In 2010, Lee Cody put a stamp on a balloon and mailed it. His intent was to examine the US Postal Service as a predefined system, an inquiry which lead to the creation of Unmailable Objects. Since then he has examined such internet institutions as Flickr (Flickr Album) and Google (Hypertext) in work that often not only inspires, but requires direct viewer participation. A recent graduate of California College of the Arts, he has exhibits at Root Division, the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and the internet, among others.
In this interview we talk about his work, relational art, and the way technology has (and hasn’t) impacted the art world.
PT: How did Flickr Album come about?
LC: I wanted to talk about how the internet is changing our lives. I did this by taking something that is fairly outdated, the photo album, and converting it into something that has since replaced it, a photo album on a social network. The book itself is pretty simple, it’s just a hollowed-out photo album with a light and camera embedded in it. It’s hooked up to a computer running a Max patch and a python script, which saves and uploads the images to flickr.
(Lee Cody: Flickr Album, 2011.)
PT: What was the most interesting reaction to it?
LC: Most people had to open it a few times before realizing what it was doing, meaning it took and saved their picture a few times. One person came up to me after doing just that, saying “after all these years of curating images of myself online, and it’s all undone by some punk kid. I bet I look horrible in every single one of those.”
PT: Flickr Album was part of the show Interface: Art Using Technology Using Art at the Oliver Art Center. Where is it now?
LC: As of right now, it is somewhere at the bottom of my closet. I actually plan on upgrading it soon, with a raspberry pi, so I can install it elsewhere a bit easier.
PT: What has been your favorite project so far?
LC: You know, I think I like Hypertext the most, but that may be because I did that one most recently and it’s still fresh in my mind. I also feel most strongly about some of the topics it’s touching on. Although I am still interested enough in New Frontiers/Challenges to be investigating those themes again in more detail.
(Lee Cody: Hypertext, 2012)
PT: So what is Hypertext?
LC: The project gets its name from HTML, which stands for HyperText Markup Language. It started with I Like The Internet and The Internet Likes Me which was my attempt to talk about the internet, and how it relates to the art world. In that project, I made a painting that just had a single HTML tag that displays an image (the <img> tag), essentially how you would display a painting on a website. It wasn’t quite big enough, so I decided to rework it and go much bigger. I tried to cover the walls of an entryway with HTML, but I sent out proposals left and right and couldn’t get funding. I’d still love to do it mural-sized, but I like how these came out, the size actually works really well with the intent.
As for the intent, Hypertext is directly addressing the notion of the fine art object and its place on the internet. It consists of a triptych of three acrylic on canvas paintings. All of which are made using conventions from conceptualism — the font Lawrence Weiner used in many of his Statements, the size he used in his wall removal (36” x 36”), the colors Sol LeWitt tended to use in his wall drawings, etc. The actual content of the paintings however, is the source code (at least what fits on the canvas) of three websites: Google Art Project, Flickr, and Nicolas Bourriad’s Facebook page. The first is a literal attempt at moving art online in a Google-Street-View-esque walk through major museums, the second is an attempt to propel vernacular photography into the realm of fine art photography through exposure alone, and the third being the social network page of the art critic who coined the term Relational Aesthetics, which talks about artworks that use relationships as medium.
Ultimately, the project is comparing artworks that had no tangible object, and online engagement with art.
PT: What have you been up to lately?
LC: Recently, I’ve been working at the Exploratorium in the New Media department, and doing some freelance web development. I haven’t been actively making any work for the past 3-4 months, though I almost always have a number of projects that I have in mind, or am developing off and on. I’ve actually just this week started making some new work with Nicole Santucci for a two-person show we will be in later this year at Truesilver Gallery. The show will focus on exploration and frontiers, particularly with how we as a civilization encounter and interact with that unknown space. It fits in nicely with some of my previous work that uses NASA’s Gemini and Mercury project imagery coupled with the Carleton Watkins photographs.
I also have several side projects going pretty much all the time. I have been making furniture recently — mainly because my apartment is too small to fit IKEA furniture, so everything has to be built custom. I am also in the process of making a website full of tutorials to help artists make their own websites. I’ve had way too many friends who are artists complain that they are paying someone way too much, or that there isn’t enough customization on their free website service, or just asking me to help. I am of the opinion that HTML should be taught in elementary school, especially for artists who need a portfolio website, but don’t have enough money to pay a professional to make them one.
PT: What do you think widespread HTML literacy would do for the art world?
LC: From an artist’s perspective, it would allow anyone to be able to build and maintain a portfolio website — something that is absolutely crucial to have, and often expensive if you can’t do it yourself. It would most likely benefit society as a whole and more indirectly, the art world. I feel that HTML literacy should be like learning to type. Not everyone works in a profession where they type regularly, but everyone needs to type at some point in their lives. We all come in contact with HTML everyday, it is literally the building blocks of every single website. I feel that a more global understanding of how it operates will encourage innovation in web development, but also enrich our lives individually, as it would help everyone understand how the web operates. It may just solve some of our current web problems (I’m looking at you HTML5/CSS3 cross-browser-compatibility).
It’s really just the small things, I’m sure tens or hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent every year just in making a more user-friendly way to get users to make HTML. If you’ve ever typed an email and had the option to bold the text — someone had to program that in, probably an extensive amount of code, when you could have just put <b></b> around what you want bolded. If everyone knew HTML, we wouldn’t need to dumb down the web; this particular instance is more convenience than lack of know-how, but backends like WordPress do the same thing on a much larger scale. I’ve been developing WordPress sites recently, and it’s really over engineered. I often find it much easier to make a site by scratch, than to bother with all their convoluted, auto-generated, hard to read code. I only bring this up because it’s very popular due its ability to hide all the code from the user, and it wouldn’t need to exist at all if the HTML literacy were much higher.
PT: Technology is a major theme in your work. What lead you to explore in that direction?
LC: I think there’s quite a few things that pushed me in that direction, many of which just have to do with my personality. Technology especially has just always been something I’ve been intrinsically drawn to. I remember as early as 7 or 8 years old I was taking apart electronics. The summer between 6th and 7th grade, all of my friends went on vacation at the same time and I was stuck at home, so I did what any normal 11-year-old would do and taught myself HTML. It’s just something I’ve always done. As far as my work is concerned, it’s present because it’s something I feel society as a whole should be aware of right now.
PT: Where did you find electronics to take apart as a 7 year-old? I’m impressed!
LC: Oh just stuff lying around the house, calculators, clocks, radios, that sort of thing. You shouldn’t be too impressed, I was rarely able to put them back together again.
PT: How do you think the internet has impacted art, and you as an artist?
LC: It’s impacted nearly every aspect of our lives. For my thesis exhibition, I wanted to talk about this very thing, but for everything I tried, I just couldn’t get my work to come out how I wanted. I decided to take a step back and figure out exactly what the internet does for us, how we use it, what it is, etc. To do this, I stopped using the internet entirely for a full month. I drafted up a very legal document stating exactly what protocols I could not use (hint: all of them), and had it notarized and everything. I discovered that it was physically impossible to exist in civilization without using the internet in some way, either directly or indirectly. I ended up having to cheat a bit, I couldn’t withdraw money from ATMs or pay with credit cards, I couldn’t listen to the radio, I couldn’t even order food from a restaurant, as many cash registers are connected to the internet. It’s absurd how much it affects all of us without us realizing it.
PT: Did having to face just how embedded the internet is in the infrastructure of civilization change how you think about the internet?
LC: Not at all. I was already thinking along those lines before starting the project, it just helped me think about it a bit more clearly. It did shock me to learn how embedded it is, but I already appreciated how much we rely on it. I’m hoping to get more people to realize that, which will then hopefully get us to pay attention to our infrastructure and laws surrounding the net.
(Lee Cody: Columbia from New Frontiers, 2012.)
PT: I went to MoMA recently, and there were some TVs, but I didn’t see anything like what you’re doing. Where is internet art in the art world exactly?
LC: The art world is especially behind the times: even with internet art being a legitimate medium for more than a decade, as well as emerging out of established, seminal movements (Fluxus, Dada, Conceptualism, etc.); major institutions like the MoMA, still have not collected a single piece. It makes sense culturally, though. The internet was born in many ways out of the Free Information and the Free Speech counterculture in Berkeley and San Francisco in the 60’s. In many ways artwork about or on the internet may be seen as political, (whether consciously, or unconsciously) which is typically less collected. More contemporary works about the internet however, have been much more about the art world’s refusal to accept it. The art world aside, I also feel that culturally, we still don’t fully know what to do with the internet. It has changed, and is still affecting how we interact with and relate to each other. Artists in the early 90’s were trying to tackle that very basic human understanding, so much so that art critics like Nicolas Bourriaud started giving it a term. Those Relational Aesthetics still hadn’t moved on from that issue when the internet was popularized, complicating the whole enterprise.
TL;DR, I feel the internet and technology vastly affect us as a civilization, and how we interact on a more personal level, and should therefore be considered much more heavily in all aspects of our lives.
PT: What is it like working in a medium that’s still a bit renegade after being on the scene so long?
LC: Well, I wouldn’t call it renegade. When I say it wasn’t accepted, I don’t mean people booed it at galleries or anything, people make it and people collect it, but it won’t be in any art history textbooks. Take color photography for example, the first (widely accepted) color photograph was made in the 1850’s, but the first exhibition of color photographs at the MoMA wasn’t until 100 years later. A couple decades in comparison seems relatively short. I think it all fits in with how artworks have progressed through the ages, my works, internet art, and contemporary art in general. Culturally right now, we are remixing. This is true for music, fashion, art, whatever (maybe not architecture, they’ve stopped making buildings like the Guild House, but their trends tend to precede other cultural trends). My work is just remixing too, taking those movements that sort of launched post-modernism, and using their parts to spell out a different message.
PT: Did you learn anything interesting about the USPS through Unmailable Objects?
LC: Unmailable Objects did come from a desire to map out and explore established systems. I really see that project as more of an experiment than an artwork. I wanted to look at long-established, aging systems, and how they function differently from newly established ones. As any sort of programmer, you end up building systems left and right, and I was curious as to how that process differs from a more analogue necessity. I wanted to look specifically at how it fails, so I pulled up the USPS’s very long list of things that will not be processed. I got an item for every major category on that list, wrote an address and stamps straight on it (no boxes, or envelopes), and dropped each one in a separate mailbox.
I learned a number of things. My favorite lesson is that mailmen will occasionally show up at your doorstep with your unmailable objects and yell about how you cannot mail them (specifically inflated balloons and clear plastic bags of liquid). I also learned that the USPS considers a sheet of stamps more valuable than dollars (the dollar bill arrived, whereas the sheet of stamps did not). Most importantly, I found that the very large, small-print-ridden list of things you cannot mail is mostly just a guideline to ensure your items arrive safely and undamaged.
PT: Did the mailmen ever tell you why things like clear plastic bags of liquid can’t be processed, or did they just knock on your door and yell at you?
LC: They just went straight to the yelling, but I knew exactly why. They make it very clear on their do not mail list that you cannot mail objects with an unknown gas or liquid because it may be hazardous. I tried to avoid that by filling my clear plastic bag with Mountain Dew, arguably the most recognizable liquid on the planet. I still got an earful.
PT: This is a horrible question, but I have to ask. What does a typical day look like? Is there such a thing?
LC: Oh wow, that’s surprisingly tough to answer. I tend to go in bursts. I will have a few months of your typical daily grind sort of deal, and then a few months of spending every free second making screenprints or paintings or something. I’ll typically develop an idea for a while, and when I think I’ve fully worked it out, I start making it. Once I’m in production mode, there definitely isn’t a typical day.
To learn more about Lee Cody and his work, visit leecody.com.