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.