taina Bucher: What is default to public and what is the idea behind these artworks?

Jens Wunderling: Default to Public is a series of objects and installations designed for the set-up in semi-public or public space. All pieces follow the same principle: They display information snippets from social websites in the physical world and notify the authors/owners of these snippets about it. For example, "Tweetscreen" takes status updates from Twitter.com that have been written geographically close to the location where they are projected on a screen or wall in public space. The twitter users, whose tweets have been chosen, receive a reply message, along with a photo taken by a webcam saying that their tweet has been shown “in public”, which causes a repercussion of communication about it in the online world. The users wonder why they, or their tweets, have been displayed: a physical link to their whereabouts is created.

How does your artworks relate to the issue of privacy?

It is a commentary on privacy on the Internet in the age of social websites, not only on Twitter. At the same time it is an experiment to find out about the actual motivation to expose oneself on the social web while keeping up privacy in the physical world. Also, default to public tries to raise awareness of the fact that "the Internet" is a hyper-public space, as opposed to most people's feelings.

In what ways did you sense this discrepancy between feelings of privacy online versus offline in working with the Default in Public project? Did you record people's reactions to it in public?

First of all, I did not record the reactions on-site. Also, the people on site were not the ones who were confronted with the publicness of the web. However, I could use the Twitter network itself to track the reactions of those people whose tweets were "abducted". There, the reactions were partially grateful for the additional exposure, like "thank you for posting", partially inquiring, "why me", "what is this all about", and quite a lot were surprised and/or unhappy about their "sudden" publicness. For those people, the twitter messages were only public in their projected form. People were actually writing: "I am public now". Although I expected at least some confusion, I was surprised about the un-coded expression of that sentiment.

The latest edition to the Default in Public called “Audience” has moved away from Twitter to Flickr. Can you tell a bit more about this module?

"Audience" is the attempt to use the principle described above on another website than Twitter, focusing on another kind of self-exposure: it takes self-portraits of Flickr users, displays them, and when watched sends back a blurred image of the audience. The fact that strangers can watch your portrait from anywhere on the globe is depicted in a narrative way.

You said that you noticed that people carry different notions of publicness. Especially when encountering the transition from an online publicness to an offline publicness. Would you care elaborating on this?

This is actually the essential topic of default to public, the different communication behaviours on- and offline of the same person. During the work on my diploma I encountered the same thing over and over: People would not want to communicate the same content in their offline surroundings as they would on the Internet. For example, Twitter users were hesitant about displaying their tweets on windows or doors. All of a sudden a projected tweet in their neighbourhood would make them feel public. Default to Public provides a proof of this fact and in some way is a starting point for an explanation. On the one hand, it opposes the transition from a digital to physical representation. It also addresses the fact that the "digital" is often confused with the "virtual”, which would mean that the digital manifestation of something is not real, but it is. A tweet is a text that it is written by a real person and read by real persons. On the other hand, it shows that we can often relate more reflexively and intuitively to things in our physical environment. At The CyNetArt, I had an eye-opening conversation with Werner Jauk, an Austrian Professor, who pointed out to me the "Mechanistic World View". In short, for millions of years we have learned to define and position ourselves in the world we live in. The digital, non-graspable is something that is basically out of our range of our perception. Jauk sees the playing with the perception of things through different media as one of the main achievements of media art.

You're an interaction designer, as are many of the other artists doing critical interventions and work within the social media environment. Why do you think this is the case? Do you think it has anything to do with a certain sensibility towards code and software?

Well, I think that social media art is not based on interaction design, but interaction designers reflect on human behaviour in the context of man-man communication as well as man-machine communication and also man-man communication mediated through technology that basically are some of the key issues in social media as well. Also, interaction designers often learn to code at least on a prototyping level, which (in connection to social media sites) enables them to gather and analyze data.

How does code and software feature in your artworks? Do you consider code as your artistic medium?

Well, code is always part of my artworks. Although I might just as well not be using code at all, I just drift there. I think that code can be the actual medium in the artwork, or just a helper to prepare the artwork. If you take "code" as another word for "analytic thinking" this would maybe describe it best. Take the preparation notes for some of the performances of the "Wiener Aktionisten" for example, these read like computer programs.

At last year's Transmediale you participated in a discussion panel entitled Art 2.0. What in your opinion does art 2.0 or social media art denote if anything at all?

Lets call it social media art, since art2.0 is too much of a buzzword. I think that social media art is everything inspired by and related to and connected with these emerging platforms, where a lot of people spend a significant amount of time. Social media artworks (should) serve the same purpose as artworks in general. They should reflect on the author's feelings towards a topic or society and aim to shed another, sometimes critic, light on the parallel world opening up right now.

What is this parallel world right now in your opinion? And what do you hope Default in Public to achieve, that is, what in your opinion can we as spectators, publics and content-generators learn from artworks like yours?

I hope that these artworks can put the developments into relation to something that we are already familiar with. And I very much hope that they provide an opportunity for reflection on the uses of digital communication tools. The aim is really to offer a starting point for discussions on topics related to issues of publicness, privacy and communication behaviours, because I know that these works mostly do not offer solutions (if you can think of one that does, please let me know).

Well, in terms of the parallel worlds there has been a lot of buzz around the Internet and especially social media diminishing our attention span and capacity to concentrate.

I don't know if it is the attention span that is changing or the information consumption habits. We are exposed to so much information that we are actually interested in that we do not want to miss a bit. Personally I tap a lot of channels (blogs, twitter, news pages) and find myself often just reading the headlines, because I know that 2000 articles are waiting for me in my newsreader.

It becomes a question of time and digest. I can still concentrate for as long as I could 10 years ago, but choose to distribute that concentration on more pieces of information. I know a lot but on a shallow level. From time to time I clear my subscription list and start from scratch with the goal of keeping it short. I think the key to a working relationship with data is selection and filtering, a state of mind, not an upstream piece of software.

What do you work on right now? Where do you see social media art going in the next years?

Right now, I am working on interactive exhibits as an interaction designer at The Product, a small design studio in Berlin. While I am not currently working on a specific art piece, I am constantly collecting ideas on issues that have to do with social media. More recently I have been working on the connection of data to geolocation, a trending technique that introduces our physical position into the "cloud”. A first piece on that is "Syntopic fragments" that was exhibited in an art show in Berlin last summer. This piece queries a stream of short text messages and extracts their geolocation. Each message is then associated with an image tagged with the same coordinates. The results are combinations of image and text from different authors, linked by a place on earth - fragments of a collective local memory.

Do you have any favorite social media artists/art works in this field? Where do you see social media art going in the next years?

Well, I am a huge fan of the works of Aram Bartholl. Although they are sometimes quite silly, they constantly transpose principles and artefacts from the online world into the physical world and vice versa. I don’t know if social media art is going somewhere, but for sure social media will find their way into all areas of art and be of high socio-cultural relevance in the years to come.

Taina Bucher is a PhD candidate in Media and Communications at the University of Oslo