Photography — Alex John Beck
Words — Simon Clay
It demonstrates a very distinct talent to be able to harness the power of computer viruses that have seen the destabilisation of nations and apply it to a canvas. New York based conceptual artist James Hoff is a master of this skill. Playing with the idea of illness and the disruption of culture and society, James subverts common notions of what it means to be sick through infecting image and sound files with computer viruses. His work has spanned from sound poems using one piano, six typewriters, and five hundred popping balloons all the way up to his most recent exhibition in New York at Callicoon Fine Arts, Skywiper, which focuses on recasting the act of painting as a culture-bound illness using a virus created for cyber espionage in the Middle East. James discusses his work with Drop and informs us why a sick computer is closer to a sick human than we assume.
I’d like to start by going over some of the central themes in your work. You focus on culture-bound illnesses, distribution/disruption of culture, and traditional illness. What is it about illness and viruses in particular that interest you so much?
In regards to illness there’s certainly an interest in culture-bound illnesses, syndromes, and earworms, which are more of a malady than an illness, and then the viruses as well. My interest in them isn’t so much as illnesses but rather as self-distributing phenomenon inside of cultural networks, communication networks, and trade networks, all of which tend to overlap depending on what you’re looking at. So my primary interest in them is generally on how they distribute themselves in these cultures of communication.
So when you look at a culture-bound illness, do you mean a phenomenon like anorexia that has a high proportion in Western culture but essentially is not seen anywhere else?
I don’t know about anorexia in particular but a culture-bound illness or syndrome you can break down into a few different categories – firstly there’s the psychosomatic category. The idea of a syndrome has gained traction in popular culture in that people use the construction pretty regularly to discuss things that aren’t really syndromes, something like Lead Singer Syndrome. Then you have the social phenomenon type of syndrome like Missing White Woman syndrome. And then there is the actual medical syndrome, something like AIDS. My real interest out of the three is more in the psychosomatic side of things. I’m interested in the phenomenon of syndromes. They tend to spread through language. First you have the naming device, and then you have their spreading. There’s a quite outrageous one called Shrinking Penis Syndrome which has afflicted tens of thousands of people or more across the globe in the last century. It’s an illness where people believe that their genitals are retracting into their body and they’re going to die from it.
I read about something like this happening in China or somewhere else in Asia…
Yeah it happened in China in the ‘70s, and it tends to pop up every decade. The thing about that syndrome is that it’s not real, it’s psychosomatic, and it’s spread through communication, it’s spread through conversation, it’s spread through language. So that’s where my interest lies – the way that syndromes self-distribute through language systems.
I loved your description of Blaster as “the infectious qualities of sound and the way that it makes its way through social networks”. I was listening to Blaster earlier, and followed it with How Wheeling Feels When The Ground Walks Away and I felt that they were both similar in that they both focused on an infection: in Wheeling it’s a riot that’s infected humanity and in Blaster it’s a literal virus that’s infected an 808 beat. What was your approach to these?
My approach to them was a little bit different in what I was trying to accomplish or capture in those two pieces. With Wheeling, I was really interested in towing the line between a riot and a gathering – it could be a soccer game or concert or political rally, I was interested in the power that it presents to the audience and its tipping point. It was about trying to figure out where that tipping point was between social and cultural enthusiasm to political discontent or upheaval, not to go over it but to try and find it and see the two extremes overlap. I heard a story that Franco had recruited a lot of his secret police from people at the soccer stadiums, and I was really interested in how one can harness this cultural gathering and how that energy can be harnessed for political means.
When I was listening to Wheeling earlier, it had a manic feel to it – swinging from people laughing and clapping to screaming and crying. It was quite disorientating in the end. But you incorporated a lull in the middle of the piece, making it feel like you were in the middle of the cyclone. Was that the idea here?
Not so much a cyclone but more to create some kind of form or movements inside of the piece so that it could function inside a frame that people could understand. If it were craziness for 18 minutes, you wouldn’t really be offering the listener very much. I wanted to create a piece that could both draw you in and repulse you at the same time, and shift you between the two.
Which I feel you did quite successfully in Blaster; it was almost danceable on the surface but still had that abject and menacing undertone. I know that Blaster was the name of the virus that you used, how do you source or select your viruses?
For a while I was coming across them in weird ways and started to save them and build up a very small archive, and then as I became more interested in working with them, I started actively looking for them. There are a few different ways of doing that, one is to trawl the Internet and try and get them before they get taken down. I have a few programmer friends, and they’re also a good source. Floppy discs are magnets for viruses! I bought four or five thousand of the smaller floppy discs, and I would buy those online in bulk and I would just go through them looking for viruses and quite often you would find a few dozen out of a thousand that contained viruses, and then it became a bit easier. So that’s the basic way of doing it.
You’ve used the same concept of infecting a digital material with a virus to produce a distorted product, is there a difference between the ways that you use a visual medium compared to an aural medium?
Yes and no – the sound side and the visual side share one process which is taking the original source material, which in the case of sound would be taking the 808 beat and in the case of the paintings it would be taking a digital monochromatic image, and breaking them down into code using a text editor and then dropping the virus into different parts of that code before re-outputting it either as an image file or a sound file. There’s one other process that I’ve been working on which is transcribing every letter of the virus to a note on a keyboard and then automating it using MIDI so that it could create these automatic sound-works. Now I’m also working with a programmer and architect, and we’re trying to create a virus or modify an existing virus so that it could attack three-dimensional forms and move into the realm of sculpture and architecture. It’s still a work in progress at this point.
You mentioned in our email correspondence that you’ve been setting up your latest exhibition Skywiper, what’s it on?
Skywiper continues on in this realm of investigation using the Skywiper code/virus. Skywiper is a couple of steps removed from Stuxnet, which is widely acknowledged as being created by the United States and Israeli government to attack Iran’s nuclear facilities, the virus got out of the nuclear facilities and caused mayhem across the globe two or three years ago. Since then, we’ve seen a surge in nation states using viruses and malware to try and take down other nations and their state’s facilities. They’re using viruses in a targeted way and Skywiper is the latest in this family. So I took the code from Skywiper and infected some images.
In I’m Already A Has-Been, you say that “cultural-bound illness arise when we’re bored”. I thought that this is a really interesting concept, and I wasn’t sure if it was referencing an innate illness in all of us that rises to the top when we lose stimulus, or if it’s when society stops working the way that it should then we start to see the problems that arise. Can you tell me a little bit about that project?
That was a show in Oslo that contained syndrome paintings, and I was trying to use the canvas or painting as an interface for spreading syndromes in the audience. One of the things about syndromes that we didn’t touch on earlier was the notion of the artist as a crazy person, the painter especially, and those paintings play with different forms of abstraction in an effort to recast the painting as a culture-bound illness in-and-of itself. But in terms of the boredom side of things, there are a few different ways of thinking about it. One is that when we’re bored, the brain tends to fill in the gaps in a way that can develop these culture-bound illnesses, and when there’s a lull, culture can be the same. So I think it’s normally a combination of the two that can lead to a resurgence of illnesses.
One final question – what’s your opinion on the Western response to the Ebola epidemic?
I can only talk about it from the perspective of the United States, and it’s strange – people have completely over-reacted to it, in New York anyway. We had a case here a while back and everyone reacted to it in a completely ridiculously way, and I felt extremely ignorant but I also understand people’s fears of it. It’s something that people don’t understand so therefore they’re afraid of it, and it is an illness that doesn’t have very good survival rates if you get it. I’m kind of confused as to why most of the Westerners are surviving and the death rate in Africa is so much higher. What’s it like in the UK?
There hasn’t been that much hysteria, but I did get a bit alarmed when I read an article that said that there was a 60% chance that it would hit France and a 40% chance it would hit here by the end of October.
It brings up an interesting point though – Susan Sontag wrote a book called Illness as a Metaphor, and there’s a small passage in that book that touches on how the AIDS epidemic made us re-think how we approach computer viruses. The first big computer virus happened in ’88, and since then, it’s made us re-think the way we think about viruses in general. There was a few thousand before this, but they were pretty much innocuous and it wasn’t until ’88 or ’89 that Newsweek and others started talking about it.
Do you think that you can view a computer virus through the same lens as a biological virus? If governments are creating computer viruses to destabilise other nations for political gain, it’s pretty comparable to biological warfare.
Yep, I would agree with you for sure.