Interview Linda Hilfling

Interview by Susanne Jaschko

Susanne Jaschko: Welcome. I'm sitting here with Linda Hilfling, who was artist in residence at the Netherlands Media Institute from September to December 2008. And we are talking about the project that you developed here during that residency.

SJ: We're focusing on the progress you made on that work during your residency, talking about the production of the work, how it was presented and received here. And also about the environment in which you worked. So, can you describe your artistic background? Where do you come from? Where were you trained in what and what are you doing now?
Linda Hilfling: I'm from Denmark. My educational background is a patchwork of several different fields. Initially I studied film making, but moved on to studies of architecture and urbanism. Later I did my master here in Holland, an MA in Networked Media at the Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam. My interest in each of these fields is founded in an attention to the structures they are part of, and how practice is inscribed in, but also re-forming such structures. In a way different aspects from all three fields are coming together in my work, but also at the same time pulling me in slightly different directions.

SJ: You applied for this residence here right after you graduated or while you were still graduating?
LH: I was in the process of graduating when I applied. The project I was working on, Remote Control Democracy Player, is a kind of critical reflection slash humorous take on participatory media platforms. It consists of small conceptual software scripts, which execute user generated content according to traditional means of democratic organization. However, it all happens in pretty absurd ways: the output is never a smooth way for users to transmit content, but instead revealing the negotiation processes and conflicts going on between the users as well as the control mechanisms which are organizing their participation. This topic fitted well to your call for works, which had 'democracy' as a main theme, and I guess I first thought that it could be a nice occasion to continue developing my thoughts from Remote Control Democracy Player. However, eventually, I ended up proposing an entirely new work - Gate Peepin', which had been spinning around in the back of my head for a while. Nevertheless, it was the topic of your call that at first caught my attention and got me interested in the residency.

SJ: I'd say that, knowing the work that you developed during your studies at the Piet Zwart Institute, we could see that also Gate Peepin' would go into that thematic direction. We wanted to achieve that under the umbrella of democracy. So for us it still made sense to have Gate Peepin' as a project on democracy or in relation to democracy in the Artists in Residence program.
LH: Sure, Gate Peepin' deals with premises of participation, however the work focuses on means of control and regulations of online social network platforms, the so called Web 2.0 services.

SJ: Can you give a really brief description of Gate Peepin'?
LH: Basically Gate Peepin' is an artistic intervention, which changes the browsing experience of visited Web 2.0 sites according to the regulations governing the visited sites. The project is an open source Firefox extension. Anybody can download and install it in their browser, and as the user browses the Net and visits different services with Gate Peepin' enabled - like for instance Facebook, Flickr, Youtube, or the likes, the extension changes the original content by interweaving phrases from the Terms of Services of the site into the user generated content. In this way the meaning of both the initial content and the otherwise hidden regulations are being turned upside down. This is the main thing, but Gate Peepin' has other features as well. It has a set of default filters, which looks for specific words within the Terms of Services and gives a summary of how often they occur as well as how much time it would take to read the entire Terms of Service document. It is possible to customize these filters or create new ones, for instance if the user wants to keep an eye on a specific phrase or term. So, Gate Peepin' also becomes kind of a 'little eye', that helps its users to be aware and peep into the content of the regulations governing sites they are using regularly or maybe just visiting accidentally.

SJ: So, why is it interesting to you as an artist to make people aware -because that is, I think, part of the intention- of these terms of services?
LH: Information architectures are never transparent, objective tools; the cultural implications such as regulations and politics are inherited in their structures. Examining terms of services is not a bad starting point for trying to get a better understanding of our current web culture. Even though Terms of Services are kind of hidden regulations -since they are not directly executed through the code, but instead latent- they still have a huge influence over the content published within the services. The services platforms of Web 2.0 are founded on the idea of creating architectures of participation. In a way this is fulfilling earlier visions posed by media activists, grassroots movements or artists of granting people access to transmitting their own content. However, with Web 2.0 this is done by re-appropriating the concept into a business model. The service providers set up the framework and the users are providing the content. But, in order to capitalize from the content, the service providers need some means to control it. Here the ToS (Terms of Services) come in handy. The contracts grant the service providers full control of all content on their sites as well as the rights to exploit the data by for example monitoring content or track and record the users behavior in order to sell this data to third parties etc. Web 2.0 is also founded on a smooth participation and communication. You can be friends, but never enemies and there is a lot of restriction on how to behave properly. But communication is never smooth, it is full of conflicts and ongoing negotiation processes all the time. Therefore the service providers are busy regulating the very same access which they have granted to their users, and this is all evident in the ToS documents. The ToS is a way to allow the company owning the service to be able to capitalize from the users content. But it's also a document revealing the limits or problems with the communication patterns introduced by the Web 2.0 strategy as schizophrenic and almost hysteric.

SJ.: So on the one hand it's a critique, could you say say so? Would you say the work has this kind of almost political, social attitude?
LH: Of course, yes, with a humorous touch. For me web 2.0 is interesting as a neoliberal take on distributed participatory media culture. Web 2.0 venture capitalists actually managed to do what media activists and media artists have tried to achieve for so many years: to give people access to publish their own content. It's done in a clever way by re-appropriating the idea of the user as a producer and turning it into a business model, where the user becomes the producer, who is consuming a specific service. And where the Terms of Service contracts are maintaining this, by giving the service providers access to controlling the participation, but then again also revealing the difficulties within such communication.

SJ: But then on the other hand of course it also has an aesthetic form that you are creating and it's basically, as you said, an intervention. But it's an intervention also on the level of language, and what it creates, or what it generates is a weird mix of texts, which can be humorous, absurd, poetic; so it works on these various levels.
LH: The project is purposely conceived in the grey zone between a functional tool and a piece of art, although I think the latter is the main part of the work. The regulations are forced to leave traces in the content, but not mapping them exactly as cause and effect - law inscribed into code, which of course is impossible-. Instead Gate Peepin' twists the meaning of the content as well as of the ToS and points out their relationship. I guess that this is my way of dealing with the smoothness of communication as it is introduced by Web 2.0: to break it up and disrupt it by intervening it with its own regulations, which are then again turned upside down. And yes, the text output is often very humorous and absurd. But in fact this absurdity is already incorporated in the Terms themselves and Gate Peepin' is just a way to access it and make it visible.

SJ: And so during your residency here, what were the main challenges? What did you spend the most time working on?
LH: It was a fairly short time, three months are intense. It's difficult to say exactly what the main challenges were. Guess I just created a plan in the beginning and then tried to follow it.

SJ: You really started with just a concept, right? There was nothing existing, your work was really a completely new thing, that you designed from the beginning.
LH: Yes, Gate Peepin' was created from scratch. The first thing I did was to get an overview of the information architecture of the project. Gate Peepin' works with very basic string commands of comparing two different texts and then inserting a part of one of the texts into the other at the place where they have a word in common. The original content text of a website may for instance be: “My first computer – so happy!”. Gate Peepin' will compare this text with the ToS document. The word 'computer' is identified as the common word and Gate Peepin' will then re-edit the original content by inserting a string from the ToS that contains the word “computer” immediately after it. The result could then be: “My first computer code, files or programs interrupt, destroy or limit the functionality of any computer software or hardware or telecommunications equipment; disrupt the normal flow of dialogue – so happy!”. At a very early stage an idea had been to include sound or graphics, but I quickly decided to focus only on the textual aspect. I was considering what features should be included, how to structure the tool, which filters or categories should be in the default settings, how users could alter such settings, how to allow the users to continuously expand on the tool by adding and sharing new information by for instance submitting a new service etc. Michael van Schaik, whom I collaborated with, I had meetings with where we talked a lot about how these ideas could work as a Firefox extension, what could be realized, and how it would work both technically as well as conceptually. I developed prototypes in a combination of bash scripts and python using regular expressions and Michael van Schaik programmed the actual Firefox extension in Javascript.

SJ: And the collaboration with Michael; how did that go? Because he was not here, physically. Where is he based?
LH: It went well. Michael is based in Rotterdam, so I went to Rotterdam or we had meetings half way between Amsterdam and Rotterdam. But I also knew Michael quite well from before. Once, a couple of years ago I was involved in another project where I worked with another person, whom I had never met. We were only in touch by emails and for me this was a bit strange, but the other person never seemed to notice, then after three months of intense work we chatted together for the first time and I was very surprised to discover that it was as unusual for him as for me to work together without meeting in person. But I think sometimes it just happens that way depending a bit on timing etc.

SJ: But particularly in your case, I think the question is interesting in what way you benefited from being in Amsterdam, because you are working with someone in Rotterdam yourself, you came from Rotterdam but you moved back to Denmark now. So, does it make sense to have an artist like you working basically on a laptop, not needing a lot of space, to come to a place to do a residency?
LH: I definitely think so. The residency is an important space allowing you as an artist to focus on a project. For research based work like mine, it allows you to work intensively out of your everyday life settings in a relevant milieu. And since my works are never for sale, but rather interventions and reflections, support is always appreciated. So of course it makes sense. I think that when planning the residency, it should be open for artists to choose different ways of working, whether it is just you and your laptop or producing enormous installations.

SJ: Maybe a weird question, because the achievement of your residency was to do the project and to produce the book which is part of the project, and finally to exhibit that piece within one of the shows that we had here, the 'Speaking Out Loud' show. But maybe for you personally can you describe what you got out of it, like what was the most important thing as a kind of result of the residency?
LH: The residency at NIMk was a place where some of my previous ideas and thoughts were put together and further developed. I have been working with Terms of Services and user participation in earlier projects: As net culture has shifted to an increasing commercialization and harnessing of user generated content I've been particularly interested in the changing premises of online participation, and since 2006 I've been engaged in an ongoing series of critical investigations of contemporary Internet platforms. The project Participation 0.0 from 2007 was in a sense a forerunner for Gate Peepin'. In a series of actions and interventions I attempted to bring back Terms of Services to their respective Web 2.0 service platforms by manually publishing the terms within their own media. Participation 0.0 was a manual live intervention/action -in the sense of conventional art representation- where the documentation was exhibited after the action itself had taken place. With Gate Peepin' I wanted to develop my analysis of the relationship between participation and regulations further, not just into a representational piece, but rather to create a tool which executes the intervention continuously. My residency here at NIMk was an opportunity to immerse myself in both research and production around this topic, and that's very important for me.

SJ: And how do you feel about the way it was presented here?
LH: I think it was great. We organized a small symposium in connection with the 'Speaking Out Loud' exhibition. You had invited Florian Cramer and Jaromil and I suggested to bring in Peter Westenberg from 'Constant' in Bruxelles, who has also been doing research on the performativity of the regulations embedded in licenses and Terms of Services. Florian made an introduction talking about different approaches to performative language as well as performativity of codes and laws. Jaromil did a performative lecture in itself wherein he spoke around his work 'Timebased Text', but without ever describing what it was. Peter Westenberg came together with Ann Merten and they spoke about 'Schaerbeekse taal / La langue schaerbeekoise' which is a project dealing with the construction of an artificial language. We of course also launched Gate Peepin' and I gave an introduction to the work, offering the audience a small peep into the absurd case studies I've stumbled upon during the research process. I think this kind of seminar setting fitted very well to Gate Peepin' and in general the way I like to work, combining the research and production process.

SJ: Do you have problems to exhibit such an online work in a gallery situation and on a monitor? There is this constant debate going on in how far you really should exhibit these kind of works that basically belong to a different domain, in another space, like this kind of white cube gallery space. If that is necessary at all? What do you think about that?
LH: You ask me if I have problems with it?

SJ: Yeah, or if you actually prefer this way of showing the piece, because it's not natural that a piece like that (net-art) is presented in a gallery space necessarily.
LH: I don't prefer it, but I don't mind it either. Since I mostly make interventions into existing structures most of my works are a bit difficult to exhibit in a gallery. Nevertheless, what is nice about being part of an exhibition like for instance 'Speaking Out Loud' is the contextualization. It's interesting to see your own work in relation to the other works. But as an artist usually working outside of the gallery you are in a way forced to rethink and re-mediate your work so it fits into the institutionalized space of the exhibition.

SJ: That's what many artists working on the net do.
LH: With Gate Peepin' I decided to make a small booklet – a collection of texts generated by browsing different service platforms with the tool enabled. The book consists of seven chapters. Each chapter is a snapshot of a specific service, although none of the chapters explicitly refer to a service, but rather sort of displays the communication flow, which is specific for the given service. On the one hand, the publication is a collection of ready-made poetry and on the other it's a documentation of the software and its interventions. The book becomes a way to access the project independently from the internet and the service platforms, and is something which the visitors can take home with them. All in all I think an exhibition space can be an interesting place to contextualize my work as well as a way to reach a different audience. People coming to exhibitions often vary from those who otherwise would find Gate Peepin' on, say a mailing list or in the adds-on archive of Mozilla. So I guess that even if my works are hardly ever made for galleries, I think it can be meaningful when they are curated and contextualized.

SJ: Are you taking this project further? Or is it a finished project now and you are working on something completely different?
LH: At the moment I'm working on a different project. It is a public installation founded by the Danish Arts Council and an intervention into a wireless public network. However, this new project also deals with the premises of a public media sphere, and just as Gate Peepin' and other previous works reflects on system incompleteness or control mechanisms inherent to what often is regarded as objective, and purely functional media structures. I guess that looking for, and revealing, hidden gaps in otherwise seemingly perfect structures is always part of my work. It is my main interest - maybe my own personal “while loop”.

type out / editing: Merel Kamp, Anna Hoetjes & Petra Heck

Susanne Jaschko & Linda Hilfling