Interview: Lisa Jevbratt

An email interview, November 1998-February 1999

Steve Dietz:What is a Stillman Project?

Lisa Jevbratt: A Stillman Project is a parasitic art system that recognizes the Web as a public/conversational/living/smart space.

SD: How does a Stillman Project differ from or resemble collaborative filtering on sites like and

LJ: A Stillman Project is an artwork. Its intention/agenda with the use of collaborative information filtering is thus different from that of sites where similar technology is used as a marketing strategy.

Interestingly, the networked information technologies being developed in the United States today lend themselves perfectly to different kinds of collaborative filtering. The implications of these technologies contradict the mythology of the individual, which is omnipresent in [modern] American society. We have to get used to the idea of sharing information, and ideas about privacy have to be redefined. In the Stillman Project for the Walker Art Center, the filtering process is opened up to the viewer. Nothing is going on behind the scenes. There is no additional information being kept for a "superior" group of users. This is an important difference from the way Alexa/Netscape related links work. By returning only the links and not the discursive environment in which the selection of those links was made, the user is seen not as a participator but as a receiver.

SD: One of the obvious aspects of collaborative filtering is that while it is an alternative means of navigation, it can also create a kind of self-fulfilling prophecy in which the most-visited pages are ... visited the most.

LJ: A good conversation on an interesting topic hopefully influences the participants. It should make us change what we believe in and what we want. We need to get used to interpreting this kind of information and to adjusting our agendas in appropriate ways. Every day we are in situations where we have to weigh information about what others think and want with our own agendas and beliefs. These technologies have more to do with consensus than with democracy or autocracy. They might make us think and react in more similar ways. I don't think there is necessarily any harm in that. It is again a question of the individual versus the collective, and the approach to it is going to vary greatly even within the cultures of the United States and Europe.

SD: At one point in the project you mentioned that you had become very committed to the Walker Web site being a "healthy host." Can you talk a bit more about this?

LJ: The Web offers and begs for new ways of discussing art. Thinking about art by playing with an Inviter/Host-Invitee/Guest-Noninvitee/Parasite continuum seems more appropriate than describing different roles and interpretations along an author-reader continuum. When I work on a project like this, the play between it being a parasite, a guest, and a host is what makes it interesting in terms of its ontological status as art. A parasite wants its host to be functioning well so that it can be "carried" and fed. A parasitic system also wants to understand its host system in order to get the most out of it. Your system [the Walker's Web site] is very convoluted. Now, when most technical problems are solved, I like how that conceptually affects the Stillman Project.

SD: What do you mean by "guest" and "noninvitee" on this continuum?

LJ: The guest, or invitee, is part of the expected audience, which is given certain permissions in terms of access and interpretation. There is an agreement set up between the inviter, or host, and the invitee, and there is an important element of trust in their relationship. The parasite, or noninvitee, is not explicitly considered by the host to be a receiver, and the host's information is thus not targeted to accommodate the parasite. Taken to its simplistic extreme, the guest could be seen as a person mingling/navigating a Web site, and the parasite as a hacker breaking into the site.

SD: Your project refers to the characters in the Paul Auster novel City of Glass. The character Quinn, a private detective, "decodes" the apparently chaotic data of Stillman's wanderings around New York by tracking them on a map of the city. What are some of the strategies a Stillman Project participant can use to better understand the mapping of information that is generated?

LJ: While the physical space of New York City has been thoroughly mapped, there isn't just one way of mapping the networked space of the Web. I see the collection and interpretation of the data generated by people's navigation as an attempt to create the map that could be used to decode that data; in other words, the map that is created is the map that could be used to better understand the map that is created. Maybe we have to use recursive reasoning to begin to grasp the concept of networked space. (The importance of recursive loops for computing cannot be overestimated.) To be more specific, I think seeing clusters of pages forming and pondering the relationships among those pages is an interesting way of using the map.

SD: Do you have a subject area or area of expertise in C5? Does your work with the Stillman Projects relate at all?

SD: My experience in creating network systems as art fits very well into C5's agenda. The projects we have been working with so far have given me an opportunity to use and expand that experience both conceptually and technically. Right now, my main responsibility is creating an http/IP database to be used in conjunction with other C5 endeavors, like the 16 Sessions project for Walker Art Center.

SD: What is your background?

LJ: Before I came to the CADRE Institute at San Jose State University for my MFA degree, I studied art in Sweden for many years. The first schools [I attended] were very traditional, teaching painting and sculpture from a high-late modernist platform. After that I spent two years at the College of Art, Craft and Design [Konstfack] studying industrial design. I thought that environment would be more open-minded, but I was wrong and went back to studying art. I [found] an art school [Malmoe School of Fine Arts-Forum] with a much more contemporary and theoretical approach. There I started to work with and exhibit computer-manipulated photography as a way of examining shifts in representation brought on by computer technology. Those investigations -- and a year of studies in philosophy at the Lund University -- made me see the new problems in making representations of things/issues. It seemed like the only way to do interesting art would be by working more directly with the computer as a language machine, creating systems that would embody, rather than represent, the implications of computer technologies on culture. So I went to Silicon Valley. The computers in the art program at San Jose State were a very good match for what I wanted to do, and the professor there, Joel Slayton, was challenging in just the right way.

SD: A Stillman Project for the Walker Art Center has been running for a couple of months now. What are some of your thoughts about the results?

LJ: It is interesting for me to see how the algorithm is playing out, how the blue has become the most dominant color of the pages, and to see that those pages actually do have something in common -- other than their "blue" visitors). I wonder about the accessibility of the project, how the descriptive texts function. It is difficult to get an understanding of that. It is important for interactive art to be aware of its complexity and to portion it out to the user. I do want the project to be "simple" on the surface with a straightforward functionality that discloses a depth as the user's investigation goes further.

SD: Are you a red, blue, or green mingler?

LJ: A mingler exists on the guest-host-parasite continuum mentioned above. My role as an artist is constantly shifting and my permissions are readjusted accordingly. I use my host permissions to re-type myself so that my presence on the site will not affect the mapping. (The permission setting doesn't have to be actual; it might only mean that I know the environment well enough to make myself invisible. Visitors who wanted to could "cover their tracks" by re-typing themselves at appropriate times.) Of the current statements, I more strongly agree with the blue and green ones, which would make me a blue or green guest/mingler, if I had accepted my invitation.