Jonah Brucker-Cohen Interview

Interviewed by Andrea Polli at Futuresonic 2009 on May 16, 2009.

Jonah and Andrea were both participating as artists at Futuresonic 2009, Andrea within the Environment 2.0 exhibition, and Jonah was presenting the premiere of THWONK, an online social networking application.

AP - So you are here showing a couple of artworks, right?

JBC- Mainly one, launching one, I was showing some in the talk but I’m mainly launching a new, we call it web 4.0 cause we think it’s too important to be 3.0. It’s a new way to design social networks, particularly starting with email lists. We’re really interested in how the rules of communications were started setup and how we can really change them and allow the public to get involved and redesign them.

AP - What do you mean by the rules of communication?

JBC - We’re starting with email lists, which has a very specific set of rules: you send a message to a list, and it goes to everyone on the list. Then they can feed back, and we were kind of curious as to why those types of things happen or why they even got started in the first place, like who was behind the design of them? And then we built a project, myself and Mike Bennett in 2003 called BumpList, which was an email list that had a subscription policy that only allowed six people, and when you joined it, it bumped off somebody, so they have to keep joining it - sort of like musical chairs meets email. So this new project called Thwonk, and we’re kind of thinking of the list and rules which are created as Thwonks, and basically what that means is you can go in their design and list the rule set that you want, like Bumplist, or different features of it - time list, convergent list, divergent list, location list, all these things. So basically we’re trying to reinvent the social aspects of these systems and mainly over the last 50 years, well not 50 years, but over the last 20 years or something, the main advancements in listserv software has been in administration, not on the social, so we’re trying to break into the social and see what we can do.

AP - Why do you think these rules need to be played around with and messed with?

JBC - One thing with Bumplist we noticed is that people were finding really interesting ways of subverting the rule set, cause the rule set there was a subscription policy that was limited to 6 people, and we wanted to see how far we could take it because people were doing things like…somebody was really upset that only 6 people could be on it, so he started a Yahoo! Group for people who were bumped could be on it, you know still talking. Stuff like that…people were taking it really seriously, some people starting becoming police officers of the list and telling people they shouldn’t post certain things, and purposely trying to get people on to bump them and making fake addresses to fill it up. We wanted to see what kind of possibilities could be imagined if people started to customize it. We had some requests from people who said, “wouldn’t it be great if I had a bumplist for my group, cause then I could think about who really wants to engage with this group.” Then they could figure it out based on the statistics. Another thing we do with that project is - all the list statistics, like messages sent, bumps, time spent on the list - that is all typically transparent. You don’t really know how long someone’s been on it. You don’t know how many messages they send. So that stuff is going to be included too; an account will have their stats page with all the types of stats they could ever imagine on there.

AP - Do you see this as a kind of social experiment?

JBC - A little bit, yeah. I mean, we’re not working with any sort of scientists in that realm, but I’d say it is kind of. We’ll try to analyze the result since we’re actually building it into a system that has a database that can be easily read and graphed and plotted over time. Yeah it’s kind of social experiment, we’ll see how it goes. I think it’s really going to evolve over time. This is one of those projects that we’re launching now but it’s definitely still at an earlier stage. It’s probably not going to grow into what it really could be not even within a year. I bet it will take a couple years. Because we want to migrate it into mobile devices and other types of platforms that could really make it interesting. 

AP - That brings us to the question, or theme of this interview…you’re doing these projects and they’re kind of social experiments and they’re using the tools of science, or social science, and you’re collecting data and you’re even analyzing the data and you’re thinking about how it might be used, and you’re calling it an experiment and stuff. But at the same time it’s an artwork, and I wonder how you reconcile those things or just your thoughts about it - that seems to be happening in a lot of art projects. You’ve got people like Christian not wanting to call himself an artist. Just wondering your take on that.

JBC - I would say I’m definitely an artist cause I find it more interesting to try to break things and see what could happen from that rather than just using something the way it’s given to me. I guess there’re two different levels, you either break it and change it or you take things that have no connection to each other and then put them together and see what could happen. So some of my work looks at the combination of different communications technologies, different physical devices and network technologies, different software rules, these kind of things. So I guess it’s sort of like a mash-up meets creative input and output and how people relate to it. But I’m also really focusing on ways of getting people to think about networks and these types of connections in ways they hadn’t before by introducing these experiments and projects that make them think differently.

AP - So how do you think this is different from what scientists do? It seems to me that scientists break stuff and they try to put stuff back together, or engineers too.

JBC - They just follow a more rigid methodology, they have the scientific method, where it’s hypothesis, experiment, results, conclusion. I still sort of abide by that but I guess I give myself a little bit more freedom there. And part of what my PhD is is coming up with this methodology for how to deconstruct a network using a certain set of rules that I’ve come up with based on my experience in making these kinds of projects.

AP - Do you think there are problems with the scientific method? A lot of people might say, “this is really useful and look at all the great things that have come out of the scientific method.”

JBC - I think it’s good in doing what it’s meant for. It’s meant for finding concrete results to certain problems, but if you want to go off of what’s right and what’s wrong, let’s get off the binary relationship and make it a little bit more analogue, and then I think it’s not as good, cause people probably won’t take you seriously.

AP- Do you think in terms of what you’re studying or what you’re investigating, that maybe the scientific method is inadequate, when it comes to social relationships or when it comes to networks?

JBC - Yeah I think so cause I definitely have a gray area that wouldn’t be included in there and that sort of comes back to…it’s related to user studies and how people react and then enter a design based on what they would tell me about it or how I would see a reaction and that’s typically not seen as much in the scientific, I mean they have some iteration, but it’s typically, “I have a problem to solve and I’m going to go about this method,” and then it doesn’t really change.

AP - You’ve taken it further, though, then just HCI research, right?

JBC - Yes, because it’s like using the public to gauge how successful something is by getting them to be involved with it. I guess HCI research is a little bit like that but usually they have a very focused study group and have people coming into it, whereas ours is open to the public and skews some of the results. Like we actually wrote a poster for CHI in 2004 where one of the problems with our research and what people said was that there was a big press influence where suddenly you get this whole influence of users and that kind of skews your results. So typically in the CHI community they don’t really adhere to that kind of exposure that well, so that’s difficult.

AP - It seems like you’re kind of putting your experiments out into the real world. Or it seems like the CHI researchers are afraid of that or want this isolated thing. Do you think the technology…do you think the ability to analyze information makes it possible with all these networks with the way we’re getting information and using it in real time, that it’s possible to be out in the real world and do real research? Or is there still too much complexity…

JBC - I don’t think so. I think there’s room for both because you’re never really going to see who your true audience is unless you do that. You can get a set of people in a contained environment but I don’t think it’s really going to give you the right input to make it really worthwhile for mass appeal. It really depends on who you’re looking for. If you want a specific audience, then yes, but if you’re going for everyone and their mom, then you probably want to make it more public. I think there are probably some researchers in the CHI community who do that, but I don’t really know of them.

AP - So you call yourself an artist.

JBC - Well, maybe artist/researcher.

AP - When most people think about art, they have a certain conception of what art is. Do you see yourself as fitting into that, are there elements of the historical practice of art that apply to the practice you’re doing now.

JBC - Yeah probably, I guess it just depends. You mean historical practice as in what? Traditional, fine art stuff?

AP - Yeah exactly. You say art and that’s the first thing people think of. They think about the gallery scene and all this stuff and it’s so completely…

JBC - One thing I’ve never really gotten involved with is the whole commercial art scene. There’s times when that happens, sort of random things, like last February I was showing one of my projects at ARCO, which is this big commercial art fair. It wasn’t for sale and it wasn’t situated in an actual shop-type environment that had been made aesthetically there for sale. I think it’s possible to live in both worlds without trying to make your projects…that people want to buy. It’s almost to me, like if someone wants to buy it, it’s flattering, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable selling it, because it’s sort of a one-off thing.

AP - So when you talk about art and yourself being an artist, what is it that you’re actually talking about if you’re not actually talking about the commercial art world?

JBC - I guess just the general feeling, or general focus of trying to get people to change the way they would think about something or imagine something. It’s not really meant to, I guess it’s like going back to the RCA and critical design. I was talking about this  topic with Tony Dunne over there, and that’s what he said initially, that my stuff was like that, although my projects work and a lot of the critical design stuff isn’t meant to work. It’s just mainly about creating these models to provoke discussions and questions.

AP - You mean like the stuff Ivrea was doing?

JBC -Although they make some really interesting stuff, it’s really just objects meant to provoke a discussion, and that’s kind of what critical design is. People have called me a critical designer. Some people have said I’m not a critical designer. Some people say, “he’s just an artist who makes critical work.” But I feel like that edge is important to me to have some kind of critique on technology itself. Like there are some people who call themselves media artists who just make work using computers. To me that’s just like an artifact, using computers to make artifacts. To me the most interesting artist is the one who actually makes art about the medium they’re using, so that’s kind of where I’m coming from, too.

AP - Would you call that kind of a modernist perspective?

JBC - I don’t know. Probably not.

AP - The focus on the medium, materiality. It sounds like you’re saying that what differentiates something that’s art vs. something that’s a science experiment or an HCI project is the critical perspective.

JBC - I noticed that a lot  in HCI research where although they are doing really interesting projects and sort of alternative ways of using technology, to me it is never really critical enough. It never provoked enough questions about the technology itself. I mean it tried to provoke a discussion about technology, but it never really asked the hard questions such as why we’re using it in the first place.

AP - What’s the benefit of asking those questions and being critical like that?

JBC - It provokes discussion, it kind of just gets people thinking more about the tools they’re used to. It makes you think differently about the stuff you’re using every day and why they exist. For instance, the new project we’re doing, Thwonk, now, somebody might say, “Why did this rule exist in the first place?” Whereas before they would just take it as it is given to them. So we’re trying to get that into people’s brains, that it is changeable, it is valuable, and new possibility for social expression that way.

AP - I think that’s awesome. Thank you so much.

JBC - Yeah, sure.



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