Martine Neddam, 22-03-2022, Amsterdam
Interviewers: Esther van Rosmalen (E), Roeliena Aukema (R)
Interviewee: Martine Neddam (M)
(E) Can you tell us something about yourself, your practice, and how you became active as an artist on the internet?
(M) My name is Martine Neddam, I am originally from France but I have lived in Amsterdam for a long time. At the beginning of my career, I worked as a visual artist who used language as a medium and I was mostly doing art in the public space. I became acquainted with the internet and the computer because I wanted to learn Photoshop. I am very bad at drawing, but I needed to represent my works visually for the public commissions that I did. So I started to use Photoshop as a tool for the presentation of my works. At that time, I didn’t have a computer because they were too expensive. Instead, I was invited for an artist’s residency at the University of Amsterdam in their department of computer science and logic, where I had the opportunity to use one of the university’s computers. I spent much time messing around on that computer, which is also how I learned Photoshop without a tutorial. While working at the university, I met many other people that used the computer for things such as coding, playing chess, and sending emails, and they were very helpful in showing me how computers worked.
(E) And how did this develop into making digital artworks?
(M) In the beginning, the field that surrounded the new internet was ruled by geeks and political activists. It did not immediately feel like what I was doing on the internet was art. It was more of a space for experiments and discoveries for me. After a while, I gathered the money to buy my own computer, which meant that I could experiment with it in my own studio. I went to a lecture at De Balie, where I heard about people that met on MOO’s. Moo’s were social spaces that existed solely out of text, in which you could build a virtual space by describing what you wanted it to look like. I studied linguistics so those ‘spaces made out of text’ connected very well with my interest in language. In those Moo’s, there were little windows in which you could interact with people, and the rest of your text space could be decorated by describing what you wanted to see or you could even code some text elements within the virtual space. Building in that context meant that you could write some simple lines of code to create your own space and that you could see what others had built in their own spaces. As such, MOO’s acted as public spaces, but also as fun-spaces where you could converse with others. In those conversations, you could adopt different personas. As long as your name wasn’t taken, you could be anyone you wanted to be. I decided on the name Mouchette because Martine was already taken. Mouchette’s identity originated because the Moo’s were located in universities where everyone had a good command of English. Because my English was poor at that time, I decided to say that I was 12 years old so they could not judge my language skills. I liked this idea of role-playing so much that I invented different characters in different rooms, and ultimately Mouchette became an entity of its own, with her own website.
(E) How did you develop Mouchette from an online identity in a MOO, to an online artwork?
(M) The MOO’s were used mainly as entertainment for the people that were affiliated with universities. You would go to a MOO as you would go to a bar, for socializing online. The people using them were mainly doing research in literature, philosophy, or coding and they were all very interesting so I loved talking to them, also in a playful manner. For me, it was the perfect place to play around and have pleasure in creating because my other works, the public commissions, and shows, were long-term projects that required a lot of designing, logistics, organizing, and other boring stuff. At some point, in Amsterdam, someone taught me how to do HTML. I am not very keen on writing code but this was pretty simple. I would do everything myself: web pages, sounds, GIFs, text, and pictures. For these different elements, I would use free software that existed in those days, which all did only one thing at a time. For instance, you had some freeware that would create a GIF that you could find on a cd-rom in a magazine. I was much better at reading code than writing it, so I would use the free software and borrow code from other websites or online repositories and copy and paste them into my web page to create something new. I worked completely as a bricoleur. After a while, a web browser called Netscape came with a built-in editor, which made it easier for me to set up a new page. That is how I made Mouchette.
(E) Has your practice changed since the development of new technologies and techniques?
(M) My practice is much more complex than it used to be. Free software is still around, for instance, server software such as Apache, but it uses components from different places. Software is much more entangled with other software, and they do a lot of different things at once or they impose their methods onto you. Things can be intertwined and you can use bits and pieces from various sources. Nowadays, you can also combine free software that you can find on Github or anywhere else, while also using proprietary software at the same time. A lot is possible, but creating a website or an internet work is much more complicated, so you need more expertise, dedication, and time to figure it out. Creating on the internet, as I understand it, takes place in two parallel spaces: your physical computer, with your hard drive, and the server out there, your web host. For me, the web is a double space in which you can upload things, but you can have the equivalent on your desktop. When you upload your work and send it to the internet, you lose control over your work which is why I make my work on my desktop and not in the `cloud´. I am very reluctant towards the idea that my file is over there and not on my own computer.
(R) It seems to me that this process does not differ from working in your studio as an artist before sending your work into the world through exhibitions or publications. First, you create and construct the work, then you interpret and contextualize the work before you present it to the public.
(M) Yes, it is exactly like that. For me, shifting between those spaces anchors me in the material. Besides that, we are under the influence of the propaganda that is presenting the cloud as some sort of abstract place where all your data is stored. Of course, it isn’t formally a cloud. It is nothing but a big load of servers, which is a very physical thing that exists in large buildings with enormous security. The major problem with the cloud is that you can store your data there, but you cannot decide how often it refreshes it. Your data is copied and re-copied so often that you automatically participate in a system that consumes enormous amounts of energy. It is not by accident or for poetic reasons that such a system gets called a cloud and not ‘storage’ or ‘saving services’, that all happens because they would rather not raise suspicion on the amounts of data that are saved and copied. And we all settle for it because of the convenience it brings us. I am not against a storing service, but calling it the cloud and dispossessing people of control over their data is just wrong. This is just one example of a position in which we are made powerless and is also one of the major reasons why I do not want to use Photoshop on a distant server. I am aware of the fact that my conception of data is completely framed by the way I experienced it as an early user and how I saw it originate. When I started with the internet in 1995 or 1996, the people I met showed me how it worked. In Amsterdam, the internet was greeted with a lot of enthusiasm. There was a utopian atmosphere at that time, a very idealistic attitude of generosity and helping each other out. Many of the people that were early internet users were also politically active, so the internet became a place for people who believed in political utopias. You had people that did pirate radio for example, who strived for a space in which they did not have to be concerned about their programs being controlled by the state. These were the same people that started using the internet for their idealistic, utopian, and political ideas. This all created a community of people that shared their knowledge for free with each other and with the world. All of this might sound very utopian, but at that time it all felt natural. You can compare it to the invention of the HTTP protocol, this was also a natural course of action. HTTP was invented by chance by a professor in Switzerland, who worked at a physics institute (CERN). This researcher was working in various physics centers in Europe and was looking for a way to connect the different servers he used with each other. The internet already existed so he created a protocol to connect photographs and texts from his different servers in different cities to his own computer. Because he was a researcher that was employed by state universities, he never even thought of asking for money for this small invention. Making it public domain was such a natural gesture to him, it never occurred to him to sell it as a commercial product. We can still see some traces of this nowadays. For example, Wikipedia is a platform that uses the notion of free information sharing.
(E) Is your work also influenced by those changed attitudes on the internet?
(M) The internet was uncommercial in the beginning. Many people were doing things for free. I noticed when I started working on the computer how helpful people were. They took the time to show me how it worked because they were interested in how the internet would develop. Some of the coders worked as researchers for universities and in their spare time, they would discover the internet. Many of them were so excited about what was happening on the internet that they gladly shared it with anybody. On the internet, everything relied on sharing, a very different atmosphere from today. I am still very grateful for how this all developed in Amsterdam. Amsterdam was the center of the new and free internet at that time. In the United States, for instance, the internet was already commercialized. This probably had something to do with the free-thinking attitude that existed in Europe, and also in Amsterdam. It is no coincidence that Descartes came here to publish his work after he was censored by the church in France.
(E) But is it still possible to play around on the internet nowadays?
(M) Not for me. The bricolage technique does not work anymore and the coders that used to create free software are now restricted. In the year 2000, I started a database for which I asked a programmer to help me with some difficulties. For me, using a coder to make internet art was not different from using technicians and constructors for the art I was doing in the public space. Every artist has these collaborations because there are so many things that you cannot do on your own. When you build a bronze sculpture you need experts in those specific techniques, and in large installations, you need many different experts to make everything work. A large part of being an artist is to have a dialogue with people who help you create your work. Nowadays, I see a new generation for whom this idea of working together is built-in and therefore natural.
(R) How do you experience the friction that rises when you exhibit your internet works in the physical space?
(M) At the beginning of my career, I was doing public commissions and exhibitions as Martine Neddam. At that time, Mouchette was not yet art, but it existed in my home and was something I played with. I had a mailing list on my computer through which I announced things concerning Mouchette to about one hundred people, or platforms such as Rhizome would publish about it. So I already had an online public that recognized Mouchette as art. The real-life public responded differently. I remember that I was having a show about Mouchette in Tanya Rumpff’s gallery in Haarlem for which I made prints, objects, and an installation. I translated some internet experiences into objects, prints, and works of art for this show. For instance, I created pixelated images of things that belonged to the internet sphere. But, because this was 1998, nobody was interested in art on the internet yet. I, on the other hand, was not interested in selling objects, but the exchange and the interaction with the public were of much more interest to me. I didn’t earn any money with these public interactions, but I sustained my online work with the public commissions I did as an artist and the generous grants that the Dutch government provided. At that time, the government had grants for which you did not have to justify what you spent the money on. This made them ideal research grants that helped artists flourish. The only thing you needed to prove was that you were active as a professional artist. I believe that these grants were the reason that online art flourished in the Netherlands. JODI, Peter Luining, and several other creators received them. Their works were all creative, provocative, and daring because they could devote all of their time to creating and experimenting.
(R) Are there specific things that you do to preserve your work for the future?
(M) The problem with media art is that it is difficult to keep online. I spend a lot of energy making sure that my works are accessible and that they stay interactive. My view on preserving my work is not to change it too much, because I want it to function in the same way as it did when I created it. And I want to keep Mouchette running in a way that I can control from my own computer instead of using cloud-based interfaces which means that sometimes I have to repair interfaces for the database or upgrade them. I recently found a coder in Prague that can help me do that. He is also an artist which is very important when it comes to repairing internet art because he has a certain love for art. When you approach a commercial company to do it, they wouldn’t have any interest in keeping the work exactly the way it is. I focus on repairing my work rather than rebuilding it. The ecology of the web and its coding changes all the time and it would be too costly to rebuild the whole work every time it doesn’t work anymore. At this point, my work probably looks like Frankenstein when you look at the code.
(E) How do you deal with the changeable nature of your work when it is placed on the internet?
(M) I am interested in making things that evoke an interaction. Ideally, the work becomes a tool that can be used to interact with the software. Things such as NFT’s are completely opposed to what I am doing. They rely on an item that is encased and preserve the way it is at that exact moment. It makes sense for a certain branch of the art market because you cannot sell something that continues to function and change. When the internet arrived, online art functioned even more as something that triggers interaction. Online art is what happens between a remote server and a local computer. You create the work, put it on a remote server, and then the user looks at it while they fetch it from the remote server. It is all about the interaction between the servers, the computer, and the user, and in this process, there are a lot of elements that can change. The color can vary for instance, which is why this specific architecture does not work for something such as the NFT. For me, the NFT is regressive towards Net Art, it fetishizes the object.
(E) How do you experience the dialog with users?
(M) For me, this dialog is found in every form of art, even in literature. When I was younger I read books and I always wrote in the margins of the page, which is a form of answering the author. There was always a dialog going on with the works I read. I see the author of a book as your friend when you read it because you communicate with them in your imagination. In this way, the book becomes a dialog space of its own. This is all connected to the emotional culture that lies within the work of art. I was raised with conceptual artists such as Lawrence Weiner, for whom a sculpture exists in the mind of the viewer through a written definition. My love for art is not necessarily triggered by the aura or the presence of an object. I don’t deny such a formal approach and I imagine that you can have an amazing experience looking frontally at a Picasso, but I feel more of a dialogue with a sculpture than with a painting. This is mainly because the sculpture changes when I move around it. The perception of the sculpture depends on how you position yourself towards the work which is an interaction between spectator and work. A painting can be more static, it relies on one specific revelation moment.
(E) Has your work changed because the internet is different nowadays?
(M) Yeah, of course, it has changed. You are always trying to catch up with the changes but that is almost impossible. When preserving my work I try to change it, to remain the same; to catch up with the internet. I work like that because I believe in the multiplicity, the dialog, and the interpretations that stay alive even when I upgrade the work to newer software. The base of the work stays intact. When preserving my work I also think about how people experience it. Recently, I found 15 videos of screen captures made by young Russian people that are looking at Mouchette. Some are captured on the phone, some are integrated into stories that you could call fanfiction, and some are very plain and consist of a person talking you through the browsing of the website. I had them all subtitled in English and I saved them on a website called Visions of Mouchette. You could say that these videos are a piece of archiving, but for me, it’s a part of my work, because I always relied on the dialogue with the user, and here the dialogue goes from a simple screen-recording to a total re-interpretation. I integrated this set of videos into the architecture of the domain by creating the subdomain ‘visions.of.mouchette.org’, connected in this way to the mouchette.org domain.
(E) Does this mean that you almost treat your websites and domains as physical spaces?
(M) Not almost, they are physical spaces. This also means that we should educate people that their data is material and thus we should be careful how we handle it and who we trust with it. There are so many things wrong with our data storage and our online presence nowadays. When you realize that you are getting more and more advertisements when you are scrolling on your phone, you see that it is quite problematic that everything is now in the hands of large companies.
(E) Do you have a vision of how Mouchette should be preserved in the future?
(M) As long as I am alive I will take care of the work. I preserve it in a way that I call generative preservation. This concept seems contradictory but what I mean is: that data is constantly generated online, and things are preserved because they change. The idea of generative preservation also works for other media. For example, Mouchette is inspired by a film by Robert Bresson. This film is inspired by a book by Georges Bernanos, written in the ’30s. A lot has been changed in my own version, but certain elements of the original works are kept alive through the online version of Mouchette. In a way, you are preserving elements by recreating them into a new medium. My favorite example of generative preservation is the story of Frankenstein. The original story was written in 1910 and still exists. Many movies were made, and one specifically created the image of Frankenstein as the monster we all know, which became the official image of the monster, the one and only. However, in the original story, Frankenstein is the name of the scientist and not of the monster, the monster was unnamed and innocent in the original story. Certain key elements have been changed or forgotten, but transferring some elements into another medium kept the source alive in our collective memory. The story is now conveyed through a concept that penetrated our society, to a point where our ideas about Frankenstein are very far from the original book. This is how generative preservation works, you preserve things because they travel and find their way into society.
(E) Doesn’t this create a lot of tension between the dynamics of the medium and the meaning of the work?
(M) That’s right. You cannot put internet work on a hard disk on a shelf because you will lose part of its meaning. Most internet works rely on interactivity so when you preserve it, the content should be able to circulate from medium to medium to make sure that it is accessible. Most people might think that preserving a work of art is like putting a painting in a depot. But if you remove the work of its accessibility and thus of its meaning, it dies.
(E) Does this mean that you have to let things go in this process?
(M) You can’t preserve everything. I was very interested in blockchain in the beginning because I thought that it would help me create a preservation community. But now, I see the issues with NFT’s. You are presenting something as an object and putting it on a virtual shelf. This kills visibility and accessibility. If you think about the work of Beeple for example, very little, if any, is visible. It doesn’t circulate anymore and that is bizarre. You are producing work that will not be seen, but just bought by someone and used as an asset for speculation. That doesn’t feel very artistic to me. The internet was thought to be the ultimate tool for the free circulation of information and an instrument of democracy, but now it seems it has become almost the opposite. I feel like it’s better to focus on things that can change this trajectory. Wikipedia is still a very healthy construction with very ethical principles, and so is the common garden platform Constant Dullaart created. They both use sharing principles and an open system, which is very valuable. It shows that artists are still concerned with what is happening and that it is still possible to gather on the internet and become a host to create platforms where experimentation and collectivity play a role. The art world does not solely rely on creating but also touches upon dedication, sharing, and democratic beliefs.
Witte rook is an artist-driven organization with a residency program, and an online platform for research, experiment, talent development, and online storytelling. The program is centered around the process of the artist by offering them short- and long-term residencies in which encounters occur. In order to provide insight into the working process of the artist, various authors write and publish articles and interviews that encompass the narrative of the artists. Witte Rook values writing as part of the artist’s practice and stimulates them to publish about their work, write as part of their work, or create art that is built on language and text.
The project Entrepot consists of research that is based on ten interviews and a series of publications on Witte Rook’s online platform. This conversation with Martine Neddan is part of the chapter de waarde van archivering (the value of archiving), in which we delve into the problems regarding transience, the urgency of originality, the responsibility of archiving, the legalization of artistic content, and the future for the preservation of digital knowledge. This project is made possible through funding by the Stimuleringsfonds Creatieve Industrie.