Attention cultural mutants

Pub date December 2, 2009
SectionArts & CultureSectionVisual Art

“Jacob Ciocci is,” as Wikipedia attests, “an American [Pittsburgh] visual artist, performance artist and musician … he is one of the three remaining founding members of Paper Rad, an artist collective … He also performs and tours regularly … in the band ‘Extreme Animals’…” Ciocci’s work, especially with his recent video collection release, 2 Blessed 2B Stressed (Audio Dregs), is almost entirely not his own. His videos recycle pop cultural detritus as fast and furiously as his band freaks beats. I spoke with Jacob in person, via e-mail, and through Transcendental Meditation to collage the meaning, authenticity, and artifice of collage.

SFBG What questions are you most frequently asked?
JACOB CIOCCI Questions about appropriation, sampling.

SFBG These are obviously huge aspects of your work. What’s your relationship with these forms?
JC Whenever I have used or “sampled” something from some cultural source I really feel like there is always an equal amount of change or recontextualization happening. I strive for a 50/50 yin-yang balance between me/the world, or culture’s voice/my voice. Of course I recognize this is sort of absurd, since you can never separate yourself from the yin-yang wheel — you can never fully know when you are being “you” and when you are being a puppet for culture.

SFBG Any questions you’re sick of hearing?
JC I guess the questions that bug me the most imply that all I do is regurgitate culture from the ’80s. My interests really are much wider than just approaching 8-bit video games like Mario Brothers or sampling cartoons from the ’80s. My art, has always been interested in a much more ambiguous and wider set of concerns. It’s not about any specific period of pop culture and cannot be reduced to any kind of term like “appropriation.”

SFBG It could be argued that ’80s culture is also the one you grew up with and thus are most familiar with.
JC I think that when I was doing work that was referencing certain time periods, it was more an investigation of how certain technologies or cultural tropes affected my consciousness. I was using my current consciousness, or my subconsciousness as a way to talk about the shaping of my brain — but not ’80s culture, all culture: the vacuum of past, present, and future. It’s not interesting if it just regurgitates the past. It’s best if the work deals with the past via your perspective in the present.

SFBG So rather than simply reviving and representing these old cultural tropes, you try to give them new meaning by reflecting on them via a cultural mirror — albeit a fractured, holographic one of your own design? Does this transcendence then create a new aesthetic?
JC I think that if you hold up a mirror to society in the right way — if you have constructed the mirror good enough (and the definition of what works as a good mirror is constantly changing based on context), then it does take the viewer and society as a whole to a new place, and thus probably will create some sort of “new aesthetic” or cultural direction. When you interpret the past (even the past meaning one minute ago on YouTube) with clarity in the present, you create the future. This seems to be a neverending cycle. Some would say that through technology it is happening at a faster and faster rate. But I really can’t say because time seems so relative.

SFBG Speaking of technology, your work is explicitly couched in the crude pixel aesthetics of outmoded technologies, like Geocities and Angelfire Web sites. Why is that?
JC When I started working with computer technology in college with some other friends, we realized computers were becoming too advanced. It was impossible to learn every new tool and actually understand not only it’s technological but cultural implications — to master it.
The model instead was to just focus on something a bit older, that had a fixed architecture, so that even if it’s outdated, if you just stuck with it and really investigated that interface, then you would be able to get something interesting and “contemporary” out of that tool. Otherwise you just end up being a superficial user of every piece of software that comes out.
But I think the big light bulb that went off when I started to work with Paper Rad was that there is something just as interesting happening when you are a superficial user of technology. A recreational Geocities user isn’t interesting because he or she is a hardcore DIY “master HTML programmer” computer hacker wizard, but because of what he or she exposes about the Internet. I like the cultural mutant model: Geocities users were mutants who unconsciously stumbled on an interesting representation of how the Internet was affecting culture.

SFBG What is it that usually catches your eye culturally?
JC The relationship between ideas of authenticity and artifice. The version of celebrity that Paramore [a contemporary pop punk band] or Miley Cyrus represent is really interesting because it’s wrapped up in a kind of conservatism, but it’s also about being young and rebellious.

SFBG And you’re attempting to exfoliate that gap between authenticity and artifice?
JC I’m interested in the possibly pointless task of trying to separate artifice from authenticity. I feel that a lot of times what I try to do is to help people who are cynical be a little more open-minded about what’s happening around them culturally, so that they can possibly see that other people are struggling as much as they are to define themselves within this very limiting cultural soup. Or that these ideas of politics and constructions that we have in our head about who we are and what our beliefs are, are really, really rigid, and then by reevaluating culture that we deem as foreign or outside that we can rethink ourselves. I’m not trying to say that “we can all get along and we can all be friends.” But there’s something to that process of expanding your mind that is important.
This can be really hard to make work about because it can seem disrespectful sometimes. People, including myself, make art using images of people they have never met, and that becomes highly questionable — which in my opinion is a good thing. I think that questionable aspect of art can be productive if handled correctly.;;