Artist Profile: Julian Oliver

Transparency Grendade (pre-assembly), 2012 by Julian Oliver

You've been participating in the tech and art community for over a decade now. You're work spans everything from establishing an artistic game-development collective to pushing the boundaries of privacy on public wireless networks with custom hardware. Just this past year you published the Critical Engineering Manifesto with Gordan Savičić and Danja Vasiliev. Was there a specific event or moment that inspired its creation and were there any earlier iterations of the ten statements that didn't make the final cut?

Danja, Gordan and I felt a long standing need to frame our respective practices a little more acutely, foregrounding the languages and cultures of Engineering, rather than Art, in the creative and critical process. We'd each found ourselves frustrated under the vague, ballooning term of Media Artist - like trying to swim in a bathrobe. This came up in conversation enough times to explore alternatives. Afterall, it didn't seem to matter whether we called what we made 'art', even ourselves 'artists', people were quick to do it for us anyway.

One thing that regularly came up in conversation between us is that Engineering, not Art, is the most transformative language of our time - informing the way we communicate, move, trade and even think. The reach of Engineering is so deep that it's hard to disagree it has become part of our environment, with vast impacts on human culture, the Earth and how we understand it. So it follows that to ignore the languages, logics and ideas that make up this thing we call Engineering is to assume a critically vulnerable position - we become unable to describe our environment.

As thinkers with technical abilities in several areas, we want to take on our built and increasingly automated environment by the terms in which it's given, opening it up for post-utilitarian conversation, for play and interrogation. If there's ever a time to be doing that, it's now, especially with opaque and hidden infrastructure in the telecommunications space deeply impacting diplomatic relations and civil liberties world wide.

The Critical Engineering Manifesto grew directly from conversations along these lines and was generally very well received, soon translated into 14 languages. A couple of people wrote in that they wondered why we didn't include or reference 'hacking' as a critical practice to draw upon. Admittedly none of us had an instinct to include it, as it is also a term that has an increasingly vague meaning. I think Danja and Gordan would agree that those that hack in a way we appreciate are already Critical Engineers!

The Transparency Grenade and Newstweek are projects that are designed to disrupt traditional systems of information distribution in news organizations, companies, and governments. Do they achieve your desired affects on the systems they are designed to criticize? Have you been satisfied with the results of the two projects?

It's true that both projects are real implementations with tangible and disruptive effects. That said Danja and I developed Newstweek primarily to spur critical attention to the vulnerabilities of our increasingly 'browser-defined reality', to return an eye to the network infrastructure that plays an integral role in the distribution of fact. If you can control the infrastructure, you can control what's understood to be fact. Newstweek has certainly achieved what we'd hoped in this regard, inciting plenty of productive, healthy paranoia - helped along by us releasing a full HOWTO so that others can build their own Newstweek devices.

The second dimension to the project surrounds an intervention on the top->down news distribution model. We know that our news is being 'tweeked' anyway - an endemic symptom of the (rather bizarre) fact we traditionally depend on privately owned news corporations to inform our summarial view of the world. Newstweek seeks to intervene on this model, an on the ground solution for civilians to have their chance to propagandise or simply 'fix the facts' they know to be untrue.

The Transparency Grenade has been a tricky project as all of sudden some people think I'm in the cyber-weapons business, which I'm not. Like Newstweek, it's first and foremost a conversation starter. It seeks to directly manifest the fears we have, whether state, corporation or individual, around the increased political volatility of data. Indeed it is an implementation that can be used but I'm not selling grenades to be used as weapons. In fact they're limited edition finely crafted objects that look enough like a grenade for you to /not/ want to take with you into a corporate meeting. The Android application I'm still developing will mimic much of the functionality of the grenade and is better suited for such purposes, though I certainly will never suggest it be used and nor will I use it myself. That would put me in a very different legal position.

Many of your works challenge the implicit trust people have in the wireless networks they use - from cell phones to public wifi. In that same way your pieces often blur the boundaries between gallery space and the public sphere. Why is revealing and breaking these boundaries of trust and perception important to you and your work?

Again it comes back to infrastructure and how our inability to describe and understand reduces our critical reach, leaving us both disempowered and, quite often, vulnerable.

Opacity is an important word here too, as is the term 'black box'. Most of our engineered communications infrastructure is not just extraordinarily abstract for people to come to grips with but is actively kept hidden. There are some valid reasons, of course, for keeping infrastructure hidden but the fact is it out of sight is being increasingly exploited in and out of supposedly democratic contexts, largely by surveillance initiatives we were never told about.

Engendering a healthy paranoia here, along with making work that ruptures the featureless skin of these black boxes - providing points of entry - is important to me currently. Infrastructure must not be a ghost. Nor should we have only mythic imagination at our disposal in attempts to describe it. 'The Cloud' is a good example of a dangerous simplification at work, akin to a children's book. Such convenient reductions will be expensive in time as some corporations and governments continue to both engineer - and take advantage of - ignorance.

Often the suite of software institutions select for their students are managed and updated by only a handful of companies that have a monopoly over the industries of creative production. Why do you think free software is important to art education and artistic production? What would inspire more institutions to adopt open source tools?

This monopoly has always worried me, as it is a monopoly impacting creative diversity among student work. That may seem to be a bold claim but consider that every developer authoring software intended for creative industries inevitably plays a curatorial role in the use of that software; they provide defaults and options, a preferences panel and perhaps, at best, a plugin interface for other developers.

Certainly there is something to be said for subverting, bending these proprietary tools but really, when one compares the work that comes out of many huge 'digital arts' departments with a little pro FOSS (Free and Open Source Software) school like Piet Zwart, Rotterdam, it's clear. The work is simply bolder and better when students are encouraged to use multiple operating systems, interact with diverse hardware (including obsolete), use the command line, learn to program in several languages, learn to read source code and work with GNU/Linux.

We think through tools both before and while we use them and the more we depend upon a tool the more we are changed by it. In the software space, certain ideologies and expectations have become deeply rooted. People expect their tools to be 'intuitive', 'seamlessly' interoperating with other tools. They expect them to look 'sexy', what ever that means. This symptomatically asserts that not seeing what's going on 'under the hood' is always good and generic user interface standards is always desireable.

With FOSS unique results are quickly gained. Such software is not always intended for the mass market and also because, being open, they tend to encourage customisation. Tools are thus more readily shaped to fit the user and not the other way around.

I, for instance, realised early on that I didn't want to be staring at a rectangle full of little pictures other people and companies have made and so I switched to an iconless digital workspace. For many years I've started the day with a black terminal on a GNU/Linux host operating system. That is my blank canvas. I work with software, not software products.

Would the cherished painters of old have accepted an ever persistent logo in the top-left hand corner of their canvas as they painted? Should we?

Another advantage to free and open source software, particularly on a UNIX or UNIX-like system, is that it often allows for interconnection with other software (something referred to as 'piping'). I simply can't imagine not being able to connect the output of one software with the input of another. This is the basis of automation, rendering an open source operating system (which is itself many softwares) a material in itself, not just a mere support for programs running 'on top'.

Finally there is the right to read. Software which allows its source code to be read innately benefits learning; I can study other people's code, or even the code of the tool I'm using, to work with it in undocumented, unintended ways or use what I learn to improve my own software. I can't imagine not having the right to read the software I'm using.

Photo by Peter Langer





How long have you been working creatively with technology? How did you start?

I grew up in a rural part of New Zealand on a small farm embraced in forest that'd never been cut down, high up in the North Island.

I was lucky to have a father interested in electronic music, gadgets and computers. He bought much of it via mail order from various obscure magazines he was subscribed to, Omni magazine in particular. This resulted in our little farm being visited by extraterrestrials like the C64, ZX Spectrum and later an Amiga. Each was a unique universe of its own for me and I was left to my own devices in an effort to converse with them. Back then I didn't know anyone else with the same machines and so reading the manual and finding my own way in was the only means of getting anywhere. The Amiga 500 especially was very important to me. In all seriousness, it changed my life.

It was only much later however that I really started working with technology in a creative and critical way. In 1996 I was asked by Honor Harger, then working at Art Space in Auckland to be an assistant for Stelarc in a piece called Ping Body, involving four hours of remote electrocution over the Internet. Despite being accidentally electrocuted while removing electrodes from his body, I knew this was what I wanted to do.

Describe your experience with the tools you use. How did you start using them?

The tools I use now, and many of the strategies I use in my work, are directly attributable to the Free and Open Source Software movement. While I'd been experimenting with GNU/Linux for a few years it wasn't until I installed Debian in 2000 that something clicked. This was an operating system that openly presented itself to be a material. It wasn't a 'productivity platform', nor was it geared toward one particular use. Everything was modifiable. Core aspects of the OS could be studied, transparently available as text files.

It was at this point that I developed an interest not in software, but software systems. I started to realise that GNU/Linux was the OS of infrastructure, from the Internet to stock markets, weather stations, satellites, transport and the power grid itself. While being keen on graphics programming I started to see computers with screens in a different light, almost as output terminals within a broader sea of symbol processing machines.

Networking became increasingly interesting for me, albeit mostly as a study area. I learnt shell scripting for OS automation and as a glue language for bricolage. I worked away at learning C and explored what ever arcane language I could come across. GNU/Linx became a sort of University for me - I really couldn't get enough of it.

I've been using GNU/Linux, Debian in particular, as my core OS ever since, from tiny computers to laptops and servers. Short of graphics editing, video editing and browsing I work almost entirely in the command-line.

Software aside, I have a little electronics studio here in Berlin and greatly enjoy learning in this area as I make use of it.

Where did you go to school? What did you study?

I learnt more in my first little country school of 50 pupils than I did studying Philosophy and Architecture / Spatial Design in Auckland. Auckland University wasn't right for me at the time and so when not working to pay the rent I defaulted to my own areas of study and work.

What traditional media do you use, if any? Do you think your work with traditional media relates to your work with technology?

I'm not really interested in building a body of work around any particular traditional media. In that sense I'm entirely project driven - I choose whatever material I need to manifest the work.

That said, with the equipped studio we have here in Berlin I'm finding myself wanting to make objects.

Are you involved in other creative or social activities (i.e. music, writing, activism, community organizing)?

I'd like to be writing much more and hope to make time for this outside of project development and traveling. I will in some activist related domains in future but I'm not ready to talk about what or how just yet.

What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously? Do you think this work relates to your art practice in a significant way?

I haven't had a job since 1996, living entirely from exhibitions, commissions, teaching and talks. This means I have to travel around 2 weeks a month and be careful with planning. Lately it's become a little unmanagable and so I desperately need an assistant!

Who are your key artistic influences?

I'd like to answer with a 'who' but in reality I find myself influenced by projects, rather than particular people. There's plenty from the contemporary art world that has inspired, old and new but I'd say reading history and science has influenced me as much as Situationist or Conceptual Art projects. I'm a big fan of Gerhard Richter, but I'd be surprised if he influences my work in any way!

Have you collaborated with anyone in the art community on a project? With whom, and on what?

I haven't worked with artists that aren't technologists but I have worked with many arts organisations over the years, from museums to festivals and galleries.

Do you actively study art history?

Some chapters of it yes!

Do you read art criticism, philosophy, or critical theory? If so, which authors inspire you?

Philosophy and crit theory are an important part of my diet but I'm also increasingly drawn to political philosophy and history.

Recently I've enjoyed Paul N. Edwards (The Closed World is a must read!), Gerald Raunig, Adorno, Marcuse, Baudrillard (Conspiracy of Art), Foucault (again), Kittler and the excellent Jussi Parikka. John O'Shea gave me a great book called 'The Concept of Law' which I'm about to tuck into, once I've finished what I'm reading now.

Are there any issues around the production of, or the display/exhibition of new media art that you are concerned about?

I think that historical, archival and curatorial efforts will greatly benefit from coming into closer contact with how works of 'media art' are made. Too much work in this domain is simplified/framed as an artefact in service of a tradition of spectacle, rather than the complex intersection of processes and substrates that they often comprise.

Cultural contributions and technical contributions cannot be considered mutually exclusive within the field of media arts. One cannot talk about one without the other here.