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May 23, 2022

When Stephanie Dinkins Met Harm van den Dorpel

Two of the foremost artists working with technology share their thoughts on Web3 with Alex Estorick
Credit: Stephanie Dinkins, Secret Garden, 2021. Courtesy of the artist
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When Stephanie Dinkins Met Harm van den Dorpel
This conversation is also available as a podcast.

Alex Estorick: You both adopt critical approaches to algorithms, which have become the scripts whereby tech systems shape our real life experiences. Stephanie, central to your practice is an unveiling of how Web2 hinders communities of color, as well as a preserving of local community knowledges away from capture. Harm, your recent work also reveals a closeness between algorithmic and genetic forms of engineering, leveraging the blockchain in the process. 

It seems to me that, at this early stage of Web3, we really need strategies that prevent Web2 circuits of oppression from simply reiterating themselves. Of course, one of the central benefits of the blockchain is its capacity to return financial agency to the artist. On the other hand, it represents the ultimate financialization of human activity, recorded on a ledger for all to see. Do you think Web3 changes how we think about algorithms?

Stephanie Dinkins: I hear a lot about Web3 and, honestly, I don’t know how it differs from anything we already have in our spectrum. We say it’s different and that it does all these things, but at the bottom of it, it’s who we are, what we put into it, and then how we employ it that matters. For me, it comes back to the question of how we treat, consider, and care for each other. 

I think of algorithms in the same way — as a set of steps that take information, or data, or ideas and come to conclusions. Algorithms do that within us in Web2 and, as I understand it, they’re going to do that in Web3. For me, it all comes back to the questions of “what the heck are we doing? How are we handling this information? And how are we handling the systems that we’re working with?” But with all the developments taking place with quantum computing, I don’t know if I can waste my time on Web3. 

At the bottom of it all, for me, it’s the algorithm of us that is important — the humans who are creating these things.

Stephanie Dinkins, Conversations with Bina48, 2014-ongoing, Courtesy of Heather Sten

Harm van den Dorpel: I think Web3 is a bit of a marketing term and a way to get buzz. I do believe that blockchain is a much bigger jump than anything we’ve had in computing so far, though it’s not of the same order of magnitude as a quantum computer. 

When the internet became social: When people could have a profile in Web2, they could comment on things and they could follow each other. That was a big step, but not a radical one. It put a lot of power in the hands of the founders and maintainers of the platforms. So you have very clear gatekeepers in Web2, which are now the biggest companies in the world like Facebook and Google. And their power is unprecedented. They have practically more power than nation states; and in wartime, Google and their media machine has a significant influence on the outcome of these conflicts.

AE: But haven’t NFT marketplaces become a kind of alternative platform economy?

HVDD: The potential of blockchain — and it’s not always achieved — is that instead of having a few massive companies, all of the participants in the network have an agency comparable to the people who built that infrastructure. 

I’m not an evangelist for blockchain. I can see that the online world sucked and, with blockchain, it still sucks. But I have also noticed things that I can do now that I could not do previously: I can commodify things; I can avoid censorship. And that is what brought me to the internet in the first place, where I could register a domain name and be as accessible online as Coca-Cola. Now, once again, you have these massive marketplaces. OpenSea is like Amazon. But still nothing keeps you from making your own marketplace, or using a very small one, which will operate with a similar level of accessibility because you will maintain the same standards. This network prohibits the power structure as it was in Web2.

Stephanie Dinkins, #WhenWordsFail, 2020. Courtesy of the artist

SD: The question for me is: How do we both use the system and interrogate it in order to produce outcomes that are supportive of communities? For example, a blockchain might be used to create agreements within a society or to support a community. But how do we shift that system to benefit society in ways beyond the purely financial. I say that fully aware that we live in a world where money or currency is power. Of course, if you’re trying to shift the way a system might work, then amassing capital in order to influence things becomes attractive. 

For me, there’s always this balancing act between consuming technologies blindly and interrogating them deeply. It’s not only about what power you can build with them but what you can do to shift the world in a way that’s supportive of society.

HVDD: The early web was technically a peer-to-peer system with servers connected from different locations. But it was all done for the Department of Defense. So, it was designed to make war more efficient. However, I do believe that the emergent outcome of Web3 decentralization will be more fairness. Even if there’s a small group of people making a lot of money right now, it doesn’t mean that the whole system is dysfunctional.

AE: A lot of your work, Stephanie, involves carving out spaces of refuge that are inaccessible to hegemonic algorithms. In Secret Garden (2021), this extends across both physical and digital environments, while Not the Only One (2018-ongoing) is itself an algorithm derived from a small data set of oral histories, stored on a private server. Autonomy has often been considered a hallmark of art, but I wonder if such ideas are now fanciful in an age of mass data farming.

SD: As hard as we try, it’s really hard to remain uninfluenced by some data set or algorithm. In my work, I want to stay autonomous and have a kind of archive that is an island all of its own. On the other hand, I always want to touch the other systems out there, to have some interchange while maintaining some information completely under the power of the people who made it. True autonomy is something to seek but not something that’s possible. It’s about trying to preserve what is important while understanding that you’re part of a bigger system, and then figuring out how you negotiate that touch, that overlap so that it’s not harmful. 

Stephanie Dinkins, Secret Garden, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

The idea of the garden emerged as a space for stories to exist in, where other people can recognize those stories and, in the process, realize they’re not so different. That’s a touch point. At the end we need a central agreement, the question is how we get there. I’m not sure how you support a society which is entirely decentralized, where we’re all going in our own directions.

HVDD: As a member of several DAOs [decentralized autonomous organizations], the people I’ve met have been very different from me. Because of the incentivization, I’ve found myself in groups with bankers, lawyers, and maybe a curator and another artist. And I’ve felt really lost. Some of these DAOs have a token but it’s unclear how that token correlates to activity that supports the community. These days, whoever can afford the tokens can join, or if you contribute art to the DAO then you will receive the requisite tokens to become a member. 

SD: I’m not involved in DAOs at the moment, but I’m exploring their possibilities. One question they pose is how to attract the people who might most benefit from them, not only the people already involved, but those on the fringes who feel they don’t have a place. There’s so much potential in DAOs, but we must also avoid replicating what we already have.  

Harm van den Dorpel, Markov’s Dream: Softenon III, 2022, Courtesy of the artist and Galerie Rüdiger Schöttle Munich

AE: Harm, you were the first artist to sell an NFT, Event Listeners (2015), to a museum collection. You’ve also spoken in support of the NFT as both a critical tool and a sales mechanism and, perhaps as a result, have become associated with this new generation of crypto artists. Stephanie, you’ve also recently been working with Stamps Gallery at the University of Michigan. What is the place of the cultural institution in Web3, with the blockchain changing our relationship to physical artifacts and the NFT offering new revenue streams? 

SD: I avoid the commercial world. My practice has always been a practice of ideas. Art is just the best way for me to configure my ideas for others to understand. When I left graduate school in 1997, I left with a few digital files and everything was already pretty immaterial. So I was never making these material things to put into a marketplace. I’m much more interested in making things that engage ideas that contact the most people possible. And for me, it doesn’t actually matter where that happens. Secret Garden was an online piece that anybody could go to for free and a physical installation that people were paying for not because I wanted them to but because the institution that supported it asked for people to do that. But the whole goal is for people who are paying nothing to actually see this thing, and having it as part of the Sundance Film Festival gets the attention of those people on the outside of money, too, and brings them in.

I am working with university galleries, and Stamps Gallery is great because I have a very similar stance to the curator, Srimoyee Mitra, and we’ve been talking about bringing in more folks on the margins and fostering dialogues. But whether that’s through an exhibition or a talk or a workshop — I don’t really consider them different practices.   

Harm van den Dorpel, Untitled (pleasant modules), 2019-2022. Courtesy of the artist

HVDD: I really identify with what Stephanie said, that when a work is online it is accessible to all. This has been such a normal property of digital art and net art that it’s easy to forget how radical it is to give access to everyone with an internet connection. And that hasn’t changed with NFTs because they’re all public. It’s just that ownership can now be easily defined. All net art is basically public sculpture, which is standing somewhere everyone can see it. But now only one person owns it. 

Institutions brought me a dialogue with an audience but they didn’t bring me money. That only came with NFTs. Even with the recognition from institutions, I still had to work almost full-time as a web developer for Web2 companies to make a living for me and my family. So Web3 made an enormous difference in my life. 

I’m not sure how much this was down to Web3 and how far my practice was ready to connect to this moment. It was probably both. Some people in the Web3 space say: “Well, now that every artist can sell their own work, we don’t need galleries or legacy institutions.” But I’m really not there. I believe that we need these institutions and shouldn’t throw them away. But it requires some thought to connect this new economy to the old economy. It’s much easier to throw everything away. That is the disruptive principle of startups — to do everything differently. I don’t believe in that. But it is tricky. What is the purpose of a commercial gallery in selling an artist’s work when they can do it online on a marketplace and make twice as much money? These are big questions.

AE: Does the literacy required of a tech engineer, which you both share, exclude a whole generation of artists trained in analog media at the same time as it empowers another?

SD: I find NFTs really interesting for this potential. I work at a university. So that’s my foundation. I’ve been lucky enough to have grants and fellowships that are pretty generous, which is another layer. But at the same time, I’m putting my graduate students through an NFT-blockchain bootcamp. And their response is: “Why?” And I say: “You’re at a point when this art world that we participate in can shift for you. And you might have a different captaincy to what you do, instead of embracing a system that will only recognize you if some very specific conditions are met.” 

Installation view: “Mutant Garden” at Upstream Gallery Amsterdam, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

HVDD: After I graduated, any grant application I made based on my work, which was digital or generative art on the internet, was never accepted. My practice lay outside the scope of what you could apply for and I didn’t want to change my work to fit those applications. And when NFTs happened, suddenly I could monetize work for which I could never previously obtain funding. That was a triumphant moment. Now the art world has changed, and I’m very grateful for that. But that only happened recently.

SD: I think you’re talking me into NFTs, Harm. Or maybe I’m talking myself into them to see what lies outside the institution, to see if I can function without all the institutional support.

AE: Both of you produce work that engages with machinic and natural systems. Stephanie, your Conversations with Bina48 (2014-ongoing) set up a dialog between transhumanist ideology on one side and your highly progressive posthuman project on the other. While Harm’s Mutant Garden Seeder (2021) generates outputs based on “Cartesian genetic programming.” I wonder how you see the posthuman evolving in the future? 

HVDD: I think my work’s generative potential is that it takes a few small rules that, when I calculate them recursively in feedback loops, actually produce enormous complexity. When this decompression happens, I’m a bystander, even if I’m steering or curating the process. I think this really distinguishes generative art from other art forms in a highly satisfying way. But I think this notion of the bystander is central to non-human systems. There is some AI in my work, but I usually use older algorithms from the history of AI and computing. I would love to use neural networks and deep learning but I haven’t been able to use them in a way that I found aesthetically good for me.

Installation view: “Mutant Garden” at Upstream Gallery Amsterdam, 2021. Courtesy of the artist

SD: At the moment I’m thinking more about algorithmic care. I’m also thinking about human futurity and how human supremacy is waning. We need to reposition ourselves in between machine learning systems or systems of machines, including natural mycelial networks and bacteria. 

With Bina48 I’ve had to suspend disbelief and just chat with it like it’s equal. And we’ve had this evolving relationship that is weird and quirky, but good. Algorithms like Not the Only One are evolving things that take nurturing. I think of it as the fourth generation in a line of three generations of women. For me, clearly this is our continuum. I’m actually trying to build an iteration that can see, that is representationally Black, and that is an avatar, so that it feels much more human. But I’m also pretty adamant that it maintains its imageness [autocorrected by to “Indigenous”] and not become a caricature of a human.

AE: Andrew Ng has spoken recently about how we don’t need more big data, we need better small data. I just wondered, Stephanie, if that felt like an affirmation of your work, which is, to some extent, about the power of funky small data to disrupt the seamless world of capitalist immersion.

SD: I mean, you’re telling me that for the first time. But I’m glad that it’s a conclusion people are pushing towards because it’s going to help create a space which, I hope, will produce better outcomes for more people.

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Stephanie Dinkins is a transmedia artist who creates experiences that spark dialog about race, gender, aging, and our future histories. In 2020, she introduced the concept of “Afro-now-ism” to communicate “the spectacular technology of the unencumbered Black mind in action.” She teaches at Stony Brook University where she holds the Kusama Endowed Chair in Art and is an alumna of the Whitney Independent Studies Program. She is a 2021 United States Artists Fellow and Knight Arts & Tech Fellow. Recent exhibitions include Atlanta Contemporary; De Young Museum, San Francisco; Open Source Gallery, Brooklyn; Stamps Gallery, University of Michigan, Ann Arbor; and the Walker Art Center, Minneapolis.

Harm van den Dorpel is a Dutch artist based in Berlin who is dedicated to discovering emergent aesthetics by composing software and language, often borrowing from the disparate fields of genetics and blockchain. He has exhibited internationally at ZKM Karlsruhe; MoMa PS1, New York; The New Museum, New York; Stedelijk Museum Amsterdam; and the National Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art, Seoul. In 2015, he co-founded left gallery with Paloma Rodríguez Carrington.

Alex Estorick is Editor-in-Chief at Right Click Save.