Evan Roth is 32 and a bad ass motherfucker. At least that’s what you have to type into Google if you want to find out more about his revolutionary art projects. In 13 days and 11 hours he made his name (and his site) the top search result for that query. He figured this legitimately entitled him to printing “Bad Ass Motherfucker” on his business card instead of his name. So he did. His future ambitions are to win the gold medal for the searches “baddass motherfucker” and just “bad ass”. His other endeavors in life include filling the public domain with free art and cutting-edge open-source software.
After getting his B.A. in architecture from the University of Maryland and his M.A. from the Parsons School of Design in New York, Evan hung around the US for a while before deciding to seek creative exile in Europe. His last enterprise in the States was establishing the Graffiti Research Lab – an art group dedicated to outfitting graffiti artists and activists with open-source tools for urban communication. Evan is currently based in Paris, getting inspired for new art and tech endeavors.
His projects are a brilliant seamless synergy between art and technology and they all have two clear goals: to make our interaction with gadgets more human and to have fun. Evan literally achieved both these aims this April when he had the chance to work with Matthew Mullenweg – the founding developer of the popular open-source blogging software WordPress. Together Evan and Matt developed a more human version of the WordPress admin page, offering features like the Humanized Stats (where the system connects to Wikipedia to dig up funny facts about the stuff you write about), the Sacred Act of Publishing (celebrating the publishing of every single post) and Surprise Me (a brand new feedback feature).
Roth is also one of the co-founders of the Free Art and Technology (F.A.T.) Lab. This international crew works on innovations that might seem silly and useless at first, but which may very well revolutionize the way we interact with computers. The EyeWriter project, for example, is a low-cost eye-tracking apparatus and custom software that allows graffiti artists paralyzed by ALS (Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis) to draw using only their eyes. This is definitely an award-winning invention and we were this close to announcing that it had scooped up the 2009 Brit Insurance Design Award. Only it turned out that the announcement video posted on the F.A.T. Lab site was just one of their ways of teaching us a lesson about online source trustworthiness and the art of media manipulation.
A quick look into F.A.T.’s portfolio reveals other provocative projects such as Fuck Flickr, Fuck Picasa and Fuck Twitter. One larger initiative in the “fuck” sequence is Fuck Google Week, which took place during the Transmediale 2010 media festival in Berlin. It included creating a fake Google Car and instantly inspired us to stalk Evan for an interview. So we did.
How did you all get together and how did this get started? I guess it started back with an organization in New York called “Eyebeam”, which is a non-profit art and technology organization that gives away fellowships each year. In 2007 I had a fellowship and met another artist/technologist there named James Powderly, who was also a fellow. He and I teamed up while in New York to start the Graffiti Research Lab – it’s actually very similar to the F.A.T. Lab, it was where we started to develop the ideas about releasing open-source and free-culture ideas into different communities. That one was specifically about graffiti. But at some point we wanted to start creating projects that didn’t exist in public space. So we got the idea of starting this “umbrella” organization that we would call the F.A.T. Lab [Free Art and Technology Lab] that was related to the Graffiti Research Lab but which would allow us to bring in more people whose interests were broader than graffiti but who still wanted to use popular culture mechanisms as a way to spread open-source ideas. And so we brought more people into the group, a lot of them were former Eyebeam fellows as well. The group was based in New York, but slowly everybody started to move all over the place. We started to meet more friends online and so now the group is completely decentralized and focused entirely on the web. So what we are doing here at Transmediale – we have a room and a nice table where we can all sit around and work – is a real treat because we never get to do this – some people in the group had never met anyone else in the group in real life. So this is an opportunity for us to work on some projects that are not web-based, which is a real treat for us.
Where do you all come from? Which countries do you cover? New York, San Francisco, Jerry is in Mexico City, Chris is in Madrid, my wife and I are in Paris, James is in London, there’s probably a few more I’m forgetting, but primarily it’s the US and Europe at the moment and Mexico. I was living in Hong Kong for a year and a half, which was sort of interesting. We generally gain team members slowly. We get new members every six months to a year, so there’ll probably be a few more spots on the map soon.
What does it take to become a member? Well, we didn’t want to turn into another arts organization that has meetings about administrative things that we’re not as interested in, so we don’t even have a clear guideline on how people become members, but there’s sort of this unwritten rule that people become members if they’ve collaborated with members of the group… so when you start collaborating with people in things outside the group they slowly get integrated into the group. For example, Chris, who I studied and worked with on shared projects at the Parsons School of Design in New York, is working more and more active on our projects and in that way gradually becoming integrated into the organization. We also have an IRC channel that’s open, like a public chat that anyone can join. James met Magnus Eriksson of Pirate Bay on our chat channel and now he’s an anonymous member of the group. There’s no one real system, but people who work with us and tend to move along sort of get sucked into the group and become a part of it… We like people who hit the “publish” button a lot, people who are making things, we’re interested in people who have made a lot in the past and are going to make a lot in the future. Generally people who have an interest in promoting free culture, but are doing it in a way that’s speaking to a wider audience, not just to the art community or people who are already interested in this.
If everything is so cool and open-source, how do you make money? Do you have some way of monetizing the things you do? How do you live? Yeah, that’s another good question. Not from events like this [ha-ha]. Making money in the arts is always what artists end up talking about. I rely on getting artist’s fees from the organizations that approach me. We’re professional artists in that sense. I don’t have a day job, I just rely on arguing with arts organizations as much as I can to get paid when they ask for my work. I’m not putting much away for retirement, but I’ve been able to get by the last few years just by doing this. On the other hand, there’s obvious implications for taking some of the software we’ve been creating and earning money off it. But on the other hand, there also are some support networks in this area, especially in Europe, which is why I’m not in the US anymore – there’s even less support there. There’s some funding here, from various arts organizations and government bodies, but I’m applying for grants just like everybody else.
Why is the Google Car here? We spread the rumor that we bugged the Google Car. But it’s easier to make the Google Car than to bug the Google Car…. That was our little secret during the Fuck Google week in Berlin – we remade the car and drove around in it all day yesterday. We pretended to be lost and asked people for directions. At one point the driver pulled over to drink whiskey and pee on a street light in downtown Berlin. It’s a bit of a de-branding exercise. Which is really difficult, because when we were driving the car around, the thing that got reinforced more than anything else was that people love Google, they love these companies. More often than not people wanted to wave for the camera and be on it. We tried to physically embody Google the way we see their practices online.
Did you really have a camera up there or was it just cardboard? It was just cardboard.
Too bad actually for the people pulling down their pants in front of it. The point was that the cam wasn’t in the box, we had a camera. It should be in the people’s hands, not in Google’s hands.
Is Google really not evil? (Their motto is “Don’t Be Evil”) Well, they say they aren’t, but they’re a giant multinational corporation. Really, this Fuck Google project was bigger than Google for us, it was about this Web 2.0 phenomena where everyone, especially artists/media people, are comfortable posting all their creative content on servers that are owned by companies that put advertisements on them and are making money. Technology is getting easier and easier each year, and cheaper and cheaper, to the point where for a $100/year you can host all your own content and you don’t need to rely on all of these companies to host your data for you. There are people who are interested in this from a privacy standpoint, I’m interested in it from a censorship standpoint. So we used Google as someone to pick on, in a way, but only to drive a bigger point home, which is that we can host all this stuff ourselves. These are easy services, they’re nice and convenient. So on the one hand, F.A.T. is doing this pop-viral media campaign to sort of de-brand Google and create awareness around the idea of hosting your own data, and on the other hand we’re developing and trying to popularize open-source software and alternative technologies you could use instead of hosting on Flickr and YouTube and such..
Do you block Google for your website? Or any search engines? No, why would I [ha-ha]? You know, as a group, we don’t see this as a black and white issue. All of us are in some way using various Google products. Some members in the group are very strict about it, others are not. We’re bad vegetarians who eat chicken once in a while, you know. We don’t do it without thinking about it, though. We have to use these systems to get the message through, so it gets tricky. But by opting out of them you opt out of the potential to spread these messages really, really far. It’s kind of like Al Gore – he’s a big environmental activist, but he still flies in airplanes everywhere he goes. We feel that way a little bit with Google. We’re still using these systems as a way to hopefully destroy them. We actually heard that the manifesto we wrote for the Transmediale catalogue, the project description for the “Fuck Google” week, we heard that the page made it in front of a board meeting of Google Germany, so at least we know the ideas we’re representing are being discussed on their side. It’s sort of working, this gambling; should we use those companies to infiltrate them? But the ideas are generally getting into people’s heads.
What do you plan on fucking next? Great question. There’s a lot of anti-Apple sentiment in the group, so we’d like to do a de-branding of Apple. Even this interview, we’re doing it on an iPhone, and I have an iPod too, and I hate it. I mean, I love my iPod so much, but at the same time I hate it. It’s like Apple all of a sudden is this brand that is being used by all creative people, yet it is the most closed, proprietary system in the history of computing.
I’ll give you keywords and you tell me what pops into your mind first. Twitter? It’s another one of these systems where the content is hosted on Twitter servers… which since April have officially included advertising in the information stream. We use Twitter like crazy in the group, it’s a quick system for high-speed communication and publication. So the way we get around this, like the Fuck Google idea of hosting your own data, is that we’ve installed Laconica, which is an open-source alternative to Twitter, and we have that running as FuckTwitter on the FAT server, which publishes on the FAT site, which in turn publishes on Twitter. But in general we like Twitter.
Facebook? I don’t use Facebook. I hate the idea that there’s a version of the internet where I can’t send links to people [unless I’m a registered user]. I hate it but I’ve come around to the idea of it. I get people who use it, but I opt out of it. I wrestle with it every day.
MySpace? People still use MySpace?
YouTube? I actually use Vimeo. In fact, video is a huge problem if you try to host your own data. If you upload a video that a popular site like Boing Boing, Digg or Gizmodo has also uploaded, your website is probably gonna go down. We have a F.A.T. media player that uses Flow Player – it’s a flash player, really common and familiar, but if it gets really popular your website might go down. I don’t know if people are familiar with our Fuck Flickr project. We are working on software suites where you can upload and host your own data using really easy systems for uploading and displaying.
Messaging client? IRC, man. It’s coming back, it’s the shit. It’s the new Facebook!
The Pirate Bay? The Pirate Bay is like my favorite project of all time. People keep saying that it’s dead but I keep going and it keeps showing up all the time, so yeah. But if it died, it would show up somewhere else.