The Hacker Flooding the Internet with Art via Bots

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Amadeo Modigliani, Nu couché (sur le côté gauche), 1917Via Wiki Commons

Russian coder and hacker Andrei Taraschuk opens up about his network of art-sharing social bots

Classical art isn’t the first thing that springs to mind when you see the words ‘Russia’ and ‘hacker’ in the same sentence, but Russia-born, US-based coder and hacker Andrei Taraschuk – whose network of art-bots has shared more than 2.7 million artworks across Twitter, Facebook and Tumblr since he began creating them in 2013 – is quick to rebuke any assumptions. “The term ‘hacker’ did not originally have a negative connotation,” explains Taraschuk. “I think this negative thing got added later on. I use it because it’s basically another way of saying tinkerer – pulling together different technologies. For the past six years I’ve been working in the security space in the United States, for American companies. So yes, my background is Russian. I speak the language and I still have the Russian passport, but it doesn’t really impact me other than the fact that people find it funny that I’m a Russian guy running bots.”

Taraschuk, who launched more than 800 artist bot accounts while working a full-time job, has lived in the US since the year 2000 and initially appears to feel distanced from his Russian roots. Yet the more we talk about how a software engineer living a stone’s throw from the Twitter offices of Boulder and working for a large multinational corporation has ended up building an art-bot network followed by 5.6 million people, the more he begins to unveil the complexities of growing up in post-Soviet Union Russia. “To be completely honest with you I was so bad at everything I did that the choice that I faced was to try to get into art school or to join the army,” he states with little resentment. “In the early 1990s, the Soviet Union fell apart and Russia started having all these border conflicts. In the south of Russia the biggest conflict in the area was the war in Chechnya, which was absolutely brutal. For people of my age the probability of being drafted and sent to a warzone was high.”

While Taraschuk comes from a family of artists, his enrolment to art school was more of a strategic decision, and one that eventually saw him moving to the US to study computing. “In Russia you can defer the draft if you enrol into university. You can defer for four years. So I worked really hard to get into an art school. In my personal journey, taking into account growing up in a Russia that’s falling apart, the Soviet Union in the 1990s and the war, it offered a kind of refuge, this being a part of some sort of art community and having something. Looking back, chances are that it maybe saved my life.”

In pursuit of both love and a more technologically advanced education, Taraschuk dropped out of university in his home city of Krasnodar and followed a romantic interest all the way to the Art Institute of Colorado, where he later graduated. As the coder and art-lover explains, professional success doesn’t always lead to fulfillment. “Fast-forward 13 years and the story goes that I attend Burning Man in 2012 and have a great time. I come back and realise that art is completely absent from my life, and I started feeling that I needed to fill the void. It wasn’t OK for me – this is one of those realisations you come across when you take a ton of acid at Burning Man and think ‘oh my god I need to change my life!’” What started off a single side project for his sister quickly grew into something completely different. “The only thing I knew how to do was code,” he continues. “My sister is an artist here in the states too, so I thought I could help her manage her portfolio.”

While the app worked, it wasn’t particularly useful as Taraschuk’s sister didn’t actually promote her work. He explains: “Since I already had all her work and her social media accounts I said, why don’t I just share it on her behalf? So I just created a bot, and that was 2013. At that point it was so early that people just didn’t take to the idea. So I had this app that basically allowed artists to turn themselves into bots and nobody would use it. People were just genuinely freaked out.”

Scepticism of bots is beginning to subside – although as the coder will tell you, even Twitter and Facebook’s own teams have a long way to go in terms of learning how to interpret and integrate them – and their capacity to present a curated selection of content (artwork in this case) with zero human bias has been embraced by Taraschuk and his followers. “I thought, if living artists don’t want to use this app then I want to use this to share classical art, so this is what I started doing.” He adds that “the bots service artworks regardless of any bias. A sketch has as much prominence as an accepted ‘masterpiece’. This technology allows me to introduce art into everyday feeds little by little, exposing people to that content and allowing that piece of art to speak for itself.”

Birthing and parenting a bot-net is not without its struggles. Taraschuk’s algorithmic spawn have seen him and his accounts blocked, removed and banned relentlessly from social media, for no other reason than exhibiting certain patterns of behaviour, rather than offensive content. Yet, he continues to reactivate accounts, converse with the real people behind Twitter and push against rejection. It takes not just commitment, but a certain amount of stubborn conviction to scale endless invisible walls, but as he explains, an upbringing in a politically-charged era can really leave a mark. “I feel like in Russia you had this huge generational shift. You have a generation that grew up in the Soviet Union and then this generation that grew up in the between era, before Putin and after the Soviet Union fell apart, with all this chaos happening. I think we look at things a little bit different, maybe with less respect for authority, a little bit anarchic.”