Data Sagacity and Site-Specificity

From online sovereignty to reclaiming artistic agency, Morgan Sutherland speaks to artist Mathew Dryhurst about his latest project.

Morgan Sutherland: So, with Saga you can embed an image, a video, or a piece of code as an iframe on another site and you are able to modify the embedded content individually for each endpoint?

Mathew Dryhurst: Exactly. People rightly criticize it as something that may not scale, as it would take hours to change each distinct version of a piece online, but I’m not recommending that. It’s more about simply having a choice. You may choose to respond to a conversation, or extend a part here. You may choose not to. The point is that both options are available to the artist.

Personalization is big business right now. It has become a whole industry of data collection and direct targeting. Saga is trying to look at that shift from the artist’s perspective, and put some of those tools in their hands.

I’m most interested in the implications it may have by adding “site specificity” to internet media, and it also adds to my “all time” art ideas from that old Dispatch talk, basically positing that our internet presence is in essence one grand, time-based medium, the micro-gestures we make being allegro notes in one unfolding composition. The term “allegro” itself is related to the concept of alacrity, or a readiness to respond, a liveness. I’m most interested in gestures that are live like a wire, and the possibilities to improvise and evade subsumption.

One logical conclusion of data collection techniques and this boxed, algorithmic way of approaching content, is that when someone like Beyoncé releases a music video, the product placement in the video will reflect the location in which it is posted. This already happens with ads being served on YouTube, for example, and so I can imagine this will become more commonplace within the content of the work itself. The pop group LMFAO actually experimented with this in 2008, when their song “I’m in Miami Bitch” was overdubbed with the name of each city in which the record was sold. I heard “I’m in Oakland, bitch” on the radio, and someone in Palm Springs heard something different. It was kind of a prophetic concept.

It makes sense financially, as licensing and product placement then becomes a time-based, contractual thing. Like the bottle of Pepsi can be in the music video until 2017, at which point a new license could be sold to a different drinks company. Also, regarding ads, this provides a model to have people return to the same page, which is also beneficial and defies the ‘infinite/ephemeral’ feed model. I think that this durational licensing model can also be applied in interesting and progressive ways to artworks. A magazine can license the rights to host an unedited artwork for a year, for example, or alternately publications are able to host an artwork for free, but in doing so cede control of that space on the page at the artist’s discretion. This negotiation or bargaining power seems more equitable to me than the current options available.

If our data is going to continue to modulate the content that gets sold to us, far better to start playing with these logics now. Are there potential benefits to these changes? A silver lining to the cloud? Art allows for us to explore that. What would happen if the process of posting someone else’s work became a negotiation? What if, in doing that, you were establishing a trust, or a contract, between the two parties that benefits both in tangible ways? Without these kinds of agreements in place, we strip the artist of agency, and Saga is ultimately about that agency and autonomy. It’s saying “wherever this thing that I am giving you goes, I have the right to speak my mind there! If you put my video next to Iggy Azalea, I’m going to straight up comment about it! If you want me to give up that right, then pay me!”

Why can’t this piece of media that I put out in the world serve as a conduit for me to communicate with the people posting it? I firmly believe that the communications and other stuff that happen around the work ought in fact to be considered a part of the work, and that activity can be archived and indexed, so why shouldn’t the work be given the tools to communicate with all that? Why can’t the places that digital work lands modulate the work itself?

I actually think that the distinction between ‘live/responsive’ work and work that can be easily quantified, tracked, and appropriated may become a gulf over time. An interesting parallel is comedy, where there is a huge philosophical distance between people who pursue improv as a living comedic practice, and those who work in canned jokes. A lot of artworks are encouraged to be more of a canned joke that is just ambiguous enough to be silently curated and relocated into any number of scenarios. Reza Negarestani really called this out in his ‘Human Centipede’ essay. So much art is just willfully interchangeable, operating under the alibi of being ‘open to interpretation’ or something. I find that approach a little blunt.

Morgan: What are you using the word “sagacious” to mean here? Or, what do you mean by “sagacity”?

Mathew: It’s an allusion to pragmatism, or responding to unfolding conditions – navigation. It pertains to the ‘alacrity’ term I mentioned in the Dispatch talk, where a work is more about response than establishing a pre-baked trajectory. Of course it is also a reference to the Nordic Saga, or these tales that involved incremental documentation over really long time periods.


Hrafnkels saga survives in many manuscripts, but only about seven have significance for establishing the most original text. “Hrafnkels saga mss” by Original uploader was Haukurth at en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons

Morgan: The past few years you’ve collaborated with Holly Herndon and Metahaven, worked with Semcon on a new responsive sound synthesis system for electric cars, and wrote a piece of software for generating musical compositions from your browser history. What lead you to producing software-as-art?

Mathew: I’m from an arts background, but got interested in the guts of tech. I kind of fell into it when I was put on a project management job which turned into a product management job and learned that the stuff you can’t see is way more interesting and actually dictates so much of what you can see. The backend is mysterious to people, but it’s so clear that the technical foundations of systems dictate parameters for possible interactions and applications for a given project. It’s sometimes a challenge to articulate this, but that is perhaps why it’s best to do so by letting the software speak for itself.

There has been a resurgence of interest in what would classically be described as ‘media art’, which I think DIS has played a significant role in, and it is very encouraging. Not everyone in tech is an annoying campus bro.

Morgan: Yeah, it feels like there’s a new generation of artists working in the tradition of tactical media, among other things.

Mathew: I was having this argument with someone at UCLA this week, actually, about this huge resistance towards works of art doing anything. Some people almost seem to argue that the definition of an artist is someone who doesn’t do anything, because the second you begin to do something effectively, there is another word for that. In a sense, that freedom to do nothing, have no obligations, is a wonderful thing – but there is this weird spectre that looms over things, where if the thing you are bringing into the world has a clear intention of doing something, not in an oblique way, but in a direct way, then it becomes something else and is almost sneered upon. That seems like a very limited conception of what art might be, or what influence it might have. I’m already running into that issue and argument with this project.

Morgan: Lately we’ve seen non-art projects strategically framing themselves in art contexts, from MoMA’s design collection to K-HOLE‘s trend-reports. Saga seems to be on one hand a tool for artists and an “artwork” on the other. Are you consciously framing it as an artwork? If so, why?

Mathew: I’m framing it as an artwork as I wanted to make unfolding, site specific performance work online a focus of my arts practice and the tool didn’t exist to do that. So I created it. If other people were to use it, and it’s affordances created unexpected consequences in the world, I would consider that an extension of the piece. For me it’s really a matter of principle to describe this all as the same creative practice. The timing and potential of the gestures you might witness within it are fundamentally linked to the logic of the tool. I also think that the arguments it raises, in this regard, are an important extension of the piece. I encourage people to disagree with it, as I think this argument is an interesting and unresolved one.

Morgan: In Marvin’s interview, Rafaël Rozendaal talks about the tremendous amount of time it takes to learn a technical craft. It’s difficult to maintain technical skills at a professional level and also do the reading and the research you need to successfully articulate a relevant concept. This question of whether things that have a use are also artworks is entangled with the issue of requirements. It takes an incredible amount of work to make something production ready, which conflicts with the amount of time it takes to make something that is conceptually and aesthetically on point. An issue I’ve always had with media art is that its rare that a work is both conceptually and aesthetically, or rhetorically, successful.

Mathew: Time is a huge factor. That being said, I also wouldn’t bifurcate learning the hard skills and also doing the research, because there is a philosophy and logic that is encoded into the way in which systems and tools are built – the framework. Familiarizing yourself with those things is in a sense adhering to a philosophy. Creating a binary between reading Foucault or whatever, and learning Ruby, is more accepting a greater cultural ignorance, and also in a sense doing a disservice to the systemic logics of many foundational theorists. Web standards, for example, have philosophical and theoretical underpinnings, many of which intersect with the same root reference points as a lot of art theoretical texts.

This piece was initially brought about by necessity, but the deeper I get into it the more people bring up Ted Nelson’s Xanadu project (the original hypertext project, or as Jeff Atwood notes, arguably one of the first great hacker projects), which is a fantastical, ideologically driven concept that proposes that all links on the web lead to their original source, abolishing copyright issues and, as Tony Arcieri argues, may also be a logic worth revising in relation to personal data security. The social and political history of that project is remarkable, and littered with failure. It touches on so much, and honestly, I don’t see much difference between that story and the story of ideologues respected in the art world like Guy Debord – a distinction perhaps best reconciled in McKenzie Wark’s superb Hacker Manifesto. A lot of these formative early web movements were driven by well researched ideologies, and perhaps part of the reason that element gets overlooked is that many of those people accomplished something! These ideologies are to be found at the core of many our daily interactions online (see Tim Berners-Lee’s HTML, with it’s bias towards untethered sharing / freedom of information ), or are noticeably absent (i.e Xanadu’s principled stance on hyperlinks returning to their original source).


You are totally right in talking about art affording a space for something not quite production ready, and this really plays out with Saga. This thing can’t scale, in it’s current form, but thinking about the limitations of it actually exposes so much. Improvised, time-based, situational artworks don’t play well with the dominant feed mentality, and also don’t scale well with the current expectation that one ought to respond to every request online, or prioritize everyone equally. These are biases built into Saga that don’t play well with the web as it stands, however an art platform generously allows for the experiment to take place anyway.

If a piece of hosted media is updating itself in a time and context specific fashion, then that rebels against the feed mentality. If you extrapolate from that, you see how that is a rebellion against how we appreciate the web writ large. It challenges a fundamental bias, the consensual ephemeral understanding of how digital art lives online.

I’m curious about User Experience design, predictive analytics/anticipatory computing, these manipulative techniques that dictate how we deal with the web, and I’m interested in making interventions by studying and toying with those logics. I don’t create a binary between the execution and research side of things because I see them as the same. In my case, you need to understand both sides of it, but that isn’t the case with everyone’s practice. I’m not dogmatic about it, it’s just a different focus.

Morgan: If you look at 90s media art, those artists were informed by deep investigations into how the structure of software systems derive from ideas from the past, from the I Ching and Charles Babbage to Turing and Vannevar Bush, but it seems one of the failures of that work was that viewers were unable to engage with the technical concepts as such. In order for an artwork to speak about architectures or underlying structures, people need a basic understanding of the terms and conceptual underpinnings. For instance fundamental notions like modularity, composability, or even abstraction, are lost on anyone who lacks a certain specific technical training. I always felt that media art failed in this sense, that the technological underpinnings in question were not successfully communicated to a larger audience. The overloading of the word ‘algorithm’ in think pieces and critical discourse to refer to a slew of socio-technical structures is a kind of modern manifestation of this.

Mathew: I think that is a cool point. It seems to me like 90s media art was this strange kind of evolutionary waiting room – there was this period of time where computation was getting faster, devices were becoming domesticated, and then you had some very bright people who were like “holy shit, this has huge implications for everything”, and the art world hadn’t really caught up yet. Media artists had to build their own parallel camp to the side, basically just waiting for everyone else to concede that yeah, our relationships with tech are important!

Now we have reached that point, and so I feel in a way we live in an exciting time. One criticism is that the first stage of that realization has been dominated by discussions largely dissecting and responding to tech’s artifice, but I see that as a natural first step. These are hideously reductive terms, but I have a lot of time for the ‘postinternet’ canon and concurrent flirtations/misappropriations of great concepts like accelerationism as basically a crude-but-successful means to establish a community of people from diverse fields who are primarily concerned with technology and its affect. The next step is looking at infrastructure, and building from these communal observations to directly impact the field from an informed ideological perspective.

Morgan: Interesting you see a bridge here. I see a kind of chasm between postinternet, which deals with “affect,” and new school media artists making work about infrastructure, which I think still falls under the criticism I outlined. That said, I’ve been hoping for a synthesis.

Mathew: These communities are closer together than before. These people know each other and go to the same events and conferences. The synthesis part is the next challenge – the curve is towards infrastructure.

I think that looking at a topic like the law is interesting. Law being this rarified and discriminatory language, that you have to train for a really long time in to be able to understand and make an impact on. You do not have a voice unless you can communicate in that syntax. This is why a lot of social justice groups commonly have a legal wing, finding ways to translate concerns into feasible legislation. This same challenge applies in tech, and you even see this on the legislative level where people can get away with murder because many politicians are simply ill equipped to deal with the concepts at play––this same challenge applies in tech. It is an alien language.

Code is still an alien language to many people too. You see this played out in the haphazard way that governments try to deal with it. I think that it is exciting when artists develop a fluency with the syntax and guts of tech, as that can be very empowering when trying to propose alternatives.

So yeah, I think the next big challenge is getting to that infrastructural core, which is why things like this data issue, #stacktivism, the work of Ben Bratton, Keller Easterling, Metahaven, etc. are so encouraging. I was toying with these ideas a few years ago with the Dispatch project I did for PAN, where I was like “music is faced with systemic problems, and we are just looking at the artifice! We can learn from the people who are hacking this!” The penny really dropped for me with Ben Singleton’s work on platforms and cunning, or the observation that through studying plots, and the formation of identities through networks and cunning, we may be able to identify clues as to how things may be fixed for the better, and that process itself is a fundamental logic of design. Design is cunning.

‘(Cunning is) the ability to coax effects from the world, rather than imposing effects on it by the application of force alone’

Benedict Singleton, Maximum Jailbreak


So yeah, hopefully for this next phase we can move past simply referencing radical concepts and begin to deliver on, and embody, some of those principles – internalize them as conduct. We’ve seen in the past few years how far some members of this community can get by exploring these topics, now it’s time to activate that network and test it’s potential.

Morgan: Looking at the #accelerate community, there seems to be this criticism of ‘postinternet’ as being essentially concerned with surface rather than “more important” issues around infrastructure, which I think we both agree isn’t so problematic, but I’m curious as to what extent art needs to take on more serious issues. To what extent is that desire to address more fundamental questions not really an artistic impulse? Maybe that’s politics? What does “art” bring to this sort of investigation of power structures? Is this a recapitulation of the “solve real problems” meme in Silicon Valley?

Mathew: I see what you are saying. I can’t speak for that crew, although obviously I’ve worked closely with a few people affiliated with them, like Reza Negarestani who I think has definitely been burned by the competing expectations implicit in the philosophical and curatorial worlds.

First thing I’ll say is that, although arguably useful in some circumstances, the terms ‘postinternet’, ‘speculative realist’, and ‘accelerationist’ are hideously reductive. Speaking to systemic concerns, when brought into the curatorial world of press releases, Instagram, and white walls, many works end up only being represented on a surface level. This can lead to a regrettable politic of appropriation where some very finely considered theoretical texts are being reduced to a cut and paste slogan for people to throw on a sculpture. That is a very real and problematic thing, as many of these ideas are very hard to do justice to in an Instagram post, and of course that can generate antagonism, particularly when some people who play well within a gallery context are able to reap quite significant financial rewards in the process.

I do, however, think that many artists invest a lot more thought than they are given credit for, and ultimately the grand failure is within the logic and privilege of the gallery system, which Reza himself articulated in devastating fashion with his “Human Centipede” paper. Ultimately my sympathies lie with the underrepresented, and honestly I think that the underrepresented element here is legitimate rupture. Even where it does exist, in both camps, it is being denied the ability to express it’s potential fully.

There’s plenty of work in the world, plenty of ways to distribute and appreciate work, I just wonder what is missing. That potential is art to me, or at least the art I’m interested in, and that can necessarily assume many forms. Like, Hendrix had a guitar, and the reason we know that he mangled the national anthem was because at the time the music industry had this incredible infrastructural and cultural power, and he instrumentalized that to successfully create a rupture using the tools available to him at the time. It might seem like a cheap point, but someone like Assange made excellent use of these new tools and this new focus of attention to create a rupture in awareness and embody new options. Not discrediting people who choose not to do that, but that for me is successful art. It seems antithetical to talk about the liberatory potential of the arts and creative freedoms and then limit that status to only things that do not effectively create those ruptures.

A great deal of my interest leans towards the Paglen’s of the world, the Bratton’s, the Poitras’, the Singleton’s. People who have played with multiple disciplines and can speak with authority about them because they have intimate and specialized knowledge of how they work and what can be done. They’ve been in the room (although many are also denied that privilege, which is it’s own major problem). Being able to identify those people, learn from them, and send them an email – that is a privilege of our time. Are we maybe setting our sights too low? There is a woman in government right now who follows you on Twitter, why not reach out? A lot of these arbitrary limitations on what art might be were conceived before you had access to the source. I’m more interested in identifying allies and making work outside of those limitations.

Trevor Paglen, They Watch the Moon

Trevor Paglen, They Watch the Moon

Morgan: This sort of contradicts the idea that the role of the press is to have a neutral, outside position. It’s like the inverse of the right to be forgotten, rather the right to modify freely after the fact. If the press is reporting on your work, and then what they are reporting on can be modified, that compromises their ability to serve an important historical function, which is interesting and potentially problematic. Consider also Julian Assange’s proposal to name content “in a way that’s intrinsically coupled to the information,” so that the content can’t be changed without the address (i.e. URL) changing. An article in an online publication has a URL, but the content can be taken down or modified without any indication to readers in the future.

Mathew: That is a legitimate problem. I foresee that if something like this was implemented at a large scale, a contractual licensing model could be put in place as described above, with built in protections for this kind of politic. I think that side of things is navigable, but from a renewed perspective of negotiation.

I also received a critique from a teacher at UCLA, Chandler McWilliams, who put forward this idea of Saga enabling historical revisionism, or going back on what you said. That is a legitimate concern, that could perhaps be dealt with by implementing a versioning system.

This idea of the press’ impartiality is a little questionable I think. This idea that the press is outside of things is just wrong. We all follow the same feeds, RT each other’s work and ideas. I respect a lot of people in the press, but much of the current press infrastructure is designed to extract and flip value from creators in order to generate ad revenue. I don’t want to modulate my thinking to support that logic, and also think it’s interesting to produce work that isn’t perfectly designed to fit within that value extraction culture, which is kind of the opposite approach to making work that is implicitly designed to travel as far as possible within those networks . Where artists create the value, they should have some stake in the terms. It is up to those who benefit from sharing that work to design models to compliment the way artist’s determine how their work should be presented. Saga is trying to imagine what would happen if those demands were implicit to the way in which the work is presented.

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