Maurizio Bolognini, Terri C. Smith,
Art and new technology
1. The technological flux
TERRI C. SMITH. Ever since you began your career as an artist, more than twenty years ago, you have dedicated yourself to technology and, in particular, to technology flows. In relation to your work some have also talked about the 'aesthetics of flux'. Where did this interest come from?
MAURIZIO BOLOGNINI. At the time it was perhaps not so obvious, but flows are the essence of our techno-anthropological environment, in which presence is expanded and replaced by flows of communication, and form is lost in a flow of images that are continuously changing and multiplying. Even when I first started I had little interest in static, completed images. I was more attracted by the variability and unpredictability of the fluid images that I could achieve by delegating the work to a machine. Using machines allowed me to add the dimension of time to the images, to transform them into streams generated in real time. Similarly, my interactive works used communication flows exchanged with the public, who could be connected to my machines via the mobile phone network.
T.C.S. You seem to also experiment with access in the opposite direction, with your sealed Programmed Machines, creating situations where images are being made but are hidden from view. Can you describe the impulse behind and the context of those works?
M.B. Twenty years ago I started working on the first Programmed Machines. These were computers I programmed to produce endless streams of minimal, abstract and out-of-control images. At that time I also began to seal some of these machines (Sealed Computers) by closing up the monitor buses with silicone, in such a way that they continued to produce images that no one would ever see. In the 1990s I programmed hundreds of machines – some sealed, some not; some interactive, some not – and many of them are still working now.
My prime interest in these installations was to bring out a separation, an imbalance, a discrepancy, between the artist and his work, that was intended to appear 'excessive'. The search for this separation and disparity is also evident in other works of mine from the 1990s; for example, Antipodes and Museophagia.
T.C.S. Some of your installations create interactive flows, in others you bring together generative flows and video. Can you tell me what considerations come into play when you combine elements of film, computer programmed images, and audience interaction? Also, please address how these elements interface. How does this combination exhibit itself in an installation? How do the innate qualities of these components in a mixed flow installation (interactive, generative, video) fit in with your overall art practice?
M.B. In some works, such as the Collective Intelligence Machines (CIMs) series, I have used the mobile phone network both to enable interaction with the audience and to connect various installations located in different places. The CIMs generate flows of images which are projected onto large buildings in public spaces and can be changed by anyone sending new input from their mobile phone to the installation.
In other works from the 1990s, the flow generated by the machine was superimposed onto a film projection. Initially these installations were made using two projectors, one connected to a computer that generated streams of abstract images, and the other connected to a DVD player. More recently, in the Infovideo series, I picked up this work again with a different technology; this allowed me to combine the two streams in a more interesting way, and to make interactive installations, in which the direction of the generative flow is determined by the movement of the public, as registered by motion detection devices. The first work in this series associated the technological flow with a long video made up of clips from Chinese Communist Party films. These works allow different time dimensions to co-exist. Film is made up of movement and time, like technological flow, but it is reiterated time. So in the same installation there is the infinite time of the machine, the finite time of interactivity, and the circular time of the video. In the same work there is also a kind of short-circuit between the maximum concentration of meanings and symbols (film flow) and their total absence (the generative flow of the Machine). This forces the viewer to make a continued attempt to reconcile different and irreducible experiences.
2. New media and conceptual art
T.C.S. A number of your works, such as Programmed Machines, can be seen as emerging from the histories of conceptual art and Minimalism. More specifically, they take into consideration unique distribution methods, the phenomenological relationship between viewer and artwork, the use of technologies and methodologies from non-art industries, etc.
Additionally, your installations have elements of new media art, a nebulous term that often indicates involvement of the moving image and/or sound, whether digital or analog, as well as other time-based, electronic media. Do you think your work possesses qualities from these two camps of art production? How do you complicate or reconfigure these categories in your work?
M.B. I am comfortable with both terms, although I prefer to use the term technological art instead of new media art. I think that art has now become postdigital, as demonstrated by the proliferation of information and communication technology in artistic production. This blurs the boundaries of new media art, which to date has received little acceptance from the art system precisely because it had given itself an identity that linked it to the media. In fact, one strand of new media art is very close to conceptual art, because it sees the new media not simply as technologies to experiment with, but as a theoretical object. Arguably, though, it has failed to distance itself sufficiently from the other strand which is more closely tied up with hi-tech and scientific and industrial research.
But aside from this distinction, I have no reservations about new media art, and I think that the difficult relationship it has with the art system is partly due to the latter's limitations. Technology is a fundamental dimension of our evolutionary story, and tells us much about what we are. The development of digital technologies is also something epoch-making, comparable perhaps to the introduction of printing: it is the digital phase of electricity deploying its full potential. It would be surprising if some artists had not tried to delve deeper into the new techno-anthropological environment. In a very short time, the spread of computers marked the transition from the old storage technologies, which were able to record and reproduce (like photography, tape recording, video) to new technologies where intelligence prevails over memory, and the contents are not simply stored but re- created instantaneously, on demand. Now, only a few years later, the internet has added flows of communication and connectivity to the interactivity of computers: first the connection between people and then (with the Web) even between content. The next step, which is what we are already witnessing now, is the connection of devices, which will determine as yet unimaginable flows between mental processes and the physical world. You do not need to have a visionary attitude to understand that the new technologies are not only changing habits and social organization but, as they are integrated with language, are beginning to affect sensory behavior and cognition. How could art ignore all this and still expect to be considered essential for the understanding of the present.
T.C.S. New avenues of research have also opened up with regard to interactivity. You have spoken of the transition 'from interactivity to democracy'. Do you think the public's contribution to your interactive works via cell phone shares conceptual art's emphasis on democratic art distribution? I'm reminded of critic Lucy Lippard's quote from her book Six Years (1974): 'Communication (but not community) and distribution (but not accessibility) were inherent in Conceptual art. Although the forms pointed toward democratic outreach, the content did not. However rebellious the escape attempts, most of the work remained art-referential, and neither economic nor esthetic ties to the art world were fully severed (though at times we liked to think they were hanging by a thread). Contact with a broader audience was vague and undeveloped.'
Are you responding to and expanding on these late 1960s and early 1970s conceptual art concerns regarding distribution? How do you see your interactive work moving beyond the 'art referential,' or is that important to you?
M.B. It is true that in the 1960s and 1970s conceptual art, communication was mainly perceived as distribution, and also that the works remained art-referential. But probably many things have changed since that time, both in art and in communication.
First, art has been further secularized, and some artists now see the art system as little more than a "free zone" for experiences and experiments that would not find space in other contexts outside art. On the one hand this might be seen as a waiver of any foundation of art, which is finally considered as a mere (albeit essential) convention. On the other hand, this might be seen as a continuation of the interest shown by the first conceptual artists in new forms of "art" emerging from social energies not yet acknowledged as art (as underlined by Lucy Lippard herself). But I think the implications of these two perspectives are perhaps less important to artists than to art theorists.
Secondly, we are now immersed in a new technological environment that allows much more interesting forms of communication and public involvement. With the development of digital technologies, everything has become potentially interactive; of course this also includes images, which are no longer static but dynamic. Affected by technologies in which intelligence prevails over memory, images too become processes; hence they may be opened up to public interaction. At the same time, the new flows of communication make it possible to have more advanced forms of public participation, from simple interactivity right up to interactive decision-making, in which the interaction among the participants (mediated by the installation device) may give rise, for example, to constantly evolving images.
I have carried out some experiments in this direction, where the focus was on the intersection of generative art, public art and mobile electronic democracy (technologies of participation using mobile phones): vast streams of images projected in public spaces and destined to evolve over time, going off in unpredictable directions decided by the public, who can interact from their mobile phone in a manner similar to certain applications of electronic democracy. I think a generative process of this kind, based on interaction and collective intelligence, is more surprising and obscure than a generative process based only on software. This opens up the possibility of art which is generative, interactive and public; and the CIM series is, I think, an initial experiment in this direction.
I don't know to what extent these installations can be properly seen as conceptual research. If by conceptual art you mean a type of artistic production which is more like reflection than aesthetic appreciation, in which the concepts and ideas are more important than material and aesthetic characteristics of the work, then perhaps these works are part of a conceptual, or technoconceptual, trend.
The use of technological devices was already evident in the conceptual art of the 1960s and 1970s. Robert Barry worked with technological devices to produce radiation, radio waves and ultrasound. Some have pointed out a similarity between these works and my Sealed Computers, which generate flows of images that cannot be seen. But I believe that digital technologies have created a new, more specific, situation, which follows from a certain self-sufficiency of these technologies, that makes it possible to delegate some tasks and decisions to the machine, thus establishing a greater separation and distance between the artist and the work. Perhaps this can be explained more clearly if one starts from the notion of the technological sublime.
T.C.S. You have spoken about the 'technological sublime' in your work. When considering the sublime's relationship to self reflection and the natural world in Romantic literature and painting, technology seems to be in direct opposition – after all Romanticism was, in part, a critique of the Industrial Revolution. The sublime also appears to be at odds with conceptual art, which historically prioritized intellect over emotion, research methodologies over introspection. I'm very curious to know what you mean by the term 'technological sublime' and how the sublime can co-exist with not only technology, but with the theories, texts and artworks of early conceptual artists.
M.B. In the late 1980s, talking about the artistic production using new technologies, Mario Costa introduced the notion of the technological sublime, opening up a new field of aesthetic reflection which has found wide resonance in Europe, also due to the many initiatives of public debate promoted by the Artmedia Laboratory in Salerno and Paris. Costa has developed an aesthetic and philosophical inquiry of the new media, that leads him to a kind of technological materialism and a theory of 'neo- technological art', that he considers worthy of attention to the extent that it is posthuman, devoid of symbolic content, and can be traced back to the category of the sublime, which after being 'natural' in the eighteenth century and 'industrial-metropolitan' in the modern age, has now become 'technological'.
The sublime's significance is in the way it points to the constraints of the human condition and expresses the limits of our conceptual powers. As I said, in my installations I've always tried to create the conditions for feeling a sense of 'excess' and imbalance. Referring to the aesthetic feeling of the sublime, this technological excess can be treated in the same terms used in the past for the power and breadth of certain natural phenomena. I think this is interesting because, unlike the natural sublime, the technological sublime can be activated on command, and thus can give rise to a partly controlled experience.
Of course artworks to which the notion of technological sublime can apply are quite heterogeneous, including purely aesthetic and decorative examples as well as conceptual research. I am not interested in works of new media art (and generative art) based on the production of aesthetic objects. Likewise, I have little interest in hi-tech and technological experimentation as such. In my installations, technological processes are activated in a minimal and abstract way, and this can perhaps invoke experiences related to nineteenth century avant-garde and conceptual research.
My installations are devices that work, and that's it; they don't produce meanings or seek to be aesthetic objects. Rather they give rise to an experience (delegating to the machine, distancing from the work of the artist, and the very experience of the technological sublime), and they transform it into a theoretical object. Something similar happened to photography, which likewise over time moved from being an aesthetic object to a theoretical object.
This brings us back to conceptual art, albeit with a significant difference that comes from the fact that here the theoretical object coincides with the medium and with its self-sufficient functioning. I find it interesting that Sol LeWitt, to express the notion that in conceptual art the idea is more important than the work, and that the execution becomes secondary, has used the phrase: The idea becomes a machine that makes art. Clearly, when LeWitt used the metaphor of the 'machine' in 1967, he had in mind a machine that carries out specific predictable tasks mechanically, not a machine which, like my installations, can make decisions and operate autonomously. Perhaps one might say that, with the new technologies, the idea has partly moved into the machine. For this reason conceptual art, as a self-reflective process about art, can find delegating to the machine, and the growing distance between the artist and his work, an interesting subject of research.