Suzanne Treister


Interview, HFT The Gardener, with Liverpool Biennial, September 2016

Please could you begin by telling us a bit about the type of art you make and the themes  you tend to explore within your work?

In the 1980s I was making semi-narrative paintings which were about modellings of history, politics and belief. By the late 80s I was making work about video games and in 1991 I bought an Amiga computer on which I made a series of fictional video game stills (1991-2), which led to a project about imaginary software packages (1993-4). Through the 1990s I more or less left the mainstream art world, becoming involved in the new media scene and collaborative groups, working on web based projects and an interactive cd rom/video game about a time travelling avatar/alter-ego, Rosalind Brodsky who worked at a military institute in the future. Subsequent projects, e.g. HEXEN 2039 (2005-6), documented the supposed research projects of this institute. These works could be viewed in a similar way to political science fiction if you like. Since then projects like HEXEN 2.0 (2009-11) have mapped histories of scientific research behind government programmes of mass control, investigating parallel histories of countercultural and grass roots movements with the intention of imagining possible futures, whilst Post-Surveillance Art (2014) was trying to illuminate a new paradigm. Themes and interests in my work have included and revolve around history, politics, the frontiers of science and technology, parascience and alternative belief systems, the military, structures of power and control, futurology and outer space.

Could you briefly describe your Liverpool Biennial 2016 exhibition and what it is about?

HFT The Gardener comprises 175 drawings and computer works by the fictional character Hillel Fischer Traumberg. Traumberg is an algorithmic high-frequency trader (HFT), who experiments with hallucinogenic drugs, and explores the ethno-pharmacology of over a hundred psychoactive plants. He uses gematria (Hebrew numerology) to discover the numerological equivalents of the plants’ botanical names with companies in the Financial Times Global 500 Financial Index. He communes with the traditional shamanic users of these plants whose practices include healing, divining the future, entering the spirit world, and exploring the hallucinatory nature of reality. Traumberg develops a fantasy of himself as a techno-shaman, transmuting the spiritual dimensions of the universe and the hallucinogenic nature of capital into new art forms. Influenced by the drawings of Adolf Wölfli, which he saw on a banking trip to Switzerland, he becomes an 'outsider artist' whose works are collected by oligarchs, bankers, museums and some of the corporations featured in the works. Traumberg continues his parapsychopharmacological research and works on a new algorithm to discover the true nature and location of consciousness and to determine whether psychoactive drugs open a portal to the holographic universe.

Erik Davis, the San Francisco based author of Techgnosis and Nomad Codes, has written: “HFT The Gardener extends Treister’s fascination with esoteric translation, the cybernetics of consciousness, and the hallucinatory aesthetics that radiate from real-world circulations of power. Her fictional character Hillel Fischer Traumberg is an HFT—a high frequency trader. But this HFT is also a contemporary version of HCE, the hero of James Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, who struggles to awake in the wake of modernity’s dissolution of the boundaries that separate art, nature, language, math, money, and the traumatic Traum of history.“

The exhibition takes place in the Exhibition Research Gallery of the Liverpool School of Art and Design, an institution which trains artists. How do you feel this affects the story of its central character, Traumberg, an isolated and self-taught artist?

One of the starting points of the HFT project was my disappointment at the increasing monetisation of outsider art over the past few years, the way that parts of the mainstream art world, hungry for the 'authentic' in the wake of the professionalisation of contemporary artists, had mined and inevitably capitalised the works of outsider artists, many of whom are either dead or in care homes around the world. I wanted to upend this narrative by inventing a banker who became an outsider artist. High finance and economics reverting to the 'authentic', to the deeper experiences often lost to life in the military-academic-corporate-government-industrial-techno-scientific-complex. So in that sense, among others, I would like this to be a thought provoking show for art students at the JMU.

The video within the exhibition gives the show a somewhat ‘documentary’ feel, and in many cases, people have mistakenly believed Traumberg to be real. Is this something you intended?

That would be like the writer of a novel expecting people to think their characters are real. However suspension of everyday thinking will probably help people experience the ideas of the project more valuably. The narrative voiceover in the video tells the full story of HFT and is supposed to give a clear introduction to the works as well as being one of the works, although of course the video work, unlike the works on paper, is not supposedly by Traumberg but is narrated by an unknown commentator. Also taking into account the stylistic influence of outsider artist Adolf Wölfli on both Traumberg and myself, it's clear that the project has several layers of authorship.

You adopted the personality of Traumberg for an extended period as part of the process of the exhibition. Can you describe what this was like and how you think the experience might affect your work in the future? 

Although during the making of the work my interests and Traumberg's were often one and the same, as in the case of a novelist carrying out a lot of background research and getting inside their character, I don't feel I adopted his personality. I mentioned earlier that Rosalind Brodsky was my avatar/alter-ego in the 1990s but I don't think of Traumberg in that way. Brodsky and I shared a lot of personal 20th century history. HFT is more of an abstract construct and less of a personality. It is even suggested in one of the works that he may be an algorithm.

At the end of this interview I'll include a list of some books which relate to the ideas in the project.

Unlike many of your previous projects, HFT deals with a primarily isolated, introspective individual who becomes increasingly fixated on the notion of consciousness. Was this in any way intended as a reflection on how ‘outsider artists’ tend to make work, which is perhaps less shaped towards a particular art world audience?

This is a tricky question because I don't myself specifically make work aimed at an art world audience. Since launching my first web project in 1995 I've been very aware of non art world audiences and these have been really important for me. But yes, as HFT transforms himself into an outsider artist through his use of hallucinogenic drugs, he becomes increasingly involved in these big questions of consciousness and theories of the universe, questions he is perhaps more able to hypothesise scientific answers to because of his professional background. Like HFT, the art world is filling up with more and more people who are multi-disciplined, who once were astrophysicists or geographers. And often they too are – often willingly - swallowed up by the novelty hungry art world, just like outsider artists have been.

What other projects and exhibitions have you got underway?

The Tarot works from HEXEN 2.0 and a new commissioned drawing, From Psychedelics via the Counterculture to the Possible Futures of Humanity (2016), are on show in the exhibition, You Say You Want a Revolution? Records and Rebels 1966-1970 at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London until February next year. HFT The Gardener will also be shown in London at Annely Juda Fine Art, from September 22 – October 29 this year. At the moment I am thinking about a new project, possibly to do with future societies and the interplanetary internet, space travel, stars and techno-shamanism, I can't say for sure right now.


Plants of the Gods: Their Sacred, Healing, and Hallucinogenic Powers (1979) by Albert Hofmann and Richard Evans Schultes

The Encyclopedia of Psychoactive Plants: Ethnopharmacology and Its Applications (2005) by Christian Rätsch

Breaking Convention: Essays on Psychedelic Consciousness (2013)

The Holographic Universe (1991) by Michael Talbot

Flash Boys: Cracking the money code (2014) by Michael Lewis

The Fear Index (2011) by Robert Harris

The Art of Adolf Wölfli: St. Adolf-Giant-Creation (2003) by Elka Spoerri and others

Art Forms in Nature: Prints of Ernst Haeckel (originally published 1899) by Olaf Breidbach and Irenaeus Eibl-Eibesfeldt

Publication: HFT The Gardener, Suzanne Treister with Foreword by Erik Davis

link to published article


Treister homepage