Alexei Shulgin: Dear Natalie,
I know your background (as mine) was photography. How come you ended up in virtual space?
Natalie Bookchin: Most of my education in photography began after getting a job at a university as a professor of photography. I had already moved away from photography a number of years before and was working with installations using a variety of different media and materials, including embroidery, video, paper clips, and CD-ROM. But universities, like other institutions, lag behind individuals. Universities have bureaucracies, budgets, and students who are paying money and often expecting a particular product. As the providers, we often perpetuate this exchange in order to survive economically, and squeeze ourselves into the institutions' limited slots, trying to fit within or stretch the boundaries in which we are enclosed.
My move to virtual space was also initially stimulated by economics. I was asked to teach a large lecture class called "Introduction to Computing in the Arts"--and agreed to do it in part because I needed health insurance . . . another long story. This class became my introduction to "computing in the arts." I spent the summer of 1997 online researching and preparing for this class and began running into work and activities of some artists that blew my mind. I didn't know anything about these people, but it turns out that one of them was Alexei Shulgin and another was Heath Bunting.
Ultimately, I do not see my move and commitment to virtual space as arbitrary. As a tool, I find the computer to be extremely useful and exciting. As a means of communication, the Internet is more powerful than any other mediated tool that I have come across -- it allows for ongoing, lengthy, and complex communication with fairly large audiences, and also allows for interventionist and disruptive new types of social and cultural activities for limited amounts of money and technical expertise.
In the past I was rather unfaithful to media. I was always suspicious of disciplines and over-specialization. Now, for the first time, I have found myself remaining more or less "faithful" to a medium. This is not to say that I will not and do not work in other ways, and with other tools, but I do believe that the Internet and the computer are the most important media of our times. The computer obviously isn't even a medium in the way that we used to think about the term. Even this needs to be redefined. It is a "meta-medium": a simulation machine, and in this way very hard to pin down.
I think that because the computer and the net are reshaping most aspects of our lives and redefining what it means to be alive today, it is crucial for artists and others to work in this space, to use it in unexpected and unintended ways, to question and work against the way that it limits our lives as well as to investigate ways that it might be used to "enable" our lives.
These technologies have a strange, complicated, and quite ugly history that continues in all its ugliness to this day. In part, because of this curious and problematic history -- although I, unlike others, would not want all artists and intellectuals to abandon their pens and paintbrushes and race to the keyboard -- this is where I am committed to be.
AS: What do you mean here?
NB: The ugly history of the computer, as we know, includes its militaristic origins and continued uses. Also, given the huge costs of technological development and now the great potential (and success for some) at achievingenormous profits, this technology more often than not falls into the wrong hands and leads to its consistent and rather successful usage for social and economic control. Also, there is the problem of the Internet in particular being seen as a viable substitute for real (physical) experience and human contact. And finally, the computer can make real life appear as an abstraction. The most dangerous and extreme example of this is the way that war and genocide are presented as abstractions and simulations and are so easily removed from their real-world effects.
Oh, and I shouldn't leave out the current moment in this technology's strange history, with the recent AOL/TimeWarner takeover as an example of the steady and continuous takeover of the Internet by gigantic corporations.
AS: Since the number of ideas that might come to human minds in a period of time is limited and the possibility of spreading information on the Internet are almost unlimited, don't you think that "art on the Internet" will become (if not already is) very repetitive and plagiarist? In other words, too few ideas for such big space.
NB: No, not at all; because I think that the Internet and its impact on our lives is constantly changing, evolving, and growing.
I do think, however, that the term "art" (as in "art on the Internet") can be used to limit the impact of some activities in this medium.
It is at times wiser not to place ourselves or our activities into the category of art, as it can be used to justify and tame otherwise quite radical activities (although others are bound to place us there). The term "art" can be used as a quick way to understand and justify an otherwise complicated series of activities.
AS: In official situations you usually present yourself as "artist and professor." To make this list a bit longer, what definitions of yourself would you add?
NB: When I am filling out official forms (for customs, health insurance, etc.), I say I am a professor. Definitions are slippery, and depend very much on context. Dictionaries have to be updated regularly, and in this sped-up era, words and their meanings change even more quickly than they did in the past.
As for context, in certain situations I have defined myself as an artist. Other times I insist that I am not an artist at all but that I am an activist. There is a range of definitions in which my activities can fall. Definitions -- just like language (and media) -- both limit and enable communication.
AS: Is controversy between art and life painful for you? If so, how?
NB: Do you mean separation rather than controversy? I'm not sure I understand your question.
I do not know how to compartmentalize my life, so there is rarely any easy separation between art and life, unless it is forced upon me. Our collaboration has been a very clear example of my limited ability to separate art and life, and how the reality of our circumstances can make this lack of separation painful (see http://easylife.org/between).
The Net can make it seem that we are very close in our work and activities but cannot help us transcend the reality that you are in Moscow and I am in Los Angeles, and there remain enormous distances and disconnections.
But I do not mean to suggest that a separation between art and life is my desired state of existence, because it is not. It's just that society is now structured to compartmentalize all aspects of an individual's existence. Any sort of active resistance to a status quo, if it is taken seriously and lived out, cannot help at times being painful.
AS: Did you ever consider stopping doing what you are doing and starting something completely different?
NB: No. I haven't considered this since I discovered the power of the Internet.
AS: How do you see changes in notions of "private" and "public" on the Internet?
NB: I see that these changes are profound and massive.
AS: Eh, Natalie, you've started with long detailed answers and what is this?
NB: What is what?
AS: I mean the short answers you just gave. Another coffee, maybe?
NB: Exactly! I am going to make a coffee right this minute. Want some? How are you?
AS: Fine -- thinking about women.
NB: Your questions required long answers.
AS: Take your time.
Universal Page is not the first project that you have done with Alexei Shulgin. Why is this collaboration so attractive to you?
NB: I found this friendship and collaboration as a result of the Internet.
It is quite unique and also a product of our times that I have found this kind of affinity with a man who grew up and lives on the other side of the world both geographically and ideologically.Before working with Alexei I went through a number of unsuccessful collaborative efforts.
Collaboration has been extremely appealing to me, in part because I am most interested in making complex and substantial connections with other people and least interested in work that is about self-analysis, expression and self-promotion. In a successful collaboration, you have to leave behind narcissism and the isolated and heroic self quite a bit.
AS: Why were they not successful? What have you learned from those experiences?
NB: I think that they were transitional collaborations. I was still holding on to older and more traditional ways of making art, which very often goes against giving in to some of the more amazing results of collaboration.
They were collaborations made specifically for a museum or gallery space.
This is not necessarily a problem, but I think that with collaboration you have to remain open to the possibility that something other than what you are planning and expecting results from your activities, and that includes where your results might end up and what form they might take.
AS: That's good, but don't you think that working with another person brings limitations and leaves you less flexibility?.
NB: These days, my activities include working with a collective, working with you, and working by myself. When I need a break from one, I move to another. Each one has limitations, and each one can bring unexpected and often quite exciting results. I would not want to give up one type of activity for another, and I am happy to report that I don't have to! Each one satisfies, produces, and frustrates.
AS: Don't you think that the way your Universal Page looks brings some sad thoughts, like there is no hope and meaning in all human activity?
NB: You mean OUR Universal Page. No. If I thought that there was no hope and meaning in human activity, I would retire (or worse.) I think provocation is different than nihilism.
AS: Please change this for the record. What provocation?! We did it without knowing results . . .
NB: True, but I won't change this for the record unless you can do a better job of convincing me!
AS: Dear readers of this text . . .
What are we doing now? Trying to talk or presenting ourselves for other people? Don't forget about the honorarium: we have to deliver an interesting text!
NB: Sad thoughts can lead to new ideas and activities. I think that Universal Page signals the end of a particular set of activities on the Web -- the artist's Web page -- and asks for a new type of activity. It is the LAST Web page. The ULTIMATE Web page.
AS: ??? It's not an average of artists' pages, it's all the Internet.
NB: Yes, of course, but it ends up as artists' Web pages, of sorts. And it is being shown in the context of an art museum. I think there are some similarities in this work to our essay "An Introduction to net.art 1994-1999" in that it can be seen as a manifesto and a plea for movement. Our project could be interpreted as a very cynical statement. But that would be a superficial reading of it.
AS: What would be the profound reading of the project?
NB: It is (like you and me) a mixture of intense belief and hope in the possibilities of this new medium (and in art in general), together with a strong distrust of and frustration with its extensive hype and its numerous failings.
It is also a comment on the cultural loop: the constant swallowing up of "avant-garde" practices by institutions and our constant (and necessary) attempts at resisting this assimilation. It is about the dangers of making universal statements and the importance of specificity.
It is as I said before -- a provocation.
Today, beginning and ending with a Web page is no longer enough. The conversation that follows and the activities that it stimulates or encourages are what is important. We have yet to see the results. We can only hope!
AS: And where will we go after it?
NB: This is a key question. One place to go is to RTMark. But there are many other places needed. And not rtmark.com as the beginning of a genre. I am not looking for that at all.
AS: What are you going to do next?
NB: After the net.net.net series ends at the end of May, I am going to be working on a number of computer games. RTMark and I are going to be working on a game using artificial life whose working title is The Genetic Game, although I am sure this will change, and I am going to be turning my game The Intruder into a freestanding arcade game.
AS: The genre of game seems to be important for you. Why is that?
NB: I want to work with a genre that has mass popularity. Many people play computer games. Very few people look at net.art. I want to have some access to this audience of game players. Computer and video games are both enticing and problematic. Computer games are used to justify war and genocide and to teach this way of thinking. Lovers play games. I like the metaphor of gaming to discuss real life: love, politics, war, gender, storytelling, and death.
AS: How do you see role of an artist in the modern world, and how has it changed since the emergence of new informational paradigms?
NB: The role of the artist is both necessary and irrelevant -- a massive contradiction (a mass of contradictions). I think it is impossible in this era for our lives not to be filled with contradictions. Also, I think it is important to admit to these contradictions and to reject the myth of purity. There is no possibility of purity anymore.
Part of what can save us from getting too tangled up in this is to continue to be open, to move and change. No final solutions for me!
If you can forgive me using such a simple metaphor, I think that the inability to fix digital information is similar to the inability to fix our roles and activities today.
AS: I think it's a very good one. and it gives an answer to the question "Why do artists get on the net?"
Seems like your life had reached a very high level of activity and emotionality. Aren't you afraid of loosing all your energy and having a deep nervous breakdown after that?
AS: How do you protect your sanity?
NB: I don't know, but I'm open to suggestions.
AS: You know my inspiration page. Shall I make another one asking for people's suggestions about protecting sanity for a superactive and emotional artist?
NB: It is an appealing suggestion but I am afraid that there is not really a solution. This is the time for superactivity. I am only doing it because I need to. I think that I can protect my sanity by knowing that there will be a time for inactivity following this period of hyperactivity.
AS: Why is this the time for superactivity?
NB: Because there are vitally important things that need to be done. I was rather confused by your inspiration project, for example, because I cannot imagine the experience of boredom at this moment. Things are changing so fast, and I think we need to act and resist total corporate, technological, and institutional takeovers.
Besides, there are many exciting things to do that have nothing to do with obvious acts of resistance, but simply with creating and inventing and playing.
Maybe your reaction to this speed was to temporarily shut down and interpret that as boredom?
AS: Perhaps. I think that things are changing so rapidly that it is very difficult to observe and understand these changes. It's easy to get lost; information becomes just a noise. But I also wanted to provoke some reaction from people -- similar to yours -- and try to understand what is going on.
NB: Did it help?
AS: Too early to say, but I've found correlations to some ideas of mine.
NB: I have to admit that I look at your inspiration page quite often. Also, I occasionally add to it. Even if I cannot find any solution from the submissions, it is more a matter of it always being a possibility -- i.e., it is about the desire, not the answers.
I am thinking of taking a bath now. Should we continue?
AS: Should we continue after the bath?
NB: Should I look at my answers and elaborate? I answered you quite quickly and could probably revise and or elaborate.
AS: OK, take a bath, think on texts. I'm feeling like going to sleep now. Send me stuff. I'll continue tomorrow when I get up. OK?
NB: Good night. Sweet dreams. Talk to you later.
AS: Have a nice day!
Introduction to Computing in the Arts
An Introduction to net.art 1994-1999