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Interview with G.H. Hovagimyan

Steve Dietz, 1999 (Steve Dietz interviewed G.H. via email during August 1999)
Here's a rule of thumb: If you can recognize something as art, then the only function it has is to reinforce your worldview. If you don't immediately recognize that something as art, it's probably really advanced and challenges your worldview.--gh

Steve Dietz: How did Art Dirt start?

G.H. Hovagimyan: In the summer of 1995 I was invited by Pseudo Online Radio to do a three-minute audio art report. This was broadcast over WEVD-AM radio in New York as part of a chat-radio show that was also on-line using live text-based chat. I approached this as an extension of my ideas about performance art and made it into a punk performance slam critique. The show [Pseudo Online Radio] was part of an overall strategy to boost users of the Prodigy BBS formulated by Ed Bennet and Josh Harris for an intended IPO of Prodigy.

Anyway, after a year, Robert Galinsky convinced Josh Harris to buy the RealAudio Server software and go on-line with radio shows. Galinsky [head producer for Pseudo and the Performance Channel] came to me and asked me if I wanted to do an Art Dirt talk show every day for an hour! Luckily I kept a cool head and said that realistically once a week once was a good bet. My notion was to have a roundtable format with my two colleagues from artnetweb, Robbin Murphy and Adrianne Wortzel, engage in a discussion of digital culture as it was being formed. We also invited artists who were working in the digital arena to talk about their work. I viewed what we were doing as an extension of the Beuysian idea of "social sculpture."

SD: Why did it end?

GH: This is very telling and is a cautionary tale about the vicissitudes of "corporate sponsorship" of art or the "pay-per-view" model that is being bandied about on the digital art scene at the moment. The problem with Pseudo was that they wanted to be mass media and had a distinctly mainstream approach to culture. Their most successful program is 88 hip-hop, a perfect tie-in to the record industry. Pseudo was looking to sell banner ads or sponsorship for its programs. This was tied to a hit count for each show. Art Dirt was in the middle third of overall program accessors, but it was a hard sell to sponsors because it was too intellectual and/or too experimental. Josh came to me at one point and asked for suggestions on how to fund Art Dirt. I said that the target should be charitable foundations, the trouble being you need to hire a fundraiser and you need a nonprofit status. What finally occurred was that Martha Wilson from Franklin Furnace was able to tap into that resource because of her 25-year expertise at fund-raising, even though the artists presented were of a more traditional, performance-art nature. Art Dirt was dropped in favor of a self-funded Franklin Furnace program. So much for corporate funding of experimental artists. Pseudo by the way has just been sold--for $11,000,000 dollars--which was Josh Harris's goal all along.

SD: What are two or three highlights of the program that come to mind?

GH: The most important shows to my mind were the "web jams" we did for ISEA '96 and PORT-MIT. The live audience was distributed over the Internet and also created the content. This was a practical application of Hakim Bey's idea of the TAZ [Temporary Autonomous Zone]. These were hybrid "expanded media" interfaces using CUSeeMe, RealAudio, and live performance. In this case we were really using the Internet as a distributed two-way medium rather than adhering to a more traditional broadcast format. To me these were wildly successful in breaking new ground. Pseudo on the other hand didn't get what we were up to.

The digital artists who participated in these events have remarked that they were greatly influenced [by them] and subsequently went on to use this model in their own works. For example, Bernd Diemer, a young German artist, did a similar, though greatly-improved-upon Web jam for the opening of ZKM in Germany last year. Christian Vanderbourght in Paris has become a producer of on-line cultural TV for CANAL +. Ricardo Dominguez premiered his Zapatista performance work for Port-MIT, and so on. The Web jams were impossible to document using standard recording practices because they were distributed over nodes. This means they were of the medium [Internet].

SD: Why are you doing Collider solo, while you usually had Robbin and Adrianne on Art Dirt?

GH: There are several reasons, some practical and some aesthetic. Both Adrianne and Robbin have become more successful and as a consequence have had to prioritize their time. Another reason is monetary; they want to get paid for their time, and as everyone is aware, truly experimental art is not funded in the U.S.A.

In any case, I decided to continue with a new show called Collider at The Thing. This resolved some of the problems I was having with Pseudo. Obviously, The Thing is an art site so it champions the experimental. The Thing also has a nonprofit arm [so that] if Collider ever received funding a mechanism is in place to allow for the eventuality. Collider, I might add, is a slightly different format. It's a dialogue of sorts. It's a bit more meditative and stripped down.

SD: How did Art Dirt and how does Collider relate to your work as a digital artist?

GH: Here are some keywords: Social Sculpture - Expanded Media - Media Logos - Digital Persona - Feedback Culture - Personal Media - Network Distributed Multiple Personality - Informational Kernel - Multiple Locii Corpus - Horizontal Medium.

Both Art Dirt and Collider function as information art. My digital work uses mass media forms and iconography as both its subject and object rendered. My on-line work, Terrorist Advertising, deals with both art marketing and an advertising identity. Faux Conceptual Art is a sampling-culture classic, and Art Direct/Sex, Violence & Politics looks at the media landscape. The robotic performance work A SoaPOPera for Laptops is pop song snippets, TV newspeak, gossip, slapstick, advertising, etc. The text-to-speech applications are a way of projecting or extending the performance art aspects of my work and that of my collaborator, Peter Sinclair, into the robotic synth-performers. All of this is a way to present a totally new idea of what an artist is, what artwork is, and how this may function differently in an information society.

Here's a rule of thumb: If you can recognize something as art, then the only function it has is to reinforce your worldview. If you don't immediately recognize that something as art, it's probably really advanced and challenges your worldview.

SD: What do you mean by Network Distributed Multiple Personality? I'm not sure I would have made the connection between your Art Dirt/Collider work and other network personae such as Cherie Matrix or Luther Blisset, where the network is a kind of veil for multiple and/or disguised personalities.

GH: Depending upon where viewers access my work on the Web and what they look at, they form a certain opinion about who I am. For example, if they access Art Dirt or Collider they might think I'm a critic or talk-show intellectual. If they access my artworks they may form an opinion that I'm a political artist. If they access at another point they may think I'm a writer. Because of the challenge inherent in my art I've been "stalked" on the Web by FBI agents and Christian Right skinheads. I've received death threats by e-mail and fake come-ons from young women wanting to learn how to build bombs. I've also received many requests from doctoral students doing theses on "net art" asking [permission] to refer to my work or asking for statements. The point is a person is not a product but has many personae.

When you deal with media/marketing information there's a compulsion to flatten and standardize a person to sell the person/object. Before the Internet, it was not possible to present more than one persona at a time in the media/marketing realm. When I say media/marketing I also mean the "art world" mechanisms for presenting artists.

SD: Is it important that Art Dirt was Webcast in real time?

GH: When we did the "Web jams" it was extremely important to do it in real time. If one is to create "interactive TV" one has to explore the notion of a horizontal medium rather than a top-down one. Web jamming in real time is similar to speaking with someone on a cell phone as you walk down the street. You have a physical reality and a mediated reality that coincide but are different.

SD: You're very active on the Rhizome list and others. How do you see the differences and similarities among such lists and your choosing an interviewee to talk with in depth each week?

GH: Unless one is at university in some manner, one usually doesn't engage in aesthetic discourse. Before marketing really took hold in the art world, aesthetic discourse was valued in art circles and was part of what an artist did. After marketing it has become another sales tool. By being involved in art-centric e-mail lists that engage in aesthetic discourse I can be involved on a level that is not tainted by marketing positions. I also collaborate with people I meet on the lists. When I travel I make a point of trying to have an F2F [face-to-face meeting] with anyone I have engaged on a list. My engagement on the lists and my streamed interviews are parts of an aesthetic process. On the lists I tend to speak my position. On the streamed shows I mostly ask questions of the guest and then listen intently to their response. It's quite different. On the shows I gain insights and by extension I assume the accessors do as well. On the lists I clarify my aesthetic positions. I assume that people accessing the lists gain insights from what I write. I will say that on the lists I tend to speak my mind without pussyfooting around the subject. I can be too frank; however, I find that type of honesty to be more productive than aesthetic discourse tied to marketing.

SD: What are your greatest fears about the future of individualistic Web-casting programs such as yours?

GH: It has to do with the inability of the marketplace to fully fund experimental work. One gets really bored with the "healthy competition" and "social Darwinist" models for culture. It's so one-dimensional and deterministic. It's also invalid for cultural activities. I know that both Art Dirt and Collider have influenced many people in the cultural sphere. That's satisfying. Narrowband is good, especially when it's worldwide. Unfortunately, I have less support people at The Thing than I had at Pseudo, although at The Thing they are all artist colleagues. At The Thing if I say the word "Beuys" people are likely to think of Joseph Beuys. At Pseudo they would be more likely to think of "cute boys" as in fashion-model-type dates.

First published by Gallery 9/Walker Art Center, December 1999.