Johannes Grenzfurthner was born in 1975 and grew up in the Austrian boondocks in a small town called Stockerau. Out of the womb, Johannes was drawn to nerd culture. “I grew up with only two TV channels, and I was very happy my dad got a VHS recorder as early as 1980. It opened up a whole new telematic (as it was called back then) reality for me. I could record TV on a tape, and watch it later! Whoa! And in 1983, the first video rental store opened in my hometown, the same year as the first Chinese restaurant. That was something.”
Like many geeks who grew up in the 1980s, he experienced geek culture at the beginning… before the dark times, before Disney bought, well, everything. “I wasn’t allowed to go to the cinema, but my parents didn’t care about my video consumption. I had a great variety of films I could pick from on tape. Close Encounters of the Third Kind stunned me, Convoy and Capricorn One made me cry for justice, and Poltergeist terrified the living, scrape-your-face-off shit out of me. And I remember when I first rented Alien. I couldn’t wait to get home and see it. But at the point where the beast should have burst out of the guy’s chest, there was nothing left to see except interference. All the freak-fans who had previously rented the movie had rewatched that scene so often that the tape was completely buggered. Oh my. Still, I had night terrors for days.”
Johannes’ interest in nerd culture was something of an obsession. “I was always interested in obscure crap. I loved science fact (Carl Sagan is still my only media idol) and science fiction, especially John Brunner and William Gibson. I always felt like a nerd, although there was no word for it in German. Later, on US Bulletin Board Systems, I learned about the term and immediately embraced it.”
Johannes Grenzfurthner is as much an artist as he is a nerd. His feature documentary Traceroute (which received a rave review right here on Film Threat) is now available for digital download and the movie is a pure delight for anyone immersed in all things about nerd culture from movies to technology, the internet and even sex. In this exclusive interview, Johannes reveals what it’s like to see the world wearing glasses attuned to seeing the positively geeky side of everything in life.
“It was important for me to take nerddom apart, almost like a vivisection, not only analyzing it, but also excavating its potential for greatness…”
How does your nerddom influence your art and your films?
They’re inseparable. My nerd mindset always drove my artistic endeavors. First, I wasn’t even interested in art, just things that felt challenging. I was interested in the political dimension of near-future sci-fi. It’s hard to imagine, but I became a punk and antifascist because I devoured cyberpunk novels and watched stuff like Max Headroom. It was great dreaming of a jack in the back of my head, but the corpocratic, doomed world of RoboCop was nothing I wanted to happen.
I joined the FidoNet data network in the late 1980s. It was a wonderful way to get in contact with weirdos from all over the planet, collecting info and interesting mailing list threads. Slowly but surely, my desire to start my own publication grew. So, my career in art and politics sprouted out of my nerd interests.
I founded the monochrom collective in the early 1990s. We created a print fanzine about cyber topics, politics, film, bizarre art, and covert culture. Later we started creating our own projects and occupied media formats like puppet shows, conferences, computer games, short films, cocktail robots, high-temperature experiments, and premature burials. You name it.
Traceroute is your journey to highlight some of the lesser known people in geek culture and expose what they are doing. What made you want to make this movie? And how did you choose your interview subjects?
That’s a tough question. I came up with the idea for Traceroute some years ago, but in December 2014, I finally decided to roll up my (non-existing) sleeves and make it. I had roughly three months to get funding, assemble a crew, and sketch out a plan, such as the geographic route I wanted to take.
First, I accumulated $10k. That wasn’t a lot, but it paid for a rental van and gear, gas, and motels. Second, I compiled a long list of people and locations I wanted to visit. Third, I knew that we had a total of 22 days for the entire trip. So I had to kill a lot of my own babies. I started planning on Google Maps, but I ended up organizing the route by scribbling around in a Rand McNally road atlas from 2001. I painted the outside black, and I called it the Monolith. I lost it before the trip started, so it never made it into the movie.
There were so many human(oid)s I wanted to meet, but some folks were just not available. Kenyatta Cheese of Know Your Meme, for example, was not in NYC the day we planned to come through. Argh.
I also wanted to go to Lawrence, Kansas, because Burroughs lived there for some time and because they shot big chunks of The Day After there. Sadly we couldn’t waste a whole day driving there from Dallas and back. I still cry little nuclear tears, but… whatever. John Lithgow te absolvat.
“…I got ridiculed and harassed for being different. And today? The nerds of my generation are running the planet.”
How has nerd culture evolved since you were young?
It was important for me to take nerddom apart, almost like a vivisection, not only analyzing it, but also excavating its potential for greatness. In the movie, I never really try to define what nerd culture is, but I show examples, positions, and possibilities. I guess that makes me pretty old-school, but I’m not giving up on the counterculture aspects of nerd culture. Inclusiveness versus cocooning. My view is not compatible with FinTech, Unicorn, and iGod, as Engadget Germany said. That fact influenced my choice of interviewees. There is more to nerd culture than #gamergate conspiracy paranoia and Comic-Con.
When I was young, I got ridiculed and harassed for being different. And today? The nerds of my generation are running the planet. They own Google, Apple, and Amazon. Or they are privileged consumers, which is not necessarily a good thing. The trauma of living through the 1970s and 1980s as a nerd is being channeled into bizarre new forms of power, oppression, and exclusion. Nerds are in charge, and many of them are in some form of payback mode. It’s like Stanley Milgram constructed a wet dream. “Nope, nope, nope,” says the octopus.
What is independent filmmaking for you?
To be truly independent is pretty much impossible in a world primarily run by market forces. You can’t be fully autonomous from the classic system of production, and you can’t avoid crazy intellectual property fights and corporate infrastructure. You would need to build your own support system, your own hardware, and so on. So you are always part of Adorno’s Wrong Life, but I don’t want to be too defeatist about it.
Indie filmmaking is almost like committing a heist. You have to be very, very careful.
The main problem with critical artistic work is, and this might sound strange, subversion. Only 40 years ago, Western societies were still governed along the principles of the disciplinary society, a term by Michel Foucault. Institutions of a disciplinary society focus on two devices that keep people where they are: control and punishment. Both are effective, yet they produce inner resistance, at least, alongside the possibility of circumventing either device. The system is hard to monitor in absolute terms, and there are ways of avoiding, if not hacking and ridiculing, these mechanisms of control. Loopholes can and will be identified and used. If your boss is an asshole, you form a union with your colleagues. If you want to protest and change society, you create a subversive piece of art.
The disciplinary society is one that creates refractoriness; it reveals hierarchies and blatantly opposing classes of rulers and the ruled. The emerging society of control (Deleuze wrote a lot about it) has shifted this device and transplanted it into the subjects themselves. As soon as control is collectively internalized, when control is part of the psychological apparatus and of thought, then we can speak of control in absolute terms. Not much can be done anymore, as no one is independent from or outside of control any longer. Suddenly your boss is your best friend, and you believe it is good for you to work on the weekend. Take Trump’s successful move to establish himself as the anti-establishment candidate as just one of many grotesque examples.
The underlying question in a neoliberal world: How can we be independent, alternative, and critical, and try to create a different perspective when subversion itself is mainstream. You have to be on the edge to make a career. I think that’s especially sour in the indie film world. Just look at the horror film productions. Empty shock effects and hollow l’art pour l’art.
What was the question again?
“…one of the folks I visited, is a synthetic biologist who creates cheese made with bacteria from the human body.”
How should success be measured for an independent filmmaker?
In tears per square inch.
Ha! Nerd culture has exploded in the last 10 years, but things are still focused on Marvel-DC-Star Wars — the nerds you talk to are involved in science, art and ideas. Tell me about some of your favorite subjects from the film.
I wanted to present people in the film that aren’t Stan Lee or Wil Wheaton. Those two are probably awesome dudes, don’t get me wrong, and I feature them and what they stand for, but I didn’t want to interview them. I wanted to explore nerd culture from a fringe perspective. I think that the very essence of nerddom is difference–wanting to challenge others but also wanting to learn. Wanting to connect with likeminded people is a core trait of nerds. Nerds are highly obsessive. It doesn’t matter if their focus is 1970s Playmobil, fossilized crocodile eggs from Utah, or Bulgarian computer viruses from 1991.
Christina Agapakis, one of the folks I visited, is a synthetic biologist who creates cheese made with bacteria from the human body. Jason Scott is a highly determined archivist of computer culture, from floppy disks to energy drinks, and he has it all in a shipping container. Maggie Mayhem is a nerd and a sex worker in the Bay Area. Dan Wilcox is a critical digital artist whose father worked on SafeGuard, a 1970s antiballistic missile system. And Varka of Bad Dragon, such an extraordinary guy!
It’s hard to pick my favorite interview. Traceroute is like a puzzle I managed to solve, and all its parts are important. I know it’s a quite long doc–running time of 120 minutes–but I had an extensive list of discussions, topics, and insights I wanted to address. Shortening it, even by 2 minutes, would feel like ripping out an essential piece. I’m such a pedant.
What surprised you most when making the doc?
When I was editing the movie I was pretty much living like a Carthusian monk. Sleep and work and pray that Premiere won’t crash. One time I was truly zoned out, and I suddenly I realized that I felt sick. I hadn’t taken a piss in a long time and was surprised about my bladder control. It might be my superpower.
As a lifelong nerd making a documentary about nerd culture, what special insight did you bring to your doc?
The moment you take yourself too seriously you are becoming part of the problem. Nerds are not oppressed anymore, we are mainstream. We should never forget that and act accordingly.
It was really cool chatting and goofing around with Matt Winston, son of Dan Winston, because he is an excellent example of a crazy, super-passionate nerd, and an extremely professional and kind human being. OMnonexistingG… just be excellent to each other! (But it’s ok if you don’t like Keanu Reeves.)
“…as an artist and activist and filmmaker, I do a lot of strange things to make a living. I make more money talking about my work than from my actual work.”
How did technology shape you?
Back in the early 1980s, all movies at our local video rental store were available in Beta, Video 2000, and VHS. The video system was marked with blue, green, or red plastic tokens next to the tape cover. VHS, for example, was blue. And the blue token was gone for most of the films most of the time. “Damn! WarGames only available on Beta! Now I have to bike to grandma’s to watch it!” (Grandma had a Beta.) Just two years later, all the colored tokens were gone because VHS became the one and only format. So I witnessed the death of two video ecosystems and the death of many more media formats after that, like the Atari 2600, the Amiga, the typewriter, the Apple Newton, and the MiniDisc. But I never felt nostalgic about the loss. You have to make the most of the tools that are available to you, but be sure to never grow too fond of them.
I remember when I got a new device for my computer. I connected it to the landline phone plug(!), and the device called another device and sang a robot love song to it. That made the devices connect, and I could go online and exchange messages. That was one of the most important things that ever happened to me, breaking my isolation. It helped me to reach out to other folks all around the globe. Communication is key in nerd culture. But beware if that communication fails. You can create toxic troll wastelands! Not even robot love songs can help you with that!
Technology moves fast. Could that be a problem for a doc that talks about tech?
Will it still make sense to watch Traceroute in 2035? Maybe. I hope archeologists have a fun time with it, like watching The Lawnmower Man.
You were practically a one-man team making your movie. Which do you find most rewarding: shooting, interviewing, editing, directing?
I was the driving force, metaphorically and literally, but I could not have done this movie alone. I need to thank Eddie Codel, my DOP, and Jenny Marx, my sound recordist and production manager. It is hard to believe we made it through our road trip without strangling each other. But when the filming was done, the very isolated process of editing started. I was terrified. All that material! Terabytes! But I liked it a lot. It reminded me of sitting at my old desk in 1993, with glue and scissors, doing cut-and-paste layout. Editing Traceroute felt a lot like creating a fanzine. It grew into a fast-paced cinematic collage, layering punk aesthetics, ANSI art, paintings, and drawings. I needed some workaholic Me-Time to make it happen.
Speaking of drawings, the illustration on the poster is great.
Absolutely. It was created by my good friend and extremely talented artist James Brothwell. He also did many of the illustrations that you see in Traceroute. He is based in Portland, Oregon. Hire him. Now.
How do you make a living as an indie filmmaker? What’s your secret?
Austria offers some really nice federal and local film grants, and that’s positive. But the Austrian film industry, and I use industry strictly in an ironic way, is a small pond. A couple bigger players, a couple smaller players, but all trying to get their money through grants being distributed by juries in a weirdly bureaucratic system. I’m not complaining about free ice cream, but you need to fill out a lot of forms to get your sundae.
In general, as an artist and activist and filmmaker, I do a lot of (strange/stranger) things to make a living. Amusing enough, I make more money talking about my work than from my actual work. I guess that’s one of the interesting side effects of digital life. People want to download your stuff for free, but they are willing to pay you to give a lecture. Authenticity sells.
What do you hope audiences take away from Traceroute?
I had an interesting experience when doing a test screening in Durango, Colorado: A huge American-Football-player-ish guy approached me, looked down at me, and told me that watching my film made him realize that he’s a nerd too. A bit flabbergasted, I asked him why.
He answered, “Because I collect corals.” He pulled his wallet out, removed a pink coral from it, and showed the coral to me. He even told me its Latin name and kept elaborating about it for hours.
I smiled. Success.
I think that nerds have a very specific way of seeing the world. It’s almost like a filter. Some people try to pathologize that, but that’s utter bullshit. Own it!
And will there be a sequel? Because it feels like the movie could keep going.
Haha! Oh my. I guess the only way to do a sequel would be to go east. I would rent an RV in Vienna and drive to Krakow to check out where Stanislav Lem lived. Then go to Estonia where Tarkovsky shot Stalker, and pretty much poisoned and killed himself in the process. Travel to Chernobyl and Kyshtym, and end up in Baikonur to witness a Soyuz launch. That would be swell.
“The film invites you to press pause, rewind, and look up info online…”
Sometimes you get good reviews, sometimes you get bad reviews. Can you offer advice to other filmmakers about how to cope with reactions from the media?
Never give an ounce of a damn. There is no such thing as a bad review. Some of my favorite movies got ripped apart by the media, and that’s why I watched them in the first place.
A close friend is about to make their first independent feature. What is the one piece of advice you give your friend?
– Fear is the mind-killer.
– I have always depended on the kindness of strangers.
– Somebody wake up Hicks.
Your film is a journey, but the journey doesn’t end once the film is done. What have your experiences been securing distribution?
The festival season is over, but no luck with theatrical distribution. That’s not a big deal. I always thought Traceroute would be excellent for online indulgence anyways. The film invites you to press pause, rewind, and look up info online. It’s a nerd film, and they want info at their fingertips.
It would be sweet to be able to have it on Netflix, but forget it. You would think that, nowadays in the glorious digital age, it would be easy to distribute your films on popular platforms, charge a couple bucks per view, easy peasy. But NOOOOOOOOOO. It’s like the new feudalism. The new platforms are just new gatekeepers with new incentives to maintain artificial scarcity, almost like Fortresses of Content. Where is She-Ra when you need her?
“Kinda nerdy. But what do you expect from me?”
Do you think filmmakers should self-distribute or secure distribution?
None of the options out there make me happy. It’s all flawed. There are great services like Distribber, but I don’t have 5k stuffed into my pillow. I almost took out a loan to do that. Jeez.
It also depends on the circumstances of the film’s production. For example, some movie grants in Austria add a blocking period to the contract. I know that’s complaining on a high level, but some filmmakers can’t secure distribution because the grant rules prohibit it for a specific period of time. I think it would make total sense to do a multiplatform release for indie movies in theaters and online at the same time, but that’s incompatible with the wishes of distributors, with film festivals, and so on.
I had an interesting problem with my previous feature film Die Gstettensaga. We got greenlight from ORF (the Austrian PBS) to make a film as part of an art residency. We got a 5K euro grant, and because we were crazy, we used it to create a feature-length postapocalyptic agitprop comedy. ORF eventually aired it on Austrian national television in March 2014. ORF still holds the rights for it, but they will never ever do anything with it, not even reruns. So, I leaked it on PirateBay. Sometimes you have to go rogue. Want to hear a story about Gstettensaga?
Gstettensaga contains a text insert similar to watermarks used in festival viewing copies. ”This viewing copy is provided for awards consideration only.” The text insert asks the viewer to report the film as copyright infringement by calling a premium-rate phone number (1.09 euros per minute). When the film aired on TV, a lot of people actually called that number, and we cofinanced the film with the proceeds. I called this new strategy crowdratting.
What’s your next project?
I’m working on a feature film musical. You heard right! It’s set in 1601. At the funeral of the eccentric yet brilliant astronomer Tycho Brahe, an illustrious group of mourners congregate to receive their parts of the inheritance. When the Holy Roman Emperor elects Tycho’s former jester and psychic servant, Jeppe, to run a contest to determine the one and only winner, the situation escalates. It is a bizarre scenario of envy, malevolence, and toxic masculinity that Tycho’s sister Sophia has to face. Will she overcome private and societal impediments to cut her own path as a female scholar?
Kinda nerdy. But what do you expect from me?