To resume again...
Kant as a Theoretician of Vampirism
Le Conte du Livre
JA: You are an artist, and you also initiated an interactive network known as The Thing. One immediately thinks of John Carpenter's film of the same name, but instead of horror perhaps we should talk about the future, cyberspace, and forms of interactive technologies that we can conceptualize but not yet quite imagine. Why The Thing?
WS: I was tired of the regular channels for disseminating information in the art world. To obtain real inside information you have to participate in strange migration patterns and follow the crowd to Documenta, this Biennial, that Biennial, SoHo, Friesenplatz, wherever. The Thing is an attempt to set up another kind of network, one much more freely accessible and free from specific sites and temporal locations. Hopefully, its effect will be to decentralize and broaden information exchange.
JA: When The Thing first started, there was some discussion about identity-how people would identify themselves. Part of the appeal of any on-line network is anonymity. No body, no face, no gender, no context. Nothing except glowing words on the screen.
WS: Well, that's a two-sided story. If people really insist, they can be anonymous or use code names, but it' s discouraged on The Thing. I, for one, would like people to stand for what they say and take the consequences.
JA: Well, that's your desire....
WS: Sure. People can always go to America On-Line, where you can take any name. Ever talk to Perfume?
JA: The Thing is art-specific, which means the discourse is centralized in relation to conventional ideas about art. How do we identify a discourse as an "art discourse"?
WS: There are forums where people can talk about what's happening on the gallery circuit. But the main focus is on trying to define how discourse and transactions on a network like The Thing actually alter our relationships, and what kind of socio-cultural effects this brings along. It's a very efficient and immediate way of exchanging information. Speed is of the essence.
JA: That term "immediate," or "immediacy," certainly is popping up a lot these days. On one hand, we could say that interactive media is immediate in that it supersedes problems with physical distance and thus facilitates a direct and spontaneous type of discourse. On the other hand, it certainly displaces the "immediacy" of the body.
WS: Behind each voice there is a person, but the body is distant. This absence brings something else into the foreground; the voice, the idea, the social construct evolving from the interaction. My main interest is in the sociality that evolves, a sociality quite different from the one which exists in the art world.
JA: And how do you see that new social order differing from prevailing ones?
WS: Social relations become very fluid as subject/object relations shift constantly. Author/reader, producer/consumer, the distinctions blur. No more static hierarchy and predefined roles.
JA: I know that you advocate a type of egalitarianism over the elitism which you consider rampant in the art world at the present time.
WS: Art used to be much more issue oriented. Now the social part is more important than the work itself. The art world takes itself so seriously!
JA: And why not? Aside from the fact that very few people outside of the art world take art seriously, quite a lot is at stake, philosophically, intellectually...
WS: Yes, but how do you preserve those qualities? To avoid further marginalization art practice and discourse must be brought into information/theory space-the most interesting cultural discourse now.
JA: Cyberspace. Information/theory space. How would you describe that space?
WS: As John Perry Barlow once remarked, "Cyberspace is when you're talking on the telephone." I don't know, if I try to define it today I laugh about it tomorrow. It's developing so fast.
JA: Yes, but it could also serve as a type of document of where we are right now in relation to it. Look at technology at the end of the 19th century and the claims that were made with respect to utopianism. Hasn't the information "superhighway" space of interactive media materialized as our new utopian horizon?
WS: The future has already arrived. Suddenly I find myself working with software designers and telecommunication engineers on projects and in "spaces" no artist has gone before.
JA: It's a bold new frontier, yet one without a whole lot of pictures at the moment. Or bodies either. Yet, it's a space animated by thousands of voices. I see this as pertinent to contemporary interest in, and desire for, and anxiety over "the real," which echoes Hans Haacke's work in the '60s in introducing social systems and real time into art. It' s current code name is "contextualism ." Many claim that an art practice grounded in social contexts and structures obviates the problems of artifice, and object-oriented production. When we introduce the notion of art into a network, or transpose it in terms of interactively, or transactivism, or immediacy, aren't we treading old ground? The lingo might be new, and so might the technologies, but aren't the impulses quite similar?
WS: The problem I have with much so-called "contextual" work is that it treats the status quo with so much respect. It's bogged down in the vain attempt to reconcile "social practice" with the "event" in the gallery. It's analytical at its best, but it always remains system imminent. The Thing on the other hand attempts to create a whole new infrastructure for the production and dissemination of work.
JA: Yes, but when you make art and send it into the network, as Peter Halley has done on The Thing, in a way it exists as a surrogate because it is rendered in relation to his painting and constitutes the absence of the art object.
WS: I do not see Peter Halley's piece as a surrogate. It has finally arrived in the circuits it was merely depicting until then. It has now come to a full circle.
JA: Whether objects, or bodies, I think that what we refer to as information/theory space is one constituted by a profound absence. I return to the idea of absent bodies. Disembodied voices. Elimination of gender. The text becomes the half-life of the body. The voice without a body. The image without an object. It is a surrogate, a surrogate of that which it is not. Is it this concept which will serve as foundation for a new theory and practice of art for our emerging information society?
WS: The objects absent. But the absence of the object allows for the presence of the idea, the concept, the sign. For Beuys the object was a "vehicle" which connected the owner to the mind of the artist. Why the detour when you can access the mind of the artist directly?
JA: In the press release for a symposium entitled "Transactivism" recently conducted on The Thing, it is stated that new technology stimulates desire for a new theory and practice of art. It also mentions "the oscillation between natural and constructed spaces." What do you think about this polarity? Isn't the play between the natural and non-natural another way of talking about the natural body and the non-natural body? Isn't this, ultimately, another form of Romanticism? (I feel like we're on the verge of Carpenter's version of The Thing.)
WS: When you go out to have dinner and charge it to your credit card you arc in information space. Distinctions like natural and constructed space-they don't make a whole lot of sense anymore.
JA: I don't know. It does for me in that the idea of immediacy is one that we acknowledge as relevant to interactivity, yet the body hovers just outside the chain of communication-it is the very "thing" which is not immediate. It's digital. It's text. It's a terminal. Maybe that's how we should interpret the phrase "natural and constructed space" and references made to new theory and new art and new sociology.
WS: Whatever happens in-between, there arc still real bodies sitting at the terminals.
JA: Right. And maybe that's what is most intriguing. Suddenly, on the network, we all find ourselves like Lasher, Anne Rice's character in The Witching Hour. He's immediate, he's decentralized, he's very powerful and communicative and all that. He just doesn't have a body-and that's "the thing" he wants most.
THE THING is an evolving global network for discourse on art, aesthetics, political culture and technology. It constitutes a new genre which furthers exchange across diverse realms of cultural production, both theoretical and practical.
THE THING now has nodes in New York, Duesseldorf, Cologne, London, Berlin, Frankfurt, Vienna, with more being added soon. One can log onto the network from any city and participate in a number of ongoing dialogues, download or upload image or text files, or engage in scheduled or spontaneous live conferences.
Art by John Simon: Classify, Computer Image, 1994