Post-Surveillance: Suzanne Treister's riposte to 'Post-Internet' art
with Digby Warde- Aldham for Apollo
Magazine, August 2014
ST: Just the other day a young art theorist told me excitedly that she thought video games were about to become the new interesting thing and at the recent Ed Atkins show at the Serpentine in London, where he was showing his avatar work, the wall text claimed the idea of the digital avatar to be a new phenomenon, and I ran into an older ex-curator there who said that the idea of the avatar was new for him. In 1995 when I invented my alter ego Rosalind Brodsky - the subject of an interactive game like cd-rom - I had the option of describing her as an avatar but even then the word seemed naff.
In 1988 when I first made work about video games the mainstream art world had no engagement or interest in this type of subject matter in art (although the new media art world became engaged in them along with other techno developments and issues a few years later). It's taken the mainstream those 26 years to catch up, so in a sense for many of them these works about 'Castle Wolfenstein' are not immediately nostalgic, they are seemingly current, although for the young artists making the work they are, I presume, nostalgically referencing the games of their childhood.
I've given up expecting the mainstream art world to be on the ball in terms of where the culture is actually at, despite its rhetorics to the contrary. Obviously there are some really informed great people out there but since the expansion of the art world into a global industry there are necessarily many people involved who are neither smart nor informed and for whom nostalgia is a profitable commodity - in line with the general proliferation of retro mania - and radical practice not so much of one. I guess this was always the case but contemporary rhetorics belie it.
Nostalgia for 'Castle Wolfenstein', a game set in WW2 where the object was to escape from a Nazi castle, is another example of - fear of the future based - retro mania, but burying fear in the sand of the Holocaust? That could be considered odd.
Digby Warde-Aldham: On the same subject, it's striking how similar a lot of 'Post-Internet' art looks - lots of obsolete computer graphics and tasteful text, as if it might have been created without human involvement. Much of your work - most obviously NSA on Fire - is the direct opposite of this. Is it important to use a necessarily physical medium when addressing technology?
ST: Through the 1990s I was immersed in technology, using computers for most of my work; web projects, cd-roms, video and sound works. Around 2000 when I became disillusioned with the increasingly corporate/government controlled techno rat race I returned to older media to talk about new media and the politics of technology and the net. So much new work which is labelled 'Post-Internet' is more like a kind of pop art, brainlessly quoting bits and bobs from the web in a kind of, 'this is my experience...doh! I am the product of the bollocks I stare at on my screen...and perhaps so are you the viewer and you will be able to relate to it...', embedded in the work is a kind of assumption that people in general are just indiscriminate internet junkies and art should reflect that. Curators and galleries seem to love it but to me this is trite boring and a waste of everyone's time, it's the kind of dumb so called world reflecting art that sells in all senses, because inevitably there are more stupid people out there than smart ones. Apart from the older net artists who have been co-opted into the new movement for whatever reason the works lack any criticality or awareness of the history of the politics of the net/newtechnologies. So to answer your question, for the most part I stepped outside of using new technologies as a medium in order to maintain a criticality.
Digby Warde-Aldham: You've talked before about how video games got you interested in computers. What was your reaction to hearing about how drones in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen or wherever are controlled from flight simulators in California and New Mexico? Is it in any way surprising that video games have in some sense become weapons of war?
ST: It's one of the least surprising things I can think of. One of the reasons I became interested in the first place in the late 1980s in making work about video games was their warlike subject matter, shoot em ups, war games etc. and wondering how this might affect the culture in general. The US military hijacked many programmers from the games industry to develop their online war gaming training systems such as DARWARS and drone technology is an extension of this.
Digby Warde-Aldham: Can you explain the term 'Post-Surveillance Art' a bit?
ST: It started as a joke on 'Post-Internet' art. When I first heard about Post-Internet art I had to laugh or cry, it sounded like such a stupid label. So I decided to invent my own art movement, to extend the idea that if you are born into an internet culture you can make 'Post-Internet' art, to our current surveillance culture, which I felt had been around at least since I was born in one form or another. I had been aware of it for so long and post Snowden everyone else now knows the current extent of it too, up to a point, because there is always more that we cannot know, e.g. there will always be other military projects in development that we can only dream of.
So taking surveillance culture as a given and looking at the world where it is a given and thinking from there, I can try to represent what this culture looks like, its imagery, its vocabulary, its aspirations and its potential futures, to reflect a post-surveillance mindset. The work is ironically part accepting and part moving on, and sometimes celebratory. What if we stop complaining/justifying for a minute, so boring, let's try and visualise this brave new world. The works also retain an inbuilt criticality; you could say they are ambiguous in their political position. I like that. I like the idea of playing with an image of the NSA, or GCHQ, who store all our data, and representing it all as a kind of hallucinogenic drug induced visionary landscape, a kind of pop poetry. I like imagining the edge of the future.
Digby Warde-Aldham: How did you become aware of the NSA and mass Internet surveillance? Is it fair to say that all Snowden's leaks did was to order information already available and add a bit of detail?
ST: Yes that's right. I can't remember an exact moment in time when I became aware of it. Between 2004-2006 I was working on 'HEXEN 2039' I was interested in historical and current military technologies for psychological warfare and that led me on to it. I read a lot. In 2007 I met Richard Thieme in Wisconsin who was very informative and I made a video interview with him. When Facebook started off it was clear to me that all this data would be accessible, collected and able to be cross-referenced. In 2008 the Wall Street Journal ran an article about the NSA's Total Information Awareness (TIA) program which had been running since the 1990s but was supposedly closed down. In 2008 the BBC presented a thriller series, 'The Last Enemy', in which a TIA program is operational in London in the year 2011. They showed computer screens bringing up instant webs of data on suspects, such as all their friends, colleagues, whereabouts, conferences attended etc. Same name, TIA, but supposedly fictional. No one I know seemed to make the connection and there didn't seem to be anything online about it either. That was odd.
Digby Warde-Aldham: Thinking about In the Name of Art, The Real Truth and the NATO project, do you think a society that obsessively catalogues objects, animals and people must necessarily be described as totalitarian? Is categorisation not inevitable in some respect?
These are three very different projects, none of which are primarily intended to reflect an obsessive societal drive towards classification or to suggest totalitarian drives. The NATO project shows how the military catalogue every object in the world numerically for procurement purposes, representing the world we see as civilians from a different perspective, like an alternative form of encyclopedia, with a potential military function for everything.
In the Name of Art is my own cataloguing or listing of international group exhibition titles from 1900 until 2012. It's a presentation of a version of art history as seen through language, reflecting curatorial and political intentions, shifting concerns, ideas and ideals. I wanted it to read as a piece of prose.
The Real Truth A World's Fair is not about cataloguing in either sense, it was about making a parallel kind of world's fair in an art gallery, where you have the freedom to represent whatever you want from the world into a temporary composite.
Cataloguing and categories are two different things. One is a listing and the other is a separating into groups.
address the dreaded - and given the accusations that have been flung your
way - inevitable phrase, I want to use the Lawrence Jarach quote used
in HEXEN 2.0 :
ST: Yes I stand by the Jarach quote. And the term conspiracy theory is so broad and blurry and can include knowledge that most people just don't happen to know - either because they are not informed or curious enough - through to paranoid or fantastical unlikely ideas, through to insane or propaganda based inaccuracies. With the Snowden information, it was out there if you looked for it, it was obvious how the data from social networking and commercial websites was providing information to security agencies and what kind of society this may lead us into, and yes it was seriously upsetting that many people called me a paranoid conspiracy theorist and that up to now only one person has apologised.
Digby Warde-Aldham: Looking at the watercolours in the Eighteen Ninety Six series, the first question that comes to mind is: With the same historical perspective, what would an artist in the future choose to represent and how what materials would they use? Do you think the total uncertainty of the present day has a parallel in the modernity and militarism of the end of the 19th Century?
ST: There are always parallels all through history.
The Eighteen Ninety Six series is still in progress. I collected over 100 images from 1896 to make into watercolours using the 1896 Winsor and Newton watercolour cakes a friend found for me in a car boot sale. The problem is they are so time consuming to make, the 1896 paints are very dry and hard to use, so I have stalled and moved on to other projects.
So when it comes to the subject matter that I have selected from 1896, it is far more various than you would imagine from the few finished works you can see on my website and includes scenes from all over the world from as many aspects as I have been able to find so far.
That said, 118 years into the future, who knows whether traditional art materials will survive, perhaps they will, and I am not sure whether any of our current computers that might be found in a car boot sale, or its equivalent in the year 2132, would be able to be enabled to function, never mind anyone being able to view the internet or web as we know it today. We can only imagine what kind of technologies the future will hold, whether we become cyborgs or whether we regress into another Paleolithic period or go in some other direction. I guess someone might stumble upon an abandoned data warehouse in a desert and try to reconstruct an image of the Internet as it is today?
Digby Warde-Aldham: Can you ever see yourself resurrecting Rosalind Brodsky? What are the advantages of looking at history through a persona like that?
ST: I think Brodsky is most likely all done, however I'm currently starting a project using another character, more of an invention than Brodsky who was an alter-ego with similar familial roots. This new character is a man who has a history of algorithmic financial trading.
Digby Warde-Aldham: Finally, do you think that artists have a duty to explore such threats to individual liberty? And are you disappointed that so few are exploring mass categorisation and surveillance?
ST: No, but art creates a generally unrestricted space to do this if they so wish. Personally as an artist I feel I have a social responsibility. In terms of a duty, I think an artist has a duty to explore what he/she is concerned about or excited by, which might be anything from the personal to the poetic to the political, or from the borders of current understanding to the totally insane.