Stevie P: Feedback Loops and Topographies of Ketchup
A photographic series breeds self-reflective thought and spelunks into the root of the human condition
Steve Pikelny, aka Stevie P, may not have an outward political agenda when constructing his websites, which reflect a cruder, guerilla-like aesthetic more likely to infect your computer with a virus rather than provide information; but they do represent the zeitgeist in which web surfers and Boomer social media addicts users find themselves: facing feedback loops from the megaphones of snake-oil salesmen, demagogues, and bigotry. “I found that phenomenon really fascinating: how people on the internet already have certain biases, and these other third parties are trying to swing their perception of the world in a certain direction,” says Stevie P, in an interview with ZORA’s Michail Stangl. “[The third parties] post content online, people see the content, and then there are links to other posts that confirm that bias.”
In his 1964 book “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man”, Canadian philosopher Marshall McLuhan wrote “...the personal and social consequences of any medium—that is, of any extension of ourselves—result from the new scale that is introduced into our affairs by each extension of ourselves, or by any new technology.” From this, McLuhan’s infamous line comes into view: the medium is the message. Pikelny exploits and explores this thoroughly. Even more so, the internet artist and ironically self-avowed CEO, CFO, CTO, COO, is scrutinizing the human condition in full-zoom. Whether it’s religion and proselytizing in Subway Jesus Pamphlets, uncovering profiteering in the social apps economy with Friendworld.social, or examining brain chemistry when "foraging" in Natural Flavors, Stevie P is sitting back, feet up, smiling at the weirdness of being a person.
Michail Stangl (ZORA): Tell us about yourself: would you consider yourself an artist?
Steve Pikelny: I guess given the fact that most of the time I'm spending my time making art and getting paid to make my art, that sort of makes me an artist. Whereas before this, I was employed as a software engineer, was making art on the side, and wasn't getting paid anything.
MS: But you can be both. Software is a really big part of your artistic practice, but at what point did you realize that you want to be one mainly and not the other?
SP: I think over the last few years it's been a slow shift of working on my art in my free time, and in a lot of ways, just really prioritizing that over vacations and doing it on weekends at different points. It was like a slow burn. And then earlier this year as the NFT boom kind of started up, and I was able to actually sell my art for the first time, aside from the money, more importantly, I was able to find an audience who wanted to engage with my work. That was sort of the turning point where I realized I should really be doing this full time. I'm no longer at the point where I'm spending two or three weeks working on a project, and then my friends kind of laugh at it for two days, and then people forget about it. It's at the point where I put in the effort and people continue to engage with it for a longer period of time.
MS: But you've been obviously doing this for a really long time; your projects span nearly a decade now. Would you consider yourself a digital artist, internet artist, or none of those things? Because a lot of your work is ultimately internet-based, utilizing narrative tools that are common on the internet, like websites.
SP: If I'm being honest with myself, I'd classify myself more as an internet artist for precisely the reasons you just said, because a lot of my work only makes sense in the context of the internet. I think a lot of what makes my websites interesting to me, at least, is the fact that you could be anywhere in the world, you could be on any device, and all you have to do is type in a string of letters into the address bar of your web browser. Then all of a sudden you have this art that is displayed on that device at that time in place.
It's not something that necessarily lives in a museum, where you can only view the art in a certain context; it's very much meant to be viewed in multiple different contexts and multiple web browsers by multiple people and not really locked down. I think, at least when I'm thinking about a lot of my websites, I like the fact that it's possible that people who aren't even expecting to experience art that day might just happen upon the link, click it, and all of a sudden they're on fastcashmoneyplus.biz and don't know what's going on.
MS: [Would you] even propose that you’re a political artist?
SP: Yes and no. I think a lot of art is inherently political, and I definitely have my own political opinions, but a lot of times when I'm making art, that's not explicitly what I'm going for, but I think there are political interpretations of a lot of my pieces. I'm actually curious what your political interpretations are like from what you've seen.
MS: On one hand, it is very ironic, and to a certain degree, even cynical. The idea of false narratives, or the ambiguity of false narratives, are often political tools. Very often, political messages are ambiguous because they want to incite people emotionally, so they point to a certain direction and then let people head into that direction themselves, so they cannot claim any responsibility for anything that was sparked by a conspiracy theory; we just pointed something out, people came to their own conclusions. So even though you work with the ambiguity of the fake, given the last five years or so, there’s obviously a highly political element to it.
SP: I think you hit the nail on the head in terms of what a lot of my intentions were with those projects, but it's interesting because I always felt like I approached it from a more psychological standpoint than a political standpoint. As I was building these websites, the things that interested me most were how people consume information on the internet and construct their own worlds; I think there's a lot of politics baked into that, but even if you take the political implications out of it, it's interesting that that's just how we go about our lives.
In a lot of ways, the political angle is maybe the most colorful, because with fakebullshit.news, my fake news website, that one came right after Trump was elected in 2016. There were a lot of these articles floating around about fake news and how various nefarious actors launched all these PSYOPS to swing the election. Obviously there's a big political motivation behind there because I'm not pro- any fascist PSYOPS. But on top of that, as an artist, I found that phenomenon really fascinating: how people on the internet already have certain biases, and these other third parties are trying to swing their perception of the world in a certain direction. [The third parties] post content online, people see the content, and then there are links to other posts that confirm that bias.
I think that's one of the themes that started to come out of this network of websites I built: you start on fakebullshit.news, but then you have links that are advertisements to other websites, and then you click those links; then you're on friendworld.social and there might be a link to this news article about China; then that links you back to fakebullshit.news. So now, because there's this guise of multiple sources, it feels as though this universe is confirming itself: you have this positive feedback loop where website A references website B for credibility; but then website B is also referencing website A for the same credibility.
MS: Even though it's interesting to explore through art, don't you find aspects of that are scary?
SP: It's incredibly scary. I think if there's one thesis of my network of websites, it's how the internet is currently taking form. The UI and UX are intentionally very different from what you might be used to in 2021. It highlights this dynamic that's taking place: you go to Facebook or Twitter and you cycle through the same websites over and over again, and even in a sphere that has a lot more credibility, this sort of dynamic is taking place. In a lot of ways, we just lost the joy of surfing the internet, and the web feels like a much-less interesting place than it did twenty years ago, because you are just going along the same thread of websites.
MS: You mentioned the word ‘credibility’. One of the reasons why we've experienced the rise of conspiracy theories is the interface on which these conspiracy theories were placed. The only thing that provides that layer of credibility is not even the message itself or the sources, but the technological framing in the interface. That's ultimately the criticism at the core of much of the Web3 conversations: that the rise of platform capitalism and the relentless utilization of all of this is what gave us these socio-political effects.
So now, Web3 technologies and blockchain claim to deliver the ultimate cryptographic truth. That is ultimately one of the big promises of blockchain. Nonetheless, there is the moment you add the social element to it. You still have the same kind of betrayal or social signals leading people into traps. Is this because you looked at Web3 and you saw it's the same thing over again, and needs to be addressed again?
SP: I actually built all four websites—fakebullshit.news, fastcashmoneyplus.biz, friendworld.social, and ronamerch.co—without really considering Web3 very much. But I don't know, I think it's a good question. To be honest, I'm not super optimistic that Web3 will really solve a lot of these issues. There's definitely potential there, but at the end of the day, the internet is still pretty substantially centralized. To store a lot of data, post data, you need some sort of profit motivation. And I think between MetaMask and IPFS, it offers somewhat of a solution to decentralizing things. But you still need to motivate people to actually build the thing. I'm not saying it can't happen, but I think that there might be difficulty in building [effectively open-source] software that can really stand up to the likes of Twitter and Facebook and Discord.
Just because the interfaces of these websites are specifically designed to evoke this sort of dynamic—if we decentralize everything and design everything very thoughtfully—[doesn’t mean] we're necessarily out of the woods, because it’s sort of inherently human nature to confirm our own biases. I think we see that a lot in the existing crypto community—where people look for information that supports the NFT series that they just spent a lot of money on. We are seeing this a lot on Twitter and Discord, which are centralized platforms. Even if we were on a more decentralized platform, I think we'd still have the same social phenomenon of people looking to make a lot of money, looking to confirm their own biases that this thing they bought is going to go up in value.
MS: Sometimes it feels like a mass psychosis, but it's also interesting that you understand the psychology of it, and we can ride the waves of these things in a way that feels a bit more secure. It's also interesting to see how your generative art stands in contrast with what you are about to release. Photography is a medium—what's your relationship with it?
SP: As I've gotten into the NFT space, I started off in doing generative art. Then I did my photo series, Subway Jesus Pamphlets, and continued doing generative art. The direction I've gone in has definitely been in a much more conceptual direction, where I'm not skewing aesthetics, but focusing more on the concept behind the art and how I could use the aesthetics to emphasize that concept. I think photography is a very useful tool for doing that because it provides a really good feedback loop where I don't need to spend three hours sketching something out and seeing if I like it or not. With photography, I could go out into the world and document this concept in a very pure form. So if I wanted to draw or generate a bunch of condiment packets, it could be really difficult to nail the object you're trying to render.
It's a very different experience to see an image of this thing that actually exists as opposed to something that I formulated. And in some ways it's almost proof that ketchup packets do exist on the ground in this form: you get these interesting splatters and you have these different forms of variety. Similarly with Subway Jesus Pamphlets, I don't know if my imagination is creative enough to come up with that many Jesus pamphlets with those specific kinds of designs. But I think that there's the fact that these are real Jesus pamphlets that exist handed out to people and in circulation, I think definitely changes the experience of looking at the photograph.
MS: And you decided that you are doing a topography of ketchup, of condiments.
MS: How come? These things that people never pay attention to, but somebody had to design this, to approve the print, to manufacture the package. We dismiss that into the realm of something being banal, even though it's not for the person creating it. How did you end up doing that?
SP: Yeah. There's definitely an element of ready-mades and pop art in there, where it's appreciating this thing that was designed in one context, but putting it in another context. Aside from that, this project actually started as a way to reward some of my collectors, because I did an essay contest a while ago and needed something I could give out as consolation prizes. I like going for walks, walks are fun. And as I was like going on one of my walks, I was on the lookout for just really f****** lame things, like, ‘What's like the lamest prize I could possibly give someone’? Out of the corner of my eyes, I saw a ketchup packet. Who the hell would want a ketchup packet? The value of this thing is so minimal because it's not even valuable as food, it has almost no nutritional value whatsoever, and there's not even a lot of ketchup in there. The only context in which this object would be valuable is if you're in this post-apocalyptic landscape foraging for food. So I took the picture and I thought it was funny. I continued walking and found myself near a McDonald's where I saw a few more ketchup packets. I took a few more pictures and then just as I started walking, I started noticing other ketchup packets, hot sauce packets, and soy sauce packets. Now that I'm on the lookout for this thing, I can't get it out of my head—where I see one of these things and get this burst of excitement.
And then it started to dawn on me this is sort of f*****-up way our brains work, where humans evolved as hunter gatherers foraging nuts and berries on the lookout for things. And our brain chemistries are designed such that when we find these things we're looking out for, we get this hit of dopamine—it could be a berry, a nut, a deer that we're tracking. And in this context, it’s definitely a weird version of that, because in some ways I'm still looking for this natural organic thing, but it's also now highly processed by some multinational conglomerate, packaged up in a piece of plastic, and lying on a piece of cement as opposed to a natural berry that's in the wilderness. It might be weird to say, but in some ways this is my most personal project because of how it illustrates my brain chemistry. Sort of going back to how we use the web, in some ways this illustrates how websites work, where you go on a website and you see that you have a new notification, you get that same rush of dopamine.
MS: There's one aspect to your ketchup packages that ultimately has an interesting analogy in it to NFTs. On one hand, people like to collect things—that is the nature of the human condition and people like to collect absurd things. In Berlin, there is a museum of coat hangers that came from a man's obsession to document a very banal product. In art, very often the value is only the social value that we ascribe to it.
With NFTs, especially with the generative nature of it—with the nature of many NFTs that are now probably generated on some sort of content farm or the outskirts of Beijing—there's not much difference between collecting photos of ketchup packages or PFP pictures. You know what I mean? They’re equally absurd and both in the value defined by authorship. What’s the difference between a photo of a ketchup package by an internationally famous artist and a Bored Ape? There's virtually none.
SP: I think it's funny you say that, because that was a motivation I started exploring a little more explicitly with Subway Jesus Pamphlets. Where it's basically just a very weird collectibles project. I think in a lot of ways it shares similarities with generative art and profile pictures in that you have this theme that's consistent throughout the collection, but there's also lots of variability, and you have rare traits.
Mustard [packets] are pretty rare, but ketchup [packets] are pretty common, and hot sauce is not as common as ketchup, but it's not as rare as the mustard packet. This is something I didn't draw attention to and put in the token metadata, but I thought it would be really funny to draw attention to these attributes—like in art blocks, if you have a black-and-white color palette or just this one incredibly rare feature. That's why on the website, I gave the user some filtering mechanisms so they could view all of the splattered packets or all of the hot sauce packets.
But to your point, a big theme in all of this is highlighting the absurdity of wanting to collect these things. And again, just in terms of like my own psychology, it's interesting that I got to the point where it started out as ironic, but then as I proceeded with the project, got less and less ironic, because now all I'm looking at these things and I see, ‘Oh yeah, that's a good one, there's someone one who’s going to be willing to pay hundreds of dollars on the internet for this ketchup packet’. That's a weird reaction to have because as you said, these are things that people just totally pass over. Now I see a ketchup packet with a particularly good splatter on it on the sidewalk and sort of start seeing dollar signs in my eyes. It's weird that we're in this social and economic situation where my brain can even make that connection in a non-psychotic way.
MS: Do you collect anything personally?
SP: Yeah. I think the Jesus Pamphlets were actually a thing I collected for five or six years before I turned them into NFTs. I still have an open bounty: if someone gives me a physical pamphlet that I haven't minted yet, then I'll take a picture of it and mint it and send them the NFT. So I'm keeping this physical collection just for my own enjoyment. I think the most boring thing I collected was those chocolate eggs, like the Kinder Eggs, and they have all these stupid, happy meal things. So over the pandemic, one of the things I did to keep me sane was every time I went to the supermarket, I would buy a bunch of these kinder eggs and collect the anthropomorphic animal best-friends things. And I was trying to collect all twenty of them, and I never quite got there—I'm still missing three and they stopped selling them at my supermarket.
MS: It’s not absurd at all—there's a huge culture of that in Germany where the Kinder Eggs come from. What is your personal roadmap for your art next year and beyond? How many of these new strategies—socially, monetary, but also technologically—do you want to implement into your artistic practice? Obviously just minting tokens is one aspect of it, and you're an economist by trade as well. There’s a big social element to it, with the DAO and so forth. Is any of that of interest for you?
SP: Yeah, I have a lot of good stuff in the pipeline. Without getting too much into the specifics of it, I have a pretty exciting collaborative project coming up around the end of January or early February. It's a collaboration with a somewhat well-known artist. It will really emphasize economics and game theory, and have an interesting auction mechanic to it. I've also been getting really into experimenting with contract mechanics, so I have a few ideas on generative pieces that change as the contract state changes.
So it might be interesting to turn all of my future NFT contracts into DAOs where if you have one of the tokens, you can vote on where the metadata is pointing to. Or if you own a token on the NFT, maybe you get a say in the state of the actual contract in a way that it would normally be centralized.
MS: So turning ownership into stewardship.
SP: Yeah. That's a good way to put it, because right now, stewardship rests entirely on the artist or on the infrastructure that the artist is relying on. And in a lot of projects that stewardship is set in stone, and it's a shame because we have these contracts and this way of decentralizing any aspect of the project and people don't really take advantage of that. In the case of NFTs, the people who have the highest incentive to be stewards of this currently don't really have the ability to do so. So I think by turning NFT contracts into DAOs, you [are] giving the people who have the highest incentive the ability to actually be stewards of the art.
All the DeFi and Ponzi scheme insanity, obviously, is very interesting to me. I do have a few ideas of insane mechanics that maybe aren’t insane—absurd is a better word: absurd mechanics for leaning into the spectacle of throwing lots of money at stupid s*** with really complicated rules where maybe you can make more money. Maybe you lose it all, who knows?