Reclaiming the platform space as an art form with Cosmos Carl


Frederique Pisuisse  Marialaura Ghidini 



Project Title

Cosmos Carl 



Marialaura Ghidini: Can we begin by discussing what brought you and Saemundur Thor Helgason to start Cosmos Carl?

Frederique Pisuisse: In 2014 we all lived in a house in London — we were all studying at Goldsmiths, Saemundur and I in the Fine Art department, and the other two in the Curating department. At some point, we decided to start a new space online.
At the beginning of Cosmos Carl we were quite interested in the Post-Internet, which was kind of booming, and in the way the online art of the time was very much code-based or it was people doing stuff on their own website, like documentation, and using YouTube and sometimes Vimeo, and that was about it. Also, in our group, we realised that the way that we were constructing the project, like writing about Cosmos Carl, was by using platforms like the Google Drive, which was not so much in our art practices. We were amazed by all the possibilities of the Google Drive package, for example, but we realised it was not much used to produce art, only to communicate. We were quite interested to find out if there was a possibility to actually use that for producing art and see how it would work.

M.G: The project is described as a platform parasite “that hosts nothing but links provided by artists, writers, thinkers and curators”. Can you tell me more about this choice of being parasitical? And perhaps it’s connection with hosting links?

F.P.: It was a natural process for us. At the beginning, we didn’t realise that hosting nothing but links was that important. The premise of the project became clear after we had two or three participants on the website, and then the most powerful thing became that Cosmos Carl was just hosting links. The name of the project comes from the Seventies TV show by Charles Sagan [Cosmos: A Personal Voyage]. The show was about space, the voyage, and how he’s always in this spaceship between two places. At that point, we started to see Cosmos Carl as this kind of voyager: you just go there and then you are immediately transported out of it again into another dimension, or another place wherever you go.
The parasite part came a bit later. At the beginning we were actually changing names quite a lot and, at some point, we started with “Cosmos Carl – Platform Parasite”. A parasite has a bad reputation but actually it’s also a productive species in the way that you leech onto something and use it for your own system, instead of using the system the way it was meant for. This also became the beauty of the project. 

M.G.: In a time in which curatorial projects on the web propose 3D environments and carefully designed navigation patterns that keep a viewer within a given website, why did you decide to create a platform that functions as a repository of hyperlinks, and whose navigation is based on clicking away and enter different sites?

F.P.: I think the premise of keeping that kind of feedback loop, and social media trying to keep the viewer, is quite a recent thing  — I’m thinking of the recent leak by a whistleblower [Frances Haugen] that exposed all the possibilities Facebook uses to keep people on the platform. Of course, when we started Cosmos Carl, YouTube was getting bigger and bigger and Instagram was still relatively small, but the idea that you need to catch the viewer and keep them in the algorithm as long as possible was not so much in our awareness and the project wasn’t a reaction to that. But the voyager position we were taking at the time had something to do with it: you come to see the art and you’re immediately forwarded to another website. Our Google Analytics tells us that the viewers are sometimes on the site for less than a second because you go, click, and then you are gone.
The Cosmos Carl website consists of a pop-up window instead of a new one, so you’re still inside the website when you click on an artist name. At the same time, though, we were also quite interested in the idea of people stumbling upon an artwork — of course they wouldn’t realise it’s an artwork that was made for Cosmos Carl because there is no going back. So the idea of disrupting the original viewers of the platform became quite an important thing for us. At the time, the idea of advertisement and making money out of your viewers became a bit more prominent, and so part of the consequence of what we were doing is that Cosmos Carl was completely useless. The data of both Cosmos Carl and the specific platform the viewer was entering through Cosmos Carl were useless: it’s kind of coming out of nowhere. And in that sense it’s quite an anarchic thing. The disruption of the viewer and the data that is constantly mined, and the fact that we didn’t want to do that, became important to us. We made a sort of counter-proposition to harvesting data.

M.G.: In my current research I’m interested in exploring how curatorial work on the web interferes with and disrupts digital technology, such as web platforms and services and their assumptions and pre-designed behaviours. Apart from what you said about data, Cosmos Carl is interesting to me because it hosts artistic projects that appropriate already existing platforms and services with the idea of (here I quote from the website) “reclaiming commercial spaces”. Can you tell me more about your interest in nurturing such explorations?

F.P.: In the Nineties there was the momentum of culture jamming, whereby people were reclaiming advertisement banners in the street, and Cosmos Carl fits into this trajectory. The assumption is also to use the platform of choice of an artist (which comes with a set of Terms and Conditions) and the fact that the artist often uses it in a completely different way. We have an example of a work by Josephine Callaghan that used Airbnb to create a secret tour through a place that was listed on the platform. We also had an interesting contribution through an amateur porn site, XTube, by Joseph Ridgeon that was a commentary on a law that was proposed in the UK about stopping unconventional sex, such as spanking that would leave marks and piss play. The work provided instructional videos on how to make your own fake piss in order to bypass the Terms and Conditions [of the platform] — this morning I tried to look up the work but it doesn’t exist anymore because the platform is gone. We had another contribution by Jorik Amit Galama that consisted of an interview with someone addicted to watching violent video content and a visual poem. The work was made in reaction to a video where people were beating up a Russian lady because she was homeless and had supposedly killed a cat in the forest to eat it. The video was posted on a website that showed a lot of violent content, and the artist used the title of the original video as click-bait to create a visual poem, which was a beautiful reaction to this unconscious stream of violence, click-bait logic and hysterical content. 

M.G.: Do you think the kind of “reclaiming” happening via Cosmos Carl can be pinned down or defined? 

F.P.: It’s not so much about the fact that we have now established a reclaiming of anything, but more in general about reclaiming the platform space as an art form, or as a space we are now working on together. What we found out over the years is that, at the beginning, we had to explain to people very carefully what Cosmos Carl was and what we expected from the works on it. Whereas now, we get a lot of people coming to us and saying: “Hey, I have this project and I don’t really have an outcome for it yet. Can you display it on Cosmos Carl?” For example, for the next contribution there is a group of art students from the Graphic Design department at the Rietveld Academie in Amsterdam. Over the years, it became a lot clearer that Cosmos Carl is a space for art and the display of art through platforms.

M.G.: What’s your working process with the artists presented on the platform?

F.P.: It’s quite a straightforward procedure because we have a new link upload every other week, and so we have a quite fast turnover. We tend to be quite pragmatic about it and most of the interaction happens online. We always offer artists to have a conversation about the work; for example, sometimes artists have an idea for a project but they are not sure which platform to use for it. I’m always in favour of using obscure platforms that nobody has ever heard of. But we realised that there’s always this moment where there are a lot of smaller platforms doing the same thing and then the bigger ones — those with the most money —  start appearing and try to take over the rest of them. So there’s this kind of more obscure work [on Cosmos Carl] that has died out. 

M.G.: It’s quite interesting that through the stories of these artworks you can actually map instances of the development of the web industry. It’s the history of different waves of new services that then transform over time. You could write about this!

F.P.: It’s also interesting to see how certain rules on the platforms keep changing. For example, we had one contribution by Laura Yuile who wanted to make soap with spit and dust from Westfield (a big shopping mall in London) and sell it on eBay. But she wasn’t allowed to sell it because you’re not allowed to sell bodily fluids on eBay, so she had to sell it from Etsy instead. 

M.G.: The fact that artist’s works are hosted on third-party platforms also means that you have little control on the life of their display and the artists on their future functioning. How does this impact the life of Cosmos Carl platform, and its being parasitical?

F.P.: At the beginning, as I was mentioning before, most of the artworks you would see online were on artist’s own websites or YouTube and sometimes Vimeo videos. But if you forgot to pay for your domain, your website would be immediately taken down. Obviously, GoogleDrive and the whole Google package is a much better way to preserve anything because it’s in their own interest to keep all the content running — any contribution we had on there is actually still running. But it also changed over time because now all these little obscure platforms are often bought up by larger ones and so the links disappear. You never know which platform will stay, and which will be dying out. The interesting thing is that when these platforms disappear, the links don’t die out but they go to a different website with no clear relationship to the original work.
At the beginning we discussed this: should we try to preserve everything, or should we, for example, archive Cosmos Carl through screenshots? We tried to upload works on the Internet Archive and see if this would work. But then we realised that this undertaking wasn’t possible, and the dying of links is so natural in the online world that we just decided to go with the flow. We are still unsure if this is a good or a bad thing. Personally, I do like the ephemerality of it and, because Cosmos Carl has such a quick pace, you need to keep up with it and you never know when things will disappear. We are going with the natural habitat.

M.G.: I guess this turns Cosmos Carl almost into an artwork made of this dispersal. I’m thinking about this because often curators try to control the way things appear, and are archived and preserved.

F.P: Saemundur and I don’t see ourselves as curators. We work with quite a broad range of people who are also in different stages of their career. The preservation and the archiving, and the fact that we don’t see that so much as our responsibility, really distinguishes us from a curator. 

M.G.: This takes me to a question about audience. And in this sense I’m quite interested in what you were saying before about not feeling the need to ‘keep’ your audience. There is this widespread idea that being online allows for more audience engagement, implying the idea that fruition is easier and more accessible on a quantitative level. What does it mean to engage an online audience for Cosmos Carl?

F.P.: I don’t agree with the assumption that there is this super-engagement online. With Cosmos Carl, we often wonder if it’s still relevant to keep the website up because of the ephemerality of the artworks that come and go. There are people who binge-watch six, seven artworks at a time, or people who maybe scroll through or look for a specific work to check. But also there are a lot of people who come only when the link is launched by a work of someone they already know. We always discourage artists to use platforms that you need to sign up for because we know that this doesn’t work: if people don’t get there immediately, they’re gone. In general, the engagement of the online audience is like a mystery. Even advertisers and platforms have to lie about how much people are engaged, or need to do tricks to keep them on the platform. Maybe again, because we’re not so much interested in engaging with this as a project, it’s not a problem for us that it happens.
Cosmos Carl’s artworks always try to find their natural habitat somewhere on the internet, and Cosmos Carl itself is also exemplary of what happens on the internet and how it works. Thinking about engagement is more for traditional galleries. But for us is more like: why are we even here? [laughter]  

M.G.: How do you understand curating in the online environment and its role in the context of contemporary art production?

F.P.: I don’t know what I can say about contemporary art production if not that there is this constant shift between digital art and online art. I recently went to a gallery exhibition that was more like an advertisement agency spending money on young art kids doing stuff with digital art, and there was no representation whatsoever of what Cosmos Carl is doing. It was only about Instagram filters and 3D mapping, and I thought it was quite interesting that these people had so little engagement with what happens online, which has always been the case with online art. In terms of the institutional art world, they’re always trying to rebuild actual spaces and gallery spaces to show art, but the curation never happens through those [online] spaces. It always happens through documentation and representation. Whereas, Cosmos Carl is direct and the work is most of the time not a documentation of anything.
I don’t think I can say anything in a curatorial sense.

M.G.: Even though you don’t see yourselves as curator, in a sense you’re making curatorial choices. For example, the fact that you don’t try to replicate an exhibition format or an online format of display and instead, as you said, you work with the natural environment of the internet.

F.P.: Cosmos Carl is more about publishing than about exhibition making. In a way, it’s also an exhibition but what kind of exhibition? Is it a group show? A solo show? Something else? 

M.G.: How has the Covid-19 pandemic changed your work, especially in the light of the fact that everyday tasks of many people across the world started to be massively performed online?

F.P.: Personally, but also for Cosmos Carl, it hasn’t really changed that much. For me and my peers the pandemic didn’t have the same kind of impact as on people who go to an office everyday and all of a sudden were hijacked from these spaces. I’ve been working from home or from my studio. And it was only at the beginning of the pandemic that all of a sudden institutions were really trying to do something online, which they’d never done before. I thought it was just very embarrassing to see how they felt that they could tackle this problem in a month or so — we’ve been thinking about this for seven years and there is no format or conclusion that you can draw from it and that works. It felt like people were trying to reinvent the wheel but in a very traditional way by making a transition from a physical space to the online space and pretend that that was possible as a translation. But it really isn’t, because the web is not a translation of the offline world. Maybe this has to do with this assumption about online engagement and that there is a market. It also kind of fizzled out I feel as the art fair Frieze [London, UK] is happening IRL again.
In general, it’s too soon to say for me. Maybe there are a lot of new platforms, and some that became more prominent. I was actually thinking about cardboard yesterday, and the fact that it got super expensive because people have been buying predominantly online. At some point, we will start seeing all of these effects.