Angelo Plessas: Life through a Web Browser
Greek-Italian artist Angelo Plessas’ interactive websites (Angeloplessas.com) integrate elements of drawing, sound, Flash animation and innovative HTML coding. Each of his online two-dimensional “sculptures” is sealed with a domain name that playfully evokes the language of philosophy, literature and drama. Challenging concepts of space and ownership on the Internet, Plessas’ websites are, like graffiti bombed on a public wall, the acts of a guerrilla artist intervening in public space.
Plessas has come a long way since his first and ongoing aesthetic project: documenting face-like compositions he discovers in random configurations of objects and architecture (InternationalPortraitGallery.com). He officially launched his artistic career in 2001 when artist and curator Miltos Manetas selected his work for the Internet-inspired group show Biennale.net at Deitch Projects, New York. Now, the artist is exploring projects that take on a curatorial scope, including the recent one-day video projection extravaganza Bring Your Own Beamer at the Kunsthalle Athena.
With the lines between his online and offline work becoming increasingly blurred, Plessas is evolving in the manner of his medium. As the Internet expands, so does Plessas’ practice, and as the artist matures, perhaps he might shed light on where the Internet might take us. Sitting at his seaside apartment in Athens, Plessas takes me on a journey through his virtual universe, which ultimately leads right back to reality itself…whatever that might be, or could become. —Stephanie Bailey
Stephanie Bailey: As an artist, what attracted you to the Internet as a medium?
Angelo Plessas: The Internet is the most important invention after the discovery of fire! It is where everything happens now. The Internet is part of daily life. On the one hand, it is very much related to work—you go on the Internet to send emails, research and so on. But on the other hand, if you don’t have anything to do, you use the Internet to pass the time—it could be porn or whatever. My work is a social critique of this practice. My websites are both easy and difficult to find; you either come across them randomly or you know where to look for them.
SB: So the Internet has purpose and no purpose at the same time?
AP: Exactly. What is interesting is that today we speak about the Internet as if it has been around for a long time, and this is also something I want to say in my work; we already live in a post-Internet era. We take the Net for granted.
SB: What was the first website you ever made?
AP: The first page I ever did was AroundMyself.com in 2001. I wanted to subvert the idea of the webpage by making it round, and out of the blue I put this photo of myself inside. I registered the domain name AroundMyself.com because I wanted the website to be a standalone piece. So together it is this combination of an animation and a domain name. This work is really the starting point of everything I do. It’s like I opened a “window” into the art world and the Internet. The Internet makes even the smallest thing big, because everything is immediately exhibited. Things are accessible to everybody, and it is unpredictable how things can get popular.
SB: Looking at this self-portrait now, do you think you were already thinking about the concepts of online identity, the Internet profile and social networks in a way that reflects how Facebook defines its users today?
AP: Internet culture brings up issues of personal identity because people are redefining their identities every minute with status updates, photographs posted online and discussions that happen in public. There were things that forecasted Facebook—precursors which Facebook brought into one, from constructing an ideal self-image that promotes ourselves to living in front of an audience. Twitter is also very interesting because it brought another level to things. You mention something on Twitter and you can start a trending topic. An individual can share some information or an idea and this information is used to create a database of what is popular at any given time, depending on how many people mention similar key words or topics. Pop culture is being shaped with these tools now. It’s the most effective way of communicating today.
SB: What about the idea then that, despite having more mediums to communicate than ever before, the Internet and social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter encourage social isolation?
AP: Online interaction has evolved through Facebook and Twitter. You can become friends with people online, and then meet in reality. The Monument to Internet Hook-Ups (2009) was based on that idea. In gay culture, meeting online is very common; I even met my partner [architect and artist] Andreas [Angelidakis] online. Monument started as a way to celebrate my tenth anniversary with Andreas, who I was working with on the Angelo Foundation Headquarters website. We decided to create an online monument on the website: a pyramid to symbolize heavenly situations, unity, energy and even gay culture, because the Nazis used a triangle as a badge for gay people in the concentration camps. Then, for the 2nd Athens Biennale (2009), I created a physical sculpture of the Monument and combined it with the annual Athens Pride parade in June. It’s basically a day to stand up for gay rights, which is of great importance in Greece because gay civil unions and marriages are still not allowed. I also love meeting people, online networking and parades, so I wanted to bring all these things together into a performance. I sent a mass email to everybody to celebrate online hook ups at the Athens Pride. On the day of the parade, I put all the Angelo Foundation board members on a parade float with the Monument sculpture on it. As we paraded with Athens Pride we collected people onto the float, while others just followed. We passed by the Athens Biennale venue by the seaside and ended up at this park near the Trocadero, where we installed the sculpture. I suspect this is a bit of a cruising spot; it’s very suspicious and looks like it has been abandoned somehow. So Monument has a very symbolic meaning, crashing the Internet reality and this reality. This online/offline relationship is ongoing in my work.
SB: So as you claim public space on the Internet, this naturally spills out into the public, offline world?
AP: In some ways all my works end up public. Soon, the pattern from one of my websites, MeLookingAtYou.com (2005), will become a mural on a wall in downtown Athens.
Angelo Plessas, Monument to Internet Hookups, 2009; perfomance sculpture at Splendid Isolation, 2nd Athens Biennale (in collaboration with the Athens Pride); various media; courtesy the artist
Angelo Plessas, PlagueofFantasy.com (still), 2010; website; courtesy the artist and Bilge and Haro Cumbusyan
SB: Are some of your websites more important to you?
AP: PlagueofFantasy.com (2010) comes to mind, as I was reading Slavoj Žižek’s Plague of Fantasies (1997) when I made it. Žižek’s book speaks about how this crazy influx of images affects us. There is a specific chapter where he speaks solely about the Internet, talking about fantasy, pseudo-sensations and how the Internet creates this illusion of what you are seeing. Even if you are not in front of the screen, you have virtual images coming into your minds.
SB: What kind of virtual images do you mean?
AP: When you see something in real life and it feels like an Internet entity or some kind of virtual component. It becomes something like a déjŕ-vu. This unconscious feeling that you are still in front of a screen and everything’s just an object of representation somehow relates with Warhol’s idea that “Everything is just an image, ready to be consumed.”
SB: Is this why your work appears to be interacting more with the offline world?
AP: I don’t really discriminate between offline and online anymore. Our offline life is just another browser window. TheAngeloFoundation.com (2007-present), a self-proclaimed organization, investigates this relationship through social critique of Internet culture, and how things evolve around us—social media utopias, online/offline interaction, authority and identity issues. These are presented with different actions, ranging from the erection of monuments and poetry readings to ongoing charities, competitions, workshops and so on. It’s imaginary and doesn’t have a physical or legal entity, but it exists. This is a statement about the Internet. I basically had my own foundation when I bought the domain name. It’s like buying property. I also created my own currency—Angelo money—which I gave out in 2008 at an exhibition in Miami with two Angelo Foundation board members. When we left the exhibition space we got into a cab and threw money out the window. The taxi driver asked what this was and we explained it is a new currency: we give you money, we want your love. We paid for that cab with Angelo money!
SB: There is a playful element to your online/offline interactions, but there are also aspects of it that are more serious. As the Internet has grown, it has taken on a more political role in that it enables the distribution of information more freely, and challenges censorship and other impingements on the freedom of expression. Did you have these ideas in mind when making your websites?
AP: Of course. In the ’60s, many visionary artists and architects like Ant Farm, Archigram and others believed that technology and imagination should replace politics at some point. You also have that famous Andy Warhol quote: “Everybody will be famous for 15 minutes.” This is happening now with the Internet. It is redefining everyday democracy, human interaction and relations, freedom of speech and society in general. Of course, there are countries that put barriers up that withhold Internet content, but in the end, there is always a way to bypass these barriers. For example, when I was doing a project using YouTube for an exhibition called If Tomorrow Never Comes (2008) at Rodeo, Istanbul, I couldn’t show it because YouTube is forbidden by the Turkish government. But you can access YouTube using another site. [The same can be done for Google China; censored pages can be accessed if users go to Hong Kong’s server through a link to the Hong Kong page on Google.cn.] The project featured YouTube.com/FantasyGates (2008), which features clips from futuristic, sci-fi films from the early 1920s to the ’60s. The show was about archiving and bringing things together, with the specific theme of looking at the future through the eyes of the past. I managed to show the project in Turkey eventually, and I also made a print of the webpage you encounter when you go on YouTube and it says that the page is forbidden. The print was framed in the gallery.
SB: Do you view your work as political?
AP: In terms of dissemination, yes. I see all my pieces as public sculptures because they are online, and the Internet is the most public place. The aspect of interactivity in the websites creates a feeling of intimacy, curiosity and a sense of unpredictability. There is a hidden scenario in these pieces. Also, many visitors find these sites accidentally, as if they have discovered a secret somehow. What is this website? What is the goal? But there really is no goal. There is no objective. You see something you either admire or don’t admire, and it creates this mixed vibe. My initial goal was for as many people to see these pieces as possible, and it still is. Now I show them in museums and galleries, but that is a different thing; it is the outcome of this work. In many ways, it is some sort of reward. My work starts being exhibited the moment I launch it online, so a physical space is not an important component for exhibiting it. At the same time, showing in a gallery allows for a moment of sharing the work together with other people in a real, live space. Either way, experiencing the work in a museum or from your own computer evokes a social and political conscience. Art for everyone; nobody should be excluded.
SB: Does Greece ever influence the political side to your work?
AP: Yes, maybe. I am disturbed by the dangerous idiotic Right but also by the old-fashioned bureaucratic Left, so I choose symbols for my pieces that provoke both. When I used royal emblems in a series of Web pieces I posted on my blog, AngeloSays.com, people started calling me a royalist! I don’t mind. Actually, it’s great. On the Internet everybody is the king of his castle and traditional hierarchies are totally subverted.
SB: In that case, how does selling your work to galleries and museums relate to this idea of “art for everyone” and the subversion of traditional hierarchies?
AP: PianoWhispers.com is my only private website. I was invited by Rhizome at the New Museum to create a piece that could be co-owned, as a limited edition for a charity benefit. I had the idea of creating a website in which eight people could buy the username and password. I was always thinking of this idea of subverting the public and the private, and this website is private, though it exists in a public, online realm.
If you sell a website to a collector, the collector has the responsibility to keep it private or public. Most of the websites I sold are public. When I sell a website, it becomes the property of whoever buys it. This makes it like buying a physical thing. You can destroy it or keep it. The idea of ownership really intrigues me. In most electronic or new media you can endlessly copy works, or make reproductions with digital means. With these domain pieces, you could copy the image on the screen but the piece itself is unique because of the singularity of the domain name, which can only be registered once, like SheNeverToldHerLove.com (2006). In that sense it is like a piece of land—it can only exist in one location and be owned by one person or a handful of people. So these works can be seen from everywhere, but they always truly exist in one place only—on the address of the Web domain. It is a new kind of ownership but also the oldest kind—like owning land—at the same time material and immaterial.
SB: Did you ever come across people who don’t accept the idea that a website is an artwork?
AP: As a painter would say he or she is an artist and makes paintings, I would say I am an artist and I make websites. It is another kind of medium. Art is always evolving. The way we think about art and artists is always changing, and this is important. It’s like the Internet. It constantly changes. Things are becoming more interesting—the form, the colors, the depth—everything is becoming richer and almost more lyrical than a painting or a sculpture.
Angelo Plessas, UnwhiteMe.com (still), 2008; website, courtesy the artist and Charles de Jonghe gallery
Angelo Plessas, Monument to TowersAndPowers.com (offline monument), 2010; various media (print-collage); courtesy the artist and Gloria Maria Gallery
SB: Has the development of your work coincided with how the Internet is becoming an increasingly important tool by which we communicate with each other and perceive the world around us?
AP: The line is blurring much more between Internet and offline reality. I really want to explore this situation, and what the Internet is offering right now. I’m interested in creating a workshop-based program through the Angelo Foundation School of Music at the National Museum of Contemporary Art, Athens, which is temporarily hosted in an unfinished section of the Athens Conservatory. The project will combine websites, archival material, performances, publications, a YouTube channel, workshops—bringing people into the museum and doing things with sound and software. The website pieces are going to be collaborations with a harpist, a pianist and a flutist from an imaginary Conservatory.
SB: This brings to mind the recent video exhibition at the National Museum of Contemporary Art featuring video works from the Fluxus movement. Artists like video artist Nam June Paik, composer John Cage and dancer and choreographer Merce Cunningham used video as a means to push perceptions of art and break down barriers between disciplines when video was becoming a public medium.
AP: Exactly, this is exactly what I’m trying to do. I want to unite more and more disciplines. I am interested in performance, which comes through in my project, RobotPoetryReading.com, which was staged in New York as a one-night performance. The gallery invited people to the website, where they could upload their own poems or have the robot create a poem for them. The people were then asked to come to the gallery and either perform or hear the poems being performed. I like the participation of the audience in my work.
SB: How has your work been received in Greece? Does it differ to the reception of your work abroad?
AP: In Greece, as in any other provincial European country, if you succeed in making things happen abroad, people start taking you seriously. There is an interesting art scene here, which sometimes becomes very international but basically there is little support, making it really hard for artists. There are no residencies, no exchanges, no funding. Artists either need to move somewhere more central or stay in Greece. But in any case geography should not bother us anymore. This idea is very last century. Fortunately for me, my medium is not dependent on any boundary or any mediator, so I can live here and have my pleasures but also leave—either virtually or physically—anytime I want.
SB: And how will your online/offline journey continue?
AP: I’m currently working on a project called Every Website is a Monument, which consists of a participatory website installation, aluminium signs and photo collages using views from Google Street Maps. I am choosing different public spaces in Milan with some interesting historical or architectural importance, like Gio Ponti’s Pirelli Tower, to put up imaginary “monuments.” I got the idea when I was walking down the street one day and found this sign announcing a monument not yet built. So I decided to find a few spots in Milan and put a sign up for a proposed imaginary monument borrowing iconography from older websites or from new ones like these upcoming sites: MonumentToAnUncertainMonument.com and OnceInAThousandYears.com. Then they will be produced as large-scale installations or aluminium signs.
SB: This concept of signage, retro-futurism and sci-fi combined with ancient history works well in Milan, considering Italy’s history…
AP: The way I am working on this project is kind of political in the way I work on Google Street View. I am walking down the streets of Milan from Greece! And wherever I find something interesting I take stills. I will go to Milan in October to see the spots in real time. But I will use the Google images. I like the pixelation and the quality, which I want to transform with a vintage-postcard look so I subvert notions of classical time and space. I want to print posters and signs of these stills and maybe go around Milan one day and just put them up, guerrilla style. You know…intervene.
SB: Is the Internet inherently anarchic?
AP: That is the charm about it. It decentralizes things but also remains very open and fluid. It is the biggest work in progress.