Sam Lavigne Interview / The Art of Bots

Thu 14 Apr 2016

The Art of Bots curator and exhibitor Matthew Plummer-Fernandez spoke to artist, bot-maker and fellow exhibitor Sam Lavigne to find out more about his new project Parliament Live, and the role of video and humour in his work –

Matthew Plummer-Fernandez (MPF): One of the many things I love about your work is that you undermine serious problems (Capitalism, Prisons, Surveillance) through humour. What is the importance of humour to you?

Sam Lavigne (SL): A lot of my work makes use of found material, such as images, videos and text produced by institutions which they then make available online. I don’t try to force material to be funny if it isn’t, but if I find something that strikes me, I’ll present it in a way that highlights whatever latent humour I see.

Frequently humour happens when institutions produce material that undermines their own narratives. For example, I recently discovered that many sheriff’s departments in the US have YouTube channels containing b-roll footage of their prisoners. I found this one particularly interesting. It’s a self-congratulatory piece about a special wing of a prison built to house US veterans. The sheriff’s department appear pleased with themselves for taking special care of ex-soldiers, and presumably have created the video for distribution to news outlets. At the risk of explaining the joke, there are two things to note: 1) That they have decorated the prison to be ‘America’ themed and 2) The fact that they have a large enough veteran prisoner population to build a whole wing to house them.

More broadly, humour allows me to explore my own uncertainties about the possibility of social / political / economic change. What does it mean when repressive institutions undermine their own narratives? Perhaps that they don’t have believable narratives about themselves at all, that there is no symbolic basis for their authority. Or that institutions no longer need to legitimize themselves symbolically. Does this make them more fragile or more intractable? Without an antagonistic narrative, how can there be a counter-narrative to mobilize around?

MPF: Stupid Hackathon proves humour works especially well on technology too. Artists working with technology are usually found taking either the side of celebrating technology or being sceptical of technology. Having a sense of humour towards technology seems to be the healthier yet underexplored third approach. What are your thoughts on this?

SL: I think that this is also a question about narrative. A lot of humour found in the tech world arises from the the dissonance between what technology is actually capable of, what it actually does, and the stories that are told about it. This is of course especially true in the startup world – the dissonance is inflated in proportion to how much money is involved.

Most technology is just not that useful, or it’s useful in a limited capacity to particular groups of people. I find it much more satisfying to work with tech when you let go of the idea that you should be doing something useful, and instead, embrace it as a medium for some kind of embodied critique.

To this end, I started The Stupid Shit No One Needs & Terrible Ideas Hackathon with my collaborator Amelia Winger Bearskin. It’s an annual event where we ask participants to create tech projects that have no value whatsoever.

MPF: I like that your work feels embedded in the real world – it’s used to run real e-commerce sites, deliver faxes to real prison fax machines, and connect with actual interrogation specialists over linkedIn.

All these projects are very critical of the systems they operate within but unlike other critical art projects, they require no critical distance from their subject. In fact, their strength is that they are situated right there in the system, and not there to protest either, instead these interventions exacerbate the situation already in place. What inspired this and how did you develop this approach?

SL: I think, of course, that we’re all complicit in the systems that we critique, and that critique itself is complicit as well, so it feels correct for the projects you mention to be “embedded” and functional rather than totally distant.

For example, in 3 Degrees of Separation from the Military Industrial Prison Data Surveillance State I map out people on LinkedIn who are within 3 degrees of separation from me and have also been endorsed for skills like “surveillance” and “interrogation”. I wrote a program that logged in as myself to scrape the data I needed, and I started to receive connection requests from the people my bot was looking at, such as this one.

3 Degrees… relies on the built-in mechanics of LinkedIn – LinkedIn doesn’t allow you to view the full profiles of anyone outside a few degrees of separation from you, and whoever you look at will know that you checked them out. So, in this sense, it’s really a product of the affordances of LinkedIn’s software. This is generally true of critical software projects: you base your work on the constraints and possibilities of the systems in place.

MPF: A lot of your work uses TV and movie footage that is computationally found and edited using some really clever software processes that you’ve made such as Videogrep. Do you work on automated video editing software first and see how you could apply it, or is it the other way around? Or a bit of both? What draws you to working with video?

SL: It’s a bit of both. Sometimes I’ll just find a new video corpus that will make sense with some tool I already have at hand, and other times I’ll have an idea for a project that requires something new. Usually it’s the latter, and I always try to release my code if I think it’ll be useful for other people and if it’s not too embarrassingly messy.

Videogrep is probably my biggest open source project. Frequently I’ll adjust the code for particular projects, and sometimes I’ll add these changes back into the main code branch if they seem worthwhile. Video is a great medium to work with, in part because there’s so much raw material to play with. I typically look at video as text, and find ways to edit it the way I would edit any other text.

Your new project for The Art of Bots, continues your work with video. Can you tell us more about the project? How it works and how this new iteration fits into your wider C-SPAN project?

Parliament Live is a bot that automatically creates supercuts from videos downloaded from UK based parliamentlive.tv. It’s a continuation of my CSPAN-5 project, which does more or less the same thing but with recordings of U.S. governmental proceedings. The automatically edited videos that my program generates contain only the top keywords from their source videos. Both projects provide a kind of surrealistic insight into the happenings of politics, highlighting language patterns in political speech and, the tedium and rhetoric of governing.

A physical installation of Parliament Live is on display at The Art of Bots, 15 & 16 April at Somerset House, London. It will run online throughout April 2016 and can be viewed on twitter at @parliament_live