The winner of this year’s Jindřich Chalupecký Award is Andreas Gajdošík, artist, activist, experimental musician and amateur educator at FaVU in Brno. The interview conducted by the editors of Artalk Alžběta Cibulková and Anna Remešová and concerned not only activist art, but also “useful art” (Arte Útil) and the position of the artist on the contemporary scene.
Anna Remešová (AR): In your portfolio for the Jindřich Chalupecký Award, I read that you have been organizing a group of students at the Faculty of Fine Arts (FaVU) in Brno, who you teach to program, among other things. How did you get to that?
Andreas Gajdošík (AG): A new canteen was created at FaVU, this time led by students. It is more like a student club, where they also cook food and make drinks. At the same time, there is a tendency in Vegýna – as the club is called – to create an extracurricular program for people to attend. I started courses teaching the Python programming language. About five or six courses took place and the attendance was not very high – mostly three to four people came, but I thought it still made sense. The courses ended at Christmas, but I would like to relaunch them. At the same time, I received an offer from the Studio of Graphic Design II to continue courses at the studio level, which started this summer semester.
I chose Python because it is very simple and there is a large, inclusive community of people around it. It is a scripting programming language and coding in it is very user-friendly, even for beginners. Thanks to this, it is also used for teaching programming to absolute beginners or people who, for example, came into contact with programming only in high school. I started teaching it because I started with Python myself, and it was the first programming language I believed I was going to program something meaningful with. And since there is a large community of people around it, it is easy to find information about it, or even get together with them at meetings called Pyva that usually take place in regional capitals. There are also groups called Pyladies that teach women, complete beginners, to program and help them find jobs in IT.
AR: What else makes Python so special? I am asking because you worked as an open source software designer and this approach to open and inclusive programming also blends in with your artwork.
AG: Python is sometimes referred to as an executable pseudocode. This is a form of code that is not directly executable by the computer, it just appears to be. Male and female programmers use it to express basic programming concepts, to communicate with each other. In the pseudocode, it is not necessary to adhere to all the essentials, there is no exact format it must follow. Brackets, boring passages and the like can also be ignored. You can write more easily, but your intent is understandable, give or take. Python is very similar to this notation, but it is also understood by computers and therefore directly executable. This is a significant simplification – for example, instead of using a large number of brackets, just tabs are used, and as a result, the notation looks relatively airy. Python is also open source, so there is no problem installing it, doing anything with it, and then selling it or using it to create works of art. There are no licensing issues. Currently, there are quite a few programming languages that are as friendly as Python. I think the level of readability and inclusiveness keeps increasing. But Python is probably still the most advanced.
AR: There is also the question of open source programs and copyright. How do you approach copyright and distribution of works of art in connection with your own works?
AG: As for my own works, I totally gave up the copyright. I found licensing your work while studying and trying to restrict access to it a bit bizarre. Maybe it can work for traditional works, where their sale comes into consideration, but it is quite early to deal with it with the new media while still studying. Rather, the question for me is whether it needs to be addressed at all – whether the characteristics of the medium as such and the fact that the works are so easy to copy and share should be exploited. I try to put my projects out under open source licenses, like when I created a code generating criminal complaints. I wanted some of the work to continue to be usable, so I purged, prepared, and published the code as Fblament open source program. I was contacted about it by Čtvrtá vlna (the Fourth Wave) group, and they said that they needed to find some Facebook comments about disabled people and other groups. Although this failed to pan out, it at least confirmed that part of the work of art was made in such a way that it could be used for purely activist intentions or political negotiations – it was useful.
At the end of my studies at FaVU, I needed to write an academic text and I dealt with this issue in it. I have noticed that while programming a new media work, sharing the source code or just the resulting executable provides different freedoms for the end user. In the context of open source community, it is widely believed that the source code should be available and just freeware software does not constitute freedom. In the text section of my paper, I analyzed how the Creative Commons license works, for example, when video or 3D animation is publicly published and then anyone can remix the resulting video, but you no longer get to the deeper layers of the new media, such as 3D models or textures. Such a work would be referenced to and used less than when you get a complete project from which you may extract a particular 3D model and fit it into your own context. I thought it would be good to work with something like that, which is what I am trying to do now. For example, if I generate documents or a portfolio, I share the source code. This could result in a whole new level of work with a finished work of art, where we no longer have to work with the result itself, but we can use certain elements from within and reference in a slightly different way than the entire screenshot or cut-out. That could be interesting.
AR: What you have been saying is largely related to your text for Artalk, in which you write that art in the Internet environment should not consists just in its visual aspect, as is often the case with post-internet art, but rather in an effort to create art inside those layers. Could you elaborate on what it looks like using an example of one of your projects?
AG: One of the first works I started to deal with was the data structure and API, which is the application programming interface, and I focused the layer accessible through the programming code on NárodníLiga.cz (2016, “National League” – a fake right wing website created by the artist). It was my bachelor thesis, which consisted of collecting comments from publicly available Facebook pages that were anti-immigrant and spread hate against people from Middle Eastern countries. Using my program and the Facebook API, I gathered over a million comments, on the basis of which the “best defenders of the nation” statistics were generated. The whole website appeared like having been created by someone from the right-wing scene. On closer inspection, however, one soon found out that this was probably not quite the case and that there hides a subversive mode of reading the site behind the tricolor and the Czech lions. As I worked on this, I realized that what we see on Facebook is a little different than what I can get through automation and API.
One of the reasons I did the National League project was that when someone wants to send migrants to gas chambers or wishes them to drown and writes the worst things in the comments, they often find excuses by saying they had a few beers too many, that they “slipped”, that “it can happen to anyone”. But when you start collecting data on a large scale, you realize that such a person may have produced 60 similar comments per month and every fifth of them contains something hateful against refugees, so he/she either drinks too much or it is just an excuse for a behavior that is crazy and scary. The National League has always showed the last ten comments, and in five or six of them, someone wished death upon someone, which is almost pathological. And then about a year and a half later, Cambridge Analytica affair appeared and people began to wonder how it was possible that Facebook leaked data. But in fact, it was clear to anyone working with the Facebook API that it was possible. The principle of the Cambridge Analytica approach is pretty similar – to get through an interface to a large amount of data and then generate a result on this basis. This may be, for example, the National League project created by a single person, which consist of simple basic statistics, but when a large team of data analysts, sociologists, and all who know how to manipulate people based on the data sit down together, it can lead to the results we have seen.
Alžběta Cibulková (AC): What responses to your way of working have you encountered during your studies, regarding for example the National League? Do you care how you present your works in the artistic environment?
AG: In my bachelor thesis, which I wrote while still studying at the Multimedia Studio, I often heard the question “Where is art in this?” The work was on the edges of an activist intervention, dry data collection and presentation of statistical data, but in the end, I managed to defend it. There are people who will always be critical of this and people who will defend it. In art, however, you can afford a completely different approach than for example in the context of sociological research – there, the publishing of users’ names and their profiles would not stand. At the same time, if it were purely activist work, the project would extend to political levels, have serious consequences, and would lack its playfulness, ambiguity and uncertainty as a result of the hesitation as to whether the site was actually established by a radical xenophobe. The website would not be enthusiastically shared by people and sites that were presented by the National League, who later only hesitatingly came to terms with their confusion. I consulted with visual artist Pavel Sterec, who sees the context of the art scene in projects like this. On the basis of this, I continued my studies in the Intermedia Studio, which Pavel leads and where it is common to work with a certain social situation and social reality, which I missed in the Multimedia Studio, where we rather focused on music, videos or interactive installations that worked in the mode of the visual, aesthetics and finding the limits of the media proper. I was more interested in how the medium can actively interact within society and how people approach it. The question of how to make the art socially relevant is once again alive in the art world. I like the concept of Arte Útil, an art that has a practical purpose in relation to the environment in which it exists.
AR: At the same time, the art scene gives you the liberty to handle the material in a way exploring the boundaries of ethics and morality more freely than, for example, in a software company
AG: Exactly. At the same time, it can be the vanguard of something that can then develop into something more formal.
AR: In addition to the National League we discussed, you also worked on the Nomin (2017-18) website and project, which critically and ironically related to the functioning of the art scene. Do you see any connection between these works when you critically enter into society and also into the art world?
AG: Probably the only continuous thread in my work is the aspect of usefulness. It might not be quite obvious in the National League project, but then I did the Take Away (2017) project, retrieving Facebook data and searching around a million and a half comments to find those that contained violent words like “kill”, “drown” or “shoot”. If someone produced five or more similar comments, the program generated a criminal complaint for inciting hatred against a specific group of people. There were 330 of these auto-generated notifications and I posted them in a gallery presentation, where each visitor could go through a certain amount of criminal complaints and deliberate whether these comments were over the top. If they found it was, they were free to file or send the complaint to the police. There, I already see the aspect of pure usefulness – an attempt to automate things that we should basically do by law – when, for example, we see a crime, we have a reporting duty. But not all of us do this because it we are not comfortable with it and it is not always in line with our ethics and feelings. It also raised questions about freedom of speech or personal opinions regarding the subject.
As for the Nomin project, it began with an offer for an exhibition term at FUD in Ústí nad Labem. I didn’t know what to expose, but I knew I would like it to be useful. Over time, I thought of creating a software that would allow young artists, visitors to the local gallery, to send false recommendations for themselves from the e-mail addresses of famous curators. To make a tool to overcome the barriers of the periphery that Ústí nad Labem, Ostrava, Brno and all of Eastern Europe represent in a way. A slightly Faustian and tempting option, which, however, is in a sense beyond the bounds of legality. At the same time, however, it takes place in the field of art, it has been described as a collective performance and follows a certain tradition of institutional criticism, hacktivism. As a result, it should be perceived as a work of art rather than a crime. In a way, Nomin (2018) was once again about testing – in this case, whether individual artists would dare, whether it was worth the risk for them, and whether the curators and galleries would let it stand – whether their love of art would prevail over their self-love.
But I didn’t always have the energy and mood to code at school, so I kept changing the principle of my works. For example, I worked on a series of interventions at school. I built a sauna in a school corridor because the then dean Milan Houser promised to build a sauna in his second term, which never happened (Sauna / What dean promised I am doing, 2017). It is such a strange, populist and romantic promise that I decided to do it for him. Then, as part of my exams, I put together a plastic sheet sauna with a kettle of boiling water and we used it for some time. This is a work that in turn has a purely practical consequence: the chance to go to the sauna for free, at school.
AC: And how long did the sauna last?
AG: About a month, then it started to smell a little and cleaning was also not ideal, but we used it at least five times and someone might have even more when I wasn’t there.
AR: Soon you are going to play music with Evropská Unie (a band named “European Union”) at the Vegýna bistro in Brno. Can you describe the band?
AG: It is an improvisational and performative noise band. It is a noise band with overlaps, where the main meaning is not only the sound, but also the setting of the show and interaction with the audience or props. The performances are usually atmospheric and at the same time connected with interventions in space. At one of our shows, for example, we shorted the electric sockets and there was a period of darkness. While people were trying to find the short circuit, we slowly went away to avoid a conflict. We wanted to create some unexpected situation in our show. Another time we used pepper spray and a military smoke bomb. It was a specific ending to the show, which was surprisingly received quite positively by the audience – they coughed for a while in the backyard, had a cigarette and in 15 minutes the program continued. We did not blow into their faces, just to give the atmosphere a nice smell.
AR: So this is an aggressive European Union, in a way?
AG: We like the European idea and we believe we should promote it. The European Union is united in diversity, so it also fits what we do, and when we were looking for a replacement for the Pavel Ondračka student collective, we opted for the Evropská Unie. Another reason was the Wikipedia entry. It also predetermines the visual appearance of the show – sometimes I perform in the role of a drunken man in a jacket, a rude manager – but at the same time there is freedom in the interpretation of what such a name means.
AR: You also worked as a software designer. How is it having finished college? Is it harder to build a reputation on the art scene in connection with your other activities? Can they be combined with your job?
AG: At one time it worked very well for me, because I had a part time job, and the company I worked for were good to me. But then it became more and more difficult. For interviews or for the announcement of the Jindřich Chalupecký Award finalists, I had to take a vacation. When curator Karina Kottová called me and I heard about the nomination, I found out that I no longer had the strength to continue while accumulating my activities. I thought I’d end it for a while and then see what happened next. After all, the work of the artist is quite specific and exhausting in a way. I have been weighing my financial but also time-related options. Some people apparently believe that everyone has a lot of time. For example, they will tell you to come to Prague on Thursday morning at 10 a.m. as if it were normal. It stems from the idea that you are in your studio all day, “you do nothing, and when I call you, you just come”.
Andreas Gajdošík (1992) has a bachelor’s degree from the Multimedia Studio at the Faculty of Fine Arts of the Brno Technical University, and a master’s degree from the Intermedia Studio at the same university. He now works in IT as a quality engineer for open source projects. He works as an artist, experimental musician and amateur educator. He was a founding member of the now defunct Pavel Ondračka Studio student team at FaVU, at present he is a member of the performative music group Evropská Unie. He is interested in activist art, promotion of computer literacy, DIY culture, noise and new media.
Cover image: Andreas Gajdošík: Unhuman resources (installation and website, 2019). Photo: Tomáš Souček
“Unhuman Resources is online media intervention thematizing the power of Czech prime minister Andrej Babiš over news servers idnes.cz and lidovky.cz which he both owns. It consists of two fake web pages l-dnes.cz and 1idovky.cz (later lidov.ky) which mocks their original versions by altering the text of every article. In these edits which appears on every mention of Babis’s name, his political party ANO, or just randomly at the ends of paragraphs, the (fictional) toxic relationship of owner and employee is slowly revealed. For the purpose of this artwork I have created custom software for the web server which allows automated editions of the text in realtime. Whole project will be open sourced later so it can be reused for any other web page. However the code needs some cleaning so it will be published later in the autumn of 2019.” (From Gajdošík’s website)
English translation: Petr Kovařík
This interview was first published by Artalk.cz in Czech and was translated with the financial support from the Arts and Theatre Institute in Prague.