Selling Spam to Saatchi: A Q&A With Hacker Collage Artist James Howard

Former hacker James Howard has made the trash polluting our screens and email boxes his subject of choice. The British artist's lurid Photoshop collages, composed of text and images cherry-picked from the web, offer singular representations of the dark forces at play in the Internet's hidden recesses — and they are currently presented in the Saatchi Gallery's "Newspeak: British Art Now" exhibition. Two days before the opening of his solo show at Aubin Gallery, Howard talked to ARTINFO UK about "black dollars," the end of digital freedom, and the art of hacking.

You were a hacker before being an artist. How did you get into it?

It started when I was a kid in Canterbury. I'm talking about around 1996, not the very beginning of the Internet, but the time when people started to get it into their homes. As a kid, you kind of go searching for things that are not necessarily the "good Internet." In my head, there are three different Internets: "the good Internet," "the bad Internet," and then all the secret stuff. The "bad Internet" is what normal people think is bad, like going for a secret porno binge, and the "secret Internet" is all the hacking and scamming — stuff that most people don't really dip their toes into.

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As a kid on the dial-up modem, you start getting curious: you hack into your school and before you know it you are finding security systems and all sorts of things that you wouldn't think you'd be able to find. The more you do it, the more fun it becomes. It was curiosity, really. All of a sudden I realized that I went from being completely disconnected to being connected to anywhere I wanted to. For me, the Internet became about a lot more than just email and pornography — which is what most people seem to use it for — and it has been ever since.

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Are you still hacking?

If I were, I wouldn't really want to go into too much detail.

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How did you make the jump from computer-hacking to art-making?

I've always been into making artworks, whether I was using a brush or making a sculpture. My interest in connectivity led me to making paintings about it but it was impossible to represent the scale of these kinds of social systems. Then I went into making sculptures that were plugged to the walls with telephone cords — the idea was that these sculptures would become bigger by connecting to each other using the national power grid and telephone lines, although they weren't actually exchanging information. Later I moved on to computers because I could deal with these ideas in a much more immediate and direct way.

What's your working process?

It all begins in my junk email folder, in the place where everything that has a bit of a question mark over its authenticity — pensions, Russian brides — lands. I take images and texts from that junk email folder and from pop-up adverts and I collage them together into artworks.

Would you say that by collaging these scam emails and ads you concentrate their absurdity and darkness?

Yes, and I gravitate towards reoccurring images: adverts for Chinese wives and images of beautiful sunsets over serene oceans seem to crop up rather a lot, as well as pictures of people with distorted bodies looking up into fisheye lenses. These are the ones I really enjoy, and when I find them, I immediately start getting into Photoshop and cutting around as quickly as I can.

Is speed important?

Yes, I'm quite an impatient person. I can't sit over a painting for six months and then have the risk that it doesn't work. I like to be able to do something quite quickly but the filtering process that can go on for a long time, and I sometimes revisit my works in the context of a new exhibition.

So they are never completely finished?

Yes, that's the beauty of Photoshop. In this show coming up at the Aubin Gallery, I'll be using an animation technique that is quite unusual because the aesthetic of animating with Photoshop has a real retro aesthetic. It looks like pop-up adverts for porn sites from the late '90s. Today people are more into 3D animation.

Your pictures and posters also have quite a retro feel about them.

Well, I don't upgrade my computer so that holds me into a visual language. I'm kind of stuck in 2005, and that's how I like it. I think that if I upgraded my computer and started working on 3D, that would be a conscious choice, but I'm not ready for that yet.

I worry that the digital freedom we are enjoying now is going to come to an end with all the restrictions that are starting to kick in. It's a pattern across the world. Obviously China has very strict regulations over what people can see. Australia is in the process of doing the same thing: they are building a big firewall. Google Mail has a much better spam filter system than any other online mail companies — so I don't use Gmail because it's too good for what I want. It's quite possible than in two years time, you won't get spam emails anymore and that makes all this stuff I'm dealing with seem quite important now.

There is a paradox in your work in that it's completely inspired by the Web and yet it exists as physical objects.

I also work online. For the last year — up until last month — I had a Web site which was pretending to sell chemicals to clean out black dollars. There is an online scam where people are persuaded that suitcases and suitcases of black paper are actually full of $100 bills that have been died black. It's one of these incredible spam email stories that one in a million people believes and ends up spending hundreds of thousands of pounds trying to clean black paper. I made a physical representation of a hundred million U.S. dollars in wads of black paper. It exists as a sculptural installation, but the main part of the project was to document the sculpture and put these photographs online. As soon as they were up, I started getting all sorts of emails from people all over the world asking for the cleaning chemicals. That's something that is going to come up again when I find a way to use this documentation.

So you consider the Web as valid place to show your work.

That's also what a lot of this other side of the Internet — the hacking side — is about. In a way, hacking is kind of an art form. People aren't necessarily doing it for the most practical reasons. It becomes about doing something that you shouldn't do — which art can be about as well. It's about doing something that is not in the norm, breaking a system down and putting your tag there. I'm not particularly interested with the conventional online artworks, when someone just makes something online for the sake of it being online. I often find myself doing that, but these tend to be the works I'm least happy with.

Beside Cory Arcangel, very few artists directly tackle the web in their work — which is surprising considering how ubiquitous the Internet has become. How do you explain this reluctance?

I don't know. I can only tell you why I am working on it. For me, it's such a rich pasture and it's relatively empty, so I've got free range for now.

How do you see your work evolving?

For this Aubin Gallery show coming up, I'm using HD television technology for the first time and I'm having a good time with these Photoshop animations. The moving image is starting to really get in there for me. Material-wise, I've started experimenting with these giant vinyl tarpaulins and PVC banners. I'm moving away from paper and using things that feel a lot more industrial. The problem with paper is that it's fragile and I want these works to feel just as tough as they do when one pops up on your computer screen and you are desperately trying to close it down.

What is the most disturbing scam you've come across?

I'm not easily disturbed, but — beside the black money scam — my favorite one is when people sit on the other side of the Internet, pretend to be Chinese ladies looking for husbands and it turns out that they are just some kind of fat Russian guy out to take everyone's money.