Interview with Mary Mattingly and Mark Shepard


Mary Mattingly engaged Mark Shepard in a conversation over Skype about their works in progress on January 16, 2015. On that date, Mattingly was based in Miami and Shepard was in Germany. They talk about Shepard’s “False Positive”, “Sentient City”, and Mattingly’s “Swale”.

Mary Mattingly:: has created an artists fellowship. This is the pilot year for the fellowship in hosting artist’s archival research. I’m not sure they know what the next step will be, it doesn’t have to be anything (which is the beauty of it) but it’s a supported experiment—supported by CalArts’ Center for Integrated Media, its artist/program director Tom Leeser and his collaborators. I can be critical of these things, but it seems like this is truly an experiment, and really a way to revisit a certain type of academic peer to peer networks of The Net, before it became AdSense, sensational news blogs, and all that it is today.

Mark Shepard:: There is this idea of basic research that’s been around for a while in the sciences, the idea that it’s not applied research, that it doesn’t necessarily have to have an outcome which is applicable to a product or a service, doesn’t even necessarily have to respond to an existing problem, basic research in the sciences has always been about what art practice has been about, which is to say that some scientist is interested in what happens when you smash these two atoms together, and it’s quite open ended, and so I tend to support that, universities tend to recognize the value of that but I think it happens very little outside of that context, and I guess that’s why its supported where you are now.

MM:: Yea, I’m always a little bit suspicious about how data will be used in the longer term. Maybe I’ve become too accustomed to an understanding that there is a clear use value to everything, which is a sorry state to be in. Before I go down that road (I was just at University of Maine where the military industrial educational complex is quite revealing), this is my cue to dovetail into what you are researching with Big Data. Can you talk about how its product-oriented side? I’m fascinated with this in my own work, when I think it’s purely experimental and has one use, but another person comes along and sees an unanticipated use value. While I’m here I’m working on a plan to make a floating public food forest, which gets away from the legalities of attempting to grow public food on public land.

MS:: So because it’s a floating island its not under the jurisdiction it would be if it was on public land?

MM:: That’s right. It’s illegal to grow public food in public spaces in New York City because, well mostly the city is worried about being sued, but then there’s also an ideal of nature that’s being preserved. There are still permits that are needed, but overall it’s more straightforward. I’d eventually like it to be a cooperative site for the development of cottage industries.

I’m trying to work on one in Miami with Cannonball, but what we didn’t know when they asked me to come down here was that the Science Barge, a project based on green roofing that began in New York City is coming down here, and this presents a conflict for some of the partners who think pairing an artist-initiated floating food forest next to an establishment like the Science Barge, with its big budget, will discredit what this food forest project could bring, which is a problem. If we are relegating ecological empathy to money then it will really never work out, because it will only be able to be done by a select few, it won’t really matter.

So that’s what I’m thinking about, and meeting about. You’re in Germany, doing incredible work, and teaching. Whenever I describe your work I say, “Mark Shepard is making the invisible visible,” and through these objects that can discern what’s happening in public space, through the eyes of big business and government, I think you know what the future is going to be like.

MS:: That’s interesting. I wish I knew what the future is going to be like. I wish I could be the oracle everyone wants. Of course now that oracle is assumed to be Big Data, which is to say that people look to that data to provide an oracle towards the future, especially when you are dealing with predictive analytics. For instance, when you look at a company like Target to predict when somebody is pregnant to select advertisements, or predict the latest greatest trend in real estate markets, or something like that.

But I’ve started a new project and it’s called, provisionally, “False Positive”, and it sort of began as an individual extension of the work on the “Sentient City”. If the “Sentient City” was looking at technological development in the near future (from the perspective of an embodied reaction with nonhuman systems and infrastructures which still had a quality of sentience or the stability to respond in some way) but all from an individuals perspective (where you have some understanding of what it feels like to be in this situation) and the take away was: How do we survive in this context? What are the implications of privacy, autonomy, trust, and so forth? This project looks at aggregate collectives. So it’s still looking at the city, in particular here data-valance, issues of data, particularly mobile communication infrastructures, specifically implications of regimes and information data that can be harvested and particularly the conjectures that can be made, the anticipations that can be made about what might come next. This has a broad application in terms of, at the city level, determining urban policy for the pre-positioning of patrol cars in the city. So the question for me really is: What is the position from a communications standpoint? So for example, what data do we divulge on a daily basis that we aren’t aware of, what data can be inferred, so its part data literacy project on that level.

It proceeds by working with cell towers, so creating these fake cell towers, which the FBI already does with the Stingray, and using these to catch indices number, a serial number from your phone. In this way you could track the particular location of a cell phone from cell to cell over time but it also is something which enables one to send unsolicited messages over the phone, similar to when you’re traveling with your phone to another country and telecommunications companies send you a message saying that your data roaming is going to cost so much. So the thought is to use that platform in a way to engage people in a dialogue inspired a little bit by Eliza, a program in the 60s using (-2.27 tape 2) riparian psychology as sort of a pseudo therapist: using this kind of SMS interaction but trying to get people to disclose bits of information about themselves.

So what starts off as a very beginning interaction devolves into something that becomes increasingly uncomfortable about what’s being asked. The reality is we place an increasing amount of trust in these service providers, telecoms, and the fact is that the master slave dynamic between the cell operators and towers, you know over time the encryption is forgotten about, privacy is lost, so this interactive dialog people may be sensitized to the ways that information about them is divulged, and the kind of second part is to take that information and develop data portraits about people, reflect it back, in way show what’s being inferred and what is mis-inferred, show in a way a kind of “False Positive”, so-called connections between people and places, people and people, and really try to spark a conversation about what is working today.

This is a collaborative project, so I’m working with Julien Oliver and Moritz Stephener who is a Germany-based data visualization artist. I basically started the project in the fall and then got a commitment for it from the PAF in Berlin, they are part of the connecting cities network, the EU Network with Ars Electronica and a number of other places. This will be done next fall.

MM:: I wonder if, as we are made more aware of our digital records and the implications of them, will we just decide that we can compromise or do we get to a certain point where there’s a backlash to the privacy we are giving up? Will you be able to interface with people directly about their responses? What are your expectations?

MS:: That’s the question: In what ways does it change your behavior when you know how this stuff works? An example is—would you login with Facebook with a single click versus fill in a five minute subscription to the website? Will you make that trade off, so they know about your friend network, for example? What are you giving up and getting from that? A lot of times we think it doesn’t matter, what can you really tell about me from a network of friends? It turns out quite a lot. It’s a dance between doubt and trust. In this unfolding dialogue with SMS, the point is to instill trust but oscillate between instilling trust and instilling doubt. Then the person is faced with thinking: What am I really dealing with, and what are the implications to this?

MM:: It seems to be that people generally accept a win-win situation—for a public use there’s something and for the company or government there’s something else. What you can do through public art without data collection seems to be: you can come away with something that is purely public use and does not allow for the data to be used to sell things and collect information about the public. But still, is it an invasion of privacy? Do you see public art’s role being one of use, or one of spectacle, AND do you see your work falling between those spaces? Or do you see it as redefining what is beautiful?

MS:: What is the role of public art today, vis-a-vis a set of publics for which geography is no longer a determinant; we are now fragmented publics with competing agendas, so where does public art exist in this context? We are so far beyond the days of Richard Serra’s “Tilted Arc” confrontation with a judge in lower Manhattan, to work in that idiom seems a bit nostalgic. Public space simply doesn’t exist in the same way anymore. Well there are public spaces that still serve these same sort of functions, but if Occupy Wall Street showed us anything its that in fact it’s these Privately Owned Public Spaces which have complicated this idealistic notion of democratic public space. Its important that Zucotti Park was not a public space yet they were still able to function there, whereas they wouldn’t have been in a “public space” we have grown to know. So then what is public art, it’s not in these spaces which exist out in public space, it has more to do with say the kind of work you are doing that I think is really fascinating that this urban farming project takes to the water to circumnavigate a set of policies which prohibit something like this from happening on urban land. I mean, that’s fascinating, so operating at the level of policy for example would seem to be a clear and effective strategy for public art.

MM:: I think of this work as trying to renegotiate whatever space is left within any sort of realm of something that could be considered a public space, for public. The other side of Privately Owned Public Space is a commons, which the ocean waters have been, but they have been largely occupied by corporations taking advantage of them, for dumping, overfishing, moving large quantities of goods overseas. Presenting those spaces in new ways can change them and set precedents for further changes, and finally maybe policy.

Can we venture back into big data? I have some concerns about it as an expanding field. It seems you have the inside track to all kinds of people working with big data. The lines between big data business and art is quite blurred (I guess that’s no different than any other kind of art) but data quantification artwork usually illuminates big statistics for people, and I guess I really want it to go beyond that. Maybe because it gets so much play it seems like it needs to take more responsibility. How do you see it going beyond that, does it need to?

MS:: I like to look at it from the perspective of failures. Technological evangelists, I like to call them, who are business enthusiasts who are essentially making a living hawking big data solutions to everything. People like when they can be given metrics, empirical responses to uncertainty. Reality is that big data (predictive analytics side particularly) is only 70 – 80 percent successful. That’s pretty remarkable when you look at it from the perspective of its values. If for example you are in marketing and you are selling a product based on data analytics, 70 – 80 percent is much better ratio than where companies were shooting before. It reduces the guesswork for businesses, but when you are talking about law enforcement, say predictive incarceration, or banks and the prediction that you will fold on your mortgage, the consequences are so much more serious. To me, part of the reason that we have the project focusing on the false positive, is the false awareness of data vis. Or at least it doesn’t work all of the time. It counters some of the spectacular claims that are made, that you can anticipate who is about to become “radicalized” or where a “terrorist” is going to strike next. Data visualization is no more sophisticated than the premise of “Brazil”. It was made in 1985 but was remarkable. It’s not about the spectacularization of it but it’s about looking at the errors, and pointing out the sublime spot.

MM:: In your work like “Sentient City” there is a thread of Object Oriented Ontology. I’m interested in looking at objects through that lens, and wonder if you consider it?

MS:: Explain to me a little more about why you are interested in it?

MM:: My interest is in the material making up the electric technologies itself, and also in understanding the object’s history and how it can inform social and environmental traumas, and how that finally ends up in the piece of artwork, with all of those traumas embedded in the objects, and how the objects have affected things throughout its life.

MS:: Yea, absolutely, I’m really interested in how things accumulate histories through their use over time. I am thinking about the ladders you used at Eyebeam in the “Flock Houses”, how they were repositioned to be the base that held the structure together. It would seem to me that you’ve been working with that for quite some time. I think about MIT’s “Trash Track”, where we were tracking things, sometimes we would only get weeks in on it and lose the object. For me it can be about the transfer to the immaterial.

MM:: Yes, how can we become more aware of input and output systems to and from a city is something I think about all the time. It’s thrilling (frightening and insane) to understand the waste chain in New York. The transfer stations in Greenpoint and the Bronx, the incinerators in New Jersey, the trains down south…

MS:: Tell me, what’s happening with the floating farm?

MM:: One will be built in New York, built on old hulls, welded together. Planted with perennials using permaculture systems. People can walk onboard and pick fruits and vegetables. Each year it could get stronger if I can find a long-term home. Richie Sowa is someone I think about from time to time. He made a large plot of land by putting capped soda bottles into burlap bags, tying them together and then adding soil atop. He grew a forest garden, and made a piece of land a reality in the 90’s. Now I understand Mexico adopted his island. In New York it seems a necessity to try to show that input and output system, how it could become more localized, more interdependent, and how we are able to use some of the things in the city to make cottage industries. It’s called “Swale”. We are brainstorming for Miami but are held up by the Science Barge. Finally, an arctic food forest in Anchorage, Alaska. These cities are connected through climate issues. Sea level rise here in Miami is already changing infrastructural code citywide. New buildings are planned for ground floor flooding. In Anchorage and more so in towns in Alaska’s arctic, people who live near the coast are being relocated. Food is terribly expensive, rarely fresh, and flown or brought in by barges over long distances. New York is its own story. Protected compared to Chittagong or places really hit hard, but with Sandy, it’s now considered to be on the front line.

MS:: It seems to be important for you to always realize and manifest these projects rather than prototype them. One of the things that always fascinated me is the reveal of public policy: where is the policy, how can it be influenced in these gray zones, regulation, codes, they are still applied to in certain contexts yet in what you are proposing to do or what you are doing. To what extent would you say that’s happening with these? What else is coming out of that?

MM:: While none of these concepts are completely new, the way that the concepts can evolve is by implementing them. That’s where the chance comes in. You can try and fail with policy or try and get somewhere. Figuring out the bureaucracy web is the most important part to me. Seeing if a project could influence something like supply chain is becoming more important to me.

MS:: Supply chain can be understood on a systematic level but policy isn’t organized in that way.

MM:: Yes, yet.

MS:: Would you say your prototypes are provocations, or proof of concept, or stimulations? What do you see these things that you are doing in relationship to the systemic change you see needs to happen?

MM:: I would call them proposals. I’m trying to give these things a longer life, and if I could do that, maybe it could leave the stage of provocation, and that’s exciting to me. Maybe that would change the piece from an artwork to something else.

MS:: I like to think of that in terms of this project too. We know we are going to come up against legal walls. In fact this was the first grant proposal that I’ve written where there’s a significant line item in the budget for legal consulting. One of the things we had to come to terms with, was that we were proposing to do something that is finite. The idea is to get in, get out, and do it under the radar. Legal rules exist within a grey area at the moment, because these things are still being defined. What, as a citizen are you able to do within this wireless space?

One of the viable outcomes of the project is to define legal topography that doesn’t exist very clearly. For a number of reasons, it’s within certain actors’ interest that some things don’t remain legal—for example, sharing call records: is that a breach of trust? Where do you situation that action? Hopefully this project can map out some of that on a local level.

It’s important to think in a detailed way about privacy, but not to be something that prevents one from doing everything. Somewhere between JD Salinger and Miley Cyrus, which is pretty broad territory.

Mark Shepard is an artist, architect and researcher whose post-disciplinary practice addresses new social spaces and signifying structures of contemporary network cultures. His current research investigates the implications of mobile and pervasive media, communication and information technologies for architecture and urbanism.