Interview for "Artline" (Switzerland) about "Face to Facebook
" and "Hacking Monopolism Trilogy
Sören Schmeling: I am a Facebook user too. Now I am wondering, if I am part of your project? Altough I did a scary face portrait of Erich Honnecker onto my profile, which was only visible for friends.
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Paolo Cirio: There is quite a lot of controversy about this project, you are not the only one scared to be part of it. Not only the general audience, but also inside the art world, people have argued about the ethics of our action. First, I would say that the dating website was not indexed by Google, so those who found themselves or friends on it came from the contextual frame of the art project, we wouldn't want to harm anyone. Second, it is quite hard to criticize Facebook without touching its primary content, the users who actually make Facebook what it is. And last, it's the fact that I consider our project quite successful in terms of effective changes, which should be the main aim of hack-activism. I wonder how many people changed their profile picture or their privacy setting on their Facebook account after having known about our project, some probably even left the platform, and Facebook is facing quite a huge embarrassment about its management of data.
However, what really surprised me by this project is that I rarely heard comments about the fact that Facebook is trading your data all the time, and with someone that may be even worse than a cheesy unknown dating website. The trust that people have in Facebook is so taken for granted, or maybe just so scary, that no one would talk about that! Just for instance: the day that Facebook will sell off all your biometric facial data measurements to firms as a tradable commodity; well, at least, you will think that our action was just funny and it tried to warn you on time.
SS: Due to the cause of the Facebook lawyers, the page of lovely-faces.com is temprarily unavailable. How did the people find out, if their data was on your dating-platform during the Transmediale in Berlin?
PC: It was possible to search names, surnames and nicknames directly on the dating website, so mainly people just tried to search for their names.
SS: Why you chose the concept of a dating-platform to bring the downloaded public data of Facebook in a new order?
PC: It came up a few years ago when we were brainstorming on the project. Initially we thought to promote sexual intercourse availability through a poster campaign in specific neighborhoods where the people live, so that one morning you find yourself on real walls promoting yourself as available to date. Technically it is possible, since with Facebook you can locate quite precisely where people live, but printing thousands of posters is too expensive, so far.
Anyway, being on a dating website without knowing it, just triggers such a wide area of intimate imagination and sarcastic humor that it was just perfect, and in fact, the media picked up the story immediately.
SS: How someone could access the platfrom and what could be done there?
PC: We promoted the platform just through a press release, then the media did the rest. In a couple of days, we were already on big media outlets.
On the dating website it was possible to look for female or male filtered by their temperament (inferred by the facial expression that they had in their pictures), the country (it was a database of 250,000 real people from everywhere in the world) and for keyword (related to their likes on Facebook). So it was quite a cool search engine by which people could find the profiles of the persons needed and then contact them by a link to their Facebook home page. The platform had also great features like the list of "The best friends" of each profile and "Similar persons" who were selected by an algorithm of data mining.
For me it was interesting and also scary to experiment with some data mining techniques on a large number of profiles. Even if the relational data was just few, I could do quite good sociological statistic researches, like, of course, searching for people that like a type of movie or musician, have pretty similar faces and expressions or gender and age. I think Facebook is already considering to sell banners and personal data based on the facial expression that you have on your profile picture.
SS: Do you really think that most of the users of Facebook like "to attract new people, have more relationships, to express and receive love through their digital traits" as you said in your pressrelease?
PC: Yes. Social relationships became so awful that people prefer to express themselves and look for love and attention on Facebook instead to socialize in real life. It's not because of the nature of people, nor because Facebook is addictive in its own nature, it's just because the space and time to socialize in friendly and free environments disappeared, and we remain with just competitive behaviors under surveillance all the time in spaces in which we even pay a high price for being a part of! So we are looking for alternatives in online worlds, but then we realize that there too there are the same social degeneracy of competition, distrust and shrinking freedom.
However, it's just a question of management of infrastructures: authority can forbid that people talk together in a public space, which brings the same results as avoiding that people can manage properly their data on an online platform. This mismanagement of designing tools ruins our society and social behaviors all the time.
SS: You launched the platform during the Transmediale in Berlin, on February 2nd and you were forced from Facebook to close it at the evening of February 3rd. How many visitiors you had?
PC: The visitors were hundreds of thousands, but I personally enjoyed more the messages that we got through the website. They were mainly from people extremely upset and hysterically scared, but we also got compliments and greetings. Most of them were anonymous because they were scared that we could use their identities, others were death or legal lawsuit threats, but we had also proposals for business partnerships and by school students who asked information for writing essays about the project.
I always try to do participative works for general people, approaching wider audiences than the ones in the exhibition spaces, and this project was just fantastic how it worked out!
SS: How you would define the artistic approach of the "face to Facebook" and "lovely-faces" project?
PC: It was a social experiment for exploring how people could react in such situations. Doing experiments is needed for human knowledge developments, and in the arts, as instruments to push the boundaries of language and expression with new mediums. Media are tools that can oppress people but they can also push forward human language development, organization of society and evolution of human knowledge. As a contemporary artist and activist, working with such material is simply my historical duty.
Proceeding with the project, we defined a second stage of it as "Global Mass Media Hack Performance". In fact, it has been an irreproducible live act that required years of preparation for being quickly covered by many mass media. This with a precise starting date from which we launched an event that was evolving by engaging audience in a plot structure.
I consider this project as a very successful one, I barely remember another artwork that in just a week has been able to make millions of people worldwide think and change their behaviors through an effective parody of a present totalitarian power.
SS: Is it more about provocation and shocking or precise infromation?
PC: It's definitely a healthy shock therapy.
SS: You did two other projects "Google Will Eat Itself" and "Amazon Noir" with "lovely-faces" you call it the "The Hacking Monopolism Trilogy". What are the diffences and the similarities between these projects?
PC: I see more similarities than differences. All are very much about power of Information. In those projects we pointed out the undemocratic dictatorship of management of public knowledge in the information era, which is unethically exploited by corporations that pretend to own information that must be free and democratically managed for the benefit of the whole world population. There are also many similarities in the technique. In all the projects I could process data of the respective corporations through a smart software hack of mine that was sucking data through a loop in a small hole that the super sophisticated web platforms left open. In all the cases we didn't use the data for doing abstract decorative depictions, but radically turned it against the respective companies by gathering attention in the media and rising awareness about the monopoly of information to the public.
However, as an artist, the subjects of my artworks are not more important than the processes by which I create the pieces. I often see myself as a sculptor of data. Indeed, information is for me a malleable raw material that can be shaped for structuring unexpected forms. It's interesting to see that, like any substance, the material after being modeled keeps the intrinsic properties that it had in its original nature, and so in the case of information, it is the ability to powerfully influence society.
SS: You had a quick and noticeable echo in the press by launching "lovely-faces". How was and is Facebook acting against you?
PC: I find their reactions very aggressive, especially the fact that they want to shut down the website that explains our artwork: www.face-to-Facebook.net.
The other nonsense request is that they would like to have back the data that we "stole". I think that they actually can't say that they own that data, since it's material by users who "formally agreed" to make public that information. So if it was public data, what are they asking back? And this is not speaking about the fact that they already should have this data.
I often point out that Facebook does not have a European branch (only representative offices) as a way to circumnavigate the local privacy regulations that every country has, which may strangle its business and force Facebook to loose control over the data that is now all held in California.
However, we wouldn't want big legal troubles and we would stay out of court. We are just artists and we do art, and make people think about their conditions, nothing else.
SS: Do you have a chance the get back access to Facebook?
PC: No, but they are reading my last exchanges of messages that I had with my friends, and this upsets me. They didn't delete anything, they just disabled the account and I actually miss forever some people that I met in my travels. However I feel better to be without Facebook, and I'm glad to be back to using safe email addresses.
SS: The Film "The Social Network" didn't won the Oscar. Are you sad or happy about that?
PC: I'm so glad about that. It's really a horrible movie, cinematographically speaking totally without artistic merit. I'm sure it was just another marketing trick for promoting Facebook. There are not enough considerations about how Facebook became so popular thanks to dodgy huge investments, which could boost it through world wide advertisement.
I quote an extract from the famous article "In the Grip of the New Monopolists" by Tim Wu: "The government has conferred its blessing on monopolies in information industries with unusual frequency." I find a geopolitical issue about the fact that Facebook has not been regulated, and instead, it was helped by US' government and firms. These are all things that are not discussed in the movie, and so that makes it very ridiculous and probably cooked up by a PR firm.
SS: What about starting a Facebook friendship, if you are back in Facebook?
Well, they don't seem to be so friendly. And I actually don't like the face of Mark, but maybe he can change and smile at me more, and so why not be a friend in that way.