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Somewhere Between Cyber and Real: An Interview with Aram Bartholl

The DVD Dead Drop at the Museum of the Moving Image (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

Somewhere along one of the exterior walls of the Museum of the Moving Image, there is a slot. It’s barely noticeable — a small, dark crevice cut into the wall, incredibly thin and not more than five inches long. If you happened to see it, you’d probably think it looks a lot like a CD/DVD drive — and you’d be right. It is a drive, meant for blank discs. If you bring a DVD, insert it into the slot and then wait a few minutes, the drive will eventually return your disc to you. On it will be a curated exhibition of video art — for the next month, at least. After September 15, the content being offered will change. It will change again a month later, and then again, and on and on indefinitely (or until the museum decides to uninstall the drive).

This installation, titled “DVD Dead Drop” (2012), is the work of German artist Aram Bartholl. Bartholl uses his art to explore the line between the digital and physical worlds, often bringing the former into latter in an exaggeratedly literal way. For a project titled “Are You Human?” he took web-based CAPTCHA images and turned them into text sculptures installed on the street and in galleries. In this way, his work both embraces digital culture and questions what may be missing from it.

The DVD drive at the Museum of the Moving Image isn’t Bartholl’s first dead drop. In 2010, while in residence at Eyebeam, the artist embedded 5 USB flash drives into the walls of buildings around New York City. Those were the first dead drops: free, physical file-sharing networks available for public use, if you could find them. The idea has spread massively — there are now almost a thousand dead drops worldwide. But this is Bartholl’s first time using DVDs. I sat down with him at the Museum of the Moving Image to discuss the new project, as well as some old ones, and whether there’s any difference between cyber and real anymore.

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Aram Bartholl

Aram Bartholl (click to enlarge)

Jillian Steinhauer: This isn’t your first dead drop. The other ones, the USB ports, seem to be much more about file sharing: you load whatever you want and take whatever you want. Is that where the idea came from?

Aram Bartholl: There’s many layers to this whole development. Dead drops started, for me, with this picture of your flash drive in the wall, and just the gesture of — you walk up with your laptop and you connect it to the building, to the city. The files are literally cemented into the building, instead of all this server-based connection. You have to go to the place, you don’t know what’s on there, it’s dangerous because there might be a virus — it has all these implications.

But it started with a picture, and back then I wouldn’t know what to put on there, and I was like, “Oh, it’s empty and everybody can put something on there. It’s file sharing, actually.” So it kind of came up as a second step. And it made so much sense with the whole idea of having it in public, accessible to everyone, and the internet censorship discussion.

For the history of the DVD dead drop: I think at the very beginning, there were people from Brazil, for example, journalists writing, “Oh, that’s a great idea, but you can’t really do it here, because not everybody has a laptop and you don’t pull out your laptop in the street.” So there was always this question of, “Hm, what are the other ways to do it, to make it more accessible for everyone?” That was the start to think about DVDs.

Also, I had a piece before the dead drops where I had a USB device in a drawing, and you could get files on the drawing with a USB — it would copy on your stick. Going to dead drops kind of flipped the whole thing, that the USB drive is in the wall and you have to bring your whole computer. Of course, to embed a DVD drive in a wall, you need a computer in the back; it involves more effort and structure. And still, it’s not magic, right? It’s feasible….

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People: Aram Bartholl
Tags: Press