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18 October 2012
Software social. Una entrevista con Antoni Abad.

Montse Badia

Antoni Abad is a paradigmatic example of an artist who, trained in fine art, starts off as a sculptor and progressively dematerialises his work until he develops projects that call for the artistic institution, as the initiating and driving force, but that are developed in the terrain of the real. In the following interview Abad talks about the details of this evolution, the changes experienced in his role as an artist, the needs and production requirements for his current work, the channels of distribution that he uses and his independence in relation to the art market.

Montse Badia: You began working as a sculptor and now make projects where you don’t produce any specific objects. I’d like you to tell me about this evolution in your work and how you conceive it.

Antoni Abad: To respond to this question I would have to go back to the time I spent as an artist in residence at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Canada, in 1993. I went to Banff with the measuring tape pieces and there I discover video and make my first video-projection in the space. There, I become aware of the existence of the Internet, for the first time. I arrived in Canada with the tools for relating in which I employed the tape measures and returned to Barcelona with videotapes. I also brought back my first email address. It is the moment that I modelled the last sculpture, the metal hands, and made the first video-projection in the space: my hand infinitely measuring palm by palm, the everyday.

There is another crucial moment, in 1996, when there isn’t even any projection in the space. It is when Roc Parés invites me to do a project specifically for the Internet within the now disappeared MACBA on line, a project driven by the Pompeu Fabra University and MACBA. The result was a renewed interpretation of Sisyphus, a video-projection from 1995. The new version adapts to the Web and is located between two Internet servers, one in Barcelona and the other in the Antipodes, in New Zealand. The virtual space overpowers Sisyphus and nothing takes place any more in the physical space. To enjoy this experience it is essential to connect to the Internet.

Later on I experiment with video-projects realised with made to measure software programmes, like the piece “Ego” in 1999, in which flies infinitely draw the phrase “YO y YO y YO…” (I and I and I), harking back to the egocentric miseries that we all suffer. Based on these experiences, in 2001 I began a long lasting project on the Web. It’s a programme that manifests itself in the form of a virtual fly that is alive when the screen of the computer is connected to the Internet. This was a project predating what we now call social networks, where the users installed the fly in their computer and could communicate with each other without being detected by a central server. This network had a horizontal design realised with p2p technology, so that the communications between users couldn´t be intercepted. The fly project couldn´t have existed without the users, who, by installing the programme in their computer, entered into forming part of the virtual community.

It wasn´t until 2004, with the arrival of telephones with integrated cameras, that I began to work with different groups, and communities at risk of social exclusion.

MB: When you began it was more difficult for people to have their own communication channels in the Internet, now it is more usual. How has this side of things affected your work?

AA: In 2004 when we began the first project with mobile phones in Mexico City, the taxi drivers didn’t know what Internet was. After this discovery, the taxi drivers had to discover what was the thread of their discourse. It was foreseen that this was a project for small groups of people, that met up weekly, to propose, debate and decide the subjects that they would deal with. These projects are not open to everybody, like Facebook or Twitter, where it is not necessary to meet in person or agree subjects. They serve more for everyday exchanges and it is only recently that they have been used to denounce and promote certain causes. On the other hand, the projects of, enable certain groups at risk of social exclusion to self-represent themselves and they aren´t open to everybody to be able to participate, though they can be consulted on the Internet.

Normally these projects arise in order to distort the proposals that I receive from art centres. At the beginning it wasn´t like this, they asked, for example, for a project of video-projections and I tried to give it a twist, asking what collectives there were in each city who might be interested in a creative project with alternative communication channels via mobile phones.

MB: How does your role as an artist change, what is your job and what is your responsibility?

AA: I came from sculpture and had used materials like foldable chairs, sponge-rubber, meccano and iron… afterwards I used more ethereal materials like photography or video. Now the materials that I use are the data transmission networks of mobile phones and the Internet. I try to model them so that they can serve as a way for these groups to express themselves with total freedom. My work as an artist consists in giving form to these networks, as well as getting involved with the groups I work with.

I try to use the technology in a minimalist manner, keeping it to a minimum. is not baroque, nor complicated and endeavours to express the ideas of these groups in the barest possible way.

MB: How are your projects financed?

AA: There’s a bit of everything, from major sponsorship, both private and public, as in the first case, that of the taxi drivers in Mexico, where we had sponsorship from the Centro Nacional de las Artes in Mexico, the Centro Cultural in Spain, as well as from Telefónica, that had just arrived in Mexico. Or in the Centre d’Art Santa Mònica, we had sponsorship from Nokia and Amena (later Orange). Or, in the Centre d’Art Contemporain of Geneva, where there was a long list of foundations that sponsored the project. There are also projects, such as that of Manizales in Colombia organised by the Universidad de Caldas, that have practically no budget at all, with a few mobile phones that are taken as contraband from Spain, or that of the Sahrawis, where we didn´t even have a mobile data network, so much as used the antenna of the Internet connexion supplied by an Italian NGO.

MB: In these cases the art centre is used as a meeting point.

AA: Yes, it’s about trying to make the most of the art centre’s resources. First of all, the physical space. The centre wants there to be art within that space, an installation, a representation. In they use it to have the weekly meetings of the participants. When it is opened to the public, the table and the computers that we use become an installation. I call them documentary installations that try to explain what is going on, that a few people have telephones and remotely feed the Web with their images, sounds, videos and reports.

On the other hand, the art centre always has a public relations section and a press department that we endeavour to take advantage of to disseminate the projects. The aim is to use any device that the museum has to try and parasite all the media with information about the project. These media disseminations have the objective of making the user choose to enter into the Internet, to see what the participants in these projects want to tell us.

There are places where the project has had a lot of visibility. In Mexico, for example, when it was made public through a press release those anonymous taxi drivers became the perfect disseminators of the project. From that moment on, they were interviewed non-stop by the radio, the television, and the newspapers. There was a time when the server received 50.000 visits daily. We managed to make what those people expressed, those who are never listened to, reverberate across the Web.

MB: What you don´t do is produce photographs of the participants, for example, to be exhibited in art galleries. What are your relations with commercial galleries?

AA: Currently none. At the beginning there were portraits of the participants that formed part of these documentary installations. But there came a time when I considered that it was no longer necessary. If I write on the wall of the art centre the phrase: “18 taxi drivers transmit from mobile phones on the Web”, the project is already explained it isn’t necessary to know what faces the participants have.

I could have played the world of the gallery and the market but decided to abandon it. Whoever wants to enjoy these projects only has to visit them on the Web. I don´t produce anything that could have any exchange value on the market. I try to work with institutions that can finance these projects.

Another aspect is the technological investigation behind it, that I have to improve, so that the device can be ever more fluid and easier to use. This I call “social software” as the modelling I talked about at the beginning is done according to the needs of each group of participants. This effort to minimise the use of software and to make the device as easy as possible, ties in with the idea of media minimalism that has always interested me.

MB: Sometimes you have used telephones for each one of the participants and at others communal telephones, that are passed from hand to hand between the participants, why?

AA: The idea of the communal telephone arose in the project with the motorbike messengers in São Paulo. The channel *MOTOBOY started with twelve participants where each one used a mobile phone. When the initial period of the project was over, the participants decided to make the project theirs and to continue it. But as they no longer had the support of the art centres that organised them, the funding ran out. I consider that this decision by the participants to give continuity to the projects is the maximum success that this type of project can have. What happened in São Paulo, is that the participants couldn´t maintain the accounts of 12 mobile phones, so I invented the communal phone: a mobile phone that changes hands at every weekly meeting. This ends up making the network much cheaper to maintain. São Paulo has been making uninterrupted transmissions for 4 years with 3 telephones that enable 6 motoboys to continue the project.

When the participants decide to give continuity to the projects, sustainability becomes a key factor. In the case of the project with the young Saharans, in the year 2009-2010, we adapted the device so that it could publish via WIFI, so that the publication on the Internet had a cost of zero.

MB: What human team do you need to carry out your work?

AA: As well as the teams from the art centres that I mentioned before, each project needs a local coordinator, to whom all the knowledge about how the device functions is transmitted, who is the person who coordinates and energises the weekly meetings in which the group decides democratically what subjects are going to be dealt with. The computer programmers who I have been working with these last years are, naturally, indispensable, a job that is currently fulfilled by Matteo Sisti Sette.

MB: How has technology modified your way of working? How has the type of telephone that you use changed and how has the access evolved?

AA: Things have changed a lot; we have gone from the first projects where the telephone with a camera was the latest fad in technology to the popularisation of smartphones. Recently the appearance of the operating system Android, that facilitates enormously the programming of this type of mobile device, facilitates the experimentation with and rapid execution of mobile applications.

The interface that grows most rapidly – and is now well ahead of computers – is that of mobile phones. For example, in the project that I am now doing in New York we have found that many of the participants already have a telephone with a camera and an Internet connection, something that facilitates enormously the realisation of the projects.

At the beginning of these projects, in 2004, it was often necessary to explain to the participants what the Internet was. The processes were a lot to do with digital inclusion. Currently the participants are familiar with the Internet, are users of social networks and already have mobile phones.

MB: The fact of giving a voice to different communities, has it at any time entered into contradiction with the very bases of the community and generated some type of conflict?

AA: At a certain point, the two groups of gypsies with whom I have worked ended up in the odd conflictive situation, they fell out but it didn´t go beyond that. In the gypsy world, those who have the right to express themselves in the name of the community are the patriarchs. I, on the other hand, proposed to give the young people a voice. In the first instance, this proposal wasn´t well received, but finally the patriarchs accepted that it was the young people who represented the community in the project. In the case of Lleida, it ended up being very difficult to find gypsy girls who wanted to participate. The community tried to censor some of these girls, for the images that they had published. But in all cases the conflict was resolved.

In the case of Colombia, I proposed that, instead of a single group, two potentially conflicting groups participated. One would be made up of people displaced by the conflict, who had had to abandon the rural area to take refuge in the city. The other would be made up of people who had formed part of illegal armed groups, like the FARC. When I made the proposal they told me I was mad because these people ran a huge physical, and even life threatening, risk. That no way could they meet together in the same space. I insisted and what I did was ask them to meet separately but with only one virtual space, so that the dialogue that they couldn´t have in person, could be carried out on the Internet.

It was the best possible result, because after the third meeting, seeing that the subjects were the same, I proposed that they meet in person. They accepted and from that moment they became one single group, which was later integrated into the working group at the Universidad de Caldas.

So the desire to express oneself has always been over and above internal conflicts. In São Paulo the messengers had the odd scare with the unions, who wanted to appropriate the project to convert it into the voice of the union, but the Motoboys decided to remain independent.

MB: When they invite you to present Megafone in the context of a group exhibition, how do you do it?

AA: Normally, through an installation that recreates the documentary installation that took place during the project. That is to say, a meeting table, a random projection and a computer, where one can consult the contents published by the participants. If there is any printed documentation it is placed on the table so that it can be consulted. It is about publicising what happened. I say random projection but maybe I should call it the “breaking news” of each project. It is an application that searches in the database for the most recent publication so as to project it like a billboard. If it doesn’t find any, it looks within the latest publications.

MB: Your responsibility is to maintain the database, which is what is left after all these projects. The preservation of Megagafone is your responsibility.

AA: Yes, we maintain an Internet server that makes it possible to publish in real time and that also constitutes the repository that preserves the memory of all the projects, around 300.000 photographs, texts, videos and sounds.

MB: Can you imagine always continuing with this type of project, or do you at times have the temptation to return to the studio and produce objects? Or, on the contrary, is turning back the clock no longer possible?

AA: At the moment I plan to carry on within this field. No doubt I will take other routes, as in the project with blind people in 2010, and in other more specific areas of research. It could be that the sense of this investigation turns towards people who can take advantage of these technologies for problems with blindness or Alzheimers. This represents a new and complex shift, to try and construct a more refined and simple device that could be of use to these people.

If I evaluate it on a personal level, remembering my times as a sculptor, when I was thinking about the sublime of art, and I compare it to the situations where these projects take me, where you are often in the street with people who otherwise you would never have had the chance to meet, and I find myself sharing with them a whole series of problems that I had no idea could even exist, then I think that I wouldn’t swap any of this for my earlier practice. Though maybe a time will come when I will miss what sculpture had, that building, little by little, with physical materials. Going back the next day to the studio and continuing. You didn’t have to connect to the Internet to confirm the sculptural presence.

Montse Badia has never liked standing still, so she has always thought about travelling, entering into relation with other contexts, distancing herself, to be able to think more clearly about the world. The critique of art and curating have been a way of putting into practice her conviction about the need for critical thought, for idiosyncrasies and individual stances. How, if not, can we question the standardisation to which we are being subjected?


18 October 2012

Software social. Una entrevista con Antoni Abad.

29 February 2020


26 February 2018


06 March 2017

Regaining control

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