A Website Can Be A Poem w/ Chia Amisola

A conversation on the art of websites, virtual preservation, and creating space

Published July 15, 2023

USURPATOR is joined by Chia Amisola, an ambient artist, designer,  organizer, and founder from the Philippines. During our conversation, we talk about the form of a website, the art of digital preservation, and how we can break down the common structures of the internet to create better spaces for ourselves and our communities.

You can listen to our conversation on Spotify or Apple Podcasts, or follow Chia on Instagram, Twitter, and visit their website.

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USURPATOR: I consider you a prolific website artist, I've been following your work for a little while now, I feel like you're putting stuff out all of the time. From what I can see, most of your practice is website-based. I was wondering if you could tell me a bit more about what you consider your practice to be, the full breadth of it, and what your process is like?

CHIA: Yeah, I'm definitely drawn to the medium of websites. That's a pretty fair and accurate assessment. When I think about websites, I think about it as the construction of environments or worlds, even. I'm interested in the spaces where people gather. As we are all increasingly online, and as I've been thinking about my relationship with my home of the Philippines from which I'm now very physically distant, I've been thinking a lot more intentionally about these environments that we’re kind of forced to inhabit. Sites are where we tend to work, where we go to talk with the people we love. The internet has really enabled these new forms of communication. But then, I think our ways of being, and the sites that most people frequent are obviously hostile, and haven't adapted to these ways of being that people need.

So, my interest in making sites is framed as this larger engineering of environments. I like to label myself as an ambient artist, because I'm also interested in environments. I think about not only websites and how they're presented to us visually or how they are in our face, but also the invisible nature of how we are on the web and the places where we dwell on the internet. For instance, I think a lot about labor and infrastructure that goes behind maintaining the internet and these sites and the servers that they are hosted on. I question what it means when so much of our behavior is shaped by things that we don't necessarily see, or things that are intentionally obstructed and obfuscated, so that we don't really understand the full environment and the constraints that we're placed under.

U: That was going to be one of my questions, how do you consider the internet ambient or how do you make it ambient? Is it already ambient, or is this something that you're trying to create?

C: I think if you read ambience as a question of the environment, most of the environments that people live in and dwell with online are corporate platforms, you think of social media sites as where people live. The sites that I make, which are more indie I guess, and made to exist in the four corners of the internet. Realistically, they are probably only visited by people when they see a cool link on Reddit or a newsletter or something. They're definitely at the extreme edges of it. But I think about these tools, and the smaller sites I make as exercises and provocations that move and challenge people to reconsider the relationships on the platforms that we are forced to dwell within.

U: That really resonates with me, when I look at your stuff, it pulls me back into this space that I think a lot of us were living in when we were younger and first encountering the internet, where it felt very limitless and fresh. There was so much stuff that was coming at us from all angles.

There was mostly just a problem of accessibility and discoverability. We were trying to find cool websites, and now, we spend all of our time on the same sites. We don't feel so encouraged to go out and discover. And personally, when I find a website that I think is cool, the utility is usually quite insignificant, if it has any utility at all. It might be more of an art piece. It doesn't fit into my virtual routine anymore, you know what I mean? I'm just stuck within that framework. So, I would like to know a little bit about your virtual routine, the spaces you prefer to dwell within.

C: Yeah. I think it's useful to think about the internet as essentially just a series of portals, just a series of sites that bring us to other places. Most of the sites that we frequent, like our email, or shopping sites, or what we're on for work, a lot of these are profit-driven and under corporate control. It feels like we have less agency even though we are just doing the same actions on any site. Even on these websites, I just want to talk to friends, I want to talk to people, but I don't want to feel boxed in by the constraints that these platforms pose. I think a lot of this is actually just a question of how do we feel more agency and how do we feel a better sense of collective responsibility and power over the platforms we're on? Like, my routine isn’t any different from most people's. I don't think that as a maker of fun websites, I spend most of my time on fun websites. That’s the reality, especially when thinking about my friends and family in the Philippines, where they're definitely not looking at cool sites online, but are just stuck in one spot because that's where people dwell. It's like all of this is just a way of trying to understand how we have agency and how we can push on the boundaries and constraints that these platforms have, or how we can change our protocols, norms, and standards for communicating and being on the internet to make these platforms work for us and subvert them.

I relate to what you said, because the early web was so amazing, and I remember when I was definitely gated by access. For me, accessing websites was like, going on the internet with friends. I had to go to an internet cafe because our home computer was not accessible. We all just shared one tiny laptop, the wifi was terrible. So, it was kind of a shared experience—going on the internet was like gathering, there was a physical gathering space that I had when I think about the early web. But now that's gone, even though a lot of our sites promise us connection. I'm just thinking how the web is such an inherently connective thing. Like, every site we are on is shaped by corporations, but also by the behaviors of people, by the content that people feel moved to consume. By content that is adherent to some social etiquette or norm that we feel like we have to adhere to.

U: Yeah, it's interesting that you say that, because I get the sense that there’s a lot of negative reactions in terms of how these corporations are owning our user patterns, and how much influence they have over them. But you're right in what you say, that we are essentially driving them. They are following our data, our user patterns, our user journeys— but I think maybe what part of the problem might be, is that we just don't like what our user patterns and choices are. It's like we're seeing our reflection and we dislike it, because we are the ones who are engaged on these platforms. We're the ones who keep going back over and over again. And I mean, speaking personally, I don't like that. I don't like that I do that.

Do you find that the expectation of a website has shifted because now we’re accustomed to getting so much out of it? We spend so much of our time on social media platforms, which always have to be so captivating. We want to keep coming back, we want to be updated, we want to refresh.

C: Right, a lot of websites that we are on today attempt to provide every function and try to fulfill every social need that we might have. every platform now has, like transient stories, every platform now has live audio or something. They're trying to fulfill every need for intimacy and connection that humans might have so that we can stay stuck on these platforms. And what ends up happening is that human activity on the internet is centralized on a small set of platforms. Obviously, the people that control these don't often come from a well-intentioned place. The interest in connecting people is only to monetize this connection and read the data behind our behaviors to then get us more obsessed rather than working in favor of how people self-organize, and reimagine how to be on these platforms and break down their interest. Ultimately, while they're studying our behaviors and adapting their apps to us, their profit-driven goals still work against our interests that are more for actual human connection and belonging. Another thing is, a lot of these platforms are interested in scaling up as much as possible, making you reach every social circle, or they're interested in optimizing all of your options.

When I think of me and my human behavior, I don't care about being optimal or efficient or performant. I just want to be. I just want to be like, annoying, reflective, dwell on my interiority, and do all these things that are kind of immeasurable and definitely work against corporate interests.

U: You don't want the internet to be more efficient for you, for your productivity?

C: Like, of course, I would like for technology to help me and to augment some parts of my behavior. But then, when I think about a lot of platforms that promise connection, intimacy, and growth, I don't think that there's a utility that can solve those things. Sure, I want writing apps, or sure, I want to have better e-book readers. But I think connection is more immeasurable, and is unfortunately the core of what a lot of sites seek to solve. That's not just something that you can optimize.

U: I know that creativity is still obviously out there on the internet. Like I was saying earlier, it's mostly just a problem of accessibility. But do you feel like the art of the website has been obfuscated in our current climate?

C: I think the underlying issue is that a lot of people feel stuck with the current options that are presented today. And sure, we can make new standards—make finstas, or secret accounts and tweet into our inner circles. But ultimately, I think what people really need is the ability to make their own environments and their own spaces, where they can dictate the structure, the physics, the logic of the platforms that they and their friends can then inhabit.

If you look at it, the notion of what a website is, it seems like a scary thing. Even technically, people feel like you need a bunch of new technologies, frameworks, and libraries to construct a website. The art of just like, writing pure HTML and CSS… the bare minimum needed to make a website is a lot more intimidating. You can't even go on a website most days and right click it to read the code, and that's by design. That friction is made so that people are not able to create their own space and are forced to rely on spaces that other people have made for them that don't necessarily reflect their interests.

There's that joke, right? Like, people say they want shorter games with worse graphics made by people who are paid more and work less. That applies to any media, and I just want more sites like that as well. I want a lot more shitty websites that are just made for one purpose, that are just made for smaller communities, that are not made to scale, that are made to not even have a purpose. Because why does a website need a utility, or why does a website even need a purpose? These all just reflect ways of being that we want on the internet. Everyone just wants to be on the internet because they want to occupy space, because they want to understand the space where others are. I think that the solution is to have people make more websites.

U: That would be more original. I think it would allow people to feel like the space that they are occupying on the internet is more reflective of them. You don't have to feed it through this algorithm or structure that someone else has invented.

In terms of the utility of a website, right now we have the expectation that they have to do so much. When I see these brilliant websites or internet art that someone is making, I don't know why I'm struck with this anxiety that I am going to forget it, or it doesn't have a place in my web browser because it doesn’t fill a utility. In terms of the utility of a website, do you feel like it needs to do anything? When you have an idea to make something, do you think that it needs to be generative in some way, or have some kind of user journey? Or can it just be like a thing or an object or an idea?

C: I think, well, websites aren’t as obviously material or tangible as other things. But then, if you break it down, it consists of a bunch of files that are posted on some server, and there is human labor that I am not involved in at all that goes towards maintaining and serving these websites. So, I think it's useful to think of them as material things. You're right that we don't really have the right tools to treat websites like trinkets, which is why a lot of websites that you see are constantly competing for attention and are just fighting for us to keep going back to them. We're still just ultimately saving a bunch of links somewhere. But, a lot of my interest in websites has become an interest in the form of the site itself, and full recognition of how I know websites as a medium may not last forever. We already see how websites easily break and how we’ll never know if browsers and machines will always read sites as they do today. The experiences that they invoke in someone (and websites can be experienced in a multitude of ways inherently by how they're programmatically made) but, because you have no idea of the physical context in which someone absorbs your site, and what machine they're going to see it on, what context, or with who. There's just that sense of mystery. When you deliver a site, I don't think it inherently has to have any sort of utility or purpose. Even though, when most people think of a site, there is that thought that it needs to express something, it needs to be a presentation of something. It needs to be a mode of communication.

I think a website can just be. When I think about my relationship with objects, physical or virtual, I think the most interesting objects to me are just plain ones that don't necessarily have a prescriptive function, because in that, your imagination is most activated. That's where websites really become environments and containers, when they do not dictate protocols or rules, but instead they invite you to ascribe meaning to them, ascribe what can be done with them, what they can be, what they can be read as, how they can be performed and consumed. I think websites that are the most imaginative and creatively generative in that sense are ones that are perhaps the most ambiguous or loosely defined. Maybe that's why I like very simple objects and rocks and clouds and abstract annoying films that aren't in your face. I like websites that function like that as well.

U: Yeah, especially when you talk about weird abstract films where you just let go of these concepts or constructs that there has to be a plot, or you have to try and understand what is going on, and you just let it wash over you. I used to study phenomenology, and that's mostly what it was all about. It’s about forgetting these norms and constructs that we're constantly carrying around, that we use to identify something and put it into a category, so we can relate it to something that we already know instead of just seeing something for exactly what it is and observing the beauty in it. When you talk about simple objects, I always think about Duchamp's Ready-mades. He puts a urinal in a museum or a gallery, and as soon as you do that, it becomes an art piece and people are looking at it a little bit more closely and with more intention, removed from its usual context.

In terms of the form of a website, it links back to what you were saying earlier about how the website is just an environment, and it feels like we have started to operate within boxes that our websites usually have: it's supposed to have a certain structure, it's supposed to have a certain user experience, it's supposed to follow some kind of journey or pathway that makes sense to us. Do you find that you operate within certain forms that are consistent throughout your work, or do you actively try to forget them?

C: I think, conceptually, when I make sites, they're often just invitations for people to forget the common notion of a prescriptive, corporate-made website. So, it stems from there. When I make my sites, I think about archaic technologies, obsolete functions and programming techniques that you wouldn't normally see. Just going against convention and being inherently subversive and transgressive to how websites are supposed to be built or how they're supposed to operate. A lot of the times when I'm constructing a site, I'm just in love with the medium, the browser and how we made languages and ways to interpret them and compile them. So whenever I make something, I'm operating in my code editor, I do all the writing and designing there, and I kind of just look at the form of a site or rather how I want to break the form of the site. The form is where I do a lot of the work.

U: I can definitely see that in a lot of your work, nothing really feels like the same structure. It feels like its own organic breathing organism that fits whatever it is that you're trying to represent.

C: Yeah, exactly. I think something I've been pretty obsessed with, and it's a recurring theme in a lot of my pieces lately, is the use of multiple browser modes. I don't like that the experience of a website just stays on the site. Like, obviously the interesting thing about TikTok and Twitter is not that it just lives on the platform. It's because we go out to lunch and we talk about what we've seen there, the way it has influenced behavior extends beyond that tab. A lot of my sites, I don't want them to just be cool sites used on Reddit that you link to your friend once and that's how it lives, but is rather something that intrudes on a person's browsing experience, or on their machine themselves, and in the context in which they're looking at a site.

I've been making what I call concrete browser poems, where I use Window Open() which is a JavaScript function not recommended for use, and it will block you from actually launching more than one pop up. So, I have to give a warning at the start of every piece like, “Please let your browser know this site isn’t a virus.” When I make my pieces, it's on multiple tabs and browser windows that are moving all over your screen, it kind of interrogates how you are browsing right now, and in what context are you situating yourself to experience this site? I think a lot of the sites and environments that people construct try to be seamless and invisible so that they have as much power and influence over people's daily routines and behaviors. But I want to make things that are in your face and that obstruct those routines, that don't cleanly fit into browser conventions and demand more attention without being sly and exploitative about it. That's an example of one technology that I've tried to like appropriate. But, also I have an interest in revealing ambient qualities. I guess Window Open() is less ambient, because it's more in your face.

But, all the data that is being exchanged between you and any site you visit, for example: your IP address, the size of your screen, what your operating system is. I try to make experiences that reveal these exchanges, and this relationship of downloading and uploading that you're constantly engaged in that might not necessarily be explicit. Also, to make people aware of the environment that they are in.

U: Do you find that in order to create this awareness, it's imperative to create some kind of interactivity? I know that a website is inherently interactive, but some of your work leans more into being something to look at, and some of it functions as a game or something more interactive like that. What are you trying to create when you are doing something that's a little bit more interactive versus something that just functions as an idea or object?

C: Yeah, I think when I say that my websites are worlds or environments, that obviously means that they're most interesting to me when they're alive and lived in. So, I try to make a lot of experiences that are communally shaped and participatory or interactive in some way. I like it when you can feel traces of everyone who has been on the site before you, whether that's in the data that has lived there, or by actually seeing other people's movement or engagement.

U: The guest book! Do you remember those from back in the day? Like on Piczo websites where you would sign everyone's guest book?

C: I love that, I like knowing where people have been before me. I like it when things are lived in. I want to make websites because I want people to live in it and gather there. It's easier to do that if you feel like people have been there before you and people will be there after you. When we read websites as worlds or environments, where the most important thing is not just the foundations, the constructions, or the structure that has been predetermined, but rather through the emergent activity that happens afterwards—how do people's exchanges and behaviors actually change and influence this environment? How do I revisit and reconstruct the projects I make so that they're more receptive to, or maybe even more hostile towards certain behaviors that I see? I think that's an important role to take as someone who constructs an environment. I don't know, because any technology or website reflects the will of people—the will of me as the creator, and the will of people who visit them and exchange something on them.

U: Do you find that that makes them inherently community-driven, like you need engagement or you need people to be visiting the website in order for it to be effective or representative of what you were trying to create?

C: I think so. But I think that a site doesn't have to be visited all the time or frequented… that's how a lot of corporate-owned sites exist, like they are competing for attention, that they must be recurrently visited to feel alive. But then, many things I love are things that I don't necessarily engage with 24/7, but they are things that feel more precious to me. They're things that maybe I will only return to every few months or every few years. I don't think they need to be active or cleaned up all the time. That's one of the amazing things about digital space, right? That the mode of maintenance and the mode of caretaking kind of transcends our traditional notions of time and space. They can always be republished and accessed in many ways, or gated in ways that traditional media and works cannot be. A website can be alive even if it's only visited every few years, even if it only serves as a time capsule. I think one of the most important things about making work in a digital space is realizing that it is useless to be stuck to comparisons of real objects or real spaces in making them. It's easy for me, for example, to use metaphors. For instance, I want to make, like, digital parks, but also we are working with new affordances and materials that don't necessarily need to replicate the limitations of physical structures.

U: Yeah, the result will be inherently extremely different in essence, even if the inspiration is something that's based in the physical world. I mean, we see this in terms of how we navigate things, what is intuitive to us. It's all a recreation of what we find intuitive in our physical day to day life that is transposed onto the internet. But you're right, there are new affordances and they have become second nature to us without us even realizing that the virtual world is so different from our physical lives, with entirely different structures of what is intuitive in both of those different worlds.

I would also love to know a little bit more about Developh—about how it started, where you want it to go, and also how you stay connected to your home country when you are living elsewhere.

C: Yeah, so Developh is… I guess it started out as a school club I founded when I was in my junior year of high school. I was 16 and I didn't have a very good education in my random Filipino Catholic school. So, it was just me and my friends teaching each other how to code and design, sharing cool sites with each other, and wanting to make games, honestly. We would just host workshops for each other in our basements after school and the computer lab. Since then it has evolved with me, in thinking about the role of a technologist or what a technologist looks like in the context of Philippine space. From the naive idea of how we all just wanted to study computer science and make video games, Developh has moved to work on a lot of campaigns, activations, workshops, making archives for smaller communities in the Philippines, working on entire political activations and campaigns throughout the elections over the past years. Also just making art and introducing creative code in the country.

A lot of it has really been a reflection and mirror of my technological imagination, in a way. I think that's what is most interesting about its impact. We've never been well-resourced, we've never had a lot of institutional support, it's been very scrappy. More than connections or resources, what we have been really adept at is working with thousands of students and early career technologists, before they define themselves as technologists and are reconsidering what technology could be, what their engagement with technology could look like, and what is possible with technology. So, in a country where there was a very myopic idea that a technologist is a cool startup founder; or if you study CS, the definition of success is like working at one of five companies, which is also mirrored here, in the US. It's like, how do we counter these ideas? Because technology is a crazy magical thing that can augment our agency. It was the thing that enabled me to move here and to make space for myself, and to make space for others continuously. So a lot of Developh, I think, has just been this collective exercise in using technology to reclaim space for ourselves; to think about technology as a liberatory thing, especially in a nation that is pretty oppressive, in a state that is surveilling on people, in a dangerous technological sphere, and a capital-driven one. How do we subvert that and recognize technology as a human activity and a human process?

U: Is it intended to educate and inspire, or are you also trying to uplift existing projects that people are already doing there?

C: We've done a mix of both over the past few years. We definitely had that big era where our goal was to educate and inspire and activate people. I guess we work across all sides of the technology pipeline. From showing people how to make a website, who have never thought that this was a thing that they could do, which already is a pretty radical act, even to many technologists. We're mostly just coding with others, making things that others tell them to do.

But we are also working with a lot of cultural institutions and labor movements in the Philippines and have been co-creating archives and tools and platforms to activate what they've been doing. Something that we've also been consciously doing is asking how we move away from the idea of taking a solution that isn’t “technology is this thing that you can wield and use to save the country” but instead “how can technology be used to augment existing solutions and ways of being that people have long been engaged with for longer than we have, and support those movements” which involves thinking a lot about the labor and infrastructure and the invisibles of technology, to see how we're engaged with it.

For instance, a lot of what I've been cognizant of is, with generative art and AI and whatnot, a lot of this is powered by exploited and underpaid labor in the global south. The Philippines’ largest industry is business process outsourcing—call centers, underpaid Fiverr-esque work where people are just doing manual labor—and then these are later masqueraded as cool artificial intelligence. But actually it’s just a person in an office manually tagging these things and screening responses. It's also a way of considering a lot of questions of labor that underlie technology.

U: Yeah, it's interesting that you say that, especially because we're using technology to complement and facilitate the things that we're doing in real life, in regards to the structures that we're trying to fix or or create. That's what technology was invented for, right? Even just social media is trying to close this gap of how we connect with people. It all speaks to something that we struggle with in our day-to-day lives, and that's ultimately how it's going to be successful and fit into our reality more effectively.

Also, I was looking at your project The Sound of Love, and I liked it so much because I also love reading YouTube comments. I always look at like, disco songs. Old disco songs have great comments, especially when it's like an old person telling stories about their youth and how that certain song or album was the soundtrack to it. It was making me think about how we feel the need to archive these stories. When you find something or read something so beautiful, it feels like a diamond that you found in this coal mine that is the YouTube comment section. I was wondering why you felt the need to archive those. But another note that ties into that is your project Ambient Institute, where you archive all of your work. You're a prolific archivist. I was wondering about your philosophy around that.

C: Yeah. It's such a human thing, right? To see something beautiful and moving and to want to save it. Even though, sometimes you might do all this saving and really, you're never going to revisit it. I think a lot of this practice around archiving—and I'm coming at this with a very broad definition of archival and saving— it's just thinking about how this art of self-preservation could become an art of communal preservation, that's interested in technology in general. But my goal is to nurture this sense of digital stewardship, which involves knowing our environments, feeling agency, knowing that our ways of being online or offline are all kind of driven by this collective mutual responsibility, this sense of interdependence we have with each other.

A lot of my archiving practice comes from inspiration from like, folk archives. I think about my upbringing in the Philippines and how we literally don't have libraries. A lot of formal institutions safeguard national knowledge and community knowledge. But the web and the internet has enabled or provided us tools to change that and to become better stewards of ourselves.

A lot of this is also just rooted in this selfish desire where I was a kid online and I just wanted to make myself important. So, I wanted to deem myself as worthy of saving and worthy of being someone to be witnessed and presented either now or later on. And I didn't want to rely on other bodies or platforms to see myself as worthy of preservation, so I would just do the work myself. And there are so many people in communities that do not have the resources to do this work. We can't just rely on people with power to deem who or what is worthy of saving. A lot of this online practice is also in direct retaliation against the inherent nature of the online to decay. I don't know how common this viewpoint is anymore, but people think that what’s on the internet is forever.

U: I feel like it’s still pretty common. They love to tell kids that.

C: That's true, and it's good to be cautious of that. But then, people think it's fine to keep all of your photos and memories on Facebook albums and not have backups. That's pretty dangerous. Like, just look at the problem of link rot, and how a lot of the data that we store and have of ourselves is stored on someone else's servers, it's on these large platforms. We're moving into this world where all of our brain and a lot of our knowledge and memory we just offload onto the internet. We don't have control anymore about where we are saved, or for how long it will be saved. When we call digital storage the “cloud”, we think that it is this forever knowledge that is floating somewhere else, obscuring the vast amounts of physical infrastructure needed to actually store ourselves. We feel like we are in control when we are not. So that's a big concern of mine. I also think a lot of this interest in saving the online beyond the direct gathering of artifacts or records. It stems from my interest in catalyzing community, thinking about the process of memory and how memory has obviously shape-shifted and become more fragile as we've offloaded it onto the computer. I think about gathering as a process, about what must be saved in order to enable people after me to continue this work of saving. This is linked to the interest in tools I mentioned earlier, if we know that objects and structures shape human behavior. My profound interest is in the art of transformation, and how we use records and archives to activate people again in how they might be recontextualized later on, in how they will be lived through in the way we look at history; to think about how we know that we are connected to a larger thing, or to know that, in a way, nothing we are living is new. And maybe that's kind of beautiful. I find myself very concerned about that act, the act of saving things so that the way we have lived may later be reactivated and transformed, and lived again. It's a pretty radical and important act that more people should engage with.

U: It feels like, from being online and having access to these resources, we feel compelled to archive everything and save everything. We feel less inclined to let things go or let things die. Do you feel like this new ability that we have, or this new access to archiving makes us more obsessed with how we represent ourselves? You know, how our virtual gravestone is going to look after we're gone?

C: Yeah, I feel that there's definitely this performativity that everyone is engaged with now. We're checking how others might receive us online. We are conscious of how we are read and presented in the ways we want to save everything. But then, we are already selective about how we perform and present ourselves.

There's also the question of: if everything is important, what is actually important? I think the challenge there is: everything online is inherently performance, but then what in real life is not? I've been letting myself be a bit looser about this rigorous, active archival. Not that I'm exempt from the process of being very careful about how I'm perceived, but just entrusting myself to that act of activation. I trust that people will fully read me, and have a million interpretations of myself, and I think that's the interesting part anyway. That's the interesting part of how records are activated, lived, and challenged.

I like having the agency to dictate how I am and I perform and how I am read. But obviously, the emergent behavior in how other people take me and consume me is what will live on. How I am interpreted from the artifacts that I have selected is something I cannot gauge at all. And maybe that ambiguity and that trust in others is the interesting part of transforming each other.

U: I think that's a good faith approach because, often what we're trying to do is control the narrative. We comfort ourselves by thinking that we have done it, but that's never possible. We as beings are inherently open to interpretation. And you will never know—you'll never be able to objectify yourself in the way that other people do, even online.

C: Yeah, exactly, the core of archives is not that these materials are direct records of us. They're always just reinterpretations. If we want to be read, if we want to be witnessed, we have to be open to that reinterpretation.

Also, I feel like the standards and norms for how we all read each other are ever evolving and will redesign how we present ourselves afterwards. The way we archive ourselves, the way we choose how to present ourselves will later influence the tools and environments that are made thereafter. It's all just a collective exercise. The interesting thing about narrative is that it's a shared thing. There's no single objective narrative, it's all a participatory and communal exercise anyway.

U: Yeah, and even just what you were talking about this earlier, the sheer facticity of the platforms that we're putting these on, those are transient. We don't have any control over those. The form of them may change over time, and the intention that we've been pouring into it will inevitably change, without our control. Do you feel that the way that you own your archive, or the way that you control its presentation makes you feel more at ease with that? Like you have more control over how it will change in the future?

C: Honestly, I'm not sure. I think the inherent nature of the archive is that when you gather artifacts or records of yourself, it can't just be collections in themselves. You also need to dictate protocols for how they will be read, standards and norms for how they will be cataloged and understood in the far future. So, longevity is a central concern. I definitely feel agency when I make archives of myself because I make physical backups. I do this mainly to just outlast a lot of other things on the web that are inherently transient and will probably just be deleted without warning. That's the larger sense of agency I feel.

I think that's one of the main challenges of digital process preservation. Like, we know with physical archives, they will be read and be reinterpreted and reorganized and recataloged and unfiltered will forever change. So, I don't think that's an issue. But then with digital archives and digital materials, I think the practices of that art of preservation itself, and how we’re collecting these materials, where they will live, what servers they are stored on, and where the backups are, we’re really behind in that. Also, the question of how to archive ever-changing interactive spaces that can be read and performed in a million ways is another challenge. Like, what will we do when the way a browser interprets a site, or when the languages that we have change? What representation or record of this will we have? I don't know if we have a good answer to storing digital materials that are as fluid as sites.

U: I always love to ask people if there's something that you loved on the internet that you would always go back to that has since gone.

C: Oh my God, my answer is probably just a lot of early internet fan communities, they honestly shaped who I am as a creative. Like, when I was on Tumblr, and I was just learning about graphic design or whatever, those weird anime roleplaying communities were so central to my development. But then, fandoms or anything that is based on derivative work is not seen as important or artistic as original work. Also, these fandoms are often supported by mass waves of teenage girls, their work and their labor is often displaced and undervalued. Even though they have definitely motivated this generation of designers and artists and whatnot. The sites that I used to dwell on are old Tumblr blogs that are now deactivated or purged. Or even, like, weird mafia roleplaying sites where we would change the rules of the game to match the characters of whatever we were consuming. Stuff like that.

They're all gone, which is such a shame, because if you look at fandom and fandom communities, they honestly have some of the best understanding of how to preserve things online or how to filter things online. Archive of Our Own, the fanfiction site, has one of the most robust tagging and filtering systems and has some of the longest works of English literature in the whole world. But it’s not taken as seriously as other forms of art that are read as higher or fine, even though it's just as powerful and they probably have a better understanding of how to archive and save digital work in general, in contrast to other communities.

U: Whenever I go to a fan wiki, I'm blown away. I was on the Lana Del Rey wiki recently and they have cataloged every single day of the past like 13, 14 years. Every photo that's ever been taken of her, every single day. I don't even know how many people are contributing to these, but they're completely out of this world.

My “thing” that’s gone from the internet that I still think about is also Tumblr sites that have been wiped out or deactivated. I have so many half-memories of posts stored in my head, I wish that I could just go back and relive them.

C: It’s really these hyper-fixated kids making content online that have moved us the most, I feel. They’re such a huge labor of love. You don't really get clout for being a fan, it's purely driven out of obsessive desire.

I had this weird phase during the pandemic where I made this lore/archival project over this video game Genshin Impact. There's a surprising amount of library science graduate students just doing that labor for free.

U: I also wanted to ask you about the concept of love within your work, as I was seeing it come up over and over again. I was recently writing a piece about Longing, Online and the concept of telepresence, where we have this constant need of the Other, and we recreate the Other online, and their presence is always available to us. I find the more that we love online, the more we long online, the more we long for the Other. I was wondering what virtual love means to you and how it comes up within your work.

C: That's really interesting framing, right? A lot of the tactics sites use today are to manufacture scarcity, and make us feel like we don't have enough attention to devote to everything. So, maybe my subversive take is that we do have enough attention to give it everything that deserves it. The desire to have more agency in our ways of being, and to understand environments, is to just to know how to filter against the noise. I think it's definitely possible to be intimate online without physical proximity, but it’s also simultaneously a huge challenge that a lot of our platforms don't aren't really built for.

I think a lot of virtual love is honestly about clarity, right? Like, I think about my relationship to love offline—I grew up queer, in a repressive Catholic environment and it feels like so much of my early life was this obsession with subversion. Because it felt like I needed to do this in order to live, in order to express who I was. So, love was figuring out the name or defining what I was doing, figuring out a secret language to speak and a way to convey that truth and my intent, when the usual norms had to be bent, navigating it in a world where I had to be secret or silenced in a way. I think much of love inherently feels like speaking a secret language and converting this world between you and another, where you have your own norms and histories and languages, in a way that love is in devotion and construction.

I think the way I think about love online feels similar. The people I love are often afraid of small things like triple texting or posting too often. Then I watch how my mom posts like, over 40 stories on Facebook a day. Being online, like any technology, I just want people to realize that a lot of these norms and a lot of these protocols are constructed. They are made by another human for other humans to follow, oftentimes. We know that we must constantly reimagine these norms. A lot of love is also inherently the art of boundary breaking, I suppose. So, a lot of this seeking of clarity and a lot of this work around wanting to construct environments is just trying to find ways for us to better communicate our love for each other, to make intent clear. A prerequisite of that is obviously being cognizant of the platform constraints that we're bound to. So, how do we want to give and receive love online? How might we all attend to each other better? Those are contextual questions that I think everyone should be more empowered to answer. It’s just all about clarifying who we are on the internet, where we are, knowing what the world on the internet is, so that we may better look within these boundaries.

U: Yeah, it does inherently change. It changes the capacity through which we love, the form of it, the norms. But that doesn't necessarily make it less powerful. The context and the presentation is changing, just like our self-concept and our concept of others is also changing once it's presented to us virtually.

Do you find that love is a common theme throughout your work?

C: It for sure is. One of my goals is just to gather all the people I love in one place, and I think the internet could be the place. Maybe that’s a bold claim, but I don't know. It's in technology and the internet that I feel the most agency in my environment, more than the real world in many aspects.

U: Why is that?

C: I think it's just that I do feel empowered. I feel liberated. I feel like I have that agency. It's in my extremely online upbringing that I was able to realize alternative ways of living and get myself out of the situation I had, my oppressive environment. It's through technology, finding community, in making space for myself, and in sharing that space with others, I think is why I'm here. But it's all bound to that interest in tooling, placemaking, and sites, as in websites and actual sites. If my reading of love is all about creating a shared world between people, it follows that my interest in sites and my interest in the construction of environments, thinking about ambience and the unseen and all of these standards and structures that influence our behavior and our ways of being and longing, that I think we can have better control over how we express longing or power, how we attend to longing over how we attend to each other.

U: Do you think that longing is exacerbated online, since the Other is more available to us where we have kind of unlimited access to their likeness?

C: For sure, there's this huge pressure to open someone’s message and instantly respond to it. If we feel any distance, it’s like a rejection or something, which is absolutely insane and should not be the norm. When the expectation of reciprocity is stuck to these platform constraints where we must always signal that we are available, and we must always signal that we are here to attend to someone, but we can only attend or signal care in X amount of ways. But I think these platforms that promise us connection are just exacerbating that loneliness. If we have more awareness of each other's intent and each other’s love languages, we can make an environment and be a part of shaping those environments. I think that is the greatest, or at least a more powerful way of loving. To dictate the conditions in which we want to give and receive, the conditions in how we attend to each other and how we signal need, and how we attend to need. Love is all about making a world between people that best attends to that, and a world that enables them to continue building upon it as well.

U: Yeah, when you were talking about creating a communal space for the people that you love virtually, do you find that that allows you to love easier or more, or does it change the form of it in a way that makes it better?

C: I don't know about loving easier, but certainly there's more to it. Yeah, I guess as someone who is a technologist who works in the industry, and has a bit more understanding about the spaces that a lot of the people I love are on, I try to understand not only how to make an environment and demand that people are in there, but also to be conscious about how the people I love are currently inhabiting other worlds, how they’re dwelling in the platforms they're forced to use; how the natural world has entwined itself in the mass notion of what technological work should be. A lot of this is just wanting to deject myself to make space and to have some form of control where I know that the type of love that I want to give, the type of love that perhaps the people around me need, is the one that works against scale is one that is often purposeless. It’s love for the sake of love. So, we have to construct space for it, because I don't think there's existing space that attends to all those needs.

U: Do you find that this is the crux of your work, creating space for that?

C: My work is definitely rooted in love, in gathering, thinking about tooling and websites as a medium in which to achieve that. In general, it’s about my fascination for how tools, websites, and spaces are the most human thing about us. Humans are the only ones who use tools to make their tools. I'm using other people's tools to make tools, and I am thinking about the world after me, right? I'm thinking about how I can trust the people I love to continue worlds for the ones they love too.

I think about archives and preservation in the context of longevity, and also how our love can be carried on and preserved and recontextualized and transformed later on. Reimagining our relationship with technology and enabling people to participate in this technological reimagination is definitely necessary for more people to feel liberated by technology, for more people to be happy with where they are and how they are living with the web and how they can better live on the web.

U: Yeah, you're right that it does change our relationship to time. It's kind of a relief for love to not be a race against time, but instead as something that can last or be preserved. Maybe not forever, but in a different way than what naturally occurs in the physical world, right?

C: For sure, I think that web-making, place-making, gathering, these are all love languages of mine and I don't expect them to, as you say, last forever. But instead, they're provocations and they're invitations for people to develop new languages out of what I have made—for love to be exponentially abundant and ever shapeshifting, even if it's not just about the trace of myself or a direct record of myself, but rather for love and space making as a practice in general to be continued on and extended for other people.

U: Do you have anything that you would like to share in terms of where everyone can find you, or if you have anything coming up that you'd like?

C: Yeah, most of my work is at chia.design. I have a lot of other websites, but that’s probably the best index. I'm currently working on this project called whenwe.love. It's a series of offline and online experiences that explore digital intimacy, digital love languages and whatnot. They can take the form of those crazy browser concrete forms I mentioned, or the form of an alternative social experience, chrome extensions, or physical works. I've been releasing things episodically. But if you're interested in this philosophy around love and want to see how real these spaces might be, that would be a good thing to check out.

U: Thank you so much. I feel like we covered lots of amazing ground, I feel very enlightened. Thanks so much for sharing.

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USURPATOR is an online magazine sharing essays and interviews about the user experience of our current virtual landscape

Run by @hard_boiledbabe