A conversation between Josè Luis Barrios and Rafael Lozano-Hemmer
* This is the edited transcription of a teleconference which took place in the Sala de Arte P·blico Siquieros (SAPS), Mexico City, on the 20th of April 2005, and which was moderated by the director of SAPS, Itala Schmelz. Translation from the Spanish original by Rebecca MacSween.
JLB 1: Without a doubt the evolution of electronic art, or new media art, presents new challenges for both the theory and philosophy of art. In general, these challenges are analyzed using conceptual perspectives that deal with relations to social, political or cultural facets. However, the connections that these artistic explorations have with aesthetics and epistemology are little explored. In this context, and to get us started, what are the theoretical lineages that nurture or inspire your work?
RLH 1: I read critical theory primarily for pleasure, as a catalyst, but I never consider it to be a recipe or a manual, nor do I presume to know how any theory might interpret my work while in the process of creating it. I was educated here in Canada where during the 80’s and 90’s I studied post-structuralist theory on the one hand, and the theory of information and complexity on the other. Through the guidance of Brian Massumi and other teachers I witnessed the takeover of North America by French thinkers like Derrida, Deleuze, Foucault, Barthes, etcetera. For three years (1988-1991) I directed a radio show called “The Postmodern Commotion” that was dedicated to putting into practice what we considered to be post-modern activist tactics. We interviewed a number of thinkers such as Frederic Jameson, Jean-FranÁois Lyotard and Terry Eagleton. In the early 90’s the term “post-modern” dissolved and it became clear that the new trend was toward the “virtual”. In keeping with this shift I turned to thinkers like Geert Lovink, Tim Druckrey, Donna Haraway, Siegfried Zielinski, Peter Weibel, Sandy Stone, Simon Penny, and others who helped me form more critical ideas on virtualization. These days I mainly read about science: Chaos Theory, uncertainty, the strange world of Quantum Mechanics and non-linear phenomena, —authors like Mexican writer Manuel DeLanda and Ilya Prigogine. I think the science of complexity, for example, offers us very fertile terrain for creativity. Unfortunately, the humanities continue to maintain a rather antiquated, almost 19th century vision of science in general.
Within “Canadian” traditions there are authors to whom I feel a great affinity. Above all with respect to the idea of understanding technology not as a tool, or as something that is separate from us, but rather as a “second skin” to use the words of Marshall McLuhan. After the end of phenomenology people no longer wondered about the nature of pre-linguistic consciousness. In the same way, we now consider it impossible to think about our world without technology simply because technology has become the language or the unavoidable medium for our thoughts. I work with technology not because it is original, but precisely because it is inevitable and commonplace in our global society.
JLB 2: There is a distinguishing factor that defines modernity and that has to do with self-awareness, or the ability of the subject to both represent and represent self-reflexively his activities and relationships with the world. An important aspect of this is expressed in the Foucaultian concept technologies of the gaze. Throughout the history of art and visual culture various strategies of the gaze have existed. How do you distinguish and conceptualize those strategies that belong to the present and how are they manifested in your work?
RLH 2: New visual experiments have always been aided, or even initiated, by technological advancements. For example, perspective during the Renaissance, anamorphosis as part of Mannerism, or EugËne Chevreul’s color theory for the Impressionists. In this context my contribution is the following: Walter Benjamin spoke with great clarity about the birth of modernism. For him the image is that which can be reproduced mechanically, a condition that eliminates the aural quality from a work of art. Mechanical reproduction democratizes art, popularizes it, and takes away that privileged point of view born of singularity. However, with digital technologies I believe that the aura has returned, and with a vengeance, because what digital technology emphasizes, through interactivity, is the multiple reading, the idea that a piece of art is created by the participation of the user. The idea that a work is not hermetic but something that requires exposure in order to exist is fundamental to understand this “vengeance of the aura”.
Today digital art, —actually all art—, has awareness. This has always been true, but we have now become aware of art’s awareness. Pieces listen to us, they see us, they sense our presence and wait for us to inspire them, and not the other way around. It is no coincidence that post-modern art emphasizes the audience. In linguistic theory Saussure would say that it is impossible to have a dialogue without being aware of your interlocutor. Exactly the same thing was said, almost 100 years ago in the art world by Duchamp, for example, when he said, “le regard fait le tableau” (the look makes the painting). What we see happening is that this concept of dependency is reinforced by digital technology. Pieces of art are in a constant state of becoming. It’s not that they “are” but that they are “changing into”. I think the artist no longer has a monopoly over their work, or an exhaustive or total position over its interpretation or representation. Today, it is a more common idea—an idea that I defend—that the work itself has a life. The work is a platform and yes the platform has an authorship, but it also has its points of entry, its loose ends, its tangents, its empty spaces and its eccentricities. In this sense, artworks tend to be eclectic which for me signifies the liberation of art, the freedom to reaffirm its meaning.
In contrast to the idea of creation through the gaze of the public, the other side of the coin should also be mentioned; the panoptic computerized gaze. Artistic interest in criticizing the predatory gaze of the surveillance camera is nothing new; there is for example the work of Dan Graham, Bruce Nauman or Julia Scher, to mention a few. What is new is the degree of computerization that the new surveillance systems, which invade our public and private spaces, possess. Stemming directly from the American "Patriot Act” is a wide variety of computer-vision techniques that, for example, are intended for identifying suspicious individuals or classifying them based on ethnic traits. It is literally about technologies designed to discriminate based on a series of innate prejudices. This new intensification of surveillance is extremely problematic because, in the words of Manuel DeLanda “it endows the computer with the power of executive decision making”. What is also new is the amount of memory that these systems have thanks to ever-smaller storage units and increasingly efficient compression-decompression algorithms (codecs) that allow for the recording and reproduction of events from the distant past. Lastly, the widespread popularization of cameras by reality shows and the penetration into public and private spaces by means of things like web cams should be mentioned. I have no doubt that a new type of art is emerging in order to confront these technologies of the panoptic and post-optic gaze. The Institute for Applied Autonomy, Harun Farocki and the Bureau of Inverse Technology are some examples of this new line of inquiry.
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer Studio
Haunch of Venison, London, Zurich, Berlin, New York
Galerie Guy Bärtschi, Genève
bitforms gallery, New York
Galería OMR México
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer at Mexican Pavilion at the 52nd Venice Biennale
Rafael Lozano-Hemmer on wikipedia