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Golan Levin and Collaborators

Interviews and Dialogues

Interview by Alexandra Nemerov

Interview: Golan Levin February 26, 2007.
From Nemerov, Alexandra. "Within, Without: New Media and the White Cube." CUREJ - College Undergraduate Research Electronic Journal, 2007. http://repository.upenn.edu/curej/71

AN: How do you define New Media?

GL: A funny definition that I heard recently was: anything that was created after you were born. So actually, for most of my students the computer is not New Media, but it is for me. But it changes quickly. In general, there’s an interest in exploring the aesthetic possibilities and cultural implications of new technology, whatever new technology means. The idea is: why should government and industry be the only ones to determine what new technology is, what it does, who it’s for, and why it operates. Artists want to have a say in that.

AN: Generative art is a more specific term for New Media that is generated by algorithms. Do you see this as New Media’s future?

GL: Potentially much closer to New Media’s past, or at least, its origins. The first computer art about 40 years ago, that was done by people like Manfred Mohr, Frieder Naacke, Lillian Schwartz, and Kenneth Knowlton, was generative because they were exploring the idea of algorithms in a variety of forms. You would put in an algorithm and get infinite variations on a shape, and that was computer art. They would print it out. Generative art is one of many different subgenres of New Media art practice nowadays. There are others, such as so-called “hacktivism”; that is a really active field right now: people working with political feeds and using that work to achieve an end. Folks like Ubermorgen, with really sophisticated “hacktivism,” or the IAA (Institute for Applied Autonomy), which uses New Media technology to question surveillance. I don’t think that generative art represents the future of generative art, but I certainly do think it represents a future. There are some people who work in the field of generative cinema: you hit a button and you get a different ending every time. That’s a really active part of the field right now.

AN: At the Cybersonica festival you noted that the four pillars of digital art are transmediality (tangibility, audiovisuality, environment), processuality (generativity, algorithmic processes), connectivity (communication, connection) and interactivity (creative flow, play, cybenetic feedback). Do you see these tenets as motivated by Postmodernist concepts or by specific features of the media itself?

GL: Definitely the latter; they’re not my categories. I’m indebted to Gerfried Stocker who’s the curator of the Ars Electronica Festival for pointing these pillars out to me. Obviously there’s lots of different ways of cutting New Media, and that there should be only these four, or that these are the only four, would be patent nonsense, but it’s a good first cut. Connections between your background in postmodern critical theory are more rarely applied than you might think. New Media has been in its own ghetto for the past thirty years and quite distinct from many trends in contemporary art which have been much more informed by postmodern critical theory. I think that the four features really have much more to do with features of the medium and how it operates in relation to people.

Connectivity is really about the fact that technology connects people in a virtual space like on the telephone—you and I are connected now in a virtual space. Processuality is something that is really leftover from modernism. One of the more interesting questions is how New Media practices connect with process art in the 1960s: people like Sol Lewitt and Mel Bochner. And the interesting thing is that the early computer artists were contemporaneous with them, but in fact, those guys didn’t like each other. The New Media artists of 1968 were like “our stuff actually works. We built a machine to do this process for us instead of having to use subjective verbal descriptions.” The conceptualists were like “we don’t need a machine. All we need to do is say it.” Right there was the rift. Transmediality is something that is coming from the idea that you can map any kind of other data. And that’s really coming out of digital theory and computer science—what happens when things become digital. And the consequences are vast. Interactivity is something that never existed in art before. I think one thing that distinguishes New Media art is that many of these examples show an artist forming a new way of communicating, a new means of expression. And I think that the artwork is literally the presentation to the public of this new, expressive medium. The artist is actually developing a new means of expression. And this medium has as much expression as a computer or a television, except that it’s a lot less useful. I think that a lot of contemporary art still believes that medium is a vessel for communicating some other kind of idea. Like video: you have a video about something. And a lot of New Media art really owes a lot of debt to McLuhan for pointing out that “the medium is the message.” Literally, the subject and content of the work is the medium itself. The idea that one could communicate in this way. I think that that’s the real difference from contemporary art: paintings and videos are necessarily about something. If you buy McLuhan, there isn’t anything in that. The place where postmodern critical theory comes into New Media art is where it relates to repurposing cultural assets. An example would be Jennifer and Kevin McCoy with chopping digital information up and reassembling it in interesting ways, it has a lot to do with media-based media, but also a lot to do with the means of reassembly and decontextualization.

AN: The way that I’ve positioned my research on New Media thus far is as an extension of the postmodern practices of museum critique which disrupted the traditional art historical narrative, brought temporality within the exhibition space, dissolved boundaries between “high” and “low” culture, disrupted the symbiosis of context and content, and allowed for a variety of sources to be available as the content of artwork. Do you see your work as this same type of extension? A work that sticks out in my mind which engages with many of these concepts is The 64 Dumpster by way of its use of its surrounding context of the popular “teenage blog” as the source of content for its expression as well as its display on the web pages of many prominent institutions such as the Tate Online, the Whitney’s Artport, and Turbulence.org…

GL: I think you could make an argument for all of that, but it’s only because New Media is now beginning to find its way into the Museum. It’s not the other way around. Dissolving content and the boundary between authorship of the artist vs. the audience has precursors in contemporary art history before New Media existed. Fluxis, for example. But, you know, it hasn’t really been intended as a reflexive way of questioning the Museum and authorship. It’s more that the medium itself just does this. And the Museum has largely avoided it, frankly. But I think that all of these ideas definitely play a role in New Media work, but I’m not sure that they figure prominently in the conceptualization of New Media Art. I actually think that it’s only now that postmodern critical theory and New Media are coming together in a substantive way. If you look at the main compilations of writings on New Media, most of it is coming from the history of technology. It talks about the ways that technology will affect our lives. And artists have looked at these cultural implications. New Media work has been ignored by Museums for a number of years. I mean specifically computational New Media work. For example, by context, video has been embraced for just as long. So I’m not talking about that New Media. But Museums have not known what to do with New Media work, it’s only now that they’re beginning to incorporate it because they feel that it’s received legitimacy. Now that it’s been around for 40 years, they think that it’s finally time to make some distinctions about “High” and “Low.” You could make an argument that Net Art existed on the Net because it was trying to critique the museum, or you could say that it was created by artists who thought that work could exist on the Internet.

AN: Expanding on this question, do you see the nearly alchemical legitimization process which occurs when a work is displayed in the context of a museum occurring when a work is displayed on the wall of an institution’s webpage? Is there a hierarchy of web pages?

GL: Maybe. Museums have the authority to confer legitimacy on just about everything they touch. For example, the Tate Online and Whitney Artport are attempting to have a little bit of art on their websites, but they’re really on limited budgets and go from year to year, and it’s always a question if they will continue. In many cases museum directors don’t even know what they have on there. My Dumpster, for example: the fact that it was sponsored by the Tate and the Whitney gives it a certain legitimacy among people who believe in that sort of legitimacy. So, for example, I’m a professor at Carnegie Mellon and maybe at my tenure review process they’ll see that I had a commission at the Whitney and think that's great. But the real message of whether or not something is successful on the Internet is if it gets blogged, if it’s interesting, if people are talking about it, if it is something that creates a buzz. Something doesn’t need to be on the Whitney site to do that. You have a better chance of being discovered sooner. But you can do interesting projects, post them on your own webpage, email a few friends about them, and if the project’s worth anything, they’ll tell their friends and your project will be legitimized based on the Internet’s own characteristics. So I think to answer your question, the museum confers legitimacy to the people who believe in its legitimacy.

AN: Getting back to the Institution and the physical exhibition space for a minute, a few of your works such as The Hidden Worlds of Noise and Voice and RE:MARK utilize New Media technology but are actualized in “real” as opposed to virtual space. A commonality shared by these works, however, is their dependency on viewer interaction—a major tenet of digital art in general. In your opinion, what is the nature of this relationship and how does the “real” space change conceptions of your work in relation to your solely net-oriented pieces, which are also interactive and viewer-dependent?

GL: That’s interesting. I mean, I do all kinds of work: performances, installations, Net Art. I would like to speculate that my range is a bit on the wide side. Many New Media artists tend to focus in maybe one of those areas. Obviously, one of the major things I’m interested in is the use of the full body, the full corporeality of the person and the way of exploring different forms of interactivity. So, for example, I’m working now on a new piece that uses eye-tracking software to tell where the viewer’s pupil is located. This kind of exploration using those kinds of technologies can only be done in so-called “real space.” You just don’t have that ability on a browser. On the other hand, a browser gives you its advantages. You have ready connectivity virtually guaranteed, you have a convenient format that will more or less work on people’s machines, and you have an URL format that people can pass around if they like it. So the reasons for doing these different kinds of works are concerned with different ideas. All my works are concerned with communication. The Net Art that I’ve done is concerned with how people communicate online. You know, what the subject of peoples’ blogs are, how they use numbers on web pages. The installation work I’ve done is concerned with the use of the viewer’s body and communication, whether it be their voice, or using their eyes, their gestures, their posture. For me, interactivity is a subject. There are many New Media artists who do not use interactivity as a subject at all.

AN: Dialtones, on the other hand, utilizes an aspect of the popular (the cell phone) to infiltrate the “exhibition” space without the viewer’s active participation. In fact, it is merely their ownership of the device which relates them to the piece. How do you see these aspects of culture as particularly pertinent and meaningful to the Institutional space?

GL: I felt kind-of awkward about Dialtones when I made it, because I’m so concerned with interactivity, and it is concerned with ownership. But the strange thing actually is that people feel surprisingly close to their cell phones; they’re actually a little extension of their body. The piece is more interactive than I’d expected, because all they had to do was own the phone. But when they were sitting in the performance space and suddenly their phone rang, something happened in the mind. Probably, something like, “Someone’s calling me, I have to answer my phone.” A mental event transpires there. And to catch yourself and realize that it’s a concert is something that was played out nearly 8,000 times in a half-hour performance. People kept getting caught in this weird digital event. What’s important about that is that it’s the difference between being in a car and driving and getting rear-ended by someone, and thinking, “Hey, someone hit my car,” and “Hey, someone hit me.” You actually think the latter, though they actually hit your car. I think that the concert made that clear with the mobile phone.

AN: What do you see as the major challenges which New Media poses to the exhibition space that modernist works did not? As we move forward, is it possible for the exhibition space to reshape itself in order to properly exhibit New Media work or will our future paradigm be purely virtual?

GL: Exhibiting New Media work in the Museum is a real challenge because most museums lack an IT staff, and computers present a challenge that marble sculptures don’t. Computers fail after a while; hard drives crash; electronics corrode. In the case of electromechanical installations, there is certainly failure after repeated use. Especially electronic things that people are touching, even more so if it’s interactive. I have one installation where all people touch is the microphone, and you let it run for a year and the hardware and the computer is fine, but the microphone is totally damaged, if not outright stolen. So, there are challenges to presenting New Media work in that people need to understand how to care for it. There’s another question now as to how to care for New Media work not five, but fifty years from now when technology is different. Jon Ippolito has written really interesting stuff about emulators and ways of archiving digital works in ways that you’re not archiving documentation of a work, but rather how you keep software running for fifty or one hundred years, though it may not be the same computer. There’s this thing called an emulator—when I was twelve years old I had this thing called an Atari 2600 computer which ran a lot of classic arcade games, and now those computers are pretty expensive. So if you don’t happen to have one, you can buy this thing called a software emulator and it will pretend to be the Atari 2600 and emulates all of the wiring and programming of the 2600. It’s a Virtual computer running on an actual computer. So, I can take my old computer and “burn it” onto my new computer. So that’s what an emulator is, and that may hold the key to archiving important works of New Media art. Museums aren’t just interested in how you present New Media work, but they’re interested in its longevity, how you keep it. No one is building computers to last fifty years. So, that’s the future, I think. It depends on Museums getting a technical staff.

AN: I’ve been thinking about the possibility of creating a sense of place within the virtual realm, specifically in relation to spaces such as “Second Life,” etc. How do you see this future unfolding and how will our viewing paradigm adapt from that of the “white cube” aesthetic?

GL: Its funny, in the early 1990s there was a huge amount of interest in Virtual Reality, particularly in European New Media work. Everyone thought that the future of New Media was going to be putting on a helmet and virtual effects and avatars. I think this idea comes around again and again and again. I think that there’s a lot more continuity in this idea than you might expect. I think there’s a future in it, you don’t even have to look at “Second Life,” even just multiplayer gaming. Forever ago people had LambdaMoo; it was basically a text-based Virtual Reality.

AN: The way that I’m thinking about it is that that’s as close as I can tell of a sense of place in the virtual. I personally have trouble seeing a wall of a webpage as comparable to the wall of a gallery at this point, and “Second Life” feels closer to achieving that.

GL: I think you’d be surprised as to how certain digital works can communicate a sense of place, even though I can’t think of good examples offhand. 3D Virtual Reality is not the only way of doing it. You have to be open to other ways and different possibilities.

AN: Many of your works, such as Dumpster and The Secret Lives of Numbers, utilize aspects of the Internet itself as the content of the work. In consideration of postmodern practices and Institutional critique, do you see this work as a critique of the Internet as an Institution itself?

GL: The Internet is not really an institution in any traditional sense. It’s massively distributed; it’s not a hierarchy at all. There’s no one to complain to; there isn’t a boss of the Internet. It’s possible to critique the ways people use it, things people say on it, investigate kinds of communication you find on it. In the pieces you’ve mentioned, I was more interested in the patterns that people use, particularly in this new space. In a way that’s quite timeless. I hope that in Dumpster you have a certain timeless quality: people have been breaking up and having heartache for a long time. The Secret Lives of Numbers doesn’t need to be on the Internet, it just takes advantage of the fact that the Internet is compiling all of this stuff for us. It uses the Internet but it’s not really critiquing it. Of course there is some really great Net Art that critiques institutions on the Internet. For example, Ubermorgen’s work on Google, "Google Will Eat Itself". Ubermorgen plays with notions of what the Internet could be used for. It could be used for auctioning votes, as in one of their projects.