Cultural Matter: Martine Neddam

The history of fake identities is tightly interwoven with the rise of the internet – the free and open space where you could be anyone you wanted to be. What role did – and do – artists play in this? How do they develop and manifest characters online? Early net artist Martine Neddam has been creating online  fake personas that work with public feedback since 1996, far before the establishment of social media. Mouchette, David Still, Xiao Qian are all characters that she created anonymously. This edition of Cultural Matter 2019-20, the audience will get to know the online curator Madja Edelstein-Gomez. The work of Neddam and Edelstein-Gomez will act as a starting point for further reflection on online identity and user feedback – and will be placed in an art historical and socio-political context. 

Madja Edelstein-Gomez 
Madja Edelstein-Gomez (1960, Montevideo, Uruguay) is an independent curator who has curated several large thematic exhibitions (Bangalore, Buenos Aires, Prague, Tbilisi, Toronto). Edelstein-Gomez currently lives in Kuala Lumpur and Paris. She is also an activist working with several NGOs. Edelstein-Gomez created a manifesto and a group exhibition that revolves around the Recombinant, a concept where artificial intelligence and artists meet. Madja Edelstein-Gomez is the collaborative creation of Martine Neddam, Emmanuel Guez and Zombectro.

Martine Neddam
Martine Neddam is an artist, researcher and teaches at the Gerrit Rietveld Academy and the Sandberg Institute in Amsterdam. She uses language as raw material for her art, and many of her works center on the phenomena of speech acts, approaches to communication as well as to language and writing in public space. She has been working with virtual characters since 1996, the first and most famous one being Mouchette, a fictive thirteen-year-old that has meanwhile acquired cult status. Neddam’s virtual personae function as communications tools such that they have already facilitated the exchange between human beings via the medium of the artistic figure, and thereby anticipated the functionality of social media.

Cultural Matter
Cultural Matter is a series of exhibitions and events that provide a platform for the international discussion of digital art and aims to develop new strategies for the presentation and preservation of these artworks.
Also part of the Cultural Matter series: JODI, Jonas Lund, Thomson & Craighead, Amalia Ulman.
Curated by: Sanneke Huisman and Jan Robert Leegte.

Event
Cultural Matter: Martine Neddam in conversation with Elvia Wilk (Pt.I)
Wednesday February 19, 8.00 PM

7,50 / 5 / Free with Cineville
TICKETS

Exhibition
February 19 – April 5, 2020
Every day from 12 – 23
LIMA (in the basement of LAB111)
Arie Biemondstraat 111, Amsterdam
Entrance is free

Design by Pablo Bardinet

There Is No Copyright On Laws
Public Commission for the Rechtbank Roermond

Article 11 of the Dutch Copyright Act states that, under the law, once a text has been edited, it enters the public domain. On the basis of this, a text can be altered as long as the spirit of the wording remains intact. A fact of which the art works created for the court rooms of the new court building of Roermond District Court take full advantage. Stripped of their formal legal language, legislative texts engage in a dialogue with the public and the users of the space.

The Judging Machine, perspex and shadow

Installations of meaning

Here, light and language are the materials that reveal the spirit of the space and restore this meaning to the legal texts in a very unusual way. The art works are installations of meaning that call upon all the interpretative faculties: the wording of the legislation is interpreted by using other forms of language but also through widely diverse graphic styles that serve the meaning of the work. The light itself “interprets’ the visual aspect of the work and projects its shadow on the wall.

Commissioned by:Rijksgebouwendienst
Completed:January 1994
Constructed byRob Nolte, Neon Weka, Holland
Toneelopvoering van art. 338
Toneelopvoering van art. 338
Welk Recht…?
Welk Recht…?
Berecht Me Maar
De Wet Word Gebruikt…
In ZKM fat the exhibition “Writing the History of the future” MyDesktopLife is presented on a screen.

MyDesktopLife is presented inside this exhibition of the collection of ZKM

I have been supported by ZKM in their program Art on Your Screen.
Here is my contribution

More photos of the work in the news of MyDesktopLife

The collection of the ZKM | Karlsruhe ranks among the largest media art collections in the world. It exemplifies the transformation of art in the face of changing technologies of production, reception, and distribution. Artists react to changes in media  and sometimes anticipate developments that only years later will be taken for granted by society as a whole: they write the history of the future.

Media determine to a great extent how we express our thoughts and feelings, how we communicate, and how we remember the past. Johannes Gutenberg’s movable metal letters fundamentally changed Europe’s culture of knowledge in the middle of the 15th century, just as photography changed the fine arts in the middle of the 19th century, and the Internet transformed our entire private and public communication at the end of the 20th century. The development of art went from moving letters to moving images and moving viewers; from the book page to the website, from the canvas to the screen.

“Writing the History of the Future. Part I” looks at art from the middle of the 20th century onwards. The exhibition shows aesthetic experiments with script and language that engage with different media. It presents the first attempts at computer-generated graphics and poetry as well as contemporary works dedicated to the automation of the creative act. It also addresses the material conditions of individual and cultural memory – between erasing and forgetting, storing and remembering.

New technologies provide the individual with ever new means to create images, texts, and sounds. They expand her or his scope for action. The exhibition provides a precise insight into the history of viewer activation – from Op-Art to physical interventions in variable pictorial objects to the instructions for action of the art of the »performative turn«.

Here is my artist’s page on their site

Ooit, which in English means something like ‘ever’, was designed for the newly built faculty of Economics of the Hanzehogeschool in the City of Groningen. The shape of the work was inspired by the bubbles used by cartoonists to show an idea taking shape. The oval and round shapes contain a digitally manipulated image of the Wadden area (a flat stretch of coast subjected to the continuous cycle of high and low tides). The word ‘Ooit’ or ‘ever’ has no set meaning – it refers to an indefinite, undefined time. Hence its connection with the marshy landscape which, with its vast spaces, summons up similar connotations. The landscape shown in the image seems to be hinged onto the horizon, reflecting clouds in the water’s surface.

The work seems to rise up out of the central hall of the building. The last oval is on the roof and forms a point of contact with the world outside the faculty building, also at night when the work lights up. Ooit’s contemplative character and its correlation with the advanced technology of which it is made, refer to the scholarly activities of the economics faculty.

The digitally manipulated images have been sprayed by airbrush technique onto canvas through which light can pass. The canvas is spanned on an aluminium construction within which neon lights have been attached. The image is visible on both sides of the ovals. The large oval is 300 cm wide, the other three shapes are round with a diameter of 160 cm, 120 cm and 90 cm respectively.

The newly built Faculty of Economics of the Hanzehogeschool is situated on the outskirts of the City of Groningen. Ooit’s is located in the central hall of the building.

Idee & execution: Martine Neddam
Commissioned by: Hanzehogeschool, Groningen
Completion 1995
Construction: Neon Weka, Holland

Welkom Sign

“these are a few of my favourite things…” is the title of this show.As part of the event Home Sequence, I have invited Michelle Son and Maartje Smits to exhibit in my house on 27/28/29/30 june 2019. I’m also showing some (text) objects in my house which I consider art, signed or unsigned.

Thursday 27 June 19/21:00 OPENING HOME SEQUENCE
Friday 28 June 14/19:00
Saturday 29 June 14/19:00
Sunday 30 June 14/19:00

Here is my favourite version of this famous song. In the lyrics it says that the mere thought of the things you like makes you feel better. And I add: provided you can summon a beautiful list of them from your memory… or inside your own house.
Added to my list of favourite things normally present in my house, are the works of Maartje Smits and Michelle Son.

Maartje Smits

The matter of mothers and mud
An installation and intimate chatbot performance about motherhood and what happens if a writer or artist creates a baby. This performance will be taking place in the safe space of a spare bedroom. For optimal experience a smartphone is handy but it’s no necessity. 

Performances on:
Thursday the 27 th of June (time: 20:00)
Friday the 28th of June (time: 18:00)
Saturday the 29th of June (time:15:00)
Max. 12 – 15 people per performance.

Maartje Smits is a poet in image and language. She investigates topics like ‘girliness’ and ‘nature’  by observing and infiltrating, operating in the limbo between art and literature. Her work consists of films, performances, texts and intimate confessions. Her books of (visual) poetry When you’re a girl and How I started a forest in my bathroom were published by publishing house De Harmonie. 

www.maartjesmits.nl

Michelle Son

like a luminous animal

“oh, na, na, na”
M’s largest room
skylight
cathedral height
“oh, na, na, na”
marmoleum movements
sticks that look like sketches of sticks
“bom bomm!… bom bomm!”
blipped portal
rolling companion

Scripting spaces is an activity that shapes Michelle Son’s artistic practice. Her interest in the paradox of language has developed into visual and experiential practices. This forms the structure for multiple media to activate a space, through sound, performance interventions, video, object-making or hybrid writing practices. Other subjects of interest stretch across notions of self-care, suburbia, cinema, flâneury, womanhood, wildness, diaspora and (in)direct communication. 

www.michelleson.co.za

Martine Neddam

“these are a few of my favourite things…”
Your own house has something comforting and familiar, just like a song you might hum to yourself. It hosts some of your favourite things. They might happen to be works of art, made by others or by yourself, or not even works of art, but just things or objects that you like having around. Things that bring you warmth, just by thinking of them.
I’m inviting Maartje Smits and Michelle Son to show their art in my house, to mingle with the space, shake off the dust, or blow it away with new words or new things.

floor plan of my home/studio with “my favourite things”

Martine Neddam is an artist who uses language as raw material.  Speech acts, modes of address, words in the public space were always her favourite subjects by which she had several museum and gallery exhibitions and large scale public commissions. Since 1996 she has created virtual characters on the internet who lead an autonomous artistic existence in which the real author remains invisible, Mouchette among others. She has also built several online participatory interfaces. To obtain my address, and the hours of the show, follow the rules of the Home Sequence project:
To receive the list of home addresses and the events schedule please RSVP to the email address: homesequenceadam@gmail.com
We kindly ask you not to circulate this document in order to keep overview of who obtained the list of private addresses of the participating artists. The list will be distributed few days before the opening.
Home Sequence was initiated by Sascha Pohle and Tao G. Vrhovec Sambolec in 2018

Views of the opening at my place on 27 june

M. & M. & M. photo by Michelle Son

Les Recombinants”, une exposition d’art en ligne

Commissaire d’exposition : Madja Edelstein-Gomez

Une exposition peut-elle être conçue par une intelligence artificielle ?

Ce défi a été relevé par Madja Edelstein-Gomez pour son exposition “Les Recombinants”. Des algorithmes ont choisi des œuvres parmi les centaines de propositions recueillies au cours d’un appel à projet international.

Conçue en temps réel, l’exposition propose un mix hypnotique d’images, de vidéos, de sons et de textes proposés par les artistes et qui se recombinent perpétuellement à l’écran.

Bienvenue chez Les Recombinants, l’exposition du futur.

Autant que leurs œuvres d’art, la personnalité des artistes, leur biographie, la manière dont ils se décrivent eux-mêmes, dont ils montrent leur visage ainsi que leur travail, fait elle-même l’objet d’une recombinance. À l’écran des perspectives diverses s’offrent au visiteur et sur un clic, leur apparence se révèlent lentement, mettant au jour l’arrière-plan de la scène. Sur un clic encore, leurs mots génèrent de nouveaux discours sur l’art et sur l’oeuvre.

Sur le web, vous pourrez expérimenter le traitement des données en temps réel par les algorithmes de l’intelligence artificielle.

Cette découverte individuelle est offerte à votre patience, curiosité et sagacité. En ligne, chaque visiteur verra un spectacle différent, parcourra divers espaces et perspectives des artistes invités par l’intelligence artificielle. Vous pourrez aussi consulter leur présentation individuelle. Assistez à l’oeuvre de ces incroyables robots et découvrez leur pouvoir de calcul instantané ! Devinez leurs mouvements, repérez les œuvres et anticipez leurs combinaisons ! Attention, cela pourrait secouer le navigateur de votre ordinateur et faire fondre votre processeur !

http://lesrecombinants.fr

Ce que l’intelligence artificielle démontre est l’extrême compatibilité des artistes. Tous les styles, tous les médias, tous les genres artistiques ont été sollicités et sélectionnés pour être recombinés. Aucune œuvre n’a été jugée trop singulière, exceptionnelle ou hors norme. Aucune n’a été jugée trop démodée, trop laide, trop médiocre ou trop inauthentique. La “sagesse” de l’intelligence artificielle est de rejeter les catégories esthétiques attendues avec leur surcharge historique et sociale et de faire resurgir l’intuition et la sensibilité. Elle réconcilie les spectateurs avec la perception pure. Elle invite les institutions artistiques à s’ouvrir au nouveau monde de l’art, à remettre en question leurs préjugés sur l’art et à repenser ce que peut être une exposition à l’ère du web.

Pour la présentation d’Art-O-Rama Madja Edelstein-Gomez a choisi d’enregistrer trois captures d’écran de quinze minutes chacune. Ces vidéos vous invitent à créer votre propre visite et à découvrir et à expérimenter votre propre spectacle sur votre ordinateur.

Madja Edelstein-Gomez (née en 1960 à Montevideo, Uruguay) est une commissaire d’exposition indépendante , qui a réalisé plusieurs expositions internationales (Bangalore, Buenos Aires, Prague, Tbilisi, Toronto…). Elle vit actuellement à Kuala Lumpur et Paris. Elle est aussi une militante reconnue et engagée auprès de plusieurs associations humanitaires. Site personnel: http://madja.net

L’exposition en ligne est produite par Zinc (Marseilles), avec le soutien financier de : Dicréam-CNC, Château Ephémère (Carrières-sous-Poissy), Espace Gantner (Belfort), Rhizome (New York).

Proud to have Mouchette in this archive!

The Digital Canon (1960–2000) of the Netherlands. Experts from the field of digital culture selected twenty of the most prominent and influential works made on Dutch soil by artists who lived or worked here over a long period of time. The works and their makers are not all equally well known, yet this does not detract from their lasting influence on digital art and culture. Each of the works makes use of or responds to digital culture’s increasing impact on art and society. Discover these exceptional works of art here.

Read here why Li-Ma created the Digital Canon

The project has been carried out by a core group (‘the expert group’) and in collaboration with numerous experts from the field. The core team consisted of Josephine Bosma (researcher and critic), Martijn van Boven (artist and tutor), Annet Dekker (researcher and curator), Sandra Fauconnier (art historian) and Jan Robert Leegte (artist and tutor). The project was coordinated by LIMA and supervised by Gaby Wijers (director) and Sanneke Huisman (curator). Additional national and international experts were involved in various international meetings. Together with them, a broadly supported selection was made, while the often authoritarian selection procedures that lie at the basis of canonization were critically reflected upon.

The result can be seen on a website dedicated to the project: www.digitalcanon.nl. The twenty canonical works here each have their own page with images, excerpts, videos, quotes from the artists and texts. The works have been researched for this purpose. In addition, the website also contains clear insight into the development of the selection presented and some critical texts about canonizing digital art. The design emphasizes this dual nature by dividing the website into a front and back. This innovative design is made by Yehwan Song. Song is a South Korean designer, web designer and web developer. She designs and develops experimental websites and interactive graphical interfaces. Song is known for her playful design in which she reverses and challenges the general understanding of web design both conceptually and visually.

Follow-up
The canon is by no means an endpoint, but is the starting point for further investigation of the selected works. The first follow-up steps are already being taken. In addition to the website, an exhibition concept will be developed, which involves various relevant issues. For some of the selected works, for example, only documentation material is left and for other works restoration is needed. The canon is also a starting point for discussion and critical reflection, whereby canon formation and the selection procedure are critically examined. The title of the conversation between Josephine Bosma, Martijn van Boven, Annet Dekker, Sandra Fauconnier, Jan Robert Leegte and Gaby Wijers is significant from this point of view: “Canonization as an Activist Act”. The traditional form of canonization is used to open a conversation. The expert group invites the field to make its voice heard. The first external text has already been published on the website: Re-writing the Present: To Inhabit the Inhabitable by Willem van Weelden looks critically and philosophically at (the lack of) historical awareness in the field of canonization and preservation of digital art.

A conversation between Martine Neddam (M) and Annet Dekker (A)

A: When looking back at the website Mouchette.org one could say that it was one of the first fictional personal blogs, a diary of a young girl. But moving beyond that first impression, and looking at the development through the years it has become much more. What does the character of Mouchette mean to you, what does it do?

M: Mouchette was about creating a form and not so much about storytelling. When I started Mouchette I wanted to use the notion of a character as something that transcends mediums, I saw the character as something that can be used as a form, or a container. Using a character as a metaphor allowed me to gather and structure information. I have always believed that a character, a person or an identity is a good metaphor. They can assume the identity of an institution without actually existing. In this sense, I see characters as containers that carry units of meaning.

I was very interested in exploring that idea. At its base, Mouchette shows that identity is a social, mental, or artistic construction. It’s something that you put together. The idea that identity is one thing, ‘Me is one,’ is also an illusion, or a very totalitarian obligation.

A: How did you develop Mouchette? How has it been branded through the years?

M: Many things happened, depending on the works that I put up on the site, but it has never lost popularity. It has a sort of street credibility; in a way people really believed in it and the fake became reality. But the question of whether you’re a real or fake person has become less important now, which is interesting. When I started Mouchette the idea of an alternate persona was still seen as a bizarre phenomenon, so it attracted a lot of attention. Many people posed as characters, for example, mothers would go online pretending to be their daughters, but you only heard of it when they ended up in court, which seldom happened. Through the years and with the rise of popular sites like Second Life it became less and less unusual. It is quite normal to have several e-mail addresses: a work e-mail, a private e-mail, and an old one full of spam, and they represent different personalities in each of us. Everybody has these multiple identities but they didn’t create them in a deliberate way, it just happened.

Whereas in the beginning the question of whether Mouchette existed or not was very important for me, I ended up revealing the true author, but only recently and in quite a low-profile way. Secrecy was a very important part of the work; it really called on the imagination of the reader, the websurfer. While designing the work I kept wondering if the receiver would guess or imagine who was behind the character. For example, I could pretend that Mouchette was a man, but how then could I play out the sexual elements without them becoming perverted? I really emphasised the secrecy and the moments of revelation. I would send a phantom e-mail and pretend that the real author had to reveal his identity and therefore I would name an actual place, a well-known art institution, for example, so that people would believe it.

A: Can you talk a little bit more about these physical presentations? How did you translate the virtual work into the physical world?

M: It was natural for me because I‘ve worked for many years as an artist in public spaces and galleries. It surprised me that when I started Mouchette I was suddenly propelled into the closed field of digital media. This was very limiting for me. I always wanted to present Mouchette in as many ways as possible, always with the website at the centre, and within the context of her personality. Mouchette became the brand through which I presented various projects. I think it had an effect because I know of at least two instances when I was awarded a prize and the jury discussed the secrecy of the artist’s identity, and it really attracted additional attention to the work.

A: Yes, I participated in one of those discussions. It was absolutely fascinating that after so many years, even professionals still discussed Mouchette’s true nature.

M: Yes indeed, but this also happened with writers, famous writers like Romain Gary. And of course it works both ways – it has an influence on the receiver as well as on the author. Hosting another being inside yourself creates certain possibilities that trigger something. I felt it very deeply when I decided to reveal Mouchette’s secret. Mouchette enabled me to escape my grown-up self, to express myself less with words and allow the story to be told more through images. It also allowed me to share parts of my own character that otherwise would not have come out, and to acknowledge that what I wanted to achieve with my art was simply to be famous and loved by everyone.

Sometimes I think that characters exist beyond us; we are merely temporal vehicles or carriers. There were often times when I wanted to get rid of Mouchette because all the work was taking over my life; in a way I was her slave. Martine Neddam the artist was taken over by Mouchette the character, which didn’t even belong to me. Mouchette first appeared in 1937 in a book by Georges Bernanos. Later, in 1967, Robert Bresson made a movie called Mouchette, about a French teenager who commits suicide after she is raped, and I loosely based Mouchette.org on these characters. Others have also used Mouchette.org. So it’s come from somewhere and is going somewhere else and I’m the carrier in between.

Mouchette by Robert Bresson

A: Is this, for you, also a space where playfulness and irony come into play, the fun side of doing things? Something that is reflected in the projects you create, the coding, the tricks, but also on a conceptual level, a play with language, an urge to transform things, and push limits?

M: Yes, absolutely. It all started with the use of English as a foreign language. In the early days of the Internet people communicated in text spaces, the MOO [ed. MOOs are network accessible, multi-user, programmable, interactive systems, used for the construction of text-based adventure games, conferencing, and other collaborative software and communication platforms]. When I talked with people, I would tell them that English was not my mother tongue, but they would forget this quite quickly, and then my language would come across as very childish. So, there I was in the MOO communicating with MIT people, who were really academic, working on code and text. I was interested in talking to them through a sort of playful interface, which the MOO was. I had this awkward feeling that they would soon forget my ‘accent’ and after two sentences I was just communicating in baby talk, while they were using academic language. Quite unconsciously I was training myself to find simple way to express complex ideas without emotional barriers.

So I decided to take that strategy further with the creation of an online character, Mouchette, who is emotionally very direct but still can communicate ideas about art. This experience was very liberating for me. If I had used my mother tongue it wouldn’t have worked because, like every educated adult, my emotional inhibitions are very strongly rooted inside the language. Using this kind of direct language in a specific way triggered something in me I didn’t know I had. For example, I would say simple phrases like ‘Art is what you say Art is’ using the ‘Duchamp approach’ in a very cheeky way. If I had expressed it in French, I would have used more complex language. Mouchette gave me the opportunity to leave intellectual authority behind. This was important because I wanted to reach another audience that was present on the Internet and move beyond the art gallery and the institutional scene.

For me the irony revealed itself through the aesthetics of the site. Perhaps I can explain it with something I used to say: ‘Can you be pink and conceptual at the same time?’. In the 1970s and 1980s artists from the Art & Language and conceptual art movements were very style driven, even though they pretended that appearance and personality were insignificant. But when look back, it was elegantly black and white, very stylish. Pink at that time, and even now in many cases, wouldn’t be acceptable. Pink is frivolous, not serious; it’s playful and certainly can’t be conceptual or political.

Sometimes this attitude towards the non-pink in art makes me very angry. For example, Mouchette would never be called a political work of art, or even art that engages with the social. At best many art critics and curators see it as a funny little story, non-political and not socially engaged. This has annoyed me at times, because it is political and it does engage with the social on many levels. The idea of alternate identities is very political, as are the notions of multiple identities, and shared identities, which I provided through Mouchette. It’s even more cynical because I’m perhaps one of the few artists who have had to deal with the legal system when I was taken to court. But I also never claimed that it was political or social. I don’t think that’s my role, and it’s not the way the work functions either.

Mouchette Guerilla Fan Shop

A: Mouchette seems indeed to elude the radars of politics, new technologies and networks, which is regrettable.

M: Yes, it is, but with Mouchette I wanted foremost to create a social space, a space where people could communicate and help other people. Of course, that these things have been sorted, edited and published is in itself a political act. It’s still a sort of repository of thoughts and emotions that wanted to be shared, and finally have been shared. Mouchette shows that art can penetrate people’s private lives, and I believe that is a good thing.

A: You’re pushing the limits of art critics and curators even further, firstly with a Fanclub and now a Guerrilla Fanshop…

M: As soon as I had a mailing list of 20 people I named this list a Fanclub. Over time I noticed that the number of visitors kept growing and that the audience also changed. New people keep on discovering the site. I believe that it’s because of Mouchette’s youthfulness, her combination of energy and anger that is also present in classics such as The Catcher in the Rye. People recognise and identify with Mouchette. For me the Fanshop is a continuation as well as a new step. I like the idea that it is situated in real life. It’s another interesting form for making contact with people. I try to investigate the Fanshop as a social form and an artistic form, including the notions of fake and real. And again, it plays with the idea that an identity can be shared and also be used to offer a platform for different ideas and groups of people.

A: How do you balance between the idea of Mouchette as an identity and as a space where social exchange can take place?

M: The Western world has developed a very limited form of identity, I think. We believe that we can own ourselves, which is absolutely untrue. You’re always a part of something and you switch between different identities. The Western idea of identity needs to be re-examined. I was very aware of that when I created Mouchette. I didn’t want to describe someone, but I wanted to re-examine the conditions of identity as a form of social exchange. I’ve always seen Mouchette as a platform, not as an identity. It, or she, allows me to raise certain issues and also allows others to do certain things. It’s a platform of exchange.

A: And not just of ideas, but also the sharing of identities?

M: Yes, I wanted to put forward the idea of identity as a composition. As I said the notion of a single identity is very artificial; furthermore, whatever identity you do have does not necessarily only belong to you. Its also part of, or even belongs to, everyone who interacts with it. Whatever you do to yourself, for example, if you cut your hair and a friend comes by the next day and is surprised and makes some kind of remark, then that remark could be understood as: ‘You changed yourself without my permission’. I very much like the idea of identity as something that is shared. So I created an identity-sharing interface that made it possible to use or copy Mouchette. Unfortunately, it backfired after the terrorist attack in New York in 2001. I was creating David Still at the time, and was very excited about inventing another character that could be taken over by others. But after terrorism struck, anything that dealt with other identities became suspect. Terrorists could hide behind my characters. Each and every façade was suspect. What was once playful and seductive was made into something to strike out at, something to erase. I really felt that the attack on the Twin Towers and the way America reacted to it threatened my art.

A: How do you see in this light the rise of Facebook? Do you think it might become a way of dealing with different identities again, or a place where people can play with identity?

M: No, exactly the opposite. The whole idea of alternate identities was banned on Facebook. Someone had set up a Facebook page for Mouchette but Facebook shut it down very quickly. They do accept the pseudonyms of famous writers, but if you create three different people with three different e-mail addresses, at some point they will become suspicious and shut down the pages. I’m not entirely sure how they track everything, but building alternate identities is definitely discouraged. Facebook actually started as a virtual dating site, so it’s based entirely on the concept of real identities. If anything, it reinforces the very limited idea of a single identity.

A: What is Mouchette’s next adventure?

M: I’m still fascinated by made-up characters, especially those that people accept as real. In this line I just finished a work ‘Turkmenbashi, mon amour,’ an animation in which Mouchette shows us Turkmenistan and highlights the presence of its ex-dictator, the late Saparmurad ‘Turkmenbashi’ Nyazov. Even though he’s dead, his personality is still very prominent in the capital, Ashgabat. The city is home to numerous huge golden statues and images of this extremely repressive dictator. At the same time there is a strange atmosphere of non-communication. That tension between his ubiquitous ‘presence‘ and the silence about it was something I wanted to address. So I made a sort of reportage, a documentary with photos and texts, where Mouchette describes and comments in her typically playful and ironic way, addressing the dictator as if she admires him and writing a love letter starting with ‘Turkmenbashi Mon Amour’. Here the play between fiction and reality is to identify these fictional elements in reality, like these crazy self-promoting dictators who are really fictitious characters.

I think I’m bound to continue experimenting with fictitious characters in many different ways, with the ones I invent and with the ones who are already here among us. Once you’ve created one, you realise that our lives are full of them. They are like an army of shadows.

Published in May 2011 in Annet Dekker’s website

This text has been published in the fanzine to be downloaded here

An interview with Martine Neddam by Annet Dekker

You studied literature, language, architecture / décor and sculpture and you have a long career in public sculpture. In the early days of the Internet you created your first virtual character, Mouchette. What made you choose this medium and what interested you so much in the Internet?

My background has always influenced my work, especially the literature studies I undertook in France. I started working as a stage designer after my studies and together with a group of friends we made abstract theatre. The plays were not about the situation, but focused on the presence of the actor and speech. This idea of language, of the act of speech transforming the space is still something I strongly believe in and I have continued working with. For the public commissions I was given I also worked with language and text. As with a theatre play I didn’t necessarily go into what the play said, but interpreted and imagined another perspective for the situation. For example, the space of a square or roundabout is a given and spatially you can’t change much, but by simply renaming the space with a sign you can change the mental perspective people have on it. I also applied this way of working in the gallery and the museum space. Language was my material. I would use expressions and stage them in a certain way. For example, I would write a text on the floor that would only make sense when someone walked on it.

I was quite particular in the type of texts I used, because I was interested in modes of address. I didn’t do poetry or narratives, but confronted people by using the ‘I’ and the ‘you’. Probably affected by my previous experience in linguistics and in stage design, I was very much interested in speech acts and what happens between the sender and the receiver of the message. At times I used offensive text with the purpose of analysing something – not the meaning but the mode of address. I wanted to trigger an emotional response within the safety of the walls of the art institute. Public space was of course much more restricted. But there I very much enjoyed the first hand reactions from people. To me public space has always been about public and less about space. Everything that I made and designed was in relation to a certain public. I regard a public space as a public situation. The work of art is the relation you create between you and your public.

And then the Internet came…

It was fascinating; it was a dream come true. All of a sudden you could address and be addressed. When you create a work you can more or less imagine people’s response in your imagination, but you’re not there when they are doing it. And suddenly there was the possibility of being there when they talk back; being there and not there at the same time. That was utopia, one of very few moments in one’s life when that happens.

Lullaby for a dead fly

How do you see your position in those early days, within that community?

Many people were creating tools to transform the web and they also made them available to others. The web was exciting because it was something you received, and that you could also pass on. It resembled a gift economy and art was more than an aesthetic enterprise. My personal interest was less in creating technical tools and more in analysing forms of communication. I made my first, very primitive web pages in Mouchette in HTML. When users wrote back I would edit that into HTML pages and post them into my site. In 1998 I commissioned an interface with PHP and that result very much resembled a hand-made blog – one of the first blogs. Artists were really on the frontline.

Something I still preserve as precious was the invention of navigation in a text by means of ‘links’, and in that way going from a web page to another web page. ‘Hypertext’ was a word people often used at that time. It showed how much the web was perceived as a modification inside the structure of a text, breaking its linearity. After a while more features were introduced, for example ‘frames’. This made it possible to organise circulation in several pages. I wanted to get the viewer lost in a very complex navigation, where the placement of the links was invisible or unexpected. To me it was very important to keep the web navigation very organic, a mixture of the expected and the unexpected.

This search and interest in the unexpected is something that I don’t see much any more. In the beginning it was everywhere because everything was a surprise. At the moment it seems that few people are on the net to have an unusual experience or to be surprised.

It seems the Internet has lost much of its original energy and optimism. How would you describe the internet at the moment?

Ruled by commercial purposes, with very little private initiative and over designed. Of course it has reached a certain development, especially in the network features and in the way people communicate with each other. But the visual quality and diversity is poor. It is also evolving in a dangerous way because users don’t own their content on most public platforms and it often ends up being used for commercial purposes. Few people are aware of the consequences of Facebook owning their content. Web pioneers were extremely aware of these things. We were asking ourselves moral questions about every interaction because they were new and every action could become an issue and raised questions. That is why it is so important to keep these origins alive because it preserves the traces and the original dreams.

Very few people recognise why the commercial tools are made and to what end. Maybe the role of the artist is to show that. I still see a lot of creative tools made by individual artists and some are very interesting, but they are hardly discussed in fora, even though they are easy to use and could be useful for designers or a general public. Nobody seems to be interested. The biggest problem is the invasiveness of the large companies. The voices of non-commercial innovation are too small to get heard. This is where the small creative networks have to find a solution because huge networks are swallowing them; they get pushed aside and become invisible.

Lullaby for a dead fly

If you look at your different characters, Mouchette, David Still and so on, what is the relationship between them?

With Mouchette I didn’t really have any plans, I just started from scratch: what name do you want to give yourself? Something everyone experiences when you choose an email for example. Starting from that and building up was completely organic. Mouchette was really a mixture of my own fantasy and what the web was becoming. The element of the unexpected was very important in the site and still exists because it has this confusing navigation and it is based on playfullness and surprise.

David Still (2001) was a consciously designed tool for a public I knewi. I wanted to observe how people would use this tool. I created David Still both as an online and offline character, as if he lived in the real world. Originally it was a work I did as a public commission for the city of Almere as a representation of the public sphere there . I used certain aspects of the city, like buildings – David Still lives in a street called ‘De Realiteit’ [the reality], which is an architectural experiment in Almere. So it was both reflecting on the public space in Almere as well as on the public space on the Internet.

I had to end David Still’s main function, sending emails from his email address, in 2005 because spam has become such an overwhelming phenomenon that it made it impossible to send messages from an unknown source. Spam started to rule our email exchanges and from that point on David Still was no longer viable – nobody wanted to hear about an unknown person. Different web hosts around the world came up with different legislations against spam and I had to change hosts three times, eventually disabling the send function.

The Virtual Person project that I started in 2008 is also a tool; an experiment with web design and personal expression. The Internet is very much developed as far as networking, dialogue and exchange goes, but there are very few tools for personal expression. Virtual Person.net is a limited tool, because I wanted to make it as accessible and usable as possible. It focuses on certain visual features that I think are meaningful to develop, for example fading one image into another instead of linking them. When you make something with many functions, people use the one by default because there is too much choice, blogs for example are a clear example of this. People who design it say you can do many things with it but users ultimately only use default functions. The result is uniformity.

Most of all by creating VirtualPerson.net I wanted to offer the use of visual features that haven’t been explored; a mixture of text and image in a visual composition. I believe this is an area with huge potential but at the moment texts and images are still treated as separate. They never really merge onto the same surface, contradicting each other or intertwining in a way that creates a different meaning. In Facebook and blogs you can upload image and text separately but it is not possible to combine them in more sophisticated ways. These interfaces are not designed as creative tools. I want to explore the relation between the two in a consistent way. It follows my previous works in the public space and the visual design of Mouchette.

In a way your online work is emblematic of the Internet; reacting to communication systems, issues of identity, spam, image and narrative tools, etc. But also the technical side is highly developed, even though the websites look very easy in set up and design, they were made with state-of-the art technology, mostly adapting and programming existing or new programs and software. Whereas most net_art is known for its innovative use of technology your work is never really mentioned in this respect nor did others ever reflect upon it. Why do you think that is?

I never liked to use technology as the subject of my work. But indeed if you are not interested in technology you can’t work with the web as a medium. From the start I was very close to the new technological developments. Web editing was available to everyone, and when new features appeared in the browser, artists were the first to use them while commercial sites had to wait six months before they could implement them. Artists could create something within half an hour, giving it a certain creative spirit. That may not be the case anymore. At the moment large companies invest huge sums in experimenting and are much faster in finding new solutions than before. But I wouldn’t say that this is innovation: Innovation is not necessarily building on something but it is about questioning, for example how you to not use something. You try to think of something in a different way, that is where innovation comes in.

You made work especially for the Internet, but could you see the work presented on other platforms – pubic (urban screen / mobile phone) or private (gallery/black-white cube)?

Mouchette has always existed in the public space as a collection of different works of art. It wasn’t always easy to exist simultaneously on the Internet and in the world of art. Sometimes I was invited as Martine Neddam and I would ask the museum to present it as Mouchette and to become the accomplice so as to keep the author anonymous. Not everyone accepted, because these were not easy or obvious conditions. But some did and I created installations in the gallery, soundworks, a shopping bag as part of an art manifestation in a shopping mall, etcetera. I used all the existing media and materials available to communicate. I don’t see the Internet as separate from other media, it is just one of the tools. But it still depends very much on my own energy to keep Mouchette connected to the world of art. Most curators don’t think about the possibility of showing art created for the Internet, let alone in another media.

What about using mobile phones, a communication medium that has integrated, text, photo, video and internet, as a platform? It seems an ideal combination.

It is tempting to make special work for mobile phones, but it is still difficult to integrate and to circulate it through various mobile networks. You used to have WAP and Palm, but after one year the technology disappeared. The thing with these mobile devices is that they are enormously controlled and you have to go through so many layers in order to get something out to the public: the whole system is build to limit the possibilities and the creativity of the user. The web wasn’t like that. Suddenly, from one day to the next it was in the hands of the user. That particular freedom is essential if you want to create something.

And what about Urban Screens? People are also referring to them as large communication platforms.

Yes, I would love to experiment with that. For Virtual Person I was tempted to bring it into the public space, and billboards and other screens in the public space seemed a logical place. But there are so many limitations. First of all it would be really difficult to carry out tests and secondly I realised that I would lose intimacy. The physical distance from the body to the screen for example is very important to take into account. It makes a huge difference in impact and experience on the body if you have 1.50m (the television distance) or 50cm for a computer screen, 20 cm for mobile devices or 20 meters minimum with urban screens.

Urban screens have totally different parameters; it is a medium in itself – the distance to the viewer, the scale, the lack of sound, etc. It relates more to billboards and advertising than to internet or mobile phones. Artists have to be commissioned for the situation. Because the advertising space is expensive, it becomes very difficult to experiment freely with the medium and develop a specific language.

How do you see the relationship between the virtual and the real – also in a more bodily/emotional sense? David Still to me was almost tactile, someone very close to you, maybe because he addressed you in a very personal way. Virtual Person is now a tool for making your own Virtual Person.

Virtual Person is about text and image correlation and I would like to make that relation more physical. I am very interested in using touch screens. I would love to embody the connection between texts and images. The act of touching a screen generates a completely different experience than the use of a mouse, even though the use of a mouse is a tactile experience, it emphasizes more directly the bodily experience of the net. I don’t believe that the internet excludes our bodies. Nobody teleports, we still look at the screen using our physical body, with our spine straight or crooked, and with our hand moving and touching. We use our body to inform us about our non-body experience.

Mouchette for example is very much designed from the body on. I would mirror my own situation, my body to the screen, posing an imaginary situation where the viewer and I are mirrored on both sides of the screen, like in the work ‘Flesh&Blood’. When I used sound I recorded it close to the microphone to create that intimacy. The low volume involved the body of the viewer in the act of listening. The Internet is an extension of the body and an out-of-the-body experience, all in one. People tend to say that their body vanishes in the net, but this is precisely that experience that we act out with our body! The fact that your gender is invisible online is a body experience; when does that happen in real life? Many of the early Internet works play precisely with the physical experience of the disappearance of the body. This is why I think it is so important to keep the old examples alive because they bear the trace of the most important discourse on Internet which is still valid but might disappear in the evasiveness of the internet.

As said before, the biggest challenge for the internet today is finding these ‘invisibilities’.

Yes, and in that way I would say that the institutions are not doing their work. They should keep track of these early creations. Some do, like Rhizome, Turbulence or Eyebeam, but there should be more attention in renewing the interest of the public, for example by presenting works again in new contexts or wider contexts.

Another concern is the missing link between the works of net_art and the public. In the beginning the artists did everything by themselves but at the moment that has become more difficult, leading to unstructured relations. This should be one of the tasks of the museums and art institutions and it is not that much work; posting one item a day would suffice. Valuable works of art are already disappearing. Work that I bookmarked two years ago has been taken off because someone did not pay the server costs or the domain registration or couldn’t keep up the maintenance. These are simple things, much cheaper and easier to do than storing a painting or a sculpture in a storage room, and need to be done otherwise many creative possibilities disappear from our landscape and our memory.

How do you deal with the speed of change on the Internet, especially for your older sites like Mouchette?

There are different levels. Some of the changes are very hard to keep up with, for example the scripts; by changing platforms and operating systems the scripts become less compatible. Suddenly a certain script doesn’t work on a new version of a browser for a certain platform and then some viewers will not see the work as it was meant to be. This is not a new phenomenon, compatibility has always been one of the main issues of the net, but the changes are hard to keep up with. To have a 100% successful viewing you need to create a different version for each configuration, which is a highly technical solution and needs to be re-adapted constantly. I would love to have it done, but I can’t pay for it and at the moment there is no funding for pure maintenance. One year ago I stopped creating new works for Mouchette but I am still working 10 to 15 hours a week to keep it alive, maintaining domains, re-registering etc. If nothing happened the art would die. I have complex scripts that address people one by one and they still function because I know their failures, I keep an eye on it and fix the little mistakes by hand when they happen. It is a very personal use of low technology; everything is made with small pieces of fabric, like a patchwork.

People also regard the internet as virtual, and they believe it means ‘immaterial’ but it is not. Your imagination transforms into actual matter: bits on a server. A computer changes matter into visuals and words. The virtual world consists of bits and pieces: the internet is material, you can break it and make it disappear; that is the reality of the virtual. When you realise how much data Google is saving, that is an enormous conservation of hard disks in large rooms. Maybe when people start to see that the internet is material they might value it more, or treat it in a different way.

i People could send emails coming from David Still to others, thus using his identity.

View the pdf of “In search of the Unexpected”

In Search of the Unexpected, a conversation with Annet Dekker,  as a pdf document 

2009 navigatinge-culture.PDF is the complete the PDF document. The texte is page 33 to 37