Everest Pipkin: Hey. I’m Everest Pipkin. This happened at my last talk which I gave, and I was really into it because I was talking about Byzantium and I had this beautiful glowing background behind me and it was really fabulous. So, I don’t know, maybe this is just the way it is.
But, yeah. I’m an iterative bot-maker, among other things. I’m going to talk about some slightly embarrassing aspects of my work. And if you don’t know what I do, it would be amazing personally if you would look up the rest of my work. My web site is everest-pipkin.com. But I thought it was kind of important to maybe expose the veil and talk about some of those other aspects of what I did to be here. So don’t remember me as just this, but it’s kind of great.
I wanted to talk about how bots and specifically Twitter bots are kind of functioning societally today. I thought we could start with the idea of folk art. There’s a lot of ways one could define folk artistic practice, but to cut to some of my generalizations, it generally exists outside of fine art circles, or at least operates independently (sometimes willingly) from current mainstream trends. It’s often uncommercial or exists in hand with personal sustenance economies. This is to say that folk practice may support the artist but rarely supports an institution at the same time. And it tends to utilize affordable and accessible materials which replace expensive art materials as needed.
All of these kinds of practices manifest digitally as well as they do in physical space. There are many many many digital creators who are operating outside of the institution. And one of the better aspects of the Internet is the availability of Arte Povera digital materials. Which is to say there are many open APIs, strange data solutions, and huge corpora sources in the public domain.
Of course, digital folk art is not a new phenomenon. People have been working creatively outside of the gallery space as long as the Internet has existed. In some ways the two go hand in hand. The early Internet was very much a place for enthusiasts, hobbyists, tinkerers, and much of the content of the early Internet was similarly off-beat. It was not considered a place to be taken seriously, and so serious work tended to avoid it. And even as Internet communities grew and commercialized as they did, this mentality’s flourished with the vast availability of online spaces.
So you might want to consider fan practices, including fan fiction and roleplay. I was going to show this really embarrassing web site I made when I was thirteen years old on Avid Gamers, this fantasy role-playing site. But you can just imagine it. It was terrible. But important, right? And GeoCities pages, which sort of exist somewhere between a collage and a self portrait. Or web comics. Or perhaps a considerable amount of DeviantArt.
And I’m not poking fun at these communities. I spent my childhood and my early teen years in them, and I’ve never worked so hard or so passionately. And I’m endlessly thankful for the lessons I learned there. And I’m still impressed with the work that comes out of them, in all its silly and wonderful Internet glory.
And bots are really not so different. So for example, very few of them are made for the gallery. Very few of them are made for commercial reasons. As a group, they have their own set of zany and beautiful strange aesthetics. The community that supports them and produces them is relatively small and handmade. Often, bot-makers are not trained in the arts. And even when makers of bots do come from traditional art spaces, like me, or even when they’re expressly made for the gallery, they remain fairly egalitarian. Which is to say that although bots kind of assume that their viewer will have access to the Internet (which is of course privilege), they’re also available everywhere, and viewable in an original format. So unlike a gallery show that requires a visitor to go to the physical location and see the thing to have a physical experience with the work, bots are original everywhere when you’re with them in space. They live with us.
So this is exciting for a lot of reasons. For one, it’s political. Making work inside of the corporatized Internet, but developing shared toolsets with a community of other makers for the joy of it is pushing back. And it’s weird, right? The type of projects that come out of this space are very different than any other space I’ve ever seen. We should be proud of that. And its ours. The space serves us because we built the thing.
But I also want to talk about the inverse of the situation, like the rogue or folk computer scientist. Which is to say that relationship flows both ways. I’m interested in what happens when artists who are used to being artists decide that the best place for a work is within a space that seems to require an entirely different method of construction. And of course, there’s no harsh line between forms, and plenty of people exist both as highly-proficient working artists and exceptionally skilled programmers. Tons of them, right? But I’m not talking so much about the skill or even background. Instead of I’m interested in mentality. [The] goals of each practice, and how that comes to bear on resulting work.
So often, the understanding of how code should work is that it should be invisible, right? Good code shouldn’t make itself known. It’s meant to provide this sort of seamless digital experience, one that is not jarring or sudden. And okay, this makes sense, since yes usable design is a good business plan. Folks program things like automated vehicles and kitchen appliances. They probably shouldn’t kill you accidentally because of an artfully broken interface. It’d be bad. But it actually makes little sense as a baseline in the arts.
And it’s a total mess, right? It’s a beautiful total mess. And I later rewrote the code. It’s eleven lines long. It’s very efficient. But that’s the version that’s still running online, because I just never pushed the new one to the Linode. And it’s by far my most popular bot, by many degrees, even though I’ve made things that are much more complicated technically after.
And I think there’s something kind of special in that, in that very very very occasionally, like once a year, something goes wrong, and it will pull an undefined or a NULL or a NaN and push this to the Twitter feed. Which is not something that would happen if it was just a slightly more-together structure.
So yeah, as I’ve grown more proficient I became really thankful of this history. It let me arrive at some kind of strange, unlikely places basically because I didn’t know better or that my solution was so bad that it completely circumnavigated the initial problem and started me on a new project.
As a culture, we talk a lot about the naïve writer or painter or poet. But very rarely do we speak of the naïve programmer. And I think that’s a real shame. I guess what I’m trying to say is that it comes through, you know. I’m an aura believer, in fairness, but I believe that the insides of a thing can never really be fully invisible. That they intrinsically change how something feels or behaves, even when they’re trying to hide. And wouldn’t it be better to have the insides be interesting or unique, or non industry-specified, or built by someone who’s kind of new and learning the thing?
So, my last few minutes I wanted to switch tracks a little bit and talk about Twitter bots right now, and get more on a soapbox. And I wanted to tell you you don’t have to make Twitter bots. And I’m sure you’re like, “Duh I don’t have to make Twitter bots. I don’t have to make anything.” But really, right? They’re recognized as a thing that “creative coders” do. People get press about them occasionally, like even big art blogs, Wired, or whatever. And they’re wonderful in a lot of ways. They’re compact and manageable, and they can scale up to huge proportions or work small. There’s tools that help new coders get started. And there’s vast APIs that are impenetrable enough to even the most ardent developer.
But it’s pretty dang saturated out there. And of course it’s never impossible to come up with something new and wild and revolutionary. And most of the people who are watching this right now probably have, probably really recently. But it can be hard right now for someone else to have not done it already, and I think I see these really wonderful quiet things get lost in the fog.
And you know, no big deal, right? One [?] can always do an idea second, or way better, and we’re all learning, you know. And we’re learning about how fabulous it feels to knock something out in a few weeks or days or hours, and how brevity can great room for poetics to rush in. And watching people interact with bots in such spaces is really unique. They’re like a home for those strange messes of code, and for learning.
But still, let’s be honest. Branded Microsoft disasters might not be the end of the end. But it’s not the Wild West anymore. At very best it might be like a well-to-do pioneer town. And at worst, maybe it’s on its way to like a suburb. But you know, this is all to say our skill sets scale. We know a bit of code, sure. But we’ve also learned to execute ideas quickly. Prototype fun, tiny things. How to be silly or serious by turns. We’ve built communities and tools and made them viable and good for each other.
These skills do not just apply to certain spaces and one community on the Internet. All the things that have made Twitter bots this kind of verdant creative space, the small community of dedicated and passionate weirdos, like the sometimes loose terms of service, social platform that rewards small public interactions, huge amounts of accessible human data… These are available to anyone anywhere on practically any service or platform or app on- or possibly offline. So yeah, I guess I would ask you to take these tools and turn them to your own spaces. And yes, this is possibly Twitter, and probably Twitter. But it probably won’t be forever. And it might not be right now. And you don’t have to live there.
So, I sincerely hope y’all, and I mean the capital Y y’all as in the y’all that are making things seriously right now for your present Internet, your community in the world at large, build a fantastic, weird, tiny project renaissance anywhere that feels like it’s really home.