Bad-Ass Mother Fucker Hacker Artist Evan Roth
Evan Roth is the biggest bad-ass mother fucker out there, or at least he tricked Google into thinking so. Try it for yourself. Search bad-ass mother fucker and the omnipresent search engine god will present you with the American hacker artist’s website featuring his impressive public space and culture hacking stunts. Evan, who earned a degree in architecture from the University of Maryland and a MFA from Parsons where he graduated as valedictorian, is a leading figure in the hacker community creating work under the philosophies of the open source movement. Does all this sound new to you? You’re not alone, the type of art that Evan and the growing hacker community creates is so new that it doesn’t even have a fixed name yet, with terms like "Net-Art" and “Post-Internet Art” being hotly debated. Yet compared with more classical fine-art categories like painting or sculpture, hacker art is no less credible, just more innovative and definitely bad ass.
"The culture of technology is a really valid thing to be making art about. We're all dealing with what it means to have a Facebook account, we all have a place that we're uploading our lives to that is essentially a private company that is monitoring all that and using it to sell us advertising space."–Evan Roth
So then what makes Evan such a bad ass? Other than the fact that he was awarded a Smithsonian Cooper-Hewitt Design Award and that his work is in the permanent collection at the MoMA, in addition to being exhibited at the Tate Modern, Fondation Cartier, and British Design Museum; not to mention having a Jay-Z music video collaboration to his name...we’ll just let his creations speak for themselves: one of Evan’s first notable projects was his founding of the Graffiti Research Lab which developed a laser-light system that could be used to draw graffiti using a laser pointer onto the sides of buildings–famous ones in particular–like the Brooklyn Bridge and the Washington Square Arch in New York. Sick of the passive experience of TSA security checks in airports, Evan decided to become and active participant by carving phrases like “Mind Your Own Business,” "Nothing To See Here" and a hand giving the middle finger into metal plates and inserting them into his luggage so that his message would appear on on the x-ray machines. The security guards were clearly not trained on how to deal with this kind of scenario. Evan co-founded the F.A.T. Lab collective (Free Internet and Technology Lab) and with his fellow hacker artists, pulled off a stunt using a fake google driverless car that went haywire through the streets of New York, driving up onto the sidewalks and doing wheelies in the street, hoping to get people to question the ethics of Google and the role it plays in our lives. His work forces us to think about our relationship with technology and the role it plays in our lives and identities.
Along with his public hacking projects, Evan’s creative DNA extends into the area of installation and gallery exhibited works such as his Internet Cash Self Portrait Series, in which shots of the websites that comprised Evan's internet history cache were compiled into a collage as a digital self-portrait archive, not unlike another project, Since You Were Born, which documents the websites he visited after the birth of his daughter as a list in an auto-biographical book format.
Creative Mapping caught up with the American-expat at his Paris studio to find out more about the world-famous hacker artist. In return, Evan shared with us his thought-provoking reflections on the relationship between technology, art and culture; gave indispensable advice for aspiring creatives and freelancers; and got us to thinking... could Evan's world of digital and hacker art help define the future of the art world?
CM: Why are you a bad ass mother fucker?
I am a badass motherfucker because in the html code of my webpage there is a title tag that says so and an H1 tag that says so, which doesn't matter to anybody except Google. But I started doing that back in 2006 and since 2007, Google thinks that I'm the biggest badass motherfucker. It was meant to be an early art piece of mine, but if you can't see me in the video, you can see me here in the room- it's not true. I'm clearly not the biggest bad ass motherfucker on the planet, but it is playing with the idea of what Google actually knows about us, this all pervasive thing that we give so much credence to, like if it picks me as the biggest bad ass motherfucker on the planet then perhaps there's other things it's not getting right either.
CM: What's the common thread in your work?
I think I am making work from a certain perspective like every artist does, but I think my perspective is of someone who knew the world before the internet. I'm making work that comes from those two places: knowing what the world was like before and after the internet and trying to make work that deals with this flood of data that is all going on right now. I think my work all operates under the assumption that we're all going under this digital revolution. A lot of the work I'm doing tries to come to some understanding of that, and freeze it for a moment. Not only so that we can get a glimpse of what's happening now, but I’m starting to look at my work on a longer time-scale. How do we look back on this time when all of our family members including our grandparents now understood what Facebook is? That has just happened within the last 5-10 years, and in 50 years we will look back on this?
CM: How did your education help shape your work today?
Architecture was a big part of it. I studied architecture in undergrad, and I worked in architecture for a few years before switching over [to art]. I used to be into some of the deconstructionist stuff like Morphosis out in L.A. I was into Corbusier and a lot of the stuff that happened in the 1920's and Mies van der Rohe. Then the internet came along. I was fighting at work to have any sort of creative input. I was going home at night and playing on the internet, and I was realizing that the creative output I was having was so divorced from money. I could make any decision I wanted and it didn't cost any money. The architecture of the web was built on the idea that openness would lead to good things, that giving people access to information would lead to stronger, healthier, more vibrant internet.
That decision to lean towards openness was huge for how the internet developed and so in terms of architecture and the web, that is a huge foundational decision that we might not even be grasping the importance of since we seem so eager from the perspective of the government to give away those ideals just so people can get faster Netflix movies.
CM: What advice would you give freelance creatives trying to follow a similar path?
I like it when artists talk about making money because it's often harder than making the art. They say a lot of times that the trick to an art career is just not quitting, to keep going and going and it never gets that easy. I think it's good when people talk about money because it's a tricky place to survive, especially when the hubs of the art world are places like London and New York which are not necessarily cheap places to live. The way I make my money is I do sell art, but my approach–what I tell people, not that im in any position to give advice–is diversify, which is what people who know about money say to do. So I always try to keep my income stream somewhat diversified, so even though I am primarily making and selling art, I also give lectures, and I speak about my art publicly which I really enjoy. I feel like it's a really condensed way of working through some of the ideas I'm wrestling with in the studio and the gallery. I also work with a lot of non-profit spaces or art festivals that aren't selling work, but even when I'm doing that, I try to get some sort of nominal artist fee. Even if it's small, I feel like it's important that artists also ask for money. It took me a couple of years to learn this, nobody's going to pay you unless you ask for it.
CM: How do you value the prices of your work?
It is really tough, this is something I'm still learning. I had one gallery owner tell me when she was trying to price work, "we're working in a gallery, art is like air." Nobody knows what it's worth, that's why she's saying for better or for worse it's helpful to have some of these clues from institutions, from art criticism, from academia. In some ways, value is generated when you have some of these institutional stamps, like museums for example. So some of those cultural cues like reviews in art magazines, people that spend time thinking and critiquing work, that could add value.
CM: Do you market your work yourself?
I think the galleries fulfill a really important role. I'm working with galleries right now, and I feel better for it, but there does seem to be a bigger opportunity to be had and played right now with artists connecting directly to their audiences via the web and having that happen without anybody in between. It doesn't seem to be happening a lot right now, and I think people aren't used to spending more than a couple of dollars through their browser. So when you're talking about art that costs, hundreds, thousands of euros, I dont think people are ready to press add to shopping cart on that yet.
CM: What do you hope the activism in your work will lead to?
Whether it's art that I would call activist driven work or any of the work I am doing, I think a function of art is making something that could break people out of their daily routine. Street art does this really well and internet-based art does this really well, whether you're commuting or surfing through the web or you stumble across something, you're experiencing an art moment that is different than coming into a gallery, you see something that causes you to pause and think about it differently for a moment.
To me that's what art should do whether it's activist or not. It should be able to show you something that opens up possibilities, and change the way you're thinking about something, so some of the work I am doing that is activist may be more specific in what it's trying to get people to think about, but even the work that's not activist, those are the moments I strive for.
I think the places where I have had bigger successes are on a smaller scale and dealing with issues that relate to accessing information, freedom of information, freedom of speech issues, and those are more the kind of conversations I have tried to hack my way into in the past.
CM: Is there a name for this area of art?
I think net-art is specifically art work that happens in a browser or any connected system, and that's one thing that I make sometimes, and the kind of work I love, and I think is really influential. Again, I think it's one of those art practices where there aren't a lot of gate keepers where you don't need people telling you what's good and what's bad and what can't be shown, it's just out there and you can find it and can stumble across it, and you have this really interesting interaction with the audience. I love net-art. There's also another type of art people are calling post-internet, new media art, and digital art. There's this whole new world going on that people don't really know how to classify yet. The culture of technology is a really valid thing to be making art about. That seems to be something that we're all dealing with. We're all dealing with what it means to have a facebook account, we all have a place that we're uploading our lives to that is essentially a private company that is monitoring all that and using it to sell us advertising space.
CM: What would be your dream collaboration?
That question was asked on the application form when I first got into Eyebeam, and so this was probably 2005, 2006 or something. I said my dream collaboration would be if I had a private jet, and I could fly around with Edward Tufte, Banksy, and Cory Arcangel and could just fly around and make art pieces. And that was enough to get me the residency.
CM: What are your views on intellectual property?
I probably fall on the very left side of that debate. My views are very straight forward. I consume anything I want on the internet, and I sleep at night fine with that. I also share everything digital that I can so even though a lot of the physical pieces in the studio I’m not going to give away because I don't have enough time or money to make more of them. But digital content, I believe that it wants to be free. It’s nature wants to be free. I’ve heard the analogy of it being like water flowing down a mountain.
Computers as they say, they are copying machines. It's what they were meant to do. I'm almost religious about data. I almost feel like it's a violation of the order of the world to put up a paywall to download an MP3.
CM: What's your latest exhibition?
Chronologically, the next piece I'm showing is at Phillips, an auction house in London. It's a piece from this series, which are called multi-touch paintings.The technique is really simple, it's just putting a piece of paper over the iPhone and recording these gestures. It's just me flipping through content on the web via a mobile device, so on the one hand, it could be looked at for what it is, the physically manifestations of virtual gestures, so part of the piece for me is archiving how we're interacting with computers. And then the other side of it too is that there's also something wrapped up inside it with identity, because it's a fingerprint. But it's also meant to be a commentary on how we're consuming media a little bit, this idea of next, next, next it's a very blunt gesture. A lot of the work I deal with which has some sort of critique of culture is also a personal critique, because I'm consuming culture too, on those blogs, going next next next and scrolling and getting caught in these wormholes on the internet, which inform the work I make. On the one hand I'm being influenced by this, but im also contributing to this.
CM: What place do you see the hacker/internet artist community taking in the art world?
I think what is happening is that you see these two worlds merging more and it has been a big conversation because whatever you call it–it's been called the new media arts scene–it's hard to even talk about these terms because they're so hotly contested lately. But the new media art field–for lack of a better words–usually had its back to the contemporary art system for a long time. But the contemporary arts also had their backs against the system too. I think both places have some faults. And even to this day with collaboration, in the contemporary art market, you won't go to an auction and see a piece of work with anything more than one name listed. The art world is still really slow to come around to the idea that there are very important cultural artifacts that are developing that don't just come from a solitary genius. The ideas of collaborating as it exists within the media art world and hacker circles are so fluid that it almost feels weird to put one person's name on anything. So those two things, I don't know how they are going to merge. You see it a lot more over the last ten years. Those worlds are going to mix, and I think it's a good thing. I think it has to happen. I think they were separated because technology used to be a specialization. Now that's not the case.That's an example of a wider cultural phenomenon, that technology is no longer a specialization. Because of all that, these worlds are going to come closer and closer together whether they like it or not.
CM: If not a hacker artist, what would you be doing?
I would want to be a rapper. I would give it all up in a second if I could have a hip-hop career. But I think that boat has passed. Or just music in general. I've always been a big music fan, and I always made music when I was growing up and thought about doing that at one point, so if I could trade it all in, it would be for that.