Suzanne Treister



Interview with Rachel Potts for Garageland magazine, 'Future' issue, London, May 2010 (unabridged version)


The truth is out there


London-based artist Suzanne Treister has worked under the guise of a time-travelling alter-ego and created research projects into links between warfare and the occult, blurring lines between fact and fantasy. She talks to Garageland about her recent foray into the forward march of technology and combat.


How did your upbringing bear on your interest in science fiction and military activity?

I was a fan of science fiction in my teens. As a child I was often told about the Holocaust and my father's wartime experience in the French Resistance. After the war my father went into the defence spares business.

Your work imagines a less rational, quite frightening future. Do you think it's important to inhabit dystopic visions?

Science fiction is often about imagining the worst, sometimes acting as a warning, but it simultaneously exists as an instruction sheet for powers that be. There is a weird ambiguity of intention and effect when you look at it like that. After my project HEXEN 2039 (2006) I moved back into making works which sidestepped those potential complicities, but then in 2009 I began working on 'MTB [MILITARY TRAINING BASE]'.

Can you describe the MTB exhibition at Alma Enterprises last December?

I made a 17 foot long drawing describing a hypothetical military training base of the future. It was partially inspired by Jim Channon's idealistic theories and proposals for non-lethal warfare, from his 1979 book 'First Earth Battalion', and also drew on the role-playing, simulated, architectural, landscaped war zones used for military training in the US now. It featured over 70 sites - reconstructions of Greek archaeological sites, the Vatican, various amalgamated corporate HQs, an art school building based on a bunker at Bentwaters Cold War Museum in Suffolk, a Museum of Sex, some invented organisations and versions of the Israeli West-Bank Barrier. There were three video training demos 'located' at Marfa, Texas, at the ruins of the Palace of the Queen of Sheba in Ethiopia and at the Unabomber's cabin in Montana.

The project was triggered while I was in San Antonio, Texas in early 2009. There are a number of military bases in and around the city, some of which are open to the public, and their presence permeates the place. I visited Marfa, the small West Texan town where Donald Judd lived and worked. He installed large works by himself and his peers on land and in buildings vacated in 1946 by the US Military.

You used to be a painter, and have used the internet and video since the 1990s. You now use a lot of drawing. How has your interest in use of these materials developed?

I got into computers and new technologies in 1991 while making works about video games. During the 90s I became involved in the world of net politics and new media, the euphoric decade of the grassroots internet and fantasies about a new paradigm. That's now over, power and money are taking control and the medium, for me, is contaminated. Now when I talk about technology I tend to prefer to do it with a stick of graphite that can't be erased by the National Security Agency in the Cloud.

Your hand-drawn diagrams have an air of the 'mad scientist' about them, is this intentional?

No and yes. It depends which kind of 'mad' you mean. Some of those guys invent things that improve our lives, but also destroy us. I'm beginning to see myself as a pacifist version of the Unabomber, the 'mad' anti-technology ex-mathematician. I do have an issue with the word 'mad' though, when it is used to dismiss intelligent responses or understandings which just happen to be beyond the grasp of the average citizen. The expression 'conspiracy theorist' is used to demonise people who rationally acknowledge that some human beings sit around in closed rooms discussing and carrying out plans that they do not tell us about.

Is there a drive in your work to encourage learning from past mistakes?

I don't honestly think I believe in the human race to that extent, but I sometimes fantasise that I can wake people up to things. There are forces out there which make pawns of us all, like the engine of technology and the drive to total control. Because of all the 20th century science fiction, this stuff started to feel like a tired cliché and we fell right in, assuming it was all exaggerated fantasy. If you're reading this and you have any free time today I'd suggest you look up what you might consider to be a conspiracy theory on the internet - not the crackpot racist, or the 'we never landed on the moon' type - and, see where that takes you.

The more fantastical elements in your work seem to move it away from straight and didactic political commentary.

I am not a didactic person, but the fact that the audience may not be familiar with the material in my work doesn't mean it's all fictional. The 'fantasy' is often in the mind of the viewer.



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