Born in Portland, Oregon, Addie Wagenknecht is an artist who casts an unwavering eye on the political issues of the post-Wikileaks world, taking in feminist discourse, pop culture, pornography, data, surveillance and drone technology – all approached with a refined artistic sensibility and sharp wit. In the past few years, she’s made an animation on a digital watch called Lasertits, made cam girls pose as the Mona Lisa (Webcam Venus – NSFW), rocked cradles with robotic arms (Optimisation of Parenting Part 2) and used drones as paintbrushes (Black Hawk). With one foot in the art world and one in cyberspace, she constructs an alternative worldview via coding and culture, with a good few rap lyrics thrown in for good measure. As part of annual digital arts festival Glitch, curated by Nora O Murchú, Addie presents an exhibition of new work titled Cash Rules Everything Around in Tallaght’s RUA RED Arts Centre.
The art and tech worlds are both pretty male-dominated arenas. Have you ever felt like being a woman has worked against you as an artist? Are there different expectations?
I think we’ve reached a precipice where the people building and coding technology are the people building the culture. If you want to be an artist who changes culture, you have to create it. This means it comes down to making work not from memory or expectations, but from a hope that there are other models by which to live.
Your work engages with feminist theory. Are there any theorists in particular that inform you, or whose ideas you reference?
I discovered the Guerilla Girls in high school, when I started looking for inspiration on the internet. They changed my trajectory. I was so intrigued by this idea of a group consciousness. A group that was not only anonymous by choice, but outspoken and being listened to. Now this all seems somewhat mainstream, with groups like Anonymous and Occupy being reported on the mainstream outlets and household names.
For your work Webcam Venus, you asked cam girls to recreate major art historical works. How did you approach the girls, and how did they react? Did any of them decline?
At first, my collaborator Pablo Garcia and I would take anyone who would pose. After a few weeks, we started to look at more details – the lighting, the backgrounds, how they did their makeup, what they had on – even their muscular structures. With the Mona Lisa, I probably asked eight or nine different performers to pose, and with each one the gestures were slightly different. The hands would be off – too high, too low, the smile wrong, the eyes empty or so much sadness. Sometimes you’d see a performer and instantly try to get a certain outcome. It was surprising how often people would just fail, but every now and then it really clicked in this way that it took your breath away. People in the chat would go from typing profanities to saying “…this is simply so beautiful”.
Can pornography, or the sex industry generally, be empowering for women?
The lines between pornography, pop culture and art blurred for me when MTV put Madonna on stage in a wedding dress to sing Like a Virgin in the 1980s. This concept of being sexual and a feminist is relatively new aspect of mainstream culture. What and who considers themselves feminist has also completely changed in the last few decades.
If sexuality is empowering, it comes down to intent. Manet’s Olympia is accepted as high art because she wasn’t meant to be sexualised. Playboy is pornographic because its goal is to elicit arousal and fantasy. Olympia bears as much flesh as playmates, and she has a confrontational gaze, but playmates are hardly the architects of the fantasies they’re creating outside of the photos, just like Olympia was likely a prostitute paid to pose.
Like pop culture, pornography isn’t about being based in the details of reality. Otherwise it would fail. The standards we use to delineate differences between high and lowbrow sexuality are pretty archaic, similarly to the roles of women.
Can women have it all?
Having it all is a product of privilege. Women can have it all but this is not the same as doing it all. Having it all is less about how a woman is directly encouraged or discouraged, and more about how the structure around her, as a whole, sets up all the scaffolding for a woman’s life and career.
If women are privileged enough to “have it all”, it’s almost always because they have the financial means to “have it all”. Meaning from a trust fund or family, a career, or a spouse who earns enough they can afford childcare, a dog walker, someone to clean the house and get the groceries. Also it often means they have family who contributes to support them – watching the kids so they don’t have to 24/7. I remember reading an interview with some celebrity mom where she talked about her day. I started to count – she had two assistants, two nannies, a chef, a personal trainer, a stylist, etc. Similarly, I saw a photo of another celebrity mother getting ready in the morning and she had four people – one doing her hair, one her nails, one her makeup and another holding her baby. So, yes, you can have it all if you can afford it all – or maybe if you can get by on very little sleep, a good anti-depressant and a lot of fake smiles.
As an American living in Europe, has your perception of your native country changed much since you left?
Yes. Completely and forever.
I read you were born in an airport – I’m not sure if that’s true or not, but you’re pretty well travelled from what I can gather. As someone who self-confessedly “lives online”, do you think virtual travel and interaction can ever act as a stand in for the “real thing”?
I started traveling solo around the age of 16. I graduated high school early and moved to New York to work under some photographers like Mary Ellen Mark and Steven Meisel. During that time, I started to make enough money to travel further – first it was around the US and Europe. Then I realised how cheaply I could live abroad compared to in the States. I went nomadic and went to places like South America, India, Asia, Central America and so on. Travel is still my vice. As an artist, I think you need this constant sense of being able to escape and vanish. I need to feel unaccounted, even if it’s just in my own head. I enjoy feeling total displacement and relearning everything culturally, getting lost and trying everything again for the first time.
We are also in this place where we can be homeless in the sense that we are placeless. I can go to New York, after having moved away six years ago, and people will say to me “where do you live in Brooklyn? I don’t see you as much downtown.”
It’s affecting cultural production. I think the idea that art is produced in places like New York and London by overpriced-art-school-educated people who talk about the canon and come out of the academic structure is broken. What I see happening with my peers is the emergence of people and collaboratives who are disrupting this mafia-metropolitan-centric hierarchy by bypassing that whole system. When you move to the middle of the Alps or somewhere in a remote area of Colombia but you are still selling out shows in New York – then the system can’t ignore you. They can’t continue to do things like they always have.
You’ve stated that anonymity is essential for creativity. In an age of surveillance, how does one stay creative?
Playing with just that, Data and Dragons is a series I started last year where I wanted to really find the tipping point of Western cultures sacred natures toward technology and anonymity in times of surveillance. It’s about interpreting data centres as “read only” listening machines. I had been reading a lot of the Afgan war log leaks, a lot about Chelsea Manning and cypherpunks methodologies. Kilohydra and now Cloud Farming became these pieces where the process was like a eulogy to the loss of innocents. They became a material realization that the internet of the 1980s and 1990s was gone. This trust between obsolete users’ names and a seemingly greater degree of altruism towards the community – something I would argue flows out of the shelter of anonymity – is more or less gone forever. Companies now are trying to anthropomorphise devices so they become an extension of our every relationship and action. So you do not question the decisions that go into them, what they do or track, but rather you depend on them for any human contact. People are verified on Twitter and we wear it literally like a badge: and why?
At the same time, in the last decade, the internet is allowing us to create a cultural diversity in alternative ways that weren’t possible 15 years ago. We’re able to create a much healthier and more profound mechanism for cultural distribution in the long run outside the white walls of NYC because as artists and creators we are not confined to a million dollar a square foot island where most of us would have to do our art as a hobby on weekends while we work in marketing 90 hours a week to pay rent and afford healthcare. The art world is going from a hierarchical system that’s controlled from the top to a hive-like system, where many people perform very simple actions – a retweet, a blog post, a reblog – with an awareness of each others’ presence. These actions aren’t in a descriptive format like a critical review, but they’re microbursts of cultural criticism or reaction that can balloon.
You recently used a drone as a paintbrush – which is super futuristic in some ways, but also quite “traditional” in the context of net art, given that there is paint being used. What was your thinking behind this piece? Was it just about changing the perception of drones, or does it engage with art historical narratives somewhat as well?
I started that series in 2007 and at the time people completely ignored it. I felt it was such a powerful commentary on the use of drone technologies. Fast-forward five or six years and people started to take note of the series and to talk about it. In that time, the national dialogue around personal data and privacy had been transformed by the information around data and war logs. Wikileaks happened, Pirate Bay was born – which I think fundamentally manifested the most important works of cultural entrepreneurship of our generation. Data is incredibly pervasive in society – it’s obviously controversial and extremely valuable both in the public and private sectors. Data becomes part of pop culture, which then becomes a foundation to use creatively, especially in my generation of artist. When you look at artists like Casey Reas, Jen Lowe, or Luke DuBois, they’re doing some really profound things with how we see data.
Black Hawk has always really been a series about helping an audience re-examine the visual culture arising around them. Particularly as demonstrated in leaking culture – and how that is reflected socially as an increasingly fear-based consumerist culture. People are spending millions and millions on “security” because we are scared of an invisible threat.
So with Black Hawk Paint, Asymmetric Love, Collateral Youth – like a lot of my work, those pieces are all more or less a translation of these shifts in culture. The events of 9/11 fundamentally changed Western culture, maybe not even not just western but global.
If you look at surveillance and data, we see that most of it is being collected by private companies like Facebook or Foursquare, then it’s handed over to the state. If it’s legal to carry out surveillance as a corporation, what about counter-surveillance? What about re-appropriating surveillance? If you examine the second amendment (the right to bear arms in the US Constitution) does it also allow you to have the technology to produce it? Print it? Distribute? When does data become a weapon and do we have the right to it?
The work you’re showing for Glitch explores outsourcing, alternative economies and surveillance culture. Can you tell us a little bit about what you’re showing?
The exhibition is entitled Cash Rules Everything Around. It’s the title of a Wu-Tang song.
There’s a romance and fascination in my generation with forgery, copies and bootlegs. It’s a question of what is the original: the .mp3 I purchased on the iTunes store or the same .mp3 I downloaded from The Pirate Bay? Is the iTunes version the original because a corporation tells me it is, or is the one from The Pirate Bay the original because my friends tell me it is?
We are a generation that was born and grew along with the .mp3, Napster and Pirate Bay. I want to divorce the experience of art from authentication of the brand of the artist; the power of the artist name, our social investment in the concept of genius and of ownership of an idea, a shape, or colour. The certainty that something is real – is that even a possibility anymore? Forgery embraces fantasy. It is disruptive to the system, which is something art is supposed to do.
The exhibition is a survey of our new economic models and post-Wikileaks culture. I use toys purchased in mass from eBay and Alibaba, paintings made in Chinese painting factories, CCTV cameras that are made to be noticed. It’s an exhibition about wandering around the ruins of what we have become and where I hope we go.
A very broad question to end with: does all art have a political responsibility?
A lot of contemporary art is boring and too easy. My whole approach in analysing the world is very different. Is it oppositional? Yes. Is it intentionally oppositional? Yes. I want to change the system, not make it more pretty to look at. There is a responsibility to focus, dream, ask questions, and burn up the things that culture doesn’t need to make space for what we do.
Addie Wagenknecht’s show appears as part of the Cash Rules Everything Around exhibition curated by Nora O Murchú at Glitch, an annual festival of digital art which also features work from Breda Lynch and Fergal Brennan. The festival opens on June 18th and runs until July 19th at RUA RED in Tallaght.
Words: Rosa Abbott