Interview with Suzanne Treister by Alex Bennett, novembre magazine, 18 December 2016
I type “high frequency trading” into Google images. The results: Wall Street signs, a computer-generated bullet travelling through space, various LED percentages displayed at a cinematic angles, graphs charting their skittish statistics. I think about dinner, cool neon, and candlelight. No signs, just sense. The market’s spectral evidence, as it appeared to my naïve eyes, is one of speculation spritzed with hysteria, delivering on the wishes for those in the loftiest of seats. Hallucinatory aesthetics radiate from these real-world circulations of control. Reality is strange, but to mystify it is to placate its power, it is to remain individually impotent.
The blend of cybernetics, economics, and psychedelia are characteristic of much of Suzanne Treister’s work. Her rate of production is bacterial – each strand growing exponentially and tangentially. Fictional characters, paranormal practices, and Ernst Haeckel-esque diagrams interlace like unruly weeds. Calligraphic, her drawings wink to celestial charts, the important promise of embossed cursive, the leather-bound antique. Her cartographic impulse is sutured to discovering, or challenging, through alternative models of thought, the structures that bind power, identity, and knowledge. Not quite a mirror-image of my earlier doe-eyed stupor at signals that wash over like hieroglyphics, but certainly a parallel understanding. I consider Treister’s practice as that which uses the hallucinogen as a prism. It can be claimed as unruly but also planetary – atomised yet extensive, serpentine and voluminous.
If history reinforces taxonomy not only with particular lineage, but also archival prestige, then Treister’s re-assembling of these chosen taxonomies releases a volatile, fiery quality to the conditions of history. Namely, that history is selective, that history – under a certain language and logic – defines, and history, over time, has the potential to erase. Ultimately, Treister deprives the institutionalised past of mettle.
Working primarily with video, drawing, and interactive technologies, Treister charts multiple histories. She was an early proponent of digital media through the 1990s, producing work in-line with these emerging technologies; what was initially known, with all its utopian, umbrella-like allure, as the World Wide Web.
The following conversation drifts from her recent work, HFT The Gardener (2014-5) that considers the interrelations between psychoactive plants, economics, and technology, through to HEXEN 2.0 (2009-11) that surveys cybernetics, terrestrial capitalism, and the chimera that was the early internet. Together, they make up the clusterfuck of influence that is Treister’s practice.
Alex Bennett: I thought we could start with a few questions around a recent project, HFT The Gardener (2014-15). In contrast to the more cartographic or empirical use of fiction in your work, here, the fictional element seems to underline the speculative, capricious, and absurd nature of the market. In the work – which includes botanical prints, the ‘Outsider’ illustrations of your fictional character, Hillel Fischer Traumberg, and and his reworking of knowledge production has a certain frenzy to it, an addictive quality. But his method parallels the current expansion of artificial intelligence and the hoarding of data; the complete integration of surveillance. In HFT The Gardener, what do you feel the use of fiction allows you to generate?
Suzanne Treister: That's interesting how you put it, his method does seem to parallel these things, and yes the fiction of Hillel Fischer Traumberg is quite intentionally slippery, shifting inter-dimensionally through identity (human/algorithm), HFTrading, mathematics/code, the chemistry of plants, the meaning of art, psychic states and alternate realities. I would not say that any one of these underlines the other although the market trading provides the fictional starting point.
AB: Is this because you see market trading to be driven foremost by speculation, a working of the future in the present, that can be accessed best through fiction?
ST: I didn't see it like this specifically, it's more to do with the idea of algorithms which invisibly underlie our lives and which I had already made work about. One of the early triggers for the project was reading Flash Boys (2014) by Michael Lewis, a brilliant exposé of high frequency traders (HFTs) in the finance industry, describing the private high speed cable and other networks which had been recently built and only available to those with enough capital, giving them an unfair trading edge on those with less. Another book I read around this time was The Fear Index (2011) by Robert Harris about a fictional hedge fund operating in Geneva where the main character builds a trading algorithm which literally runs away with itself and does a whole load of other weird things which only gradually come to light.
AB: There is an interesting correlation between the radical understandings of both the World Wide Web, and the psychedelia of botanical life. With the former, the internet has intensified surveillance and technological singularity, while the latter has become implicated in the colonisation and engineering of natural life. Radical (or utopian) intentions have become disciplined, rendering more intimate control. Would you say HFT is unpacking a confluence between how we might now consider “radicality” on both a molecular and technological level? Such as the reorganisation, as Erik Davis mentions in the foreword for HFT’s book, of cannabis... that these two strands of life, one highly natural and one highly artificial, are becoming programmatic and pacified?
ST: I would agree that the radical has kind of lost its earlier meaning now, this is a big topic we could talk about forever, but I guess what I am doing with the HFT project is starting out with the current paradigm and exploding it outwards, kind of holding it up to an enormous prism, then trying to shatter and burst through it. It's hard to express these things without shrinking the sense in which I mean them. Erik's mention of the reframing of cannabis by US West Coast corporates is depressing but then he goes on to say, 'Again, there is no more Outside—which maybe means that the inner life is, once again, open for business.'
AB: From this, the sense that HFT generates a symbiosis between plant life and technology appears to have a tone of sincerity. I wonder if there is a kind of sincerity in levelling the natural world with technology, as though coming back to the early politics of the Internet, as a space for open-access and safe communication. As an artist aware of the shifts from the early internet, how do you consider your use of plant life in relation to the vision of the early internet? Is there something utopian, or mystical, in both?
ST: Yes there was certainly something utopian about the early internet and the kind of mystical quality it had was something I touched on in some of my art projects at the time and in terms of technology, even earlier with my Fictional Video Game works (1991-2) and Software (1993-4). The utopian part of the internet was about radical shifts in social structures, geographies and hierarchies and this was the primary reason it was so exciting as a medium and a space to work in. Within that space there was an amazing new mythical global sphere you couldn't quite visualise. Now I find the idea of Vint Cerf's interplanetary internet exciting, but I don't have rose tinted spectacles on. So in this sense there is a relation to the spaces opened up by psychoactive plants. However there is a natural connection between plant life and technology. To chemical biologists all plant life can be broken down into chemical formulae and in the case of the many different alkaloids present in psychoactive plants - the chemicals which produce the psychoactive effects on the brain - this means they can be re-produced in the lab. There is a sense in which everything is nature and everything is technology and this is just one tiny example. So getting back to your question, it's the uses that technologies are put to that is the issue, and so in the case of the internet the utopian days were compromised around the year 2000 by governments and corporations. Human beings inevitably create and destroy and there are so many things in between, much of which is invisible to us and which existed before life on earth and will go on long after the human race has disappeared. You could say that HFT The Gardener fell down an algorithmic black hole.
AB: As you mentioned, the idea that everything is nature, and everything is technology seems clearer as we consider solar energy. But as with the Internet, even the harnessing of solar energy brings into question local labour politics versus global energy markets. In The Parasite (1982), Michel Serres took the sun as the symbolic form of capital par excellence: “The ultimate capital is the sun”; Serres relates the metabolic accumulation of solar energy toward the tendency of terrestrial capitalism toward abstraction, predating how we now live under the transformation of energy into money. Mass computation is a power that exists on such a large scale and perhaps Vint Cerf’s interplanetary Internet is a development of this. Can you tell me some more about Cerf’s project and how you feel about it?
ST: I'm not sure these are related. The IPN thing at the moment seems to be more about how to set up networks that work over such vast distances and figuring out how these may be useful. Of course future uses of these networks will come with the same problematics as the terrestrial internet. Looking into the future, assuming we may one day find life on other planets, who can say what uses the crazy rulers of planet earth will put this technology to, and what similar technology the extra terrestrials may themselves have, and what they will be like? Maybe they are already their equivalent of post-human or are pure code? Maybe they are helping us build the IPN without us knowing it? Perhaps Vint Cerf is an extra-terrestrial? Here are a couple of links for those interested:
AB: Can you tell me a little about your process for HFT? Much of your output generates intricate alternatives of knowledge production and I wonder how you move through different mediums in the process, from watercolour to video to prints … part of this also has satirical relations to “Outsider” art, a sense of the art world’s incessant extraction of “otherness”…
ST: Yes, well put, 'the art world’s incessant extraction of “otherness”'. As I have said elsewhere, this is part of the commentary of the project, that in this instance it is the banker who makes, rather than owns, the outsider art. But in terms of media, in most of my larger projects I use a variety of media depending on what makes sense for each component of the work. For this project the works were driven by the literal aspect of the fiction of HFT who starts off making works in forms already familiar to him from banking, i.e. charts, graphs and diagrams, using algorithms and coding, and then once he is under the influence of the outsider artist Adolf Wölfli he begins to use more traditional art materials like watercolour.
AB: Would you consider this process to resemble collage? Collagist tactics offer the freedom for disparity to bump and crash into one another. Do you see a resemblance of collage in your work; if so, what do you think its possibilities or virtues are?
ST: I can see a connection. I am often tempted to make collage but never do. I am not totally sure why. Thinking about it now I reckon it's because I see it too much in the lineage of Surrealism... The juxtapositions, shocking or stunning as they may be, and generally composed of sharply delineated areas cut by a knife, remain as juxtapositions. I am more interested in a layering of ideas, an overlapping and connectivity where one model blurs over another, where things become each other, where consensus reality is destabilised and questioned in a different way from that of collage. Generally I also need a narrative and a large body of interconnected works, but to give an example of what I mean I could point to a stand alone single drawing, e.g. Algorithm 2.0/109/Siberian Shaman
AB: The diagrammatic, structural presentation of your work seems, to me, to suggest a similarity with how we now live, maintain, and enhance biology and the body. I’m thinking: 5-day cleanses, detoxifying rituals, and the rigorous attention toward self-maintenance. In HFT/Botanical Prints (2014-5), for instance, the structuring of plant life has algorithmically produced counter-parts: “Wal-Mart Stores”, or “Nestlé”. Today’s bodies have never been less mysterious, with solutions to health and well being telescoping to a cellular level. Does your approach to botany’s formalisation and monetisation by the pharmaceutical industry extend to a consideration of the domesticated body? That the power previously ascribed to nature and the body have become saturated by what Davis calls: “algorithmic animism.”
ST: I haven't considered that. I think there is a long way to go before total domestication of the body and I don't think total domestication is possible. I think there is more likelihood of a global epidemic that kills us off. But just to clarify, the corporate counterparts to the plants in the Botanical works derive from HFT's gematria experiments. The plant images themselves are both found online and collated algorithmically.
AB: But there is an interest in biopolitical governance in your work, HEXEN 2.0 (2009-11) looks at the Macy Conferences, which took place in New York between 1946-53 and attempted to unify a theory of the human mind, in order for it to be controlled. Medical treatments and administrative technologies could be argued as progressing this course of action, no longer in the privacy of a programme, but in the technology, data, and algorithms through which our identities are mapped and analysed. How did you come to the Macy Conferences?
ST: I came across the Macy Conferences when I was exploring the origins of cybernetic theory. It struck me at the time that you could view Web 2.0 as a mass of cybernetic feedback loops, hence its societal controlling function. This was the starting point for me in 2009 of HEXEN 2.0. Macy Conferences attendees consisted of mathematicians, scientists, engineers and leading figures of post-war social science, some of whom had contributed to the construction and use of nuclear weapons, some of whom went on to carry out CIA funded military research into the psychological effects of LSD and its potential as a tool for interrogation and psychological manipulation in such projects as the CIA's MKULTRA program and others who took ethical positions and subsequently rejected military funding of their work. One development out of the Macy Conferences was the World Federation for Mental Health, launched in Paris in 1948, and described by John Rawlings Rees, Director of the Tavistock Institute, London and chief of British army psychiatric services in WW2 as, “A worldwide social engineering apparatus penetrated into every community.” There is more info on Macy Conferences attendees here. Useful links are:
AB: Alongside these aberrations in governmental control, you also have an interest in occult practices. The occult symbolizes transgression, becoming instruments or channels for you to twist typical models of thinking, or ways of formulating knowledge. The figure of the witch also has feminist undertones – W.I.T.C.H (Women’s International Terrorist Conspiracy from Hell) from the late 1960s drew on Wiccan practices for political stunts, dressing as witches and hexing Wall Street. Occult practices are a threat to divine social order, with a more archaic sense of transhumanism at work; can you tell me about these spiritual qualities in your work, what interests you in such practices?
ST: I guess my interest is a long-standing one from childhood and adolescence, when we first ask questions about the nature of reality and the universe. I never stopped asking those questions and unfortunately science is still incapable of explaining everything, and so in the language there has arisen a naming of inexplicable areas, areas in which many so called occult practices operate, with the word 'paranormal', a territory which of course must include some hocus pocus as well as some phenomena which are yet to be explained. These practices and belief systems, as can also be the case with religions, can be seen as transgressive and felt as a threat to government because they operate and think on a much broader and deeper level than that of government, one which can make party politics for example, appear on the level of a game of football. As we know, the danger comes with inappropriate certainties and self-empowerment to the detriment of others. But I am not so interested in these practices in a transgressive sense but in ways they are used as analytical tools, like the tarot or gematria. These were and still are used seriously in ways similar to psychological practices as well as in philosophical-religious study. I am interested in applying these methodologies to the subject matters of my work, breaking down barriers between so called consensus reality and other forms of thinking and experiencing.
AB: There is something ‘trippy’ about HEXEN 2.0, strange potholes of information. In this project, do you see a relation between occult communications, such as the séance, and cybernetics? Perhaps this has been extended with ideas of technological singularity and the difference between pancomuptationalism (the idea that everything computes) and panpsychism (the idea that everything ‘thinks’)...
ST: In HEXEN 2.0 I saw the Cybernetic Séance (2011) as an extended kind of cybernetic feedback loop – encompassing 'feedback' from the dead into the present and around again, past present, past present, informing each other in a continuous loop. It was a kind of experimental meta-position for the project, to take it into another dimension and see how that felt, whether it opened up the realities imaginatively in a useful, or even mesmerising, way.
AB: This makes me think of HEXEN 2.0’s tarot card selection and the inversion of conditions of thought. In the often-quoted JG Ballard statement: “The fiction is already there. The writer’s task is to invent the reality”, there is a similarity in the condition of your tarot cards as they bring to light a new kind of empiricism, or counter-knowledge. Can you talk me through these? How have they been adapted?
ST: That's a useful quote. So with the HEXEN 2.0/Tarot cards, I closely followed the traditional interpretations for each card, marrying them with what I felt was the most appropriate, person, place, event, and so on, from the histories brought together in the five HEXEN 2.0/Diagrams. (here and here) As I've explained elsewhere, the material in the diagrams was an attempt to portray a big picture of interrelated histories, those both commonly and less known, including the development of cybernetics, the history of computers and the internet, the rise of Web 2.0, 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 tracing 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, so as to allow people to grasp more clearly where we are and where we may be going in terms of potential futures of technology and society. And so the function of my tarot deck is to allow the subject matter and the interpretations of the cards and the chance - or otherwise - layout of chosen cards to suggest new or differently constructed ways of thinking, to envision possible alternative futures.
AB: Considering your work as a dense examination characterised by rewiring, doubt, and error, I wonder if a primary concern for you would be the generating of parallel histories?
ST: As I just said, I like to expose big picture histories and open up possibilities of clearer thought for audiences to think imaginatively – in the case of HEXEN 2.0 - about the future, and in that sense I hope to help create parallel futures which may or may not take place, but also may because there is the idea of parallel universes to contend with. In the case of HFT The Gardener I guess there is a kind of parallel history or you could say parallel narratives perhaps.
AB: In HFT The Gardener can you tell me more about the Psychoactive Glitch Graphs (2014-5)? What, fictionally or otherwise, generated these patterns?
ST: They are jpg images of HFTrading graphs glitched (text inserted into the image code) with molecular formulae of specific alkaloids from individual psychoactive plants. HFT made them to see whether the effects the alkaloids have on the human brain could be similarly produced in a digital image, through insertion of their chemical codes. When re-opened as jpgs the graph images are definitely more psychedelic. In the story of HFT he inserts these molecular formulae into his trading algorithms.
AB: Just to finish, I wonder how events post-Snowden have influenced your use of existing technology? Do you feel receptive to these contextual changes with technology, to the extent of letting them intervene on the work? Because it appears to me that you have quite a historical, hand-made, and archival approach to information – rather than the slick-technics that we see characterizing much post-internet art...
ST: Well I did all that a long time ago. I started making work with computers in 1991, Net Art from 1995 and a cd-rom 'game' about a time traveller/avatar which I finished in 1999. So that was my high techy period way before Post-Internet Art, much of which looks to me more like sculpture/installation or a kind of neo Pop Art. From around 2000, in response to the governmentisation and corporatisation of the internet - since my work involves a certain amount of analysis and critique of technological society - I returned my focus to mostly traditional media, as a slightly less problematised space from which to make work.I find it hilarious that there is now so much techy looking work made by young artists which is so similar to the work that was made in the 1990s in the new media scene, work which was categorically dismissed at the time by the mainstream art world as 'bad art', and is now so wholeheartedly embraced by it. In 2014 I invented the art movement/project Post-Surveillance Art initially as a joke and comment on this and on both the Post-Internet Art syndrome and post-Snowden situation, and made a series of very techy looking posters about the brave new world I had been going on about for years. (Post-Surveillance Art)