Search engine optimization (SEO) is a common practice to increase the visibility of a website today so that it appears at the top of the list of results for Google and other search engines. Whole companies consist of this often aggressive yet flawed practice. The »dark art« of SEO caught the eye of the Institute for New Feeling (Scott Andrew, Agnes Bolt, and Nina Sarnelle from Los Angeles/US), which as a research clinic explores the strangeness and dangers of technology and the Internet, as well as their beauty. For their Schlosspost web residency on the topic »Decentralization of Internet Art« curated by NETRO, the Institute for New Feeling (IfNf) mirrors the SEO system and initiates a campaign as a kind of performative intervention in the backend of the web. They are writing a publication called »The Redirectory,« an illustrated online glossary and collection of terms and tactics from their research on SEO, with an affinity for the strange, funny, misleading or banal. How can an artist generate an »infinite ecosystem of activity?«
CH: You are creating an SEO campaign as a kind of performative intervention in the backend of the web. How does that work? What are you currently working on?
IfNf: Our web residency is the first stage of a long-term performance that will take place entirely online. Eventually, we will employ a content mill workforce to make 1,000 websites on, about, and around IfNf.
For the residency, we are creating a web publication called The Redirectory to house our research and test out various forms of web design.
You can watch it being made right now at redirectory.club. This site is essentially a glossary of terms associated with the practices of SEO, online reputation management, and related territory. On the main Redirectory page, you will find a growing archive of floating windows that link out to new sites. Each website houses a single term and exemplifies its function within its page. As tedious as this sounds, we have managed to derive a lot of pleasure interpreting these terms and creating misleading, banal, and sometimes poetic content.
CH: SEO is a common practice to increase the visibility of a website today so that it will appear at the top of the list of results for Google and other search engines. What exactly interests you in SEO marketing?
IfNf: We are interested in exploring the backend mechanisms of this complex algorithmic system to get a sense of just how much manipulation goes into manufacturing popularity and how effective capital is in driving these invisible processes, in buying influence on the Internet.
SEO aesthetics also have their own convoluted appeal, as does the jargon. We’re interested in mining this language of stuffing, stemming, scraping, squatting, and bombing…
And our research interests are not only human-centered. Studies have estimated that only 44% of web traffic is generated by humans. The Internet is a wilderness created by humans, but operating more and more in regions outside of our control and understanding. An infinite ecosystem of activity either too sophisticated or too tedious for us to bother with. This vastness is both frightening and exciting, forming a landscape in which to stage the second phase of our project.
CH: Whole companies consist of the practice of »fooling Google into listing« nowadays. Even newsrooms have writers and editors whose only job is to create articles with the right content and keywords to boost their sites on the web. Many criticize this »dark art« of SEO as being aggressive and often flawed. What is your approach here?
»Can bots be considered an audience? Can they be enlisted as artists, performers, or participants in a work? As a kind of virtual update to Andy Warhol’s Factory, does this distribution of labor differ from the common practice of an established artist running a large studio?« –The Institute for New Feeling
IfNf: Of course there is a criticality to what we are doing, but we prefer to mirror and shadow existing systems, rather than simply create satire.
We are also interested in cross-pollinating corporate strategies with those of the art world. IfNf’s fabricated corporate structure is a way of collectivizing art activity under an elusive »we.« In a country where corporations are granted personhood, this »we« is both protected and powerful.
How do we situate the »algorithm« in this economy of artistic output? Can bots be considered an audience? Can they be enlisted as artists, performers, or participants in a work?
As a kind of virtual update to Andy Warhol’s Factory, does this distribution of labor differ from the common practice of an established artist running a large studio? The Redirectory is an open-ended research project; the goal is not to reach any particular conclusion, but simply immerse ourselves in the process and see where it leads us.
CH: You founded IfNf together as a »research clinic committed to the development of new ways of feeling, and ways of feeling new.« What is your artistic practice? What are the main topics and contexts you work with?
IfNf: IfNf is a research clinic that exhibits projects in the form of treatments, therapies, retreats, research studies, and wellness products. Our practice is constantly evolving to address new concerns, but is always rooted in a playful criticality around the wellness industry as a shifting, slippery intersection of capitalism, technological innovation, and the body. In recent work, the self-proclaimed »corporate« structure of IfNf has provided a starting place for investigating visible and invisible mechanisms of capitalism on the digital frontier. But really, we are just three artists usually working long hours over Google Hangout.
An advertisement for a new IfNf wellness product called Furthering Cream; Miller Gallery, Feb 2016
CH: What new ways are there to feel about SEO? Will there be treatments or therapy?
IfNf: This project doesn’t exactly present a treatment in the same way that some of our other projects do. Our practice is essentially split between interactive treatments, i.e. a clairvoyant reading or our team-building retreat, and para-capitalist experiments in product development, brand identity, advertising, etc.
Seek: A clairvoyant reading generated by the misuse of online search engines; Recess, May 2015
However, we see potential for »new feeling« and »feeling new« within the upcoming performance phase of this project. However staged, unconventional, or synthetic this SEO process is, it will actually generate searchable content about IfNf, which will affect our online presence and page ranking in real time. The Internet today is often depicted as a mob, with the power to idolize, lynch, or completely ignore. Each time we place our identity into the hands of others, we risk a loss or shift of our positioning in the world. In this way, there is actually a lot at stake with this project.
»The Internet today is often depicted as a mob, with the power to idolize, lynch, or completely ignore. Each time we place our identity into the hands of others, we risk a loss or shift of our positioning in the world.« –The Institute for New Feeling
We view it as an experiment in identity construction and maintenance, one that contains great potential for interaction in public space – and the ability to create discussions and reverberations outside of our control. This project is initiated with equal potential for thrill-seeking, vulnerability, and opportunism.
CH: CH: The starting point of the project for the Schlosspost web residency was also This is Presence, a 17-minute video commissioned by Ballroom Marfa that functions as an online brand identity campaign for IfNf. With the digitalization of our lives, the idea of presence is also changing. What is presence for you as artists working in the digital field?
IfNf: Artwork today is primarily experienced online. Even gallery works, sculpture, painting – we all know that more people will see these works on a screen than IRL. Artists belabor the decision whether or not to make their work accessible in this way. There’s always a tension between wanting to offer a »real,« physical or unmediated experience; the commercial need to limit free duplication; and the potential for work to reach far beyond the limits of its physical body on the Internet.
At the same time, artists are also masters of constructed identity. Even long before the Internet, an artist’s value has always been inextricably tied to their persona. To be an artist is to manage an unruly personal brand, like the agent of a celebrity no one has heard of.
Presence can be hard to define and is further complicated by the jumbled web of internet memes and the urgency of our accelerated digital lives. But why not give it a shot?
Presence is an indecipherable voice, the weird smear of a face that was unfrozen for a moment.
Presence is an attempt to stay awake while flipping through your feeds in bed.
Presence is like poise, elegance, or grace, a grandmotherly eye for seeing beauty in one’s spam filter; for clicking the bait, collecting the prize, and holding polite correspondence with the local mailer-daemon.
»Presence is like poise, elegance, or grace, a grandmotherly eye for seeing beauty in one’s spam filter; for clicking the bait, collecting the prize, and holding polite correspondence with the local mailer-daemon.« –The Institute for New Feeling
CH: You are going to assemble your research into a web-based publication called The Redirectory and share it at redirectory.club. Can you give any insight into how the work will be documented? How will you carry on working on it after the residency?
IfNf: This project, much like our FELT BOOK project and an upcoming VR experience, all have the ability to expand indefinitely. Although these projects are drastically different from one another, they illustrate the breadth of possibilities that our interests have been opening up, including the vastness of online shopping, product taxonomy, and the shape and scope of the internet itself.
The Redirectory is infinitely expandable because there is a universe of online identity strategies to explore. Our goal is to illustrate the breadth of these techniques, and to potentially even invent a few new ones ourselves.