Esthétique des Flux. Interview with Gregory Chatonsky
recto/verso: Being one of the pioneers of net art, what is your definition of it? How do you distinguish someone who makes art online from someone doing things online? I think that Capture follows this path of reflection exactly…
Gregory Chatonsky: It would be difficult to summarize all the history of netart. It has given rise to many debates and multiple strategies. What I have noticed is that very quickly, some players in the netart wanted to invent its History and, at the same time, historicize themselves. The almost immediate passage between Contemporary and History seems to be a symptom of our time: we know that all is going to be lost very quickly, that immediate obsolescence is also going to affect our devices and that we need to develop discourses to follow in another temporality. Thus the notion of pioneering, of frequent use, is rooted in the imagination of the American West, of the Wild West in Silicon Valley. When the classic net.art declare that the netart died, there is, beyond a false forward thinking, a way of appropriating a domain: because if it is dead, we are simultaneously the first and last. The act of certifying death is also a declaration of birth. I think it’s time to make a critical juncture and analyze from a distance this historicizing procedure as an artistic capture strategy. Unfortunately some art historians have taken this to its first degree. As for the distinction between an art that would address the network as a medium and a different art, which would consider it in a strictly instrumental way, I see it there an avatar of Greenbergian modernity where the sovereignty of the artwork is identified with the process of empowering the medium. What interests me here is how the “net art” reactivated past discussions and became a bearer for nearly 20 years of a certain modernist posture that saw the development of coding, glitch, GIF, etc. Web for web, art for art, money for money, these self-references circulate on each other. For my part, I was moved by another intuition consisting of how existence seemed to intertwine with network technologies. It is this grey area between life, body, emotions and the web that has been the object of my artistic research. This may seem obvious today, as we are constantly connected, but in 1994, when I started doing netart basing Incident, it was not so clear. I was moved by these forums, by these meetings, by all these texts and new kinds of images. Something was troubling me. I had the feeling that history was about to be made. I was at the time very marked by Histoire(s) du cinéma by Godard and I thought that if the cinema was the history of the twentieth century, the Web would probably be the history of the twenty-first century and therefore we need to tell it and imagine it. Telling this Story was to make fiction.
You are part of a generation born when the Internet did not exist, how did you discover it and how has your relationship with this evolving technology changed over the years?
We tend to consider the Web as independent of a wider telematics context and we think that this network was a first time, which would justify the existence of “digital natives”, the delimitation that would set a before and after. Now, the position of France was special with the introduction of the Minitel in 1980. The Web is of course different from the Minitel but they have some common points: waiting time, navigation, the importance of the text, the remote sociality, etc. As far back as I can remember, I have had access to a network, my psychology, my body, my desires have grown with it. Internet was the logical continuation of the Minitel and of my experience of BBS on Amiga, a sense of community without community. The first time I had access to the web as such was in 1994. I was working for the magazine Traverses of Centre Pompidou which had a connection thanks to IRCAM. Having Internet at home was rare and expensive at the time. So I spent hours browsing and I was immediately fascinated by the strangeness of what I found. There were not a lot of sites, but it already had a certain density, texts that were not published elsewhere. It is hard to imagine, to get back into the context of the time. Some books were rare, some music too, nothing was circulating as now, the underground was not just a marketing ploy, but a fact of diffusion. Soon I felt that something was happening, that a culture, that is to say a certain emotion the face the History in the making, was being born. There were then so many periods of evolution, of breaks in my relation to the network. It has been difficult to relate to it, I can only follow a common thread: the Internet is an observation post. I see the symptoms, a possible fate of our civilization. I never had the feeling of dominating the Internet, of creating or hacking it as an artist. I had the impression of being made by it, of having to deal with it, to adapt myself. Not that the technological developments in themselves are important, but rather the uses, the way people experience the Web and how the network intensifies rifts in us. I am always fascinated by the anonymous community on which we can navigate by watching photos and texts of lives. Sometimes I try to follow the profile of someone I do not know, I find their addresses, I look it up on Google Streetview and I imagine what it would be like to live there. I still remember a bit of the world before, not just before the Internet, but before globalization (and in a sense they are the same). But it is increasingly hard to feel this world that has disappeared.
In your text « Esthétique des Flux » you propose a contemporary reading from a Historical analysis of the “flows”, fundamentals in the practical and ideological foundation of Western civilization. Can you define the concept of flow, in a historical context?
The concept of flow interested me for a long time as it was the subject of my PhD. It is a word frequently used to describe the experience on the Web, but also many other things: the migratory and financial flows, the urban and energetic flows, the ecological and natural flows, the bodily ones, etc. Beyond this diversity of application fields, the flows indicate that something can outflank us and overwhelm us. Something so big, so complex and massive from which is difficult to protect ourselves. Everywhere and nowhere at once, they exceed us in the manner of Timothy Morton’s HyperObjets. I tried to develop a historicity of flows, assuming they are essential to the material foundation of the city. To group individuals in a small space, you have to enter and exit flows. They therefore respond to very concrete questions of a hydrological kind. They are at the same time laden with a heavy meaning in the cosmological foundation narratives. Finally, they are ambivalent: what can cause death by flooding is also the source of life. This ambivalence is at the heart of the relationship between the Egyptian civilization and the Nile floods. I discovered that, over time, the flows put into play three fundamental areas: nature, the body and techniques. Depending on the period, the flows enter these fields at different ratios of proportion, reports that define the Zeitgeist. Physis for the Greeks, the body for bleeding of the classical age, the techniques for the industrial age. My hypothesis is that the Web is a turning point in articulating the nature, the body and techniques in a new way. Perhaps it is the product of our perspectival view, showing us the turning point of our contemporaneity, but those are disturbing elements. The artworks themselves could be considered as attempts, in the course of history, to shape the flow, to answer this impossible challenge of securing the moving while keeping its fluidity. It is as if the historical ambivalence of flows, source of life and death, met this other aesthetic and material ambivalence. I can not here list all the consequences of flows, but I have tried to develop a historical, economic and ontological system leading to an aesthetic between inflow, influx and reflux allowing, I think, to find a balance between the understanding of some new and some historical heritage.
In the same article you talk about informatics as a grouping of nature, body and technique, in a “black box”. In it the aesthetic of flows manifests itself in a feeling that at the same time poses a distance, and it is this excess that the machine helps man to perceive. In what ways do the flows go beyond human and take us closer to aesthetics?
If the machine opens an overtaking and an aesthetic approximation, which may seem contradictory, it is because it changes the same conditions of producing reality. To understand this, we must go back to the first cybernetics and speculative debates between Wiener, Neumann, Shannon and Turing. To transmit a signal over long distances, we go from a physical apprehension to a conception of the signal as a code. This may sound abstract, but it is what will pave the way for the widespread consolidation, not because the reality is originally encoded, but because it can be codified: everything will be considered as a binary sequence. This is the final plan of the Matrix film. The most important consequence of this codification is the ability to transform reality. The discovery-invention of the genetic code, which is contemporary to the appearance of informatics, will help to recode the living being, that is to say, to transform the conditions of the observer himself. Science won’t be the apprehension, ideal or deferred, of that which exists independently of it, but technological ability to transform what is. We are not looking for the physis anymore, but to know what can be changed. The technological speculation acts on the world and produces its globalization, its becoming-world. The computer is a “black box”, in the words of Minsky, which dreams of being isolated and sovereign in the manner of data centres. Buried in its circuits are the conditions of the experience: the repetition of calculation will be flawless Not counting on the failure that is inherent in the technique. From there, the “black box” makes a double movement. It sensory cuts us by its sovereignty, it brings us closer immersing us, it is this structural ambivalence of flows that amuses us so when we see a person with a virtual reality headset as Oculus Rift: the telescoping between the inside and the outside. The web connects the “black box” to the world, it is a meditator. Even more, it is the globalization the world becoming world, which is probably not yet world. It is nature that is affected, the network crosses territories and seas, the data centres require a lot of energy, etc. The bodies are troubled, connected remotely, wishing, at the heart of this separation, for a reconciliation. The network mobilizes our bodies. Finally, there are of course the technologies that are constantly materially weaving, but also ideologically on the Web. The “black box” sees everything as a binary stream, and this simplification can integrate all other streams because they are subject to a higher flow, 0 and 1. I am pleased to see that this emotion of the network, which goes far beyond a technological and policy framework, and finally affect the art world reflexively after years of blindness. Many are beginning to realize that the network reconfigures how to imagine, produce, distribute, document and market the works of art. This becomes excessive even today because we are finally overestimating the importance of the network and the separation of a wider ontological context.
You consider the flow as a source of criticism of the metaphysics and of another Ontology that you call “a-human”. Your project Telofossils is a kind of archaeology of the future, can you describe this scenario? What connection exists between this imaginary future and recent theories about the Anthropocene?
Télofossiles was created in collaboration with Dominique Sirois, in 2013 at the Museum of Contemporary Art in Taipei and in 2015 in a gallery in Beijing Caochangdi. It all started with the creation of a word in 2009, Télofossile, and an image: a mineral world where mankind has disappeared, it remains only archaeological evidence. Another intelligence (organic? Machinic? We do not know it) discovers this remains and tries to restore what we have been. This knowledge is incomplete, but it gives back the picture of what we were. This speculation on our demise is of course a way to generate the conditions for a reflection on our contemporaneity and on the status of our fanatic production. What do we do when we create millions of identical objects? What desire is at work when we store more and more existential data whose interest is often minor? Why, even when survival conditions are collapsing, we always produce more by filling up a world that will soon be emptied of our presence? Anticipating our demise is to open a paradoxical aesthetic speculation, since it is through the imagination of our absence that we can fully grasp the conditions of our present. What happens to each individual when they becoming aware of their certain death is that they fully support life, could well apply to our species as a whole: accept our demise (as species appear and disappear) as the enhancement of our lives. It is by finding out if the word Télofossile existed before that I discovered Après la finitude (2006) by Quentin Meillassoux and his antonymous concept of archéfossile. I know how the “new” materialism, realism and accélérationnism are fashionable and have often been overused in the field of contemporary art, but it was fun for me to see how some of my artistic intuitions joined the writings of Meillassoux, a posteriori. The theories of the Anthropocene are multiple. They are often divided into two parts: the first is scientific and consists to describe objectively the influence of humans on the environment. The second is more ideological and can consist of a denunciation of the bad influence of humans on Earth, according to the Christian figure of the Fall and Evil, or of a will to save mankind from itself as an ambivalent logic of the pharmakon, since we would be both the poison and the solution. I confess that I feel closer to ahumans theories that consider the Earth in its autonomy and recognize that organic species disappear. In the fierce desire of human beings to survive eternally, one current expressions is transhumanism, there are strategies that could well produce the opposite of what they believe enact.
What is the role played by technology in this scenario of the end of the world? How could technology become a memory of human history?
Following Télofossiles, Dominique and I and in collaboration with Jussi Parrika conceived the project Extinct memories in Quebec and Brussels specifically turning us to the issue of technological archaeology as a memory of our species. Technologies were often considered as the possible cause of human destruction as a promethean logic, but their role may also become an ahuman memory, as if we produced the conditions of our exceeding. Each technological object carries in fact the trace of missing persons: the designer, the artisan, the employee, the user, etc. On the objects, we see the patina of fingers and uses, the passing time. Therefore, the objects around us can be considered as tombs. Horizon (2016) shows how the Web is not immaterial, but is an heavy infrastructure that dream of its immateriality and its immunity, at a very high cost. This also raises the question of Web conservation and archaeology how the collective memory created and communicated through the Internet is selected, preserved and transmitted by private companies. This is a subject which also comes up in Extinct Memories where the main character, Urs Hölzle, is the head of Google’s infrastructure. Today, are we able to organize and preserve this heritage? What if this heritage is constituted in the absence of human beings? What if it was destined to machines? What if all these anonymous existences allowed the machine to form a double, repetitive enough to be likely and different enough to be unique?
Incident.net is an artistic platform based in France, Canada, Senegal and online since 1994 and meets around the concepts of accident, bug, unpredictability and network. How it is structured and developed between its different creators and participants?
Incident is one of the first “collective” of netart. I place the word “collective” in quotes as this word seems problematic. Without doubt I would prefer the word “platform”. The idea at first was to blend discursive and artistic practices, to make them indifferent, as the separation between theory and practice seemed obsolete. So it was speculation around and in the network. We gathered a few philosophers of Paris I, a few artists of Fine Arts of Paris. Soon, we were interested in textuality, narration, variability. I think what continues to unite us is a sort of affection for the network and a certain way of working. We have not published a manifesto, we produced short texts that we exchange. Sometimes we discuss of our artistic projects for the other to be present from the conception stage. It is a way to be very fluid and flexible. Very emotional too. Looking back, I think we have traced a particular path in netart. It is not research on the autonomy of the medium, in the modernist way of net.art. It is not immersive and sensory as digital art. It is interested in small stories, in worlds that might arise.
In a text that we recently published for h/d Kepler we ask ourselves questions around the issue of originality in contemporary society. Here are some that we want to ask you: are we indifferent to the notion of authenticity? If digital art is an open, freely editable or hackable system, is the being open part of the definition of digital art? Are we indifferent to the question of originality of digital works just because it is difficult to calculate their economic value?
The question of originality is complex, because even if it seems to be obvious in art, it is a historic concept. Ancient art began by copying, by the transition from one civilization to another. This mixing created something new between the Greeks and the Romans. We could call it version, a form that becomes another form, a cultural and historical flow. The appearance of originality is less about matter than a certain understanding of subjectivity with the late figure of the artist. This is because if the artist would be absolutely original then the object would be too. The originality concerns the origin. With digital, we return to a materiality, which is without origin because it is has already been given. I believe that to define what we are sensitive to with the digital objects, we should locate its materiality not in a specific form, not in the code that refreshes, but in a flow, which may include a variation, and that binds organically with the flow of our consciousness. As for the relations between originality and the value of an art work, we should deconstruct this question seeing that the value is not inherent to the object, but to the institutional relationship. The value comes from outside and takes it to the outside, as a hydrological system. Somehow, and to be quick, we are returning with the digital néomatérialisme to the normal. Capture, a fictional rock band I founded in 2008 with Olivier Alary, questions the status of originality in contemporary society. It is an ironic “solution” to the crisis of cultural industries. Indeed, for years, the music industry (and also the cinema and the press) continues to stage its own disappearance, because online users download illegally mp3 files. Capture is so productive that any person can consume. It produces every hour new music, lyrics, images, videos and products. Each new file is automatically translated into other formats. If an mp3 file is downloaded once, it is deleted from the server thus the “consumer” becomes the only possible diffuser. Submerging consumption through generative technologies, Capture reverses consumerist ideology and the relationship between desire and objects. Being very productive, Capture exceeds the same opportunity to be heard.
Regarding the practice of appropriation and reinterpretation of “analogue” artworks by a digital medium, what exactly was the process behind the series “It’s not really you?”
“It’s not really you” is an artificial neural network that I have fed with thousands of images automatically retrieved on the Web. This network has learned the forms, but also the styles of these human paintings to generate new images. These resemble the original images, but they are not identical to any of them. Repetitive and therefore different, the artificial intelligence created a different version. The operation of these neural networks is interesting because they are schizophrenic. A part of the software generates images and another part checks if the result is “realistic.” It’s like if a human part had been delegated to a split machine and the Turing test was effected at the heart of the “black box”. These images are then printed with the 2.5D process that provides a relief printing to simulate to completion this resemblance “uncanny valley”. The Internet is perhaps not an interpersonal communication medium as was often believed. Perhaps with the network we have to connect two heterogeneous series, anthropological and mechanical series. Web 2.0 was to delegate to users the creation of data, using the machine to record our behaviors and memories in an explicit or implicit way. These records allow forming large data sets that machines can treat to learn from us and replicate our data. This convergence between artificial neurons and big data, I name it neural.net. The machines produce a version, likeness and new. I think that it’s this tiny difference between the two series that bears my work in recent years.