Maria Cynkier in conversation with Cornelia Sollfrank about her creative practice, generative art, the power of decentralisation and commons, and resisting patriarchal structures in tech.
Cornelia Sollfrank. Photo: Oliver Görnandt-Schade, Fotografenwerk Hamburg © 2019.
Maria Cynkier: Earlier this year, before the Covid-19 pandemic, we met in your studio in Kunstquartier Bethanien in Berlin to talk about your practice. Since then, working conditions for many artists have dramatically changed. How did the Covid-19 affect your ways of working and what helped you get out of bed in the morning?
Cornelia Sollfrank: Luckily, for me, not so much has changed because I had planned not to take on a lot of new stuff for 2020 but instead take time, go to live in the countryside to finalize a few ongoing projects. So, I have finished the book Aesthetics of the Commons, together with my colleagues from the ZHdK research project Creating Commons, I wrote two book chapters for other publications, we conceived and produced a new very comprehensive research application and I also worked on the contributions for the project Guggenheim Florisdorf, a temporary intervention in Vienna. By and large, I spent almost all the time out of town and also did not travel at all. As this was intended anyway, it did not feel as a restriction; what did feel weird though was that, all of a sudden, the whole world seemed to synchronize with my slower pace… And what I really missed was not being able to go to the city and meet friends and hang out… That was the most frustrating.
MC: Last time we spoke, we also talked about Cambridge Analytica and using mainstream social media platforms for propaganda purposes. Since then, we witnessed #BlackLivesMatter protests all around the world and most recently, UK’s Channel 4 obtained a data leak from Trump’s 2016 campaign proving that the used algorithm by Cambridge Analytica manipulated data to deter thousands Black Americans from voting. Is there a way of going back to the 90s Internet sense of utopia and acting against fascist uses of technology?
CS: I would not call it fascist; this is a typical case of simply commercial use. Corporations who provide that sort of manipulation do it for money and they do it for anyone who can pay… What we can do about that? At the moment, we can only raise consciousness regarding the abuse of technologies but our governments are far from making laws that would forbid the generating and harvesting of personal data. Firstly, governments don’t understand, and when they do, they are afraid of the lobbyists. It is totally unacceptable that the world’s largest corporations do not pay tax, on top of stealing and trading personal data. It certainly is a problem that can only be solved through legal regulation. In the meantime, I am working with my artistic research group #purplenoise to explore these workings in more depth.
MC: Do you produce a lot of new work these days?
CS: I do. I mainly do performative work. It often has something to do with me, my person, my body. For example, two years ago I made the WikiLeaks performance, À la recherche de l’information perdue, which was a part of the ICA programme, the Post Cyberfeminist International, organised for the 20th anniversary of First Cyberfeminist International. It was a performance lecture and the side product is this print.
Photo: Cornelia Sollfrank, 2020.
The object shown is Julian Assange’s condom, the one that was leaking a little bit of information… in Sweden, remember? The reason why he had to spend seven years of his life in the Ecuadorian embassy. The original image is from the Swedish police report, which is publicly available. The document included forensic images of the evidence, the condom, which I used in the performance as the visual centrepiece. Leaking information, both digital information and genetic information, was the artistic shortcut that I made to ironically thematise the gender aspect without becoming moralistic....
MC: I just recently saw Lawrence Abu Hamdan’s exhibition, where he also used forensic evidence including recorded speech and testimonies. I find it interesting how a lot of forensic information is now available to the public, even in very important cases. Could you elaborate on this performance and tell me what interested you in this aspect of Julian Assange’s story?
CS: First of all, I am not treating this image as any kind of evidence. For me, its quality lies simply in the visual. As an image, it can tell the whole story… see the little cracks where the information is leaking [laughing]. Anyway, the interesting thing about WikiLeaks is that it's such an important political case to which there are so many dimensions – including a gender dimension which is not much talked about. Many politically sensitive people didn't want to criticise Julian Assange’s “private” behaviour because the case is about so much more... It’s a difficult situation because he has done so many groundbreaking things, he made unbelievable achievements and took great risks, so people don’t want to be pedantic and blame him for being sexist... That made me want to make an artistic comment that was not judging: guilty, or not guilty, good guy or bad guy, but was much more complex, speaking about transparency and responsibility but also addresses the complex relationship of gender and technology. In a way, I think my comment is a bit mean and cynical because I made the stupid condom case the centre piece around which all the “big” questions of freedom of information and alleged espionage circle. Whatever the outcome of his case will be, and it literally can be anything, it is a shame that tech culture, and hacker culture in particular, is an extremely sexist environment.
MC: You’re famously known as one of the first female artists to address gender inequality in your digital artworks. It is an area that you’ve been preoccupied with since the very early days of your career. For Female Extension (1997), you created and took on identities of 289 international female artists and under their names entered the 1997 Hamburger Kunsthalle Net art competition called Extension. In the end, despite two-thirds of the participants being female, all prizes were awarded to men. Some of your other artworks from the 90s include the net.art generator, your works around female hackers, and you have initiated the Old Boys Network.
Photo: Cornelia Sollfrank, “Female Extension”, 1997.
Source: Rhizome Net Art Anthology: https://anthology.rhizome.org/female-extension
CS: The net.art generator is a work which not only endlessly generates images but also constantly generates new discourses. It has been running now for 22 years and still keeps me busy.... Currently, I am working on an ebook, Fix My Code, together with Winnie Soon who is a creative technologist who does part of her research based on net.art generator. It is a dialogue in which we are addressing technological and techno-political issues, from creative coding to the restrictions Google gives us regarding the use of their search API. In my PhD I worked through the related copyright issues exemplified by the anonymous-warhol_flowers (2004-). It was practice-led research that also included the production of other related artworks such as videos, interviews with lawyers, including I don’t know, an interview with Andy Warhol.For me, the net.art generator is a conceptual tool, not just an image generator. In all my works, the conceptual aspect comes first and then I search for the adequate form or format for the realisation. That is why my works are not necessarily digital even when they address issues of digital culture.
Two works from anonymous-warhol_flowers (2004-) series in Cornelia Sollfrank's studio.
Photograph by the author.
Technofeminism and #purplenoise
MC: Since the 1990s when you co-founded the Old Boys Network, you haven’t stopped working in the context of cyberfeminism; more recently you initiated another technofeminist artist group: #purplenoise.
CS: #purplenoise is not exactly an artist group; we call it an artistic research group, but then it is not a stable group. It is probably best described as an affective formation operating in different constellations with different approaches in different contexts. At the core of our work are interventions in which we are trying to experimentally connect physical and virtual space. We are staging an event, for example, like a demonstration on the street and experiment with this virtual representation and how this creates a feedback to what is happening in the street. The idea for this way of working comes from a text by Christina Grammtikopoulou, “Virtual Performances of Gender,” which has been included in the technofeminist anthology I published last year with the title Beautiful Warriors. She described this interaction between online and offline engagement and set the impulse for experiments. Our main focus is on social media and how the manipulation of digital content can influence actual political situations and decision-making. In our first intervention we hijacked a real demonstration by creating digital representations that made it look like the whole demo was ours, while in fact it was only three of us operating on the ground.
Photo: Christiane Koesler, courtesy #purplenoise, 2018.
A more recent piece which was a virtual Mayday demonstration. Under the hashtag #technofeministcare we agitated thousands of people who showed their faces wearing our mask and reciting the #technofeministcare manifesto.
MC: Could you tell me a little bit more about the workshops which you organise with #purplenoise?
CS: There are two different kinds of workshops, the ones we are doing for ourselves and the ones we are doing for others, on invitation. For example, we did a workshop at transmediale 2019, #iusemyfeelers – How to Grow and Use Your Feelers, or at HMKV in Dortmund, #imakenoise – Playing with störfaktors as part of the exhibition Computer Grrrls. But it is also part of our work to educate ourselves and learn new things together. Recently, we had a big meeting where everyone said what they wanted to learn and what they would be interested in doing. So, we made a map and a plan – which will take us years to work through [laughs|… Something we were very fond of are online manuals on how to be safe online and how to protect yourself from data leaks by using certain software, settings, really all kinds of tricks.
MC: In recent years, online surveillance has been a hot topic. One would think there would be a lot of awareness around the issues of security online.
CS: I think it is more of an overall issue with the design of technology. It is designed to seduce and to persuade. It is part of the deal, the companies give you something that looks nice and often is fun to use but then you pay the price – which we often do not even know exactly. And honestly, who has the time and the interest in exploring all the tricks needed to protect oneself? Everything works best if you don't use any additional precautions. If you do, technology gets into the way and this is exactly how it's designed.
MC: So you think that this is just a feeling of being comfortable?
CS: I think so, yes. It's about being comfortable, easy, you know, no obstacle, I just want to click, make things work and not pay anything. The price of this behaviour is quite high but it's also very abstract. I think it's almost impossible to understand what is going on behind the scenes and how dangerous it is. The film, The Great Hack (2019), was quite interesting. I showed it to my students and it was quite nice because they were all so depressed afterwards. I said yes, that’s it! [laughs] You have good reason to be depressed because the situation is fucking depressing. Especially the manipulation of political elections and other democratic decision-making processes is what I find very concerning. This is something that is not talked about so much in mainstream media because it is happening behind closed doors and subject to business secrets. None of the businesses who live from selling personal data and user profiles would lay bare their practices. You know, essentially Facebook, for example, is not a social media platform, but an advertising and propaganda machine. Whoever has the most money can generate the most influence, as simple as that.
MC: I think the mainstream media often don’t talk about it because partially they operate on a similar basis and rely on these advertising and propaganda machines. On the other hand, more independent and grassroot initiatives using technofeminist tactics can play a big role in unveiling such controversies.
CS: All kinds of art and activism which address these issues are important, and of course, academic research is also needed in these fields... What is interesting are these waves that one can observe over time. Cyberfeminism was big in 1997, 1998, 1999 and then it kind of disappeared after 2001 but a few years ago it came back, as technofeminism. Tactical media in general were a huge thing in the 90s. Now, it seems that everyone is interested in the gender and technology issue again.
MC: How has cyberfeminism changed over the years? Are the issues at stake the same?
CS: I do not use the term cyberfeminism anymore for contemporary phenomena. My suggestion is to understand it as a historical term that refers to the 1990s and early 2000s. That is why I am using the term technofeminism meanwhile. It indicates a continuity but also a new phase. What is the same is that there still is a gender problem in and with technology. However, it is not the same everywhere in the world because it is dependent on cultural conditions. What has changed is that the initial euphoria is over and our understanding of technology is more comprehensive and, for example, includes material and environmental aspects. In the 90s we were quite naively talking about the immateriality of the digital...and we were so optimistic how digital technology would help to build a more just world. That seems far away today.
MC: Was there a sense of utopia about the Internet in the 90s?
CS: Of course, it was this dream of a world with flat hierarchies, decentralized and self-organized structures and infrastructures, and undreamt-of new identities. This is all over now. The general mode is more self-defence than making up any utopias. It was a new start in the 90s, there was a lot of positive energy around digital technology and it was so easy to mobilise people in cyberspace. We were techies, we were cool, everything was possible. This spirit is gone.
Cornelia Sollfrank's studio. Photograph by the author.
MC: Your ways of working remind me of hacktivism and hacking. How do these strategies relate to your work as an artist? Do you want to hack the art world?
CS: This is probably what I wanted twenty years ago. Meanwhile, I am not interested in the art world any more, it is more that there are things I am interested in that I want to pursue and explore… One thing which is core is the concept of knowledge, ways of knowing and knowledge transfer, and learning. Who decides what knowledge is valid, or valuable? What has to become part of a canon? Thinking about these questions comes from the feminist critique of science and technology but also from critical pedagogy. Tech culture is largely structured along meritocratic values; if you work hard, achieve something special, you become somebody who is admired… Part of this ethos is not to share your knowledge but let others work equally hard to find out… Here queer feminist hacking offers new concepts that are really about sharing and caring. It is not about being the best, the first, the one who needs the least sleep or food, but taking a holistic approach in the sense of taking care of oneself and others and working together instead of against each other. These different approaches need their own spaces where they can be cultivated, which happens in queer feminist hack labs for example. And the work often starts with the personal.
MC: Unlike the more common understanding of hacking and hacktivism, which is considered to be more of breaking rules, your understanding is more reliant on collaboration, sharing knowledge and learning from each other.
CS: That’s right, but I would not call it hacking any longer. The term has been appropriated by business thinking and thus become pretty much meaningless. Let’s simply call it technofeminist practice, a practice that is based on queer and feminist tactics and thus is much more inclusive. It also includes the atmosphere, the understanding of knowledge, learning from embodied experience and a critical attitude towards technology and capitalist exploitation. It is a way to empower many people and not just a few geniuses. Instead of hierarchisation, competition and comparison there is the idea of care and collaboration because we can only achieve something when we work together and join forces. It is important to unlearn old ways of handling technology which are often based on frustration and relearn. Instead of feeling stupid in the face of all the technical skills we do not have, we should understand how much we know already and start from there to learn more. I believe, it is really important to motivate people to start from where they are at a particular time.
MC: It does seem like the balance between individualism and collectivity is necessary.
CS: The situation we have to master is definitely not something that anyone can do alone. But the problem often is where do we start to unlearn all the crap we have learned in our unhealthy environments? That is something that interests me very much. I also ran workshops on technofeminist educational practices. We experimented with different approaches and continuously develop things further. Also, I would be interested in organizing a conference on technofeminist educational strategies to bring all the different approaches together and create a bigger impact.
MC: Could you tell me a bit about your work with commons and the kind of research you're doing in this area?
CS: The commons project is a follow-up on my research in copyright. At one point, I thought that I no longer want to ask the question “what can artists take?” Artists always have issues with copyright if they build on something that exists. I’d rather ask the question “What can artists contribute? What can they give?” I want to work against the image of the needy artist who always just wants to take something; you know, we are also very generous people who have a lot to give. And so I started a research project called Giving What You Don't Have. When I started working on that, I didn't work directly with the term ‘commons’. It only appeared after some time when I looked into open culture and free licenses. So I was looking for artists who work with digital networks to keep the culture as open as possible. From this small project Giving What You Don't Have, we have developed a bigger research project, Creating Commons. Together with two colleagues in Switzerland we selected 16 art projects who, in our understanding, are creating commons as an artistic practice. For a recent exhibition here in Berlin, OPEN SCORES: How to program the Commons we asked these artists to create a score related to their practice, and referring to Fluxus scores. If you look at the aesthetics of our exhibition, it even looks a bit like the recreation of a Fluxus Festival... We chose the scores, because all these artists we're working with do not create classic artworks like images or sculptures, but things that are operational on the net. They do projects – rather than objects – that are not made for representation but just perform their task... Nevertheless, we still wanted to put something in the white cube to create other ways of circulating the knowledge that is embedded in these projects. We wanted to disseminate the works and their spirit into the art world.
Postcard from 'OPEN SCORES. How to program the Commons',
21 September – 12 October 2019, panke.gallery, Berlin.
MC: On the one hand, all the themes which you explore in your practice are different, but on the other, they interweave and are interconnected. Your practice involves a lot of these hacking techniques, but you’re also involved in your community, in the technofeminist movement. I think that’s a very nice fusion of technical knowledge and alternative ways of knowing and a community of people who share this philosophy.
CS: Of course, it's all interconnected, but that is not obvious at first sight. Sometimes I do a video installation, then I run a workshop, I organize a demonstration, I publish a book or I curate an exhibition or I hang prints on a museum wall. The art world is too much fixated on deciphering the aesthetic language of an artist to be able to trace conceptual connections between very different forms of expression.…
MC: What are your plans and dreams for the future?
CS: I wish that I could go on working in this way. It means a lot of freedom. I do not need to make any compromise or fulfil other peoples’ expectations. My path is determined through the problems I encounter and find worth exploring. It is both an intellectual and an aesthetic pleasure that I enjoy every day.
Cornelia Sollfrank (PhD) is an artist, researcher and lecturer based in Berlin. She is a pioneer of cyberfeminism and net.art whose practice explores issues relating to network culture, digital media, authorship, intellectual property and gender. She was a co-founder of Old Boys Network and has been involved in the net art scene from the 1990s. Her projects, lectures and artworks have been presented internationally, among others at CAC Shanghai, Studio XX Montréal, Taipei Digital Art Festival, Transmediale, Ars Electronica, The ZKM Center for Art and Media Karlsruhe, Liverpool Biennale, New Museum New York, ICA London.
Maria Cynkier is an independent curator and writer working in the fields of art, technology and digital culture. She graduated from MA Curating Contemporary Art at the Royal College of Art. Recently Maria curated Empathy Loading, an online project in collaboration with Furtherfield, User Preferences, an online pavilion for The Wrong Biennale 2019-20 and Critical Matter at Dyson Gallery. Her writing was published by Hyperallergic, Artmag, Furtherfield and The Culture Trip.