Suzanne Treister


Interview with Nadine Botha, DAMN° MAGAZINE, issue 75, February 2020

Do you want to save the changes you made to the future?
The future is now loading

Suzanne Treister has been making computer art that explores scientific, occult, military and corporate information systems since the 1980s. We talk to the visionary about her new digital commission for the Serpentine, the limits of knowledge at CERN and her dream to save the world.

By Nadine Botha

Your digital commission for the Serpentine consists of two works. When they invited you, you were already working on SURVIVOR (F). The work unfolds like the algorithmic outputs of all the combinations of a set of words, forms and colours, which you say could be that of a last human 'or' an artificial superintelligence. Do you use the candy-coloured watercolours to camouflage just how dystopian this speculation of us simply being information processors is?

I guess it should really be called post-speculative because none of it is actually likely to take place in the way I have depicted it, it's like an abstract dreamscape of post-everything we know, but it comes out of what we know and what can be imagined by a human being, as does all science fiction, and to some extent we are all becoming data, and there is for sure the threat that one day our only means of survival (for the chosen few) may be to go into space. The aesthetics of the work is on the one hand a way of taking the audience comfortably out of their comfort zone, but also of entering that imaginary state on another dimension as a potentially transcendent experience.

Rather than just algorithmic outputs, the second work, The Escapist BHST (Black Hole Spacetime) with its comic strip, seems like an invitation to see patterns, narratives and personalities in the data?

The Escapist comic is a channelling of thoughts about the universe and beyond. It's an attempt to move past the stagnant boundaries of current astrophysics in ways that also allow the reader to transcend everyday consensus reality, as a way of taking the brain out of the body for a holographic or quantum walk. The Escapist is full of questions and seeming contradictions and crazy ideas that hopefully take us somewhere new.

While working on two projects, you felt a portal open between them and they are both navigable through the Museum of Black Hole Spacetime with which one navigates the augmented reality work. Are the Survivor and the Escapist archetypes two sides of the same ideal?

In some sense SURVIVOR (F) is female and The Escapist is male, but both are also everything in between and outside the idea of the body and gender, including machine intelligences and variations on the posthuman. The portal is the conduit to inter-dimensionally travel from one imaginary entity to the other. The portal exists inside the Museum of Black Hole Spacetime, which is located somewhere in the cosmos or the metaverse, we cannot know where exactly, and it is the contents of this museum that I am now very interested in and will be working to discover more about.

Through an award and residency at CERN, the European Organization for Nuclear Research, in 2018, you developed The Holographic Universe Theory Of Art History (THUTOAH), which projects over 25,000 chronological images from art history in a looping sequence of 25 images per second that conceptually mirrors CERN's particle accelerator. What are the implications for art and artists of quantum science like the universe being holographic?

I imagine most artists would carry on making the work they were making for the reasons they already had been. For example, I didn't notice the discovery of the Higgs Bosun affecting much art practice. I asked theoretical physicists at CERN in Geneva last year about this more generally and one of them said that even if our universe was located inside an enormous black hole so we could prove it to be holographic, it wouldn't make a practical difference to our life on Earth, to our everyday reality.

But of course scientific discoveries do affect some artists, and if quantum and holographic theories were correlated with theories about consciousness and the brain, the implications could require some interesting re-evaluations of art. If we then developed a consensus on new dimensional scientifically based understandings of reality, what would then be the implications? Might scientific-rationalist humans start speaking to the dead and learn to commune with each other telepathically in hallucinatory spaces? Would everyone become a kind of shaman? Would there be escalating audiences for certain types of art? And in the art world, would these certain types of art be privileged over others? Would the function of art change? Would the roles of artists, curators and institutions change?

For the physicists at CERN, the holographic principle theory is used primarily for mathematical equations, allowing gravity to be removed from their equations, in order to make them more possible to carry out. There seems to be a feeling at CERN that they may not be able to go much further in terms of major discoveries or advances in particle physics. The big question mark at the moment then is whether theoretical physics has reached a dead end, and if so, whether it perhaps needs to translate itself through a different dimension of consciousness in order to move through the current boundary, in order to really get beyond the standard model of physics. The most exciting idea that came out of my CERN residency is the thought that the brain-mind may need to understand itself a lot better scientifically than it currently does, in order for it to investigate that which is currently scientifically beyond its reach.

It also sounds like the type of research that would benefit from scientists looking beyond their established practices, to experimental collaborations with artists. You have been making art about technology and speculative worlds since the 1990s, and increasingly it would seem that even the most outlandish of your speculative worlds become more and more plausible as the world itself begins to seem more and more outlandish. Do you feel this too and how do you explain it?

Yes, as time has gone by I have found that many things I have made work about have come to be more usual or actual. I even surprised myself the other day when I unearthed a 1991 painting from my storage to show somebody. We unpacked it together and stood back almost in horror at the huge orange neon text that read 'Easyworld 5' below a glowing digital-looking starscape. I think in particular my series of imaginary software, SOFTWARE (1993-4), anticipated the enormous variety of applications or apps now available for so many purposes and which have drastically changed our world and society. At the time, as far as I knew, there was word processing, basic image making software and not much else on the domestic market. Funnily enough looking at these works again just now, some still feel ahead of or in a different dimension to our present time. I think my brain has a need to think into the future, to imagine it. I don't like the idea of being constrained by my physical lifetime, I want to know what happens next all the time. I want to know all the secrets of the universe, all the future potentials of technology. I also want to be prepared for anything scary around the corner and since my teens I've had a fantasy of saving the world.

Saving the world is an ideal shared by space travel, technology, speculative worlds and alternative beliefs.

I’ve been inspired by the idea of space travel from an early age. I was a child when humans first landed on the moon. I later became interested in the space race between the US and the Soviet Union and in particular the Soviet space program, because one side of my family was from Eastern Europe and through my childhood it was a place shrouded in mystery, unreachable. In terms of alternative belief systems, my earliest memory, from my teens, is a compilation volume of the magazine, 'Man, Myth and Magic', an encyclopaedia of the supernatural. At school I was reading a lot of science fiction and I also became interested in Jewish Kabbalah and gematria from reading 'The Chosen' by Chaim Potok. Then when I was 18 I took a tab of acid and got a copy of Huxley's 'The Doors of Perception'. In the late 1980s, video games were a trigger for my interest in computer technologies, and I made works about them in relation to ideas of virtual reality and speculative worlds and concepts, and in 1991 I bought my first computer to make art on. All these things were connected in my mind from an early age.



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