Copies Are More Important Than Their Original

Interview with Tilman Baumgartel, 1999

 

«You can call me Zero, and her One. Or the other way round». The Italians hiding behind the website 0100101110101101.ORG don't want to reveal their real names. They also won't divulge their ages or any other personal information. For simplicity's sake, the group calls itself "zero one dot org". They appear in public as a pair, or sometimes as a trio: a woman with one or two men, all of them probably in their mid-twenties, wearing mostly black. One of them sports a haircut that looks as if he's standing in an elevator freely plunging back to earth. All that's known about them for sure is that they are from Bologna. Otherwise, Zero and One will have to do in terms of information. And maybe, one of them says, at one point they will continue to work under a name other than the odd parade of numbers they can't seem to remember themselves.

Their secrecy concerning their names is not just another way to make themselves interesting; it's also part of a method of practicing art influenced by the Situationists, and above all, the Neoists, and carrying these means over to the Internet. They deny that they were active in Italy before their Net activities under the pseudonym Luther Blissett. Nevertheless, their work on the Net is extremely reminiscent of the activities originating from Bologna in recent years under that Neoist pseudonym. In the Net Art scene, their theft of the Net Art gallery Hell.com immediately put them on the map. The exclusive, password-protected website was only "opened" to the public for a single weekend. 0100101110101101.ORG downloaded the site into their own computer in two days and are still showing the copied works on their own website. In the meantime, not only is another Net Art gallery, Olia Lialina's Art. Teleportacia, on their site, but also "versions" or "remixes" of other well-known works of Net Art. In their other actions as well, they have made questions regarding copyright, intellectual property and ownership on the Internet central themes.

 

You became known in the Net scene because you made a copy of the Net Art site Hell.com and "republished" it on your site. Please tell me what you did exactly...

We are subscribers to the Net Art mailing list Rhizome. There, we heard that Hell.com would be open to the public for 48 hours for an exhibition called Surface. It was only for Rhizome subscribers, and you needed a password to look at it. We had never seen Hell.com, but we had heard about it, and we knew it was a big online museum of Net Art. So, during these 48 hours while it was open, we downloaded everything that was there. This was not as simple as it might seem; it took us 26 hours. Then we put it on our website and sent an e-mail with just the URL repeated hundreds of times to several mailing lists and newspapers.

Did Hell.com react?

Yes, only two hours later, the people of Hell.com sent an e-mail to us, and to the company that hosts our website in Canada. It said that we were in violation of the artists' copyright and of Hell.com itself, and that we should take down the site immediately. They charged us with violating international copyright law and whatever. We didn't do anything. We left the site on our server, and it is still there. Everybody was talking about this action for weeks, so it created a public debate that was a publicity stunt for us and, of course, for Hell.com, too. We had a huge amount of visits from people all around the world who wanted to see Hell.com, but couldn't get in there.

I think you are taking advantage of the fact that you are dealing with some American artists who can't afford to hire a lawyer to sue you in Europe. If you had done the same thing with the CNN site, they would have sued your ass off immediately, and you would have taken the site down in no time...

You can always be more radical than you are. What you are suggesting would be a political action, an assault against something. But it's not that we are against anything. We are not a group of anarchists that want to bring down Web Art. We just work with what we find and try to transmit and propagate our ideas. The thing with Hell.com doesn't interest us anymore. We had only two days for it, and when we saw what we had downloaded, we were pretty upset. If we had known that it was so bad, we would have never copied it. It's just a design exhibition. There are no ideas behind it, no content. I rather agree with Duchamp's idea of non-retinal art.

So what was the idea behind stealing this site?

We had the feeling that Hell.com was exactly the opposite of what we think that the Internet should be: a closed system. Today you don't have to be a hacker to do this kind of thing; by now there are enough tools to realize your ideas without technical abilities.

So would you agree that what you are doing is only of interest and meaning because you are doing it within the art system?

If you steal the Disney site, you are acting against Disney. There are many groups doing this kind of hacktivism; think, for example, of RTMark. They are doing great things, but we are not interested in this kind of practice. We work on concepts like originality and reproduction, authorship and network, copyright and plagiarism. You don't have to address explicitly political issues to do something political.

So again, the question: Am I right that these acts of recontextualization only make sense as an art practice?

Yes. The New York Times said that we are against the commercialization of Net Art, but that wasn't our position at all.

But the only pieces of yours that got talked about were your copies of Hell.com and Art.Teleportacia, and these works both had something to do with the commercialization of Net Art.

When we copied Hell.com it wasn't a pay-per-view site yet, it was just password-protected and there was copyright on the whole website. Before cloning Hell.com and Art.Teleportacia we created the so-called Hybrids, digital collages of works of other Net artists that had nothing to do with commercialization.

How is this different from, for example, Duchamp taking a picture of the Mona Lisa and drawing a moustache on it? And all the other acts of appropriation and re-appropriation with artists such as Sherrie Levine, for example?

On the Web, you can do these kinds of actions much easier. You don't have to destroy the original because there is no original. It's not that we care that much about "originals", not at all, but the paradigms of the "real" world are so rooted that you cannot change anything. While on the Net you feel that you have the power to influence.
This discussion about originality doesn't have any meaning any longer on the Net. Duchamp had to work with reproductions of works of art. We do it with the works themselves since the copy on the Net is identical to the original. When we clone Jodi, we don't destroy their work; we re-use it.

Did they ever complain to you?

No. When you copy a site you learn a lot of things about its authors. It's very interesting.

So are you saying that you are basically teaching yourself how to be Net artists by copying their sites?

No, we just use them interactively. We don't think that clicking around on a website is interaction. That is just doing what you are supposed to do. It's not the work of art being interactive; it's the beholder that can use it interactively. It happens when you use something in a way that's not been predicted by its author, to express new meanings that the author didn't foresee. The beholder becomes an artist and the artist becomes a beholder: a powerless witness of what happens to his work. Copies are more important than their original, although they do not differ from them. Copies contain not only all the parameters of the work that is being copied, but a lot more: the idea itself and the act of copying.

But that is in the nature of the Web anyway. Anybody can look at the source code of a website, and see how it has been done. One doesn't need some smart artist to do it for them...

We didn't invent anything; we only made it explicit. Anybody can download whole sites. You just need some software, and you don't have to be worried about copyright infringement. Our point is that there is a different way of behaving towards a work of art. You can choose what you want to do with the piece. You are not obliged to just look at it. Cloning is just one of the many things you can do. You can modify them. You can add things. You can put them in a different order. You can even destroy them. You can simply do anything you want. We would like to see some more of this kind of interaction on the Net. There are no "geniuses" inspired by a muse, but only a huge, endless exchange of information and influences. Knowledge is only a form of plagiarism. Even in the real world there are a lot of people doing interesting things about these topics, like Aleksander Brener, who created a new work out of a Malevich painting…

...and took away the possibility for people to look at Malevich's Suprematism because he painted a dollar sign on it...

Well, you can still look at it in catalogues.

Brener is now considered to be this sort of Antichrist of contemporary art, the scary anti-artist par excellence. How do you see yourselves?

We don't think of ourselves as artists but as beholders. We have seen what happened to Dada and Surrealism and all the other historical avant-garde movements. It doesn't really matter whether you call yourself an artist or an anti-artist.

Does that mean that you might as well stop doing what you are doing because it will be recuperated anyway?

This obsession of "being recuperated" is just a Situationist's paranoia. If nobody gives a shit about what you are doing, it's not necessarily because you are so radical, but more probably because you don't have anything to say. Anyway, if you mean "recuperate" in the sense of "becoming rich", we actually hope that somebody is going to recuperate us!

 

 

THE INTERVIEW TOOK PLACE AT MUSÉE D'ART MODERNE IN PARIS, OCTOBER 1999.
REVISED 2009. FIRST PUBLISHED IN TILMAN BAUMGÄRTEL, NET.ART 2.0, VERLAG FÜR MODERNE KUNST, NÜRNBERG 2001, PP. 198-207