Street Artist, Political Net Artist or Playful Trickster?
I haven't spoken to you about your work for quite a while. Could you tell me what you've been doing from August/September last year up until now?
Heath Bunting: Its probably easier to work backwards: At the moment I am working on a closed circuit television camera project across the internet whereby you can watch various city centres in various countries of the world, for instance Tokyo, Dublin, LA and London. Each of these camera's is linked to a webpage and on that webpage you are encouraged to watch these street locations for various crimes. If you see anything you can type the details into a text box, click a button and this information will be sent directly via fax to the local police station, for instance at Leicester Square. So its somehow encouraging people to police themselves and save the police some labour, so they don't have to watch other people.
A project slightly before that was a project to do with junkmail whereby you could go to a certain webpage (or it could equally live just as well on a piece of paper) and it could be assigned a fake address, so that you could redirect all your junkmail to this new address. All these addresses aren't actually made up; They are addresses of people that send junkmail, so all junkmail will eventually be transferred from one junkmail company to another.
I am currently working on an algorythmic identity. The purpose of a name is to somehow create investment, which is somehow a definition of civilisation. Your name will appear on many databases and this will somehow control you. If a name is algorythmic and changes every time, and if its used over a regular time period, it defeats any attempt to track you or your identity. For instance for junkmail companies, that I mentioned before, after one month my identity will become obsolete. Therefore my adress will be obsolete. The form my new official name will be taking now is the first three letters of the month followed by the year. My current identity is may97. So if you want to email me, it will be email@example.com. After one month that identity expires and all the messages will bounce from that address. People who know me, human beings, will be easily able to calculate my current identity, whereas computers and static databases will not be able to.
What happens to email that is sent to your old adress then?
Heath Bunting: It gets sent back. I don't actually get it. The other day I got fourteen email messages, ten of them were junkmail. This will solve that problem just in one go. Next month, for anybody that somehow has my current identity, will find it worthless.
You organised some conferences in the Backspace gallery, London, also. Can you tell me something about that?
Heath Bunting: Backspace is a kind of undefined space with technology in central London, in the bussiness district. These lectures and meetings were centered around networking in the broadest sense. For network politics we had people from road protesting and mail art and internet obviously. We just tried to broaden these network strategies. I totally lost control of the net.religion meeting. The formula of the meeting went in a way that I had not planned, which is fine, but it is funny to loose total control of something you've organised. People enjoyed it, but it turned into a normal lecture style: someone spoke and everybody listened and there was a discussion afterwards, which I was trying to avoid desperately. Peter Lamborn Wilson, Toshyo Ueno, Hari Kunzru and James Flint were the lecturers. They all wanted a certain style of presentation, which I tried to subvert. I managed that with the net.art meeting, I think. The last one, the net.politics meeting, was the most succesful one because I got everybody drunk first on free gin. There was a kind of celebraty atmosphere. With politics, people get too serious, so that was the idea of getting people drunk: so they were quite happy to say stupid things and risk something. Also, everybody was only allowed to speak for five minutes. There were a few people that broke those rules, but they were poked in the ribs regularly until they shut up. Geert Lovink was one of them, also Richard Barbrook.
Why do you not want any discussions?
Heath Bunting: Its not that I don't want discussions. The whole idea of the meetings was to create some discussion, but if you create a certain form of meeting it quite often always follows the same discussions. For instance here we had a meeting about net.art the other day and due to the form of the meeting we got to that age old discussion: what is and what isn't art. You have to somehow create different forms of conversation, to avoid that and somehow facilitate new discussions. With the 'anti with e' format I tried to have each time a different form of meeting. Every speaker was limited to five minutes and was branded MTV type presentation. People were very sceptical about that to begin with, but once you had sat there for a few hours and had gone through thirty presentations and everybody knew what everybody else did..it seemed to work, people were surprised that it worked. People had to formulate their ideas and present them very concisely and clearly in five minutes. Some people couldn't manage that at all. The worse thing is when you go somewhere and someone rambles on for an hour and you forget what they said and they forgot what they said and you're bored and then you want to leave. If a group of people make an interesting presentation, very short and snappy, you remember it. I won't say there aren't problems with this form, but for me it worked very well.
Could you say you are kind of changing territory, from mostly working on the internet the last year onto other media now, like junkmail, (that is also snailmail right) and conferences?
Heath Bunting: I am always changing. I have had two major threads in my work. One is communications or networking or whatever you want to call that. For years I have been doing things with sending things in the post or via fax or just somehow trying to create theatrical spaces in the street and then the other side to my work is creating meetings, where other people can do things together. It is just that I became quite well known at the same time as the net became popularised. In the city I used to live in, Bristol, I was well known there for many years for doing these things. But I wasn't well known in Amsterdam then for instance, where as I am now. That is the power of the internet. Now I am trying to retire. I have been professionalised, I have to think about my future a lot and worry about money and things: I never did before. So I am trying to retire from being a professional artist. One way to do that is run of to Australia this November and not have a future.
But you are going to do some work there right?
Heath Bunting: I have tried doing nothing but it doesn't work. I only get more ideas, so I will certainly carry on doing similar things, but I will try not to do it in a professional manner. I can give lectures, but I won't plan them six months in advance. They won't appear on my CV anymore and stuff like that. Its a subtle thing, a thing of form. When you become professionalised you loose the whole essence of what you were before and what you were trying to achieve. I am trying to get back to what I was, but obviously that is not possible. So I will carry on doing the same things but I will just abandon all the nonosense. Professionalism is seen as a step forward from amateurism, but for me it doesn't work. You loose a lot of things when you gain your professional status. You become totally integrated. This year I am in Ars Electronica and Documenta X, which is interesting to go to, but I don't want to become a commodity artist. I am listed in the top whatever 100, 200 artists in the world this year, which means I am a good investment: I don't want to be a good investment. I just want people to see what I am doing and not think about how much it costs.
You say you wanted to go back to what you wanted to achieve. What was that then?
Heath Bunting: I like playing. Yesterday I was walking around climbing on things, drawing little drawings with chalk. Thats just as valuable as having a big commission, maybe more so. You actually enjoy it and you're not stressed. You're just being yourself (if thats possible). I spent many years just walking around the streets. For instance when I had no future at all I would meet all my friends every day. Now I have a future, I have to make appointments and I don't meet them very often. I got to a stage in London, where I would fill up my diary with appointments to see friends, and none of us would be able to keep the appointments. So I have abandoned that. Now I just bump into them by accident. Its about this future thing: you can spend all your life worrying about your future and not living now. Certainly if you engage with the artworld, you get into worrying about the future all the time: Is your work going to be ready for the opening? Are people taking you seriously? Should you do this, should you do that? I just want to leave that behind.
What is it like to be a net.artist in something like a community on the net, is it possible to share thoughts and experiences on a larger, quite high level with more people then as an artist working outside the net?
Heath Bunting: There are things you say internally and things you say externally. I am quite happy to talk about art and things amongst my friends, but I wouldn't necessarely say that I am an artist in a certain public context. Then you bring a whole group of associations that might actually work against your work. A lot of the things with net.art, is that it is an invisible art, it tries to not have that bagage. A lot of the work is about hoaxing or faking or rewriting. So if you say: this is an artwork, you've blown the cover immediately. In a group of a hundred people I won't tell why I do these things or tell my techniques, because they are now the audience and not my context. Its very difficult to discuss your work when you have an audience. Its not a question whether you can work or not in that environment, its about actually producing the work. It is very difficult to produce work in a public environment, to somehow mess around and try things out and fail. Thats what I mean by the context, so you do that amongst friends and other people engaged with similar things. After that you bring it to an audience.
I was wondering whether for instance your experiments with these conferences you organised is connected to frustrations you may have with certain mailing lists and the way things are developing in the net?
Heath Bunting: Not really, I think I do as much work on the net as I ever have done. I think once you're known for one thing your other work becomes invisible. I have been walking around doing grafiti here but most people don't know that. I also quite like that, because then this work that I do with chalk is not really a public thing. People see the work for itself, I don't do lectures about it.
What do you think of the whole discussion by non-net.artists about net.art?
Heath Bunting: I did pose a question to Geert Lovink about this audience thing. I think it is a valid tactic to say to an audience you're not an artist. It relieves you of historical bagage. But then when you are in a group when you are trying to develop work and exchange ideas, I think its quite often distracting to say you're not an artist. You have to communicate with people to develop things. So I challenged him on this, but he still claims he is not an artist. I find that quite interesting, since his appearance at Documenta. Maybe he is not an artist is private AND public, but I haven't managed to get my head around that yet. These things of denying and saying one thing and not the other are very useful, but when you are doing it to yourself or other people you are trying to include within your secret, to communicate your secret to, it confuses people, me included. When someone says: you're an artist? in private, I would probably say yes, but in public I say no, I am just nobody. Depends on the context.
I think net.art this year is a very tricky subject. It has been picked up by institutions, Its like money, people want it but when they get it they are still not happy, because it is a symbol for something else. Money symbolizes many things. People talk about things, but they are really talking about something else. I think there are many hidden agenda's and hidden desires and frustrations that come into play when something becomes institutionalized or succesful.
But it is not a matter of *hot*ness is it? That sounds like it is a fashion to me. People react from quite a primary feeling to what they think is not right.
Heath Bunting: Net.art is hot this year. I remember saying at the first 'anti with e' thing (the net.art secret conf), "this is the year for net.art and we've got to be very careful. It is very easy for it to be picked up and hyped and then discredited and thats the goodbye to our context. So we have to somehow play it very carefully this year." So I digressive it back to the list. It is just a difficult year and with difficult issues. The term net.art for instance for many of the practioners is a joke and a fake. Somehow it has been taken seriously though.
It was not completely a joke.
Heath Bunting: No, but for instance if you talk to Alexei Shulgin about what he will do next, he is one of the main people to take net.art forward, whats he gonna do next: he's going to Brazil and photograph children. He is looking for a new context. He is from Moscow and he is an eastern artist. He fits perfectly in the nettime rethoric of charity for impoverished artists. He has succesfully exploited that. He comes to these meetings, he says very little, just goes out eats dinner. He is in another country. He never talks about politics really, he talks a little tiny bit about art issues and thats that. It has been a good zone for him to use. He will probably drop that soon.
That is the problem with investment, a lot of people come to these media just as a temporary thing, just as a temporary tactic. They devote a lot of energy to that and taking up investment. Then they stay and then they somehow lost their original intention. Someone like Alexei is succeeding I think, he has jumped from many things, from the video art context to the computer context and he will go to the next context. Each time being the impoverished Moscow artist. When he used to sell images, you know, things on walls, it was because he was from Moscow that he would get them sold. People go:" O Moscow, that must be a very interesting place!" "Those pesky soviet union types..." He does the same now. I am the same as well. People think that I am from London and that I must be very interesting, because there is a good music scene at the moment.
I think you have most of your 'charity' built on your grafiti-past. Or your street artist image.
Heath Bunting: But I don't fit in the fashionable street art thing. I don't wear certain baggy trousers. I don't listen to hiphop. That was the area that was very fashionable. I just walked around doing little things with chalk. Its a bit of a cynical comment and a bit of a joke, but there is some truth in it.
Josephine Bosma is a freelance journalist and works for the pirate station Radio Patapoe in Amsterdam.