As social media users, we teeter precariously between who we really are and how we want to be perceived by others. Facebook, for example, allows us the opportunity to calculate interactions, cherry-pick moments and enhance our presentation of ourselves, sometimes making us look vastly different online than in person. And according to this recent study led by the University of Michigan, getting in the habit of comparing ourselves on Facebook is a bummer (who knew?). As for our delusions of online privacy and how much we reveal about ourselves, a New York electronic duo by the name of Big Data is searching for revelations and taking us along for the ride.
Big Data is producer Alan Wilkis and vocalist Daniel Armbruster, a team that creates "paranoid electronic pop music" about voyeurism in the digital age: Voyeurism 2.0. This week, they released an interactive art piece that puts the observer in the spotlight, through a mini-trip down memory lane where you are presented (and sometimes shocked) with images of your own bygone behavior.
Big Data partnered up with Boulder-based interactive artist and director Rajeev Basu (otherwise known as "Jeeves") to create Facehawk, an interactive music video featuring you, the viewer. Facehawk "hijacks" your Facebook, blowing it apart and piecing it back together into the shape of a hawk to the tune of Big Data's latest hit, "Dangerous".
Curious about their strategy for blurring the lines between conceptual art and promotion, I was able to squeeze in an interview with Alan Wilkis.
The New Girl in 312: I enjoyed Facehawk - it was an extremely unique approach and seemed ultra-personal. I experienced "Dangerous" in a distinctly new way as my Facebook profile was rebuilt. I was surprised and sometimes moved, especially when the lyrics matched up with the images I was seeing of myself and my friends. Was the purpose of this music video to remind people that they are being watched?
Big Data: We don’t think there’s one single purpose for Facehawk. It very much is this hyper-nostalgic experience watching your former statuses and photos - and essentially your former self - float by the screen. It’s mesmerizing, and yes it can totally be an emotional experience. I think it’s different for every user, and because of the algorithms Jeeves and his team built, it’s actually different every time you watch it, even when drawing content from the same Facebook profile. But yes, of course, at the same time, the purpose is very much to remind us all of how much information we really leave up there in the cloud. For me personally, I think what I love so much about it is the way it straddles this fine line between playfulness and unsettling, downright terror. In a way, that’s what we were trying to do with the song, musically and lyrically, as well. Jeeves really nailed it.
NG312: "Dangerous" is a sexy track. It's got a bit of an ominous, "big brother" feel - can you elaborate on the message behind the song?
BD: With “Dangerous,” we wanted to tackle this idea of cyclical voyeurism in the digital age - voyeurism 2.0 - the idea that you can peer very deeply into the lives of others through the internet and specifically Facebook, anonymously and from the comfort of your own home, with the semblance of privacy. But all the while, you’re being watched, tracked and monitored anonymously by Facebook, the government, etc. Big Brother, 100%.
NG312: How involved were you in the production of Facehawk?
BD: Our input was primarily logistical - for example, I wanted to make sure that Facehawk pulled all "Dangerous" plays from our Soundcloud player so that we could a) easily track how many people were using Facehawk and listening to the song through it, and b) we could then accumulate all the plays from Facehawk into our Soundcloud play count. Creatively, it was fairly hands-off for Daniel and I. We had absolute trust and faith in Jeeves’ vision and wanted to give him the utmost confidence to be as creative as possible. We had a very healthy dynamic and workflow and we can’t wait to get cracking on the next one.
NG312: Why is it in the shape of a hawk?
BD: It was Jeeves' idea. We think it came from the phrase "watch you like a hawk."
NG312: Alan, you and Daniel are both from New York. How did you find each other and come together?
BD: I was born and raised in New York City. Daniel actually was born and raised in Rochester, NY, where he still lives, and where his other band, Joywave, is currently based. I was first introduced to his manager through an old friend. Daniel’s manager and I were talking about setting up a PRINTS collaboration for a while. When I finally sent him an instrumental track to start writing to, he shot back a few sketches within a day or two -- and they were GREAT on the first pass. I listened about four or five times through on the subway-ride home that day and I called him as soon as I got off the train: “Dude. Let’s start a band.”
NG312: What is your creative process like? Alan, are you applying the same strategy you used in PRINTS with Big Data?
BD: There are a few similarities, chiefly that the songs often begin with my sketching out some sort of instrumental track & sending it to Daniel to start sketching out melodic and lyric ideas. With Big Data, however, we’re really open to trying all sorts of different approaches and pushing ourselves creatively. For example, with one song we made, we approached it as a sort of reverse-remix. When I typically remix a song, I take a band’s vocal parts, get rid of the rest, and essentially write a new instrumental track around it. On one of our new Big Data songs, it started with a vocal melody that Daniel was working on, which he recorded and sent to me. I built a track around it, and the song grew from there. Perhaps the biggest difference in terms of process is that Big Data is a highly-conceptual project - we have a clearly defined stance and approach, as far as the themes we’re interested in writing about - technology, data, how the internet affects our lives and changes us, etc. So with each new song, it’s as if we always have a consistent starting point, but we want to look at it from a new angle.
NG312: Has the hyper-social Spotify/Facebook integration helped you as artists?
BD: I am a die-hard Spotify enthusiast and their artist-relations team has been amazing to us. They’ve been very supportive, and they’ve helped out with social media amplification and special promotional stuff around Facehawk. For the record, it irritates me quite a bit when artists go on whining about the tiny payouts they receive from Spotify. As an artist who self-releases and self-publishes his music, I can say from experience that Spotify’s payouts consistently account for a noticeable piece of our overall sales/streaming income, which is amazing considering that Spotify’s user-base in the US is still relatively small but growing quickly.
NG312: You've been featured and discussed in The Atlantic, USA Today, CNET, Wired, VICE - big publications. What kind of rise have you been experiencing?
BD: The response has been overwhelming and disorienting, to be honest. We hit #1 on Hypemachine last week, and that jump-started everything - we just broke 100K plays on Soundcloud for “Dangerous” a couple days ago. The Facehawk coverage has been unbelievable, too. We’re very grateful for all this attention, but we’re also aware that it could all be gone tomorrow. The most important thing for us is to keep our eyes on the ball, keep working hard and keep making music and weird art that we’re proud of.
I also had a chance to ask Jeeves a few questions.
NG312: What was your experience like working with Big Data for a music video?
Jeeves Basu: A dream. There was a lot of trust as I disappeared for months directing and crafting our hawk.
NG312: How does the ultra-personal nature of the music video incorporate the message in the track "Dangerous"?
JB: I drew inspiration from the song and what the band is all about: watching while being watched – voyeurism in the digital age. Blowing up Facebook seemed like it would be pretty fun. We all hear about snooping and surveillance, but when it is contextualized in a way that is so personal, it really starts to make you think. I actually received an email from one person who was so affected by what facehawk showed them, that they deleted their Facebook account.
NG312: Your greeting cards and signs for the modern workplace are hilarious, and your drone bumper stickers are amusingly depressing. I also found Tumbly-ing random websites to be quite entertaining. Between creating those images and working with coding and digital media, what is your favorite "canvas" for your projects? What are you working on next?
JB: I’m happy to work across any media. I think what’s most important is coming up with the idea and then seeing where it can live. I actually love mixing it up and doing something completely different each time. I like to create funny and subversive projects that mess with people. I'm always on the lookout for unusual projects to collaborate with artists, musicians and creative types on. I’m working on a music video game next. Also some other secret projects.