Jacob Ciocci

"It's very confusing to figure out what it is that you do 'naturally' versus how you want to fit into the world."

Interview by Asher Penn 
Portrait by Haoyan

Jacob Ciocci is best known as a founding member of Paper Rad, a collective of artists who in 2001 launched their gif-tastic site, bringing a previously localized aesthetic to the world wide web. An early student of all forms of computer art Jacob Ciocci's frequently collaborative work has taken the form of comics, paintings, video, music and, of course websites, bringing a humanist dialog to mainstream and underground culture alike.

Where are you from?
I was born in Lexington, Kentucky, then moved to Chapel Hill, North Carolina in the eighth grade. That's where I met David Wightman.
How did you meet?
We probably saw that we were both wearing a Nirvana shirt. I think we actually got to know each other the most through this Acafellas group. We were also both into band stuff—he knew how to play classical music and I sang in a boy's choir.
What other stuff were you guys into?
David was the first person I knew personally that ever made a zine. It was called The Dandy Chicken. There was also a really great radio station at UNC called WXYC, which I would say was life changing for us. We would just listen to it all the time and find out who was who. That's how I found out about noise music and free jazz and all that stuff.

David Wightman and Jacob Ciocci circa 2000

Were you interested in art in high school?
I drew all the time but it was mostly comics-based characters—I think I only ever really finished one complete comic of my own, mostly doodles of characters. I took an art history class in high school but it was really cursory.
What comics did you like?
I really liked Maxx. I also really liked Todd McFarlane and Rob Liefeld. Maybe we're moving out of a period where everybody hates them (I don't know I don't follow comics that much now), but certainly in the last 10–15 years everybody hated on them pretty hard. They did the comics that some say destroyed the industry. The drawings have huge anatomically incorrect muscles, bad writing, really colorful… I remember being obsessed with the detail mostly. I thought anything that had insane amounts of lines was better than something with less lines.
You went to Oberlin for college. What did you study?
I got a minor in computer science. It was a major for people who were not trying to be programmers, but wanted to get good at the basics and learn all the software. I minored in that and majored in fine art. Probably one of my favorite classes was Introduction to Contemporary American Religion. That blew my mind. I realized I was really interested in contemporary American culture and how it's related to the crazy history of our country.

Jacob Ciocci, Am I Evil, Extreme Animals, 2011

Had you been interested in computers before then?
I took a programming class when I was 10 or 11. I guess one of my earliest collaborations with my sister Jessica was a text-based role-playing game we made on the PC. We made computer images too, but those and the game are probably lost forever.
What about the internet?
I didn’t have any internet really in high school, but when I got to Oberlin my parents bought me a Mac and all of a sudden I had access to a T1 connection. It was a big deal—a "this is what I'm going to do for the rest of my life" kind of a situation. It was clear that computers were now going to be the dominant creative platform for both input and output in my life. It wasn't going to be just magazines, or painting, or whatever. Everything was forever going to be filtered through these machines.
Were there peers that were also interested in computers in this way?
Yeah. Paul Davis and Cory Arcangel were both in the Conservatory. It was really inspiring to meet the two of them because what they were doing was different than what other people in their department were doing. They were doing work that was on computers that was engaging on multiple levels. It wasn’t overly academic but it also wasn’t thoughtless. It was somewhere in between.

Super Mario Movie by Cory Arcangel and Paper Rad, 2005

Were they teaching computer art at Oberlin?
Yeah. There was one class where we learned about internet art, and how to make websites and interactive CD-ROMS using Macromedia Director.
What was the first website you made?
I was interviewing this blind painter for one of my independent studies, so I made an experimental website to document it. It was mostly images and videos. It had very little text. It was more like an abstract space in pastel colors with interview snippets and audio samples from this blind painter. I was trying to make it look and feel spiritual, new age.
What was your attitude towards art when you were in college?

I was inspired by art that had some sort of relationship to people outside of the gallery/museum/academic/fine-art world. I remember outsider art was something that I—and a lot of other people—was inspired by.
That reminds me of Fort Thunder. Had you heard about Providence while you were at Oberlin?
I was friends with Gillian Russom, whose brother is Gavin Russom. They're both from Providence. My other friend Mandy Fischer's sister was at RISD. Between the two of them I started to hear what was happening there.

I am an Artist, 2012

Was it inspiring to you?
I thought it sounded interesting. I also started to hear about music like Black Dice, Lightning Bolt. Then for Christmas, Jessica went to Million Year Picnic in Boston and bought me all these comics. They were really mind-blowing, Ben Jones’ early stuff, Ron Regé Jr., Chris Forgues. I don’t think we could even get our hands on any of the Fort Thunder stuff. When I graduated, Jessica was already living in Boston, so I was like, "This is a no-brainer, I'll just move in with her and we'll try and be friends with these people."
So you met Ben Jones in Boston?
The first time we met Ben was at one of his screenings. He went to Mass Art and startedPaper Radiowith Chris Forgues there. We were introduced to Ben and Chris by Joe Grillo, who we met through Andrew MK Warren, who Jessica worked with at Wellesley.
So there was Paper Radio, Paper Rodeo, and Paper Rad…I get them mixed up.
Paper Radio was a Boston thing. I know they had a period where they would do it every week and it was free. They were stealing the copies from Kinko's and would just hand it out at shows, events—leave it places. I heard thatPaper Rodeo was named after PaperRadio. I think it was an interesting situation where Ben and Chris and their crew were inspired by the Providence/Fort Thunder crew and the Fort Thunder crew were in turn inspired by the Boston/Paper Radio crew.

Paper Rad #1, 2002

And there was also Dearraindrop.
Joe Grillo was working under the name Dearraindrop with at least a few other people. I think it was initially the name of the clothing line he did with Laura Grant. Joe was making really engaging, amazing stuff at the Museum School and we'd go over to his house to play music. His house just blew me away. Joe had a really keen, advanced set of interests in the stuff that he collected from thrift stores.
How did Paper Rad start?
Paper Rad started as a website. Ben wanted to make a website for all the new stuff that me and Jessica and Joe were making. After meeting Billy Grant and Laura Grant, Paper Rad became basically the six of us plus collaborators. It was always very vague to me who was in and who wasn’t considered a "part of it,” which was something I liked.
You were making videos too, right?
When Jessica and I moved to our apartment in Boston we had free cable. We would watch it at night and just tape the funny parts, or the parts that we wanted to give to Ben, who would watch TV and send us clips too. I became aware that there were people trading videos, which seemed like an interesting proposition—just circulating these bizarre moments that seem to otherwise be lost. I think the first tape I saw like this was when I was still at Oberlin.

Paper Rad DVD Trailer, 2006

Kind of likeHeavy Metal Drummer?
Yeah. It was a pre-internet, viral-style video. Remember: no internet meant no easily accessible, centralized archive of odd moments. If you saw something at three in the morning on cable or unearthed a bizarre tape from a thrift store, it felt almost imperative to try and document it and share it. Because no one else was…
How did things change when YouTube started?
For me it was a big change. All of a sudden it was, "OK, now weirdness is no longer hard to find." Once YouTube happened, not only did sampling become easier, but the sharing of nuggets of gold became completely commonplace. Even though YouTube started in 2006 or something, I think we are still as a culture trying to figure out what this shift in access to weirdness means.
Your video work is a combination of found footage and animation.
Ben had already started making his own animations. He kind of pushed me and Jessica to make Flash animations, and Billy was making his own animations while still in high school in Virginia Beach. We all started making animations and it seemed intuitive to combine the animation onto VHS, mixtape format, with the found footage. That was sort of the beginning of the Paper Rad mix tapes.

From Sex Magazine #8 Summer 2014
Labelled Art