Representing the creative future

Ben Ditto on hacking, NFTs and the future of image

An unfiltered conversation about internet ethics, taste, and making art online

Ben Ditto is a creative director specialising in the execution of uncanny, utopian concepts that embrace beauty and technology. Working across platforms such as Dazed Beauty, he directs moving image, CGI, creative coding projects, augmented reality and VR, print and live experience, working with the likes of Alexander McQueen, Louis Vuitton, Ssense, Vivienne Westwood, and Grimes.

In our conversation, Ben throws a deep dive into technological futures, his artistic roots, and finding the subtle beauty in violence.

Your portfolio spans from fashion films to experimental AI’s, and collaborations with figures such as CounterFuture and The 1975. What ties it all together? 

If I say my work is about X, Y, Z, I paint myself into a corner. I would say there’s a thread of culture in the specific way that it relates to technology and the perception of the self. That’s a common theme, but anything that I find interesting, I’ll work on, and that changes all the time.

So, what hooks you into a project? 

It’s not so much the project, but the people I’d be working with and if they’re receptive to me doing what I do best. I found it goes badly when people employ me to do something that lots of other people could do. For example, my agent got approached a while ago by a brand that wanted to make some Snapchat films about young urban people. I was thinking, why the fuck would you ask me?  There are hundreds of people more qualified to do this, it doesn’t play into any of my strengths, it’s not something I’m interested in. I will do it.. but, why? It works best when people say, “Ben does this really specific thing and it’s exactly what we want, let’s work together”. I like to be formative on a project, so I don’t enjoy coming into projects where the creative themes have already been decided and then they just want me to execute something.

“What bugged me with DIY culture was that it had to look like a shitty photocopied thing. Why can’t DIY look professional?” – Ben Ditto

Throughout your career, your works have consistently pushed at the forefront of the times and contexts in which they’re made; however, your background is staunchly DIY, beginning with roots in somewhat transgressive subcultures. Where did the interest in new media and innovative processes begin?

It’s always been there. I started hacking and coding in the 80s, and I used to write about social media, exploring things like paramilitary activity on Bebo and sexual abuse on Second Life back in the early 2000s. I was making music and zines in the late 90s, early 2000s. Remember that in the early 90s, these colour photocopied zines were technology, because there wasn’t much else. My interest in DIY culture comes from doing that same stuff, but not being answerable to anyone.

For someone who’s not nominally a leftist, I’m very big on independence and cooperatives. I think that people should be responsible for their own destiny, which is arguably quite an anti-capitalist thing. However, I would never have portrayed myself as an anti-capitalist. I like owning and running things.

What bugged me with DIY culture was that it had to look like a shitty photocopied thing. Why can’t we be doing things independently, like music and film, but execute it well? Why can’t DIY look professional? Technology has really caught up with that way of thinking. The thing that I like about AI, is that many advanced AI’s are open source, meaning that they are democratically accessible. There isn’t a financial barrier to being involved with code, in the same way that there’s no financial barrier to being involved with independent publishing. Say if you’re making something very cheaply with your friends and distribute it on the tube, or leave piles of them in nightclubs. These technologies are accessible to all of us; what makes you good or bad at that is simply how interesting you are. That’s what I like about it, that anybody can access a lot of AI technology. What intrigues me about Spark AR (the technology to make face filters) is that it’s available to everyone in the world with a computer and an internet connection for free. There aren’t too many interesting ones, so just because the tech is available to everyone doesn’t mean that everyone does interesting things. You can say the same with most NFT projects, crypto, all of that.

I had a company called Future Artefacts, which was about the future of physical media. For various reasons, it didn’t last more than a couple of years, but from 2015, we were talking about things that are actually happening now. Why do we want physicality? Why do we want ownership, and what does it mean to own something? It’s very relevant to the whole NFT conversation now but from a counterpoint. With Future Artefacts, we did a bunch of really interesting panel talks that actually led to the philosophy behind Dazed Beauty. When we started that, I took the editor to meet a consciousness researcher who I was working with on Future Artefacts, and that fed into a lot of early Dazed Beauty ideas, along with futurology and future predictions.

“The way coding is going, and in combination with machine learning, it will probably become a lot more intuitive and semantically instructional.” – Ben Ditto

I want to ask about the coding and hacking you were doing in the 80s and 90s. Does this go with the idea of seizing one’s will, or control? Is the insistence that programming is one of those ways in which you can reclaim power still meaningful?

Honestly, my interest in code was more playful. We used to hack adventure games, find backdoors and ways to edit characters. It wasn’t any great anarchist statement, just fucking around. On the one hand, coding has got and will get more accessible. In the early days, coding was bloody impenetrable, but now we have things like python script. The way coding is going, and in combination with machine learning, it will probably become a lot more intuitive and semantically instructional. However, at the same time, the things that we all use like iPhones, apps, and social media are so cloaked in complexity behind the same algorithms, machine learning, and corporate structuring, that to be influential within that space has got nothing to do with your ability to code. You can now be an amazing programmer, but it doesn’t really mean anything within those larger structures.

The 1975 – People (Official Video) Directed by Matthew Healy, Warren Fu & Ben Ditto

Hardly anyone knows anything about the devices and technological architectures that we use every day. We’re told that the solution is to learn how to code rather than actually focusing on how technology and human affairs interlink.  I see it a lot within your work, for example, you’ve recently used AI to question concepts surrounding ownership and censorship. Can we talk about the CryptoGraphic exhibition and the artwork you contributed, Dates?

The idea was to make an exhibition that used OnlyFans as a gallery space. It was a statement about lots of things; sex, censorship, the line between fine art and pornography, ownership of the body, commodification, technocapitalism, all these things. I helped with the creative direction of that with Amber [Atherton] and Tiffany [Zab]. I then did the visual direction for it all and then produced a couple of artworks.

Dates was an interesting one. I’m not anti-NFT’s at all, but I don’t like the pointless ones – I’m not going to put my life savings into an ape. I think the future of ownership and our senses of self and identity are within that world. All of that is becoming more and more wrapped up in cryptography; the metaverse – whatever that means. The idea for Dates was to train AI models on various characters from literature and cinema. Each one has a different personality, which I then edited. I generated their faces using another neural network and edited them using another piece of open-source software that makes them move, before finally embedding all the code for that on the blockchain, along with a link to a private Discord server for each one. If you buy it, it unlocks the discord server, and you can talk to your Date.

The thing I like about it is that none of it’s real, per se, but my hand is very present in it. I generated hundreds of faces to find the ones that I wanted. I edited the text heavily to create the characters. It’s a bit of a thought experiment; it’s hard to separate what’s real from fiction. You and I are having this conversation now, but it won’t be long until it will be impossible to know whether this is me talking to you or something that I’ve trained on me to talk to you. How do you know it’s not already? Just imagine what’s going to be happening in 10 years… The EU is already discussing ethics and legislation for AI; they believe that it should be considered illegal to have AI impersonate a human being. This is quite a top-level, blanket piece of ethical legislation, but it makes sense to me. Weaponized AI is on the level of chemical weapons – to have AI impersonate humans should be a clear line in the sand. Dates was also a comment on loneliness; the notion of having a partner that doesn’t exist, that cares for you because you’re so lonely. Realising that there’s nothing special or interesting about you is a very core part of the male experience in modern life. I think that Dates feeds into that too. I really liked that.

“People will try to take away your livelihood because they don’t like a meme you posted on Instagram.” – Ben Ditto

It’s funny because humans always work better together. Our brains are supposed to reason with other brains. Grand ideas are achieved and actualised through community and dialectics. What happened over lockdown was really telling. Apparently, when the camaraderie of the job floor disappeared, many people in high intensity jobs became disproportionally depressed. Many jobs simply couldn’t be carried out in isolation. It’s unsurprising now when people campaign against regulations. On the topic of community, let’s talk about Ditto Nation, your fanbase that you’re currently chronicling into a Ditto Nation book. How did this form and what role do your social media enterprises play in your work?

It’s a bit of a satirical thing. It’s interesting to investigate what you can do with a persona, and what you can control in terms of people’s perception of you. I’m not saying that I’m hugely influential at all, but I question and experiment with it on an individual and a group level. I work with people who are much more famous, with much bigger platforms, and through that, I’ve explored things like cultish behaviour and obsessive fandom on smaller levels. I also try to use it in a healthier way, such as  audience building. I think that we’re responsible for our own audiences, and I have to say that 99% of mine is great. I fucking love my audience. It’s not enormous, but I talk to thousands of people every year, and the interactions are almost all positive. I’m not a technology cynic or social media pessimist at all. It’s quite incredible, and how that overlaps into the real world is fascinating. Luckily, because I’m so independent (for example, I’m not answerable to a record label, like some people are) I have a lot of latitude with that stuff. I can do and say things that other people can’t. I don’t want to Jinx this, but I like being entirely responsible for my own destiny. Sure, my agency could drop me, and there was a time when people were writing in because I was a “problematic artist”. Luckily, my agent is great and thought it was stupid and funny. People will try to take away your livelihood because they don’t like a meme you posted on Instagram. That’s no small thing, to have a letter-writing campaign against you, literally because of a meme. Of course, that’s rare though.

Spectacular Reality directed by Ben Ditto with No Agency NYC

You’ve had other run-ins. Countless shadowbans, deleted accounts… Censorship is a very present issue with artists and centralised media. Do you think things will change in web3?

Unfortunately, it’s got two layers. I think we’re in a situation where the only people who can afford to build the technology that we all need to use will be proprietary about it. They are the worst people in the world, Meta, Google, and Apple, but they matter. Google and Apple, they matter. They’re the only people with the resources to develop the tech. The thing is, it would be hypocritical of me to be that down on it because I run my life through Instagram, which is a Meta platform. I’m not that rebellious; I’m not on the dark web or sending out Stormfront PDFs or whatever. I think that there are lots of very exciting things happening with the metaverse and Web3, but no one has the physical hardware thus far and I’m a little bit sceptical about what will happen when that hardware does become available. Will it be so proprietary? They’ve already banned any kind of sex anywhere on Zuckerberg’s Metaverse, which is boring and, frankly, stupid.  Sex is a huge driver for progress, it’s responsible for developments in storage space and digital imaging and payment systems. I don’t think there’ll be a poor Metaverse and a Facebook metaverse. It’ll be way more nuanced than that. Sadly though, I think those are the two big driving factors, one that’s a bit gross and one that’s just fucking awful.

“Instagram is gamified narcissism, LinkedIn is gamified career progression.” – Ben Ditto

I’m very aware of this term “gamification”. All my research seems to point towards virtual spaces being vessels for further cloaked advancements in what is essentially endorphin engineering. I’m currently of the opinion that crypto has somewhat turned investing into dopamine slot machines like Instagram. It seems obvious why crypto is so popular amongst young people.  Surely the question we must ask about gamification is: who is winning? Is it these proprietary establishments?

I’m not too cynical about the world of gaming. It has more integrity than Facebook and the amount of effort and thought that goes into online gaming is enormous. It’s generally good; I played Battlefield for hours last night, it was great. There’s a big difference, however, between something anaesthetising like Candy Crush and something like Minecraft, or Call of Duty. In the grander sense though, yes, everything’s gamified: Instagram is gamified narcissism, LinkedIn is gamified career progression. But that’s separate. The notion of an augmented webspace is not the same conversation as the gamification of all human behaviour. They’re adjacent, but not the same conversation.

Ok, so I wanted to talk a bit about your more personal work. Where did your fascination with the abject begin? You know, this combination of sex, guts, and baselessness.

I’m not sure abject is the right word. To me, that’s quite a specific Kristeva thing. I can’t put my finger on it, but as far back as I can remember, I’ve always been interested in extreme imagery. When I was a kid, there was no internet at all. I used to spend a lot of time in the library, just taking everything in, similarly to what we do now by scrolling through Instagram. My parents weren’t generally strict, but they were on what we were allowed to see. So, before I was allowed to see “horror”, I had created an idea of it in my mind. My auntie used to talk about horror films like Psycho in very visceral terms, but then when I saw the real thing, it was somehow never up to what I thought it would be like. Back in those days, if you heard of a film, you could go to a video shop and on the back there were little stills from every film. I remember buying the timeout guide of every film review they’d ever done – a huge 1000-page book – and I would read the synopsis and the review, and then go and look at the pictures at the back of the shop and make up the film in my mind because I wasn’t allowed to watch it. I think creating that idea of horror and “transgressive-ness” started as far back as I can remember.

That makes sense. The reason I asked about this is that I’ve seen your previous responses toward people calling you out for posting gore. I remember you responded by saying that the meaning of the image isn’t necessarily as important as its beauty, or where the image comes from before. Is that correct?

Yeah, I’m only interested in aestheticism, really. I really don’t enjoy human suffering, but I enjoy being made to feel a very strong emotion by media. This isn’t unusual. George Bataille used to have a picture of a person being executed by the “death by 100 cuts” method. I’m just not interested in the mundane. I remember when I was doing my degree, it was a bit of a trend for people to claim their work had “a fascination with the mundane”. I couldn’t give a fuck about the mundane, I don’t care at all. To a degree, when it’s good, I can see why people like figures like Martin Parr. However, generally, I search for the opposite of that mundanity; whether it’s humour, sexuality, violence, whatever. I love how we create technologies which we then use to create images or films that then create feelings within us – it’s a very attractive idea to me. Whatever that means, it speaks to our personal psyches.

I definitely don’t like anything to do with toilet humour or anything, and I don’t find ugliness at all interesting, I find it repulsive. I guess that feeds into the fact that I like violence and confrontation imagery, but it must be beautiful to me somehow. If it’s not beautiful, it must be funny. But definitely not toilet humour!

So, this attraction to horror was explorative, a voyage down the rabbit hole?

Yeah. When I was a kid, I used to think about death a lot – way too much. From that, I think a big part of it is confronting your own personal mortality. There’s also nothing unusual about finding violence interesting. For example, in places where there are still public executions, they’re very popular. I speak to people all day long from every bit of society who are interested in that stuff. It’s common. From this, I’ve learned that fantasising about sexual aggression is not uncommon at all. In fact, it seems to be more uncommon to not fantasise about that kind of thing. I won’t go into details. There are moral crusaders around who somehow think that that stuff is a niche, but it’s definitely a majority interest. The fact that I’m filled with horror in the first place is interesting to me. I’m just honest about it when a lot of people aren’t.

So, the images get their meaning from that initial impulse of feeling, but also some pure aestheticism…? You use the word “beautiful” a lot. What do you mean by beauty? What is it about beauty itself that is significant to you? Can you describe it?

I don’t think there’s such a thing as pure aestheticism. That’s like a whole philosophical construct… When I talk about aesthetics, I mean that feeling that something creates art, on every sensory level. My sense of aestheticism or what I consider beautiful is specific to me.

I was in a relationship with somebody for seven years and I remember her sense of taste was at a much higher level than mine. Through that relationship, she taught me a great deal about how to appreciate things generally. I was always involved in art, fashion, culture, imagery, and all of that, but she showed me what it was like to really refine one’s taste. That was a long time ago now, but since that time, I’ve really worked actively on refining my sense of taste. I mean, what is good architecture, what makes a painting beautiful? Of course, there’s a degree of this that is subjective, but there’s a large degree that comes from education. It’s a process of development. Generally, I think that we’re born with a sense of taste and a personal view of the world that we develop, but then you can also learn what good taste is. For sure, I’m very open to people teaching me what that is, and what beauty is. I absolutely love the feeling of looking at an image that has those layers of violence and beauty, and I tend to be right about that. It doesn’t just resonate with me, it will resonate with a lot of people.

“I think that’s a problem with things like Extinction Rebellion. I really support what they’re saying, but just being made to feel guilty about existing is not helpful for anyone.” – Ben Ditto

On another thread you mentioned earlier, I’m interested in where and when satire comes into your work, and how useful it is to you?

I view the entire world through the prism of satire. I’ve read every issue of Private Eye since 1991. Seeing things through the filter of satire is very important. That’s how you get to the truth of things, through humour and interrogation and mockery. The important thing for me is that satire isn’t personal. I have no interest in being mean about individual people.  Satire and humour are really hard. I don’t talk about it much, but there’s a thread of humour that I put into everything I do, and if that wasn’t there, I’d be in a very different situation. I’m not a comedian, but all my work is somewhat satirical. Importantly though, satire doesn’t mean that it’s not serious. At the same time, Private Eye taught me that you should be critical of everything even-handedly and nothing is beyond satire. I think those messages are super helpful. That’s what resonates with people. Berating individuals just doesn’t work, but if you can talk to people with humour, about important things, it will resonate and it will stay with them. I think that’s a problem with things like Extinction Rebellion. I really support what they’re saying, but just being made to feel guilty about existing is not helpful for anyone.

Humour can be a lifesaver. 

Yeah. I think that’s where we don’t appreciate how lucky we are as British people to have that within our culture. Whenever I go away, I’m like, oh, yeah, Italy is beautiful, I love it. But I always miss the way that British people look at things so much. There are no sacred cows. Nothing is beyond criticism or humour, and I think that’s very rare. I can’t think of any other countries where that’s really the case. I really don’t think we value it enough.

“The reason why I’m grateful for having done certain work on myself is that I really made a conscious effort to get closer to what I really should be doing.” – Ben Ditto

So, following on from the discussion going through your childhood roots and your first explorations into culture and countercultures… You now work in a wide variety of different projects, often with huge teams, that reach a global audience. Is this where you expected to be in your life?

I would say that in the last five years, I’ve done a lot of personal work on myself, which I think is good for anyone to be doing. I’m not only talking about mental health, but generally working on yourself, which I do very actively. I would say that if I hadn’t done that, I would probably be in a very different situation.

I do think that I’ve always had that drive. I was directing films and zines, writing plays, and getting everybody to do them when I was 9-10 years old. There’s nothing new about what I’m doing now from when I was a kid. However, I’m very grateful to be at the level I’m working at. For example, working with Matty from the 1975 or Isamaya Ffrench; I don’t think I’d be working with them if I wasn’t good enough at all, but I do still feel very blessed to have come across those people.

I’m sure that if you told me as a 12–13-year-old what I was doing now, I would have thought, “that’s fucking great”. I think that with anybody, a really good thing to do is strive to be who you really are and discovering what that means is a lifetime’s journey. I don’t mean to sound cheesy, but it is. I think all of us have a natural thing that we should be doing and some of us spend our whole lives in denial about that. Sometimes, the reason why I’m grateful for having done certain work on myself is that I really made a conscious effort to get closer to what I really should be doing. The more I do work that’s in my natural skill set, the less it feels like work. I get paid 10 times as much and everybody loves it. The more I go towards stuff that I kind of feel like I shouldn’t be doing, I can do, technically, but it’s not quite right. When I take that kind of work on, I often tend to regret it.  So, in no way am I perfect, but the more I do what I instinctively know I’m good at, the better it goes. I think that’s probably the same for everyone, whether you’re a chef or a nurse, or whatever. The more you do what you are naturally inclined to do the better you’ll be.

“I would personally rather live a life where I’ve tried to get what I really want and failed than didn’t bother and resented myself and the world. ” – Ben Ditto

I found that when you find something really fulfilling, not much else matters. I mean, at my age, doing what I do, I’ll likely be financially insecure for the next few years – probably more – but the fact that it’s so fulfilling means that I honestly don’t really care that much. 

I didn’t start getting paid well until about four years ago. And I’m not saying how old I am, because that’s confidential information. I remember when I graduated 13 years ago, my girlfriend at the time remarked that I should just get a job in an agency. She said, “you’d get paid really well, you’d do a really good job, why are you starting a fucking independent publishing company, you’re an idiot”. It pissed her off so much, and to a degree, she was right. However now, I think that my obstinacy has served me well. I’m now in a position where I do exactly what I want, I’m not really answerable to anyone. I have a great career, and I get paid well. It’s still a huge gamble, you can’t guarantee at all that you’ll get what you want, but I would personally rather live a life where I’ve tried to get what I really want and failed than didn’t bother and resented myself and the world. That tends to be the two parts. I’ve lots of friends who went the agency route, and they’re doing great, like they have much bigger houses than me for sure, and they can afford to send their kids to private school and all that. Still, there’s always a degree of, “what if I’d actually done what I really wanted to do?”. I may not have the massive house but I’m still doing just fine, and there’s no part of me that wishes I had followed my dreams. Fuck, I couldn’t follow my dreams any more than I do.

However, on what you were saying about being paid; I think it’s important to value ourselves properly. Sure, it’s silly for somebody who’s just graduated to say that their day rate is two grand a day or something. Well, you’re not worth that. However, at the other end of that spectrum, when people say, “Oh don’t pay me or anything”, that’s very wrong. I think it should be transactional. I don’t take people on very often unless there’s a direct benefit for them, and for the people I have taken on, most of them will probably agree that it’s been like an extension of their education or even a substitute for their education, and they’ve really got as much out of it, if not more than I have. That’s great, but I hate the idea of people working for free and not getting anything out of it, it’s stupid.


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