conversations – Interview by Anika Meier – 12.12.2023
UBERMORGEN: FREE FLOATING RADICALS
NET.ART AND VIDEO GAMES
It’s hard to imagine the Internet without social media. Instagram, TikTok, X, and Discord, for example. UBERMORGEN remember that time very well. That’s when they, lizvlx and Luzius Bernhard, started creating work on the Internet as media hackers; they were part of the digital avant-garde in the early 1990s and aren’t tired of constantly reinventing themselves and hacking systems. First the internet, later institutions. Their self-proclaimed goal was to become the pop stars of the Internet. To make a long story short, they have overachieved. In 2000, they reached a global audience of 500 million while challenging the FBI, CIA, and NSA during the U.S. presidential election.
lizvlx and Luzius Bernhard found each other in a basement in Vienna in 1994 and have started working together as an artist duo without clear responsibilities. They call themselves 'free floating radicals'. They are neither scared of being held responsible for their actions that challenge institutions and authorities, nor do they fear not being accepted by the art world. UBERMORGEN keep creating work for future audiences while the Internet around them changes at rapid speed. The Internet is changing, so their art is changing. From websites to NFTs, from cats to dicks.
In conversation with Anika Meier, UBERMORGEN discuss the beginning of their career, early net.art, fishers and rods, and the commodification of digital assets.
Anika Meier: Liz and Luzius, you founded UBERMORGEN in 1995. How did you meet?
UBERMORGEN: We met the first time while working on the production of the cyberspace movie WIREHEAD in a secluded cellar in Vienna, and then again at an IT fair where Luzius was selling email accounts, hoping to bring more attention to net.art and etoy.com, the awesome internet boy band he was in back then.
AM: Why did you decide to work together?
UBERMORGEN: The desire for collaboration emerged right away after we became a private thing, even though Luzius was busy with etoy and lizvlx was working on the '126.96.36.199—userunfriendly' project. However, Luzius’ inclination to formally cooperate was hindered by a self-imposed cult mentality prevalent among etoy, a group of post-puberty, white male, Central-European, middle-class artists creating cutting-edge internet art. Despite lizvlx being informally associated with the group, we officially adhered to a policy that restricted any external (and female) engagements. Also, lizvlx was working as a computer tutor/sysadmin at the University of Economics and finishing her studies there. But once she was done with university and Luzius was done with etoy, we started our first official project together: An email-fake-hack titled "Linux wins Prix Ars Electronica due to Microsoft Intervention".
AM: What does UBERMORGEN stand for?
UBERMORGEN: Literally, it means the day after tomorrow; that was and still is our credo: to think and live not for an immediate future but in the now, for a time beyond that now. So we actually exclusively produce for ‘future audiences’ (UBERMORGEN Slogan 220, 2023).
Today's audiences are too unstable, unreachable, and lagging behind our neurodiverse, hard-core paths and stories. Additionally, UBERMORGEN metaphorically also refers to a greater tomorrow, which we refer to in our current practice as HAPPY DYSTOPIA. Otherwise, there is a position within any grid or matrix where we could locate ourselves; we are free floating radicals.
AM: You’re icons of early net.art. Your list of exhibitions and activities could fill a book. To name a few institutions, you’ve exhibited at the New Museum in New York, the Centre Pompidou in Paris, ZKM Karlsruhe, HeK Basel, Ars Electronica in Linz, and KW in Berlin. What was the net art scene in the 1990s like?
UBERMORGEN: We also showed in Mexico City, Nairobi, Mauritius, in Damascus at the Syrian National Museum, South Korea, and quite often in Tokyo; we did software art and Torture Classics performances in Ramallah and Jerusalem, and have worked with many Eastern-European art institutions and initiatives.
One of the sweet aspects of net.art was being part of a determined, dispersed, and future-net-focused group of people and collectives from around the planet. We knew each other around the whole globe, not in person but via email and CuSeeMe video software.
When we started meeting each other IRL years or more later, interactions were always so loving and playful because we knew each other by our work and convictions. We were all so focused on work, experimenting hard, but also interested in exchange and international collaborations due to the limited number of artists in the field. There was a clear feeling of being the first ones using the web for art and entertainment, and we were focused on pushing the boundaries of the medium, crossing borders, experimenting with drugs, aesthetics, stories, and technology, but also returning to the common reality again and again and sharing the experiences with a newly developing audience.
The world outside the net.art and IT/internet scene was mostly still completely unaware of what the internet even was, so we had to stick together to not feel like complete outcasts. But of course, this status as working in a field that had zero restrictions, no supervision, no surveillance, pretty much complete freedom, and new <HTML> tags every week was so exhilarating and enjoyable that being understood or recognized had relatively no relevance.
AM: How did you get started creating net.art?
UBERMORGEN: One foggy morning in November 1993, Luzius sat in a boring university building in Vienna, and he was introduced to Gopher and Telnet. Immediately, his brain literally exploded. lizvlx’s mom had already been a coder in the 1960s, so lizvlx grew up with computers around.
Then, in 1994, lizvlx took a seminar at the Wirtschaftsuni that was titled AKTIENANALYSE VIA INTERNET, and she remembers how one minute in this computer room changed her already coding mind: walking past an ATM machine later, she thought, damn, this is networked, but I don't have access, and her laptop was useless, because she had access, but it was not networked. It was the ultimate excitement of a lifetime; from one second to another, we saw the future; we saw UBERMORGEN. It was immediately clear to us that this new technology, the web in particular, was capable of delivering anything we ever dreamed of—good and evil. The very next day, Luzius cancelled all his plans and started creating ASCII entertainment. lizvlx started coding HTML malfunctions and experiments.
AM: How do you work together as an artist duo? Are there clear roles and responsibilities?
UBERMORGEN: We disagree to agree. We don’t talk about work between the two of us. As unaware spectrum animals, we do not even remotely understand the position of the ‘other’ within our seemingly unified universe. Hence, we acted, created, and released under the brand UBERMORGEN.
Sometimes I think it is more of a self-evolving and random label than an artist duo with strategic considerations and conceptual sharpness. Viewing the world through the lens of continuous transformation, we see ourselves less as creators and more as mirrors. We laser-focus popular topics into projects that play with aesthetics, code dynamics, memes, and, very importantly, the re-instrumentalization of the different kinds of Newspeak in the form of Orwellian Begriffsverschiebungen, as well as the standard situations caused by Alternative Facts and old-style propaganda.
Oh, but who does what? Well, we don't like to disclose that, but yes, it is lizvlx who usually does the code and the visuals, and Luzius is the master of the narrative.
AM: Luzius, you’ve studied with Professor Weibel and later with Lev Manovich and Bazon Brock. One could say they were the founding fathers of theoretical thinking about media art. What did you learn from them?
UBERMORGEN: Weibel taught me Viennese Actionism, and he showed me how physics and philosophy can influence your artistic practice, as well as how to stay a child in a harsh and brutal world. He replaced my dad as my intellectual expansion. He was a powerhouse of manic hyperactive disorgansation, a true leader for an ADHD/autistic dude like me. Manovich and Brock—I have never read anything from them. They were just people with weird energies and strange hyper-masculine identities that I revolved around for a while. They have helped me, through differential experience, find my own place in a world not meant for humans like me or humans at all.
AM: You are media hackers, and there were, let’s say, a few incidents in the past. Your best-known artwork is VOTEAUCTION from 2000. CNN called you "Maverick Austrian Businessmen." The project resulted in lawsuits. What are your goals with your political activities?
UBERMORGEN: A broad-spectrum antibiotic of small stabs and hugs, confusions, and parallel realities. If you want to call that political. We don’t. Our pure experiment results in uncomfortable output. Even the smallest space, every action, every protest, every change, every demand, or every utopia is appropriated and consumed, and radically individualized products are delivered for each target person and their various reality contexts (Radical Customization). We do not appreciate this, but we don’t fight it; we don’t have message control; we don’t do actionism for another purpose than to experience complexities and symbiosis.
AM: You hack systems, and at the same time, your work has been exhibited at some of the most prestigious art institutions in the world. Has that been on your agenda, or did it happen and you embraced it?
UBERMORGEN: This is happening more and more recently, and it has been a thing in the past too, but sometimes very scattered. We do plan for a lot of things; I mean, we are not autistic for nothing. So we don't plan for institutions or events to host our work, but we plan for locations. Usually, these locations are not Paris and New York but rather situations. So we will say that we (and here I mean all of us, which includes our kids Billie and Lola Mae) plan to go somewhere where it is remote, quiet, safe, preferably warm, and a special interest will get satisfied (fish, volcanoes, telescopes, local politics). And then we do work there, find new friends there, and luckily for us, later people who are relevant in the art circus contact us if we would be interested in working with them, and then we usually have work that sounds compelling to them to offer, like WOPPOW, SOMALI PIRATE FASHION, or SCHOOL OF ENERGY.
We see ourselves as fishers. We hold the rods into the water and do our stuff while waiting to see if someone falls for the bait. And then we act fast. So for us, being part of the extreme avantgarde means being ready for the moment when the world catches up to our ideas and vision.
This is, of course, also a technique of subversion, which, in the literal sense of the word, means to turn things around. We have this reflex where we intuitively move in directions that others retreat from. We are deliberately ignorant, radically experimental, highly emotional, and fully authentic. In the last few years, we have started to embed institutional hacks into our relationships, adding another layer to our work by ignoring hierarchies and discarding the consequences of our actions. Due to our disabilities, we were never really wanted in the art world; we never functioned as it was expected of us, so our method was to turn the tables from our seemingly weak position into a powerful stance using actionist methods and risky assets.
Just recently, we were commissioned by the KW Institute of Contemporary Art Berlin and released PMC WAGNER ARTS. We publish a textual and visual manifesto and essay in Kunstforum INTERNATIONAL where we show an exercise on how to write a text so that it describes something in such a way that it represents what it is.
In 2024, we are commissioned to increase the complexity of our work to a radical level for the Busan Biennale. In 2021, we delivered a stubbornly pop commission dealing with curation and AI for the Liverpool Biennale and the Whitney Museum of American Art. It's sometimes painful to work for these institutions, but it is always satisfying to play chess within this elitist club of intellectuals.
AM: CLICKISTAN was commissioned by the Whitney Museum. How did you approach working on such a commission?
UBERMORGEN: Working with Christiane Paul was and is always based on trust and common knowledge of material, conceptual clarity, and aesthetic understanding. In this case, the commission had a very clear task: to make something that could be enjoyed by donors for the Whitney Museum and stimulate them to spend money. We did that by creating entertainment in the form of a retro-looking game with strong net.art 1990s influences.
AM: Christiane Paul from the Whitney states that the game 'is not very challenging.' What were your intentions when you created the game?
UBERMORGEN: Challenges used to be fun, but these days they got toxified by neo-liberalism, and now they are mostly weaponized items to scare aware people from feeling worthy and human. We knew that the idea of gamification was still new but almost hot in 2010, and we knew that people were innately afraid of not understanding anything about internet art.
So we thought, let’s bring this together, playfulness, but no, zero skills are needed. Growing up as net artists, we always thought about the user and their situation. We knew in the 1990s that people using our stuff would be sitting in front of their computers at home. So with this game, we knew people would access it via their mobiles on their commute or on their computers from work. So we wanted to offer an accessible and playful distraction that enabled them to not be scared of internet art but to feel it, to like it, and to know that they could in fact understand it. And then spend money.
AM: Looking at CLICKISTAN today makes me feel nostalgic. You were inspired by Space Invaders (1978), Donkey Kong (1981), and Pac Man (1980). Do you think the reception of net art has changed over the years? To understand net art, the viewer has, in many cases, to have an understanding of coding and internet culture.
UBERMORGEN: It's mainly about context and understanding how to situate yourself when looking at a piece that was created such a long time ago. As a user, you need a high level of imagination and empathy to embed yourself in another time; you need to open up emotionally and intellectually. This is often hard to do with our work since many of our concepts and aesthetics served as a precursor to so many artistic and commercial platforms and products years after we released them.
Hence, the work often seems dated and not-so-exciting because there are applications and products based on our ideas and projects that the users are used to. But knowing your art history—knowing the history of avant-garde art and the internet—will allow you to see the high risk we took in creating totally independent work and collaborate in a very stubborn and perverted way with powerful institutions.
AM: You are one of the very few artists from the net.art scene that didn’t stay away from NFTs. When we first discussed NFTs in 2020, you were critical. What made you change your mind?
UBERMORGEN: First of all, I don't think anyone should ever need a reason to change their mind, but rather we think we need a reason why not to change our minds. More concretely, we were not opposed to NFTs but affirmatively hated cryptocurrency.
We had discussed Bitcoin and the new blockchain technology in 2010 with many digital artists, but we decided that we didn’t want to be yet again the avant-garde in a new field. Sometimes it just gets too exhausting to always be involved with the new sh*t.
We wanted to board when the time was right for us. We wanted to be in charge of the technology, not passengers in the maelstrom of technological madness. In 2021, the time was right, and we finally had enough time to get into NFTs. It was awesome to see a new medium evolve! We have been looking for and longing for this for years: the 15-second pop-song (TikTok) and short video as independent works. It was wonderful to see something happen that we have been working on since 1994. The standardization and commodification of digital assets. Lovely! It felt like the early internet days (1994–1996)—a real sweet underground moment for just a little while. It was great to play with this new-old medium, creating THE D1CKS and UNINVITED.
AM: Do you understand the resentment against NFTs from net artists and media artists?
UBERMORGEN: In our idiocracy, this was to be expected. The resistance of young conservative artists and students was a bit hard to grasp, though. 'Be Soft!'
(UBERMORGEN Slogan 65, 2009). We are basically always happy that people have strong feelings about stuff they probably don't understand. This is very modern these days. Good for you: being modern can also be achieved by just saying no.