Jonah Brucker-cohen: New Media, From Web 2.0 To Web 4.0

His doctorate thesis, “Deconstructing Networks” is based on the theme of the deconstruction of networks. It includes projects which attempt to challenge and, from a critical point of view, to subvert the well-established perceptions regarding interaction and the level of involvement within the networks.

Jonah is also assistant professor of communication on the Interactive Telecommunication Program (ITP) and the department of Media, Culture and Communication at the Steinhardt School of Education and Human Development of the New York University. He is involved in several projects and he is also a co-founder of the Dublin Art and Technology Association (DATA Group). His articles have been published internationally (in Wired Magazine, Digicult, Neural, Rhizome, Gizmodo among others); his artistic projects have been presented at some of the most well-known International events like DEAF, Art Futura, SIGGRAPH, Transmediale, ISEA and Ars Electronica as well as at museums like the ICA in London, the MOMA and the Whitney Museum in New York City.

I first met Jonah during the 2008 edition of Ars Electronica. From that moment I often read his reports on festivals of new media arts and his interviews. What I find really interesting is his 360° vision which is probably due to his double role of an artist and a researcher and which allows him to have a more fluid and open-minded critical and conceptual approach.

Last September I got in touch with him in order to interview him for my Phd which is based on the investigation of the role acquired by new media art festivals as social connectors.
Starting from this we virtually discussed (via e-mails) something I would like to share with Digimag readers. I think it is really interesting because it offers an ultra-contemporary vision of the artistic scenario both offline and online.

Photo courtesy by

Donata Marletta: I would like you to talk about your first experiences in the new media art scenario, about your interests and how involved you are in this field.

Jonah Brucker-Cohen: I began learning about media art while I was in graduate school at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts. I was in school there (last 1990s) during the “” boom, when the web was at it infancy and many artists were moving to this medium because of it’s free distribution of their artwork and the lure of technology in popular culture and media. Before this, I had been making art since I was a child, raised in a family of artists (mother, grandmother, sister) and being exposed to a lot of famous free art where I grew up, Washington, DC. Since I had been interested in computers as a child, it was a natural progression for me to integrate computers into my art practice, and work within the field of digital media and culture as a whole.

Donata Marletta: I am really interested in the increasing phenomenon of new media art festivals and their role as social connectors. What do you think about these events within the global artistic context in relation to your own experience? Do they still represent a point of departure for artists willing to present some new projects? Is it still necessary to have a place in which people can meet?

Jonah Brucker-Cohen: New media art festivals play a large role in creating both a community of artists and enriching the field in general. Within the global art context they help to create connections between artists living around the world who are engaging with the same medium, but on other continents. Although digital media and the Internet has the potential of erasing the need for face-to-face contact between people (especially how many artists often have made online connections with other artists and curators), there is really no substitute for face-to-face communication between artists working in similar fields in order to advance and enrich the current practice. Festivals play a large role in facilitating these meetings which often lead to further collaborations between different cultures and modes of practice. The festivals provide both a stage and platforms for these meetings to occur and often, through workshops, facilitate art creations itself

Photo courtesy by Jonah Brucker-Cohen

Donata Marletta: Can we say that these kinds of festivals do have a critical impact on the artistic scenario, or do they only have to be considered entertainment events ?

Jonah Brucker-Cohen: I think there are several media art festivals that remain critical in their curation and approach, but many are losing touch with the critical nature that brought them into existence in the first place. If you look at the early history of Ars Electronica, for instance, those early works verged on the hyper-critical, where artforms often called themselves into question as well as their audience. They were considered “fringe arts” and no integrated into the mainstream commercial art world. Currently, as computers and digital media become more evident in popular culture, media art is both a strong and accepted form of artistic output and is gaining a much wider audience than it previously held in the early years of its inception.

The festivals have changed to incorporate this era of mainstream digital acceptance, and are perhaps now becoming more of an “entertainment” vehicle than one that critical engages with technology. Thus instead of questioning technology, these festivals often merely “celebrate” it by accepting many projects that have no critical focus or drive. I would like to see festivals investigate projects that question technology’s influence on mainstream culture and how it’s use has pervaded and changed our lives for the better and worse.

Donata Marletta: You are an artist and also a researcher and you also work on social networks. Can you talk to me about your own experiences within these virtual environments? How do you use these “social tools”?

Jonah Brucker-Cohen: I see social media as something that is becoming a key element in people’s everyday lives. I teach a class at New York University where one of the assignments for the students is to spend a week without accessing FaceBook or Google, two of the most prolific online brands of their generation. This type of challenge was very difficult for the students as they realized how important social media had become integrated into their daily lives, to the point where their missing the use of these tools did not allow them to function properly within their social circles. Since they are such an integral part of people’s lives, I use these social media tools and communities as the inspiration and as test beds for projects and experiments in order to see how they function and subvert or challenge this function.

Photo courtesy by Jonah Brucker-Cohen – Alerting Infostructure!

Donata Marletta: Do you think a kind of interaction between online and offline worlds exists? Do you think they are connected to one another? Do they complete each other?

Jonah Brucker-Cohen: Yes, there is definitely a connection between online and offline worlds. Many of my projects looks at the connection between these spaces and how they relate to each other and translate specific characteristics. For instance, my “Alerting Infrastructure!” project is a physical hit counter that translates virtual “hits” to a website into physical destruction of the location that the website represents. For instance, the project has been installed in over nine countries in venues ranging from national museums to local art spaces in an attempt to amplify how physical spaces are losing their importance to their online equivalents. In another project, “LiveWindow”, I connected a browser window to a physical location so that when that location detected movement or vibration, the browser window would shake, and its text would fall off the page. By viewing “LiveWindow” on the web, a visitor can see a visual representation of the state of the physical space at anytime. These connections are rarely seen on the web, except for webcams or streaming video of live locations, however I would classify these as merely a digital version of the analog “surveillance camera”, thus making them different from my projects in many respects.

Donata Marletta: Do you think 3g mobile technology is introducing a new revolution in the way people communicate, exchange files, ideas etc.?

Jonah Brucker-Cohen: 3G mobile technology gives you an “always-on” connection to the Internet from your mobile device at all times, in almost all locations. The ability to have internet access, coupled with GPS data, gives the authors of “apps” or mobile applications the ability to customize an experience for the user is ways they were unable to prior to the existence of these devices and networks. I would consider this a “revolution” since it allows for more connectivity between people and data, and allows applications to tailor their content for any context the user may find themselves in, etc…

Donata Marletta: What are you interested in at the moment, both as an artist and as a researcher?

Jonah Brucker-Cohen: My main interests now are examining the emergence of what I call “user-defined social systems.” Web 2.0 was about the creation of content creation systems that enabled the creation of many forms of media by users such as online videos with YouTube, photography with Flickr, blog content with Blogger, etc… My interest now in my art practice is how to design what we call “Web 4.0″ or “user-designed social systems” and the rule sets that go along with those systems. This idea is a departure from web 2.0 because instead of merely creating the content that is displayed on the web, the users create the underlying system of communication for this media to be delivered to others and how they use and proliferate the use of these systems online. This trend is evident in the “THWONK” project that I am undertaking with Mike Bennett where we have created a system that allows users to design their own email lists with specified rules of engagement.

Donata Marletta: What is the next festival you think you will go and visit and where would you like to present your works?

Jonah Brucker-Cohen: The next event I am speaking at is “The Internet as Playground and Factory: A Conference on Digital Labor” event to be held on November 12-14th, 2009 at the Eugene Lang College at the New School University, NY, NY. My focus for this event will be on explaining how artists are creating systems for digital labor to enable users to create their own social systems online. This relates back to the THWONK project that I mentioned in the previous question. This event will bring together a wide range of speakers and provides an ambitious challenge to pinpoint how labor has moved from the offline to online worlds and how the public should be responsible for crafting the future rules and design of networks, not only the content that is displayed on these networks. We call “THWONK”, web 4.0 since it takes a leap beyond the creation of media for these sites, and actually manipulates the structures of these systems themselves.

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