Interview with Govcom.org (Richard Rogers)

door Annet Dekker

The research network group Govcom.org worked at the Netherlands Media Art Institute as temporary artists in residence. During their days at the institute they investigated fluctuating alliances between political issues and celebrity endorsements.
In the history of advertising, celebrity product endorsement first became prevalent in the U.S. in the 1920s and 1930s. For example, Amelia Earhart, the first woman to fly solo across the Atlantic Ocean in 1932 returned to the United States and endorsed wrinkle-free clothing for Macy's department store. Most recently, Angelina Jolie has become a face for another U.N. agency, UNHCR; she first became interested in human rights (and the landmines issue) whilst filming Tomb Raider in Cambodia. U.N. Goodwill ambassadorship may be considered the ultimate recognition of the endorsement of an issue by a celebrity. There is a U.N. goodwill ambassador hierarchy: international, regional and national goodwill ambassadors. The United Nations Association of the U.S. named the former Beatle, Paul McCartney, and his wife, Heather Mills, Goodwill Ambassadors for Adopt-a-Minefield, the charity dedicated to landmine clearance and survivorship. Together they help to start up Adopt-a-Minefield, raising millions of dollars, largely through gala dinners, including N1KD, the Night of A Thousand Dinners, hosted amongst others by Michael Douglas and Colin Powell.

The video A Thousand Dinners A Night: Amongst the Issue Celebrities by Govcom.org is the final result of their residency at NIMk. It chronicles the entanglement of social issues and celebrity couples. It takes seriously the otherwise cynical idea of celebrities entering and leaving social issues, depending on the distractions of publicity.

AD: What is ‘Govcom.org’, and who are you?

RR: The name relates to several projects we did (myself, Noortje Marres and some students at the university of Amsterdam in the department of Science Dynamics and the Royal College of Art in London) in 1998 and 1999.
The first project started because I was asked by the International Herald Tribune to write a newspaper article on climate change. This was 1997. I, like many people do, went to a search engine, typed in ‘climate change’ and hit return. I was going through the various returns, ‘surfing’ if you will, and I noticed that a lot of the organisations that I came across made hyperlinks to other organizations, but not all organisations linked to all other organisations. The hyperlinking was in some sense selective. What I ultimately noticed is that some organisations received more links than other organisations.

So, we started manually, with a chalk board and coloured chalk, drawing little circles signifying the sites of the organisations involved in climate change and lines between them signifying hyperlinks. What we noticed was that there was something that we eventually called ‘the politics of association’ on display. That is, some organisations linked to others for particular reasons.
We thought that hyperlinks at the time, if you take a large sample of them, might signify the reputation of an organisation. The organisations that get the most links from other organisations working in the same area, one would imagine could have more authority or a higher reputation than the other organisations. In fact the hyperlinks, we thought, displayed some kind of reputation distribution. First of all they showed a politics of association, and on the other hand a sort of reputation distribution.

Where the politics of association is concerned, we made a film in 1999 that was our next larger project whilst we were research fellows of the Jan van Eyck media and design fellowship. I was the research fellow and I brought with me a number of colleagues both from Amsterdam (including Noortje Marres) and some people from the Royal College of Art – largely students. We sat at the Jan van Eyck for about five months. We made a video as well as some other things, and one of the things we were looking to find out was why organisations link to one another. So we interviewed the webmasters of Shell, Greenpeace as well as RTMark which is the famous organisation which pioneered ‘rogue’ websites – or ‘fake sites’. The three of them were all in the same issue-space with regard to climate change, and when we interviewed them we found out that they all are, in some ways, competing for attention in the same space.

What we noticed when we were mapping was that when you map an issue, the types of organisations that are on the map most prominently are .govs, .coms and .orgs. So, that is where the name comes from: Govcom.org.

AD: Govcom.org consist of quite a few people. How do you organize yourselves?

RR: We always work in teams, and they always include theorists or analysts, designers and programmers. We have been doing that since 1998. There are some core people. Myself, and Noortje Marres has been involved since the very beginning. Just after that our two principle designers joined us: Marieke van Dijk and Auke Touwslager. Now Anat Ben-David (analyst) and Erik Borra (programmer) are deeply involved. Andrei Mogoutov often joins us from Paris. We have a couple of other programmers as well that we work with, especially Koen Martens who keeps everything running. For specific projects we try to gather the requisite skill sets. Normally we work on something in very concentrated periods. That is our style.

When you are doing internet-based work that is how you work. For example with the residency at the NIMk, we all sat here, Skyping one another. We were constantly passing files etc… That is also how we document what we are doing. There is someone maintaining a Wiki. We would all edit it, but someone is ultimately responsible. The data came through Skype. And because the Wiki is constantly being refreshed, you see the narratives emerging. You see fruits of the work. It is not like rapid prototyping or anything, but it is ‘rapid documenting’.

AD: What are you known for?

RR: We are known for issue analysis, or issue mapping. This came out of the Jan van Eyck period where we made a piece of software called the NetLocator, and later the Issue Crawler, which is web network location and visualization software. That was one of the first major achievements on our part in terms of software making, and we have been working on it since about 2000/2001. The designed version came online in 2004 and it is doing quite well. I mean, it has a mind of its own and breaks a lot and we have never know exactly why. It maps issues networks.

AD: What is your interest in these subjects?

RR: Well, it goes back to a particular tradition in the academic area that I studied, that I got my PhD in, which is Science and Technology Studies. One of the areas is Science and Technology Controversy Studies, and it was our contribution to that field to look into particular social issues. I think all of the projects we have done are conceptual, but the conceptual is always backed up by the analytical. We are constantly doing analysis, because we like to think that we can make claims. Once we think we are able to make claims, then from there we try to figure out the best form in which to make them.

But there are a number of ways of answering this question. One of the things, for me personally, is to put on display that issues are everyday concerns. If you read the news or watch the TV news, you’ll see that some issues have more attention than other issues. So a project that we did after the Issue Crawler was to look at the difference between news attention cycles for issues, versus civil society, or NGO, attention cycles to issues. We made a piece called infoid.org, which is an issue tracker, and it shows issue attention according to civil society’s campaigning behaviours. We found the good news is that civil societies have a much longer attention span to social issues than the news.
We used the web in order to find this out…

AD: You are not looking at it from an artistic background, still you get presented more and more within the art scene. What happened? Did you enter the art world yourself, or was it the other way around?

RR: I had the fortune to work at the Royal College of Art for two years in 1998 and 1999. Also to work at the Jan van Eyck Academy, at a time as well when I first became interested in this notion of my own theoretical research in web epistemology. Basically research into what the web knows, and how it knows it.

When I was at the Royal College of Art I spent a lot of time with my students doing projects in this area, and one of my students in the project we were working on ended up making theyrule.net. Working with them was at a time when I was working with that sort of sensibility, but it’s not just artistic. The Royal College of Art in computer related design coined a notion of the ‘designer artist’. We were far more working in the area of design, with designer artists, than we were working in the area of art. Sometimes it draws interest in the art world, or in an art context.

AD: How do you see your work yourself? In what context would it be most beneficial?

RR: The work is something that can be presented in a variety of discourses, and has always been the case. It has the scientific to it. It has the design to it. We are always very conscious about the narrative. What is the story? What are we telling here? In that sense the presentation is always important. We feel the things we do can be presented, shown and talked about in any of the discourses that we have people from on our team. We are at a point where people can cross over quite well. I am very comfortable working with designers, artists and programmers. I can speak their languages.

AD: What is the role of the public for you? Do they have a say in the thing? Is there an open forum? Can they only be listeners, lurkers or also participants?

RR: What we have found is that there is much to critique in various projects (especially web ones) that have great assumptions about the empowerment of publics. The secret of publicity is that there is no public (see Publicity’s Secret by Jodi Dean). Noortje Marres, says in her dissertation: ‘no issues – no publics’. Often times the question a lot of people work on is: how do publics form. Are there free-floating ones, or do they form around something. Noortje’s answer is that they form around issues, and that they are not just there.

When we do issue mappings, what one notices is that you basically have quite powerful professional organisations at work. There is no man on the streets involved, nor being recognised by these actors. When you study issue power, you find that public participation is something that is more of an ideal than a reality.
On the basis of those sorts of perspectives, based on some findings, I think the short answer to the question about public participation… they participate when they do, and when they form. We do not engage in work that forms everyday publics.

AD: Can you see that changing in the future, with the arrival and popularity of the Web2.0?

RR: Every once in a while we do a piece of work that has some kind of public dimension in mind. For example, one of the proposals that accompanied the Issue Tracker (a piece of software which monitors whether social issues are rising or falling) was to have it as an augmented space project. Initially it was inspired by the protests in the streets of Genoa during the G8 meeting in 2001. There was a red zone, and green zone: where the protestors were on one side, and conference on the other. We thought an issue ticker would make a nice interface between those two zones. It has a public dimension to it, but it is more of a showing, a form of presentation of our findings.

AD: Can you tell me a little bit about the software you are using?

RR: We make open source software, but we do not make SourceForge projects because that is a whole world which requires constant attention. We share code… a lot. But, when one says ‘open source software’ there is often the impression that everything we do is put into the open source community, when in fact it is not. With the Issue Crawler, in particular, we have extensive documentation. But we do not have the actual code bundle online. That is not to say that we have a problem sharing. We make it in the spirit of open source, we use open source licenses but as of yet we haven’t done the SourceForge project for it.
The consequence is that with the Issue Crawler we do not have the community of programmers, which is something that occasionally hurts us because the Issue Crawler is user supported. Every year or so we realise we do not have any money, so I write to my institutional supporters which are quite important universities. There is a list of about 15 or 20. We suffer, in some sense, from not having taken the time or made the extra effort to create a SourceForge project.

AD: Would you say that with your projects you make political statements, or are you more interested in showing what is happening with different issues?

We have made a lot of different statements, and some are summarised in the different terms we use. We are concerned about ‘issue abandonment’. We are concerned about ‘issue drift’. We are concerned about the life that issues lead and are continually, in some sense, making statements about issues through those sorts of terms.
For example, in ‘issue drift’ one notices that international NGOs and inter-governmental organisations go from summit to summit, and conference to conference. At each of these different venues, there are different agendas and if you look at it over time you’ll notice how particular issues rise and fall in these agendas. We always ask ourselves the question of whether or not these organisations remember what is happening on the ground. Whether or not, depending on participation in these summits, they abandon certain issues in favour of other ones. We are always, in some sense, making statements generally about attention to social issues. Whether or not you should watch the news at all, but also other ideas such as whether organisations leave certain issues unexpectedly because their issues aren’t in the news, for example.

Also another term that we use is ‘issue hybridisation’. That is the coupling of two or more issues together. One of the things we have been asking critical questions about is what happens to an issue when the organisations doing the issue suddenly enter the human rights discourse, thereby framing issues in terms of rights, coupling the issues with rights. We have noticed on a couple of occasions that when the rights language comes into a certain issue space, the sub-issues that were in that space previously begin to go into decline.

For example on a study we did on the Narmada Dams controversy in India, much of the local concern was about people being displaced because of the construction of the dam. They have to move and they would like compensation. When large organisations, or NGOs, started getting involved, they changed the discourse from compensation, displacement and land loss to rights. Human rights, which has its own dynamics.
In that sense we are making statements by the kinds of analysis we do.

AD: Are there particular issues that hold your attention?

RR: We have been following climate change since 1998. Which is one issuw that (until recently) has not had the kind of analytical attention from sociologists as it should have had arguably. That is one issue we have been following for a while. Our attention span is quite solid where that is concerned.
It is interesting though, when you look at what is being analysed by the issue crawler (there are something like 1200 users of it), that often what is being analysed are the issues of the day. You could say that if you do web research, if you think of the web as something that puts on display a sort of ‘long now’, you really cannot do so much historical research with the web for a number of reasons. For example, search engines systematically update, and it is not very easy to work with archive.org (as much of a valuable resource as it is). So when one is doing issue research with the web, one does tend to focus on what is analysable, which is the present.

AD: Is that why you became interested in the relation between celebrities and issues?

RR: That is a longer story. There are a couple of areas that I have been interested in for a while. The first is issue calendars. The news follows issue calendars in the sense of the International Woman’s Day, International Human Rights Day, Aids Day etc. There are many issue calendars, but that is the international one set up by the UN. It is a huge achievement to get your issue onto that calendar. Becoming interested in the relationship between celebrities and issues, I got to the particular case study that is in the film by an interest in these issue calendars.

In 2006 was the first international day for landmine awareness. It was a huge, long process to get landmines on the UN calendar. It started basically with two parallel events. One was the founding of the international campaign to ban landmines, founded by the Nobel Prize winner, Jodie Williams. She got the Nobel Prize in 1997, and that was at the time when we had our first celebrity attached to that issue. That was Princess Diana. Princess Diana went to Angola, and according to many accounts put landmines onto the map or into the news. The campaign as well as the Princess also contributed to a major piece of international legislation. An international treaty.

Now there is the situation where we have a Nobel Peace Prize, a major international treaty and a celebrity all coming together at the beginning. Then ultimately, say about eight or nine years later, the first international day for landmine awareness is on the UN calendar.

I came to the relationship between celebrities and social issues through an interest in issue calendars, which in itself is a sort of critique of news and a particular news cycle. News for a particular issue, unless there is a big event, is say, once a year, on its issue calendar day. When I looked into it a little bit more, I also noticed that the attachment of celebrities to the landmines issue grew stronger between Diana’s trip to Angola and the celebrity dinner at the UN in 2006 in honor of landmines day and Secretary General Kofi Annan (hosted by Michael Douglas). More and more celebrities became involved, in a kind of issue celebrity trajectory ending in landmines calendar day.

AD: Issues and Celebrities seem almost like a paradox, it is so easy to get cynical about the subject. How did you get around that?

RR: Yes it is. A lot of my colleagues, in particular Noortje, were quite disturbed about becoming interested in this because it is very, very difficult to take celebrity endorsement of issues seriously… because they are celebrities. What celebrities are in the business of, is maintaining their celebrity status. One of the things they would do, one would presume, would be to attach themselves to a social issue, because that can (positively) affect their status.

What we found, when we started researching this in some detail, was how serious this has become. The amount of money that was collected by Heather Mills and Paul McCartney together for their Adopt-A-Minefield charity was enormous: 18 million dollars from 2001 to 2005. Compared to the entire annual UN budget for landmine clearance, which is 60 million euros. I think in 2005 they raised something like 6 million, so you’re getting to about a tenth of the entire UN budget. The number of landmines they have cleared is major, and the amount of awareness they have raised about landmine survivorship care is also important, because if we look at the official name of the UN day, it’s landmine awareness as well as survivorship. It is not just clearing minefields, or trying to ban them, it is also helping victims of mines, which was something that this charity is dedicated to. So there is this very strong relationship between the celebrity charity and the awareness day. Not only was there a dinner, but also in the style in which the issues are done, there has been major celebrity influence.

The question at the outset was: how seriously can we take this? There can be a lot of smiles, and a lot of shaking of heads about celebrities being just distractions but on occasion you seem to need to take them quite seriously. Therefore we wanted to explore that in the project. In particular the question: what happens to the issue when celebrities attach themselves to it?
And as you can see we still remain in the realm of issue analysis.

AD: What caught your attention?

What we were looking at, a little bit, was the financial consequences of issue endorsement as well as what I just called the style in which the issue was done. But there is another part of the project that I find fascinating, which is about the extent to which you can take celebrity news seriously or not. If you do a professional issue mapping of this area, celebrities are nowhere to be found. They are not being taken seriously in some sense by the organisations working professionally in this area. What is odd, and this was kind of the provocative and paradoxical about the research, was when you are looking at the celebrities who are so in your face, when you begin to study them from an issue perspective you are actually studying some sort of off–the-radar phenomenon. Not recognised at all by the professionals in the area, at least not formally or publicly. At the same time they get so much attention.

AD: Yes it seems a very strange relationship that is shifting all the time. A celebrity is of course very beneficial for the issue. But an issue is maybe even more important for a celebrity, as a status, it gives a level of credibility and importance and maybe even economically as an investment.

RR: Yes, but you are becoming again semi-cynical, which is very difficult to resist. It is very difficult to, no matter which perspective you look at, not be cynical about it. They have annual gala dinners, raise all this money, so many photographers, celebrity chefs, and then they start branding it. That is why we named our film “A Thousand Dinners a Night: Amongst the Issue Celebrities”. It is a take on this foundation that they have set up called ‘Night of a Thousand Dinners’. What they attempt to do, when there is a gala dinner or another event, is to have other people have dinners that same night and all raise money for the landmines issue. For example, Colin Powell held a dinner for diplomats and businessmen. Then Michael Douglas held one for celebrities to come to.

This format allows for various folks to couple with the issue, also non-celebrities. You could very easily be cynical about it, but that issue dinner format gets the diplomats and serious politicians to be thinking about these issues in the evening. It is many sided.
The reason we wanted to do this was because it is very much under explored. It is never really been talked about or analysed. The first thing we did was found online databases. The first one was contactanycelebrity.com. There is a list of celebrities you can see, and also what issues they endorse, then all other information you have to pay for, like their contact details. We already had an interesting data-set, found a few others, and after a bit of analysis we began to realise celebrities have favourite issues. Children… health… Interestingly, we found out there are not any celebrities who are engaged in attention deficit disorder, or liver disease, also on the list of issues. You can see there is a real serious sensitivity of issue association that celebrities have, of course, for publicity reasons. But, over time we have seen evolution. The UN had the idea, I think from the USO, to get celebrities to endorse issues, with goodwill ambassadors. Started with UNICEF. Over the years, this has begun to evolve and as you know Angelina Jolie is doing human rights. There is movement in this, and human rights as an issue is seemingly far more ‘dangerous’ than children and health. You can see these trends.

AD: Why did you choose, in the end, to make the video presentation?

RR: I think we were also influenced by the space, a place for video. We were working on a piece of software that does particular analysis of things. We had that and we were also working with RSS feeds. There were a number of things along those lines that we were working on. In the end what we made, in fact, was a timeline Wiki. We then rendered it, not in some sort of complicated set of feeds, but in a video. It is a medium that we have not worked with that often before, and I am happy to work with video if it allows us to tell the story the best. What we have always been influenced by is how much we hate new media exhibitions.

What I said previously about the magic and mystification a new media exhibition creates, with the public’s ability to change the world. Also, just the circus of the technical achievements. Some are without a real point, and we always try to make a point.
The concept of our installation, before the final version, was that we wanted to visualise what was behind the video: the celebrity issue tag clouds, celebrities having favorite issues as well as favorite charities. And initially we were also going to have a feed, so the video ends at a certain date but you can still follow the drama of what is still going on. But in the end we felt that it could stand on its own as a piece, and not be tethered or attached to more new media. Also, the tag clouds are one of the more recent forms of data representation: one that was not in existence three years ago. Therefore we took the internet out of it, whilst relying on it in full for content.

I think we were able to identify something of interest in terms of the subject matter. Hopefully something that will spawn more work in the area. That we had this type of output, as opposed to writing a paper, I think lends itself to circulation. That there is an eight or nine minute video introducing this particular subject matter may lend itself better to circulating than if I wrote up the work and had it published in an academic publication.

AD: How will you circulate it, back on the internet?

RR: Yes, we will first put it online at Govcom.org. The question of YouTube is something we didn’t look into. We kind of did it the other way around. We used it as well as Google video. By putting it back up there would be like a thank you. They are acknowledged.