Interview for "Digicult" about "P2P Gift Finance
", "Face to Facebook
" and "Hacking Monopolism Trilogy
" and other old works. 2011.
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Tatiana Bazzichelli: Let's start from your artistic background: you define yourself as a "tactical media artist". Your first work, which dates back to 2001, is entitled STOP the NATO. Later, after an intense activity in the street art field, the target broadened itself to corporations such as Google (2005), Amazon (2006) and Facebook (2011) and the credit card system (2010-11), transferring your knowledge of advertising media to the creation of artistic strategies and hacker practices. At the same time, you focused on the art of storytelling, coming up with plots and characters in which reality and fiction complement each other (2009-10). How would you tactically link these experiences?
Paolo Cirio: First of all I would like to make a distinction between strategy and tactic. I prefer to define "tactic" the study and the choice of mediums and the way to use them, almost at a technical level. Whereas "strategy" pertains to the planning of coordinated actions towards goal achievement. I define myself as "tactical" mainly because my practices involve media affordable for everyone, but used in a creative way and extended beyond the limits of their features. As far as I am concerned, this operative modality was dictated by practical needs: when I started I used pieces of electronics found in the streets, because of the lack of budget and even now I create my projects with very cheap media. These tools, if they are used well in an accurate strategic planning context, can have an extremely high social impact. Furthermore tactical media art requires a theoretical knowledge and a constant reference to the artistic scene in order to compare experiences and knowledge.
However, rather than tactics and strategies, which are essential to the political developments of my works, I would say that what links all my projects is an aesthetic fil rouge. Recently I like to see myself as a sculptor: in all my works I process different data and information to shape new structures. By setting data into new contexts, aggregating and fabricating it, I shape new and unexpected compositions of information. In sculpture every material keeps its intrinsic properties after the mutation: in the case of information, it is about the power of influencing society. I believe that the social, economic and political realities can be created and shaped through processing and managing information.
For example in the project against NATO it was about aggregating news (at the time it was the first form of blogging and the beginning of Indymedia networks) related to new wars by the western military organization. Through these tools I was able to influence activists against the wars at an international level and to be perceived as a threat by the America's Department of National Defence. This was achieved not thanks to geopolitical analysis, although the articles in the website were more than a thousand, but to the way in which information was managed through a platform created ad hoc and spread into the international pacifist's networks. I consider aggregation processes like that as sculptures of information up and running that are able to affect effectively a large number of people, just like it happened with the recontestualization and subversion of Facebook, Amazon and Google data.
At the same time I became interested in the creation of new realities through what I defined as Recombinant Fiction: the research on experimental storytelling forms which make use of different media and which intertwine reality and fiction through characters played by professional actors. In other terms it is about sculpting new realities by orchestrating and arranging information into narrations, which the public is captured by or immersed in.
Reality is constantly fabricated by the media, through the creation of stories in which the audience can recognise the fixed types of characters in the storytelling and engage with them. The villain against the hero, love or crime stories: the mass media tend to reduce every event to stories which remind us of soap opera's plots, a strategy used because the human brain interprets reality and its own conscience through the narrative form. In the same way many people build their identity on social media, which unavoidablely function as theatrical stages turning us into the actors playing our lives transformed into shows. Reality as narration is not something new, let's just think about the role that religions or ideologies have narratively transfigured the real and its agents. However nowadays stories are multiplied and are much more fragmented, due to the enormous number of media and consumption/production of information, and so together with them our perception of reality varies as well. These narrative potentials of new media can be used to create stories, and therefore alternative realities, able to bring us back to the awareness of the duplicity of what's real, by de-dramatizing it.
Since I often work at a practical and theoretical level with all these aspects of information manipulation, inevitably I have the impression of handling something almost tangible and of being able to shape it by giving it different structures.
TB: The thread that connects the GWEI, Amazon Noir and Face to Facebook projects is the practice of "media fraud". In the first case the attention is focused on the Pay To Click business frauds and on the click frauds; in the second case, you became the small-time crooks (with Alessandro Ludovico and Ubermorgen.com) "stealing" Amazon's digital books; in the third case, a million of Facebook profiles were "stolen". How does the fraud become a media tactic and why is it so pivotal for you?
Paolo Cirio: The stealing is glamorous and spectacular; a proof of that is that also the mainstream news covered our projects. It is about a language strategically used to draw the media's attention and hence the common people's attention who are victims of the monopolies. Although in some cases rather than language, we speak of a proper robbery. In the Amazon Noir, my passion for books pushed me to try to take as much as I could of them. However I am not a criminal, what is defined as stealing constitutes for me an artistic research with a particular kind of material, which I consider to be naturally free and of public domain. Unfortunately corporations get possession of it for their business, protecting it with laws custom made for them. If tomorrow Facebook will own all the photos of the world, every photographer would become a criminal.
I work with information, something that is precious and inflammable like gasoline, and just touching it is dangerous. For the sake of the common good, information should be available, independent and interpretable. Despite that our century seems to have plenty of it, there is still a long way to go to find adequate ways of managing it. As an artist I stress the limits of the material to get to know its nature better and to create something unexpected and original.
In the case of Face to Facebook, for example, the lawyers and the journalists involved will keep on asking themselves for a long time if using a million Facebook profiles without asking for permission is illegal, or if it is just like an action comparable to a photoshoot in a crowed stadium. In my case, when I realized that I could take hundreds of thousands of profiles in a few hours, I was interested in using such an incredible and rich material for something amazing and socially useful, without being able to foresee the legal and political consequences.
TB: The art of stealing is a recurring theme of the three projects, but it is also what makes them different. In the case of GWEI and Amazon Noir, your tactic seems to be more similar to the Robin Hood's one. It is evident in Google To The People, the public institution that collects and redistributes the Pay to Click's revenues, and also in the redistribution of Amazon's books through the P2P channels. While in the case of Face to Facebook, the people's profiles are stolen, filtered and posted on a custom-made dating portal. In a way, F2F seems to be disadvantaging users rather than favouring them. What is your point of view?
Paolo Cirio: Setting thousands of people free from a prison and bringing them to a speed dating party, seems to me to be a noble action (take a look at the video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ye3Qyz-ojvI)! Leaving the jokes aside, in all the three projects, the thefts were connected with the most relevant resources to the relative corporations. In the case of Facebook it had to be about the users. However, the stolen material was not used for personal gain, but to strategically turn it against the corporations themselves. Furthermore in every project of the trilogy we tried to critically explore the main information monopolies, in order to provoke a public debate about their immoral management of information.
The awareness-raising concerning the conditions of social oppression has no price and in the Face to Facebook project we got more closer to reach that goal. Indeed, compared to any other artwork of the trilogy, Face to Facebook was the most covered project in mainstream media and it was the one that modified the users the most, many of which I think will be more careful when it comes to publishing their data on Facebook. With GWEI we could not inform many people about the dangerousness of the totalitarisms in the information management, but the project have resonated quite well with the media art scene.
I understand that Face to Facebook can be a very controversial artwork and unfortunately in the art world as well there was someone who did not want to understand the importance of such a provocation. I may associate this attitude with the ones who complain about occupation of train stations or highways during a demonstration. Actually I think that Facebook has become so widespread and used also by those who claim to be against it, that nobody really wants to take responsibility and become aware of his own behaviour, almost like we are talking about a social taboo.
Finally it is important that Lovely-Faces.com dating website contents were not indexed by Google. So the one who found his classmate, friend or even himself/herself, came from the artistic project context. And we removed all the people who requested to be out from our dating website. So, we didn't want to harm anyone, nor ruin marriages!
TB: Like TG Daily points out in the article about F2F (http://www.tgdaily.com/software-brief/53936-dating-site-steals-250000-facebook-profiles), your and Ludovico's scraping operation is paradoxically similar to the Facebook genesis, when Mark Zuckenberg created FaceMash, "stealing" his Harward collegues' profiles and pictures. Face to Facebook could therefore be seen as a commercial operation, making your logic differ little from the one of a business company. Not by chance we read in one of your recent press announcement that you received 13 offers of business partnerships after your "performance". What's the boundary between art and business in F2F?
Paolo Cirio: Yes, it is true; most of the big firms' business is based on other's goods and time. Exploitation of resources which someone else owns or produces at a lower price or even for free, just like in the case of the private social media platforms like Facebook.
Face to Facebook, project was about a parody of the business world, just like in the Drowning NYC project. Language, practices and corporate interests were brought to the extremes, by making fun of them. Although these operations may be seen as classic detournament of the language, or similar varations, in both projects there are important strategic and aesthetic innovations. In the Face to Facebook case, a custom software was the medium which turned information into a new form for a new contextualisation, characteristic common to each trilogy's project. While in Drowning NYC, what could be a classic prank, fake or hoax operation evolved into a proper narrative by recognisable characters with intertwined lives and precise psychologies. My background and my education come from the Situationism and the first Net Art, but I always try to insert new artistic evolutions.
Then there is always someone who doesn't get the poetry, the tale, the humour, and someone who takes jokes and fiction too seriously. I received business partnerships offers by North American companies, which invest in the conversion of civil infrastructures, following rising sea level caused by global warming. The Future Water Proof Corp. website is still now visited by firms and public administrations from all over the world, since this problem is a reality that many coastal cities are trying to cope with. The same thing happened with the credit cards, many people started using them to try to pay for small daily shopping, they were all people from the same social status on whose naivety credit card corporations try to exploit.
In sum, my audience is not so much the ones of the expositive spaces, but the ones of the specific targets that I want to influence.
TB: One of your last projects is the P2P Gift Credit Card. What is the financial model that you suggest and in which way may it metaphorically constitute an alternative?
Paolo Cirio: I do not consider Gift Finance to be a kind of business, which usually has to do with private interests, but more an alternative economy of public interest. The project was born from the idea of universal Basic Income directly regulated by the networks of relationships that link people together at local and global level. Universal Basic Income means that every human being has the right to have money in order to survive on this planet. A possible system proofed by reliable calculations, not just since the present technological progress makes potentially possible to feed everyone on the planet or if the money deposited in the tax havens was redistributed, we could give dignity to half populations of the world. In reality, the main point is the immorality of the creation of money itself, regulated by banks and by the State to preserve the social control. We never want to believe that money can become an abundant good for everyone, but actually this is possible and history, even if rarely, has proved it.
Since most of the money in circulation has assumed a digital form, so it is virtual, money conceptions themselves and the tools to use it or eventually to create it have been redefined. The recent economic crisis, leaving its internal contradictions aside, as a matter of fact was started by software capable of complex calculations, interconnecting investors, funds, loans and debts in a speculative vortex. Such tools for simplifying monetary data management increased exponentially the number of financial operations and operators.
A context in which money is issued without any logic of value and in which financial institutions have the legal permission to create "virtual" money very easily, by granting loans, which exceed the "real" money that they have in their deposits, this just by few mouse clicks, is created. This kind of creation of money is called Fractional Reserve Banking. After having spent more than a year studying critical finance, I noticed that the majority of the analysis indicates that banks are the main creators of money through this financial tool called Fractional Reserve Banking, which is legally permitted for boosting the whole economy, but it's actually managed for private interests, since only financial institutions can legally use it.
The P2P Gift Credit Cards were created to democratize the money issuing power, which is monopolized by bank giants and by now in small part by the state. The economic model Gift Finance uses already developed infrastructures, as the credit cards capillary circuits, the technology for wiring money through univocal codes, and financial tools such as the Fractional Reserve Banking, without extra interest on the credit emitted.
So, everyone must have the right to lend money, which he/she doesn't have, just like banks are allowed to do, in order to stimulate the general economy. It can look like an utopic artistic vision, but if you take a closer look at it actually it can carry out positive outcomes, like the Gift Economy has often proved. With the Gift Finance, economy is democratically stimulated by the people, instead of by private financial institutions, which on top of that revealed themselves to be incompetent and were rescued by bailouts of public money which, instead, seems to be "mysteriously" lacking.
The P2P Gift Credit Cards are introduced to the public with a language familiar to the target, attractive graphics and marketing, to tempt and attract the target and then introduce critical finance matters. The credit card industry in UK and in the U.S. is completely deregulated, the most common victims are students and low-income workers, social classes always more in difficulty. The project, instead of sabotaging the current credit card system, tries to subvert it using the existing infrastructures in a better way. The P2P Gift Credit Cards may start to be properly used widely for monetary trade when the number of people who joined the project will reach a critical mass. Money is just a symbolic means accepted collectively, so it's just about how many people literally believe in the same mean of trade.
Recently some new media theorists supposed to revitalize the economy with new digital currencies created by the grassroot movements. However, nobody thinks about who will be eventually in charge to issue this new currencies, who will therefore be responsible of the amount of money in new alternative markets. In the meantime big networks, just like Facebook, are planning the introduction a new internal virtual currency. So the future of money still has to start and it will change many things. In the meantime, the credit cards circuits monopolize the technology of electronic payments at a global level, VISA and MasterCard faced already several antitrust suits, but they still dominate also through lobbying constantly.
Money has become pure information so it is an easily manipulable and reproducible abstract material, which floats in a global network always more connected and spread. The money perception has changed as well: what attracted the human eye the most were bills, now to stimulate the parts of the brain linked to greed it only takes seeing numbers on a monitor.
TB: The themes of exchange, gift economy, and participation are fundamental nowadays to critically rethink the use of networking technologies and to imagine possible alternative to neoliberalism. At the same time, today the social media economy is deeply based on the concept of exchange of free gifts and many profits come from user-generated contents. Do you think that imagining a Gift Finance System based on Peer2Peer networks could go beyond the dialectic participation vs. exploitation?
Paolo Cirio: Yes, I think about Peer-to-Peer as an enormous potential social progress. The decentralization of resources is a model applicable and revolutionary to different fields, such as the energetic, urbanistic, and food supply, etc. Peer-to-Peer means from the farmer to the consumer, from the solar panels to the refrigerator, etc., and of course also, concerning information, and financial management.
If I could dare a comparison with historic ideologies, I could say that the network distributed from Person to Person, can constitute a potential new form of political civilization. Communism as much as capitalism, are not a democratic systems, both are based on the decision-making power concentration in the hands of a few people, pinpointed in the State hierarchy in the case of the communism or in the big corporations and banks in the case of neoliberism.
A well-informed population could manage itself with a direct and participative democracy through the use of free and independent networks. We went through a revolution with the introduction of digital technology, leaving the analog one behind. Now we are living a new phase, maybe even more important, which is the widespread of devices constantly online and with them the sharing of our data of our existences, which became deeply affected by digital networks.
However, you do not have to think of social media, like Facebook and Twitter, as Peer-to-Peer networks, it is the very opposite, actually: the concentration of all the personal data and contents in the hands of few, does not constitute an example of decentralized network for sure. With the increasing number of people connected, power conglomerates were created to monopolize resources and market demand, just like in many other globalized industrial sectors dominated by big monopoles, and in which the alternatives are banned, even if they are technically and socially better. In this case I have the impression that they want to extinguish the Peer-to-Peer technology, just like it happened when the oil cartels suppressed alternative fuel vehicles and goods without crude oil's derivates.
TB: Both the Face to Facebook and the P2P Gift Credit Cards projects imply a process of data collection. In the first case, it is about 250.000 profiles catalogued on the basis of the facial expression, but maybe, the true resource is the additional data catalogued by you after the user's reaction (reported in your press release dated February 10); in the second case, the spreading of Gift Cards allows to generate economy thanks to the involvement of its own network, through a virtual mailing system. In both cases, the projects allow to have access to unreleased and important data, coming directly from the back-end functions of the systems. Are you planning to use such a stored data in a conscious and "tactical" way? Maybe thinking about a second phase of the two projects...
Paolo Cirio: Like you say, it is not much the quantity of data that matters, but the relations which correlate information together and creates its sense. With the Facebook project as well, I could ascertain this equation: looking at a million of faces of people, I feel a terrible feeling of void, as if all of those individual lives, in the mass, blurred into something shapeless and valueless. There is an information surplus: we do not live with censorship anymore, this for sure, but what was obscured by the lack, is now made it confusing by a controlled structuring of information, relating information to alter its meaning or possibly to nullify it. This became possible in the networks as well, those who should have theoretically set us free from the mass media power. There are tactics and strategies in order to relate information for interests of a few or of everyone, and I believe this dispute will last long.
In any case, not all information is relevant, if it is not used in the best way possible. For example, with pictures of a million of people on the hard disk, new ideas of how to reuse them constantly come up to my mind, being it such an interesting material, but I also think I took the best out of them. Same thing for credit cards: there is more than one thousand of people with issued P2P Gift Credit Cards numbers, but the aim was not to collect and create new data, I just used the available and attractive means as a medium to suggest an alternative economic model, so making art with social functions.
In the future I will concentrate always more on new ways and tools to model information and to explore the connected social, political and aesthetic consequences.