Julia Janssen creates art to be an ambassador for data protection

At Mozilla, we know we can’t create a better future alone, that is why each year we will be highlighting the work of 25 digital leaders using technology to amplify voices, effect change, and build new technologies globally through our Rise 25 Awards. These storytellers, innovators, activists, advocates, builders and artists are helping make the internet more diverse, ethical, responsible and inclusive.

This week, we chatted with Julia Janssen, an artist making our digital society’s challenges of data and AI tangible through the form of art. We talked with Julia about what sparked her passion for art, her experience in art school, traveling the world, generative AI and more.

I’m always curious to ask artists what initially sparked their interest early in their lives, or just in general, what sparked their interest in the art that they do. How was that for you?

Janssen: Well, it’s actually quite an odd story, because when I was 15 years old, and I was in high school — at the age of 15, you have to choose the kind of the courses or the direction of your classes, — and I chose higher mathematics and art history, both as substitute classes. And I remember my counselor asked me to his office and said, “why?” Like, “why would you do that like? Difficult mathematics and art and art history has nothing to do with each other.” I just remember saying, like, “Well, I think both are fun,” but also, for me, art is a way to understand mathematics and mathematics is for me a way to make art. I think at an early age, I kind of noticed that it was both of my interests. 

So I started graphic design at an art academy. I also did a lot of different projects around kind of our relationship with technology, using a lot of mathematics to create patterns or art or always calculating things. And I never could kind of grasp a team or the fact that technology was something I was so interested in, but at graduation in 2016, it kind of all clicked together. It all kind of fell into place. When I started reading a lot of books about data ownership rights and early media theories, I was like, “what the hell is happening? Why aren’t we all constantly so concerned about our data? These big corporations are monetizing our attention. We’re basically kind of enslaved by this whole data industry.” It’s insane what’s happening, why is everybody not worried about this?” So, I made my first artwork during my graduation about this. And looking back at the time, I noticed that’s a lot of work during art school was already kind of understanding this — for example, things like terms and conditions. I did a Facebook journal where it was kind of a news anchor of a newsroom, reading out loud timelines and all these things. So I think it was already present in my work, but in 2016, it all kind of clicked together. And from there, things happened.

I found that I learned so much more by actually being in the field and actually doing internships, etc. during college instead of just sitting in the classroom all day. Did you kind of have a similar experience in art school? What’s that like?

Yeah, for sure. I do have some criticisms of how artists teach in schools, I’m not sure if it’s a worldwide thing, but from what I experienced, for example, is that the outside world is a place of freedom — you can express yourself, you can do anything you want. But I also noticed that, for example, privacy data protection was not a typical topic of interest at the time, so most of my teachers didn’t encourage me to kind of stand up for this. To research this, or at least in the way that I was doing it. Or they’d say, “you can be critical to worse tech technology, but saying that privacy is a commodity, that’s not done.” So I felt like, yes, It is a great space, and I learned a lot, but it’s also sometimes a little bit limited, I felt, on trending topics. For example, when I was graduating, everybody was working with gender identities and sustainability, those kinds of these things. And everybody’s focused on it and this was kind of the main thing to do. So I feel like, yeah, there should be more freedom in opening up the field for kind of other interests. 

It’s kind of made me notice that all these kids are worrying so much about failing a grade, for example. But later on in the real world, it’s about surviving and getting your money and all these other things that can go wrong in the process. Go experiment and go crazy, the only thing that you can do is fail a class. It’s not so bad.

There’s a system in place that has been there forever, and so I imagine there’s got to feel draining sometimes and really difficult to break through for a lot of young artists. 

Yeah, for sure. And I think that my teachers weren’t outdated — most of them were semi-young artists in the field as well and then teaching for one day — but I think there is also this culture of “this is how we do it. And this is what we think is awesome.” What I try to teach — so I teach there for, like 6 months as a substitute teacher — I try to encourage people and let them know that I can give you advice and I can be your guide into kind of helping you out with whatever you want, and if I’m not interested in what particularly what you want to, for example, say in a project, then I can help you find a way to make it awesome. How to exhibit it, how to make it bigger or smaller, or how to place it in a room. 

Julia Janssen at Mozilla’s Rise25 award ceremony in October 2023.

I’m curious to know for you as an artist, when you see a piece of art, or you see something, what is the first thing that you look for or what’s something that catches your attention that inspires you when you see a piece of art?

Honestly, it’s the way that is exhibited. I’m always very curious and interested in ways that people display research or kind of use media to express their work. When I’m walking to a museum, I get more enthusiastic from all the kind of things like the mechanics behind kind of hanging situations, and sometimes the work that is there to see, also to find inspirations to do things myself and what I find most thrilling. But also, I’m not just an artist who just kind of creates beautiful things, so to say, like I need information, data, mathematics to start even creating something. And I can highly appreciate people who can just make very beautiful emotional things that just exist. I think that’s a completely different type of art. 

You’ve also have traveled a lot, which is one of the best ways for people to learn and gain new perspectives. How much has traveling the world inspire you in the work that you create? 

I think a good example was last year when I went to Bali, which was actually kind of the weirdest experience in my life, because I hated the place. But it actually inspired a lot of things for my new project, mapping the oblivion, which I also talk about in my Rise25 video. Because what I felt in Bali was that this is just like such a beautiful island, such beautiful culture and nature, and it’s completely occupied by tourists and tourist traps and shiny things to make people feel well. It’s kind of hard to explain what I felt like there, but for example, I was there and what I like to do on a holiday or on a trip is just a lot of hiking, just going into nature, and just walk and explore and make up my mind or not think about anything. In Bali, everything is designed to feel at comfort or at your service, and that just felt completely out of place for me. But I felt maybe this is something that I need to embrace. So looking on Google Maps, I got this recommendation to go to a three-floor swimming pool. It was awesome, but it was also kind of weird, because I was looking like out on the jungle, and I felt like this place really completely ruined this whole beautiful area. It clicked with what I was researching about platformification and frictionlessness, where these platforms or technology or social media timelines try to make you at ease and comfortable, and making decisions be effortless. So on music apps, you click on “Jazzy Vibes” and it will kind of keep you satisfied with some Jazz vibes. But you will not be able to really explore kind of new things. It just kind of goes, as the algorithm goes. But it gives you a way of feeling of being in control. But it’s actually a highly curated playlist based on their data. But what I felt was happening in Bali was that I wanted to do something else, but to make myself more at comfort to kind of find the more safe option, I chose that swimming pool instead of exploring. And I did it based on a recommendation of an app. And then I felt constantly in-between. I actually want to go to more local places, but I had questions — What do I find out, is it safe there to eat there? I should’ve gone to easier places where I’ll probably meet peers and people who I can have a conversation or beer with. But then you go for the easier option, and then I felt I was drifting away from doing unexpected things and exploring what is there. I think that’s just a result of the technology being built around us and kind of conforming us with news that we probably might be interested in seeing, playing some music, etc. but what makes us human in the end is to feel discomfort, to be in awkward positions, to kind of explore something that is out there and unexpected and weird. I think that’s what makes the world we live in great.

Yeah, that’s such a great point. There’s so many people that just don’t naturally and organically explore a city that they’re in. They are always going there and looking at recommendations and things like that. But a lot of times, if you just go and get lost in it, you can see a place for what it is, and it’s fun to do that. 

It’s also kind of the whole fear of missing out on that one special place. But I feel like you’re missing out on so much by constantly looking at the screen and finding recommendations of what you should like or what you should feel happy about. And I think this just kind of makes you blind to everything out there, and it also makes us very disconnected with our responsibility of making choices. 

What do you think is the biggest challenge that we face this year online, or as a society in the world, and how do we combat that?

I mean, for me, I think most of the debate about generative AI is about taking our jobs or taking the job of creatives or writers, lawyers. I think the more fundamental question that we have to ask ourselves with generative AI is about how we will live with it, and still be human. Do we just allow what it can do or do we also take some measurements in what is desirable that it will replace? Because I feel like if we’re just kind of outsourcing all of our choices into this machine, then what the hell are we doing here? We need to find a proper relationship. I’m not saying I’m really not against technology not at all, I also see all the benefits and I love everything that it is creating — although not everything. But I think it’s really about creating this healthy relationship with the applications and the technology around us, which means that sometimes you have to chose friction and do it yourself and be a person. For example, if you are now graduating from university, I think it will be a challenge for students to actively choose to write their own thesis and not just generated by Chat GPT and setting some clever parameters. I think small challenges are something that we are currently all facing, and fixing them is something we have to want. 

What do you think is a simple action everyone can take to make the world online and offline a little better? 

Here in Europe, we have the GDPR. And it says that we have the right to data access and that means that you can ask a company to show the data that they collected about you, and they have to show you within 30 days. I do also a lot of teaching in workshops, at schools or at universities with this, showing how to request your own data. You get to know yourself a different way, which is funny. I did a lot of projects around this by making this in art installations. But I think this a very simple act to perform, but it’s kind of interesting to see, because this is only the raw data — so you still don’t know how they use it in profiling algorithms, but it gives you clarity on some advertisements that you see that you don’t understand, or just kind of understanding the skill of what they are collecting about in every moment. So that is something that I highly encourage, or also another thing that’s in line with that is “The right to be forgotten,” which is also a European right. 

We started to Rise25 to celebrate Mozilla’s 25th anniversary. What do you hope people are celebrating in the next 25 years?

That’s a nice question. I hope that we will be celebrating an internet that is not governed by big tech corporations, but based on public values and ethics. I think some of the smaller steps in that can be, for example, currently in Europe, one of the foundations of processing your data is having informed consent. Informed consent is such a beautiful term originating from the medical field where a doctor kind of gives you information about the procedure and the possibility, risks and everything. But on the internet, that is just kind of applied in this small button like, “Hey, click here” and give up all your rights and continue browsing without questioning. And I think one step is to kind of get a real, proper, fair way of getting consent, or maybe even switching it around, where the infrastructure of data collection is not the default, but instead it’s “do not collect anything without your consent.”  

We’re currently in a transition phase where there are a lot of very important alternatives to avoid big tech applications. Think about how Firefox already doing so much better than all these alternatives. But I think, at the core, like all our basic default apps should not be encouraged by commercial driven, very toxic incentives to just modify your data, and that has to do with how we design this infrastructure, the policies and the legislations, but also the technology itself and the kind of protocol layers of how it’s working. This is not something that we can change overnight. I hope that we’re not only thinking in alternatives to avoid kind of these toxic applications, big corporations, but that not harming your data, your equality, your fairness, your rights are the default.

In our physical world, we value things like democracy and equality and autonomy and freedom of choice. But on the internet, that is just not present yet, and I think that that should be at the core at the foundation of building a digital world as it should be in our current world. 

What gives you hope about the future of our world?

Things like Rise25, to be honest. I think it was so special. I spoke about this with other winners as well, like, we’re all just so passionate about what we’re doing. Of course, we have inspiration from people around us, or also other people doing work on this, but we’re still not with so many and to be united in this way just gives a lot of hope. 

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