episode 19 – floating the internet ocean | Liliana Farber

In this episode, we talk to the artist and designer, Liliana Farber.  Farber explores how the internet can create legal, technological, and emotional experiences. In her work, she investigates ways the virtual redefines the physical world. Using custom-made software and collected material from the Internet, she creates images, installations, and interactive works.

Surveillance, anonymity, storytelling, data visualization, and more – all are being manifested and used in her work.


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Nir Hindi: [00:00:00] Hey, Liliana. Welcome to the Artian podcast.

[00:00:03] Liliana Farber: [00:00:03] Hi Nir. Thank you for having me

[00:00:05] Nir Hindi: [00:00:05] Liliana. Can you take a moment to introduce yourself?

[00:00:08] Liliana Farber: [00:00:08] Sure. I am a Uruguayan / Israeli and new media artists based in New York. Currently my work, I investigate the ways the virtual world redefines the physical one and using custom made software and collected materials from the internet I create images, installations, and interactive words.

[00:00:31] My practice is a research based one and I condense an abundance of information into unsuccessful data visualization.

[00:00:40] Nir Hindi: [00:00:40] Liliana. I have a question. You mentioned so many things that we will touch during our podcast, but before everything I want to ask you, normally, when someone think about an artist, they think about the painter. Someone maybe that they work with paint or someone that may be working with the material as a sculptor, but you choose technology as artistic material.

[00:00:59] Why working with technology?

[00:01:01] Liliana Farber: [00:01:01] So I started as a painter. Maybe it is the most accessible way to start when, uh, somebody is, attracted to the artistic medium and I transformed into working with photography. And along the way, I was introduced to processing by an artist in Uruguay.

[00:01:22] I was very interested in these new technologies and it took me a long time to figure it out, how to include it in my work, but it was definitely a process.

[00:01:34] Nir Hindi: [00:01:34] You moved from painting into photography and from photography into technology. Now we are living in an era in which technology has become so pervasive that it influences every aspect of our lives.

[00:01:47] Smartphones have become integral to the modern world and in your work. You interrogate how this reliance on smartphones and technology actually affects real interactions. But also how the specific language of the virtual is shaping our perception of time, space, and place in our real world. So one of the things you said, and I quote, “there is no more online world there’s opposition or expansion of the real world. There is only world”. What do you mean?

[00:02:22] Liliana Farber: [00:02:22] So I think, um, uh, at the beginning of the internet, we had a more clear separation of the worlds. You have the space to login and logout the space when you know, data is being collected. And when you feel safe and maybe this interaction is more for not the, let’s say the digital natives as we are in somehow in between these generations.

[00:02:47] I remember when I was a child. I think I got internet at the age of 11 or 12, waiting for nighttime to connect to the internet with my friends that meant to block the telephone line. I remember also too, having a little pad where I was writing the web addresses of cool websites that I, that I found around these kind of thought processes are, and I belong to a world of a physical.

[00:03:18] And right now it’s only Alina points out in, in some of her essays. That technology is becoming transparent. There is no more users, but people. That, what she says in the, the worlds are intertwined, especially if we think about how in the current infrastructure of the internet world functions and what is the effect that it has in our daily life, from governmental websites that we have to access through the internet, through all them.

[00:03:55] Physical effects from information Gabrielle flow restriction of power to even mining the minerals that are needed for the construction of the internet infrastructure in the energy that it creates. It is very intertwined and it becomes, it becomes a physical thing that I didn’t think it is separable any longer.

[00:04:21] As a difference experience.

[00:04:24] Nir Hindi: [00:04:24] It’s not only us having a virtual life now, our life is our life in the physical and in the virtual. But also what you are saying is that technology started to influence our politics, our earth, our resources. So everything just became one. It’s very interesting because I always say I’m a digital immigrant I’m not a digital native. I grew up in the streets, not playing with the computer.

[00:04:54] Liliana Farber: [00:04:54] I love the digital immigrant.

[00:04:58] Nir Hindi: [00:04:58] Your works are actually touching all those things in one of the work that you had, it’s called “The Device is the Message”. And for 10 weeks you expose part of your life. Basically everything, Tinder matches, thoughts, your personal photos, and all are available for the public.

[00:05:17] Even today, you can just log in and see it on the Google. Why doing that? Why taking one step? Even though maybe we think that yes, someone might see those stuff. You actually went one step further and just exposed everything.

[00:05:32] Liliana Farber: [00:05:32] So I was invited by the guy, Larry  to do a residency and to work for three months to work on an artwork.

[00:05:42] And the original invitation was to do an online exhibition and it adds work. And I immediately knew that I wanted to do a work for smartphones. So the curator   what does it mean to do a digital residency? How, what can we create an open experience for viewers? You know, you see the process like, um, open studios or studio visits are in a physical residency.

[00:06:13] My practice is research base practice. I spent most of my time reading, and watching movies, and talking to developers and making diagrams. So I thought he will be interested to make that accessible to the audience. You see how the work is, how the ideas flow, one to another, and what informs my project.

[00:06:39] And I updated the blog on almost a daily base. So you were as good, really see where my line of thoughts were going. And you could see, you know, I, I had a date at one moment with network engineer and I, and I took the phone and i filmed our date the EDS, a mixture of explaining about a network surveillance in and hitting one into another and no flirting.

[00:07:10] So

[00:07:12] Nir Hindi: [00:07:12] what is his response? You go to a date and you take your phone and tell him, wait, I’m going to film it.

[00:07:17] Liliana Farber: [00:07:17] Yes, they have positive attitudes. They were very playful. In this case, I didn’t feel face. It was only the hands. It is actually a fun video. Seeing how the, his hands are explaining the process of encrypting messages coming from one hand to the other.

[00:07:35] And my hand was in the opposite place. And. Every time that he was talking  “the messages from here up here”, he will, that’s my hand. You don’t just do it. Just think that’s it.

[00:07:45] Nir Hindi: [00:07:45] And, and there was something like a sponsors that surprise you, that people responded to that one thing they want to respond that you remember.

[00:07:53] Liliana Farber: [00:07:53] So. Uh, the beginning, when I was working on that project, I was, I was dating. I used using online dating and guys were nervous that I was dating them as materials, which I was, there were scary to become famous, you know, um, as materials.

[00:08:18] Nir Hindi: [00:08:18] I dunno, online viewers or bloggers or people that saw all these exposure responded.

[00:08:26] Liliana Farber: [00:08:26] I didn’t receive any response that surprise me. I think people are interested in general how an artist thinks and works and it’s in, it’s not always accessible, uh, to see. And I, I try to be as transparent as possible. Every webpage, every movie, every thing that I thought it was, it was available.  I wanted to do a double thing to document the process, but also to explore the smartphones technologies through it.

[00:09:00] And so I was trying to use every kind of tool my phone had to do so in part of the blog, are documentations in part of the blog are me playing with those features because it happens more than once that I try to document in a new way and I find something interesting about the algorithm and then I become plain to understand really how the algorithm works.

[00:09:27] Nir Hindi: [00:09:27] You know, when you say it, , I’m positive listeners also thinking about it is that. You know that you are exposed in the internet, but it’s somehow you don’t want to think about it. And what you did is like, you actually put yourself out there knowing that you are doing it on purpose. And  that made me wonder that all those tech companies know about us more than we know about ourself  but still when we will be asked to do it and act like you did, it will be very difficult to expose everything, even though every company probably knows already. So in other, another that you did is actually called Blue Vessel and over here, you actually combine few ideas. One of them is geography. One of them is the story of Robinson Kruso, et cetera.

[00:10:20] Tell us about this, this work. What was the logic behind?

[00:10:24] Liliana Farber: [00:10:24] So these work, uh, was the result of the devices. The message residency

[00:10:30] was a result

[00:10:31] because during this readiness residency I was working. On blue vessel. And I was documenting how I arrive to everything from the idea. I want to do an app artwork to how I arrived to it.

[00:10:48] All the process is the device is the message.

[00:10:52] Nir Hindi: [00:10:52] So tell us about Blue Vessel what is it?

[00:10:54] Liliana Farber: [00:10:54] So Blue Vessl is an app where artwork that is hosted on a flight list. It’s servers, it’s hosted on a flight list, ship drifting on international waters. And this is kind of loophole that I found in the international legal system that places Blue Vessel users virtually nowhere.

[00:11:18] Nir Hindi: [00:11:18] So, wait, wait, wait. I want to make sure that we understand. So you have servers now that are on flagless ship. That they are somewhere in the world now, traveling or cruising with this ship, belonging to nowhere?

[00:11:33] Liliana Farber: [00:11:33] Yes.

[00:11:34] Nir Hindi: [00:11:34] So why it is important? It’s on a flagless ship?

[00:11:40] Liliana Farber: [00:11:40] So, because I was researching international law regarding to the internet, very fascinated by it.

[00:11:47] And I found out that actually. Now, this comes from on the old conception that we had about the internet to being a place of freedom, a place that you can be anonymous. You can be whoever you want it to be.

[00:12:08] Nir Hindi: [00:12:08] Yeah. In

[00:12:10] Liliana Farber: [00:12:10] a way. Yeah. This idea that you log with you with a different self and there’s no data so much tracking about you and you can be, you can escape this world in the free and the reality nowadays, if they couldn’t be farther from that, So I wanted to grade an experience that somehow recreated not only as a, as an user experience, but as in a legal experience, how can we do an internet that actually feels free?

[00:12:46] That has that it’s anonymous. In my work. I don’t have any cookies. There’s no logging. There’s no recognition of any user and the users they’re not bound to any particularly law. So they work starts with a user agreement. And that explained particular journey in, uh, States that unless this ship is bordered by a pirates or an exit via another shift that has a edflag.

[00:13:16] The information it is, and it will be anonymous and free when you pass the agreement. The app has two functions, one is to write. And the second one is to browse stories,

[00:13:29]Nir Hindi: [00:13:29] there is a limitation over here. People only can use words that are coming from the book Robinson Crusoe.

[00:13:38] Liliana Farber: [00:13:38] In your smartphone over the keyboard.

[00:13:41] You have a set of three suggested words, right? These are in every keyboard in a smartphone. These words come from a training model from an algorithm that analyzes a big data set of text messages, you know, trying to guess what is more likely for you to say next, trying to make it more efficient.

[00:14:04] So what I did is a keyboard that doesn’t have the regular letters, but only a nine or a set of nine suggested warrants, let’s say. But in my case, my algorithm that used one very similar. It is not trained on a data set of text messages, but it is trained on the book Robinson Crusoe by Danielle default, and the user is only write stories or messages using these nine words.

[00:14:37] You select one, and then you have another set of nine so that the user is pushed to be inside the Robinson Crusoe story.

[00:14:46] Nir Hindi: [00:14:46] And that th does the user know that actually the words are taken from Robinson Crusoe or they just know that they have nine words that they can use.

[00:14:54] Liliana Farber: [00:14:54] So what I love about Robbins and cruiser being the first English modern and novel at the beginning, it feels very natural, very normal.

[00:15:06] This could be, this could be whatever, but as you start to select, it is pretty much loaded. In the, in his theme of voyages in exploration, and it is very passionate spirits about politics and characters. So these things come across and there is a moment of disbelief that happens when somebody is using the app.

[00:15:35] When you realize something is wrong.

[00:15:37] Nir Hindi: [00:15:37] Now when people actually log in, they have nine words because you were just mentioned that people can read and people can write

[00:15:44]Liliana Farber: [00:15:44] let’s finish with the writing experience, when you select scent you get a message, this, the message you just created was, uh, just uploaded with random URL to the internet.

[00:15:57] And it works some sort of as a contemporary message in a bottle in the internet waters. So maybe at some point somebody will come across your message or maybe not. It will float forever on the internet ocean. And then you have the browser, the browser, when you arrive, it is long list of the links. each link has an article or a video on that.

[00:16:27] Teaches users, how to survive on a desert Island, how, how to make a raft, how to survive for long-terms on a stranded boat, how to fight sharks, all these kind of skills that somebody must have when they’re going to embark on a voyage. And the thing about is that when the user start to scroll down, the links become the start to disintegrate and the letters start to float around and they’d be slowly becoming a sea of letters.

[00:17:03] Now, the links are still active and accessible. So you are can still navigate. And back and forth, but they lose the sense of our location and then become a more like a random experience.

[00:17:21] Nir Hindi: [00:17:21] There are many aspects of it here. There is a legal experience. There is a writing experience. There is an exploration experience.

[00:17:28] And one of the things I’m interested, I mean, those things that people write with the nine worlds, is it accessible to read for everyone? Or we just need to hope we will get into it somewhere in the internet ocean. Okay. Okay. And you as the artist, has the curator you have access to everything that has been written?

[00:17:48] Liliana Farber: [00:17:48] Yes. So every time, uh, an anonymous user writes a message, sends a message. I get an anonymous email. I keep following in what the user send. And for the past years, it has been an amazing experience. Sometimes I wake up in the morning and I see a weird message, sometimes a weird beautiful, we are missing it and I have no idea who and where in the world or how can somebody come across my app?

[00:18:20] Nir Hindi: [00:18:20] And all of these from this nine words all the time, limiting to nine

[00:18:24] Liliana Farber: [00:18:24] words. Well, well, nine words, and then there’d be another nine and another nine. Yes. So this is how the work “Anonymous” was created. So I started to become really love with those messages that I was receiving. And I remember. One morning. I wake up and I see, I see an email from Luca cell and it was something like when they say I must be much married, you know, as mom, this messages, I kind of started to feel connected in a way they’re starting to tell my story.

[00:19:04] And I was thinking for a long time, what can I do with those messages? And after I think it was two years, I decided to create a story with them.

[00:19:17] Nir Hindi: [00:19:17] So this is actually the work that is a collaborative video installation we are talking about? This is involved with like storytelling, all the new technologies we have over here, anonymous users that you don’t know that actually wrote in blue vessel, you have AI algorithm.

[00:19:32] Then we have 1700 famous write. You yourself, as the artist. And a bottle of creating meanings from all these. Language about this work?

[00:19:44] Liliana Farber: [00:19:44] I think until the moment I have around 2000 messages and some of them fall into different themes. So the first thing that I did, I print them, them all and I started to categorize them into themes. You know, these words, these are about politics, these are about voyages, these are about love stories. And what are the, that at the end, I filled all this, all the walls on my studio, putting the messages on vehicles, according to the subject. And I started to want to write like that a story.

[00:20:21] And I just, I didn’t put it in the world. This was the first this message of my story. And this is how. How would in one wall was, was the story. The other three walls containing all the messages. And I was circulating to space and try to use as many, as I had the resulting story. It is a long one.

[00:20:46] I knew that in order to make sense, I had to write an Epic. It couldn’t just like, right. You know, combine five messages into a story that anybody can do. But the question is, can I make a story with all these anonymous people’s stories that actually took roads with the words of Robin and Cruz Hill in collaboration with the algorithm? That was the question.

[00:21:15] And what I love about the resulting story. It still contains the  political, you know, the religious fanaticism of the original character. And, you know, it is around the same theme, but in my story, all the elements are shifted. And the story is about a woman she was born in a place colonized by England, and the story is about her trying to emancipate herself in her country and to find love.

[00:21:52] And for me, what it’s beautiful it is how, in our time, me with the users, we took an iconic colonial book and rewrote it. We made it about ourself. And through that process, we as users, we shift the political power from colonial power to the people.

[00:22:15] Nir Hindi: [00:22:15] Liliana, before we continue, let’s take a short break.

[00:22:30] We are back with Liliana and we just discussed anonymous and Liliana. One of the things that Arebyte website wrote about your work and I quote. “She builds interfaces that celebrate chaos and experiences that use frustration as a strategy”. What does it mean using frustration as a strategy, what you try to achieve?

[00:22:52] Liliana Farber: [00:22:52] So in product design, when you’re doing websites, when you’re doing apps or experiences, you try to be as seamless as possible. You have to try to be transparent to the experience, to feel intuitive. And this is, this is what creates a happy user or user that doesn’t think about the technology that becomes part of their environment.

[00:23:23] Um, but I feel that it is important in order to break that type of experience insights, users, to be critical of the things, the use of the algorithms that they are influencing them. They are collecting data from them to create an experience that it is not seamless, an experience that breaks things as true through the glitch, through the chaos, um, through the frustration actually of, I think it is very important.

[00:23:58] You can see the infrastructure.

[00:24:01] Nir Hindi: [00:24:01] Basically what you’re saying is that you don’t want necessarily to make it seamless because you want the users to actually be aware how the technology works on them or use them.

[00:24:14] Liliana Farber: [00:24:14] Is this book,

[00:24:15] Nir Hindi: [00:24:15] which lead me to my next question, the role of artist? because one of my, my friends, Eran Hadas, you know, him as well said that we need artists to be more cyber skeptics to kind of challenge and have a critcial point of views around technologies.

[00:24:34] And one of the things I think you mentioned is that for those connected to the network, And again, I’m quoting “to be online is no longer an event, but then ongoing condition, sometimes an involuntary condition”. What do you think about that? What is the role of the artist in and technology era?

[00:24:54] Liliana Farber: [00:24:54] Well, artists’ role across all time was to process the reality they are surrounded and you think what are the implications? You know, what is, and what it could be. And in our time, technologies has a very prominent role in how the world is being shaped.  And I think not only new media artists, but I feel that it comes across almost all disciplines.

[00:25:26] We are talking about new technologies about this new way of reality, about information overload and about data collection and particularly new media artists have the role to understand these algorithms, these technologies into help viewers to have a critical stance on them.

[00:25:55] Nir Hindi: [00:25:55] One of the things you also said, and you started to touch it in your answer is that we look at the past with a critical eye.

[00:26:02] We always like to critisize, what people did in the past, but we don’t do it today. Is that what you are trying to do with your works?

[00:26:11] Liliana Farber: [00:26:11] Yes, I am trying to create a link between all forms of Imperial colonization in new forums. I think somehow it is easier to see to the naked eyes, for example, how European colonization shaped the world.

[00:26:32] But we tend to be less critical about platforms, the new technology companies, information systems that we currently use. And in my work I try to grade these connections between old maps, to Google maps, between all forms of language influence to new forms of language influence. Sometimes it is easier to trust for example, in Google maps, images that are made. Um, but machines that they are processed  what we think without human bias image there are process of data visualizations. And what I’m trying always to do with my words is to manipulate the algorithms and to show how easy to manipulate in how the results are not per se naked truth, but are there results of the design of the algorithms per se.

[00:27:39]Nir Hindi: [00:27:39] while you’re talking, I was remembering one artwork that I saw by an artist that they took 99 phones, activated the Google map and then went around the Google building. I think it was in Germany.

[00:27:52] And actually flooded the system. The place is like packed with traffic and then everyone needed to go to other places. So it’s interesting to see how artists kind of hack those algorithms and try challenge those algorithms.  You also did a very interesting connections. And that’s, by the way, what I love about artists always people think that that is so ingrained only to what they do without actually understanding the artists are across disciplines.

[00:28:19] And one of the connections you did is between the human body and data, how actually you connected the human body and data?

[00:28:27] Liliana Farber: [00:28:27] In my work, I, technology has a special, uh, consciousness and it is not that I try to create a more human technological experience, but, and technology itself has sort of a life of its own.

[00:28:45] And I like to bring the example of my work at rift for that at risk is a performance between machines that happens in the channels of the internet infrastructure. So there is  tiny server in the gallery, that send a signal to travel to around them server connected on the internet and, and to come back in, in that journey.

[00:29:12] This thing, and now it gets transformed into light, it travels in one corner of this spectrum on fiber optic cables. It travels along Facebook likes and Tinder matches and Java applications. And it reaches a particular in server or random server in ask for a tiny connection for us sort of case or some way.

[00:29:37] And. And then it come back to the tiny server in the gallery space to begin another quest. So in the gallery, there is also a terminal printer that it logs all this signal journey in the forums of timestamps. Every time that this thing went to a quest. And it was denied for connection because most servers that are connected are maybe from big tech companies like Facebook or Google, or maybe governmental or military in these servers deny this brief kiss.

[00:30:16] But other. Type of devices like our devices, for example, uh, there are more generous and they allow these simple, simple, brief connection. So every time that the signal comes back without with the connection, the printer prints the local time of the server in the gallery. And every time there was a connection, the printer prints the local time of the server and the local time of the server, that respondents, and one next to the other. So in a way I try to imagine, would look like for the signal, what is this travels looks for for signals? We are all the time we are translated into signals, right? Like every time that we browse that, that we move with our phone, with that, we send messages and.

[00:31:11] I tried to imagine when I send a text message oversea if those signals are still part of myself. And what are they travels? I am travel with them at the end our experience and the signal experience are not so different. We are both manifestations of this physical world. And I think heat is such a particular effect of the physical world.

[00:31:38] And it’s, uh, it’s an effect that’s that both human and energy that travels across no? It’s information has that through these metaphor, that I am talking about that, we both produce the data and we both produce heat. I try to imagine data as an extensions of ourselves in our engagements in the world,

[00:32:03] Nir Hindi: [00:32:03] you take it one step further. I think, from what all of us think about ourselves in the, in the technological era. That’s what I think beautiful about art makes you wonder all those deep questions around what are we doing? And what these implications in the web and how it relates to us? Liliana. One of the things you also do is you actually work in a tech company.

[00:32:24] I always wonder what does it mean for you as an artist to work in a tech company? How your colleagues respond to the fact that they have artist on the team, does it invite different conversations? What is the experience for you and for them maybe?

[00:32:43]Liliana Farber: [00:32:43] the company I worked for, uh, has been immensely supportive over the years with my artistic practice and I I’m sure they appreciate the set of skills that I have been also an artist and a designer for me maybe it’s hard to, to see them all myself, but I’m sure. That that I bring something different to the table. I think the benefits it’s for me, I’m obviously I love being inside in a high-tech company and see how decisions are made, how our algorithms are designed, how the industry actually works. And this informs my practice a lot.

[00:33:28] Nir Hindi: [00:33:28] Your work is part of your process of research

[00:33:32] Liliana Farber: [00:33:32] in a way it is. And I feel like it is my work as an artist and as a product designer are two sides of the same coin. When I have my design hat, I try to be as smoothless and as  an empathetic with users and try to create seamless experiences when I change to my artist hat, then with things that become fun and I break them and I try to lock or users they experience as, as much as I can.

[00:34:06] Nir Hindi: [00:34:06] I’m interested. You just mentioned how you, what you do in your head, what you do as a designer and an artist. What is in your opinion, the difference between design and art?

[00:34:17] Liliana Farber: [00:34:17] Well, they both use a lot of creativity, energy, but in design, I think the goal is to arrive to a clear  a message or experience that doesn’t leave so much room to doubt.

[00:34:34] No it’s to solve a problem to create, um, coherent clear experience as an artist, I just try to optimize the problem to enlarge, you know, to create more questions into great sort of a solution that doesn’t solve anything, but ask more questions and to invite many possibilities of thoughts or in interpretation.

[00:35:04] Nir Hindi: [00:35:04] I’m smiling because I always say that for me out is about asking questions.

[00:35:09] Design is about finding solutions.

[00:35:11] Liliana Farber: [00:35:11] Exactly.

[00:35:12] Nir Hindi: [00:35:12] And that’s why in a way they work together Liliana, we are getting into the end of our podcast and you just won the Lumen prize for out in technology, in category of steel images. And with your work there, Terram in a Aspectum. And it’s related to something that you mentioned that you connect between all the maps to new maps, and it will be also available online in an exhibition of.

[00:35:40] Organized by MIT, Leonardo the out in science magazine, a great magazine, by the way, I’m subscribed to this magazine. And I learned a lot on this intersection and that will be an online exhibition of the work. Maybe you can tell us briefly before we finish. What is this work?

[00:35:57] Liliana Farber: [00:35:57] It is a serious of fandom islands that these are islands that appear in maps for many years, but at some point were proven to have never existed.

[00:36:08] So I recreated those islands as satellite photography through a machine learning algorithm trained with images from Google earth. So I’m use in a way, proven to be wrong data in to recreate satellite photography in a way to show how manipulative this imagery can be.

[00:36:34] Nir Hindi: [00:36:34] So you basically took islands people thought existed, but they are not existed and you recreate them and feed them into the Google earth. So if someone now take a boat and check Google earth see that there is an Island just to discover there isn’t

[00:36:51] Liliana Farber: [00:36:51] there isn’t there wasn’t. There never was. But they have their presentation. Yes.

[00:36:58] Nir Hindi: [00:36:58] Eh, all our listeners, eh, everything Liliana mentioned, we will add the links on our website.

[00:37:05] You will have the access to the show notes and the work itself will be available on the MIT exhibition online that start next month in December, correct? Yes, Liliana. Thank you very much for taking the time to chat with me and sharing all work. I think that one of the things I take from everything we discussed is that this frustration is a strategy.

[00:37:30] Actually, we always look for the seamless, but we also need to be aware of what are those technologies taking, you know, day to day. Thank you very, very much.