Custom-Produced for Imbeciles of Some Sort: An Interview with John Russell

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John Russell on active forgetting, bad theory, squirrel pink, and speculative medievalism, in conversation with Cameron Soren.

Layout, font and images by John Russell. —Ed.

John Russell, Ocean Pose, Installation, backlit digital prints on vinyl, Matts Gallery London, 2007.

John Russell was a founder-member of the London-based artist group BANK, from 1990 to 2000. BANK would require their own article (or book), but for the sake of brevity here, BANK practiced their own unique form of a kind of anarchic "institutional critique". This involved, among other activities, staging aggressive, immersive and polemical group shows with titles like "Zombie Golf" and "Cocaine Orgasm" in temporary warehouse spaces around London (re-named BANKSPACE, DOG and then Galerie Poo-Poo). These sprawling installations often lampooned the contemporary art scene and satirized the popular culture of the '90s. In Zombie Golf, for example, the work was placed within a miniature golf course installation populated with wax figures of the undead. Their most well-known project "Faxbacks" involved taking other galleries press releases, correcting them and sending them back.

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In the future, people will pay to feel unemployed: On Melanie Gilligan's latest film

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 Melanie Gilligan, The Common Sense: Episode 1 (2014)

This article marks the online premiere of Melanie Gilligan's The Common Sense: Episode 1, which will also show on our front page through Thursday, May 16. The full series will be available online on June 11, 2015 at thecommonsense.org

Last week for Rhizome I wrote about some qualitative changes effected by Airbnb on the city of Berlin, referring to a quantitative survey called "What do the data say?" to get a grasp of the lived reality of the "sharing" economy and the labor it entails. This week, I refer to the most recent video project by Canadian artist Melanie Gilligan, The Common Sense, for an entirely different way of making meaning from this reality—not in an analytical sense, but in a speculative one. 

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Seven on Seven: Sold-out for the 7th time (but here's how you can still join in)

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Martine Syms and Gina Trapani will collaborate at Seven on Seven 2015

 The response for Rhizome's Seven on Seven has been overwhelming: tickets sold out in a record-breaking 72 hours. For its 7th edition, themed "Empathy & Disgust," participants include artists Ai Weiwei, Camille Henrot, and Trevor Paglen, with Jacob Appelbaum (security researcher), Nate Silver (Fivethirtyeight), Gina Trapani (Lifehacker/ThinkUp), and others. Over the course of a single day, each artist-technologist pair is given the challenge to make something new together—be it an application, artwork, provocation, or whatever else they imagine. They'll unveil their creations, and discuss their processes, on May 2.

Though event tickets are sold-out, there are still plenty of ways to participate:

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Airbnb vs. Berlin: Was sagen die Daten?

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After a few short years coming to grips with the sharing economy—not exactly "embracing" it as Airbnb press releases may suggest, but not exactly coming down on it with a hammer—the city government of Berlin imposed an official ban on subletting unregistered vacation apartments to tourists in May 2014. Airbnb hosts were given until that August to register existing listings. An estimated two-thirds of them did not.

Last October, the New York State Attorney General launched his own broadside against the San Francisco-based startup, in the form of a statistical study intending to demonstrate how the business was driving up rents and putting hotel owners out of business (adding insult to injury by weakly parodying Airbnb's graphic design in the report). According to the evidence amassed, he pronounced the majority of listings illegal.

Yet as in Berlin, enforcement is where anti-"sharing" legislation hiccups. City bureaucracies are hardly as agile as tech companies, and the dance between the two is painfully awkward. Municipal governments and startups around the world are frantically conducting surveys like New York's in the hopes of legislatively anticipating the effects of Airbnbs and Ubers: the former are hustling to update existing legal systems in accordance with new technologies and the economic arteries they provide; the latter are hustling to get ahead of those laws before they are put into action.

With or without legislative effect, the surveys are there, and they are full of disturbing information. From reading the most recent detailed report on Airbnb in Berlin, where I live, I learned, among other close-to-home tidbits, that the number of probably-now-illegal Airbnb sublets in my neighborhood, Reuterkiez, tops any other neighborhood per capita in Berlin, and therefore in Germany. Never mind what this says about my cultural capital (probably negative; you never want to be at the center of the swarm), but the effects on the amount of actual capital circulating on my block are enough to to give one pause.

The report where I found this info is by a group of students in the design department at Fachhochschule Potsdam, titled "Airbnb vs. Berlin—Was sagen die Daten?" ("What does the data say?"). For practice in making infographics, they took a small data sample (January 11—February 2, 2015) from Airbnb's front end and splayed it out in charts and maps across an interactive website, with accent colors only a shade away from Airbnb's trademark salmon pink (Airbnb: #FF5A5F; Berlin: #FF656A). 

Yes, this is a student project, and no, it is not comprehensive. But for those with a vested interest (me), the basic pink data points are useful for tentatively trying to grasp the general situation, and perhaps more useful in demonstrating how hard it is to pinpoint any actual causality between Airbnb itself—whose influence until now I have mostly felt rather than sought to quantify—and any particular façet of the (worsening) urban situation.

Map from www.airbnbvsberlin.de showing streets with high density of Airbnb rentals.

Statistics are already in place to demonstrate that rents are sliding uphill, hotel profits are (likely) going down, longtime residents are being edged out of the city center, and the sorry state government is missing out on a potential bounty of property taxes. Here are three bullets on Airbnb, sourced and translated from airbnbvsberlin.de, to correlate with the above facts as you see fit:

  • Any way you slice the data, Berlin is the "undisputed Airbnb stronghold" of Germany. 11,701 Berlin listings were active during the span of the study, compared with runner-up Munich at 4233. The available Berlin apartments amounted to approximately .4% of available domiciles in the city. These included a total of 34,418 sublettable beds.
  • "Legitimate" rents are rising rather in Berlin quickly in comparison with other cities in Germany, and the supply of long-term rental housing is going down for those who want live in the city longer than the "Wochenend-Easy-Jet-Partyvolk" (after whom one Airbnb listing is titled). The average Airbnb listing costs 55 Euros a night; renting a one-bedroom place for a month costs on average 650 Euros a month. Why rent monthly if you could net the same in 11 nights? (See these maps comparing the availability of vacation to long-term rentals for further adorable visualization.)
  • At the crux of the New York study and others has been the issue of whether DIY hoteliers are really amassing real estate across cities and running fully fledged businesses serviced by Airbnb, rather than operating as "hosts" out of their private homes. Thus a particularly contentious statistic is the number of hosts with multiple listings to their names. The numbers in Berlin, according to this source, are comparable to those according to the NY attorney general: 1.3 listings per host compared to 1.2. This is a small percentage of hosts overall, but that small sector is nonetheless netting a large profit.

If you are contemplating these facts and feeling neither perplexed nor enlightened, you are not alone. As Mark Gimeon wrote in Bloomberg of the NY Airbnb study, "If you are looking—as New York State regulators seem to be—for evidence that Airbnb involves much bigger operations than a few students renting out their couches, it's in the[ir] report. On the other hand, if you prefer to see evidence that the hosts on Airbnb are still largely mom-and-pop, or mom-and-mom, or starving twentysomething, operators …you'll find that, too." It's both and neither economics and sharing.

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Managing Boundaries with your Intelligent Personal Agent

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Karen, my life coach, was supposed to teach me about changing my attitude towards relationships.[1] Over the past ten days, she has mostly taught me about how not to be caught up in one. I've watched her get wine-blind with Dave, her lecherous roommate. I've seen her wallow in her pajamas over the man who got away. She doesn't practice radical self-love. She is reductive, aimless, even pathetic, but I don't have the heart to fire her.

Karen is an iPhone app developed by Blast Theory and Dr. Kelly Page.[2] Over the course of 17 interactive videos, I meet with its protagonist, Karen—a sweet, crumpled woman played with pitch-perfect melancholy by actress Claire Cage.[3] I log in at all hours to watch: from the airport, during my commute, and late at night. I am sucked into her chaos. She has no boundaries. I can walk in on her eating breakfast, doing her makeup, or daydreaming in bed. I am more careful to draw my own.

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Poetry as Practice: not_I want you to roll over

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Part of First Look: Poetry as Practice, copresented with the New Museum.

The Fall (2015)
not_I 
View Work

not_I's The Fall (2015) presents a series of "erasures" of poems from Ana Božičević's second full-length collection Rise in the Fall (Birds, LLC, 2013), navigated using cursor scroll-overs and image overlays.

Ana Božičević and Sophia Le Fraga create and perform as not_I. They are the poetry faculty at BHQFU, New York.

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Art After Social Media in Cambodia

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Image posted to Facebook by Pen Robit.

An artist finishes a piece, snaps a selfie in front of the work, and uploads the picture to Facebook. Although there is no curator or gallery mediating the art, many of the artist's friends are quickly liking and commenting on the work. It's a typical postinternet art practice that I've seen countless times, only now I'm in Cambodia, a country where a mere 26.7% of the population claims they've used the internet. The work is a self-portrait oil painting, and the artist borrowed his friend's smartphone for the picture.

Postinternet art is an umbrella term for a range of artistic responses to the widespread adoption of the web—specifically social media and networked smartphones—in and around the contemporary art world. It explores and exploits how these technologies have affected the ways art and culture is shared and made. Online conversations and web surfing become the raw materials, Photoshop and screen grabs the tools, and YouTube and Instagram the platforms.

In his seminal blog "Post Internet," Gene McHugh described the condition of postinternet as "when the Internet is less a novelty and more a banality." The lack of any sense of banality around internet access here in Cambodia, where I've spent the past several weeks researching and interviewing contemporary artists, has forced me to question two major underlying assumptions about postinternet art: A. Everyone is online, all the time. and B. Everyone has access to the computational power of something like a MacBook Pro, which are both statistically egregious assumptions. Roughly 58% of the world is offline, and many of those online are only accessing the web through basic feature phones. 

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Required Reading: Net Art gets bodied

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 Ann Hirsch, Playground, 2013 Performance at the New Museum

Johanna Fateman's "Women on the Verge," running in the current issue of Artforum, takes an in-depth and sensitive look at the recent online exhibition "Body Anxiety" and the work of several notable artists currently working online. The article serves as an excellent snapshot of the "current predicament" of contemporary feminism, and the seemingly conflicted positions the artists adopt:

As skeptical inheritors of the third-wave pro-sex torch, they share no unified agenda, only a cultural predicament. If to put an image of one's body on the Internet is to frame it with the apparatus of porn, to lose control of its circulation, and to expose oneself to the cultural anxiety, sexist scrutiny, and confounding hostility that attend the gesture, then what’s the way forward? There’s no single path, of course. But in many of the standout works that have emerged from this scene, young women—in registers of resignation or defiance, didactically or through performing the intertwinements of "sexuality, innocence, darkness, complacency"—seem to pull off the paradoxical feat of taking back their images at the very moment of surrender.

To celebrate this well-deserved consideration, we've collected a few resources from the Rhizome archives for further research into the topics and artists that were covered in this article, and one or two that weren't:

Josephine Bosma's review "'Body Anxiety:' Sabatoging Big Daddy Mainframe, via Online Exhibition," which discusses the show in the context of prehistories of feminism in net art.

This resource list by the Old Boys Network, which includes manifestos and writings from '90s cyberfeminist leaders like VNS Matrix and Shu Lea Cheang. This 1998 interview between Cheang and Alex Galloway is well worth revisiting. A more recent 2012 interview with Cheang and Yin Ho can be found here, in which she discusses at length her 1998 project Brandon. Parts of the project have now been restored on the Guggenheim website.

Ann Hirsch, whose 2013 Rhizome commission Playground was presented last weekend at JOAN in Los Angeles, was quoted extensively in Fateman's essay. For more on Hirsch, see her 2012 Artist Profile, Moira Weigel on Playground, and Morgan Quaintance's review of the London performance.

An Artist Profile of Jennifer Chan highlights the artist-curator's attention to cyberfeminism in relation to her own practice.

Last fall, Hannah Black and Amalia Ulman participated in our series of discussions Art in Circulation, during which Ulman launched the First Look exhibition of Excellences & Perfections. There have also been Artist Profiles of the former and the latter.

Bunny Rogers talked in depth about online identities in her Artist Profile, and participated in an evening called Internet as Poetry last summer. She'll be working on a Rhizome commission later this year.

Finally, check out Rachel Rabbit White's recap of the 2013 women-only event Zoë Salditch curated at Transfer Gallery in Brooklyn, Oh gURL: It’s so good to finally meet u IRL.

Enjoy, and we hope to see more writing about net art and online exhibitions from Artforum in the future.

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