beyond 'the internet of things'
Imagining the future in a post-internet era, Blas situates us in an almost surreal version of being, yet very relevant to what's happening nowadays. You almost can't see a single 'physical' artwork in the traditional sense of an object; however, the exhibition is not purely and only conceptual. Blas moves beyond the abstract and plays around with the practical aspects of technology in the works from the Inversion Practices series. The show also marks the premiere of Jubilee 2033, a queer science fiction film, and The End of the Internet (As We Knew It), a single edition publication. How do we fight control, surveillance, capitalism and hegemony? If you want to find out, visit the exhibition but don't expect to be spoon-fed with solutions and information. Blas teaches us that sometimes the act of asking big questions is more important than finding necessarily the right answers. Don't miss Contra-Internet (21 September to 10 December), Zach Blas' first institutional solo show in the UK, produced and presented by Gasworks.
Zach Blas (b. 1981 Ohio, USA) earned a Bachelor of Science and Film at Boston University (2004) and then a Post-Baccalaureate Certificate in Studio, Art and Technology Studies at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago (2006). He also coursed a Master of Fine Art, Design Media Arts at the University of California, Los Angeles (2008) and a Ph.D., Program in Literature at Duke University (2014). Blas has exhibited and lectured internationally, recently at Gasworks, London; Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane; Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven; Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore; e-flux, New York; Whitechapel Gallery, London; and Museo Universitario Arte Contemporáneo, Mexico City. Residencies include Patterns-of-Life-Resistance, with Jemima Wyman, Institute of Modern Art, Brisbane (2017) and The Public Domain, Delfina Foundation, London (2015) amongst others. He is currently a Lecturer in the Department of Visual Cultures at Goldsmiths, University of London.
Victoria Gyuleva: How did you get interested in technologically oriented art?
Zach Blas: I originally studied film production and directing. During this time, I exclusively worked with analogue film and nothing digital. I edited all my films on a Steenbeck. Upon finishing my undergraduate studies, I felt compelled to begin experimenting with the emerging media of the time, which was computational. And of course, doing this was much more affordable than continuing to make film without an institution or university’s support! After I made some initial multimedia works, I quickly developed a strong interest in hacking, electronics, and computer programming.
Zach Blas, Inversion Practice #3, 2016 at Gasworks London (detail) | Courtesy of the artist
VG: I am amazed at how diverse your academic background is, ranging from theoretical to practice based subjects! What did you gain from this interdisciplinary approach?
ZB: I've always had a very strong interest in theory and philosophy and how it can relate to an artistic practice. For instance, while studying film, I also studied philosophy. Over the years, I’ve been able to develop a practice for myself that includes critical writing and the production of concepts. When I begin a project, I usually start in this theoretical space and first develop a discursive framework, in which I then make work around. “Contra-Internet” is one example. The biometrics work I did earlier was framed around the concept of “informatic opacity.”
VG: Your practice engages with the ideas of control and hegemony observed in politics and technology. Before Contra-Internet, you worked on Facial Weaponization Suite (2011-14). Can you tell us something more about it? How does it connect to your current project?
ZB: For more than 10 years, my work has focused on science, technology, and computation from queer and feminist perspectives. Facial Weaponization Suite focused on how biometric technologies standardize identity in modes of algorithmic governance. To make identity so rigid impacts the lives of minoritarian populations, such as transgender persons, people of colour, and gender nonconforming individuals. While this work focused quite tightly on biometrics, the newer project Contra-Internet scales up questions of technology and politics to the Internet and Silicon Valley.
current exhibition "contra-internet" at gasworks
VG: You are teaching a course at Goldsmiths, called ‘After the Internet.’ One of the sections of the module is ‘a series of experimental approaches to theorising and imagining the technologies and techniques that come “after the Internet.” Do you engage it in a dialogue with the ‘Contra-Internet’ exhibition, and if you do, how?
ZB: The Goldsmiths module is oriented around the theoretical research for the Contra-Internet project, so yes, they are linked. In the last five weeks of the module, students are provided with different theoretical approaches for thinking or imagining alternatives to the Internet, as we know it. This includes J.K. Gibson-Graham’s post-capitalist politics, José Esteban Muñoz’s queer utopianism, and Paul Preciado’s contra sexuality. Of course, I have my own way of doing this kind of imagining, but I encourage the students to find their own paths and approaches to thinking these texts in relation to the Internet and contemporary politics.
Zach Blas, installation, Contra-Internet: Jubilee 2033 at Gasworks, London (detail) | Photography by Delilah Olson
VG: What inspired you from Derek Jarman’s 1978 queer punk film Jubilee? How is your Jubilee 2033 similar/ different?
ZB: Jarman’s Jubilee is a film that has influenced much of my work over the years. It just seemed like the right time in my life to return to film, and that return made perfect sense to me through Jubilee. Concerning plots and aesthetics, Jubilee and my film are quite different. I was interested in working with the narrative structure of Jarman’s original, as a frame to develop my own. It is a structure that enables political figures to travel into the future to bare witness to events that their actions and words have contributed to. In Jarman’s, Queen Elizabeth I travels to the 1970s; in mine, Ayn Rand departs New York City in 1955 to visit Silicon Vally in 2033.
"it’s about developing a certain political critique and disposition towards the Internet today that emerges out of queer and feminist thought"
VG: In one of your interviews, you mention that you started to see the term ‘Internet’ as sexual after reading The Contra-Sexual Manifesto by Paul Preciado. In Totality Study #1: Internet, a definition did you intend your definitions to have a sexual connotation as well? Is the future of contra-internet contra-sexual?
ZB: A core methodology in the Contra-Internet project is “utopian plagiarism,” a tactic Critical Art Ensemble wrote about in the 90s. I consider reworking Preciado’s contra sexuality as contra-internet an act of utopian plagiarism, in that by slightly altering the original, a new pathway of thought and practice opens up. It is not so much about giving the Internet a sexual connotation; that’s been there for some time! Rather, it’s about developing a certain political critique and disposition towards the Internet today that emerges out of queer and feminist thought.
VG: Your work comments on Internet’s present and near future as an omnipresent power infrastructure; however, do you think that the Internet’s past is neutral?
ZB: The Internet was first developed by the US military. That is far from neutral.
Zach Blas, Inversion Practice #3, 2016 at Gasworks London (detail) | courtesy of the artist
VG: Inversion Practices is my personal favourite from the show: I admire the way you managed to combine the conceptual with the practicality of the technical. Do you think one can use similar strategies to subvert the Internet in the future? Do you think of them as more practical or more conceptual?
ZB: I see these videos as a kind of testing ground for ideas and actions. Of course, they’re conceptual – but there is also a practicality to them as they are attempting to work out an idea technically, within the confines of the laptop. I think of these as something like the starting point for imagining the contra-internet. To begin in the space of the computer that I write and work on—with all its affordances and limitations—highlights the material, technical, and aesthetic possibilities one has here. The laptop screen is ultimately a quite familiar aesthetic space, so I wanted to begin here but end up in the strange world of Jubilee 2033.
VG: You’re currently working on two books, Escaping the Face, and Informatic Opacity: The Art of Defacement in Biometric Times. Would you tell us something more about your future publications? Are they influenced by any past or current projects of yours?
ZB: Currently, I’m working on books that deal with the theoretical aspects of the earlier biometrics artworks. In particular, I’m developing a theory of “informatic opacity” by engaging the writings of Édouard Glissant and Donna Haraway. If I’m lucky, there will be some kind of book that accompanied the Contra-Internet project.
Zach Blas, Inversion Practice #1, 2016 at Gasworks London (detail) | Courtesy of the artist
VG: What do you think will happen after Internet’s supposed death? Besides science fiction, how do you imagine it visually?
ZB: That is a speculative question, so I can only answer it through something like science fiction. But the Internet might already be dead! I have tried to explore this through Internet kill switches but also Eric Schmidt’s 2015 prediction that the Internet will disappear.
"my work Contra-Internet is about seeing past the supposed totality of the Internet."
This provocation evokes the Internet of things. If the Internet disappears into the world—and we can no longer make a distinction between the Internet and the world—is that a kind of death? Maybe not the death of the Internet, but when the Internet seems to totalize the world (through Silicon Valley innovation), this could also be understood as attempts at killing alternatives, visions, possibilities. This is why in my work Contra-Internet is about seeing past the supposed totality of the Internet. What lurks beyond the Internet = world equation is the future I’m after!