Letter From Paris
by Joseph Nechvatal

Members of the French-speaking, electronic art community gathered at the Institut d'Študes SupÈrieures des Arts (IESA for short) in Paris during the first week of October for the "Art et Multimedia: Plasticiens et Multimedia" conference. Held in conjunction with the tony art magazine Beaux-Arts, it marked something of a watershed in terms of digital art's legitimization in France. To begin the evening of web-site and CD-ROM demonstrations, Maurice Benayoun, a journalist for Beaux-Arts, presented Benjamin Weil, curator and producer of the New York adaweb site, which features the work of Jenny Holzer and Julia Scher, among others. Weil went online to his site and clicked us through a portion of it. He began with the Holzer project which proved to be embarrassingly infantile. Holzer's by now overly familiar "Truisms" were torturously submitted to the most juvenile combination-permutations imaginable by anonymous interactivators. Things like: IT SHOULD COME AS NO SURPRISE THAT A SHAVED ASS SUCKS MORE WIND.

It is with such blatant banality--doubtless the result of the alleged interactive dimension of the web--that I begin this consideration of the current state of electronic art as represented by the IESA-event. Crucial to it, is my observation that few of the participants seem consciously aware of the sort of definition of virtual art that Deleuze offers us via Proust in "Bergsonism": "Real without being actual, ideal without being abstract." Rather, the model for the creation of virtual art here remains that of the pop-cultural product. Inevitably this approach shapes the viewer/clicker as an inert subject. What I found lacking in the digital art presented at IESA is a philosophical/artistic synthesis that takes into account the interrelation of the different kinds of Being as embodied in the continental philosophical tradition of Husserl, Heidegger, Sartre, Merleau-Ponty and Deleuze/Guattari. The fact that adaweb receives 1000 hits a day, as Weil proclaimed, is irrelevant to our consideration of art. A less consumerist understanding of virtual art insists upon an examination of art's operative nature.

Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, another adaweb artist, presented her CD-ROM, a walk-(click-) through of multiple rooms, each containing colorful representations of art installations (the web version of the piece is called "Residence Color"). One may click on a window or door or artwork and depart one silicon salon for the next in catalogue fashion. This is the basic realm of presence that is close to home for architects. It was my feeling that the question of presence might have been more open ended here, vis a vis the interface. Her work remained linked in my mind to the development of computer games, which are one of the primary examples of an extension into cyberspace of the operative realm of the virtual in a way that is specifically spatial--as an extension of the subject into a virtual space through telepresence.

Computer games also came to mind in connection with Maurice Benayoun's VR piece, Tunnel Virtuel Sous l'Atlantique (presented here via video). Benayoun makes speed manifest, including the various speeds and slownesses that extend the retinal limit in a way that would be previously regarded as outside of (phenomenological) thought. The viewer is taken on a rush down an abstract vortex that I found not at all unpleasant. There were hints, too, of the painful reification found in J.G. Ballard's book Crash in which Vaughan and Ballard drop acid and perform an act of sodomy in Vaughan's Lincoln Continental--"as if only this act could solve the codes of a deviant technology." Benayoun's evocation of speed takes on a larger significance as the temporal area into which perception descends. But here, too, the point of view of the subject resists fragmentation and remained fixed in the logocentric driver's seat of Renaissance-derived three-point-perspective. At its worst, Tunnel reminded me of flying at top speed through the CD-ROM version of Star Wars, or cringing through the battle scenes of Independence Day. At its best, the rush of crack cocaine.

The model of subjectivity in William Gibson's Neuromancer, Count Zero, and Mona Lisa Overdrive seems not to have penetrated the pop cultural skins of this group of thirty-somethings. The concept of image currently in favor harks back to the 'New Image' painters of the late 70's, such as Nicholas Africano, in whose work a small image generally floats against a monochrome background. The individual viewer's perceptual field is thus restricted to the designer's own library of image-experience, rather than a multiple model of free associations. Telepresence becomes legitimized as a realm of objective experience and hardheadedness, in such a way that the individual's personal extension into the virtual tends to be blunted.

What is missing in these works is imagery that does not depend on induction or deduction, and exists prior to these forms of controlling cognitions. They cry out for access to the libraries of other peoples subconscious experiences, the field that extends our personal subjectivity as our current technology of the hard drive and the internet functionally extends our memory, creating a shared trans-subjectivity. I urge these artists to make an effort to speaking about more than the fast and obvious and accessible, and begin speaking about "cancellation," that which is not present. It is difficult, I know, because in cancellation the very foundation of your speech and thought are undercut but without it your work continues to disappoint as it contains none of the technical glamour found in any video game parlor nor any of the real mystery that characterizes the best contemporary visual art.

Likewise for Alberto Sorbelli's CD-ROM Underground, a piece which positions itself well within the performance envelope of click mania. Like so many others, Sorbelli thinks chronologically rather than dialogically, basing his narrative model on warring literary or pictorial propositions.In Underground, a single floating eye continually peeks out through a small hole in the monitor's illusionary screen and triggers a series of pre-determined clicks that yield technically crude sound files and collaged images of mass-media photography. His dependence on cyber-market tools proves conceptually limiting and in no way reconceives the concept of art as one might expect in connection with the use of the central symbol of the theoretical universe devoted to the subversion of the French critic and philosopher George Bataille, the lone eye. I saw or felt no field of intensities invoking the inchoate and the savage. More the pity, because power is coursing through the virtual with its inflections of newly imagined freedoms.

From Anne-Marie Duguet--the program's eminence grise, professor at Paris I, and the director of the CD-ROM collection "Anarchives,"--I expected an examination of the art presented here and an analysis of French conceptual art in relationship to the electronic work being done today. Instead she played down her role of cultural critic and emphasized her role as encouraging teacher. She noted that our society is moving increasingly into the technologized virtual and that the role of the artist is moving increasingly toward a newly composite cyborg condition. She also evoked the role of the "active spectator" but chose not to discuss the quality of the image or the interaction--as if any interactivity is a good thing. Interestingly she labeled digital art culture as "nonconceptual"--a break from the legacy of conceptual art rather than a continuation of it--but she didn't develop this train of thought further. I'd even hoped that she would mention the word "resistance", but she did not.

I mention this word "resistance" with caution, not seeking to invoke examples of useless failed revolutions of the past, but to think through the problem of art in the electronic age in the way that Walter Benjamin devoted himself to the problems of mechanical reproduction. Crucial is the implementation of a theory of the virtual from an open-ended viewpoint which assumes a dialogically (and dialectically) configured subject. Lest anyone cry global village idiot here in response, let me hasten to add that simply receiving 1000 hits a day is not enough.

Joseph Nechvatal is an artist who lives in Paris, France.

Scene & Heard
Issue 3
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