PhotoIreland has long been a highlight of Dublin’s cultural calendar. The 2020 iteration has adapted to the chaos of the coronavirus pandemic and has migrated into the digital world. This year’s programme highlights the work of The Photographers’ Gallery and Fotomuseum Winterthur that have collaborated to deliver a series of online streams called Screen Walks. These are a combination of studio visit and live performance that look at artists using the screen as their medium.
We caught up with Irish artist Conor McGarrigle to discuss his art and the crazy world of the internet ahead of his Screen Walk on 16 July.
Screen Walk will look at the relationships between algorithms, data and images through the lens of two of his internet projects separated by a decade, the BitTorrent Trilogy and 24hour Social. BitTorrent at its peak around 2009 consumed 60-80% of the bandwidth of the internet globally. It was the largest decentralised network of image circulation the world has ever seen dwarfing even Netflix, and most of it was illegal. McGarrigle will expose how internet protocols and video codecs came together in the BitTorrent Trilogy to visualise the hidden sociality of file sharing swarms with aleatory images of often striking beauty. Ten years later, for 24hour Social, the artist downloaded a full day of videos, with one video for every second, from the now defunct Vine video sharing social platform. At one level a celebration of individual creativity, shared memes and the weird internet, the project shows how data underpins everything, as social media platforms use the generation and circulation of images to surveil and track their users.
Internet culture has only crossed into the mainstream relatively recently. Most people wouldn’t have known what a meme was ten years ago. Now, everyone’s auntie has a favourite meme template. Can you tell me about how you got involved in internet culture?What was your entry-point into that world?
Originally it was art that got me involved, I wanted to have somewhere to show my work online and started a very basic website and doing that introduced me to that early web DIY culture, people who were passionate about what they were doing and sharing it, learning how to do it technically as they needed to. It’s sometimes hard to remember just how revolutionary that was, the idea that anyone could publish with minimum resources and no matter how minority your interests you could not only reach an audience but also engage directly with them. I ended up starting an art website, stunned.org, probably one of the first in Ireland which I ran for a number of years. From there I discovered internet art, that was art made specifically for the internet rather than art that was being shown on the internet, and that changed everything for me artistically
It’s a bit of a cliché to ask someone how they got into art as a whole but I’m interested in when you realised that your art can have a relationship with, and draw from, internet culture. What brought on that realisation?
For me it this discovery of Net Art, particularly artists like JODI, Olia Lialina who were pushing the limits of the web as it was formally, and looking at new forms of narrative, as well as interventionist works of Vuk Cosic and then later on RTMark who recognised the internet as a very hard to control public space that had scope for a new type of socially engaged interventionist art. There was a very lively and quite anarchic net art community that happened mostly through mailing lists and bulletin boards like Rhizome, 7-11 and Nettime that I became involved in, and that was my introduction to internet culture. Internet culture at that time was quite utopian, there was a sense that the internet would transform the world, which in fairness it has just but not in the ways anticipated.
I was very interested in the DIY culture of what was a new art movement, work was being made that couldn’t haven’t existed without the internet and that was expanding understanding of what the internet might become, but artists were making it up, there were no preconceptions and no right way of doing things. The ability to connect with other artists from all over the world was so important, it brought in so many perspectives that weren’t otherwise available, as was finding your own audience directly without necessarily having the mediation of a gallery. At the time I had just finished a touring gallery exhibition and I found the long time lag between making the work and showing it in a gallery difficult, the net offered this more immediate connection without the gate keeping of a gallery system.
Both of your projects deal with the internet as a pop-culture phenomenon. BitTorrent is this technology that allowed people access to film, music etc. on a scale that wasn’t possible before. Then Vine and social media in general became a way of giving people access to one another’s lives. Knowing what we know now about how social media and the internet have been used to manipulate people in the political process, these projects are almost quaint reminders of a time when we didn’t view the internet with quite the same level of cynicism. Were you an internet optimist or did you always foresee the possibility for things to turn in the way that they have?
Even before Bittorrent came along I think the original utopian dream of the internet was over. Napster was the first mass file sharing application which I think fundamentally changed perceptions on copyright, this provoked a massive battle for control of the internet between corporations and internet users, it was in many ways the turning point leading to the drive to control and commercialise the internet that leads to surveillance capitalism . Bittorrent was a reaction, it was decentralised and much faster in making it realistic to download film files and much harder to shutdown than Napster because there was no one centralised system. At its peak 60-80% of internet bandwidth was bittorrent traffic, today that’s less than 5%.
I’m interested in Vine because it’s at one level quite optimistic, it was a space of great creativity as well as this window in the weird and wonderful of other people’s’ lives, but its purpose was always as a channel for data capture. It was the first platform that was unequivocal; in making these great videos to share with your social network you are literally selling yourself and your friends, the value of the company was personal data.
I’m both an optimist and pessimist, I never believed in the full internet utopia, one of my earliest works (Spook… 2000) was about surveillance on the internet, but I never imagined just how pervasive it would become. However, I don’t believe it needs to be this way and it can change. One of the best tricks silicon valley plays is to convince the world that technology has to be this way, once that falls away everything can change.
This year’s edition of PhotoIreland is all-digital. Can you give a quick run-down of how the ScreenWalks program works and how you’re planning on doing yours?
Screenwalks is a series of live-streamed artist/researcher-led explorations of online spaces and artistic strategies designed to illuminate a thriving – often overlooked – digital cultural scene. Mine is in collaboration with PhotoIreland 2020.
In terms of your work specifically, I’m always wary of the fact that many people are intimidated by contemporary art and the museum. Can you give people a quick pointer on what to look for in your work ?
I’m interested in how we use digital technology, the works I’ll be talking about are trying to explore how these platforms work. So much of technology is a black box, we don’t know how it works and why it does what it does. With these I try to open this black box and look inside.
With The Bittorrent Edition we see how images are circulated and how this depends on the specific protocols and codecs used with this resulting in these in-between moments of great beauty.
With 24h Social it’s in one way a celebration of the creativity of social media, but also it’s relentless with a video for every second of the day. My hope is that these works are visually interesting and entertaining but that they also inspire audiences to think a bit more about how they use and are used by internet platforms.
Then, just to finish, some quick-fire questions:
Social Media: net positive or net negative?
Facebook at this point, negativ. Twitter and Tiktok still positive though only marginally so.
Your favourite individual work of art and why you like it in less than 3 sentences:
A very difficult question because it’s always changing. At the moment I’m enjoying the work of Sondra Perry, particularly “It’s In the Game ’17”. It’s a video work about her twin brother, a college basketball player, who became a character in a video game without his knowledge or permission. The video looks at the appropriation of black bodies through digital technology, it’s very incisive on digital technology and of course very relevant at the moment.
What’s your favourite meme/meme template of all time?
So hard to choose, I’m a fan of reaction memes and my favourite is the Irish Twitter Michael Collins. The one where the Stephen Rea character is taking names, it’s used with such wit on Irish Twitter that it always makes me smile.