[-empyre-] artistic statement
Sorry for the delay (for those of you in different time zones), but here it
Hope you like it.
Artistic statement :
First a bit of history :
I became fascinated by the interaction of technology and representation in
1990, while enrolled in a graduate seminar in film studies. One day, a guest
came to talk about this strange, new thing call virtual reality. This new
technology had the potential to revolutionize the entire world of cinema.
Theories of perceptions, creation and representations would have to be
rethought and rebuilt. How were we to film with this new technology? How
were we to understand something as simple as a « screen » when we could,
literally, be drawn into it? How could you write a 360 degree screenplay?
Virtual Reality. It had the feel and excitement of a great discovery.
Everything was to be re-invented. With it, you could be free to build your
own structure of representation.
As you can imagine, I was overwhelmed by the presentation. You have to
remember that in the early 90s many critics, theoreticians and even
filmmakers were predicting the death of cinema (as well as that of Western
ideology, no less). Filmmaking was being seriously undermined by television,
video cameras and videocassettes. Film theory was almost a hundred years old
and there wasn't much else one could say. Cinema had become a tremendously
expensive industry, far removed from the enthusiasm of the French New Wave.
To study film was like studying a corpse.
But suddenly, everything was made possible again! Suddenly, you could
imagine what Eisenstein (the Soviet filmmaker, generally considered to be
one of the founding fathers of cinematic language) had felt caught in the
middle of great intellectual and social upheavals where anything was
possible. Virtual reality was the Promised Land.
This tremendous feeling of excitement hasn't left me yet. To me, today's
electronic world is as exciting and dangerous as a great revolution, a
moment when the emergence of a new society becomes possible. Of course,
today's electronic revolution will probably not substantially improve the
human condition (it probably will for us, in the developed world, but not
for most people on the planet). Nevertheless, it does offer us a chance to
see new things, to perceive new levels of reality, to experience new
sensations, to discover unknown physical forces and to create, through all
of them, new aesthetic emotions. The electronic revolution makes us all
potential Eisensteins : searching for a new language and a new way of
looking at our world. If you could say that the Soviet filmmakers of the
early part of the 20th century produced films that radically changed the way
we saw the world (what is montage if not, as the Marxist perception of the
world suggests, a clash of light, forms and ideas out of which a new
understanding emerges?), you can also reasonably say (I truly believe) that
we, as scholars, artists, curators and students of the new electronic world,
are doing the same thing.
Both my book and the Metal and Flesh website were sprung to life by this
feeling of awe and excitement, by this need to better understand this world
we now live in (a world of cruel miracles, as Stanislas Lem would say).
But of course, this is where life intervenes. As the Soviet filmmakers
quickly realized, the dynamics of this world are quite different for one's
perfect idea of it. As much as I believe in the potential of the web, as
much as I can imagine it bringing us new philosophical and artistic
understandings of our culture, I am often disappointed by what this Promised
Even though the web, and web sites in particular, are an integral and
dynamic part of what we are, as much as they deeply change the way we
operate, as much as they affect the way we communicate with each other, we
still treat them as if they were nothing more than a huge undefined
"something" (a library, a highway, a series of magazines, a porn shop,
whatever), a "something" to be used mainly as a repository. As much as web
sites are different from anything else we've seen or experienced before, we
(most of us) still imagine them as big, electronic books on which to write,
from which to read, books with pages and bookmarks and authors and
editor-in-chiefs. And this, even though a website has not materiality, even
though its texts and images emerge literally out of nothing, even though a
website has no surface, even though it is probably closer to a phenomenon
than to an object, even though its physical location is one that exists
nowhere (or, to be more exact, in a somewhere undetectable to human senses).
As long as we do this, we will not get the full understanding of what the
web is, of what it truly means, of what its full impact is.
Even the terminology is wrong (web pages, electronic magazines, on-line
newspaper). We, in fact, replicate what was done in the early part of the
20th century when cinema was just recorded theater (the camera would not
move, nor turn and the actor would come in and out of the frame, just as
they would do on a stage). Most literary experiments have not worked (and
still do not work) because most of them have only borrowed their language.
We are still looking for our Eisenstein, for someone to clearly articulate
what the web is, what its language is, what it evolves into, to clearly
enunciate how it dissolves and then remodels our understanding of the world.
What could be such a language?
No one really reads on the web. Why? Because the media itself is build
somehow like the brain : order comes to it and from it not linearly, not
hierarchically but through free and dynamic associations. Just like the
brain, when left to daydream, jumps from one thought to another, we hop from
one site to another, from one idea to another, from one thought association
to another. As much as some people see it as a clear example of our society
lack of focus, I see it as a totally new and fascinating way to gather and
build knowledge. Clicking, surfing, browsing represent a new way of ordering
information, of transforming it into knowledge, of building it into
something coherent. Today, too many things happen to quickly for us to
slowly and sequentially gather information. In today's world, if you do not
browse, surf, click and gather superficial information from as many sources
as possible, you cannot hope to understand what is going on. One must be
superficial if one is to survive today. In an encyclopedic type society,
where knowledge comes from deep and thorough understanding of information,
where information is generated slowly, superficiality is something to be
avoided. But in a society where information, phenomena, actions, reactions,
events and histories are overabundant, over produced and over analyzed, one
must be superficial if one is to comprehend what is going on. (The web
generates a rupture in the evolution of western civilization. As Alexandre
Leupin suggests, such ruptures clearly transform the meaning of words. The
word "God" for example means different things before and after Christ. In
the midst of today's rupture, words such as "superficial", "horizontal", and
even "shallow" are acquiring new meanings).
Clicking is, by itself, a new process of acquiring and structuring
knowledge. When you click, you create unexpected, sometimes odd, sometimes
remarkable links between subject matters. Clicking actively engages us in
the structuring of a new kind of knowledge: one that responds swiftly, and I
would say, organically, to the world. Clicking is part of the actual process
of today's understanding of our complex world. And I think most of today's
young people have understood that. Yes, their knowledge of classical culture
is not what it should be. Yes, their ability to write might not be what it
should be, but their ability to surf the world of information, to gather
information and use it for specific ends is tremendous.
This is where, I believe, a net specific language should start. By building
ephemeral structures whose informational identity is based upon their
disappearance. By building structures where words and texts are not
immovable objects whose purpose is to draw you in and keep you focused, but,
are, instead, physical (from one site to another) and intellectual (from one
idea to another) launching pads. We do not read on the web because reading
is antithetical to the structure of the web. When we create web pages with
text meant to be read the way classical written text is, we undermine both
the web and the text experience. On the web, text should only be an element
of knowledge (or emotion) gathering. Text should only be part of the
A few years ago, the great French biologist François Jacob put forward the
concept of biological reality. According to him, every living being's
phenomenology is filtered by its own biology (a fly perceives a world quite
unlike ours because its biology understands, decodes and encodes the world
differently). I think we would all agree that we now live in something
closer to a technological reality, where our machines are active
participants in our biological understanding and filtering of the world.
To me, classical written text represents the encoding and decoding of a
perception of reality that is mostly biological (where phenomena are
hierarchically determined, where resources are rare, where one's survival
depends on someone else's destruction, where power dictates most
interactions). Web-texts, on the other hand, are closer to a technological
awareness of reality (decentralized, a-linear, where resources are
overabundant, where one's survival depends on one's ability to filter
information, where knowledge expands in many directions simultaneously, as
if it were a liquid).
Web-texts, I think, should resemble movements: movements of thoughts, of
emotions, of ideas; web-texts should not be defined and definite (like
printed words are) but liquid, moving, something that can be grasped but
only for a moment (like a river running through one's fingers).
But this is much easier said than done. How can you convey your idea in a
free-floating form? How can you convince someone else with freely gathered
information? With organically structured knowledge? I'm not really sure. We
have tried repeatedly with Metal and Flesh (the website) but with limited
success. We have tried by integrating text to visual and musical
environments but our "pages" are still mainly text-oriented and text-based.
The main problem is our perspective. We (writers and webmasters) still
consider the Word as the sacred expression of human thought. We still write
and then adapt for the web. But we are wrong. We must now create new types
of knowledge-gathering environments where information will not be linear,
where emotional understanding emerges from horizontal and rhizomatic
dynamics, where culture (artistic, scholarly, narrative) will not be
methodologically expressed but dynamically built and rebuilt. This, to me,
is our challenge.
But if literary websites are mostly unchallenging, the exact opposite can be
said about most artistic (and even design oriented) websites. Net art
websites are where my hope lies; from them, a new Eisenstein will surely
emerge. If one is to look at what could be a net specific form and/or
language, one should go and examine what net artists are doing. Net art
websites might not have found a truly specific net language yet but they
have let go of the old structures of narrativity and linearity. Interesting
net art websites treat the text as something to be perceived instead of
read, as something to be "felt" and experienced and not as something to
focus on. Net art websites truly understand that the web is an environment,
something that has volume (intellectual, informational and emotional) and
that one must build one's thought and reflection within this volume. When
surfing these websites, you are left alone to find your way, to create your
path, to gather your own information, to process your own understanding. And
that, to me, is the essence of the web.
In many Net artwork, text is hardly seen, text is only a murmur, a fading
background impression. Furthermore, in many Net artwork, linear navigation
has been abolished in order to respect the free-floating experience that is
the web. Most Net artwork are extremely interesting because they,
consciously or not, reproduce the organic workings of thoughts and emotions
: non linear, many layered, made of impressions and flashes, meant to be
felt as a volume of emotions.
This, to me, is where the web should go. This to me, is what constitute the
web's specificity. Does that mean that scholarly text will disappear from
the web? In their present form yes, as long as they will be written
primarily for paper. Artists, writers, scholars, journalists will have to
understand that one must write with the web (and with its specificity) in
mind if one wants to be web-« read » (or web-felt).
Technology is giving birth to strange worlds where borders between phenomena
fade away. With technology, new levels of reality are suddenly visible (the
macroscopic and the microscopic) where our absolutes become nothing more
than mere conventions (what is the difference between myself and a table at
an atomic level? When do neurons and dendrites become consciousness? What is
alive in a living being? Blood? Cells? DNA? What is the definition of life
once we go beyond our biological reality? Can something that is organic be
considered not living [such as a virus]? Can something that is not organic
be considered potentially alive [such as artificial life programs]? What is
consciousness if it can be so easily manipulated by drugs such as Prozac?).
Faced with these uneven and unstable new ontological foundations, human
beings are forced to explore new ways of decoding and encoding the world,
where absolutes, certainty and hierarchy become hindrance to a better
understanding of what we are. My hope and my belief are that the web, with
all its problems, with all its faults, with all its violence and pornography
and blatant commercialism, will continue to be an important tool to this new
understanding. The web forces to reconsider the word and its omnipotence, it
forces us to reevaluate the basic foundations of our culture, it tells us
repeatedly that history, gender, sexuality, violence, emotions and knowledge
are not single, clearly delineated phenomena whose definition is to be
imposed by a specific group or culture, but that they are unstable, moving,
multidimensional phenomena whose understanding will never be made lifeless.
History, gender, sexuality, violence, emotions and knowledge are as diverse
as living beings, they can be as fuzzy, unfocused and unpredictable as
living beings. That is what the web tells us, with its infinite number of
stories, perceptions and understanding. If there are a million stories in
the naked city, there must be a billion ones in the web. That is, I believe,
the true beauty of the web.
Thank you for your attention.
By the way, here are a few links you might find interesting. Some are clear
examples of what I believe to be net specific forms.
David Johnston's Nomad Lingo. Once you're in, I recommend you click on the
month of March, which is the culmination of the exhibit. Beautiful stuff,
L'espace du chamane: (The Shaman's space). Quite nice
Gregory Chatonsky's artwork: Beautiful stuff. (a project for Paris' RATP)
also, the Metal and Flesh gallery. Work by Melinda, Christina McPhee. Oliver
Hockenhull, and many others.
Some of my own vrml:
New stuff (3d) I'm working on
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