Sean Alday interviews artist James George
James George holding a victim from the Free Fall High Score game. Now available for your portable, droppable device.
JG: My name is James George and I am a media artist and computer programmer. I work mostly with computer graphics, open source software, and inter-activity in the realm of applying newer technology to making art.
56B: For how long?
JG: I’ve been using computers to make art since I was 8 years old. But I suppose doing it in the capacity that I’m doing it in now and the community that I’m a part of, I would say it’s been about three years. I moved to Brooklyn because I wanted to contribute to the scene here. There are a lot of people doing this kind of work here.
56B: I think the most interesting work of yours to me is the subway portrait series. You explained it to me, but I still don’t completely understand; how did you get the portraits?
JG: We took those portraits ourselves. That project was borne out of a cultural explosion that occurred when the Kinect camera came out. Microsoft released this video game controller that the open-source and hardware-hacking communities quickly re-appropriated to their needs. I’ve been interested in using code to generate images and explore new types of cinema or photography. So, up until that point I had been creating algorithms to generate images. I was excited to use that camera because it creates very lush and interesting 3-dimensional images of the world. The intention of the technology was to use it with interactive video games, but I was interested in the material as an image.
We took a DSLR still camera for higher resolution images and rubber-banded one of the Kinect Cameras to the bottom of it. My collaborator Alexander Porter was taking photos and had a computer in his backpack and I was controlling the software from a Bluetooth mouse. So when he would take a photograph, I would click the mouse and it would save images off the camera at the same time. Then we went back to stitch them together and line them up. Every photograph is like a video game level, in that you can view it from multiple angles, and so we visualized this data using our software to make these portraits of people standing on the subway.
I was interested in the subway locations because I had just read an article about the surveillance systems regarding this debacle between Lockheed Martin and the MTA. Basically, Lockheed Martin had promised to create almost a science-fiction style surveillance system and completely failed to deliver. It resulted in lawsuits and all these unused surveillance cameras on the subway system. The art was a playful reimagining of what it would look like to be perceived by machines. But also, because these cameras are coming out, to know this is the way these cameras perceive you. To me it’s important because I write software against these machines and I have the ability to extract the imagery from them, so contextualizing them and making art with them changes the way the public perceives that technology and may make them more comfortable with and aware of these things that are all around us.
56B: How do you feel personally about surveillance?
JG: I don’t think about it that much. I think that for people often think about surveillance first when they think of marrying art and technology. As in, “How does your art deal with surveillance?”
In the broader context of systems around us, I think open-source software and art-and-technology helps people to become more comfortable with surveillance. A lot of the cameras we use day to day were developed with surveillance and military purposes in mind because there’s a lot of research money there.
Being a media artist and working with technology, I want to take that and make it playful with room for human expression. Sharing it enables other people to reclaim this technological landscape back for the people.
56B: Do you think you’re really reclaiming it? You don’t have to be a Luddite to be disgusted with Google or Facebook, I ask because I think of those as the most powerful surveillance tools.
JG: I don’t think it’s about being disgusted by it. I think that you’re talking about is privacy.
56B: Well, a lot of surveillance borders on being an invasion of privacy.
JG: They are related. In a lot of ways, it’s a concern, but it’s not a focus of my work. I don’t find it inspiring to think about addressing privacy issues.
Personally, I do think about it a lot, but I’m of two opinions on it:
The bigger problem with privacy issues is that because everything has become public - It’s not that you can’t hide the things that you’d otherwise do surreptitiously, or the classic privacy war cry “How could you start a revolution if there’s no privacy?” – it’s more that it dilutes our behavior so that, because you know everything is being seen, you do things that are only acceptable in the public context. The problem is that you no longer do things that you’d like to hide, not than you can’t hide the things that you’d otherwise do.
The other thing is we’re all starting to lead more public lives. That affects your behavior in every way. Whatever you do, there are photographs being taken. You’re constantly aware that that information is going to come back and become part of your representation online. Which is becoming a more and more important part of you in your entirety.
56B: To go back to Google and Facebook for a minute, do you think that the notion of privacy and being tracked puts people in amorphous demographics more so than it actually affects individuals?
JG: I think algorithms in general have a way of doing that. A way of indexing your view of the world because it has to fit into a number of slots. As you become a set of metrics that this algorithm understands, and because that informs what is suggested to you, all these things we become actually dictates what we discover. So the act of discovery becomes limited to the perception of that algorithm of what we are. The furthering of narrowing oneself is self-fulfilling in a way because we become what we discover.
I could see that as a danger. But I think that those algorithms are also good in a way. They’re actually doing us a huge service in providing this way of thinking and supporting thought and discovery to searching, categorization and filtering. It’s about awareness.
For example, when you get an email from someone and then a bunch of targeted ads pop up around that. A lot people find that concerning, as in “You’re reading my email.” But they’re not, not in the sense of a person reading each email. The emails are just moving through these filters and those are pulling things out.
Sure, it’s a double-edge sword but everyone needs to learn a little bit about how software works. If for no other reason than to gain some intuition about what’s going on behind this magic surface.
56B: Do you promote open-source software because it allows people to learn directly and also mold what they’re learning about?
JG: Yeah, that’s one or two reasons among many. It serves two purposes, it creates community and allows individuals to achieve greater things because all the individuals are achieving things together and sharing them.
Then it also serves to put forth the notion that you can do it too. You could write a search engine if you wanted. These things aren’t handed to you from above. And open-source software promotes that mindset.
56B: Are you actually in control, or is that the illusion? Is it the human eye or the machine that dictates what is seen?
JG: [Laughs] You’re at the whim of what comes at you. It’s sort of an existential question right? Who’s really in control?
I just read a really good book that helps me think about these things. The book is “Towards the Philosophy of Photography” by Vilem Flusser. He’s a media arts theorist from the 80’s. In this book, he talks about cameras and photography. His philosophy is that the manufacturers give cameras to the people, so the cameras control the images and therefore the manufacturer is responsible for the images. The people taking the pictures are a mechanism in that because they are following the rules of the camera. They fulfill the “intended use” of the camera and the camera company makes up that “intended use”. In that sense, the camera controls the people.
But in the book he discusses experimental photographers who are breaking cameras in interesting ways and making something outside the “intended use”. So in that way, you are not controlled. Or, you are making room for human expression in a place that is otherwise controlled by these larger apparatuses and systems.
Of course, you are still responding to these systems. I can’t go mine ore and make the hardware from raw material, and I wouldn’t want to do that [laughs]. So, I am definitely controlled to a degree by what is out there, but I’m also not taking the technology at face value. I, and the open-source community, do re-appropriate the technology. If the public and everyday people take the same tack then that will be what influences the companies to create moldable interfaces and create changes in what directions technology takes.
In that way you can regain some sort of control and shift things toward what you think is useful.
56B: Do you put any stock in the notion of the singularity?
JG: Oh gosh [laughs] it’s funny, I just did an interview* with the media artist Golan Levin and he was asked exactly the same question.
My immediate response is to give the same response he gave. But I’ll say it in my own words.
I don’t believe in it in the sense that machines will exceed human intelligence and essentially destroy us. I think that what will happen is much more interesting.
Take Twitter for example, Twitter is as close to the singularity as we’ve ever seen, in the way in which it will actually happen; unless there actually is a big-bang-type of moment.
What’s happening is that humans are organizing themselves in much more complex, large-scale structures than we’ve ever seen before. So that results in a new system. It’s an incredibly complex system that’s an amalgamation of a lot of people fulfilling individualized roles in that system. It’s akin to the neuron to brain analogy, where each person on Twitter is becoming a conduit for input of information, feeding and receiving things that they’ve conditioned themselves to want to hear, and they consider themselves a contributor to. That information is going to other nodes that listen to them because they respect their opinion or curation or ideas or output.
So we are becoming channels for information where things move by jumping from node to node. It’s directed by decisions of the individuals, but on a larger scale it feeds the system that all this information is flowing through. I think that what ends up happening is as an individual you’re compelled through your own value system to continue that cycle. It’s rewarding in so many ways and especially in a social sense. We lock in and continue contributing because it feels greater than ourselves.
I think that the singularity will be more like that. When we are all interacting as a larger unit. It deemphasizes the importance of a single person in some ways, but it also makes each person feel more important.
56B: Would you consider that an evolution or a form of devolving?
JG: I don’t know…
56B: It sounds like what you are describing is that humans will act as an ant colony. That is, each ant leaves a trail of pheromones to let the others know where there’s food or if part of the bed needs rebuilding. It’s very decentralized, and I’m wondering if you think that humans are moving towards a decentralized thought pattern?
JG: Yes, I do. But I think that it’s something that has been happening for all of time. I think that many things from families to cities represent this. I also think of it more in terms of ecosystems than I do genetics, but in an evolutionary sense I don’t think that we’re changing that much. All of these things are happening within the capacity of the current brain and we’re not able to predict the evolutionary implications of this.
However, talking about culture, I think it is an upgrade. It’s something that we desire; on a deep level it’s very human.
I think that the risk is homogeneity. Ecosystems in isolation become unique, creating diversity, which is unquestionably the richness of life. So if we have this uniform thought system that the majority participates in, that thought system becomes more homogenous. Which would make the world less interesting to live in.
The challenge is: How do we have this system in which everyone is communicating, without drawing everyone to the same or similar conclusions?
How do we keep unique languages and cultures? We are losing a lot of culture as we used to know it, but you know what? We are gaining a lot of new types of culture, that are powered by a social strata decoupled from geographic locations. Maybe it’s a more natural fit, because it isn’t regulated by where you live. You’re given the ability to go find where things are happening anywhere in the world.
The openFrameworks community was just in Detroit for a conference. People were brought in from all over the world and they all contributed to this one thing, this concept. Being somewhere is still important, being in a room with someone, somewhere is still important, but the discovery of different culture can happen without that now also. The cultivation of fairly esoteric bits of culture can happen at a greater scale with that ability.
56B: What you’re saying reminds me of the scene in “Encounters at the End of the World” when Herzog says something like “The tree-huggers and whale-huggers have more sway on culture than the fact that one or more spoken languages die out everyday.”
As progress progresses, are we creating history faster than we can transmit it?
For one thing, I do feel like we live in a digital dark age right now. The majority of the work that we are doing will be lost to time. I fear that people will look back and say, “There was some crazy stuff going on, but we don’t really know what they were doing.”
The evidence of the work, especially the media arts, disappears. I can’t find certain net-art projects that I love from four years ago, for reasons such as not having that version of a browser, or the site has been taken down. Because it exists only in that ephemeral state, it gets lost and you can’t retrieve it.
Not only do we lose knowledge of older history, we’re also failing to create history. It’s really scary.
I think that when our generation comes of old age and we’re dealing with the issues of the elder class, our issues are going to be self-preservation based. How do we archive these avatar versions of ourselves?
56B: Not only “how do we” but “do we archive these things?” Our generation is dealing with preservation issues right now. A lot of people can’t feed themselves.
JG: That’s a different kind of self-preservation.
56B: But maybe we are preparing ourselves for that future. It’s like what you just said; maybe we are creating new things without creating a history.
Many languages can’t be read to this day. [Some] People can read hieroglyphics because someone happened across a rock thousands of years after the culture that created them disappeared.
Meanwhile the Library of Alexandria housed thousands of years of accumulated knowledge and all it took was a group of angry people to run in there with torches a few times before the Egyptians essentially gave up on that.
JG: That becomes the mythology and folklore of our learned history. And we aren’t aware of the gaps in that history. We don’t know many amazing societies could have come and gone without leaving a trace. It’s sad and poignant but it’s good to talk about these things.
I know that lately I’ve felt very strong and focused on where I want my work to contribute, how it and I fight into the arts and technology community. But zooming out to these larger social issues, will be the next step. When you grow comfortable in the smaller thing, you can start applying what you’ve learned to the larger issues. And then you have to be confident in your manner of executing projects and talking about things. As well as testing the social relevance of what you’re doing. As you get older, you can possibly even make a difference in whatever your calling is.
[A few moments of silence ensue.]
56B: Ok, final question. I’m really curious: PC or Mac?
JG: I’ve become agnostic. I believe in choosing your tools for the ecosystem in which you are working, not on principal or preference.
*The interview, filmed by James on his Kinect Camera device.