Hacker-Artist's Mantra: 'Fun Makes The Politics Go Down'
Evan Roth knows how to get a rise out of the people and organizations he targets.
Over his career, the Michigan-born "hacker-artist" has taken on Google, the Transportation Safety Administration, and — most bravely of all — Justin Bieber's fans, Beliebers.
Some might call him a prankster, a rabble-rouser, or an enfant terrible, but Roth prefers "hacker-artist" despite the connotation that "hacker" might hold for some people.
He tells weekends on All Things Considered host Jacki Lyden that the hacker community that inspires him views "hacking as something that's a gift-giving culture. That's something that has to do with the playful, clever interventions into existing systems."
Roth's work has been exhibited at top museums and galleries worldwide, but he says he also tries to appeal to "the bored at work network" that exists online. And he does that using the mantra: "fun makes the politics go down."
"I love this idea that you can make politically motivated content that people click on not because of the politics but just because they want to see people driving around in a fake Google car," he says.
And he did just that with his colleagues at the Free Art and Technology (F.A.T.) Lab using a rental car, duct tape, cardboard and a few Google decals.
The result was a video featuring a fake Google driverless vehicle breaking rules with impunity. They got lost, ran over traffic cones, almost hit bicyclists, and drove donuts in front of Google's offices in New York City. "For me, this was a hack," says Roth. "But for me the end goal ... is personal empowerment."
Roth, whose new solo show opens Oct. 10 at Paris' XPO Gallery, is asked if his Internet age work can withstand the test of time in the art world.
"Without a doubt, yes," says Roth.
"Looking back 50 or 100 years ... institutions are going to want to see what artists were doing with this new medium."
JACKI LYDEN, HOST:
If you're just joining us, this is WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Jacki Lyden.
If art is the bane of power, then you know where Evan Roth is coming from. He's taken on Google and TSA, projected graffiti using lasers at the high-rises of Hong Kong. He's drawn Justin Bieber's ire by censoring images of him on the Internet.
Some might call him a prankster, a rabble-rouser, an enfant terrible, but the Michigan-born Evan Roth calls himself a hacker artist, using any medium - digital or physical - to make his mark. His work has been turning a lot of heads in the international art world and on the Internet. He's MoMA's permanent collection, and he has a show opening in Paris this fall.
Now, he joins us. Welcome, Evan Roth.
EVAN ROTH: Thank you very much.
LYDEN: So to a lot of people, hackers are online criminals or activists. Tell us about you. What's your philosophy of the entire word?
ROTH: Sure. And I think that that term has - means a lot of different things to a lot of different people. I think the hacker community that I'm most inspired by is the one that developed this free software movement - things like Linux, like Firefox. They view hacking as something that's a gift-giving culture that has to do with sort of the playful, clever interventions into existing systems. And to them, they would describe the more malicious or black hat hacking as cracking. They really make a clear line between the two of these things.
LYDEN: You say that fun makes the politics go down. So could you explain what you mean by that, your approach to your work, your art?
ROTH: A lot of the work that I'm making is not just aimed at sort of traditional art audiences of curators and institutions and galleries. I am interested in those audiences, but I'm also at the same time interested in the bored at work network or this huge other audience that exists online looking through a browser every day at work. And fun can help these ideas translate into new arenas.
I love this idea that you can make politically motivated content that people click on not because of the politics but just because they want to see, you know, people driving around in a fake Google car. And within that, you can sort of hide messages or you can be very upfront with those messages.
LYDEN: Well, you mentioned the Google car. Let's talk about the Google car. What were you trying to do? This is one of the things that you're most famous for. You've got a faux Google car driving around New York City. What's going on there?
ROTH: I should start by saying that this is a collaborative project from the Free Art and Technology Lab, which is a organization I cofounded. And we rented a car for three days, and then with duct tape and cardboard created a structure on the roof of that car that looked strikingly similar from a distance to the same car that Google drives around when it's recording for its Google Street view.
LYDEN: And so what happened?
ROTH: I like working in this mode that's very open. So you don't know what's going to happen. And the audience is often part of the piece, and that was an example where that's the case. And we were just, you know, brainstorming simple things we could do that would put Google in an awkward position, like getting lost and asking for directions, like drinking and driving, like...
LYDEN: Running over traffic cones. That was good.
ROTH: ...running over traffic cones, hitting bicyclists. So for me, this is a hack, right?
ROTH: But for me, the end goal in a lot of these pieces is personal empowerment. And so this idea that misuse can lead to empowerment experiences is something that comes across in a lot of my work.
LYDEN: You have been collected by galleries from Israel to Barcelona, to Paris to the Museum of the Moving Image, MoMA. Do you think this art is ephemeral, or do you think it will pass that historical test of art that it endures?
ROTH: In terms of its importance, I think the answer is, without a doubt, yes. To me, it's not about the technology. It's about the culture. And I think that the internet has moved beyond being this technological fascination. And now, it's something completely different. And I think that looking back 50 or 100 years, yes, I think institutions are going to want to see what artists were doing with this new medium.
In terms of whether it's ephemeral or not, I think the internet is constantly changing. It moves very, very quickly. Some of the work I'm doing is playing with that idea of, like, the impermanence of the web and trying to figure out how to create snapshots of that that can be archives so that we can look back 50 or 100 years from now and see what that was like.
LYDEN: Evan Roth is an American artist and hacker. He joined us from the BBC studios in Paris. Evan Roth, thank you very much.
ROTH: Thank you so much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.