File Life with Elliott Cost

A conversation about the weight of our files, virtual energy, and travelling light.

Published Nov 1, 2023
Elliott Cost is a web artist, designer, traveler, and file-keeper currently based in Rotterdam. Elliott joined USURPATOR to talk about their new project File Life and past work on 

During our conversation we talk about the emotional weight of our files, traveling light both IRL and digitally, the energy of code, and grounding our virtual work offline.

Check out the File Life site, or You can find Elliott through their website, or on Instagram. Listen to the recorded version of our conversation on Spotify.

⋆    ˚  ✦     ⋆  ✵ ·  *  ⋆ ✧   ✦  ·.  ✧ ✵  ·.    ✦   ⋆ ✧ ✵   ˚   ⋆

USURPATOR: Okay, so we’ve only met on Instagram, but I know your work through, then a few days ago USB Club just shared your project File Life. I’d love to hear a brief intro to your work, its trajectory, and how you started these two different projects.

ELLIOTT: These days, it depends who I'm talking to, but I describe myself as an artist and designer, working mostly on the web. I mainly work with handmade websites.

U: What does it mean to make a handmade website?

E: To me, that means I'm using basic tools or languages behind the web, these fundamental languages like HTML/CSS and JavaScript to make websites. Oftentimes, handmade websites have an aesthetic to them, like they're hand built. So, they might have mistakes or bugs or they might feel like they’re in-process. Those two projects that you mentioned, File Life is a more recent project that I've been working on. And then is a collaboration that I do with Laurel Schwulst that we’ve made into a podcast.

It's also a movement, which we're still defining, but we've been running it since 2019. We've done a lot of different freewrites, which are the events that we plan. We've held them in parks; the first one was at my apartment in Williamsburg. We basically just invite people to write HTML with us and make websites.

The File Life project is something I just started. But to briefly explain it, so far, I've been describing it as a tour company and a travel blog, but for files. I'm in Europe right now and I have a two year freelancer visa here. I'm based in the Netherlands, but I've been kind of wandering around. I know Yatu and Norm from living in New York and I've always admired their work. We got in touch recently and I like what they're doing with USB club. They wanted to support me and have me do a project with them. I'm kind of thinking about it as an art residency supported by their initiative. So with File Life, I pick up different files from people that they intentionally want to lose, and then I bring those files around to different locations. And then I will be deleting those files at the end of the project and also the website. It's all kind of ephemeral. But I've been thinking of this as a memorial to those files as well.


U: I love the concept, because to me, there's two parts of this. With the ephemeral file, the idea is that they're giving you the files that they don't want any more, instead of deleting them?

E: It's kind of both. They actually delete the file from their computer, so the only copy is on the USB that I'm carrying.

U: So do think of it as a last dance for these files?

E: That's a way of thinking about it. Yeah, I really like that. When I came up with the idea of this, I had this concept, but it's hard to plan out a whole project and what it means in its totality. I feel like that's been the best part, because this website is taking form as I'm moving around and meeting different people, and then having all these different ideas. And then that can all be worked into the project as it's created.

U: I’ve noticed that’s a recurring point in many of my conversations with people who are starting new projects. If you define its boundaries too soon or too firmly, I think that a lot of people figure out quite quickly that by bringing an idea out into the world, it would fit better if it evolved or progressed in certain ways. Just kind of letting the idea develop based on what your interactions tell you would be best, listening to your intuition, and letting things grow and change a little bit. I think that's really essential when you're starting something new like this. So, how did the idea start, and how has it changed as you've been bringing it into real life?

E: I guess the seed for the idea started when I was living in New York. I was just thinking about transporting files by foot, like walking through the city. I thought that would be a strange and interesting idea of file transfers that are mainly offline. That's mainly just me walking from one person's house to my house or another person's house. So this manual file transfer idea began, which I just put in my ideal closet. Then more recently, when Yatu and Norm got in touch and wanted to do some sort of project with me, then I thought that maybe this is the right time to actually do this since I'm also just kind of wandering right now.

It's changed through different conversations with different friends that have really influenced it. One friend made me recognize that it's sort of a ritual that I'm having with different people who I'm collecting these files from. So far, it's taken a lot of different forms, in terms of how I collect them. But I also like this idea of interdependence that happens when you're counting on other people a little bit. There's all these interesting dependencies that happen when you're transferring files and this friction that occurs.

U: So, in the trajectory from just file-sharing with friends, to when you started File Life, what was the importance of collecting files that people are no longer using? With USB Club, the idea is that members share the files that they find interesting or valuable.

E: Yeah, it is a little different than the goal of USB Club; I think it’s really cool that they're creating this community around files, community, and hardware. With the File Life project, it's more inspired by the physical presence of being in a space together and having to choreograph these different meetings with the people that I'm transferring files with. It's also about what I've been calling file mourning, or this ritual. I find it interesting how certain files come into your life, and they have different weight to them. Maybe a good example of that is a relationship or something in the past; the files that are a result of that, and the way you might choose to delete them. Maybe you save them somewhere, but like, where do you put them? And I'm not specifically asking for those kinds of files, but yeah, when thinking of potential files, friends usually recognize those as having more emotional weight, I guess. But any file that anybody wants to intentionally lose, that's what I've been collecting from people.

I also just like this idea of giving these files like a tour of a place that's really old. I drove to this mountain range in Germany called Saxon Switzerland. It's a national park, and the geology of the area is really beautiful, you can see the rock strata and layers. I just had this idea to compare the files to this really old place, or just be in the presence of it too. That's manifested as this travel blog. So if you go to, I've been writing logs that accumulate there. There's also some photos, but I've been trying to keep the whole site rather small. You can also download the entire website. Eventually it will be deleted at the end of the project, but if you feel like backing it up, you can download it.

U: Are everyone's files also on the site?

E: No, I've just been keeping track so you can see the progress there. It lists the names of the different participants and then how much information or how much data they've transferred, which is all inspired by USB Club and the beautiful ATM receipts that they created.

U: So to me, there's two parts of this; I thought it was interesting when you were talking about the personal importance of a deleted file, because for some reason, when I think about a deleted file, I think about something that is of no use to me anymore. Just junk that's just taking up space on my hard drive that I want to get rid of, rather than special files that I'm actively kind of letting go of to start anew. For some reason, when I think about the personal files that I want to get rid of—you were talking about relationships, old text messages or photos—most of my precious files are on my phone instead of my computer. When I think about getting rid of files on my computer, it's just garbage that I somehow accumulate constantly.

So, do you find that you've been getting more files where you can tell that there's a preciousness to them and the owner is trying to let them go, or is it mostly junk?

E: So far, I haven't really received anything that feels… I mean, they're all meaningful in their own way, but they're not intensely personal files. I also have been intentionally not looking at them or anything like that. That's part of it. It's just putting them on the USB and letting them be there and then permanently deleting them at the end. I've only done three file transfers so far. A friend gave me a drawing that they had made, which intentionally losing an artwork forever feels pretty personal. Another friend gave me a video from an exhibition she had made.

Maybe that's another thing that I would like to delve more into, having deeper conversations around the files. Maybe that can be embedded in the receipt in some way or the website. So far, it's been me reflecting on my travels or the different places that I'm taking the files. But I need to get better at asking better questions to the participants.

U: I mean, again, the project takes shape as things start to reveal themselves to you.

E: Yeah, exactly. It also depends on if people are open to talking about the history of that file, or what the actual weight of it is.

U: So far, as you've received them, has it just been your friends who are explicitly letting you know the story behind it, or why they're donating it? Or do you eventually want to develop a process where people just give them to you and not ask any questions?

E: So far? It's not been a lot of back and forth. I talked with a friend about creating more of a ritual around it, and I wonder if I was sitting in a space in the city and people had to come, sort of like a tarot reading or something, and they'd sit down in the space with me during the transfer. But so far I've just been visiting different friends and they just make the transfer and I haven't really learned a lot about what those files mean to them. So maybe it's more like a quiet transfer.

U: I have my trash can on my computer pulled up right now, and I'm looking for it, and I'm trying to see what kind of image of me this traces. I have 195 files. Do you think that people's trash cans—either real trash cans or computer recycle bins—tell a story of any sort?

E: Yeah, that is interesting. What you were saying about your phone holding more personal files than your computer. I also feel that way. I don't know how you manage your iPhone photos, but I don't subscribe to iCloud, so I'm always running out of space on my iPhone. And then I have to put them on my computer, so I have this big folder just full of all the images, and then I move those to a backup hard drive. So I guess that folder is intensely personal photos, I suppose. But that's a good question there. I was talking with a friend about the File Life project and they were joking that I'm kind of like this walking trash can.

U: I was thinking the same thing.

E: I might incur a lot of bad psychic energy in this project.

U: Do you find yourself to be a file hoarder in your own practice, or on your own devices?

E: Yeah, most definitely. I'm not the most organized person in my digital life, but when I do sit down, like with what I was talking about with the iPhone photos, I have been pretty good with that. Recently I went back home, and growing up I made a lot of videos with friends. For a while, I wanted to be like a filmmaker. So I have all these iMovie videos from the past that I've been pretty good at indexing and archiving. I bought like a three terabyte hard drive and just really went through it.

I feel like the more recent the files are, the more they're just everywhere. I haven't been able to get off Dropbox, and that would be a goal of mine. I finally moved off Gmail.

U: Why are you trying to get away? 

E: Well they are kind of expensive to pay for year after year, especially Dropbox. I don't know, I've read stories of people getting locked out of their Google accounts, that’s kind of a fear of mine. But also, I don't really want to support Google for the rest of my life. I moved to Fastmail and I'm pretty happy with it.

U: I was wondering your opinion on unlimited storage, similar to what you were talking about before with the iPhone, how you run out of space all of the time so you're constantly going back and deleting files. Now, people often have these computers with huge hard drives, they are never really prompted to go back and clear out their storage like we used to do all the time. Do you think that encourages file hoarding?

E: Yeah, that is something that this project has gotten me thinking about, being more intentional about files and the amount of space that they take up. Also just with the File Life website, I've been trying to make it really lightweight. Over here especially, data costs a lot, or people even have those phone cards that they top up. I've been trying to make it load pretty fast and be as lightweight as possible, not take up too much space on your hard drive if somebody backs it up or if you put it on USB. I really like this idea of being more intentional about files. I feel like generally, it’s a nice practice to be aware of bandwidth use, connection speeds, and stuff like that.

I was thinking this morning how it'd be so nice if there was a version of Instagram that was made for dithered images. It's this technique that’s basically a way of compressing an image and then filtering it. The output is just black and white, and they're very small, so you can have a lot more of them.

U: Your next project should be Ditheredgram. I also wanted to ask you about the second piece to this File Life project; so, first you have the ephemeral files, the files that people are trying to get rid of. And then there's the touring part where you put it on your USB and bring it with you on your travels. How much of this project is an excuse for you to travel, or was this idea borne out of going places that you were already going, but bringing the files with you?

E: Yeah, I think it all aligned in this way—I was working part time for a startup, and then that job ended, so I've just been freelancing for the last few months. Then I started talking to USB Club and it became an opportunity to do something together. I'm already out here, and I wanted to travel around a bit more. I think it's an excuse to travel, but I've been in this wandering mode for the last year and a half since I lived in New York. It's also a personal project of just figuring things out as I move through the world.

But also I think a lot of my projects are social in some way. With, it's creating these freewrites where we're offline and just writing code on paper or something in a park in Rotterdam. It’s focused on bringing people together that before just talk to one another online. So I think for the last few years, I've been really interested in how we can get back to the physical in some way, and connect with one another, but still use technology as one piece of that. I'm also really interested in the idea of having to physically go to different locations, and talk to people that oftentimes are involved in making handmade websites.

U: That was something that I was going to mention, this social aspect that I saw within these two projects. I’ve been noticing that people who are in this space, who are involved within these types of projects, whether that’s handmade web or creative technology, there’s this urge to introduce physical aspects into the work, or balance out this purely digital space by bringing in some sort of grounding presence.

I find it really interesting and beautiful how people of our generation are really trying to strike that balance, it's revealing to us how important both of these worlds are and how they are completely coexisting and enmeshed within each other. What are your ideas concerning those two worlds merging?

E: Yeah, totally. I think they are really merging. I'm just one very tiny part of this, but the more I learn about USB Club, the more I understand that it's really a social project, bringing people together in physical spaces and exchanging files via USB. I think that's really a beautiful thing.

I've had this vision for a while, and a friend recently asked me if I had unlimited funding, what would I do? What project would you put that into? That question is really useful, because it's not like, $1,000,000—it's unlimited. It's not about the money anymore, it's more about what do you want to do with your life. I answered with this project that I've always wanted to work on, which is to create a center for handmade media or handmade web. I definitely don't want to be the head of that, but a small part of it. A lot of people in my circle are also focused on this area. I remember having a conversation with Cab from, we were talking about how it'd be nice if had a physical space that you could go to, somewhere in New York or something.

U: The

E: Exactly. I know there's that channel “What does Arena look like as a physical space?” But yeah, part of the reason I moved here is to do some collaborations with some friends in Rotterdam who have a physical space called Extra Practice. It's a really interesting studio where they've been organizing different events there occasionally. Anyway, the point I’m making is that creating some sort of physical space would be fun to try in the future.

U: Were you affiliated at all with the School for Poetic Computation?

E: No, but I've always admired what they're doing over there. It feels like a lot of people are working on these types of projects, there’s even a collective called Varia here in Rotterdam. Maybe we all need to get together and see what the parallels are.

U: So how long have you been out there in Rotterdam?

E: I've only been here a month. I've been moving around a lot. But a year and a half ago, I came here and was visiting and met with the Extra Practice people. We did some collaborations and then I moved to Amsterdam. I was living there for the last four or five months, and then have been traveling around a bit. I went to Copenhagen for this talk series called Naive Yearly—speaking of people getting together in the physical world. It was really inspiring to meet all these people that are online but in one place.

U: It is so funny how the initial draw of the internet was that you can be anywhere. Like, we don't have to be in the same room to stay connected anymore. And now, not only do we still assimilate into hubs, like in New York or SF, where there's a huge scene of people who are into creating this new space in tech and trying to direct the future of it. But even when we aren't geographically living in the same place, we are still prompted to gather together in certain spaces just so we're able to kind of work things out better.

There's something about engaging in real life and the flow of it. You don’t have to try as hard and you are able to communicate and get ideas across a lot faster, in my opinion. How do you feel about that?

E: Yeah, you're totally right. I like thinking about it as a part of technology, the architecture of a space itself. You can reconfigure a space, or even its furniture endlessly. There's something great about having both of those; being offline and being able to just exist within a space and get together there, but also having this connection to an online environment and when you need it. It's about finding that balance.

U: For some reason, the people that I'm thinking of who are highly online—not in the way that we use that term right now, like chronically online and someone who knows all the Twitter and Tiktok memes—but highly online in the way that their work is online, people who are building and contributing to the web. Their lives seem very balanced in the way that those people are often not “chronically online”. They maintain some kind of physicality, like living in a beautiful place or living in an area with a lot of people where there's a lot going on, either socially or in nature.

In terms of the File Life project, do you think there's something special with bringing the files along with you so they can see different parts of the world? What's that significance?

E: Maybe there's a link to in that way; we've always thought of the energy of HTML and obviously that's where the name comes from. Energy is a palpable thing, different objects have energy or different people have energy. So why can't a coding language like HTML have energy? Or what we were talking about earlier, about files having this emotional weight. I don’t know, is there a difference between emotional weight and energy, or are those things the same?

U: I think that the energy… I want to say it's objective, but that’s not it. It's more unchangeable and then that energy impacts your emotional weight, which is more subjective.

E: Yeah, I guess there's this whole psychological part of this project that I haven't fully explored and would be very fun to delve into more. It's an excuse to travel, but also have these files tour these different places. Then there's this writing component that I feel like I haven't totally explored yet, but right now it's manifesting as these logs on the website where I'm just writing in different places as I travel.


Another part of how this project came to be, I was in Paris recently with some friends staying at a friend's apartment and I lost the key to the place. She was at a residency across the country, basically in Switzerland. So I ended up taking a sleeper train to visit her and get the key, and it was quite an interesting experience. We were locked out in the morning, the day we were about to leave and I felt super bad about this whole situation. But it was just interesting how it was all based on this one key, too. I don't know, maybe I'm just replacing the key with a USB or something now. But there was something beautiful about only having what was on our backs when we left that morning. My friend Emma had a phone charger which she let me borrow.

There's just all this coordination that happened. And then taking the sleeper train with no clothes or bags, just being super lightweight as you move around. I was thinking about that in relation to this project as it started; being really intentional with what you bring with you or what you carry around in regards to files.

U: Sorry to make a Harry Potter reference, but it feels like now with our devices, we're carrying that bag that Hermoine has in the last book, where it expands infinitely and you can just throw whatever in there. As opposed to like, those Jacquemus bags that everyone was wearing four years ago, where they were really tiny and you could only fit your key and your credit card. Right now, our phones are these infinite bags, and we no longer have to be very intentional about what we carry in there. I think that it does have an impact on our feelings or reactions to our technological devices, it’s reflected in how intentional we are with them. If your devices are filled with a bunch of garbage, that's probably going to make you feel less happy about using them, right?

E: Yeah. I think there's also this post-Twitter presence of being online, I've stopped posting on there and then I just created my own little posting system on my website. It actually doesn't feel like Twitter at all because it's just for yourself. But that reminds me of what you're talking about, this bag, because it's more of a bookmarking thing, people don't really check it. I’m probably the only one that really knows that it's there.

U: I was developing a theory for a little while that if you write a tweet and just save it to your drafts, you get the same satisfaction of posting a tweet. When you're actively tweeting, and chasing that dopamine, you kind of start to think in tweets, if that makes sense. When you have an experience or a thought, you start to formulate like, okay, how can I fit this into that format? How can I fit this thought or joke into a 280 character little banger?

E: Yeah, I mean, posting also this certain energy, there's an appeal to it. After having a bit of a break from it now, it feels like maybe it's a good time to be really intentional about what you're putting out there.

U: I also wanted to ask you a little bit more about I've been following it on Twitter for a while, but when I was reading your guys’ website, you have these goals listed out of how you want HTML to be more accessible. I specifically remember being taught HTML in high school and it was one of my favorite modules. I felt like I learned a lot, or I got a lot out of it. And then I was kind of dismayed when I realized that they were much, much newer and more complex coding languages than what I was being taught. I felt like what I had just been taught was kind of useless and dated. So, I was really happy when I saw that you guys were highlighting its accessibility and its importance.

When you were talking earlier about its energy, I was wondering if you guys had intentionally created this aesthetic or if you feel like this is the energy that HTML brings forward and you're just materializing it into something visual?

E: Yeah, I think it already existed. And maybe this project is just about highlighting it, in a way. Websites from the past that haven't had a lot of styling have always kind of had some sort of energy, and people have defined it in different ways. There's that website that’s called that defined it as a brutalist style, but I don't love that term. We were kind of just defining the energy of HTML and what it feels like. Oftentimes we use this phrase of “returning to the source,” which I think, to us, means the web over the course of its life has gotten pretty complex. Just like what you were talking about, there are much more complex languages out there and they can do really cool things and we're all for that too. But it is pretty powerful to come back to the fundamentals of what made the web special and useful to begin with. We've gotten this critique in the past that it's kind of regressive, and I don't think that's necessarily true, because I think this idea of making very lightweight websites is always going to be like a useful thing to pursue.


U: When you use the word lightweight, do you mean in terms of bandwidth, or in terms of labor or visuals? Is it all of those things, or one in particular?

E: That's really an interesting question, I like the idea of lightweight in terms of both labor and visuals. I like something about an unstyled website or a website that doesn't have as much CSS. I think there's something to be said for the labor aspect and the visual aspect, especially because I really don't feel like all websites have to be overly complex.

U: If you're just trying to convey information, that can be very accessible, especially within the form of a blog. I don't know, I have been noticing this nostalgia lately for late nineties, early 2000s websites that are still up and running. People who are still using those original websites and just never bothered to update them because they don't have to, they're completely functional. I've been noticing some nostalgia around that lately.

In terms of your guys' goals, are you trying to create a reversion to simplicity or are you trying to educate people who might not know how to code at all to use HTML? What are some of your goals for this project?

E: Yeah, we have this goals page in order to try and define the project. It was really helpful for us to just think about it in that way, because at one point, we had done a lot of work on this project and basically we weren't being paid for it, which is not always necessary. But yeah, we've done some work on defining this trajectory and we're currently in the process of looking for different funding mechanisms.

In working towards that, we curated these goals, the first of which is the human goal. That's basically to show that the web is alive and that people are behind it. Sometimes I just think about how there's a person behind every website and, I don't know, it's kind of beautiful. Especially in this age, I mean, soon maybe that won't be the case with GPT and stuff.

Then there's this educational goal. It's cool to hear that you learned HTML in school, but I don't think that's always the case. It would be really cool to get it into curriculums. Laurel and I both worked at different institutions teaching in the past, but oftentimes that's higher ed and it's for designers. But it would be cool to make it more accessible to more people than just graphic designers or web designers.

And then finally there's this energetic goal. We've kind of expressed that in the podcast a little bit, where we like to talk to different web practitioners about their practice, how they use HTML, what their favorite element is, those kinds of things. But also through this Twitter account, which we haven't done a lot with recently. But that's kind of an open question of where that will go in the future. It has a bit of a follower base, which is cool and there's a bit of a community. We created a shirt last year. I don’t know, when Laurel and I created the project, we just wanted to make HTML cool. That was the overall goal, I guess. We hadn't really defined all these more practical targets, but I feel like that's still the goal. Oftentimes, it's seen as this thing that only web designers or people in tech would use. And that's probably true. But like, it would be nice if it was cool.

U: Yeah, I think you're getting there. The project was honestly really successful in that regard. I’ve been noticing that designers or artists are making their personal websites super clean, or like, very basic. I think it's just because we've been over-exerted with crazy websites. Which are often really cool and creative, but when you're just trying to go and retrieve information, it is really nice to just have this very accessible page, nothing that's really assaulting your senses. It just feels easy and nice. It's nothing that's really trying to distract you or take you out of the experience.

E: I like that. Yeah, currently we’re also kind of struggling with this funding idea, and I wonder if it's even achievable. But we're thinking about dedicating a bench in Prospect Park to HTML, so that's an idea that we're currently working towards and creating a Kickstarter campaign around.

U: I love that, I'm manifesting that for you. Thank you so much for joining me!

E: Thanks for asking me to be on it— actually, how did you start this podcast?

U: Yeah, a good question. I have a lot of cool friends in New York… a lot of friends who are doing really interesting projects. People who I know have a lot of cool shit going on, but I guess I just haven't had the opportunity to sit down with them one on one and be like, “Okay, what are you doing? Can you walk me through it? How did it start? Where is it going?” Just tracing the trajectory all through that. So, it just became a way for me to explore stories that I was already familiar with, but didn't know the whole story. It's honestly just been a really great way of getting to know what my friends are involved with and building those relationships.

It's surprisingly nice to schedule a one hour sit-down with someone who you already know, but just no phones, no distractions. You're just talking and getting them to explain to you what they're doing. It's a great relationship builder.

E: Yeah, definitely. That's so cool. A lot of my friends out here are into radio and I mean, it seems similar; just a way to develop a conversation, just sitting down in front of microphones. You can ask different questions than you could if you're just having a conversation with a friend.

U: It's kind of no surprise that when you are dating someone, like when you're going on dates, it's this very intentional process. You sit down and talk and you're not supposed to have any distractions. And then you start to fall in love with that person, or you have this connection or strong bond. I think that it's mostly just about just sitting down with someone and talking to them face-to-face and having an extensive, intimate, solid conversation.

E: That’s true, that's very interesting. Yeah. Some. Yeah. It's weird how even some of the closest friends you have, you don’t ask these sort of practical questions that you might get in a dating situation. That's a good comparison.

U: We should all be dating our friends.

Anyway, this was such a great conversation. Thank you so much for coming on!

E: Thanks again for having me.

  ⋆    ˚ ˚  ✦     ⋆  ✵ ·  *  ⋆ ✧   ✦  ·.  ✧ ✵  ·.    ✦     ⋆ ✧ ✵   ˚ ˚      ⋆

Visit or You can keep up with Elliott through their website, or on Instagram.

Read more:

Follow us




About us

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

Run by @hard_boiledbabe