Interview with Julian Oliver

Lara Sedbon conducts an email interview with Julian Oliver for the LISA blog.


Julian Oliver, frequently in partnership with other artists, works in conceptual and visual art.  His recent piece the Artvertiser seizes locations like Times Square and other advertising meccas as exhibition space.  The Artvertiser is an augmented reality software system where the viewer looks at advertising spaces through a special pair of binoculars and the billboard advertisements are replaced by art.

The software is “trained to recognise” individual advertisements, each of which become a virtual ‘canvas’ on which an artist can exhibit images or video when viewed through the hand-held device. Julian refers to this as “Product Replacement”. Similarly, on-site exhibitions can be held whereby pedestrians are invited to use the looking device to view an exhibition on the buildings around them.

Julian and Danja Vasiliev won the famous Golden Nica earlier this year for their project Newstweek – a device that purports to alter major news sites when the viewer reads them from wireless hotspots.  The media hype around the device – much of it self-created – was part of the concept, and much of the actual response revolved around whether it was real or (just) conceptual.  As one web commenter put it, “we couldn’t decide if this was a social commentary art project, or a real device. It looks like it’s both…”

LS: How and why did you come to specialize in software and art?

JO: It was certainly nothing I intended, in the sense of a career. I’ve always enjoyed pulling things to pieces with the aim of finding out how they work. While still young I saw invention to be a natural extension of this process: you break something and put it back together in a new form. Software, particularly open source software, has contributed greatly to my interest in this regard.

Worth mentioning perhaps is that I care less and less for the term ‘artist’, what’s been important to me is working in contexts that afford the widest creative and critical possibilities.

It doesn’t matter if I call what I make art, other people will do that for me anyway.

LS: What is, for you, the definition of art today?

JO: Art is many things of course, but that which we refer to as Contemporary Art is largely a form of entertainment whose cultural value is affirmed economically. Art used to be a potent context for cultural transformation but in recent years it is more a pastime of playful reflection, one where the strategic re-appropriation and displacement of cultural tropes are anticipated and coveted in turn. As such, art has become safe: so bold in its crusade to cast aside boundaries there is little left to break.

It’s for this reason I now refer to myself as a Critical Engineer, a term my studio partner Danja Vasiliev and I arrived at as to best describe the kind of work we are now doing.

It is our belief that engineering is the most transformative language of our time, a language that influences the way we eat, move, communicate, trade and even think. By positioning one’s practice in the frame of engineering, things really start to open up, creatively and critically especially.

LS: Do you consider yourself to be a hacker?

JO: I prefer to leave that definition up to other people.

LS: Were you ever confronted by legal issues?

JO: Yes, on a few occasions. The point at which you face the law is the point at which the nervous system of state infrastructure registers your push, speculating as to your intent. As long as it is not costly and no-one is hurt, they can be rewarding moments – you learn a lot about yourself and where you are in the world, especially as regards the state.

A child produces similar subjectivity when they throw food at their mother or pull the cat’s tail.

LS: What do you think of Andy Warhol, who linked art and advertising? Do you think art is present in some advertisements?

JO: Ads are ads, regardless of how they are read or critically positioned. Advertising borrows heavily from art and always will, now reaching deep into the software and media-art scene: some of the best minds and creators in the scene work in this scope.

LS: What is the current status of the Artvertiser? Have you already developed the android/iphone version? How do you estimate its success?

JO: The Android version is close to done, on the client side. Tracking works just fine on Android devices, thanks to the fine work of OpenFrameWorks developer Arturo Castro. The server side still needs to be finished, something I need to work on soon.

The iOS version is another problem altogether, largely due to the fact that distributing through the Apple app store actually breaches many of the free and open source licenses we’re using. Importantly we didn’t write all the Artvertiser source code ourselves, much of it depends on libraries in the back-end that themselves use non app-store friendly licenses. A better way to put it however is that the app-store model itself is a problem for Free Software.

Here’s not the right time to talk about that however! [Editor: Au contraire, we agree with your point and consider this a perfect LISA topic!]

To answer your other question, I hope we can have entirely user contributed street exhibitions soon enough. If we get that far I think it could be a great success.

LS: Do you have a permanent team with whom you work?  If so, what are their different roles?  How is your team organized?

JO: Not at all. I mostly work independently. In recent years however I’ve really enjoyed teaming up with others in a collaboration context.

For instance, I wrote to the first version of the Artvertiser, building atop of a library called BazAR. Later Damian Stewart came on board and greatly improved my code, porting it to openFrameworks. Arturo then jumped in and got the whole thing running on Android.

Danja and I are working a lot together at present, in our studio here in Berlin. A very fruitful and easy collaboration – we have a lot of fun.

LS: Inside your team, is there a clear separation between artists and engineers/technicians ?

JO: No. I thoroughly dislike such partitioning, one endemic to much of the media-art scene, sadly! These separations are artificial and I believe point to an aging class model deeply sewn throughout the fine arts, of the Visionary and the Hired-hand.

Good ideas are in abundance. We all have them. Implementations on the other hand, are not. I admire implementations far more than great ideas.

Programmers are ineluctably influential in the design, feasibility and even aesthetic of the end result. Very often programmers literally define the entire scope the self-titled Artist works within, whether their idea even holds water at all.

As regards my own role, I like to get my hands dirty in a collaboration.

I make it a personal priority to grow with and through what I make and this is done by learning the tools, the medium. If my medium is software, in the language of C or C++, then I will work with the project on those terms, understanding its extents and the limitations therein.

Not being a trained engineer, there are plenty of better programmers than I. In any case, I’m a creative programmer with the ability to create and solve complex problems in my own way. I will always do my best to contribute on that level in any collaboration, even when working with a trained engineer.

Art aside, programming is a form of self-development, as rewarding as any traditional creative pursuit, in my experience.

LS: What are you up to next?

JO: Danja and I have a couple more network related projects up our sleeve. One in particular will be a big deal, I think…

After getting the Nica at Ars Electronica we both have a strong compulsion to dive into our own totally network-unrelated projects. For me this means a large sound installation – my first in many years.  I also want to cross a few small projects off the TODO list, some I conceived of a decade ago and have thought about often since.

LS: What is the next step you see coming in technology?

JO: That’s a very difficult question to answer. Two things I’m keeping an eye on are quantum computing and of course biotech. The migration to IPv6 is going to have a deep impact on the human domain also, not to be underestimated.

I foresee also that our relationship with technology itself will undergo significant change in the years to come. With the state of the worlds resources depleted by agriculture, unchecked industry and exploding populations, the impact of our technologies on the environment will inevitably figure into how we value it. I hope for a time where ‘beautiful’, ‘clever’ and even ‘intuitive’ will not be enough to keep an earth-costly implementation from being scrapped.

Secondly, our increased dependence on computer networks, the so-called Cloud, networked devices and computer controlled infrastructure leaves us increasingly vulnerable. Ignorance as to how these increasingly vital prostheses actually function is on the rise.

Most have a complete lack of understanding as to how the technology they claim to depend on actually functions. Ask someone how a postcard arrives at their aunt’s door and they’ll give you a vaguely accurate description. Ask that same person how the email you sent them arrived and you’d be better submitting their description to a poetry journal.

I think we will soon see catastrophes that make it very clear just how far we’ve grown into our technologies.. and how far they’ve grown into us.

LS: Who else is out there doing things you admire with technology and art?

JO: The list would be really long… there’s a lot of important work out there!

LS: What is your opinion on Anonymous and LulzSec?  Where do you draw the line between socially beneficial hacking and criminality?

JO: I don’t feel able to comment on that here, unfortunately.

LS: I understand completely.  Thank you for speaking with Leaders in Software and Art!