Interview: Janet Cohen, Keith Frank, Jon Ippolito

An email interview, November, 1998 - January, 1999
(The three artists chose to write their responses to each question independently and then asked me to compile them for comparison.--sd)

Steve Dietz: Describe the nature of your (is it three.org?) collaborations.

Janet Cohen: The nature of our work (we're known as Cohen-Frank-Ippolito), is that we argue like mad for as much time as possible and then devise a project that incorporates all three of our voices into the final work. We call our work adversarial collaborations, which, at least to our thinking, explains all the phases of the project: the part where we don't get along and then the part where we do. Our collaborations have taken many forms. We don't restrict ourselves to working in a particular medium. We like to evaluate the space and the context where a work is going to be shown and then we start tossing around ideas. Lately, the conversations that are part of the developmental stages of the work have been documented as the work (see the argument drawings and Agree to Disagree Online). Our online work takes a bit more of a unified front. In our nondigital work the adversarial aspect of our collaboration often entails fighting with each other. In our online work and in the few group shows we've been in, you could say that we take on other artists as our adversaries.

Keith Frank: The collaborative, as I see it, foregrounds the social politics that take place between the three of us. Our work involves placing ourselves in different contexts that we know will lead to conflict. These situations can be as mundane as arguing about what to order for dinner while we're working, or as personal as questioning each other's belief systems. Whatever the context, our work aims to reveal, rather than conceal, the exchange of ideas and the conflicts that arise when three separate egos choose to interact.

For all of these reasons, referring to us by a single name is antithetical to the nature of our work. I would prefer for us to be referred to as "Keith Frank, Janet Cohen and Jon Ippolito" although I'm sure that you have received different responses from both Janet and Jon--perhaps shuffling each of their own names to the front. Although this is how I'd like the names presented, I have conceded to listing them alphabetically. This is not a compromise. Make no mistake, in our collaborative there is no room for compromise. The very nature of collaboration of any kind is such that conflicts do arise. The fact that these conflicts must reach resolution is not what is engaging about them; it is the way in which these conflicts resolve themselves that is almost always surprising, unpredictable and thought provoking. (These are three things that much of today's art is sorely lacking.) But this process is almost never exposed. Every detail of our work is reached only through rigorous questioning, debate, and strategic negotiation. If I could convincingly argue why my name should be listed first, it would be. However, I am convinced that personal whim does not present a strong argument--contrary to what many art critics may think, but would never admit.

Jon Ippolito: The very fact that there isn't a convenient catchall name for our collaborative--that you have to refer to us as "Janet Cohen, Keith Frank, and Jon Ippolito"--points out how our collaboration differs from most. In our projects, different points of view tend to collide rather than blend. So it's fitting that we don't assume a single name to imply some artificial unity that doesn't exist. In this regard, The Unreliable Archivist is a somewhat exceptional project for us, since we haven't made visible our debates about, say, which images and texts fit in which categories. The collision that is visible in The Unreliable Archivist is not between ourselves but between Web pages. It acts on these as a sort of atom-smasher, breaking them down to their elementary particles and then fusing them back together in unintended recombinations.

The only reason we picked the domain name www.three.org is that we figured nobody would ever remember how to spell cohenfrankippolito.org!

SD: Why äda'web?

JC: Benjamin Weil asked us to devise a project. We liked what äda'web was doing. Given our preliminary thoughts on The Unreliable Archivist (UA), äda'web seemed like a good fit as far as our having a rich database of material from which to cobble together a project.

KF: Frankly, we're not the easiest group to collaborate with since we tend to take an adversarial stance with each other and hence also toward other artists or groups; this is just the nature of the work we do. So it takes a strong group with confidence in themselves and their work to deal with us successfully. Unfortunately, Internet art is still in its infancy and as a result has spawned a large number of truly bad works and a relatively small amount of engaging work. äda'web had the advantage of being one of the first structured art Web sites, and it featured many works that were inextricably tied to the medium (i.e. computers, networks and the Internet). Many other sites merely use the Web as a way to document, repackage and distribute works executed in more traditional media such as object making, installation, performance and video. However, this is not to say that "some" of the works in äda'web have not fallen into this trap; given the range of the works contained within äda'web the number is relatively low. This range of content and quality was one of the deciding factors for using äda'web as a source for The Unreliable Archivist.

JI: For The Unreliable Archivist to work best, we needed to draw on a Web site that would 1) be familiar to most online art aficionados and 2) represent an unchanging pool of images and texts we could draw from. In other words, we needed a Web site in perfect health that had just died! Lucky for us--though not for äda'web--the fact that AOL terminated äda'web so abruptly furnished us with a fresh cadaver. And the Walker was kind enough to embalm it for us!

SD: What are some of your main concerns about archiving networked-based media?

JC: We tried to incorporate what we understood as the spirit of äda'web into our archiving of it. It should be obvious that archiving networked-based media is unlike archiving static media. We can't even be certain that any of this will be legible in a few years what with advances in technology, browsers, and thus-far-unimagined killer apps. Given this hazy scenario, we decided that we would be somewhat irreverent in our archiving of äda'web, hence the title, The Unreliable Archivist. Creating a dry inventory of the site, listing/indexing the number of images, alphabetizing them, putting them in recognizable art historical categories, held no interest to any of us. Any well trained archivist/historian could do that; it is a valuable and a necessary task, but we're artists not archivists and we wanted to play around with the site. We make no claims to the utility of UA. What we're doing is asking: what would äda'web look like if you recombined things these ways?

But, back to Steve's question. You can mess around with bits and pieces such as we've done with digital works. You can't do this if you're going to archive someone's papers, writings or drawings. If you were so inclined, you could say that we've taken William Burroughs' and Brion Gysin's cut-up method of writing and mis-applied it to digital artworks. Or you could say that we've taken the works on äda'web and recoded them so that you get not necessarily a parallel viewing experience, but something perhaps out of sync or tuned in another key. Another way of looking at what we've done: it is a bit like going into a used book store where the system, if there is one, of shelving the inventory is idiosyncratic and then is made even more so by people coming into the store, browsing through some books, and then having a clerk (who has his own peculiar system) reshelving all the books in places far from where yesterday's clerk had shelved the books. UA thrives on the premise that one can run amuck in categorizing work. Oftentimes, categorizing work does a disservice to the work by pigeonholing it and makes for lazy viewers. The three of us tend to like work that doesn't fit neatly into any one category, perhaps that's why we leaned towards an irreverent, unreliable attitude in re-presenting the work. UA won't tell you how to get a job as an archivist; all it does is tell you how we archived certain parts of äda'web.

KF: One of the main concerns about archiving network-based media involves the issue of platform obsolescence. In other words, what good is archiving a digital work if the hardware and/or software required to view the work has become obsolete and is no longer available? Developments in this field are happening so quickly that five to ten years from now the platform and network structures will be completely different. Archived digital works will no longer be viewable unless the appropriate hardware and software are archived as well. This would drastically change the nature of the art conservator's job. Rather than cleaning off old residue or analyzing paint chips, a conservator/programmer may face the task of writing some sort of o/s patch that would enable the older works to be viewed on the available technologies.

Another concern that directly relates to The Unreliable Archivist addresses the nature of digital media. Digital artworks have no physical bonds holding the individual components together. To the artist this offers a great degree of flexibility in creating the work. However, for the archivist this fragmentation introduces the possibility that small parts, (bits or bytes) of works may be lost, become corrupted, or perhaps just reorganized by mischievous hackers. The characteristics that make digital works so attractive to artist also make it quite unstable in the hands of an archivist used to dealing with objects that exist in the physical world.

JI: Embalming jokes aside, art made for the Web will certainly expire if it cannot be recast in a new medium when the Web evolves into The Next Big Thing in the years to come. This is the impetus for a project we have begun in "variable media": a piece that can exist in different forms, from sticks and stones to oil paint to e-mail, and yet remain fundamentally the same art work each time. Janet, Keith, and I have somewhat differing opinions of how variable media should work, but according to my paradigm the responsibility of deciding which translations into new media are appropriate for a given artwork devolves to the work's owner when the artist dies. In the case of äda'web, it would be the Walker's job not just to host äda'web on their server, but also to investigate new ways of presenting it if the old way becomes technologically obsolete. The Unreliable Archivist proposes a particularly irreverent approach to re-presenting äda'web: an archivist who has preserved the pieces but has mixed up which pages they belong to. In a curious way, this scrambling may be more faithful to the dynamic of the Web than preserving the integrity of each page (as SFMOMA's graphic design department has done). If the images and texts that make up a Web page come along different routes from different sources and are only combined once they appear on the viewer's screen, why do they need to be pigeonholed together in the archive?

SD: I'm interested in this apparent shift to Web work being less adversarial among yourselves, at least in a project's manifestations to outsiders. What's going on there?

JC: As I mentioned in my answer to your first question concerning the name of our collaborative, we've taken an adversarial stance towards the raw material of äda'web. At a certain point in a project we start pruning things, and one thing that got cut in UA was the infighting amongst the three of us. One of the things we try to do in our work is to not throw too many things at a viewer/participant. Had we chosen to manifest our arguments in the final project, the entire project would have been too muddled. But you can rest easy knowing that for our next project we are planning to air our dirty laundry.

KF: The first group show we were in raised this very question. In cases such as these, the conflicts that take place between the three of us take a back seat to the conflicts that arise between the other parties involved and us. It's really a question of focus. We try to remove elements that might detract from what we see to be the main focus of the work. In the case of UA we saw ourselves in relation to äda'web and the artists contained within. If we believed that including the arguments that took place amongst the three of us would have somehow clarified that relationship between äda'web and us, we would have included them.

The main issue really is what the work needs and what could it do without. This is a working premise that I believe many contemporary artists could benefit from. It's about the work, not about you and your schtick or signature form or material. That's something that really bugs me about many artists today. Don't you wonder whether Peter Halley sits there saying to himself, "wow I've got this great idea but I couldn't possibly execute it; it wouldn't work as pseudo-modernist painting and the proper form it should take wouldn't be recognizable as a Peter Halley." Or perhaps Matthew Ritchie finds himself using a coding system that is recognizable as an already existing system, a system which allows the viewer into the work without having to refer back to the artist in order to unlock the "secret code." What would happen? The work might stand on its own. Art today seems to be more about the artists than the work; this is a problem. So in answer to your question about an apparent shift in our work, when our work appears to be static and it is unwilling to adapt and change for new and unforeseen circumstances, then it's time to stop working together. I would suspect that my colleagues would agree, and if they don't, well, then I guess we've got the beginnings of another project.

JI: I don't think the Web work is less adversarial-at one point in Agree To Disagree Online, for example, I call Janet and Keith "chumps," and they're equally abrasive to me. On the rare occasions when our work takes a more unified stance--and The Unreliable Archivist is one of them--the stance has nothing to do with the technology, but is due to the context. (The Internet is a perfect medium for representing conflict, as anyone who has ever gotten embroiled in a flame war knows.)

In group shows or Web sites where our work will be juxtaposed with the work of other artists, we often take a unified approach to exposing the competitive nature of such contexts. In our 1995 installation Process of Elimination, for example, we posted criteria on the walls of a group show by which the artworks could be judged against each other. Our intent in these contexts is not necessarily to pick a fight with other artists--although this sometimes happens because some artists get pissed off--but to lay bare the adversarial conditions that these contexts already imply. SD: One of the things that interests me about UA is that you had to pick categories to "smash." In a sense, text, image, style, layout are characteristics that help define both your project and the ones they are taken from, but the categories themselves could just as easily be applied to a book. It is only in their (dis)combination and mutability that they become distinctive characteristics.

JC: Well, as for smashing categories, this has been one of our favorite activities for quite some time. I suppose one reason we chose these categories, notwithstanding our distaste for categories, is to say that we saw these aspects--layout, image, text, style--as being consistent elements throughout most Web pages, so that's why these categories worked for us. True, you could apply UA's categories to a book, but it is rare that a book would lend itself to the mutations that we have applied to the material on äda'web.

KF: You're correct in observing that the categories we chose are ones that "could just as easily be applied to a book." As far as the Web is concerned, it's just too easy to start inventing your own terminology or categories. There is a long history of people and books. Acknowledging the fact that we refer to these digital images on our monitors as Web "pages" confirms that connection. We try to exploit this (familiarity) rather than deny its existence. When creating artworks (digital or analog) it's up to the artist to be familiar with his/her audience. We could have invented new "Web terms" for these characteristics; however this would only serve to make an already confusing issue even more confusing. Whether or not we rename or recategorize them is not the issue; it's the ease with which they may be fragmented and reassembled that's the issue.

JI: As you say, we used the same structural paradigm for The Unreliable Archivist that underlies äda'web.--that is, the Web page. Indeed, most äda'web. projects reinforce the impression that html pages are "all of a piece" like book pages, whereas they are in fact assembled from potentially interchangeable images, texts, and other components. We chose recognizable publishing categories like style, layout, and so on to demonstrate that properties that must be fixed for a book can be fluid for a Web site. (This is why we had to exclude the few ada'web projects that aren't page-based, such as jodi's %20 Demo and Maciej Wisniewski's Jackpot)

SD: In our various discussions, I don't think appropriation has come up as a touchstone. In some ways, I see UA as more akin Harold Bloom's intentional misappropriation, but certainly there are many possible links to appropriation art from Robert Heinecken to Richard Prince. Did this figure into your conversations at all?

JC: No. Well, it's not like we have our heads in the sand, and we certainly know about artists whose work falls under the rubric of appropriation, but it just wasn't an issue for us. We did spend time talking about collage and cubism, but not appropriation. I can see why you may see possible links, but they simply didn't figure into our conversations. We spent some time talking about sampling in the recording industry, but we didn't discuss appropriation in the visual arts.

KF: We haven't brought up appropriation because what we are experiencing on the Web as far as appropriation is unique. When someone like Marcel Duchamp appropriates the image of the Mona Lisa and draws a mustache on it we can all rest assured that the original is untouched, locked behind the bulletproof Plexiglass at the Louvre. In the case of digital works on the Web we cannot be so sure. The images in UA are not copies once removed or one of a multiple. They are the original images. The Internet and the very nature of HTML as it exists today are postmodernism as it had never imagined itself. Artists are no longer limited to cutting, pasting or manipulating copies of originals, but now they can, through the advent of new technologies, manipulate the originals themselves. The very fact that there is no unique original in digital work could seal its death certificate. In this age of fetishistic art collecting (who has the original? how much did it fetch at Sotheby's?) this type of work may never find a home.

JI: I don't think our use of existing äda'web images fits either Bloom's Oedipal paradigm (since most äda'web artists are our peers rather than our forefathers) or Richard Prince's ironic quotation (since the piece is not about presenting images from mass culture in a fine art context). In literature and photography, quotation is simply one of many rhetorical devices--but on the Web it's intrinsic to the medium. When you "visit" Vivian Selbo's project on äda'web, you're downloading her images to your hard drive whether you realize it or not. We just decided to put them to use.

SD: Is the idea of variable media sort of like the argument that such and such a director would have wanted to see her film in color if the technology had been available so it's ok to colorize it?

JC: Not really. A large part of the idea behind Variable Media (VM) is that artists don't consider what might happen to their work over time. For whatever reasons, they assume their work will be available for viewing/listening/experiencing in perpetuity. VM assumes that technologies will change and that it is better to make the assumption that things won't last. Given this, it is incumbent upon the artist to specify how the work is to be dealt with at a later point in time. You could take the pessimistic view and call this preparing for the worst case scenario. Or in our case, you could call it foresight and say, okay, we know many things will change over time, especially if technology is involved. How then, can we as responsible artists who fret over the future of our work, provide for its integrity to be maintained in the future.

What VM suggests is that we specify what gets done with the work (as well as retain the rights to recreate the work), according to the technology/materials available at the time, when say, we're not using browsers such as NN or IE. Should we not be around, then the model for VM suggests that we need to leave instructions as to how our intent gets re-presented. An example Jon likes to use is that certain fluorescent tubes that Dan Flavin used in his works are no longer being manufactured and that collectors are hoarding the remaining bulbs. Under the VM model, Flavin should have specified what color bulbs could be used if the original color was no longer available. It's possible his executors have these instructions; I don't know. It's just an example of how artists, particularly artists working in certain materials, need to leave instructions and make contingency plans for alternative refabrication of the works, or else a curator (no offense to you Steve) is going to make the decision, which may or may not be in keeping with what the artist was aiming for.

As for colorizing films, it seems like you'd have to address this on a film by film basis and read all the notes, papers, and documents that the director wrote concerning his work to see whether a position was stated on an attitude towards color. And then, even if the director's documents indicated an interest in color, I'd still be skeptical about colorizing a film. You'd have to figure whether the director was just speculating on using color or whether color film was really part of the intent of the film. And even when one goes to color, colorizing film, at least to my understanding, is a mighty different thing than shooting a film with color stock. Once a film is colorized, it is often substantially less the director's film and much more the chief colorizing technician's film. Then there's the question of whether a director would have wanted to shoot in color and make a black and white print of the film.

KF: This is a question that I'm sure you're going to get a few different answers for. It's not quite that simple. If you think about it, variable media means taking what is absolutely critical to the work and crystallizing that into a form that can then be interpreted in the future by curators into newer media that may not have been available at the time of its original conception (not just tacking on technological advancements for the sake of effect). One of the biggest hurdles facing the variable media concept is that to reinterpret an artwork into a new form while still maintaining the integrity of the original requires not only very specific documentation but absolute clarity on the part of the artist.

A better example than colorizing might be taking something like Robert Morris's card file and recataloging everything on a computer-filing program. Of course these types of liberties should not be taken without the permission of the artist. Morris would have to believe that the new form the piece has taken somehow remains true to or adds to the original work in a way that was not available to him at the time the piece was conceived. The most important aspect of variable media is that it affords the artist more control over how his or her work is presented/interpreted by institutions in the future when the artist is no longer available for consultation.

JI: Actually, part of the reason we came up with the idea of variable media is precisely to prevent future editors from colorizing, say, Citizen Kane. Once artists are dead, people will be tempted to tamper with their art works, whether in good faith (Italian conservators cleaning the Sistine chapel) or bad (Clement Greenberg sanding the paint off David Smith sculptures). According to the variable media paradigm, conservators would base decisions about how best to preserve a given work not on speculation or taste but on in-depth interviews with the artist. And one of the possible calls the artist can make is to say the work is so wedded to its medium that any kind of translation would drain the life out of it. In that case the work dies when the medium dies-but at least the artist gets to make the decision.

SD: Having done the UA project now, do you think differently about what constitutes a "unit of meaning" in new media? Is it the source code? Is it the visible parts? Is it a Web page? A Web site? A network? A project?

JC: My current thinking is that the unit of meaning varies from project to project. Most of the projects we dealt with in äda'web had so many units of meaning, we just picked and chose ones that fit into our archiving/categorizing scheme. I think for äda'web, the unit of meaning is the Web site, because äda'web in many respects was more than the sum of its parts.

KF: Not really. I think that the concept of a unit of meaning remains the same regardless of the media. That is, units of meaning are only meaningful, if you will, in their ability to communicate such and such to the viewer. By this definition units of meaning aren't determined by media but by audience. For example on the simplest level, take a written word. What is the unit of meaning here? Is it the individual characters? If it is, and the viewer has no experience with the language, then the characters have no meaning. Much of today's art makes the mistake of assuming that by simply increasing the number of units of meaning in a work this somehow imbues the work with "more meaning." In a sense UA emphasizes that it is not the mere accumulation of these units that is important but how the units are arranged or organized that is critical. At its best UA reveals the strengths and weaknesses of some of the projects on äda'web. Many of UA's recombinations of äda'web elements may not make much sense (that is to say when the elements are taken out of context they lose much of their meaning). This occurs primarily when the elements are taken from well thought-out, carefully considered projects. However, on some occasions the arrangements created by UA are clearer and more meaningful than the projects from which the individual elements are drawn. I'd say this could point to any number of weaknesses in the original project: anything from bad editing to the ever-popular "throw everything in but the kitchen sink" approach to art making.

JI: The original äda'web interface encourages you to navigate by pages. In our interface you navigate by components. It is not pages that the Walker is archiving, but components. If you have any doubt of this, look at the directory structure for äda'web and you'll see that the images, texts, etc. get stored in different folders.

Of course, the original äda'web site represents only a small fraction of the possible combinations of these components. The Unreliable Archivist, by contrast, allows a user to move from one extreme to another along four axes that span the much larger space of all possible combinations. In this sense, when you move the sliders you are not navigating from one äda'web page to another, but across the space of all conceivable äda'web pages.