Cecilia Dougherty – Luba, could you talk about the longcat meme explain it a little bit, say where it comes from, and also how you got the idea to use it for this piece?
Luba Drozd – I came across the longcat meme – early 2000s, right after 9/11, there were a ton of message boards and forums for people to exchange information, from techno music to, just, inane topics, and the longcat started popping up around 2004. And I remember that this was kind of the joke everyone was in on. So, if somebody would want to screw with a person they’re having a dialogue with they would post a longcat and you would have to scroll and scroll and scroll through it just so you could give them an answer. So, it’s basically something that precludes the debate and dialogue as “won.” Just because you’ve posted the longcat that’s it – the debate is over – you won. Even though it’s completely illogical and non-negotiable. So, I was thinking about these devices, such as what-aboutism, which was largely used by Kellyanne Conway in the beginning of the Trump presidency. Such as when she brought up the “Bowling Green Massacre” as a justification for the refugee ban, she just kept talking and talking in the interview until no one could say anything or put any words sideways or in any way when she was giving the interview to [CNN’s Chris] Cuomo, the brother of the governor of New York.
CD – So, this was a verbal longcat.
LD – Yeah. She uses a verbal longcat quite often where she just barrages you with nonsensical information, that you, in the end of the conversation you forget what the question was in the beginning. You just scroll and scroll – she just makes you scroll through, until you can’t hang on to any semblance of an idea of a question that started it.
CD – Okay. The Bowling Green Massacre. Is that the massacre that never happened?
LD – Yeah, yeah. The massacre that never happened.
David Kalal – Hi Luba, it’s David. I was thinking it’s interesting when Cecilia says “verbal longcat,” because I was thinking of longcat in that it’s noise made pictorial. So, it’s interesting when the metaphors for it are this kind of verbal overflow and obfuscation, but this original version that you were drawn to is one that is actually this kind of noise, or obfuscation, distraction, or nonsense put into one single image, that also has this physical act of scrolling attached to it, so it’s like all these non-verbal cues for silencing people inside of a non-verbal conversation.
LD – Right. Exactly. That’s why it seemed fitting because the administration uses this device is all their activity until it just barrages us with nonsensical information that, most of the time, is not true, or is just decorative.
CD – Do you see this specifically as a political artwork?
LD – Kind of, yeah.
CD – And then in terms of being digital art – how do you see this as digital art? Is this a new form for you?
LD – I think so. I don’t think I’ve ever made internet art as such. I’ve worked with installation and video. But I’ve used the form when I regurgitate something – I take somebody’s devices and I distill them into a new form. I worked on a piece for the prison museum in Eastern State [Luba Drozd: Institute of Corrections], so I used training materials distributed for prison workers and I distilled them into a video installation. I basically didn’t change much. I just editing and condensed everything. The tools I’ve used, I used them before but I’ve never made an internet piece before.
DK – David again, hi. When you say you’ve used the tools before, it’s also a mode where you’re using tools that are life tools and communication tools, and things that were not specified to art production and moving them into the realm of producing work when you started to make digital work. It’s like your digital life tools turned to art production for the first time. Is that a way of thinking about it?
LD – I’ve worked with 3D animation before and I’ve used digital video before, but this mode of internet art, the browser-only available art that references internet culture I haven’t used before. But the device where I take a part of a certain enclosed community, such as corrections community or the digital community, and I take their tools, basically their instructions or their modes of communication and remixing them or distilling them until it’s laid bare. I’ve used that before. 6:05
CD – Can we see this also in terms of the net neutrality vote? You were talking about Trump – this is a quote from (an earlier conversation with) you: “. . .in terms of the power dynamic that is supporting and guiding Trump – how it seeps into the online presence.” In conjunction with what you were saying, the “let it all burn nihilism that is present in many mass shooters as well as 4 chan message boards, the “everyone for themselves idea.” Can you talk about this piece in terms of that?
LD – I think what gave birth to Trump – I see Trump as a collage of these personas or of these ideas – he is just taking these little pieces, making himself into this patchwork kind of scarecrow, piece by piece taking little snippets of these abhorrent ideas and creating a persona that’s not even real.
CD – Yes, exactly. This is what David and I were talking about. The longcat meme in combination with Trump is a literal representation of his presidency.
LD – Right. I think after 911 – the dot-com bubble-burst happened right around 911 – so, 1 you have prior to that there were all these festivals of internet art, and flash was so elegant, and everything was really design-y, and everyone was trying to make the internet this elegant, interactive place. When the dot-com bubble burst, and 911 happened, we had isolation, and we had all the people who have contributed to this elegance of the internet experience out of work, and oppressed by this global growing war on the fake weapons of mass distraction/destruction. Trump talks about the coal miners losing jobs and people talk about people in those areas of America voted for Trump, but I don’t think that’s exclusively true because there are all these message board trolls who probably participated in the dot-com bubble that grew disaffected over time.
CD – Can you talk a little bit about the message boards? Maybe as inspiration, or as something you’re responding to or, I think with this piece, as a co-optation of their communication systems – I mean their representation systems.
LD – I was thinking about the anonymous belonging. You don’t have to be yourself or be anything or anyone, but you still belong into the culture, or you belong in the community of all these anonymous non-selves. It seems like an attractive idea. I mean, I enjoyed it. I participated in some message boards. It feels more fun sometimes than just interacting with people because you can always disappear, you can assume personalities.
CD – Those were the very things right at the time, in the early ‘90s, it was schools that started – you know you could get your email through a school. Rumors, immediately, about being online anonymously – and either that was a great thing or that was a dangerous thing. I remember this debate from ‘93 – ‘94.
DK – I was thinking along the same lines when you talk about this moment of trying to have an elegant interactivity, and whether that’s something that is, in its theme, in its basic concept, like a discussion board or like a functioning democracy. Something that is conceived of as interactive. And yet, both the presidency and the longcat meme are these moments of resisting interactivity inside of – I think of the opposite of interactive – inside of spaces that are premised upon that kind of cooperation. You add anonymity in there and it’s an additional tool of interactive disruption inside of spaces that are meant to be beneficially interactive.
LD – Would you say they’re kind of hermetic?
DK – Hermetic in the sense that they have a sealed border to them?
LD – Yeah. It’s its own language, kind of.
DK – That’s a fascinating idea because, of course, both in the immediate visual – I guess it’s not a metaphor because it’s an actual visual presence when a longcat comes in and ends conversation. But also, when you think about the language of democracy, that’s exactly what’s being deconstructed and destroyed under the conventional reading of the administration, whether it’s the Kellyanne Conway nonsense you’re talking about or just the complete destruction of norms around the conventional middle-class news-based sense of a neutral truth in news reporting. I think the question of where the borders on that hermetic would be are interestingly present in the whole piece.
LD – Yeah, I wanted it to be enclosed, with no misinterpretation possible. I’ve done work where it’s open-ended and I like artwork that leaves things up to contemplation but it seems that we don’t have that luxury right now.
DK – When Cecilia and I were discussing the piece a few days ago we were talking about the space between what Cecilia was describing earlier as its literalism, right? I feel like I watch it, I have direct access and it’s not open-ended in a certain way. But then, what was the relationship between literalism and its immediate impact upon the viewer and didacticism. I think I remember you saying, Cecilia, that you found it literal but that you had a different thought about “didactic.”
CD – Exactly. I found it literal in a way that it expressed itself purely economically. didacticism actually is open-ended because it kind of requests an argument. It wants you to argue back with it, and it wants to present something – not seeing something as it is, but taking an ideology and presenting an ideology as how things are. I felt that the work was not didactic but it was uncompromising.DKAhh! I am convinced by that.
CD – David, you were talking about gender and seeing the longcat as a meme that expresses gender in some way. Can you say what you were thinking about that?
DK – Sure. I think I had two thoughts and they were attached in some ways to the literal impact of the piece on me, where it felt uncompromising and so I understood the immediacy of the visual language. And, partly because this political moment becomes so much about a new kind of – well, it’s not a new kind – but about an articulation of gender power roles in the straight conversational way about sexual harassment, sexual assault that I think of cats in their internet presence and in their general cultural presence as feminine. I think that they’re keyed that way in terms of everything from simple ideas of pet ownership, the dog-cat divide, in this way that we gender things that are not necessarily gendered, and they’re naturalized in that way. I was having that kind of thought for the longcat meme with this embodies boundary, hermetic even, where it’s sealed in all this incredibly specific news and video information. And then of course I went to another place, which was funny.
I think I had this deeper thought first and then I thought, oh well, of course there’s also a kind of Anglo-Saxon cruder genital slang way, where it’s all about everything that came out of this “grab the pussy” moment. And so, I had these two things where I thought I was having a quite complex gendered thought and then I thought I was having a very obvious almost word-play-based thing. And they both seemed to be true and again brought me back to the literal impact of it then all these layers that also had a sort of literalism in the way I experienced it. That’s not a very short way to put it but it’s what I was thinking of in terms of visual language and gender.
LD – It’s funny that you say that because “grab them by the pussy” and the cat connection did not come to me, or I did not think about it at all until you just said it. But it seems so obvious. It seems absolutely – yes –that makes absolute sense that it takes control over the idea of a cat, basically, or a pussycat as a representation of a gender, possibly.
CD – It’s also a representation of the thing you can’t control, and also like a mystery.
LD – Right.
CD – The way you have to hold it out like this [gestures holding a cat up] to see the entire thing. I’m just riffing now, but yeah, thanks, David. DKCecilia had the same reaction when we had an earlier conversation about it and I think it is interesting because I got to it that same way as well. It was a third or fourth step. So, it’s interesting that the complexity comes before – the fourth level comes before the first level. The way that I went through that information, and the three of us seem to have a similar kind of meaning stack.
LD – Also, it’s interesting because the disaffected white male play in the 4chan message boards and in the election of Trump vs. women in digital media overall, and how it’s represented, or the possibilities for women to work in digital media, which has been – not as much anymore – controlled by men and this idea of the gendered cat-dog thing, I think there is something there as well. Just taking control of digital media as a woman – that kind of speaks to me, personally.
CD – Can I ask about the GIFs format for you? Were you working with the animated GIF format before?
LD – I think I was just using the tools utilized by the community that created the longcat and feeding it back to it. Just creating kind of along loop, the self-perpetuating loop. I also think of it as the idea of an Occam’s Razor – the simplest solution for the problem or for an issue, and I feel like the cat is not necessarily a solution but an embodiment of the problems – Occam’s Razor – the simplest answer is usually the correct one. The most direct and simplest form has no ways of being misinterpreted. I’m wondering, by using GIFs, about the net neutrality vote and what could we do in the future, after the vote happens? Can we actually make fun of the president? Will we be able to put this online? Can it survive the net neutrality vote? There’re so many things that are questioned here. In 2009, I got arrested and one of the main reasons for the arrest – I won’t bore you with the story – was that the policeman didn’t like that I was smirking, and I was making fun of them. So, just because I wasn’t submissive or just quiet and I kept smirking, they arrested me. I feel like this longcat is kind of like a smirk.
CD – You’re wondering if it’s going to have repercussions?
LD – I doubt if it’s going to have repercussions. However, I’ve seen people getting doxed, their information posted online. I don’t think that’s gonna happen with this.
CD – No, I don’t think so either, but I appreciate your paranoia.
DK – Just ‘cause you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not after you. Two things that really sparked some thoughts about the piece for me are this idea of – and again, I think there’s something interesting circling about a literal work of art, an uncompromising work of art, and also this notion of bringing in Occam’s Razor as you did I suddenly then see the longcat as the cut, right? Not the knot, but the aftereffect of the single slice, which works, again, for me on both these levels of political art that is demanding to be uncompromising and literal. Which is interestingly contradicting because it can’t be a literal representation of the Occam’s Razor metaphor. But we’re into something that I find really interesting because it feels, again, like it layers direct truth on top of direct truth.
LD – Right.
CD – I was looking into 4chan and “longcat” and I came across Pepe the Frog. Do you know about this meme? LDI just know that Richard Spencer wears it as a button.
CD – Right. Donald Trump tweeted an image of himself as Pepe the Frog before the election.
LD – That’s not surprising. And the thing is, people say he doesn’t know what he’s doing. That’s absurd. That’s ridiculous. He’s an adult who ran for president. He knows what he’s doing! He’s not just like an unguided balloon of energy. He knows what he’s doing. People said that about George Bush and we ended up in a war with Iraq.
DK – Cecilia and I were talking about this idea of the GIF as a joke that’s frozen in time, which, when you say you think of it as a smirk that’s then attached to the story about your interaction with the police, I do think that one of the consistent ways that Trump communicates is with that kind of frozen rictus of a smirk on his face at all time, indicating that he does know what’s going on. I think it’s smirk vs. smirk here, these frozen moments of political humor, even if they’re humorless sometimes in their affect, are another interesting moment. I wonder if he’s not a president that is made up of just GIF moments. He’s just endlessly cycled short bursts of the same information and image. I mean, everyone who does an imitation of him does that.
LD – Exactly. It’s the idea that he’s a GIF collage. He’s not even a person, he’s just made out of these exclamations, twitter exclamations. Not even thoughts.
CD – So, what can artists do? This is a difficult question, but how is political artwork activism? Or, in this, when does the joke stop being a joke?
LD – I was thinking about the Hito Steyerl article about the pre-longcat form of spam, and spam before it was emails that give you millions of dollars if you save a prince from distress, or whatever spam emails do. I was thinking about the spam that Hito refers to in her article about digital debris, and how spam used to just be the word “spam” in early forms of message boards and it was typed further and further until it displaced lines of text. So, I feel that artists – I can’t say what anybody should do – but to me it seems that work that’s virtual becomes tangible and has tangible effects, and offsets certain tangible pieces, even little by little.
CD – We were talking earlier, David, about space because a lot of Luba’s work is about space, and you were talking about confined space, enclosed spaces, but we were also discussing whether the space of the internet is a real space. I think we came to the conclusion that it absolutely is a real space. So, what defines this space? We were realizing that it has geographic boundaries but those boundaries are actually the imaginary part, the way to be able to think about the internet, the way the government or corporations can think about the internet.
LD – There was a point where we were talking about how this idea of spam or longcat displaced internet space, or shifts it around. So, maybe this is a push back on the net neutrality vote, which tries to create borders, basically. Paid borders, paid superhighways.
DK – Yeah. I mean you can even think about it when we’re using this geography and cartography – or, we’re talking about it as a geography and this is an attempt to impose a map and we know, historically, that the imposition of maps is about world views and control, building metaphors of power and space in the ways that you look at the world. And so, if it is indeed a geography, and we think about pushing back net neutrality [vote] at this specific moment and the Trump presidency in a larger context, that is the virtual becoming tangible.
LD – I’m thinking also about this as a next step in colonialism because colonialism basically took regions – it had no idea about their culture and it just drew lines according to some idea somebody thought up in their war room. It appointed people who had no idea what their – just because they’re, like, friends or just because they know how to use a canon or some kind of weapon and they excelled at it. And then they can draw these lines on a land mass they have no relation to. How can a general from France say how to divide parts of Africa if he’s never interacted with animals in Africa and doesn’t know where they go to drink water? It seems like a similar idea applies to this. I’m not saying it’s comparable, I’m just saying there’s a lesson to be learned from the ideas of the failure of colonialism in terms of how it applies to dividing and monitoring the internet.
DK – Yes, I mean before we can yet know whether it’s comparable, you look at how the economic and political interests of dominant nation-states and corporations of the time built this geography and there’s a common historical reading that says the situation that the world finds itself in in its most conflicted areas is about the malfeasance of drawing that geography that way. It would seem like that would be a cogent argument to make against doing the same thing again, with a virtual geography.
CD – I think there’s a strategy. If you’re doing it with a virtual geography, you are doing it absolutely globally. This actually wipes away the political when it’s effective for corporate and state interests. It keeps them intact for the people and it wipes them away for those in power.
DK – It’s a rich and disturbing comparison.
CD – David, I liked your idea of a meme as a kind of chain-linked authorship and, you know when thinking about what can artists do, it is also a question of the idea of authorship and ownership, and when work moves online, you give that up. But it’s not a sacrifice. It’s not like giving it up because you’re giving up your identity; it’s because you’re actually giving it, period.
LD – I think there’s a culture of recycling happening everywhere and ideally, I would like this longcat could become open-sourced, with pieces added throughout time, so it grows longer and longer and longer, until we’ve gotten out of this situation. I hope we can. There’s the issue here of what if that gets hijacked like the presidency got hijacked. What if the people we don’t agree with start contributing to the longcat? That poses its own issues. I can trust myself to have good virtue but, I don’t know, do I? Who am I to say whether I have good virtue to control the cat.
DK – So, it’s not a question of who’s walking the dog. It’s a question of who can control the cat. Which, as we know, no one controls the cat.
LD – No one controls the cat. Yes. CDDavid, do you have further thoughts or questions?
DK – No, I’m just looking over the arc of everything we’ve discussed and I’m having a very original experience with the piece that is this kind of oscillation between immediately understanding exactly what I think and feel about it, and it really continues to work in this push and pull between…
LD – I’m excited about the geography topics in terms of this cat. I haven’t thought about it much but I find it very interesting to ruminate on that.
DK – To think about the geography in the sense of how specific moment like this can be used to push back against an oppositional idea of controlling geography?
LD – In terms of colonialism, the ownership or subdividing space –
DK – Yeah, one of the reasons I’ve been so energized about this latest thing on net neutrality is it really feels like a group of people in the Republican-controlled FCC and in other more shadowy ways have recognized free spaces that can be owned and made profitable, and subdivided and monetized in a bunch of ways that are going to be as endlessly complicated as colonialism or capitalism. And so, how do you push back and protest at the start of that?
LD – It seems like they’re trying to squeeze out, trying to capitalize on the spaces, squeezing out whatever they can from them.
CD – Who is doing that?
LD – I think David had thoughts on that.
DK – Just from my recent reading, because I didn’t experience the longcat meme – I was in a different part of the online geography at that time – but looking and reading about some of it, there is also this humorous constructed mythos about longcat. Cecilia, do you remember the name of longcat’s nemesis?
CD – Tacgnol.
DK – Right, and they’re headed towards a kind of Revelations-based Ragnarok, or Catnarok. It was interesting to see the way that individuals would take something that was used in this kind of spam way to obstruct communication and build humor and fan-ship and mythology, even if it was a joking mythology as a way to domesticate it. But I wondered if it was domesticating people who were trying to use it aggressively by making it a kind of affectionate meme, and therefore pull some of the sting out of using it as a spam-blocker.
CD – Right, but it’s really attractive. After I saw Luba’s longcat, I wanted to make longcats – I wanted to make lots of them.
LD – I’ve actually wanted to make one as well because I’ve seen the really long ones, where it goes through the universe, basically. It’s slices of the universe within one longcat that lasts through a few pages of scrolling. It would be interesting to make another one when this is all over and we’ve moved on to a better time in our lives, presidency-wise.
DK – It would be interesting to see in terms of both those senses of geography, how would longcat transpose into other national political contexts? What would they fill their longcat with?
CD – I wanted to know about your other work and the themes that you work with otherwise. Could you talk about that a little?
LD – A lot of my work addresses systems of control such as prisons, but not exclusively prisons. Or, things that seep in from the intangible to the tangible. This is why I was talking about these topics earlier. How, for example, nuclear proliferation becomes the tool of fear. Everybody’s so scared about nuclear weapons right now. Our minds should be occupied about other things, the realistic things, like our rights that we should be scared about. So, it’s weapons of mass distraction. So, things like that – misinformation – how things that are represented to us cannot be proven or unproven. Or, thinking about conspiracy theories, not in a serious way but maybe there’s some truth in any conspiracy theory.
CD – There’s truth to not accepting what’s being presented as the reason for something, or as the fact of something.
LD – The issue of mental health is very interesting to me. One person can say that they’re paranoid, or mentally ill, but maybe not. At what point someone stops being mentally ill and becomes actually correct. These grey areas, when one thing can become either depending on the reception – micro- and macro-aggressions that can mold things.
CD – I think that kind of work places the viewer in the space between concept and political space, and psychological space, rather than in the space of a person who is looking at artwork and having an opinion about it. The viewer is not necessarily interacting with it, or critiquing it, but is caught in the middle of it.
LD – It’s kind of a fractured space where those things collide and you’re kind of in between them, splintering, and the viewer can be in this moment of the splintering of ideas.
CD – I love that. Exactly. So that when you’re looking at it, it’s actually additive, it moves you out of your ordinary space of looking at art or experiencing art.
DK – Just to chime in, I was thinking of this notion of it as a space for political psychology. Maybe that’s one of the ways I’ve experienced it as additive, where these other moments have come in on top of its visual impact and the way it initially inhabits, for me, a space between the playful and the deadly serious.
LD – Yeah. It’s kind of a dark humor that stops being funny when you realize how horribly unfunny it is. It’s so funny it becomes uncomfortable. There’s a part of that that I enjoy – where people start laughing but then start understanding that they’re laughing about something that really is absolutely horrifying. I start laughing talking about it!
CD – Okay. I think that’s going to wrap up our conversation with Luba Drozd.
DK – Thanks a lot, Luba!
LD – Thank you, David! Have a good night!
DK – I will! I look forward to seeing all the next stages for the piece.