JAMES HOWARD: TURNING SPAM INTO ART
Friday 6th May 2011, by Jemima Kiss, The Guardian
Artists attracts attention of Charles Saatchi with work using images appropriated from the 'dark side of the internet'
Considering the ubiquity of the internet, it's surprising how little the visual language of this alternative reality has been reappropriated by the art world. But that's exactly what artist James Howard has been toying with, attracting the attention of one Charles Saatchi during his final show at the Royal Academy in London.
Howard's work is all dreamscape visions and rainbow-fade mountains, roleplay characters with California tans and neon white teeth. The final show that caught Saatchi's eye was a room covered entirely in posters inspired by the imagery of the web's dark side. These are all the images you'll find if you start clicking â as Howard does â on the links in your spam folder. The imagery is always the same, he says.
"Since I was a kid I've been fascinated by the internet, by the idea of being able to access everything," said Howard. "But I was also fascinated by the underground side of the internet, the dodgy emails and scams. Those scams have changed slightly but the imagery remains the same." Howard also has some good insight into that underground with a background as a teenage hacker. He's very cagey about what he got up to, saying only that hacking something like a school website is remarkably easy and that "it's surprising how easy it is to get access to what should be some pretty secure official systems in this country and others." He doesn't want to end up "the next Gary MacKinnon", he quips, so he stops there.
He admits that the images he uses in his work, which are all copied and pasted from genuine spam and scam sites, are almost certainly illegally copied images, although they are retouched, recoloured and distorted far beyond the original picture. He works in the same way, building every image in Photoshop, though he has also produced sculpture; the installation Black Money Show was based on the scam that claims a suitcase of $200m had been dyed with black security dye by a rotten dictator, but was perfectly legal if only the recipient could buy the chemicals to remove the dye. "I keep going down to the tube station and nicking loads of Metros, and then dyed and guillotined them," he admits.
Howard is certainly charismatic; he seems like a new folk hero of the web, with more than a splash of contemporary pop art. But pop art isn't something he relates to or is inspired by, he says. "Andy Warhol built his work around prolific bands and fame â the internet is just the opposite. I don't really take inspiration from any practising artists, but I do like to follow people like the iPhone hackers, the people furiously breaking the iPad 2 right now with millions of people waiting for their hack."
Among Howard's next projects is an exploration of Facebook that plays with people's paranoia and ignorance about identity theft, though he is reluctant to give away too many details. Few people realise how easy it is to create fake profiles on Facebook (he has several, he says) or to pretend to be someone else, and the impact of that and all the associated scams has yet to reach its peak. It is telling that Howard has stripped his own Facebook account bare. "Why have that much information on a site owned by someone else? They have control over you and your content."
For now, Howard can still find plenty of bizarre underworld imagery through the links he's sent in Yahoo Mail. But it's a brief moment in the history of the internet, and one that is being slowly killed off by improvements in technology. He's already had to ditch Gmail because the spam controls have become too good. "The systems we have now are still part of the wild west of the internet," he said. "But eventually people will forget that spam ever existed."
Friday, 29th April 2011, by Arifa Akbar, The Independent
James Howard, a former hacker turned artist who is beloved of Charles Saatchi (his work was shown at the Saatchi gallery show British Art Now) has shed some light on the "working process" behind his collages. They're inspired by internet spam and junk emails apparently. "It all begins in my junk email folder," he explained to the ArtInfo website. "In the place where everything has a bit of a question mark over its authenticity â pensions, Russian brides. I take images and texts from that junk email folder and from pop-up adverts and I collage them together into artworks... 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..." If you want to see the results, you can catch his work at the Aubin Gallery, in Shoreditch, London. Or simply visit your junk mail filter.
JUNK-MAIL ART RE-CREATES THE âDIALUP AESTHETICâ
May 7th, by Alice Vincent, WIRED
E-mails about Chinese brides, penis extensions and medical marvels are fleeing from inboxes quicker than you can say âspam filter.â However, for one artist, junk mail is an essential source of inspiration â and heâs trying to preserve it for future generations.
James Howard is currently exhibiting Authorized at the Aubin Gallery in Londonâs East End. The show features huge posters and screenings of computer-created collages of the screen grabs, JPEGs and animated GIFs that Howard has been stashing on âhard drives and hard drives and hard drives,â inspired by his years spent as a teen hacker in the late â90s, in an attempt to âharvest [it] while itâs still there.â
âOne of my fears is that there will be more and more digital acts passed through the government which will stop digital rights,â Howard confesses to Wired.co.uk. âAll the fun stuff is going on lockdown it seems, so Iâve been kind of holding onto as much as possible, junk mail folders and turning it into these college artworks.â
By âfun stuff,â Howard is referring to junk mail and scams, which he delves into, antivirus-protected, for artistic research. âThey call it scam-baiting,â he explains, âin order to research something you have to become a part of it.â
While previously that has meant inventing a âblack moneyâ chemical cleaning laboratory as a spinoff of the black money scam of 2000 (âone of the most in-depth particular research activities on that scamâ), Howard is currently specializing in bridal scams.
âIâm really interested in the profiles people set up on dating websites and Facebook in order to lure in single guys,â he says. âI find it good material communicating with these people. You have to play the part of the gullible English gentleman whoâs falling in love with the beautiful Chinese lady whoâs actually some guy on the other side of the internet.â
The trick to making sure you donât go too far? âYou have to come up with a story thatâs even better than theirs,â he says.
Thatâs not to say Howardâs computer hasnât suffered from his treacherous modes of research. âIâm always getting my various virus software flashing up with all sorts of warnings, theyâre usually pretty harmless. I have had some pretty incredible viruses in the past; when you ignore the warnings and then you find your computerâs being infected âŠ viruses arenât really my favorite.â
As a result, Howardâs work manages to blend imagery from spam and junk mail to create a familiar picture of the darker side of the internet, even for those who havenât witnessed it themselves.
âThese madly grinning people you get on spam e-mails, happy families with glistening teeth, beautiful sunsets and sunrises which always appear, I like to whack it all together into something which gives a kind of portrait of our digital existence â all thatâs beautiful about it and all thatâs dangerous, itâs kind of an organic thing which we donât have much control over.â
The familiar nature of these collages maybe caused by something more subconscious, however. Howard explains, âI think of the spam e-mail we receive as a reflection on core human conditions, such as desires, fears and weaknesses that can be exploited. Looking into a junk e-mail folder can give you an interesting viewpoint on society today, and its underlying condition.â
âI love the dialup aesthetic, because thatâs where I come from.â
Howardâs artwork has an unmistakably retro feel, reflecting the era of early home internet where online scams and stripped-down imagery were far more prevalent.
âWhen you think of a spam e-mail or a dodgy internet site you imagine it to have that late â90s porno aesthetic,â he says. âI love the dialup aesthetic, because thatâs where I come from. Itâs what I grew up using and itâs what a lot of the worldâs population are still using.â
Check out Wired UKâs gallery of Howardâs junk-mail art to remind yourself of what your spam folder used to look like. Howardâs solo show continues through May 26 at Aubin Gallery, 64-66 Redchurch St., London.
SELLING SPAM TO SAATCHI: A Q&A WITH HACKER COLLAGE ARTIST JAMES HOWARD
April 26th, 2011, by Coline Milliard, ARTINFO UK
LONDONâFormer 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 â 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 â stuff that most people don't really dip their toes into.
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 â which is what most people seem to use it for â and it has been ever since.
Are you still hacking?
If I were, I wouldn't really want to go into too much detail.
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 â 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 â pensions, Russian brides â 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.
SO HOW DO YOU GET BLACK BANKNOTES CLEAN AGAIN?
2010, Original German text: Anne Reimers, Translation: Aatish Pattni,Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung
James Howard, an artist from England, has fiercely dedicated himself to the theme of money laundering â literally. His installation plays with dirty Dollar Bills; almost like in the real world.
James Howard, in collaboration with Peifen Fine Art, has set up his money laundering installation in the small Piero Passet gallery located in the side-wing of a former branch of Barclays Bank, in Londonâs Fleet Street. Despite the somewhat odd location â opposite the imposing Victorian-era walls of the Royal Court of Justice and surrounded by solicitorsâ offices â being under the watchful eyes of the law, their rights to make seizures (from the money laundering installation) have been revoked. In actual fact, the clean and delicate 10,000 Dollar bundles of notes â totalling 100 million Dollars when counted â must first be âlaunderedâ by wrapping them in protective film and with banderols from the US-Federal Reserve; then they are all painted jet-black.
James Howard, the artist in question who was born in 1981 in Canterbury, studied at the Royal Academy in London. His fascination with the darker side of the web, in which crooks offer anything and everything, lead James to money-making scams. His installation âBlack Moneyâ relates to the bogus claims made in spam marketing emails. Howard spent many months studying the tricks used by these scammers, who send spam emails out in great numbers and pretend to be workers at the US-Federal Reserve. The scammers claim to be in possession of millions of Dollars that have all been painted black for security reasons: these Dollars were brought by land through areas of conflict, or have not been discovered by customs.
Howard set up more than a dozen phony email aliases in order to study the illegal world of these âblack moneyâ scams, and started playing the game following the con artistsâ rules. He made himself out to be the victim in order to get as many photos of the black money and supposed Certificates of Authenticity as possible.
Howard explained the method used:
âThe scam usually starts with you having to transfer only ÂŁ10 for a certificate to vouch for the authenticity. The export licence then costs a few hundred pounds and, on top of that, an official may have to be bribed with a few thousand Dollars. When the suitcase finally arrives, the money is painted black. The victim should then buy a special, extremely expensive, cleaning powder from the criminals at the final stage.â
The BBC reported fifteen cases of gullible London bankers who fell foul of this kind of scam back in 2004. Some of them had transferred up to ÂŁ250,000 to the con men, who made themselves out to be crooked Nigerian businessmen. One of the swindlers, who was based in England, managed to steal a combined 4.3 million Dollars from the pockets of three men from the USA, Hong Kong and Holland respectively.
James Howard has set up a dedicated website which pretends to sell the chemical cleaning agent, in order to wash the âBlack Moneyâ or âWash Wash Moneyâ back to white again. As a matter of fact, a few people contacted him with desperate-sounding enquiries, according to James. In any case, he was not sure if the enquiries were from real victims with suitcases full of black money stashed under their beds, or from the FBI. He also has, rather fittingly, a mobile âBlack Money Cleaning Laboratoryâ to be seen in the exhibition display: a suitcase filled with all kinds of tinctures and powders. The case has wires rigged up to a mobile phone, which really does remind you of a bomb factory.
Howard collected free newspapers over a period of months for his installation, such as those handed out in the London Underground stations. He cut the pages to same the size and shape of Dollar Bills, sprayed them black and then hung them up to dry. He worked almost like a con man: âIt became like a regular job, which I did daily to get things moving.â
Now all the black note bundles are spread out between six briefcases in the gallery under the banner of âCrime of Persuasionâ, and are joined together by a large carpet made up of moneybags which runs up to building blocks of supposed Dollar Bills. An old suitcase full of black money sits aloft this pile of building blocks: a throne for the God of greed. The whole thing is reminiscent of the loot seized after a successful police operation, and then put on display for the press to take photos. Posters hang on the walls on which black teardrops are depicted over huge amounts of Dollar Bills. Howard goes on to explain that this particular work is in reference to the minimalist statues of Carl Andre and Warhol, for example the silkscreen â200 One Dollar Billsâ, which was sold for 43.8 million Dollars (including additional fees) at Sothebyâs in New York.
Aside from the placards, there are self-produced advertising leaflets hanging along one of the walls that endorse various means of money laundering. These âcall cardsâ imitate the style of those stuck in Londonâs public phone boxes to advertise call girls. On one of the cards it says, âS.S.D Solution is made from of complex chemical elements. Thatâs why it works so well on black money.â A man in a suit explains that, âI have already cleaned 100 million Dollars by the grace of God that I have found.â
James Howard learned the methods of con artists for his âconâ art. Even his website, which pretends to sell the black money cleaning agent, drops hints towards his installation too. The âdirty moneyâ has now transcended into a work of art. Maybe one happy (former) victim of a âBlack Money Scamâ will get in touch in the near future with a suitcase full of sparkling-clean Dollars?
JAMES HOWARD'S DIGITAL ARTISTRY
2008, by Maxwell Williams,TOKION Magazine, NY,
"There are all sorts of these services," says the young British artist, "but also a Western fear of these services, or a kind of suspicion. I'm interested in the hopes and fears of everyday life, I suppose." James Howard is, of course, talking about sex change operations and penis enlargement pills.
He is talking about the dark and seedy underbelly of the Internet, the scams and services that most people reading this magazine may never try to experience. What we forget is that we can really get Enzyte if we just click on the spam. Happiness is there, on the other end of the Internet, just a click away.
On the subject of unlikely happiness, Howard's rise to prominence is a well documented tale. The story goes, James Howard awoke one day to find Charles Saatchi had bought his entire senior art project. Before your inner cynic pipes up, Howard didn't just appear out of nowhere, he'd been cultivating his techniques at London's Royal Academy of Art, and prior to that his formalism was solidified at Reading University. "At the time I was making these abstract paintings," Howard says of his early work. "They were supposed to represent social networks. There were lots of lines going all over the place. I think that's why I left painting, because I wasn't really able to explore those ideas in a very direct way. That's how I ended up going into the digital field I'm in now."
Howard's works now are an amalgamation of digitally stitched together bus stop posters, mixed with the poetry of Internet spam, filtered through his brazen mind. In one poster, Howard imagines an artificial womb for transsexual men who dream of giving birth. "mirracle [sic] is part of the everyday life," reads the poster in the strange English of spam. It brings to mind several questions about the white noise we deal with every day: Who would this service cater to? And, who is behind these emails we receive so many of every day? "You're always wondering who has done it, or what is going on in the back ground," says Howard. "If they're sitting in some steamy Internet cafĂ© in the middle of god knows where making scam after scam after scam. It's kind of like what I'm doing in my smoky bedroom most of the time, spending hours of the evening whacking these things together."
But Howard is no scam artist. His artworks are thought provoking, aesthetically inventive and more than a little funny. "I've made a new video about global sourcing and how viruses travel from family pets into pregnant ladies," Howard explains. "It's sponsored by a company called Happy Dog Bakery. It's an infomercial for these snack foods for dogs, but in it there's health warnings about the virus that travels from mosquitoes to pregnant ladies, and dogs to all around. And everyone gets brain damage at the end of it. I'm glad you're laughing. That's a good reaction."
As for his encounter with Saatchi, Howard is frank. To him, he's so young it doesn't matter yet that the man behind some very questionable art practices owns a considerable portion of his art-being so young and unproven, Howard feels in control of the development of his career. Or maybe it's that by the time you read this, the deal that created some pretty substantial ripples in the art world is still less than a year in the past, and Howard hasn't had time to process the effect Saatchi's purchase may have had on his career in the long-term. In Howard's eyes, the whole thing isn't really worth much except a boost in recognition (Howard recently showed alongside Martin Parr, Tracey Emin, Wolfgang Tillmans and Sam Taylor-Wood for the AIDS charity Terrence Higgins Trust at the London Art Fair).
No matter what the case is, Howard is working hard these days. He's putting the finishing touches on a curatorial proposal for a show about reproduction, as well as collaborating with like-minded Chinese artist Mai Lin Tan for an exhibition at the Peles Empire gallery in London later this year. Contrary to the prototype of a young star, James Howard is unfazed by his success-he is young, funny and in control.