Interview with Joël Vacheron for IDP, Switzerland, September 2018
JV: The war, the militarization, the evolution and impact of technologies of communication or surveillance strategies, most of your recent works address topics that are closely linked to the military industrial complex. Where does this interest come from and, more specifically?
ST: My interest originally comes from my upbringing which took place in the shadow and knowledge of the Second World War and of totalitarian societies, followed by my involvement in anti-war and anti-nuclear demonstrations in the 1970s and 80s. Several years later, observing the rise of video games I became interested in new developing technologies and in projecting how these may be used by the military and government and ways they may change society. It's a useful protective thinking ahead mechanism.
JV: Would you consider yourself as a political artist?
ST: I would consider aspects of my work political in the sense that it tries to alter opinion and manipulate the audience, but in a 'positive' way for society.
JV: A large part of your work consists of in-depths researches that are translated into visuals representations. Could you tell us about your process and the specific methodologies you develop?
ST: In the case of my long term projects, e.g HEXEN 2039 (2006), HEXEN 2.0 (2009-11) and HFT The Gardener (2014-15), the starting point is usually a spontaneous idea for a work or a specific interest, which develops and grows narrative threads which then require the collating of a large amount of data in the process of making the work.
On the one hand you could compare it to the way a novelist might develop their work, and the way that the work, once begun, finds its own path. Or to how a Machine Intelligence is programmed with a dataset to create a new brain which goes on to develop the project and its outputs. But in the case of my projects nothing is left purely to the internal logic of its own development. (1)
You might also compare some works to a scientific experiment, although speaking recently to theoretical physicists at CERN, they observed that with art there is always art left over, whereas with science a large scale experiment based on a new theory may totally fail and you have to start over.
JV: Are you inspired premodern ways of methods?
ST: Yes I am interested in alchemical art of the 16th and 17th centuries and its attempts to unify art and science and religious ideas in order to achieve higher understandings and ways of being.
JV: Your approach deals mostly with the creation of (anti-)systems (through classification, diagrams, maps, etc., that provide endless opportunities for linking science, technology, fiction, and occult references. Could you present the ideas that lead to the creation of the tarot and the diagrams of HEXEN 2.0 ?
ST: It was during a residency in the Texan desert in 2009 that I first observed a possible connection between the mid twentieth century theories and applications of cybernetics, which arose out of WWII - primarily in the USA where they answered a perceived need for a more controlled society - and our current world of online social media and what is referred to as Web 2.0. The link was feedback, as in cybernetic feedback loops, with a potential outcome not only of human connectivity, but also of governmental control.
HEXEN 2.0 looked into these histories of scientific research behind government programmes of mass control, investigating parallel histories of countercultural and grass roots movements. The project charted, within a framework of post-WWII U.S. governmental and military imperatives, the coming together of scientific and social sciences through the development of cybernetics, the history of the internet, the rise of Web 2.0 and increased data collection, and implications for the future of new systems of societal manipulation towards a control society. It specifically investigated the participants of the seminal Macy Conferences (1946-1953), whose primary goal was to set the foundations for a general science of the workings of the human mind.
HEXEN 2.0 simultaneously looked at diverse philosophical, literary and political responses to advances in technology, including the claims of Anarcho-Primitivism and Post Leftism, Theodore Kaczynski/The Unabomber, Technogaianism and Transhumanism, and traced precursory ideas such as those of Thoreau, Warren, Heidegger and Adorno in relation to visions of utopic and dystopic futures from science-fiction literature and film.
The project was based on actual events, people, histories and scientific projections of the future, and offered a space to use the works as a tool to envision possible alternative futures.
JV: What are the pedagogical motivations of a project like HEXEN 2.0 (and other of your projects) ?
ST: HEXEN 2.0, made before the Snowden revelations, was different from my other projects in that it had a pedagogically motivated intent. I brought together all these histories in a way that I hoped would allow people to make sense of the ways society works in relation to government, new technologies and control, in order that they might see outside the box and help develop more positive futures for humanity.
JV: Most of the time, the series of diagrams and drawings serve to tell a story about a fictional character, parallel universes or some kind of evolutionary theories. Could you present the themes addressed in SURVIVOR (F) ?
ST: SURVIVOR (F) intends to allow the audience to enter a hypothetical space of the deep future in a kind of intuitive abstract way, where everything is hallucinatory, where identity, humankind, the universe and everything we think we now know, may no longer be what we currently feel it to be and may bear little relationship to our current perceptions and understandings. In SURVIVOR (F) nothing is fixed, everything is constantly fluxing and contradicting itself. We are not sure whether SURVIVOR (F) may be a survivor of the human race, a machine, an ethereal superintelligence (ASI), an alien from another planet or a manifestation from a parallel universe. SURVIVOR (F) is an hallucinogenic exploration of a future reality in undetermined time and space presenting visions of a post-futuristic sublime, charting an existential imaginary of potential human/non-human agency/non-agency and beyond, of the psychedelic consciousness of SURVIVOR (F). SURVIVOR (F) is a futuristic alchemical disembodied depiction of the universe and beyond.
JV: Could you develop on the issues related to Singularity and what it told us about our current relationship with technology ?
ST: Well if you like you can think of SURVIVOR (F) as a thought experiment in the Post-Singularity. Right now various corporations are trying to develop an artificial intelligence equal to our own. For example it's been apparent for quite some time that Google is an AI company disguised as a search engine company. However I am not sure if any of them have a plan for After, if indeed the singularity is a possibility, which it may prove not to be. I mean, are they hoping to also sell their new products to the machines themselves? And what will be the function of these new products? Or will marketing as we know it become a thing of the past or take some new hybrid form? When/if GAFAM (Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon, Microsoft) gets total control what will they do with it? This is what we should be asking ourselves before it's too late.
JV: In Post Surveillance Art (2014), for example, you work with visual codes that closely inspired by early computer graphics. How did early computers visualization affect your work, both aesthetically and conceptually ?
ST: These works were made using digital imaging technologies that I absolutely avoided using when they were new in the early 1990s. I found that type of software-enabled digital effects look to be totally naff and kitsch at the time, not to mention the political issue that the choices and effects were all determined by the software designers rather than the artists themselves.
Now it seems a new generation of artists have discovered these digital styles as if they were new and the mainstream art world is also just recently becoming interested in new media art, with no idea of the back story, of Net art, or the history of the politics of the Net. They appear to have no sense that to work in this aesthetic might be an uncool or politically compromised act, but perhaps they are using it ironically, or even nostalgically (which opens another can of worms..). If you did that in the early 1990s no art world audience would have realised because it would have been too new for them to grasp any irony. In the late 1980s and early 90s when I was making work about video games people in London used to ask me, “What is a video game?”.
This, in conjunction with the obvious irony of the slogans in the works, is all part of why around 25 years after rejecting them I used these computer graphics effects for Post-Surveillance Art. I also tried to use them in a way which has a kind of trippy look, or even transcendent quality, to insert some sense of countercultural critique into the mix.
JV: And what do you mean by Post Surveillance Art ?
ST: I mean Post-Snowden, our current paradigm. Mass data collection, digital surveillance and societal control is now acknowledged publicly and no longer considered the terrain of so called conspiracy theorists. Even my aunt has now heard of Cambridge Analytica and most people have stopped calling me a conspiracy theorist.
JV: HFT The Gardener (2014-15) tells the story of a high frequency trader who undergoes a breakdown and looks to psychoactive plants to generate algorithms to plug into the banking system. Once he got fired, he becomes an outsider artist drawing colourful plant illustrations. Could you precis the parallels you draw between high frequency trading and hallucination ?
ST: I don't personally see those as parallels, or of the focus of the work. I see them as the first stage in a mutational crossing from one system to another, from an instance of late capitalism gone amok to a transcendent system of deeper intelligence, which then leads to other translations and to the eventual project of Hillel Fischer Traumberg, to investigate the nature of consciousness and intelligence:
In this way we come full circle and may wonder whether perhaps the mysteries of life are to be found within the codes for high frequency trading or whether Hillel Fischer Traumberg himself is an algorithmic construct?
JV: Would you say that this project offers a kind of ‘countervisuality’ to the capitalocene ?
ST: You could see it that way. But it is not only counter because that feels binary, it is more all around and inside out and back again and elsewhere.
JV: In many levels, your works deals with topics or methods that could be regarded as conspiracy theories. Are your works fuelled with a touch of irony or is conspiracy inseparable of these questions ?
ST: I am not sure which projects you are referring to but many of my projects contain historical information and data which is not generally known by the average person and so is assumed to be conspiracy theory material. The writer Digby Warde-Aldham addressed this issue on my behalf in his interview for Apollo Magazine in August 2014:
1. 'La technique ou l'enjeu du siècle'/'The Technological Society', Jacques Ellul, 1954.
2. Suzanne Treister, HFT The Gardener (2014-15) http://www.suzannetreister.net/HFT_TheGardener/HFT_menu.html and Black Dog Publishing, London 2016
3. Post-Surveillance: Suzanne Treister’s riposte to ‘Post-Internet’ art, Digby Warde-Aldam, 9 September 2014 https://www.apollo-magazine.com/post-surveillance-suzanne-treisters-riposte-post-internet-art/