James Bridle is an artist, writer and technologist. His artworks and installations have been exhibited across the world, and have been seen by hundreds of thousands more online. His work examines the reality that has emerged out of the increasing impact of networked systems on wider society, culture and politics, and brings to light many of the unseen affects this technology has on our lives.
Some years ago you framed this notion of the ‘new aesthetic’ as a way to describe a visual lexicon that has in some way emerged out of the increasing mediation of the world by technological systems. Can you talk a little about the origins of this?
It came from a frustration at the general level of discussion around the effects of new technologies that I saw. As an aesthetic phenomenon it felt denigrated in some way when compared with other competing visual languages. In fact it has this incredible impact on our lives – emotionally, socially, politically – and by refusing to acknowledge it, by ignoring it as a material and an aesthetic, we were not only failing to use it in useful ways, we were failing to criticise it in useful ways, too. I was looking for shiny examples of the alternative. One of the key qualities is that it’s an aesthetic that often reveals the deeper structures within it, so the glitch became a key example in that it allows for a glimpse into the system that’s produced the image concerned.
Some of the reactions to the ‘new aesthetic’ kind of missed the point. Is that fair to say?
I certainly thought so, because it was assumed it was an art movement. And to be honest it didn’t really have a lot to do with art. There were artworks that I thought were expressing it, but the idea that someone would be a ‘new aesthetic artist’ was not what I was getting at all. So, in some ways that reduced the arguments about it, which perhaps missed my intention, but at the same time it was obviously something that needed talking about, and it was and remains a way of bringing together bodies of work that do address some of the issues in a way that wasn’t being done before. There was a huge gap in our vocabulary and understanding around the digital and I think a lot of people got what they needed to out of the concept because no one else was putting it forward.
This ties into something you’ve talked about in your work many times, which is this idea of “making visible the invisible”. Could you talk a little more about this aspect of your practice?
In the context of the new aesthetic it was very much ‘here is this image’, but in order to understand why the image is important, you need to know how it is formed. One of the things about digital technology is that you can understand how this stuff is generated because you know it comes from code, from these structures, and we can actually start to dig under the surface of this much more. And that’s the wider approach – certain structures, be they technological, legislative, political – are often invisible by default because of their complexity. The question is: how do you make them visible? Although, just to be clear, that has been the job of art for thousands of years…
One of the novel things about the modern world perhaps, is that there are new eyes watching, the ‘eyes’ of the machines. Do you think there’s much mileage in the idea of creating art for these eyes, and what does this mean for humans?
Absolutely. I mean we are all the time in certain respects. Every time you put a piece of work online, you’re making it in part for Google’s ranking algorithms. These things have to be taken into account. Whether that’s radically different from having to consider the mechanisms of publicity before is a different question, but we do share the world with these systems to an increasing extent, so understanding them is useful. For me this thing about the attempt to see though machine eyes is that it’s actually an attempt to see through aggregates of human eyes and intention, because actually what you’re seeing is the previously hidden intentions of the people that built these systems. They could be good or bad, or politically inflected, but, like the technology itself, they’re never going to be neutral. Actually, what you’re seeing is a bunch of biases that may have been latent before taking an incredibly strong and clear form – everything has been built line by line in code, everything is intentional. The outcomes might not be, but that’s what art can help to examine.
And the means of surveillance and data aggregation, they are baked in to the system, yes?
Yeah, one of the not entirely foreseen aspects of the way in which we’ve built larger distributed systems is to make it as easy as possible to access and share information, which has exposed us individually to a vast degree. Most of our technologies contain these kinds of compromises and trade-offs. You can’t have, for instance, contemporary mobile telephony without knowing where the phones are, because that is how they function. The thing is we’ve solved lots of technological problems without solving the corollary political problems and that seems to me a shame, but also something we’re not done with yet…
That kind of relates to something Evgney Morozov said the other night [Bridle and Morozov were ‘in discussion’ at the V&A the previous week] about how we get the tech that the economic and political systems allow for…
Yes, and we saw that in the early web, which was why it was a very different place. Because it was made, by and large, by people with a very different worldview and intention from most of the people making the contemporary web. The reason the web mostly looks like a shopping mall these days is because it’s largely been built by capitalists, and, to get down to brass tacks about it, is the result of a kind of aggressive neoliberalism… that’s not who built the early web.
Has that early sense of Utopianism been lost? Is it gone completely?
No, I don’t think it’s gone completely at all. You see it in within the heart of cypherpunk movements and anti-surveillance activists. The difference is that the web is completely mass medium now. Of course, you can’t just address the consequences of neoliberalism in its online context… you have to go deeper than that.
Your new exhibition Five Eyes at the V&A deals with these issues within the traditional gallery space. Can you talk a little about this?
Yes, it uses items from the museum’s collection to tell stories about the history of the intelligence services. It’s a thoroughly digital work in the way it’s been built and the way it’s been thought about, but it very much takes place in the physical space of the gallery using material and some very old objects. There are a couple of advantages of this: firstly, that you can reach a very different audience; secondly, that you get to engage with a different set stories and politics. The V&A provides a dataset, a collection of objects and information metadata that has a deep mystery, but that makes it possible to make critical work around privacy and surveillance without in some way doing more surveillance, which can sometimes be a problem.
Your latest project is called Citizen Ex. Can you talk a little about the genesis of this work? And about the concept of ‘algorithmic citizenship’ that underpins it?
I’m fascinated with issues around the physical infrastructure of the internet and the importance of making that something we can see and talk about. But also the more specific issue of citizenship and what that means today and what connections may exist between them. Discovering within the NSA documents these descriptions of how they need to assign citizenship in order to determine who can be surveilled, which is a direct application to everybody’s human rights every time we go online. This isn’t some crazy science fiction. ‘Algorithmic citizenship’ is a citizenship that is not bound by physical space, not based on where you were born or who your parents are, but is based very specifically on your behaviour, which is mostly how we are judged online. It is also constantly calculated, unstable and not based on the laws of any one location, but is an emergent property of the network itself.
Could you describe how Citizen Ex works?
So as you’re browsing, you’re constantly visiting websites, and each of those sites has an address, a string of digits, the IP address, which has a registered physical address, not always where the site is hosted, but usually a fairly good indicator of the basic network structure. When you visit these sites, it looks to the internet that you’ve visited these places. Citizen Ex shows you that, so you can see on a map where you are, and it compiles this information over time to determine your ‘algorithmic citizenship’. You start to get a picture of your online movements, your behaviour and where you are going. The point is to make people aware of this.
Do you think the kind of artistic strategies that are developing around these issues can have a meaningful effect on political systems, on judicial systems and the like?
I don’t know and I don’t want to make the claims for it, although I absolutely think that changes are possible, that they will only come about through wider understanding and that is something different forms of artistic expression can help articulate. I’m sceptical about the power of anything but genuine, long-term, strong, popular organisation to bring about real forms of change, but, you know, they need starting points, they need languages and terminologies to grapple with, and that’s part of what some of this work can do.
Citizen Ex is available to download now at http://citizen-ex.com. For more information about Bridle’s work visit http://shorttermmemoryloss.com. You can follow him on Twitter: @jamesbridle