Lernert & Sander: Data is the New Narrative

Published on May 19th, 2011

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The risks of using online search engines were made abundantly clear when AOL accidentally released all its user’s search queries in 2006. The Dutch artistic duo Lernert & Sander commented upon ‘the incident’ in 2008 with their film I Love Alaska. The result was a beautiful story based on the search queries of one of the AOL users. Three years after the success of the film they decided to honour AOL user #711391 once again by making a book. The book, Never Have a Hair Cut Before a Big Event, unfolds into a pars pro toto – small elements represent a greater whole that brings issues sharply into focus.

A conversation between Annet Dekker and Lernert & Sander

part of NetArtWorks: The Database, the Datacloud and the Public (Data)Domain

SKOR, Amsterdam 19 May 2011


A: You’ve been working together for several years now. What are your backgrounds and why did you decide to collaborate?

L&S: I have a background in film, television and literature. Sander has more experience in graphic design. Yes, I studied industrial design in Delft. And then I worked in advertising for a couple of years, but I left so could go to art school. So I have experience in a number of fields.

We met for the first time at the presentation of the Re-Magazine in 1999, and now we’ve worked together for five years. I worked as a director and I needed an art director for one of the projects I was involved in, so I asked Sander if he’d be interested. I realised at the time that it was too late to implement the solutions and ideas that Sander came up with. An art director usually joins the process during the final stages, but I realised I should and could have used his input much earlier. So we decided to work together from then on.

We noticed that we really complement each other. If you work with someone else you mostly come up with better ideas than you would have done if you’d been working alone.

A: One of the first projects of yours that I encountered was I Love Alaska, a series of Internet films for Submarine Channel about the search engine America Online, which accidentally released all their users’ anonymous search data spanning a couple of months. What made you interested in the web?

L&S: I’m not sure if we are all that interested in it. But I do know why it turned out this way – we ended up doing things on the Internet after I left the world of television. I didn’t want to have to deal with the rigmarole of commissions and editors-in-chief at the television station. It always took so long before you could pursue an idea and I wanted to realise my ideas the very next day. You can do that on the Internet, you can create your content much more quickly because the costs are lower and you don’t have to hassle with all those different commissions.

But just because we’re talking about the Internet doesn’t necessarily mean that we’re particularly interested in it, although we do like working in one medium. If we work in a certain medium we want to be sure that the project also comments on that medium. This happens with the Internet, but also if we, for example, want to make something about still lifes. We rummage about for a while investigating the subject of still lifes and then we make something about them. So if we make something for the Internet, we make sure that it comments on the Internet too. We’re very attached to the illusion of infinity, of feeding the medium back into itself, the so-called Droste effect.

We’re not Internet fans… actually the truth is, we hate it. We generally begin working on a commission without specifying the medium, but if we’re asked to make something for the Internet, then of course we’ll think of something that plays out in the online world.

A: How did you arrive at the idea for I Love Alaska? What was it that drew you to it?

L&S: That was a long process. Initially we wanted to make something about ‘Wilfen’, that’s a term we saw in a newspaper and it stands for ‘What was I looking for’. It’s about the idea that you start looking for something on the Internet and three hours later, after having visited hundreds of websites you have to remind yourself what it was you were looking for when you began. We wanted to make a film about that. The idea was to interview someone and while her or she is talking, to zoom in over their shoulder on a painting or something else, to go into that and so on, so it would be like long series of hyperlinks. The film would end with the person we started with, but in the meantime we would have hyperlinked things to each other as much as we could. One of the subjects we wanted to interview the person about was the drama surrounding the AOL search engine when it accidentally publicised its users’ search data on 4 August 2006. While we were immersed in researching the idea for the film, we realised that a film that focuses only on the AOL leak would be much more interesting. So we looked at all the different aspects and chose one particular woman’s story because her search data demonstrated exactly what we wanted to convey about the Internet at that time, namely the ‘Wilfen phenomenon’. This woman was Wilfen, she was all over the Internet. At the same time it was such a tragic story with familiar elements that everyone could empathise with.

A: ‘I Love Alaska’ is beautiful and touching, but at times it’s also a funny or wry film that uses short phrases and catchwords to tell a story. For your new project ‘Pay with Your Privacy’ you decided to publish her search data as a book. Why a book?

L&S: Ah, that’s a good question, in principle reading a book doesn’t offer much more than reading online, but perhaps there are certain situations or places where it’s more enjoyable to have an actual book. But first and foremost, books remain the ultimate authority; books are the only things that are truly real.

It’s also about making a physical object from digital information otherwise it’s just left floating about in the virtual world. It is also the idea that it’s a snapshot that makes this project interesting. There’s very little awareness of time on the Internet. Often, things are undated or incorrectly dated, which means that our understanding of history goes awry or is lost altogether. Perhaps that’s something that still belongs more in the physical world.

The respect for the physical is definitely something we want to comment on. I also think that the Internet will become more text-based. At a certain point, most of the Internet consisted of images, because people weren’t that interested in reading online. But all the new apps and e-readers are making digital books more and more accessible and this will eventually result in more exciting ways to present text.

A: What does the book add to the film?

L&S: We’ve always maintained that our film is very good, but that only a book would do justice to the story that unfolds from her data. By converting the search data into print it also becomes a type of diary. It’s somewhat stripped down, it’s true, because we sometimes had to edit or alter it, but it’s extremely oppressive, even more than the film. Now it’s a true ego-document that was accidentally made public, a glimpse into someone’s life. This is what literature should be, a pars pro toto, where a small part represents a greater whole in which something comes sharply into focus. An author probably couldn’t write a book like this. There are some things you can’t make yourself because they come directly from reality; these are things that an artist or author frequently revere out of respect for reality.

Lernert really has a feeling for these types of small, sometime trivial things that you read in newspapers or see on television or online. Events that include a small episode that you want to examine in more depth and develop further.

That probably comes from working in television. It’s the hunger, the lust for the sensational in television where you have to present your work much more quickly than elsewhere. There are the pressures of deadlines that journalists, for example, are familiar with and which mean that you always have to be on the ball and constantly pay attention to the tiniest details. You see and experience so much over the years that you develop a talent for seizing exactly the right moment.

A: Besides her story, the second part consists of your own search data. Why did you want to make these public?

L&S: Well, that was a difficult decision to make, and in the past we’ve refused publishers who asked us to do this. But we felt that if we’re going to publish a book, we should also lay ourselves bare. We think it was an inevitable consequence.

A: What exactly do you mean by that? Why is releasing your own data so important to you?

L&S: We were accused of using someone else’s private search data for our own ends at a couple of our film screenings. When we made the film we thought this was an ideal example to use to highlight the problems surrounding privacy. We wanted to show that not even our privacy is guaranteed, not even with search engines. Now times have changed, and perhaps it’s payback time for us. It’s also related to our approach and how we present things. Of course it’s painful to release your own search data and then try to sell them as a type of merchandise to the highest bidder, as it were. In essence, we are literally deploying our own misery to get someone else’s misery in return. In that way we engage with the criticism that we received, but on the other hand we’re very interested in who and what type of people will respond. Because that’s what we enjoy the most – the idea that extremely unpleasant things will be discovered in someone else’s search data.

A: All your work is characterised by irony and an almost black humour. But you also create highly imaginative works with a clear aesthetic quality. How does that work? How do you combine these things?

L&S: To get to the essence of our concept we use the clearest and simplest aesthetics possible. We think aesthetics are important but it’s obvious that we should make something that’s useful. The idea should be very clear; people should be able to understand it immediately. And we also want to refine our ideas as much as possible. Both of us have a great liking for black humour, for humour that grates and hurts a bit.

A: Journalists and critics have praised you for the political message that I Love Alaska conveyed. What do you feel when you look back on all that? Is the privacy issue still so important?

L&S: We think that for many people the immediacy surrounding privacy is not that important anymore. At the same time though, for example, Wikileaks has demonstrated that it can be a very good thing to open up data and bring it into the public domain. In a way, it was the same for us: we needed a small sampling of someone’s privacy was to expose and make tangible the danger inherent to the AOL situation. And we were also enchanted by the story that emerged because AOL leaked it. And it’s true that the film has been mainly picked up by journalists and festivals because it’s about the privacy issue, but we weren’t that interested in it.

The issue of privacy was also very different at that time. Facebook was still in its infancy. Now people think about privacy in a completely different way. Almost everyone makes his or her private information easily available. Privacy has become an entirely different issue than it was back then. Now digital traces have actually become public property.

At that time we used her search data, and now we’re publicising our own data and invite others to do the same. But the difference with Facebook, of course, is that Facebook allows people to project a romanticised idea of themselves. In general, people try to make themselves appear better than they actually are, they only write about fun or exciting things, and even boring stuff is jazzed up with Smileys, etc. People are constantly aware that they are writing texts for other people to read. But you don’t have the feeling of someone looking over your shoulder when you’re typing something into a search engine. So you’re placing yourself in a much more vulnerable position.

The things we’ve read about what people type into and look for in search engines says much more about that person that a couple of posts on Facebook ever could.

A: Did you notice anything else? For instance, did you observe certain types of patterns in people’s search behaviour?

L&S: Ploughing through all the AOL leaks revealed that people are almost trapped in the Internet. People and their computers seem to be merging at an increasing rate, and we are too. For example, yesterday I forgot to take the charger for my laptop home with me, and I noticed later how quiet my house was because all my music is stored on my laptop. It’s become so integrated in my life, almost like an extension of myself.

Indeed, if I go and sit behind my computer without a reason, to pass the time, I’m much more inclined to follow a pattern, just like a rhesus monkey. These are actually extremely irritating and boring patterns that can ensnare you, such as quickly checking a news site or your e-mail and visiting a couple of other uninteresting sites. You click through the sites, but more out of habit than that you actually want to achieve something. We wanted to do something with this phenomenon and we also want to examine it in Pay with Your Privacy.

It’s a vicious circle and you end up not doing anything, you just go on clicking without actually looking anymore. It’s a like the urge to hear another news item 69 seconds after hearing the previous one. In 2005 a series of tests revealed that people become bored after 69 seconds and start looking for something else. Nowadays people probably become bored even sooner. It’s actually rather sad that something can only hold our interest for such a brief time span.

That was also amusing when people watched I Love Alaska. They were amazed by the different approaches the woman used when searching online. It opened many people’s eyes and some of them told us that they search the Internet in other ways.

A: So, although privacy still plays a role in your new project – the word is in the title, after all – it is actually about something else. Can you talk about this in more detail? How did the process progress?

L&S: Yes, it is about privacy, but from another angle. If you read and analyse our search data then you will recognise that rhesus monkey again, that vicious circle of mindlessly clicking on links.

You can see from the state of our privacy that we’re in the loop. We use the Internet in a very one-dimensional and completely uninteresting way. This is what we want to make visible. In the first case, we want to achieve it by means of a ‘blog-whore’, a machine that shows which blogs contain texts about us, because that’s what we were continually working on. We were always searching online for Lernert&Sander because we hoped that someone somewhere had written something about us.

Our work is also highly dependent on the Internet; having a gallery that protects our work would make it being extremely difficult to find it online. It’s precisely because we post everything online that it can end up just about anywhere. And that’s what we tracked.

The Internet has contaminated us. It’s a whorish kind of medium, it cuts, pastes and copies information all the time. And we confuse the fact that an article that might have appeared online just once about a month ago is sometimes copied 40 or 50 times by bloggers with success and media attention. We’re still trapped by the notion that we think we’ve had a successful day if something about Lernert&Sander appears on a hundred blogs. We confuse online success with success in real life.

In the past year we have also expressed our desire to return to the physical world. We’ve discussed going offline for a period of three months, and only being accessible by telephone. We’d basically had it with the Internet.

A: But does that mean that the Internet is only a way for you to gain satisfaction, or not?

L&S: We mostly use the Internet as a type of Yellow Pages, or as an encyclopaedia. It’s a practical tool that we use to look for stuff. We usually find really interesting information, those things that inspire us, in the offline world. Many things have become tool-independent and this means that your behaviour changes too. I still read books on paper, but Lernert only reads book he’s downloaded to his iPad. This affects what, where and how you read.

A: What are you doing with the reactions that have appeared to your work?

L&S: Read and consume them and carry on. Of course, it’s always nice to read something positive about us. The strange thing is that it hardly ever happens, because 99% of what we see is reactions that have been copied from somewhere else. It’s like someone’s confirming something that was already confirmed three months earlier. That’s roughly the time span of Internet news. But the fact that you are already being linked to creates a sense of relief – at least we exist!

A: What caught you eye when you started reading your own search data?

L&S: Well, we noticed that when you read it, you could identify the context. That was also very apparent when we were reading the I Love Alaska files. We read her search terms and actually became suspicious about some things because it felt like we were holding a private document. If we look at our search data from that angle – we look at it as if we were someone else looking at our data – then something happens. Sentences take on new meanings although we know what it was I was we were looking for. At a certain point we searched for sex machines because we were busy building sex machines for a video clip for De Jeugd van Tegenwoordig [ed. a Dutch hip-hop and R&B group based in Amsterdam], by definition, of course, that’s suspicious. And the same goes for the way in which search terms succeed each other; sometimes these actions are separated by minutes, sometimes by hours, which means that in principle they are not directly linked to each other. However, as a reader you do create connections, which result in it becoming comical or exciting. You read unrelated data as running text, as if one thing follows the other. That’s the luxury of interpretation but at the same time it’s also an inherent danger.

A: So, you’re what you’re actually saying is that publicising private data isn’t so bad after all, but that the actual danger resides in how the data is interpreted and what people do with that information.

L&S: Well, in our case, it probably isn’t that dangerous, but by placing them alongside the woman’s data – which does tell an exciting story – you become curious about the story you can read in our search data and that information immediately acquires different connotations. We asked a private detective to help us locate for the woman behind I Love Alaska. We let him read her search data, and afterwards he decided he didn’t want to help us. He thought we were infringing on her privacy. Even a private detective thought that it was too sensitive, that it was too emotionally loaded to publish. This is why we decided to publish her data without revealing her name or the names of the locations or people she searched for.

A: Did the project affect your own online behaviour?

L&S: Just for a little while, and then it stopped. You’re aware for a moment of your search behaviour but then that rhesus monkey pops up again. I still search with whole sentences very occasionally, for example, mainly to see what results I get.

A lot of people don’t seem to really attach much importance to it. There was a story on television by the crime reporter Peter R. de Vries in which it appeared that a man had killed his wife. Both of them had disappeared without a trace. The man’s search data revealed that he was a huge fan of the television series called Dexter [ed. in the American television series the protagonist, Dexter, is a forensic scientist and a serial killer] and he also tried to find out how the wood chipper that featured in the film Fargo [ed. an American action film from 1996 by Joel and Ethan Coen] could be used to chop someone into little pieces. The police used this data to narrow down their search and started looking for him. Although they can’t introduce this information at a trial, all his data did enable them to construct a profile. The data is thus contextualised, although it actually remains a form of guesswork.

At the moment the ways in which information of this kind can actually be used as evidence could certainly be problematic for the accused. Of course, that’s a worst-case scenario but it’s not inconceivable.

So we might be asked to hand over all our search data from the past few months in addition to DNA and fingerprints. Digital traces are being used more and more. But a great many people have yet to make the step from merely being aware to actually taking action. We have to do this too. Although we know a lot about it and have seen how it works I still buy a lot of things online and pay for them with my credit card. Apparently, the convenience outweighs the danger.

A: From privacy to new narrative forms and the burden of proof, what’s your next step?

L&S: We hope that, like us, the people who participate in our project don’t want to present a sanitised life, but are prepared to reveal something in return for a tragicomic look at their own lives. We are curious about how far people are prepared to go. The entire project was supposed to become a type of community, where only those people who are members can read each other’s books. People would put their own books online or could rip someone else’s book and continue posting it. We aren’t going to impose a safety cordon around it. That’s also a consequence of the Internet – people steal from each other.

We would really like to present the entire project in physical form, even if it’s only once. Suppose there are only five participants who supply their data, that’s not very much, but at the same time it says a great deal.

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