STANZA’s art explores questions raised by modern society – about privacy, surveillance culture, and who owns the data that is regularly collected about all of us – often using modern technologies to create his pieces. Since he first started exhibiting his works in 1984, STANZA has strived to create cutting edge art that deals with current issues. In the process he has won several impressive awards, including an AHRC arts fellowship, and has seen his work featured in over 50 different exhibitions globally.
Ahead of a installation of one of his works “Capacities” in Gent, Belgium in September, Solomon Radley met with him, in front on a computer monitor at his studio in South London, to talk in depth about what he does over coffee.
Hey, how’s it going? Would you begin by telling me a bit about what you do?
STANZA: The things that I’m interested in are ‘surveillance space’, which is the idea of the city as having become a panopticon – this idea that we’re in a prison and we can be observed at all times, from all perspectives, all at once, and particularly in real time.
I use various technologies to do that, like CCTV and wireless sensor networks. Over the years, firstly I’ve developed a strong understanding of what these technologies can do in terms of learning about them, but also I’m having to develop for them, so I’ve learned how to develop hardware and software. You may think I’m a technologist – I see myself as a creative technologist, and I also see that artists are engineers, so they have to understand the technologies that they use, and the mediums that they use in order to get output.
To bring that into perspective, we can look at some artworks…
Sure thing. Would you expand on your thought that the city is a sort of prison?
STANZA: Urban Generation is a piece I did in relation to this idea of the city being a panopticon. Let’s say, in modernist terms, an artist would go out and collect assets – he might use a recording device or a camera – it would be a still, linear asset, and it would never change. It’s possible to actually conceive of the city as a moving physical entity, moving forward in time all the time. How is it possible to use new technologies to actually gain a representation of this, and use it in a culturally meaningful way?
Urban Generation attempts to imagine the world from everyone else’s perspective all at once. If I’m giving a talk, what I try and do is – to illustrate the conceptual shift – I say: “I’d like you to close your eyes, and I’d like you to imagine yourself in a place in London. I’m going to do the same and I’m going to take a single mental snapshot, and I’d like you all in the room to take your single snapshot. Now, I’d like you to imagine the view of the people sitting next to you to your left and to your right, so you have three images multiplied together. There’s 300 people in the room; I’d like you to merge all of these 300 images together. And now not like a film, (because if we used a film we’d be recording the same images) what I’d like you to do is to move these images forward in real time.”
This is the idea I’m trying to capture with this piece of work.
A lot of your work is concerned with the question of who owns the information that is regularly collected about people, and with re-claiming that information. Tell me about this idea.
STANZA: I make artworks that arise from my research into these themes – the themes being ‘control space’ and ‘surveillance space’ and issues with privacy. What I’m doing, which is sort of new ground, is that I’m hacking access to a network and re-appropriating the data and information, and I’m re-contextualizing to give it a wider meaning. I want to show that you can do something positive with this data.
Other works where I’m interested in the control and ownership of data include this website called GenoMixer, where I fully sequenced my blood. In a sense this looks like artist self-portraiture, but I was interested in thedomain space – the public domain space – that’s inside our bodies.
We have this huge line of code – 3.3 billion letters – and it basically has an economic value. The proposal here is to IPO (Initial Public Offering) the project on the stock market, and to give everyone a share of the derivable intellectual royalties. For example, if somebody else wanted to investigate your DNA in a medical program they’d have to pay you. If some other company discovered the cancer gene because you were on the police forensic database you could say “No it’s copyrighted – it’s on the GenoMixer database”.
It just so happens that I also made a series of self-portraits with them…
One of the most obvious types of information that is commonly collected about the general public is video images gathered by CCTV, and this is something you often look at. What are your thoughts about CCTV?
STANZA: Let’s look at “Urban Generation – trying to imagine the world from everyone else’s perspective, all at once“. What we’ve got here is: each square on this four-by-four grid is making calls to over 100 cameras in London in real time. This is a parallel reality, using live network data to re-appropriate it over the network and use it for something else. For example, this could be used as an extension on landscape painting.
Why this has become quite interesting, and the reason I mention these modernist aspects that are fixed, is that this work is never the same. You could look at it even now, on a different monitor, and it would be different: It’s not the Mona Lisa – where every time you look at the work you experience the same thing – there’s an added problem here.
Another interesting question here is: Is what we’re looking at the artwork? On July 7th in 2005 they switched this entire network off because of the terrorist attacks. Well my system still worked, it’s just that the output – which is what connects a viewer to the system – is shifted.
This [Public Domain Responsive Architecture Facade] is the same concept using CCTV, observing the whole of the city but making it transparent. Why would you want to make your movements open and transparent? Why would you want to let CCTV be seen by everybody? This is a building with its outer surfaces displaying images that are embedded in the city – all the stuff on the outside of the building is shifting in terms of the real time properties of that city. In a sense, you (as the observed individual) become part of the building and part of the city, and this opens up the idea of transparent architecture and transparent space.
Public Domain is another work along the same theme, where I gave CCTV cameras away to members of the public, to open up this idea of CCTV networks. People sometimes say that they’ve got nothing to hide, and to nothing to fear…I think that’s a problematic statement. I’m not coming down on a particular side of the fence here, but it seems to me that we’ve opened Pandora’s box, and there’s a whole series of legislative and ethical issues that aren’t being addressed.
Hopefully what I’m doing in these artworks is to draw attention to the fact that there’s a whole series of potential problems that we’re walking in to.
You also play with collected data, which you use to create interactive works or installations where real-time changes are caused by environmental factors…
STANZA: We’ve already looked at my CCTV system. There’s another one, which uses wireless sensors/wireless nodes. You scatter them across the city, and they talk to each other in a network grid.
This research started in 2004 as a result of an AHRC grant that I was awarded, and I was trying to find a system I could use as open source hardware and software, that would monitor the whole city space. I’ve scattered these sensors around a city to generate visualisations and sonifications in various cities. For my first project [Sensity] they were output onto a visual globe.
So, now what I was interested in doing is looking at this real time data, that’s now everywhere, and seeing if I could do something else with it – if I could make art with it.
Equally, in Sonicity I deliberately put a whole load of speakers on the floor and connected them all up to make it look like a map, and somewhere else (in another part of the world) that data is being collected from my network and being spat out onto the internet via an XML stream. In arty terms, maybe I’m “painting with data” – the data has become the medium. With this data I’m painting a sonification of the real time landscape.
The second thing I was trying to think about, as part of this thinking process, was all the stuff that’s being collected about us – not just my data, but tax data and medical records – which could be used because of the way it changes and shifts from one thing to the next to power other events:
With CapacitiesI made…let’s call it a sculpture…a sculpture of computer parts that looks like a city, and would be powered by events changing somewhere else in real time. In this version of Capacities, all the lights and fans, and all the parts that change, do so because of other things happening in the world in real time.
The reason I’m trying to do that is that there seem to be other values that people are missing in terms of the things that are happening to us, and the world, in real time. We’ve become bodies residing in a ‘data space’. Everything around us is the data space and by default we interact with it – even small movements displace millions of atoms.
I conceive of this post-modern world in which movements are just moving a series of 0s and 1s. I can measure the 0s and 1s that I’m displacing by moving around. This interactive process is embedded in the work by default.
Visitors to a Gallery… is quite an important work, in that it opens up the gallery space as an artwork. For example, these two people that are pictured aren’t actually in this room – they’re in another room in another part of the gallery, so they’re embedded in the artwork that you’re viewing. Everybody in the architectural space becomes part of the artwork, and this happens in real time – it’s not recorded, and it’s not a film. So I utilize the technology in the space (the CCTV system).
Secondly, what’s happening here is that there are a series of proximity sensors that affect this as an algorithm – as you walk around this space all of these images oscillate/vibrate slightly.
So when you’re in the room, viewing this artwork, you’re at the same time generating an artwork for someone else in another room?
STANZA: And you’re in the work you’re viewing yourself, through your interaction with the sensors.
That’s also happening in Seeing Through Walls, where there are little cameras and monitors, so you become embedded in the same artwork as it’s being broadcast live, or in this piece where you can see through to people on the other side of the wall.
I was actually in a Greek club where they had something like that – the mirrors in the toilet let you see yourself, but also the women doing their makeup in the adjacent toilets…
STANZA: Ha! No wonder their ecomony’s gone down the pan…
Moving on from that, my work splits into this idea of using real time networks and investigating different ways of interacting with public space.
Here’s a strange project called The Binary Graffiti Club, where I got a load of people to dress up in hoodies with 0s and 1s on their backs, and they go round the city making binary graffiti – painting little coded messages onto the city.
Anything in particular?
STANZA: Well…no. I don’t want to be too specific about this, because… Well here’s a piece going back to the DNA project (the open source bit). If you sit in the gallery for…this has been online for seven years: If it was exhibited in a gallery you could get my open source DNA, and you could go off and replicate me, but it changes a letter once every second so you’d have to sit there for 104 years with a pen and paper. The same is true of the binary graffiti club – if you want to know what the message is, you have to sit there and transcribe it and translate it.
One letter from STANZA’s DNA code – the letters are shown in order, one per second for the 104 year project
This led from another piece of work – A City of Bits – as well as this performance that was laid down in the form of this sushi: I invited 12 people, after the disciples, and asked them to come and eat this coded sushi message. So, this is a coded message that they eat, and then they all put their own message back into a jar which I’ve now destroyed. I’ve transcribed those messages here…
You have a performance coming up in Texas soon – tell me a bit about what you’ll be doing.
STANZA: In Soundcities, using a recording device, I’ve been to all these different cities, recording sounds which are attached to Google Maps, and you can visit lots of cities in the world…
The key to this is the database; you can see the sounds, arranged in different categories, and you can create a performance by picking a selection of them and building up rhythms. This is what I do with my performances, except I have the same thing on a couple of machines, and I might mix it with sounds from churches, etc. It’s basically a live world tour of city sounds as music: the machines are connected to a mixing desk, images are coming from the website projects.
During the eight years I’ve been doing these performances, they’ve been heavily focused on the sounds of cities, the database live and soundmaps.
So this database can be used in performances, but the key here is that the database is open source, and other people can contribute to this community of sounds. There’s lots of other projects that have come from this, but the most important bit is this. This XML feed shows the sound, and its longitude/latitude, and although this is just a line of code it basically means that anyone else can use this to write their own apps.
What I’m doing that’s unique here is: it’s like an artist of the past allowing someone into their studio to work in parallel with them.