Culture  The Internet eats itself

“The Betweeners” locates the hidden links of online networking

Correction appended
Artist and self-proclaimed “cultural hacker” Ian Wojtowicz approaches digital art from the perspective of art history, creating works that go from gallery space to cyberspace. His projects have included “Nation.1” – a conceptual, online-only country governed by children – and “Whispers of Electronic You,” an art piece that uses a downloadable computer program to amalgamate fragments of sent emails into sound collages. “The Betweeners,” his newest piece, recreates select MySpace pictures of individuals with “strong viral potential.”

The McGill Daily: Could you talk about “The Betweeners”?
Ian Wojtowicz: I wrote a piece of software, which…connects to MySpace [and] downloads all the data about people in Montreal who are on the [city’s] network, and records the friendships between them into a network graph. It highlights particular individuals who have particular characteristics on the network…[and] records their user IDs and their friendships. Then, I ran an algorithm…called “Betweenness Centrality.” It measures how central someone is to the network. Say there’s two clusters, two cliques of friendships, and one person has friends in both – that person is highly central to the whole. They connect these two disparate groups on the network. So it’s a measure not of someone’s popularity but how diversely they’re connected.

From that point on the process was very analog and traditional, contacting these people and setting up appointments and going to photograph them…. When I met them, we worked collaboratively to select some of their photos from MySpace to re-enact. [There’s a meaning to] photography on MySpace, which you can extend to online photography in general, where people are representing themselves in particular ways online to create a persona, to feed into this notion that…on the Internet, everyone’s a celebrity. There’s a whole question about friendship…. What it boils down to is people have connections online that are called friends, but what they’re really doing is a kind of microcelebrity culture.

MD: How much artistic authority did you take with these subjects? Was it totally their self-representations or did you determine how they would look?
IW: It was a back-and-forth. We picked out a couple of photos to re-enact together. I made sure that it was similar enough to the original photo, but I might have added some changes to the clothing they were wearing, or fixed their hair a little bit differently.  
MD: Can you talk about why you chose MySpace as a medium?
IW: Well it started off with me wanting to use Facebook, but Facebook recently changed their system so that they didn’t have city networks anymore. It turned out to be a very productive switch because it turns out MySpace is still very much a dominant network for anyone interested in live music. Once you have a look at the people that I actually found through this software, it’ll [become evident] there are a lot of artists. I sort of got two performance artists, one graphic designer, a jewelry designer, a fashion designer, and a writer. That’s what the software found. In that sense, it all worked out for the best. 
MD: I’ve never considered MySpace as an artistic space.

IW: Totally. There are other networks that are more focused on visual art. I don’t know any visual artist that doesn’t love music. It’s a logical connection I think. A lot [of MySpace] pages are really chaotic and ugly, but there’s a really customized look to [some of the pages]…. [Whereas Facebook] is very much focused on usability, MySpace is much more focused on personality and expression – to its detriment to some degree. There’s definitely a lot more personality that comes through on people’s [MySpace] pages. 
MD: I’m really curious about the thematic role of the individual within your work.

IW: The final work is going to be a group portrait; I’m hoping not to focus too much on the individual, [although] each person will have a bio for [visitors] who are interested in learning about them. [The show] is both interested in who these people are as well as the group as a whole. I’m really interested in this idea of synecdoche…where a group of Montrealers can stand in for the city as a whole. The photo montage that I’m in the process of creating…will depict all of them in one room together, despite the fact that I took all of the photos separately in different locations. So, it’s about a group – a virtual group.

MD: What do you think is the role of the artist within the society of hyper-connected social networks?
IW: I don’t think the role of the artist changes all that much, they still do the same thing they’ve been doing for hundreds of years, which is producing meaning in society. They’re very often involved in critiquing society and re-constructing it through visual representation. The artistic process is very interested in comment, critique, and satire to [challenge] society when one sees certain problems affecting it. Artists are very quick to identify these and create their own solutions. To a certain extent everything that we see and experience that’s built by people is mediated through an artistic process.  
MD: Going along those lines, can you agree that these networks are artistic?
IW: All of these networks ask individuals to represent themselves in certain ways. I think creativity certainly enters into it. These networks kind of blend the artist and the gallery together. I think artistic expression and artistic production is very core to how these networks work.

 —compiled by Joseph Henry
“The Betweeners” runs from April 16 to May 22 at the Centres des arts actuels Skol (372 Ste. Catherine O.)
Correction: 26/04/2010 In the original version of this article, “Betweenness Centrality” was incorrectly referred to as “Between the Centrality.”