Bob Bicknell-Knight (b. 1996, Suffolk, UK) is a London-based artist and curator working in installation, sculpture, video and digital media. Using found objects and tools made readily available by the Internet, as well as drawing from a unique sensibility influenced by participation in online communities and virtual games, Bicknell-Knight’s work explores the divergent methods by which consumer capitalist culture permeates both online and offline society. Utopian, dystopian, automation, surveillance and digitization of the self are some of the themes that arise through Bicknell-Knight’s critical examination of contemporary technologies.
Bicknell-Knight is also the founder and current director of isthisit?, a platform for contemporary art, exhibiting over 800 artists since its creation in May 2016. Online, it operates as a gallery producing monthly exhibitions showcasing emerging to mid-career artists, hosting a roster of guest curators experimenting with the medium of the internet to interrogate a variety of concepts. The website also hosts monthly residencies, where artists are given a web page to create new work that exists on the internet as a piece of net art. Offline, it has held exhibitions nationally and internationally and is the publisher of isthisit?, a book series released on a triannual basis.
Selected solo exhibitions include CACOTOPIA 02 at Annka Kultys Gallery, London (2018), Sunrise Prelude at Dollspace, London (2017) and Are we there yet? at Chelsea College of Art, London (2017). Selected group exhibitions include Inside Intel at Goldsmiths, University of London, London (2018), Total Power Exchange at Galerie Manque, New York (2018), Terms and Conditions May Apply at Annka Kultys Gallery, London (2018), The Museum Has Abandoned Us at State of the Art, Berlin (2017), The Choice of a New Generation at The Muse Gallery, London (2017), I miss you, Blockbuster... at A217 Gallery, London (2017) and MozEx at Mozilla Festival, Ravensbourne, London (2016). Biography courtesy of the artist.
Brett: What was the origin of your practice?
Bob: When I was quite young I made really terrible sculptures about my emotions out of wood. Before that it was terrible paintings in school. The starting point to what I do now, in terms of my interest in new technologies and the internet, stemmed from a big exhibition of three or four years of Jon Rafman’s work by the Zabludowicz Collection in London. That made me see that you could make work about video games or technology, and that’s actually seen as an interesting subject people want to view within an art context.
Brett: How do we define the conceptual boundaries of your practice today?
Bob: I try not to be too constricting because there might be something tomorrow that is interesting, but obviously technology as a whole is all-encompassing in my work. I recognize that puts you in a bad place in some people’s minds.
One interest of mine is video games, and I’ve made a few video games as art. I used some of the imagery from video games. I’m also interested in data, how it’s utilised both on and off the internet. The fifth issue of the book series that I produce as part of isthisit? was all about data harvesting and how Facebook and Cambridge Analytica got into trouble with how they utilise their customers data. I’m also interested in both analog and digital surveillance, which that issue delved into. The books become areas of research for my overall practice, enabling me to produce researched artworks whilst allowing me to contact and chat with the same artists/writers/curators on a curatorial level.
Brett: I think one of your passages in the last book was a Darwinian conversation with Alexa set in the future. Could we share a little more about that project and thoughts about technology-mediated relationships?
Bob: That was a fairly academic project, full of references to current events from a near future perspective, whereby the ‘protagonist’ of the text begins speaking to their Alexa. At first the conversation is very simple, with the AI responding with 2-3 word sentences. As the text continues, and the human keeps speaking, Alexa learns from the human, picking up and duplicating certain traits that the human utilises in their writing. Eventually, after speaking for around 5000 words, touching on subjects like self-driving cars to universal basic income, the human and the AI become indistinguishable from each other. The piece was built on the premise of machine learning, that the more data an AI with in-built algorithms gathers, the more they learn and ‘improve’, with the AI in the text ‘improving’ until they become indistinguishable to the human. It’s a tongue-in-cheek way of envisioning the future, although I highly doubt it will be that simple. As humans we’re definitely not at ‘peak improvement’.
Brett: How does curating and publishing influence your own work?
Bob: There’s a relationship between all of it. I might have an idea artistically. And then I might be like, ‘ooh, I’d quite like to do some research on the artists I like who are working with those ideas.’ And then, ‘oh, it’d be quite nice to email those people and have an interview with them.’ So it’s very fluid in that way. A lot of the books are informed by what I’m researching in my own practice. And that’s the beauty of the books, I think, because then I get to talk to all these people.
Brett: There are a lot of artists thinking about the problems with biased algorithms, monopolization of tech companies, the mediated relationships in tech etc. What are some of the things that you care about most within the technological realm?
Bob: At the moment, I’m really interested in an online construction company called Dahir Insaat. Their process seems to be they have an idea – more often than not it’s to make a huge killing machine for the military – which they render, post online and pitch to companies. I’m interested in how those videos then spread online portraying how the machine could kill hundreds of people at once. What happens is they go viral, and then people are really scared about this technology, which has no grounding in the real world. But obviously on social media nobody does any research into whether what they’re seeing is real or fabricated; they just click through and are onto the next thing, the next viral video. So, I made a piece of work about Dahir Insaat with some simple animations utilising their videos to speak about the state of the news – although they’re enough themselves to freak people out.
Brett: Are you interested in where this intersects with content moderation?
Bob: Somewhat. There’s a really great piece by Eva and Franco Mattes on this called Dark Content. It’s a series of video works where they interview social media content moderators and anonymise their faces by using a stock animation. To access the work you have to go onto the dark web.
Brett: I love their work.
Bob: Before I was interested in the kind of art that I’m making at the moment, my brother showed me their work – a piece called Freedom where they were pleading with people in the video game Counter Strike not to shoot them. He showed me it, and I was like, ‘this is so stupid.’ At the time, I was coming from a gamer’s point of view. And then last year I curated that same piece in a group show. I’ve come full circle from like really not liking it to loving it.
Brett: How do think about the visual dimensions in your practice?
Bob: I don’t have a medium in the usual sense but a lot of the work I do is various forms of appropriation. So it’s not necessarily counting on me having a specific skillset. For a little while I’ve been producing a series of fake or faux paintings, creating images on Photoshop, using the oil paint filter and editing them into various studio and gallery settings. Eventually these will be sent off to a Chinese painting farm in Shenzhen, but for the moment they only exist on my website and Instagram. Sometimes when I meet people, they’re like, ‘oh you’re a painter, aren’t you?’ and I’m like, ‘no, not at all.’ The paintings are completely fake. Eventually the images of the fictitious studio spaces may become works alongside these fabricated paintings.
Brett: Very meta.
Bob: Kind of in a post studio place, like a lot of Joshua Citarella’s work. In terms of form, I never start off by thinking about the end product, what the work will eventually manifest as. I usually have an idea, and then I think about how that idea might work as a sculpture, a painting, a video, etc.
Brett: Given that approach, how interested are you in the brief period of conceptual art, if at all?
Bob: I really don’t like that kind of conceptuality, in terms of a view, a curator’s point of view. But I can see the similarities, as in you start with an idea and then you don’t mind what form it takes.
Brett: That was the way I was thinking about it.
Bob: Yeah, but I hate it. It’s too formal for me. If I had a nice house it’s the kind of work I’d want on my wall, because a lot of stereotypical conceptual work is visually beautiful, but in an exhibition context I’m not that interested.
Brett: Going back to technology, the books cover tax havens, surveillance, post capitalism. How far do your interests in the digital go? Do they trace back to the materials and supply chain that creates digital devices?
Bob: A lot of people I know say whatever is made now is in a digital context. You’re always going to be looking at things through the screen. I’m torn between that [point of view] and being very strict about it. It has to be made on a computer. It has to be on a TV screen. I remember being asked this question about what digital art is and being very careful about it. I’m going to go with the ambiguous answer that it’s anything that’s made, maybe anything that’s been made over the past twenty years.
Brett: The digital and physical are in a constant relationship. Before the Internet bubble of the early 2000’s, the world had to create massive physical infrastructure to manifest it, such as millions of miles of undersea fiber optic cable.
Bob: I think that’s a nice way of getting a lot of people who don’t particularly want to be associated with the digital, involved in the digital. A lot of people complain about being part of the digital. They’re all wanting to escape it, especially formal painters. You’re always embedded in it. You can’t get away from it unless you want to go live in a cave somewhere and stare at shadows on the wall.
Brett: Could you talk about your last show, Terms and Conditions.
Bob: The show took its name from the film of the same name. A documentary from 2012, which looked at these policies and platforms that you subscribe to unknowingly. The film mostly focused on Facebook, culminating in the director, Cullen Hoback, harassing Mark Zuckerberg in the street next to his house. It’s stated quite publicly that Facebook and Zuckerberg himself is all about transparency, with the office that he works in being made of glass, his desk next to everyone else’s, but then his house is 40 feet or so back from the street to create a more private space. Of course, that’s his right, but it’s the idea of practicing what you preach, and Hoback was attempting to make that point, in a weird, ‘let’s harass Mark Zuckerberg next to his house’ kind of way.
The show was accompanied by issue 5 of the book series, the starting point for which was surveillance. I do a catchall thing with the books. I usually do an open call to keep it democratic, but then I also invite artists to be a part of it. The book was about surveillance and the change between analog surveillance and digital surveillance. The cover had Addie Wagenknecht’s surveillance chandelier, Asymmetric Love, covered with Facebook react emoji’s.
The show was about attempting to chart that transition from more physical forms of surveillance, like cameras, to the digital forms of the present, like data harvesting. A couple of the works in the show were visual fabrications of analogue forms of surveillance. Such as a ceramic surveillance camera by Patrick Colhoun that was pink, beautifying this technology. There were also various works thinking about surveillance suspense and the private and public space that we always inhabit, and a lot about data and the stock market, as well. There were a couple works by Jason Isolini; his job used to involve making visual tours within Google Maps for people. He now utilises the same technology for his art, submitting ‘art’ images to the website –I assume because he’s a trusted person who’s collaborated with them before. He submits these 360 degree images, which you can go to, and they’re a mixture of new technologies, hacking the public and private space of Google Maps. Another piece was by Fabio Lattanzi Antinori. He created a visual representation of the moment when Facebook suffered a flash crash on the 26th of July, 2017. He describes it primarily like a decimal point was misplaced or a piece of fake news was wrongly digested, and then that small piece of false data spread to all the bots who operate on the stock market. And then the market reacts and lowers the stock. He took all the tweets from that day when the flash crash happened on Facebook and then visualized it within this beautiful LED array.
Brett: We hear so much hype about automation and AI singularity. I feel like these future visions are overhyped takes us away from present day issues workers face with algorithmic management, biased algorithms and privacy intrusions. How do you feel about the hype?
Bob: In an art context, I am thinking about these things. But in a literal ‘how I make my money’ way I’m not thinking about it at all. I’m just trying to make money and live. I work in two galleries. They’ll be able to replace me, and that time might not come, but maybe it will. Then I’ll have to get another, more skilled job, I guess. But it definitely comes into play on the art front, coming back to the personal assistants like Siri and Alexa.
Brett: What’s on the horizon for you?
Bob: I’m working on this big video at the moment that utilizes a number of animated videos made by a news channel on YouTube, supposedly meant to make the news more visually enticing. I’ve been collecting these videos for a little while now, focusing on the ones that forewarn about future technologies. I’ve been producing a very slow, wave-like sound piece that goes over these videos, which hopefully makes you feel relaxed, allowing you to slip into these incredibly methodical videos that tell complicated stories through a simple animation style. I’ve then been writing a script for this, which I’ll eventually pay someone over the internet to speak and record, a technique I’ve used in the last few videos I’ve made, a little like collaborating with the internet. The script will focus primarily on the news becoming untrustworthy, taking quotes from popular culture to create a fictional, ambiguous journey through these evocative animations.
State of Affairs, 2018, HD video with sound, 25 mins 49 sec, Edition of 3, 1 AP. Video courtesy of the artist.
I’ve also been making a lot of work covering various equipment, which you’d find in a typical office, in artificial grass. These will act as sculptures to go alongside this video, although they have been exhibited as sculptures themselves. It’s looking at the tech products we use every day and how they’re artificial, with the future being covered in grass. Quite stereotypical, but then it’s artificial grass, so it’s like the future now, with corporations wanting to be seen as environmentally friendly but in reality – underneath the false grass – they’re still the same as they were many years ago.
For a little while now I’ve been using an aluminum modular system for sculptures and installations, originally purchased for a group show I curated called Duty Free last year, but now I’ve become quite attached to it from an artistic point of view. In the next few months I’ll be using it in installations, and in April 2019, I’m part of the first Uneven Biennale in Casablanca, Morocco, where I’ll be using it for a big installation with video and sculptural work. Before that I’m in a group show in February 2019 in Cambridge called GROUND ZERO EARTH, curated by Yasmine Rix that received some funding, so I’m finally creating a number of physical paintings for that. Who knows, maybe I’ll become a painter, which would be odd. And then I’m continuing to make work around symbols and currency, specifically cryptocurrencies and Primecoin.
Brett: Oh yeah, I think we talked about primecoin last time we got together.
Bob: Yeah, that was for the Duty Free show. At the moment, I like having quite a digital practice, but it’s also nice to have things that may potentially sell and look good on a wall, something you can’t just switch off. It’s also quite nice to have things if I want to do an art swap with an artist. A recent piece I made called Unattended Bag is very analog. A Facebook advertising campaign put up billboards with “data misuse is not our friend” as their slogan. The work consisted of the slogan printed on a custom bag, full of shredded newspaper that cocoons Zuckerberg’s 3D printed head as a USB drive, containing all of my personal Facebook data.
Brett: What do you have coming up on the curating side?
Bob: A few weeks ago a curatorial project I had with Daata Editions launched, titled Flow My Tears. It’s an online show of digital works that you can purchase online, concerning ideas surrounding the cyborg body, conspiracy theories, ideological differences and enhanced memory mechanisms. The next issue of the book series, issue 6, launches at the end of January at SPACE in London, featuring over 30 artists and writers focusing on alternative facts and the rise of citizen journalism. There will also be an exhibition in London at the end of February to commemorate the book, with a group show I’m curating featuring some of the artists in the issue. Alongside this I’m in the early stages of planning a co-curated exhibition with Millicent Hawk, an artist who runs a project space in London called Avalanche, featuring artists re-imagining potential futures, which will be later this year. Other than that I have a number of group shows I’m involved in over the next few months with my own work, in London and abroad.