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Google 'Bad Ass Mother Fucker' to Find Artist and Hacker Evan Roth

He builds fake Google street cars to wreck havoc on the streets, collabs with Jay Z and has a permanent art installation at MoMA.
By Laetitia Laubscher
June 30, 2015
By Laetitia Laubscher
June 30, 2015

Yup, you heard us. Let your fingers (read: mouse) do the walking to your nearest new tab, head to the search engine that needs no introduction and type in 'bad ass mother fucker'. Contrary to belief, your name will not lay claim to that coveted spot. It's all Evan Roth's.

Now you may wonder what would make someone constitute as a 'bad ass mother fucker', and not just any 'bad ass mother fucker' but the world's #1 'bad ass mother fucker' as determined by said search engine. (Forgetting for a moment that to get the coveted spot he probably just did a fuckload of SEO and other computer things to get there.)

Well, for a start, how about hijacking Google's brand image to drive around in a fake Google car to lay siege to the streets - getting out to take a leak, driving on pedestrian sidewalks etc.? Or going through airport security and instead of being cow-like and dead-eyed as per convention, he decides to engrave stainless steel plates and places them into his luggage, telling airport security to 'MIND YOUR OWN BUSINESS'. He's created a freedom of expression van which circulates neighbourhoods with a hotline number to call – pedestrians who do give the number a ring, find their voices projected through a megaphone atop of the van. (Profanities and love declarations ensue.) He's collaborated with Jay Z on an open source typography video 'Brooklyn Go Hard'. With the help of the internet, he's isolated every single white glove (125,000 gloves in 10,640 frames, if anyone's asking) in Michael Jackson's landmark performance of 'Billy Jean'. He has a permanent art installation at MoMA. And he's done a TED talk (although, like Google, TED wasn't safe from his subversion either – Roth later used those three bright red letters to let laymen and ladies get their filmed messages out to a wider audience under the guise of being official TED speakers).

Roth isn't pro the commercial world, but what makes his art interesting is that it feeds off what he struggles with and has the quality of still being pretty optimistic in spite of its criticial outlook. The knee-jerk reaction is to laugh, but then hours later you could find yourself still pondering the more complex underlying issues behind it.

That, ladies and gentlemen, is a bad ass mother fucker. So we hustled the PR squad of Semi-Permanent (he's speaking there this weekend), to get us an interview. Below is that interview.

In your TED talk, you spoke about your creative projects having a 'lazy like a fox' approach – you figuring out how to make things more convenient for yourself, perhaps more fun too. Could you talk us through your creative process in a bit more in detail though?

Yeah sure, it's something that changes over time, um, my thinking on some of the stuff is like evolving also, so sometimes I'm trying to have that lazy like a fox project and enjoy conceiving and completing a project within a span of a couple of days, but then there's also a side of me now which is reacting to the way the internet's changing – the sudden surge of long format on there is very interesting to me as well. So I have two sides of my brain which are competing at the moment.

But in terms of process I work the way a lot of people do. I have certain ideas that I act on immediately – I have some ideas in the morning that I just want to bang out and get it on the internet by the afternoon, and then I have other ideas I kind of sit on and let it gestate for a while. When I have an idea and I still think it's strong and it's been like a year later and it still feels strong to me that's usually a good sign that I should probably make it. I keep an email account that's just for where I email all my ideas as I have them, and when it comes time to make projects I cull through that list and see which ones still resonate. Those are usually the ones that I act on.

That's so cool. So you have entire email inbox full of inspiration?

Yeah, and sometimes it's just you know, they're not even long emails mostly, sometimes the subject line is just the project idea. It's just something to have to look back on.

Does your art change depending on whether it's on a wall at MoMA or on a website?

Time to me is an interesting aspect of an art practice. That's what I was alluding to earlier, because I wrestle with these issues too – art can be different depending on where you view it right? So like, I'm really interested in having work that shows up on the internet, some work that shows up in galleries, I work in public spaces sometimes, and I try to treat those three areas as really independent things that have their own identity – there are specific things in each of those venues that should be reflected in the art.

You can't just make one piece of art and put it in all three of those places, and time is something which varies between them – say between the internet and the gallery. On the internet you maybe only have a few seconds to communicate an idea or a feeling, and in a gallery that may or may not be true, but usually when someone invests enough time to physically go to a place and sit in such a contemplative, silent room they can think about your work in a different way.

I think art that inspires me can satisfy those two things. It can hit you immediately with something visual or something emotional that can be communicated within a few seconds but then if you're willing to invest more time into it, the better art is art that will unfold to you over time and as you invest energy into the art the art will give back to you. That's what I'm wrestling with at the moment: how can you make work that satisfies both those audiences? And that offers something on that fast time scale but also gets better with time?

So what do you think about long form content on the internet?

You know, the internet an evolving thing and we've gone through the phase of this introduction to social media – communicating in 140 characters, getting a link and laughing immediately, YouTube even kind of digressed back into GIFs, the videos were sometimes just too long format and people just wanted to have video clips in one second digestible cultural bites. But I think there is a certain audience that's looking for something more. You see it even in popular media on the web too – you see it with podcasts, long format interviews becoming popular again, like WTF which are these hour-long interviews. I actually really like listening to those long format podcasts.

On the artist side of things, you can get really wrapped up in speaking in these sound bites because it's hard not to think that what you say will end up on the internet and you know, you think 'what's that tweet going to sound like?', 'what's that blog post title going to be?', and I think once you start having longer conversations and getting into this long format, you very quickly run through the things you're used to saying and know how to say well and then you get to things that you're maybe less comfortable talking about. And then you hear people being more conversational and off the cuff and I think those honest human moments are the things that people are looking for both in their online interactions and also in their interactions with art.

So do you think there a split in the kinds of audiences you see today? You know, because there would be certain blog click-baity posts on the internet which might be able to get a high level of superficial interaction just based on the title or picture – but that may not actually match up with how many people read the articles. And then of course there are a bunch of shameful clicks and I guess internal 'likes' which people wouldn't necessarily manifest because they're so aware of their persona.

What do you think of the idea of people being very aware of and knowing that people are watching what they actively 'like' or proclaim to like? And that there may be quite a fission between what their public, crafted interests are what their actual interests are?

O thing I noticed kind of early on with making content for the web – and this is maybe tangential but I think it's connected – at the time I was making space work which was meant for the web and they were getting a certain amount of attention but they were also getting copied by marketers. And one thing I noticed that gave me an optimistic view of my projects – which was basically me making work that was critical of the advertising industry and then getting consumed by that industry so quick, was that you wouldn't see the view counts reflected in the duplicated versions.

So the clips that we were making were getting a certain amount of views, let's say 100,000 and when the advertisers would steal it and duplicate it they would like 300 views – even though their production values were higher and it looked better, and I saw that happen time and time again and I think what I came around to was this idea that whatever the internet is doing to our attention spans and our ability to read long format, I think that people's meters for detecting bullshit have gotten very, very acute. People can kind of sniff out when they're being sold something in a way that's actually pretty astute. You see it too when you're streaming shows and you're watching shows illegally and the sites are trying to trick you into clicking the wrong link, but people are getting very good at telling which links are the wrong ones – even if it is just a very small visual clue that they might not be thinking about – like it being in a different font can tip people off that it's click bait.

So I think that's actually a good thing. Or at least it's a good thing from my perspective, from someone who's trying to make, well I hope, honest content. Because there's so many people trying to drive clicks towards a certain spot, I think that people are getting better and better at seeing when it's not honest content and I think they seek it out. I think at the beginning of the internet, you know, when YouTube first came out it was really popular in a sense because it felt so real in comparison to television, right? People's bullshit meter for TV after going through the eighties and nineties and that period of hyper consumerism – MTV, commercial TV – they were looking for something more real than something like reality TV which did not feel real at all, and then YouTube came around – and that felt like people in their bedrooms really sharing honest thoughts, right? And even though we've now gotten used to that and now you see all the advertising popping up in those places, I think people are still really looking for those really honest experiences when they're engaged online, and I think that that kind of content wins out in the end. Or at least I hope it does.

I guess, but wouldn't you also say that with advertising these days, that there's a self-deprecating nature to it? That it's aware of its own dishonesty and it tries to make itself honest by showing its audience that it's dishonest? You know, like the Old Spice ad and those kinds of things.

Yeah I could see that. I think that's a good example, that specific commercial. In a sense you have a lot of smart people engaged with the new web culture – whether they're working in advertising, for Google or for Facebook – these kind of entities that I disagree with in terms of their approach, but they're filled with these very smart people and every once and a while you see those smart ideas bubble to the surface and escape the kind of group-think that usually tampers and puts down sparks of creativity which usually couldn't rise through that corporate culture. You do see that happen every once and a while, and really brilliant ideas pop up in those systems, but in general I don't think they're set up to allow pure, honest creativity to thrive. But that's just my personal opinion though.

Yeah, I can see that. In your work you're not particularly a mascot for brands, doing a bit of debranding of a few different business. I read about your Google car project where you guys made a fake Google street car and tried to debrand Google it by driving the thing off-road, getting out of the car at some point to take a leak and so on, just to give people a different opinion of the brand, but you said that you were shocked because in the face of all of that you just encountered so much love of the brand.

So what's your opinion on how people are now so connected to a product and a brand that it's past that idea of the eighties where people would buy products because it's part of the hype? That nowadays in marketing there's this real push to coax people to authentically love and connect with a brand, and that is what's happening these days? People are really connecting with brands.

Yeah, I mean there was so much wrapped up in that project. It was a group project, and we did it twice where we duplicated the Google car and yeah, basically drove around town. And it was one of the most empowering art experiences I've ever had. And it wasn't expected, we thought we were just going to duplicate the car and make funny videos and try our best to sort of put Google in a compromised and embarrassing position that they would hopefully be forced to comment on, but what ended up happening was that you would just like – it felt like we became the police. We became this untouchable force that could drive on sidewalks, drive down the wrong direction of the road – like, whatever we wanted to do we could do in that car. And it was just an insane feeling. And even in a city like Berlin (where we did it the first time), and this was pre-NSA pre-GCHQ spying scandal times, but even then people were already critical of the invasiveness of companies like Google, so we did see some people who were giving us the middle finger, which was great, but 90% - no, 95% of the interactions were people who were just so happy to have this encounter with the Google car – like it was a celebrity.

And you know, I'm generally pretty optimistic in my work, but one thing that I'm having a hard time figuring out what to do next with is like, even now, you know two years post the NSA and GCHQ spying scandal, I feel that if we went and did that project again, people wouldn't react differently. In my head, I just can't believe that these products that we use everyday, and the companies that run them, you know they essential track all our data for targeted marketing and then they snitched on us to the government, and like snitching is not a popular thing to do in culture these days, and they did the ultimate snitch but we're all still using their products. We're talking on Skype right now and Skype was one of those companies. [Disclaimer: Roth did want to talk on a landline, but I just wanted to have a conversation without paying an extortionate amount of my petty journo salary to do so. I was also unaware of Skype being one of those companies, the bubbly sky blue logo is one that is just way to charming to have such a menacing past. Dropped the ball there, sorry Evan.] The power that these companies have in maintaining their friendly, you know, corporate identity is so strong that even when they do something as bad as spy on everybody all the time and snitch it to the government – basically doing a thing that only conspiracy theory people like talking about, even when the worst case scenario happens, even that's not enough to get us to quit using these products. If something like that can't people's interactions with technology, I worry that there's not much I can do to help that.

I guess part of the issue as well is that a lot of the news that reaches people is curated by their Google search results and their Facebook feeds. And that there are strategies of bigger commercial companies to push positive news about themselves to the forefront through various means – PR, SEO and who knows what else? So there's that element of control in what we all know about those companies as well.

There's that and I think that the smarter level of control is that companies prey on our natural tendency to want convenience. So a lot of the blame is on the user and not just the companies. So I mean we, and I mean myself too because I'm wrestling with all these issues too – we're so susceptible to convenience these days that like it's almost unthinkable for us to stop using Google, or our smartphones.

We're so used to things getting easier and easier and easier that when a product comes out where we can do something in one click instead of two it's almost impossible going back to a world where we had to click twice instead of once. And usually with all those convenient one-click solutions that are free in the sense of no money, they usually have associated costs which end up relating to targeted marketing, which kind of drove us into the situation we're now with the NSA spying scandal stuff. Those convenience issues are equal parts to blame, but we're also biting on that hook with all the energy that we can. So yeah, maybe we should do two clicks instead of one if it means we're keeping our data to ourselves and it isn't used as a means to sell more products.

So what do you think the internet will look like in the future?

Well, if you look at the way it's going, it's going towards monetization, you know, the content that people are uploading to the internet is going to fewer and fewer servers every year so I think eventually there's going to be like – I mean already there's just a few servers, one company that hosts all the physical stuff: Amazon, Google does all the search stuff, and then social media is all on Facebook, so it's these three big servers. I wouldn't be surprised if that goes down to one company at some point. And then the internet that we though was going to be a place of mass communication and that everyone was going to be a publisher is going to feel just more and more like a broadcast media. That old idea of mass distribution is fading.

Do you feel nostalgic for the days when the internet was still web 1.0?

Yeah, and part of the reason why it was easier to be excited about the internet in that early phase was because it was so awkward. The internet before people really figured out how to make money on it, before Google was not the #1 or #2 company in the world, it was like the Wild Wild West. People didn't know what to do with it.

And there is that kind of nostalgia of those early web days – people think so fondly of things like Myspace because it was so weird and awkward and people were just throwing around GIFs all over the place and Geocities – do you remember Geocities? There's these amazing old web pages that just felt so personal. I think in a pre-social web – you know now people's interactions with the web is essentially crafting their online avatar, right? When anyone ever uploads anything – even if it's not them, it's usually the food they're eating, the flight they're taking, all these little clues that add up to the person they want to be on the internet. And I think that wasn't as true in the web 1.0. You know, pre-social media you saw people just making pages that were quirky and weird and maybe they collected stamps and they made some weird stamp collector webpage, but it wasn't about being this cool perfect avatar and having perfect photos on Instagram that match up with Twitter and all that stuff. It was a much more awkward space and to me it felt a lot more honest and a lot more human in a sense. So I think it's a lot more than a nostalgia for that, it was a different place.

And a lot of the work that I make is to try and remember what that felt like and bring it into the current online environment.

Final question. You're highly critical of advertising, and of course on here we can say what we want, but there's a high probability that there will be an advertising banner that's going to be for some product that marketing department's wrangled flanking this article. So the question is, how do you balance that out? When does the meaning of what you want to convey outweigh the price you have to pay to convey it?

I think that's a really good question, and if I knew the answer to that question I would be making a different kind of art right now. It's also one of those questions that's not black and white. A lot of the projects I make are directly critical of certain companies – which means you have to mention them, or their logos show up in the work. And I'm still not sure whether that project, for example, ended up working in Google's favour or to its detriment. I mean, there's a certain camp of artist activists who say that any time you even mention a company's name, no matter what the context is, you're helping them rather than hurting them. I don't know if that's true but I also don't know if that's not true. I think I draw the line, and that's the one place where it's easy to draw the line, is where the money starts to directly influence the work, that's really an easy line to draw.

Another really influential project for me is the Pirate Bay, or the Pirate Bureau, who spawned the Pirate Bay. And that, for me, is one of the more important things that were created in my lifetime in terms of influence, and they wrestled with that same issue. They were trying to build a system on access to information, but then Pirate Bay got developed and they needed infrastructure, and they needed the tools to provide all this stuff, which cost money, so they put ads on the page, and the people who wanted advertise there were wanting to advertise a lot of pornography. And in the original group that started project, there were a lot of feminists. The project was started from a philosophical and moral standpoint so then when it ended up being funded by pornography there was a big rift in the project and the original people who had started it ended up leaving it, and then other people kept it going. And it's like, this library of Babel that hosts content that's free for all and is amazing is also wrapped up in this conversation of what makes it worth it? How far and how much can you deal with the devil?

Then again, there are also characters such as Richard Stallman who's the original old school hacker type, MIT – that kind of thing, and he's a super important figure in the free software movement and he's also a very radical figure in that movement. He's essentially vegan free software and he doesn't make any compromises on that kind of thing. I'm really glad he's out there and leads that example, and he's actually a big influence on my work, but it's so hard. It's so hard to move backwards on you're think of how technology is supposed to function, to go back to the two clicks instead of one. And so I haven't drawn those hard lines, I'm not so vegan, probably not vegetarian, I'm probably not even pescatarian in terms of my interaction with free software. But I guess I take it case by case. And maybe when I see this interview I have to decide.

Published on June 30, 2015 by Laetitia Laubscher

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