Olia Lialina

"Cyberspace is star backgrounds with blue underlined links on them."

Interview by Jacky Connolly 
Portrait by Natascha Goldenberg

Olia Lialina is a Russian-born net artist and Professor of New Media at Merz Akademie Stuttgart. Her works are archived and available to view online at Art Teleportacia, Olia's web gallery. Her first seminal project, "My boyfriend came back from the war" is a cinematic, text and .gif-based choose-your-own adventure experience. She is also a prolific writer and theorist; her research focuses on the vernacular of the Internet and digital folklore. Recently, Olia's interrogation of this subject matter has been enriched by her and husband Dragan Espenschied's documentation of the Geocities archive. 

"Animated GIF Model", 2005

What kinds of experiences did you have with computers before the advent of the Internet? 
When I was a kid I was doing drawings on computer punch cards. My mother was a system programmer at a military institution, and she would bring home punch cards, not punched yet. Just pale blue, beige cards. It didn't have any meaning at that moment, it was just some paper.
Your mother was a programmer? What did she do?
She wrote "apps" for automatization of control systems in Assembler and later PL.
Did you have a computer growing up?
No, I think I was really late with computer literacy in general. I was studying journalism and typography at Moscow State University and for their final thesis some of my fellow student had their work digitally printed, while I was still working on a typewriter. I didn’t have access at all.
How did you get your first computer?
In 1994, I was a film curator, and with my friends, we made an Experimental Film Club. We asked Soros Foundation for money for the publication and general support- Soros at that time was funding a lot of artistic organizations in eastern Europe. They were unusual though because money would be the last thing they would give. First they would give computers, which is what we got. Windows, 3.11 if I remember it right...I immediately started to make posters for our program in Microsoft Word.

"Anna Karenina Goes to Paradise", 1996

What kinds of films did you show at the film club?
They were experimental films. The Cine Fantom Film Club was the child of Soviet conceptual film school, which was underground. When we started the club we were inviting people from abroad who were making experimental films. The club still exists in Moscow. Every Wednesday there are still screenings. It’s been almost 20 years.
And did the computer you received have the Internet?
No. One of our filmmakers came back from New York and told us about the internet, that there is such a thing, and that he found in the internet the name of our club and our names. Then I started to try, and I made a page for the Cine Fantom Club.
Are you self-taught in HTML?
Yeah. I was learning through opening the source code of the pages, and modifying it. I didn’t read any books on coding. It was still a nice way to learn how to program at the time. Today, the sources are so obscure so you can't learn like this. Then I thought that I would try to make a film in the browser, and this is how it started; this led to My boyfriend came back from the war.

"My boyfriend came back from the war", 1996

When I look at My boyfriend came back from the war, your GIFs and etc., I see that it's sort of a textual storytelling experience, but especially with that flickering window, it's also a cinematic experience.
If it had be possible at the moment to make a video I would have, but it was not possible. I had to find a way to film it first and then to make a graphic out of it. One of the reasons it’s in black and white was to save bandwidth so that people can in general see it. Otherwise it would be too slow. There are more than 100 files, and 20 graphics, and all of it's only 72 kilobytes, which is pretty unusual by todays standards. The trouble is that now it's too fast. You click on something, and it's immediately there. The narration is broken because of this speed.
I think back to GIFs as sort of a solution to show a film or video on the web before it was possible. Now even as there are videos all over the internet, there's still something especially filmic about a GIF. I just was looking at the summer GIF on the swing, and I actually noticed for the first time that each frame is hosted on a different site.
This was a very dear project to me. This GIF doesn't exist as one file- I didn’t even try to make it. Sometimes I have trouble when the server is down for one of the hosting sites, and I have to communicate with the person who is hosting it. It can take some time.

"Summer", 2013

It's dependent on a whole community. How many frames are there?
There are 18 frames, but there are 25 servers. So sometimes this path, it forks, as there are more servers than there are frames, so some people have the same frame. It’s very nice... Maybe it can grow.
I was wondering about the universe GIF that recurs in a number of projects throughout your website. Where is that from?
Star backgrounds are one of the most significant things on the web for me. When they started to disappear it was the first sign that the web was changing. I was just starting to teach, and we were making crazy things with the students, inside jokes pages that you would send to each other made with an amateur style. Then by the end of 1999, you could hardly find such pages anymore. They would be redesigned or wouldn't exist. That was when I started to grab pages with star backgrounds.
Why were these backgrounds disappearing?
Well, it was clear for me as a designer why they vanished: They were bad to put text on, or looked immature. They are against any usability advice.

"Online Newspapers: French Edition", 2013

For all of the “professionals”, they summarized the amateur culture at the time.
Yes. So I made Some Universe (2002) at that moment to show the beauty of those backgrounds.
Why do you think the star patterns were so prevalent in those early sites?
Because the web was outer space. It was out there. Cyberspace is star backgrounds with blue underlined links on them. A lot of early website makers were science fiction fans, so for them it was a very important motif. For a lot of gamers, the star background is a known theme for video games. For me, if you want to remember or respect or somehow relate yourself to the history of the web, you would put star a  background in some way to your webpage. My students know that to please me, there should be some star background in their project, especially when they show the first draft of something.
Definitely. In your work, when the browser shoots diagonally across the stars, when the pages of an online newspaper peel back to reveal a starry "cyberspace", it feels as if you are peering through a browser window into the history of the Internet. Beneath the glossy surface of the Semantic Web, we find the mysterious and tangled "black holes" that we used to fall into... these places have now been all but erased from view. On your website there are links to like your Pinterest and Facebook, but when you click they are mirrored 1997 versions of the sites that never existed.
It was all about imagining how these sites would have been like at that time. Not only technologically, but also conceptually. So in Facebook, you can only have 16 friends, because with the screen resolution in 1997 you could only divide the screen into 16 frames. We also try to translate the language, so you wouldn’t “like” things- you would “vote up.”

"Once Upon", 2011-2012

I love how on the YouTube there are movie theater curtains.
We didn't think about anything else. What we remember about that time, as soon as somebody was brave enough to implement the video on the page they would try to make it look like a cinema theater. There are really weren’t a lot of videos on pages at that time, and the videos we have are actually from 1997.
You have three children. How old are they?
My oldest daughter is almost 21. She studies film and theater theory in Berlin. Jurij is almost 11, and Zelda is almost 5.
Do they play with computers?
They all do. Jurij plays Minecraft. He also programs games already in Scratch. With Zelda, everything Jurij does, she is following him. It was Jurij's idea to call her Zelda. Sometimes people think that this is some artificial concept name, but she actually knows all the Zelda games, knows the scene melodies. But if you suggest to her to dress as Zelda for Halloween, she will want to dress as Link. This is a funny twist in the story.

"Midnight", 2006

What do you teach at Stuttgart? 
I teach art and design online groups and a colloquium on digital culture and digital folklore– user culture. In that class we look at what's really unprofessional and amateurish, what they did with computers and online, and what they still do now. The low digital culture is still happening.
This reminds me of your screenshots of the Geocities websites. How did that project start?
In the beginning of 2011, Dragan and I finished the download of this one terabyte torrent of Geocities websites. Dragan started to repair them to make an archive readable and usable and I started to look through the pages and to make sense out of it. Then we started a blog, One Terabyte of Kilobyte Age. Dragan developed a system that would generate screenshots of every homepage, so we could start to fill the internet with its past. Tumblr has a restriction that there can only be three posts per hour so now there are 72 new screenshots every day and it's in chronological order. We are currently in the end of January 1999.


From Sex Magazine #8 Summer 2014
Labelled Art