Issue 1/2020 - Net section
Tilman Baumgärtel: Paolo, you are very productive.
Paolo Cirio: This year – six new projects. In one year, can you believe it?
Baumgärtel: Why don’t we start with that? What would you say is the common denominator of all your works – if you were to try to put it into the first sentence of your Wikipedia entry: Paolo Cirio is an artist, whose work is concerned with …
Cirio: I find this to be a tough question. I approach complex social systems and I dig into them, from the investigation to the representation. That's how most of the work I do deals with the economic, legal, and ethical factors of these issues.
Baumgärtel: What is missing from this statement is your own position. What you say makes you sound like a social scientist, but do you have a particular point of view or a particular political stance?
Cirio: There are political stand-points in all of my works. The approach here is to always be pro-positive, meaning that I embrace the complexity. I decode it. I understand what is wrong with it and what is right to resolve the issue. Which is the hacker attitude to some degree. I just try to enter a very complex operating system to find a bug and fix it. This practice is an aesthetic in its own right and from that, I add visual and conceptual devices to it.
Baumgärtel: Can you break that down in relation to certain projects?
Cirio: For instance, my recent piece, Attention, is a simple project at first sight. Because it’s just appropriated pictures. It’s sexy. It’s cool. But then, if you dig into it more, you’ll actually start to see all the legal and sociological research that I have done to decode, expose, and regulate the phenomenon of Instagram influencers and this form of problematic contemporary advertising.
Baumgärtel: In the piece, you focus on the unethical and often illegal product placement in their self-portrayals. For example, you work with a picture of Kim Kardashian sucking on a lollipop, a bogus appetite suppressant. There are other influencers that are popular among teenagers who endorse vodka and vaping …
Cirio: So in my research I look into the legal, economic, and ethical contexts regarding this issue. And then, there is the proactive side: I created the website influencers-watch.org (Also in collaboration with the University of Maastricht). There, everyone can report this kind of product placement and in doing so crowdsourcing content moderation and its oversight. This is a very simple example, but most of my works are that concrete action and enter in relation with the parties involved in the issue, rather than just making a representation of it.
Baumgärtel: You had to collect the pictures. You had to make yourself knowledgeable about the legal situation. You said you consulted lawyers. This is a huge project, and a proper company would probably charge a fair amount for this kind of research work. How do you manage to get all of this done without a budget?
Cirio: Well, it’s a long process and it is a lot of work. Assistants do some of the work, but I am the one who does the research, writes theory, codes, etc. and I also make fine artworks and installations. All of this needs to be coordinated together. A project like this takes a year to complete. For an agency, a team of four people, it would probably take three to six months, but I’m not sure if the outcome would be the same.
Baumgärtel: And this is just one project that’s not even as complex as some of your other works.
Cirio: It’s multitasking. I always have something in the background. I assemble materials on a given problem. I don’t read everything I see. I organize this material, and when I decide on the project I want to make, then I take all that material, I look through it, and I reprocess it. When I am confident about the project and strategy, I start the production process that can last for months. I let it grow and try to find a form.
Baumgärtel: How about support, either financial or logistical? You also got threatened with a lot of lawsuits because of your projects and you might need legal support because of that...
Cirio: Well, that’s becoming a problem. Because now the projects are a lot and they’re big.
Baumgärtel: And they have to be maintained. It’s not like, once they’re finished, you don’t need to do anything about them anymore.
Cirio: So it’s actually becoming a little bit unsustainable. I don’t know exactly what to do. I should get some proper funding or have a lab or a research agency to get some kind of funding, because the art market is not enough, nor are small grants enough.
Baumgärtel: It works for some people, but apparently not for an artist who works like you.
Cirio: It could work, but indeed there isn’t always a market for these things. For my kind of work, the output cannot be reduced to only the physical artworks in the gallery. Beyond the investigations, they are a sort of “social practice”, they elicit interactions with the subjects of the work, which can lead to actual change, support to individuals, and broad social awareness, while I personally take the risks in challenging institutions. All these things can’t be sold and yet, they require a lot of work that often curators, collectors, and critics don’t value enough and, therefore, they ultimately don’t make market and funding accessible to artists like me.
Baumgärtel: I would think that the offshore project Loopholes for All, for example, was very complex. You offered the names of 250,000 shell companies from the tax haven Cayman Island for sale for $0.99 cents in order to “democratize tax evasion”. For this project you needed hacking skills to get into the database of the “Chamber of Commerce” in the Cayman Island. You needed economic expertise to understand how this whole scheme works. And you needed legal expertise in order to understand the legal risks of the project. You also set up your own company in the City of London in order to avoid legal persecution, because companies have less legal responsibility than individuals.
Cirio: This project is six years old. Even these days, journalists come to me and ask me questions about particular companies they are investigating. I can give general information about them, but I don’t have the time to do much more than that. That project could have been bigger and could have gone beyond the Cayman Islands.
Baumgärtel: That actually leads me to the next question. Did you ever think that your research might have been more effective if it hadn't been part of an art project?
Cirio: Loopholes for All was a huge amount of work. It shouldn’t live only inside art galleries. It could have had more potential if I had more funding and a team behind it. There is also policy-making, engagement with the audience, all these things, that are beyond what I can do alone, but they could still make the artwork even more powerful. It could have been an even more relevant art project if I had more resources available.
Baumgärtel: Since you mentioned audience: Loopholes for All or Google Will Eat Itself, for instance, deal with very complex issues because our world today is very complex. This can make the resulting artwork not as easily accessible. The audience has to do quite a bit of work to understand what the pieces are about.
Cirio: Some of those projects are not easily understandable. It depends on what I need to represent and to who I’m talking to. Sometimes I want a broad audience. For example, with a piece like Street Ghosts, I paste passersby from Google Street View onto the streets where these pictures were taken. Here I want to engage a wide audience with a simple but effective idea. In this case, a simple image can present complex concepts on data ownership and privacy.
But other works are more sophisticated. It's for a very different kind of audience. I recently made a piece on the aesthetics and history of conceptual art, Foundations. And I just did this other project that's about a semiotic theory, called Meaning. A semiotic theory is something that only social scientists or academics would understand. Yet, I managed to create aesthetically interesting artworks for these theories and, potentially, the general audience will start to be attracted to the visual forms, which, in turn, is a catalyst for their own personal intellectual reflections.
Then, for instance, I try to make the works on economic issues as accessible as possible, even though some people just don't want to know about it, especially the political stuff. There are some works that are more accessible because they’re more pop and sexy. Like Face to Facebook, the piece where I stole 1,000,000 profile pictures from Facebook and put them on my own fake dating website, is a piece that everyone likes. Everybody likes Street Ghosts, too.
Baumgärtel: Humor and satire seem to be a very important element of your artistic strategy.
Cirio: Sometimes yes. There is the provocation. There is humor to make it more accessible. Humor is a conceptual device that can show how a very complex issue is actually much simpler than it looks. It’s the perfect device to do that. Sometimes, something looks very overwhelming at first, but if you make it ridiculous, it's less scary. You break down the complexity, and then it’s much easier to talk about it.
Baumgärtel: I see you as part of a tradition of artists like RTmark or The Yes Men, that also used satire and fakes for political elucidation. But in the age of fake news, where people believe what supports their own point of view, did you have to reconsider your strategy? Or do you think that this type of political art might not work like it used to?
Cirio: It actually produces the opposite reaction these days. The Yes Men are also not as effective as they used to be. I used to make fiction around ten years ago too, but now, my works are totally different. Ten years ago, I even created a genre called “Recombinant Fiction” and I made two projects that blurred the line between fact and fiction. Another project I made, InVeritas, allowed everyone to create fake news. That was a very common artistic strategy in the 1990s and early 2000s. Everyone was making that sort of art in response to the writing by postmodernist philosophers and media critique of that time.
Baumgärtel: Net art in particular.
Cirio: Net art, too, because it was the time of exposing the hyperrealism (Jean Baudrillard in Simulacra). How many philosophers wrote about that? It was great, but then we reached the point where the idea was assimilated and co-opted by the power structures. It’s not cool anymore. Now there is a countertendency, it’s not about centralized mass media anymore but decentralized social media, a completely different paradigm. This paradigm also shifted the aesthetic and political strategies. Today, not all artists, but many are afraid to write and use fiction in their work. It's actually not just the artists, but the audiences don't enjoy fake news or fake people or anything that confuses reality anymore.
Baumgärtel: And that’s how you started to work on your curatorial project, Evidentiary Realism?
Cirio: I have always been interested in documentary and in showing evidence. In any case, the goal of my art has not been to deceive, but to break down deception, to show the mechanics that produce deception and ultimately, to inform my audience. Today, you don’t need artists to deceive, everyone can make fake news or show how reality can be fabricated. A lot of net art was about fake news and how easy it was to create fake news. Now, others make the fake news, and artists try to understand how they do it and how to detect it. This is a very big difference.
Before artists were constructing alternative realities. Now artists like me feel the need to reconstruct reality from its fragmentation. Before, we were making up new realities because the future wasn't here yet, at least not the kind of future we were hoping for. The future is now here and it’s so overwhelming that we have difficulties understanding what is happening to us at this moment. These days artists are no longer able to imagine the future, not even science fiction can help once the present is already here.
That’s also why more of my work on the Internet is about these contemporary complexities on the economic and legal issues, because the Internet's not a simple, playful medium anymore. You have big companies and trolls abusing the medium in contrast with the legislators and regulations. All the while, technology is changing at a fast pace. Today when you make an Internet project, you have to consider all these factors. Facebook is bigger than you and filters everything. Because of the regulations, you have to place all these legal considerations. You don't know if there will be trolls attacking you, or whoever from social media judging you unfairly.
Baumgärtel: Has that ever happened to you?
Cirio: No, because I’m careful. But it is very common to get attacked by trolls.
Baumgärtel: You are just the type that would attract these people.
Cirio: I know. I’m surprised it hasn’t happened. Probably because I keep a low-key attitude. But I don’t engage. When you start replying to them or writing opinions, then it’s over. They start to attack you. To engage with them is a waste of time.
BaumgärtelL: Are you active on social media?
Cirio: I am about to deactivate my social media accounts. I have a few that I use to promote my work, but it's not very useful anymore. Social media has changed so much with these algorithms.
Baumgärtel: You won’t be able to reach your audience anymore?
Cirio: You get more into your niche because they decide who your audience is. I learned that even more with my project Sociality, where I collected 20,000 patents of socially manipulative information technology from the database of the U.S. patent office. The algorithms of the social media companies decide if you’re a leader and if your content is viral. So basically they decide if you are someone who counts or not. Politicians game those systems all the time. If you are a politician, you have to constantly feed all of these channels. But even when you have a million followers on social media, that's nothing. There are billions of users online, so that million is your niche. That million is your social bubble. That social bubble won't have any influence outside the social bubble. You’re not going to win the election unless you pay to get three million followers. (laughs) It’s tricky. The social bubble that these algorithms create is pretty terrible. It does not matter if you are an artist or a politician or whatever, social media creates your bubble and it contains you.
Baumgärtel: You also do street art. Is this another way to reach a certain public audience, a way out of this bubble?
Cirio: That's part of the art process. It’s also to bring the public space into conversation with the internet space, to get the art out of the gallery – it’s not only for political reasons, it is also to play out with the perception of the material and the space of medium.
Baumgärtel: But it probably also helps to gather media attention. Works like Loopholes for All or Face to Facebook got you on international news channels. Does this come with the territory, or is this part of the artistic strategy to try to infiltrate these news organizations?
Cirio: There are so many venues to engage with the public these days – even a show in a museum. Art venues are also very powerful outlets. Maybe 300,000 people are going to attend the show if you do it in a big museum so that they could see something that wouldn’t be seen in their social media bubble or on the streets. I think, generally, these days cultural interventions have more power to change the mindset and the understanding of certain issues. But the cultural engagement that you practice today is not only on the Internet. It's not only on the streets. It’s not only in the museum. It’s not only in the press because how many people read the newspaper after all?
There is this kind of complexity in the media landscape, all these channels that you need to be able to cover as an artist. Don’t forget, I am an artist, so I also need to discuss my own work. It's not only about the subject matter of the piece. It's also about the aesthetics. It’s actually about the art. That takes more research, more writing, and more reflection. So that's also another side of what I do.
Baumgärtel: You seem to have a genuine interest in being part of the art world, while the artists from the net art period in the 1990s were very anti-art-world.
Cirio: I think that’s what they did wrong somehow. That’s why they haven’t really been recognized by the art world. But they didn’t want to either. For me it started with enjoying art. I loved art history from a very early age. Then there was the Internet, and it was such a cool thing. I thought: “It's probably going to be interesting to make art with the Internet.” Originally, I was more interested in conceptual art or Dada.
But of course, it’s true: the art world is horrible. It’s corrupted as fuck. But that’s also why I want to be engaged with it, to discuss that and eventually make it a better place. But to be completely removed from the art world? I don’t like it. Because if you're further removed, then what do you discuss? You discuss only the material and subject of your art and your friends. Maybe in the ‘90s there was a community, but there isn't that community anymore, or you stay in the mainstream or there is no alternative. And the art world has also changed. If you open Art Forum today, it's very different than five years ago. You couldn't find anything meaningful even just a few years ago, whereas now, you might find more interesting artists and debates. That’s a process. Ignoring the art world is like saying: I am not interested in politics. I don’t like the government. But if you don’t vote, if you are not a political activist, it's not going to change anything. They will govern you.
Baumgärtel: But to come back to net art for a minute – how would you describe the influence of these early works from the 1990s on your own practice?
Cirio: What originally influenced me were the situationists, and then industrial music and that kind of underground scene.
Baumgärtel: How about “Adbusters”?
Cirio: “Adbusters” came later. I first got interested in situationism, cyberpunk, when I was 15, 16. The first influence was from that, it was ‘96, ‘97. In Italy there was a fertile underground scene that was fueled by the previous intellectual and politicized generation of the ‘70s. In 1999, I went on my first hackers meeting on my own and I was just 18. Meanwhile I discovered more about net art and people, such as RTMark. I actually assisted them on a couple of projects when I was around 22. Then, I met other people from the Italian net art scene. Then, with travelling abroad, I connected with tactical media in UK, Netherlands, and Germany.
Baumgärtel: Any particular pieces that you fondly remember?
Cirio: There are a few. One that I remember was The File Room by Muntadas. That was a very early project. I think it impressed me because it showed me that Internet art could be an archive and an alternative way to publish content, in his case, content that was previously inaccessible because it was censored and one artist alone could have unconstrained access to it. He used the Internet as an outlet for alternative information that was accessible to everyone. It didn't need to be the newspaper. It didn't need to be the T.V. or a library. That was the early notion of the Internet. To me that was a revelation.
Baumgärtel: How do you define yourself as an artist? There is this traditional idea of the artist as an antipole of society – not only opposed politically but also because of his bohemian lifestyle and so on. You, on the other hand, operate like the companies you are attacking. You seem very organized, your website is always up-to-date, every work is accompanied by a list of reviews, a press statement, publicity pictures, artists’ statements and so on. You seem to always be on the go internationally like liquid capital that flows around the globe... I'm not trying to slam you here, but would you agree with this characterization?
Cirio: Well, you can be very organized and you can be very professional…
Baumgärtel: ...and become like a company...
Cirio: Well, it is my job. That’s how I can sustain this and grow it as much as I can. That’s just how I work. You need to be very efficient when you deal with these big companies or big systems of any sort. You need to be very organized to confront them. You cannot do a funky, wild thing, or they won't take you seriously. So that's why I try to be organized and focused. Also because my resources are very limited and so I need to optimize everything to be able to do anything.
Nevertheless, If I were working in the countryside somewhere, I wouldn't be able to meet lawyers or meet curators. I wouldn't know what was going on in the world. I could make a very colorful webpage that people like, but it wouldn't be the same kind of work. Sometimes I go to conferences that are very small and not about art at all, but it’s where I can meet some lawyers, bankers, or academics that are knowledgeable about some very particular subject that inspires my work.
Baumgärtel: You probably know the famous statement by Nietzsche: “He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” Do you think this applies to you in any way?
Baumgärtel: Some of the political net artists and artists from the Culture Jamming scene have stopped their practice. You cannot help but wonder if their practice has run its course. Do you ever worry that this might happen to you, too?
Cirio: Yeah. That's worrisome. I am probably going to take a little break to think about how to make my practice more sustainable and how to eventually become more of an organization. Maybe, figuring out a business model to support it. But definitely, I need a break because it does consume you to produce all these new works without reflecting on what you're doing. Or to reach a point where you have an amazing project, only to realize that it is not sustainable. That's a little scary. I need new partnerships. I need more help.
Baumgärtel: Interestingly, some of these influencers that you deal with in your work complain about that too – that they have to provide so much content with a very small organization, that in the end they burn out. Successful YouTubers like Elle Mills, “El Rubius” or even PewDiePie have talked about burn-out because of the stress their existence puts on them. Do you think that on some level you have something in common with these people?
Cirio: Well, I am not doing the same stuff, but yes.
Baumgärtel: You have been empowered by the Internet, just like those YouTube creators…
Cirio: Sometimes I use the language of the Internet, because the Internet has become a place where we talk to other people and it’s the main medium that we use for anything. On the Internet, everyone acts the same way and everyone is trying to grab the attention of other people, in my case, for political and artistic reasons, in their case, for commercial reasons. However, at the end of the day, my art is not like the Internet, It has other cultural functions. Note that my practice is very different from an Internet celebrity or even a popular net artist making animated web pages. What I do is not “net art” anymore, nor is it “post Internet”. After all, what I do is not even about the Internet, media, and technology. These are so integrated in our everyday life, that after all my work is more about contemporary society and its social fields rather than its mediums. That’s how I refer to the aesthetics of social complexity.
The interview took place in Berlin in September 2019.