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5 Questions for ...Inge Hinterwaldner

On the trail of Internet art

Inge Hinterwaldner receives up to two million euros for a research project on digital art. (Credit: Bernd Seeland).

Many digital works of art lie almost completely hidden on the Internet. Inge Hinterwaldner from the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) has set herself the task of tracking them down and has received an ERC Consolidator Grant of almost 2 million euros for her outstanding research.

Ms. Hinterwaldner, your research focuses on computer-based artistic artifacts that can be traced on the Internet. What do you mean by that?

As an art historian, I am interested in artifacts, that is, composed configurations that produce a statement in a special way and thus have a cultural value. The artifacts are very different.; they can be content on web pages, computer programs, viruses, representations in program code, or even coded messages in other files, which is of interest to cryptographers. Detecting these artifacts is not easy because such works must first be recognized as such, they are usually not pure images. Very often they are operational. Something is happening. They are massively networked. And I'm interested precisely in the works that we don't simply find in the commercial browsers on the website. Instead, I'm fascinated by those that are deprived in a variety of ways. It may be that the artists have explicitly put them somewhere, for example, in order to explore the topology of this digital network, which is, after all, a highly dimensional structure, or to conquer places that were not intended for art and can't just be captured with a screenshot.

So how do you find them?

To do this, I developed nine categories in advance of how a cultural expression can be deprived on the Internet. One example is ASCII Art, where a visual configuration is hidden in the program code. But an artifact can also be deprived because it seems too dangerous. It can be held behind the warning message of a web browser. Sometimes 90 percent of the people don't want to get involved. Or there are also works that circulate only in certain online communities. That means they are not publicly accessible, but remain with the respective interest groups, be they Java programmers or the fan community of a computer game.

So how exactly do you find artifacts on the Internet?

I use the categories of deprivation to specifically search for the artworks. To analyze them, we need forensic software tools, and that's unusual for the humanities. These tools allow us to inspect the code and do network analysis. After all, programmed works not only have a surface interfaces, but also a design moment on the level of the code.

As another method we rely on crowd sourcing, especially when it comes to communities. We will conduct and evaluate interviews. These will then help us in our further search. I want to approach people in different circles and multiply contacts through them and open up new things. Simply because they remember that there is one or more works in their environment that are really extraordinary. One thing that is very important to me is whenever someone says: I wanted to hide this and I don't want it to go public, we accept that, of course. Under no circumstances do we want to intrude on privacy and violate rights.

And who benefits from this research in the end?

Wesort all the findings into a database, and we also always write down how we found something. This gives us a guideline or a signpost. We develop strategies to find something that is not so easy to find. Of the very many works that we hope to locate, we will analyze some more deeply. And from those, we will again make a selection to advance the heart of the project. Namely, we want to advance the repertoire of methods for the humanities that deal with programmed artworks. And that is in the direction of visualization. Because these works are highly complex we have very, very many levels, many facets that have to be taken into account. In order to understand their interaction and also to have levels of comparison, we need means to visualize this vividly.

Art history and computer code is not exactly an everyday combination. How did you come to do it?

First of all, I have to say I was very lucky. I enjoyed a classical education in art history at the University of Innsbruck. There was Gottfried Kerscher, who had offered a seminar on Internet art as a lecturer back in 1998. You have to imagine that Internet art had first appeared in public at Documenta in 1997, and had already been declared dead. For many net artists, the assimilation of online art by cultural institutions was a red rag. In the course, we were asked to find and describe a work of art on the Internet, and I failed. I was describing a designer website. I had no parameters to determine what was artistic here and what was not. It was this very failure, however, that spurred me on. I decided to write my dissertation on pictorial phenomena that could not exist without a computer. Since 2000 I have been intensively involved in programmed art. This also includes protoforms of programming, so not only works in Von Neumann machines, on the basis of which almost all modern computers work, but everything where artists think up a set of rules and let something run according to it. Such processes of program design are also quite central to my research into these works.

How did you prepare for the ERC Consolidator Grant?

It is recommended that you allow half a year to prepare the application. I didn't have that time. But it was my last chance to apply for the grant. After that, I would have been past the academic age. I already had a few years of research behind me, and of course I could build on that. I wrote the application within five weeks, which is very sporty, and something I wouldn't recommend to anyone. It really only works if you don't start from scratch; that is, if you have already accumulated ideas and know the state of research very well. The application phase was very intensive. For example, I begged colleagues who had already won a grant to give me an insight into their application as a best practice. Of course, they work in completely different areas. But nevertheless, it helps, for example, to set up a work plan. Then I asked as many colleagues as possible for feedback. They were supposed to read my application as if they had to find weak points. In other words, as critically as possible. I then managed to get an English proofreader to read over it and then bagged everything.

And then the interview was on the agenda. How did you prepare for this second part?

For me, it was even more intense. I started by anticipating the questions, writing them down, and then I applied to two official training sessions. You have to fight a little bit to get into these because even the training is highly competitive. One was from NKS, which is the National Contact Point, which is linked to the German Aerospace Center. The second was from the Helmholtz Association. Both training sessions were essential for me. The first one focused on how you look; on body language, on lighting, on the background. And in the second, we were asked to invite specialists in our field. They then asked real questions. It was important to understand that the question round is like a computer game. It is very time-critical. You don't know beforehand how many questions will come. The answers have to be as short and as concise as possible. KIT has also organized several internal meetings of ERC grantees. They told us how they prepared themselves. How they experienced it. There are not yet so many who have conducted this interview online. That helped a lot. Then I rewrote my pitch a few times. At first it had too negative a connotation. Too problem-emphasizing. But it has to start flying because that's what advertising my topic is all about. I also spent a long time tweaking my three slides. Of course, I kept adding to my list of questions. In the end, I had 150 index cards with questions plus their answers. I went through those over and over again, and I think I spent several hours every day for about six weeks preparing for the interview. That was also a very intensive time.

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