Constant Dullaart is a conceptual artist using the platforms and tools of the Internet as a space of inquiry and critique about technology’s impact on the world. From distributing millions of purchased Instagram followers to famous art world Instagram accounts to creating an army of thousands of fake Facebook profiles, Dullaart’s work critically and witfully examines that networks and structures that inform and govern our lives and identities as we become represented in the digital era. We sat down for a conversation in his Brooklyn studio, where he is a current member of the ISCP residency program, courtesy of the Mondriaan Fund.
Brett Wallace: What was your origin in art?
Constant Dullaart: When I was 12, I became fascinated with video on TV. I had this vision of hearing a conversation inside the plane while you watched the plane take off from the outside. You would never hear that in a natural situation, but now you would be allowed to hear it. I realized you could add another conversation to it about something else. I was fascinated by how the contextual layering could create a new type of image or a new way to process reality.
BW: How would you describe your work?
CD: I’m working with cultural artifacts that I find or appropriate. I’m interested in the vernacular or the dialect that informs culture. And it’s interesting to me to change the medium or context of such vernacular because then you can reframe and shed a new light on things.
For example, right now you’re helping me sort SIM cards. I have 100,000 of them. These SIM cards are a part of a larger industry verifying fake accounts on social media. In the pile, we can see the SIM cards with numbers on them. Those ones have been used in arrays to verify thousands of identities.
It’s interesting how these cards are a physical artifact of an industry constructing artificial identities, which is a fake audience amplifying opinions of those that have enough money to make that process happen. In the natural flow of things these SIM cards would mostly go to the person who wanted to retrieve the slivers of gold in the SIM cards. People would try to mine that gold like scrap metal. And I think the interesting part is that I’m reframing the SIM card itself culturally.
BW: Who inspires you?
CD: Gregor Schneider is a very important artist to me. The KLF. Then, there are a lot of friends and peers. I’m interested in being surprised by so many different people in this dynamic field.
BW: What is the process and platforms you’re working with from neural nets to websites?
CD: For me, the process becomes part of the medium. If you were to analyze it like a painting it would be part of the paint. I think of the platforms I work with in the same way. I’m interested in how representation has influence on us. For example, when I found the first image that was ever Photoshopped, “Jennifer in Paradise”, I was interested in what informs the way that Photoshop is thought about.
Photoshop is used in a certain way to manipulate the documentation or the representation of reality. Photography itself manipulates things. The lens manipulates reality, the fact that you stop time by closing the shutter, the film, the type of camera, the height the camera, how it is held or mounted, all these things inform the picture. There is additional manipulation through the material that is added through Photoshop such as enhancing the lighting, adding filters etc. I was also interested in the people behind it that made the software, the first hand decisions of how it was presented. Then, this origin story that involved an actual picture being the first one. And, adding a romantic story to it. It was a beautiful notion that there was this person who was still alive sitting between sea and shore, between digital and analogue.
We could talk about other examples in how we deal with the representation of ourselves, specifically within this era, how it’s dynamic, how we don’t completely understand yet. We could think of the phone itself or where Instagram came from, the profile as a framework for representation etc. And, because everyone is representing themselves as a brand, I thought it would be interesting to do it as a company.
“I see much of what I do as a participatory cultural anthropologist”
I join in on the game and then I figure out the strange cultural artifacts I could find there. How could I transpose them into another medium so we can analyze them again and see them through a new lens? Maybe we have become accustomed to the fact that you can buy Instagram followers. But, if you translate it to other ways you can see what it takes physically to do that then that action gets a whole other meaning.
BW: Could you share your viewpoint the future of technology and the idea of reclaiming space in techno-capitalism?
CD: An example that sets the stage is Thurn und Taxis, the aristocratic family who started the postal system in Europe. They were so powerful that they manipulated and controlled the communication infrastructure. Thurn und Taxis ran the mail. The postal system was later nationalized, and even had their own military to protect the integrity of communication.
The fact is we can talk about democracy and election systems all we want, but if that fades away. If there are companies in place, that we only elected by way of market, only by way of adding functionality to our lives, but not actually by rechecking an ideology and getting politics and actual discourse into it, I think that’s where this stuff gets problematic.
“We’re from a generation that both saw in that generation the potential of technological Esperanto – this idea that people could program themselves, that technology could make things accessible and people could control it themselves.”
We all saw that potential in technology and now we have seen it fading away because there’s too much money to be made. We all thought there would be a moment when borders would become totally ornamental. Borders in Europe opened up. There was the end of the Balkan wars. There was the potential that these new countries would join Europe and these borders would be open again. Now you see people protecting themselves again because they feel like they’re losing something. Some people might not be able to join and speak that technological Esparanto. There’s this wave of internationalization not everyone can join. Certain people can jump on their EasyJet flight, but other people have their regular jobs outside of the visa waiver borders, can’t join the easy market and are very frustrated. Not everyone can cross the borders, only those who have the right passports, the right access.
A Google account would still be international, without borders; you could be the same person to Google, maybe making less revenue because what you generate for advertisements is less, but in principle you get this idea that
“you’re part of something bigger, this connected global community, almost forming this global humanism, even leaking into transhumanism.”
But, there’s this strange discrepancy between the ideological threshold these companies have to be beneficial for many people versus the oppressive reality that people can’t vote or have any control of what these companies do. What if American citizens voted about a rule that affected everyone in the world because it affected a certain US based company. Or a company might apply certain cultural restrictions on images or self-representation that are completely ridiculous in another country, like current sexual or moral implications. The company is forcing its global culture onto you. I think that’s where its problematic where people are reacting with this nationalization. A lot of people are in disbelief and sad that this technological Esparanto may not happen. A lot of people I know are on Reddit and no one shares their profile name because they want to have their posts disconnected from their identity. It’s valued. This is something we’ll have to fight to keep and uphold. I took the long way to answer this because the short way says, in more of a technological context less of an artistic context, we’re fucked.
“The roads that are built have ethical implications we might only find out about years later.”
It’s about check and balances – we have complicated organization structures and we have societal agreements, but then what does that mean if we talk about billion dollar companies. Do we get to vote on any kind of cultural policy that’s implicated or does there have to be a moral uproar before someone says you should close the channels used by the alt-right? Or, should you say that also have a right to free speech. Where are you going to have that discourse, who’s going to talk about this, it is just going to be political or is it going to be community management and is it only going to be taken seriously if you’re going to lose customers through it.
Let’s imagine there’s another flood somewhere in the US. Uber suddenly surges enormously because everyone wants to get out of there, what happens after a while? Everyone says #DeleteUber once again to say we’re not going to support this company anymore. Is that the only power that we have as citizens in making decisions? Or could there be a law that supports surging to a certain percentage?
BW: I think you’re raising an interesting question about how participatory can we be and how reactive or proactive a corporation can be when it comes to social justice. I’m reminded of the 2013 Rana Plaza factories that collapsed in Bangladesh and the backlash against factory conditions that created, only after the fact. Just this week we saw CEOs resign from the President’s manufacturing council after he protected racist protestors. It was good to see that and I hope we can see more proactive corporate activism.
CD: Exactly. I think there’s a corporate culture within a lot of these companies that wants to be disruptive and destabilize structures in society to break through to create a new revolutionary way of doing something. That could be very beneficial to society and be great. And, if you have enough money and you’re international, yes Uber is great because you can find the same quality of service wherever you land. But, from a negative side, in that sense, fascism is also great because everything is just the same. If you want to have control over one of these companies, politically, it’s really difficult because they always to stay a step ahead where there is no legislation yet. This is kind of gaming the political system to catch up.
BW: We’re talking in front of 100,000 SIM cards and sorting them. What is this project?
CD: A lot of these cards have been used in the process of mass verification for constructed identities. Let’s say you need 25,000 Facebook followers to like your brand. You could find and target followers that behave similarly and then start to befriend these people in order to create dominant opinions. As we know from psychological research, people tend to copy the dominant opinion of people around them. If you do it right, people won’t see the difference if the opinion is fake or real. That’s why you would need thousands of social media accounts. These social media accounts get verified through SIM cards. I’m now designing a monument of all the deleted soldiers of these propaganda wars.
Constant Dullaart (NL, 1979), former resident of the Rijksakademie in Amsterdam, lives and works in Berlin. Like the work of his digital native peers, Dullaart’s often conceptual work manifests itself both online and offline. Within his practice, he reflects on the broad cultural and social effects of communication and image processing technologies while critically engaging the power structures of mega corporations that dramatically influence our worldview through the internet. He examines the boundaries of manipulating Google, Facebook and Instagram and recently started his own tech company Dulltech™ with Kickstarter.
Dullaart has curated several exhibitions and lectured at universities and academies throughout Europe, most recently at Werkplaats Typografie, a post-graduate programme at ArtEZ, Arnhem. In 2015, he was awarded the Prix Net-Art, the international prize for internet art.
Biography courtesy of Upstream Gallery, Amsterdam