Interview about Images Rights, Attention, and Derivatives for Gallery Talk, 2019.
Teresa Hantke: Artificial intelligence, data privacy, Alexa and Siri - the Internet and digitization has expanded quite far into our private lives and have a huge impact on a daily basis. It would probably be hard to imagine life without the Internet. In your diverse oeuvre, you deal with questions related to our information society and try to bring the “hidden” to the public. How did you come up with these themes in your artistic work?
Paolo Cirio: I noticed that the Internet was going to be the ultimate artistic and political medium at an early age. I have always been interested in media and communication. At the end of the 90s, it was clear to me that if I wanted to be engaged in art and society in my life, I had to embrace the Internet with its all evolutions. Everything came along later on in life. My work was initially a tool for free speech and alternative information (I was involved in the IndyMedia network), then as a tool to leak information previously not available (see my project Loophole for All), and most recently in dealing with all the ethics of unconstrained dissemination of information and the abuses of power by corporations, governments, and just unscrupulous individuals (see my projects about privacy and surveillance and most recently on content moderation, like the project Obscurity and Attention). I couldn’t have expected all of this, but I just kept exploring all the social complexities that Internet has been bringing to us while developing aesthetics around these examinations.

Do you see your own intellectual property endangered by the Internet?
I think at this point there are plenty of copyright laws that protect artists in the contemporary art field. However, these laws can be reinterpreted and abused by powerful companies at their advantage. In other fields, such as those in the media, photography, and music industry, the so-called “platforms” could use loopholes to exploit content and creators to become monopolistic media empires never seen before. Just this year, the European Commission passed a new copyright directive that was highly debated and protested (commonly known as Article 13). I honestly think there was so much confusion from both sides of the debate, nevertheless, the arguments were interesting. You could clearly see how people were polarized on these issues: the corporate lobby was funding the cyberlibertarians, which protested against any control of copyrighted material, while creators and media professionals wanted complete control of their content on the Internet. As in other debates about the Internet, it seems there is much polarization, misrepresentation, and instrumentalization instead of productive discourse.
At NOME Gallery, you have shown the series Attention in the exhibition Images Rights which has just ended. This series consists of photographs of "influencers" who have advertised controversial products. Kim Kardashian, for example, enjoys a lollipop, which should help to lose weight. In fact, it is a laxative that causes stomach cramps. How did you notice the manipulation in these pictures? Have you noticed a commonality in the gestures of the “Influencers” or how the products are presented?
The work Attention is a reflection on the language and means of advertising on social media. Beyond the appropriation of the images, it looks at the visual language and culture of such advertising. With this work, I refer to the use of advertising as material, the artistic decoding of it, and its legacy in the history of modern art. With online Influencers there is something very particular, starting from how the images are made: the postures, the facial features and expressions, the settings and the visual sophistications. There are many semiotic details that are particular to this mode of advertising, including the medium of social media itself: the camera and the frame are adapted to the interface of the outlet, which ultimately matches the content algorithmically. All of this becomes a language, a very pervasive and contagious one, which is then performed not only by Influencers but also by their followers. In this series, I focused on the photographic qualities of Instagram posts and the decoding of the visual devices that allure attention, like it is John Berger’s Ways of Seeing at the time of the attention economy on social media. The theoretical text I wrote for this series aims to introduce these issues.
In collaboration with the University of Maastricht, you have developed a database on this subject in which examples of the promotion of dubious products in social media are collected: Such surreptitious advertising is actually forbidden. Were there any legal consequences?
In advertising there are written conducts of ethics, as much as proper laws and regulatory bodies, that have been around for decades to protect consumers rights. The lack of legal definitions regarding the medium of social media has allowed online influencers to dismiss any of those frameworks. As in other situations, the platforms (Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, etc.) didn’t want to take any accountability for the publishing of unethical content while they still enjoyed the revenues produced by them and continued to design their platforms for such an economy (see the “like bottom”, one of the foundations of the attention economy). It took years to make the platforms accountable for content posted on their channels and now there are many countries in Europe that have passed new laws that also make Influencers legally liable. Yet, there are more complex power dynamics at play and technology can still conceal forms of deception. Online advertising of Influencers is not going to be resolved anytime soon. I think it’s an entire new paradigm of “Information” as much as fake news, political ads, or harassment on the Internet. Beyond regulations, it will take a while to develop some cultural and political processes to deal with these issues.
To give you an example, that picture of Kim Kardashian is still online, despite many complaints in the comment section, outrage by regulators and consumers’ rights organizations, and journalists grilling her over it. She did not delete it, nor did Instagram delete it or ban her. Many other online Influencers are often banned, even fined, but celebrities like her are too important for the platforms, It would be like banning Trump from Twitter. Some abusive content can’t be removed because it would put the entire conception of the social media platform at risk. For the powerful and profitable ones, the law is ignored and meanwhile, in the case of Kim Kardashian, she continues to make “legal” promotional posts on Instagram but still conceals them with any visual and textual means that the platform allows.
The website,, and the collaboration with the University of Maastricht are both efforts to provide practical and simple solutions to deceptive advertising by Influencers by potentially crowdsourcing the moderation and the oversight of such content. For this research, on, I archived over a hundred Instagram posts by Influencers promoting controversial products without disclosing them as advertisements. Once you start digging into that world, it gets very deep and murky. It’s complex, but there are ways to digest this advertising as much as we have become used to billboards, T.V. spots, and the other traditional modes of advertising.
These misleading advertisements illustrate the manipulative power of the Internet and a barrage of images to which we are exposed every day. “Is there still hope for us?”
I think there is plenty of hope for us. It’s just about emphasizing the positive developments instead of the apocalypse. There is some sort of social responsibility on what we want to catalyze our energy and imagination. It’s so easy to look at the dark sides these days that even the people who try to make a positive change are dismissed. I’m not saying we live in the best of our time, but after the worst mistakes, there is often redemption.
Today, I see an astonishing number of researchers, policy makers, activists, and even politicians focusing on making information technology more ethical. A few years ago, when I was working on my first projects on the dangers of social media, there wasn’t any of that; everyone was feeding the beasts with very little criticism and no countermeasures. It’s a question of prospective; for someone like me, things look better now than before. For instance, Artificial Intelligence, which was not even a thing yet, is now regulated and banned before it enters our lives. This has rarely happened in the history of new technologies. We used to accept everything as “progress” and then regret the resultant unintended consequences. I think there is a fundamental cultural shift happening today.
At NOME Gallery, your other new series, Derivatives, was also exhibited. It consists of images and recordings appropriated from art auctions to turn them into further financial derivatives. Could you tell about this series and what does the derivative contract you sign with the buyer of your work look like?
It is a sort of provocation. The secondary art market is so unregulated that it has become inaccessible and even damaging for artists that aren’t “represented” by the auction houses. Thus, I’m proposing to appropriate that unfair, speculative, and unregulated “secondary market” by turning their financial commodities into further financial vehicles as a sort of democratizing “third art market”. I’m still working on it; there is a lot I still have to release about this project. Somehow, it’s been three years since I’ve started  it. It was inspired by another project I made in 2014 called Art Commodities. The amount of research and material that I had accumulated is overwhelming as much as the uncovered manipulations, frauds, and concealments I could count in the secondary market. Yet, most of this research is around art contracts and how they could be safeguards for the irregularity of the market. The contract for selling the series of works Derivatives is inspired by Seth Siegelaub's Artist's Contract, combined with financial contracts seen as tools to negotiate social benefits in a time of neoliberalism. So far these works are only sold in groups of 20-30 canvases together. An equation determines the value of the derivative, which is a fraction of the total value of the works sold at the auctions. I’m also planning to apply a financial equation and contract to sell the individual works as derivatives in the form of digital pictures, which can potentially establish my own market of art derivatives. Nevertheless, I find these artworks with numbers of the auctions records overlaid on the images aesthetically very compelling. This is how this work aims to discuss aesthetics within and beyond the visual field.
Starting from this series, in which you criticize an apparently unleashed art market, do you seem to follow the Swiss artist Urs Fischer’s statement that "the art market has nothing to do with art"?
Unfortunately, I don’t agree with that. Being realistic, there is no art without the market. In these days, it’s very difficult for an artist to be recognized without the representation of a gallery, without sales, and dealers. I think it’s also because institutions like museums and curators, but also art schools, are all dependent on the market to validate artists or to sustain their productions. It’s sad, as much as saying that the underground culture is dead. But being realistic, that is what an artist like me faces. Therefore I have to discuss the market like it is my labor condition and my career prospective. It’s a taboo, but contemporary artists should analyze and criticize the market more often, both from the inside and the outside, because that is their work environment and, therefore, it must become a fair and dignifying place to work in, while protecting the ones excluded.
What do your upcoming projects look like?
I’ve started a new project about facial recognition and photography that will be published this spring, but it’s very secret at the moment.

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