Addie Wagenknecht is an artist and researcher based between the U.S. and Europe. We met a few years back when she invited me to be part of Deep Lab, a “collaborative group of cyberfeminist researchers, artists, writers, engineers, and cultural producers” that she co-founded in 2014. We’ve shared the stage together twice at re:publica in Berlin, and I always enjoy having the chance to chat with her about art and free expression.
This conversation was no exception, as it journeyed from censorship in the art world to the restrictions social media place on profanities [ed. note: this interview contains a few of those] to the impact of conspiracy theories on our societies. As a successful artist, Addie brings an important perspective to this ongoing conversation about what free expression means.
Jillian C. York: Let’s get started. What does free expression mean to you?
I’m looking at it from the point of view of somebody who works in arts and culture; a lot of it has to do with how that’s translated within institutions and museums, commercial galleries, and the art world.
For me, it’s specifically about the right of expression creatively and being able to translate thoughts or political situations into things that can be shown in an open and public space, with the caveat that a lot of these spaces are donor and privately-run, so there are a lot of stipulations around what can be shown or how it can be shown.
York: Would you say that you identify as a defender of or advocate for free expression?
Yeah, I would say I definitely advocate for freedom of expression, freedom of speech, and the right to those freedoms both inside and outside the U.S.
York: Would you mind sharing a personal experience you’ve had with censorship or with utilizing your free expression for the common good?
I think the first thing that comes to mind is a project called Webcam Venus [ed. note: link contains nudity] which is about highbrow and lowbrow culture and what is considered art versus what is considered porn and how do you deviate and know the differences. It’s a piece where sexcam workers pose in traditional or classical pieces of well-known art, in an institutional sense. It’s taking paintings that are frequently cited within our history or the art canon, and recontextualizes those in a more contemporary means using webcams and sex performers.
That piece was installed a few times for more institutional museum shows but also for more commercially-sponsored events. It was shown at Internet week in New York City...I always think of New York as this kind of progressive place where you can do what you want, and it’s radical and open to new ideas. The piece was installed for this marketing or tech week in New York, and within five to ten minutes of the piece going up, someone came up to me and said they couldn’t show it, it had to be taken down immediately. So I asked why they wanted it taken down, and they said “Google is our sponsor, and they don’t want this up. It’s inappropriate, and it’s not something we want people seeing.” So they shut it down, they thought it was completely inappropriate to have in the context of this Internet culture week.
York: I do remember that, I think it came up in one of the talks we did together, but I didn’t know that part of the story.
It’s crazy, because I’ve always thought that imagery and pornography are what have driven so much of technology, and the advancement of wifi, and higher speeds, but then the fact that it’s completely siloed from the rest of the internet when you’re celebrating internet culture for me was a really disappointing thing, especially in New York, which I thought was so open to new ideas and discourse. It being shut down just popped that balloon for me.
York: That’s really wild. What was the impetus for that project? What inspired you to create it in the first place?
I was collaborating with Pablo Garcia, and our constraints were that we wanted to create a project together, but we were in different time zones—him at the Art Institute of Chicago, and me in Europe. Our constraints were that we were wanting to create a project across different time zones so we had to come up with a project that was ethereal in the sense that we didn’t need to create something physical.
I’d come across a talk at Transmediale in Berlin that year about the history of chatrooms or bullet boards that unfolded specifically through a queer lens, and it was interesting the way these speakers talked about the access to webcam performers and that specific site really intrigued me because when they were going through the history of bulletin boards and IRC, one of the panelists brought up this interesting site that was read/write in terms of porn. You have access to the cam performers as well as the chat or input and what they’re willing to do can be communicated in both ways. He had presented it in the context of this panel and I started to research more about that. I always liked Chat Roulette, where you go on and it’s different webcams shuffled with other people all over the world. I was already interested in this sort of randomness and accessibility through the web, and finding ways to do that with spaces of the web.
With art, sexuality is still a topic that is highly refined in terms of institutions, so I thought that was an interesting space to explore. I presented that idea to Pablo, I sent him the link to the talk I’d seen, and we kind of just fell into that. A lot of his work looks at art and architecture from an historical perspective, so somehow within the collaboration we came up with this idea of how you recontextualize historical work that is defined as art through texts, academics and institutions, and recreating that through a contemporary lens, and what does that look like? Is it still art even though it references the prior works but in a more contemporary medium?
York: That’s really interesting. In fact, one of the interesting things to me is how platforms censor nudity when it’s in a more modern format.
York: Okay, so here’s a different question. Do you have a free speech hero?
I don’t know that I do. In the past few years, the Internet and political climate have changed so much and people have gone in different directions. But one of my longstanding activism heroes were always the Guerrilla Girls. I think they started in the ‘80s, and they’re these women who are decently high-profile in the arts, but they go around wearing gorilla masks and do a lot of stuff within anonymity, giving themselves the power of that anonymity to advocate for free speech and against inequality within institutions and other things people aren’t willing to talk about publicly.
York: I've always found their work really interesting. Okay, changing topics a little: let’s talk about social media. What concerns you at the moment?
That conspiracy theories are becoming mainstream. Ten years ago, scientific consensus was considered factual for example, but that has been completely dismissed by those in power. Somehow we have reached a point where not wanting the world to burn is being considered 'politically radical'.
See, our communities online and off, depend on shared truths and if you think about it, what the Internet—and the social media spaces that so many of us rely on daily—have created is a sense of identity by over-inflating the value of our opinions while equally maximizing the sense of opposition, all while simultaneously destroying the sense of personal impact on just about anything. We are so totally unaware of our own confirmation biases on these platforms because everything can appear equally legitimate. Our personal lives are quite literally monetized and becoming public domain but more than that, I am afraid people have lost the ability to parse facts, and our democracy and freedoms—of speech, of art and expression—literally depend on that.
Companies like Facebook will not change because their entire profit model relies on clicks, and nothing generates those like lies, conspiracy theories and declarations of victim-hood by some of the most powerful and privileged men in the world. If social media companies were held to the same basic standards of print, movies or TV perhaps this could alleviate some of these issues.
If for example, Facebook had to fact-check ads before running them, they could prevent the micro-targeting and disseminating of lies and 'fake news' before it starts but as of now they do not—instead they actually help you target your audiences instead for maximum audience engagement and views, further spreading and encouraging disinformation on a massive scale.
York: So do you think that any online speech should be regulated, and if so, how?
I’m very much an advocate for freedom of expression/speech and the right to express those things, unfortunately for people living outside of the U.S. they’re not protected by the constitutional right to that, so how that’s protected would require some sort of protections for people who exist outside of the U.S., because they don’t necessarily have those rights.
I’m also kind of on the team of anti-regulation and anti-censorship. I want to think that those things can be self-regulated within communities and within spaces both online and off. So, I don’t necessarily believe that [speech] needs to be regulated. I don’t think the way it’s being regulated right now, through having companies like Facebook, having people who are trained in various countries with different social and cultural norms censoring content is necessarily the way to go. I do find the flagging process, where for example content is hidden with a warning, useful. I’ve noticed a few sites have started to do this, like Twitter and YouTube when something gets enough downvotes—you can choose to either click it or not.
York: Yes. Twitter’s is really interesting though, because it seems to be based on a list of keywords. “Vagina,” for example, seems to be included as an “offensive” term, and I find that so strange.
Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting to me that “dick” or “vagina” or those sorts of words are deemed offensive, but then you could say something really hateful about someone, like using radical slurs, and those would be tolerated, but then anatomy isn’t. How you differentiate those things is the golden ticket in terms of solving some of those things. How do you allow for freedom of expression without censoring those things? If you could figure those things out,I think you’d have a really viable social media platform.
I think it’s interesting that Jordan Peterson is starting this anti-censorship bulletin board sort of thing. I’m really interested in how that’s going to transpose with his new fanbase. I heard they’re not going to censor anything or limit who has access to it. I’m kind of interested to see if it becomes another 4chan or 8chan sort of thing or if it becomes a space for viable discourse.
York: I’m sort of curious about that too. What you said about the golden ticket—I don’t really see anyone working that hard to make that possible. What’s really difficult is that there really isn’t yet an AI that can detect that sort of thing. If someone says “women are inferior to men,” there’s currently no way that AI detects that as a hateful statement, whereas it’s easy to plug in words that people find offensive. So words like “fuck” are really interesting in this context.
Yes—words like “fuck” or “shit” or “bitch” have this duality depending on how they’re contextualized within the language. And then it comes back to “who wrote the AI?” because the AI obviously has bias depending on how it was written, or who wrote it.
To some extent, I think people think of code and science and math as inherently neutral, but in fact it’s kind of embedded in the biases of those who write it. But if you write a computer vision program...for example, have you seen this gif on Twitter that says “why computer vision isn’t neutral” and shows a white hand going under a soap dispenser and the soap comes out, but then a black hand goes under it and the dispenser can’t detect it.
York: Wow, that’s just so blatant.
I think about it a lot because we have so much trust in these technologies and these larger systems and corporations that build them. Maybe that’s changed on a social scale, and people are beginning to realize that there’s this kind of implicit biases built into these system, and so looking at who’s building them and what’s being built is so interesting. And that’s why I think what Kate Crawford and Meredith Whitaker are doing at AI Now is so interesting.
York: Okay, let’s see...is there anything I’ve missed?
I definitely find that there’s something interesting about the implications to people who choose to be outspoken outside the norm of the art world. I recently had a show that was supposed to happen in a large city, but the space didn’t want it because they said it was too political, and they were really advocating that political stuff doesn’t sell, and that people don’t want to see it. As an artist, there’s this weird kind of conundrum—and probably for people who do free speech work as well—if you choose to do political work or you choose to speak out, there are implications to your professional well-being, your income, your sales, and all these things that determine your livelihood in some sense. So a lot of artists and curators I know, when I talk to them off the record, they’re very adamant about not showing opinions that could be seen as political, advocacy, free speech work because they don’t want to be deemed radical.
Recently, there’s been a lot of upheaval with artists, like those not showing at the Whitney Biannual because of the affiliation with the families who created Oxycontin. So there’s some awareness now about the financial pipeline and what we’re implicit in supporting by showing work that they want or are comfortable with.
York: Do you see any parallels between the art institutions and Silicon Valley?
Yeah, they’re typically run by the exact same sort of people—white people who are extremely privileged. I’d have to look it up, but the Guerilla Girls are a good resource for this. They made something that showed [the percentages of the art world that are white, female, or people of color] and if you consider that as what is forming the art canon as well as Silicon Valley’s canon, I’d say it’s pretty similar in terms of venture funding and startup culture [editor’s note: The Guerrilla Girls have also done work on the racial composition of internet users].
That’s what’s writing the history. So it’s like, there’s an entire majority of society that’s not being considered into the contemporary story, but also the historical one, and those of course inform the future. Looking at who has the right of access, who has the privilege of access, and who has the right to show their work...there’s definitely a parallel for me.
York: Thank you so much, Addie, this has been fascinating.