[-empyre-] superficiality and immersion #1
Dear Ollivier Dyens and List
Concerning your posts "superficiality and immersion" : after having my SVA
viractualism class study "metal and flesh" a student ? and the a fellow
faculty member - interviewed me based on the read. Perhaps this might
interest you Ollivier andthe list (I am just catching up to it). I will
send it in the 2 parts as 2 separate posts.
PS: You can now download a PDF "Immersive Ideals / Critical Distances : A
Study of the Affinity Between Artistic Ideologies Based in Virtual Reality
and Previous Immersive Idioms" at:
http://www.eyewithwings.net/nechvatal/ideals.htm if you wish.
home page: http://www.nechvatal.net
home: 143 Ludlow Street (#14) New York, NY 10002 USA & 114, Rue de Vaugirard
75006 Paris FRANCE
Martha Trivizas - email@example.com
Viractuality : The Final Project / SVA / Winter 2001 (*1)
Martha Trivizas interviews Joseph Nechvatal December 18th, 2001
MT: What do you think of the writing trend in which the assumption is that
of technology as being inseparable from us as human beings?
JN: I think the assumption is accurate if you think of technology as
culture. Then it is self-evident. If the creation of papyrus by the
Egyptians was a technological achievement, then writing developed out of
technology. So maybe it?s not such a big problem if you just don?t get hung
up on the association with new technology. Notwithstanding, I would say that
tech is integral to us. I would accept that assumption.
MT: What is a human being conceptually and literally?
JN: Conceptually, a human being is an ego. One person could not exist and
doesn?t exist. Only one cannot reproduce, so we?re already talking about a
system of human beings. We exist in a kind of network of humanity. Literally
a human being is that ego exemplified by his or her actions.
MT: Relationships among human beings are now inseparable from technology. Do
you believe that?
JN: I want to back off that. That makes it seem like a totally done deal. I
think most of our life is like that, yes, but there are certain activities
that are quite a bit outside of all that. There are still pockets of
connection with nature mostly unmitigated by technology. That?s why I really
enjoy gardening, sex, my dog and certain things that you could say
technology plays a minimal role in. If you go walking through a wild forest
the role of technology is limited - unless you?re walking with a global
positioning devise. If you?re just sticking a seed in the ground and
watching it grow? I don?t see the role of technology there. That is unless
the seed has been genetically modified. But to a great extent your statement
concerning our inseparablity from technology is true. I just believe that
there are areas of our lives that have not been technologicalized.
MT: There is the conceptual approach to the association of man and machine
and a more literal approach to the association of man and machine. What do
you think of the conceptual construct of an ?aterritorial? body between
biology and culture? What do you think of the notion of the classic living
body made of boundaries, limits and barriers suddenly dissolving in its
surrounding systems and phenomena?
JN: I put that all into philosophical terms of the subject/object polarity.
Which I believe is a fake polarity. But sure, it certainly works in terms of
collecting social security - or however it functions within our society. I
believe this separation between ?I?m the subject / you?re the object??. or
this table is an object of which my subjectivity makes use? well, I think a
lot of that is not true. I think that way of either/or cuts into our
interactions with the world.
Certainly this comes out of environmentalism - because the whole idea of
environmentalism is that you realize the environment is part of you and
you?re part of it. So you just can?t ignore you?re environment. I think that
all of those ideas that you just laid out can be included in a new way of
looking at the subject/object discourse in terms of a techno-environmental
consciousness ? a consciousness of now where that divide no longer rests
easily. I mean, we accept these divisions as little boys and girls, so it?s
not something we?re questioning on a regular basis. This sucks not only
because of the way it divides human beings from other human beings - but
also the way it divides us from our culture, our technology, and from our
environment. In a way it allows people to not take responsibility. If
something is outside of you, well then it doesn?t have anything to do with
you. That?s too easy a way to escape responsibility.
MT: What do you think of cultural ideology only existing when entangled with
JN: One can say that the whole idea of nature is a cultural concept. I don?t
accept that, but people say that if you didn?t have an idea of nature then
you wouldn?t even know it was there. You wouldn?t participate in it. You
wouldn?t think about cultural ideology either. So in a way, ideology is a
conceptual and culture construct. But I think we emerge out of the energy of
nature too, out of these electronic vibrations which make up nature. For me
it?s not a big problem.
MT: What do you think of the notion that the contemporary body is so
contaminated by non-biological phenomena that it has become unrecognizable?
JN: There?s the example of a woman named Lolo Ferrari. She died a couple of
years ago. See, Lolo Ferrari had her breasts enhanced to such an extent that
she was post-human. She pushed that fetishistic male thing to an extreme no
one has ever seen before. You can find unbelievable images of her on the
net. She died kind of mysteriously and I was never quite certain whether she
just killed her ?character? and just took all that silicon out and became
normal sized again or if she actually did physically die. And if so, what
was it that killed her? Silicone poisoning? Suicide? What? What was the
cause of death, really? It was never revealed. Lolo?s breasts were still
recognizable though - but so hugely distorted that they surpassed reality.
Furthermore, what about that mechanical heart that went inside the black man
which kept him alive for a time? That?s the same postbiological principle at
work ? to surpass nature.
MT: What is cyberspace?
JN: Cyberspace is the space of connectivity between every networked computer
in the world. It?s a word concept that was created in science fiction by
Gibson - not Mel - in his 1984 book ?Neuromancer?. In it he describes -
fictionally - what cyberspace is. Well, after he described it fictionally,
actual real programmers read his literature and said ?hey we can make it!?
So it was an example of how science fiction created reality, if you will.
Because those dreamy virtual fantasies were then actualized by real
programmers who took there fingers and bodies and minds and put them on the
line and created the languages to make the computers talk with each other.
So cyberspace - in the most general way - is all the memory of all the
computers in the world, hypothetically all connected one to the other. It?s
that digital space of connectivity.
MT: Is cyberspace alive?
JN: No, but I think there can be living entities within it. I think space by
definition is a void. It?s lacking behaviors which are signs of life. I
think it lacks a consciousness of its own. It facilitates consciousness, but
I would say it?s empty. The way Gibson described it was black. A black empty
huge space with endless connections of lights.
MT: Is artificial intelligence intelligent?
JN: Yeah, but what do you mean by artificial? What do you mean by
intelligence? Certainly neuronets - which can create generative growing
consciousnesses modeled on the brain?s structure - can plot how the brain is
organized within computers. That is an intelligence. Perhaps it?s an
illusion of intelligence? Yep. At this point what we?re looking at are
illusions of intelligence - but I think it?s hard to say that we won?t have
real AI. I don?t think were quite there yet. I think what we have been
looking at are illusions of intelligences that are leading us along the path
to develop real computational intelligences.
MT: Are humans programmed?
JN: To a certain extent humans are programmed. We have a genetic code that
is programming what color eyes we have, our hair, how high we can jump, how
thick or thin our bones are, and so on??.. so in a certain way we are
already genetically programmed. One can then say we are programmed by our
parents and by our schools and our societies. But I don?t think that is a
determinant programming. I think with cultural programming you still have
free will to change. It?s the free will verses determinism debate in
philosophy. If you accept the premise that you don?t have free will, then
guess what?? You don?t!. If you accept the premise that you have free will -
even if you really are determined - you may very well have free will and be
able to use it. But if you never try, you squander it. If you assume you are
determined - then you are determined. So already this is a kind of digital
binary self-programming?.. this determined/free mind-set.
MT: Can we extricate ourselves out of culture?
JN: I do believe in the power of self to re-program our consciousness. I
think we can mutate ourselves within our culture. We cannot totally
extricate ourselves from our culture though, because we are culture - we
determine it as our technology shapes us. Plus we have the makeup of an eco
system ? an eco-tech system which is, at this point-in-time, inescapable.
Given that, I think that by exploring the subject/object divides we find
mutations within our own subjectivity. Through that exploration we have
effects on what used to be called the objective world. So I think there is a
kind of alchemical mutation possible that's not extrication. But that takes
a reinvention of ourselves and this, of course, has to do with art and the
imagination and fantasy and all these really important things.
MT: Who would you recommend to read on the object/subject topic?
JN: Well, Henri Bergson started writing about that. Gilles Deleuze is very
good on this.
MT: I just started reading "Mille Plateaux". Do you recommend that?
JN: It like changed my life. It's a fabulous book! The way that it's
structured? It's structured like a hyper-text? like how you would expect a
cd-rom to be structured! You could surf in-and-out of it. You could jump
around in it. It's non-linear - which is the way they, Gilles Deleuze and
Félix Guattari, wanted us to look at our own epistemology. And then at our
own beingness. It is about the way we learn and grow?. that doesn't have to
be a linear progression. This whole idea of looking at history only as a
linear progression is not useful within this new epistemology. So for me,
it's an absolutely fantastic book! It's rather abstract in some parts, you
know. And funny! I didn't really get it all the first time - you don't have
to -you're not expected to - - so you go back and back. Yes for me "Mille
Plateaux" is a big thing. It took me about three months to first read it. It
was a very important book in my development as an artist and thinker.
Another very significant book by them for me was their "What is Philosophy".
Deleuze and Guattari again go with a collaborative enterprise here. Things
get a little more specific for me when they talk about artists and the
creation of art. It's a little bit more comprehensible if you're a little
uncomfortable with the endless open-endedness of "Mille Plateaux". It's
something a little bit more nailed down.
You know that Foucault called Deleuze the greatest philosopher of the 21st
century? I agree with him, and I would say that "Mille Plateaux" is
Deleuze?s masterpiece. It's huge. But in general Deleuze is very good on
talking about polarity? about these dualisms which we're expected to take at
face value. He sets up conceptual deconstructing machines which deal with
these dualistics - these binary things that we're expected to just accept.
That's exactly why in my work I'm now dealing with the male/female poles as
a more spun hybrid thing - something that's never going to actually happen,
but is important in the history of alchemy, for example, and is an important
imaginative space for us to explore today. The femaleness in me and the
maleness in you. Let's break with these silly binary rules and actually find
out how we're really a little more complicated than that.
Also Heidegger writes on the subject/object question from a Germanic
perspective. It's a newish techno concept now though mostly that's being
articulated, developed, studied and scrutinized. Pierre Levy is working on
this. You're not got going to find much in Hegel or Kant about it. A little
in Spinoza though.
MT: Do you think that there is something that will save the world?
JN: I do. I think that a real global communications that doesn't play games
of fundamentalism will do it. I think the biggest problem for the world
right now is fundamentalist thinking.
MT: What does fundamentalist mean?
JN: It's a term used in religion a lot. It's supposedly like the foundation
of a building. Fundamentalists believe the words of their texts literally.
And that they have the exclusive truth? that in their texts lay the truth.
Anything outside their texts is wrong. That's the basis of fundamentalism?
where you are cocksure that you have the right way and everyone else is
wrong! It?s these aspects of Judaism, Islam, Christianity et al that are
driving our country and our world to hell today. Basically it is 9:11. I
think a real communication based on person-to-person - not just
government-to-government or church-to-church communications will help
transform and save our world from our own self-destruction - a
self-destruction that the fundamentalists are destined to bring on us if we
MT: What do you think about virtual reality?
JN: I like it. I think it has two applications. One is as a tool that can be
useful in medicine and industry and all that. But I think that for us, as
artists, it's other application is fantastic when we are able to make total
virtual environments where you can put the person into a fantasy space and
really explore creation and desire. I'm very favorable to that useage. I've
actually a broader view of it though. I recommend that you see the videotape
called "Synthetic Pleasures". What it shows is how virtual reality can also
be considered as Las Vegas and various theme parks in Japan. It's also, for
me, the same thing as going into a rococo ballroom in Versailles. For me,
that's virtual reality too. I have this broader application of the term
based on real VR experiments with headsets though. Headsets put you in
contact with the expectations of total immersion. Then you can lose
self-consciousness and get totally absorbed into fake environments. That's a
very important aspect. That immersive effect can be created through
installation art and through landart too. It can be created many ways,
physically as well as virtually. But I think you have to understand what
real classic virtual VR is first.
MT: Is there a paradigm shift?
JN: I think we're always shifting. That phrase makes it sound like some huge
rupture is taking place. Like there's been some revolution! Rather, I think
we're constantly moving through changes and synthesis. I think it's a
process of movement in space and time. Time is a continuum - not some little
boxes that we jump in and out of. I think it's more fluid than the term
MT: What did technology empower you to see that you never saw before?
JN: Personally, it allowed me to see what was inside my art. I could see
potentialities inside my art that could have gone by undiscovered. It showed
me a profundity in the work I was doing even before I uploaded everything
into the computer and started manipulating it. It just showed me what was
possible given speed, new tools, and a computational power that was unknown
to me. So it unleashed a kind of potentiality in my work. It allowed me to
discover over and over new aspects in the work for myself, which then I show
MT: What is beautiful to you?
JN: So many people have demonstrated that you can take something dirty like
a crummy ashtray and if you photograph it (I'm talking about Richard Avedon
now), blow it up, put it on a gallery wall an ugly, dirty ashtray is
suddenly very beautiful. I think the old canons of beauty can be dropped.
Forget about them! To be honest, for me what's beautiful is what interests
me. So it's not specifically a purely aesthetic judgment. It has to do too
with the conceptual power of what I'm looking at? of what it suggests to me
even more than what it directly shows. That is a big question. David Hickey
is doing a lot of work in redefining what is considered beauty because, as
you must know, the whole idea of beauty and the word beauty was removed from
the discourse of contemporary art. It was considered not serious art if you
were talking about beauty. I suppose over the last 40 years - but maybe even
starting with Picasso's and Braque's cubism - one can see those early cubist
paintings as ugly brown, gray paintings as not particularly beautiful as one
might see an impressionist painting. Yet they're maybe more significant in
terms of art. So my definition of beauty is conceptual. And it's what
touches me personally. I wouldn't say what's beautiful to me should be
beautiful to you, or vice versa. On top of that it's somewhat of a cultural
model. I mean to talk about a beautiful woman. Are we all talking about the
same woman? Not generally - but probably to a certain extent, yes. So again
it's kind of a social programming mechanism that I don't particularly like.
But it's out there.
MT: What is art about for you?
JN: For me, art's about exploring inter-subjective and object/subject
experiences through exquisite communications. You find art deep inside
individuals. Products of this exploration become significant in the culture
at large though. I think that is what makes strong art that lasts.
Art is a social activity too. But to start, it's an incredibly personal
inner exploration. It's a way of externalizing really private, sometimes
scary, sometimes bizarre, inner obsessions. I think it's important that you
the artist identify your obsessions and sort of go deeper into them ?
perhaps, if only, obliquely. You can pull up art out of these explorations
of obsession and excess. Then it hit's the society and has a social
vibration. It's literally a movement from inside-to-out - like a pebble
dropping into a still lake. You, the artist, starts in a very deep
subjective space and that space moves outwards through society. There's a
lot more to what art is than that, of course. Anthropologists have a certain
idea of what art is. Artists have a certain idea. People in the art market,
art historians ? even little girls with their coloring books -- all have
different ideas of what art is.
MT: What do you tell students that have hesitations about technology and
JN: I tell them to leave their hang-ups behind. They're not obliged to dig
it. It's not an agenda that I'm trying to impose on anybody. The way I was
trying to structure our viractuality class was just to lay the information
in front of people like a smorgasbord. The information must correspond to
the artist's personal interests - even while I think we have to know what
other artists are doing regardless. What our culture is doing. Otherwise
we're missing out on that second part of art - which is how subjectivity
functions out in the world.
I think there are certain preconceptions and hang-ups that people sometimes
have. I don't know whether they learn these from other aspects of art - like
the legacy of modernism with its supposed ?purity? of medium?. that legacy
of defining what the medium is in its ?essentiality?. That too is a kind of
fundamentalism where the art of painting became only color on a flat plane.
I think we're still living under that legacy some.
MT: Is man's very soul do to machines - in terms of our 9-5 habits, 2 week
vacation, consumer habits?
JN: One can say that the clock is a machine and that the calendar is a
machine. Don't forget that the new millennium was a new millennium for us,
sure - - but there are other calendars out there in the world where that was
just an average day. So why assume that our clock, our calendar, is the way
time has to be organized - or the way it is with our soul? We live under
those time rules, most likely, but it's not imposed on us by nature. I think
the only time law of nature is that you get old and die, eventually.
(*1) The basis of this SVA class is that computer technology has become a
significant means to making and understanding contemporary art.
Consequently, we investigated art (in its many forms - including sculpture,
performance, painting, video, architecture, literature, net art, electronic
music and more) which addresses the merging of the computed (the virtual)
with the uncomputed corporeal (the actual). This merging is what Dr.
Nechvatal calls the ?viractual?. Hence the title of his class:
143 Ludlow Street (#14)
New York, NY 10002 USA
114, Rue de Vaugirard
75006 Paris FRANCE
home page: http://www.nechvatal.net
Dr. Joseph Nechvatal has worked with ubiquitous electronic visual
information and computer-robotics since 1986. His computer-robotic assisted
paintings and computer animations are shown regularly in galleries and
museums throughout the world. From 1991-3 he worked as artist-in-resident at
the Louis Pasteur Atelier and the Saline Royale / Ledoux Foundation's
computer lab in Arbois, France on 'The Computer Virus Project': an
experiment with computer viruses as a creative stratagem. Dr. Nechvatal has
exhibited his work widely in Europe and the United States, both in private
and public venues. He is collected by the Los Angeles County Museum, the
Moderna Musset in Stockholm, Sweden and the Israel Museum in Jerusalem. Dr.
Nechvatal's work was included in Documenta 8.
Dr. Nechvatal earned his Ph.D. in the philosophy of art and new technology
as a Ph.D. doctoral fellow researcher with The Centre for Advanced Inquiry
in the Interactive Arts (CAiiA) (see:
http://www.eyewithwings.net/nechvatal/ideals.htm). He served as Parisian
editor for "RHIZOME INTERNET" (http://www.rhizome.org) between the years
1996-2001 and now writes regularly for "The THING? (http://www.thing.net)
and "NY ARTS Magazine" (http://www.nyartsmagazine.com). Dr. Nechvatal
presently teaches ?Theories of Virtual Reality? and ?Viractualism? at the
School of Visual Arts in New York City. He is a founder of the Tellus Audio
Art Project (http://www.harvestworks.org/tellus/tellus.html). And served as
conference coordinator for the 1st International CAiiA Research Conference
entitled "CONSCIOUSNESS REFRAMED: Art and Consciousness in the
Post-Biological Era" (5 & 6 July 1997); an international conference which
looked at new developments in art, science, technology and consciousness
which was held at the Centre for Advanced Inquiry in the Interactive Arts,
University of Wales College, Newport, UK.
"The work of art, for those who use it, is an activity of unframing, of
rupturing sense, of baroque proliferation or extreme impoverishment which
leads to a recreation and a reinvention of the subject itself."
-Félix Guattari, "Chaosmosis: An Ethico-Aesthetic Paradigm"
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