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<nettime> interview with Eugene Thacker
Josephine Bosma on 30 Mar 2001 14:15:16 -0000


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<nettime> interview with Eugene Thacker



  "To not be satisfied with just the screenal net art."

Eugene Thacker is a writer, theorist and artist. I know his work mostly
through his collaboration with the New York based net performance group
Fakeshop, but he has also done solo projects and is mostly a writer.
Eugene Thacker's work centers around bio tech, science fiction,
experimental literature, art and science. He just finished his Ph.D. in
cultural and literary studies
at Rutgers University. We talked at DEAF '00, The Dutch Electronic Art
Festival organized by V2 last november.


JB: Can you tell me about your background? Your work with Fakeshop made
me wonder if you have a background in art at all?
 
Eugene Thacker: My background is not in art actually. My background is
more in critical theory, and literary theory. Basically I come from
literature. In college I was really involved in the experimental
literature community, zines and so on. When the web came around I got
into that and hypertext. Like a lot of people at some point it made
sense not to just limit yourself to just text, but to try to work in
different media. I have always been interested in approaching things
from a theoretical viewpoint, as well as exploring the same issues in,
for want of a better term, an artistic domain. Sometimes getting
different results, sometimes seeing what you can learn from doing those
kind of activities.

The intersection with the sciences for me is much more recent. It arises
out of a real, deep interest in the body and the relationship of the
body to different technologies. At some point I was doing a lot of work
with theorists like for instance George Battaille and science fiction
writers like Ballard or Blumlein, looking at how they were seeing the
body reconfigured by different technologies. How they were seeing
different kinds of anatomies, how they were imagining different kind of
anatomical formations that were contextualized by desire and so on. At
some point I felt like I was dancing around the topic, not really
confronting it directly. Part of that was disciplinary.

In the US it is not yet widespread to simply jump around in these very
different disciplines. So I decided I should really open some anatomical
textbooks. What is going on with anatomy research now? Where is it? I
felt like for me it was a change to more directly deal with
philosophical and political issues of, say, the anatomical body by
looking at actual research that was going around, but looking at it
through that theoretical lens. So Bataille was always there. I was
looking at things like the Visible Human Project - where they
sliced up a body and archived it in a database - through that lens and
in the process I was trying to understand the science as well. When I
was in college I was a biochemistry major, and I worked in a
pathobiology lab for a number of years too. This was before graduate
school. I was very interested in the science part of it, but also in the
ethical part of it. It is easy to look at things in hindsight to make
sense. At the time I was really interested in the science fictional
aspect of it. You know a lot of science fiction is quite tacky, it
really gets into the nuts and bolts of the details. I think that was
what was going on earlier on. I quickly found out working in a lab,
where you're one of
dozens of people working on this tiny minuscule issue, wasn't the kind
of thing I wanted to do. Then I switched over to the humanities. So I
had this weird cycle going round. I started there and now I am
going back to biochemistry and genetics, but through a very different
viewpoint. That background has really helped me, so it was not so hard
to look at genetics research itself, because I had some of the basics of
what scientific knowledge was. To try to answer your question directly:
I have always been trying to balance the humanities and the sciences in
what I am doing.
 
JB: And the arts as well?
 
ET: Yes, definitely, which to me is much closer to the theoretical work
then it is to the sciences. My artistic dealings with these topics have
mostly been extrapolations of the theory that I was doing. I haven't yet
really explored direct collaborations with different scientists. I think
there are other groups that are doing that in an interesting way, but it
is not what I am interested in right now, which is mostly writing in
different types of discourses that are going on.
 
JB: Did you only do art work together with Fakeshop and how does your
artwork relate to your writing?
 
ET: I mostly started working as an artist because of the web actually.
Like I said, I was doing writing before. I really came to think of
myself as an 'artist' when I was working with the web and I was doing
not just text, but html, image, video, sound, exploring all these
different things.
 
I have done a lot of different projects dealing with biotech. One was
shown at Ars Electronica in 1999, a project about the Visible Human
Project, about the notion of digital anatomy. This is a project by the
National Library of Medicine in the US, where researchers took the body
of a convicted murderer, a convicted criminal, and they proceeded to
slice him into a thousand or so pieces, in transverse corrections. Then
they encoded each of those slices into digital files and made a database
out of it. It was going to be used for medical education, for research,
to assist surgeons in virtual surgery and have all these medical
applications. Of course it is this incredibly gothic moment, of this
corpse that was reanimated in the computer basically. It was a very
fascinating field to look at in terms an objectification of the body by
the sciences. Anatomy is one of the oldest traditions of that approach
to the body. Here is a contemporary instance of anatomical science which
is coming from this long tradition in the West, and it is now engaging
with computer and Web tech. One of the most intriguing things about this
is that this is a body that was archived into a database. This database,
as a mode of categorizing the body, seemed really interesting to me. I
got a license to use those images in the database and started creating a
kind of counter database of images. What you can do very simply is take
each of those sections and line them up in animation cells and create an
animation. You can create these animations as if you were flying through
the body. Using morphing programs and also basic animation you can
create completely unrecognizable anatomical animations. These are bodies
that 'slipped through the cracks' of anatomical categorizing. The
theoretical jumping point was again Bataille's notion of the formless, a
term that confronts ambiguity through structure, but 'undoes' it in the
process. It is trying to locate this slippage, this moment of
unrecognisability. I did that using digital anatomy and virtual surgery,
as well as using 3D modeling. It was a piece about databasing the body.
 
JB: Has your writing been connected to your artwork mostly or have you
also done independent articles?
 
ET: Yes. Most of it recently has concentrated on biotech. But I have
written a lot about new media and also science fiction. Right now I am
trying to work on the relationship between science fiction and science.
Trying to find more provocative ways of talking about that. I wrote an
article in Art Journal that was about new media artists that are
engaging with the technosciences. They are trying to find complex ways
of bringing up some of the issues that are of controversy in them, such
as Biotech Hobbyist, or Critical Art Ensemble,  or Mongrel. Each are
approaching different issues, using different strategies, different
technologies and each group are coming up with different responses. The
thread that I used to contextualise that was science fiction in art
practice, using that as a critical tool.
 
JB: When you are exploring this issues in the net or in the web, you are
exploring them in the anatomy of a body that is also still being
developed, which is also being criticized. How do you relate your
investigation into these sciences to this highly unstable environment
you are presenting a lot of your work in?
 
ET: What you just pointed out is one area for new media art to work in.
To work with the instability of the medium, the certain points where it
resists an instrumental codification. To intersect that instability with
some of the bioscience research, I think there has yet to be an
interesting project that deals with bioinformatics, which has to create
very articulate databases, which have to be updated, and that can be
highly flexible. This is all based on having a stable medium. This is an
online genetic body. I think there is a wonderful opportunity for
somebody to do a really great new media net art piece and work with
those instabilities. What happens when you get scrambled code? What
happens when you get noise online with these genetic bodies? What
happens when your connection drops? You can imagine all kinds of very
unstable instances that are not just oppositional, but they are raising
problems that are part of the medium, the technology.
 
JB: Is that the line you would also like to pursue? Which direction
 would you like your work to go most of all?
 
ET: In terms of the new medium, the artwork, what I am pursuing now is
this relationship to science fiction. That is why I am working with
Fakeshop. For us a point of departure for a lot of the pieces are
science fiction films. They tend to be particular films from the late
sixties to the late seventies. What they do is they create these
immersive spaces, these spatially oriented bodies or networked
situated, modeled, posed bodies that are contextualised in many
different ways. What is attractive to me about this is that science
fiction on the one hand can form the function of critique. It can take
some of the scientific knowledge out there and speculate on that, put it
in an imaginative context. To bring up certain social and political
issues. That is part of it. The other reason is that science fiction can
create these affective spaces. If you have ever seen an installation
that is immersive and you walked in, that can be a very powerful
experiential moment. When we are doing a specific piece, like Multiple
Dwelling which was about the film Coma and biomedicine, we get very
interesting responses. That is not exclusive to science fiction of
course, but it has the same affective resonance that I identify with
writers like JG Ballard, who is very much about creating haunting
technological spaces.
 
JB: A technical question about the Fakeshop performances: what is your
experience with a possible difference between an online and a real life
audience?
 
ET: The response of an audience member's body to the space they are
experiencing the piece is of course very different from an online
viewer. To generalize, what usually happens is that the people that
physically present in an installation space experience that affective
immersion, that "what have I walked into" type of feeling. For obvious
reasons that is not present when you are an online participant. What the
online participants experience is...I don't want to call it
telepresence, that has too much baggage, but they experience a certain
real-time connectivity. Especially if you can create a participatory
structure (where you are not just watching a RealVideo stream) and
create a certain participatory network that is very different from the
way you are implicated in an installation space. A good example again is
the Multiple Dwelling piece. The physical installation has bodies and
performers in there. Then we create a virtual space. The connection
between them is the body of the performers. In this futuristic hospital
those bodies get digitally encoded and mapped in VRML space. That is the
Web component. At the same time you have an online networked 'community'
being created say through CU-SeeMe and participants can re-transmit
back, if they feel like it, their own bodies. These can then be
re-assembled in the installation space. On the desktop, on the screen.
These participants are also chatting. The chat texts always take on
these organic, weird, evolutionary, strange results. It is the
networking of the virtual and real spaces and the different experiences
that each of those people have that to me is exiting. It is exiting
because you are insisting that net art is not just screenal. You are
rubbing it up bodily materiality, you are making it confront that. It
might fail miserably, or something interesting might happen, but it is
really important to do. To not be satisfied with just the screenal net
art.
 
JB: What could be a strategy to deal with institutions that very often
do not wish to confront the physicality of net art?
 
ET: I have been really frustrated by it, for several reasons. I can only
talk about my experiences in the States which is very different then in
Europe I think. In the US it is difficult to find institutions, even
individuals, willing to take an open ended, risky maybe, but essentially
creative view to approaching this kind of art. I am not a curator, but I
recognize you have to deal with these issues: how do you buy this
art, how do you collect it, how do you exhibit it, how do we fit it
into the tradition of art museums that our culture has? People like
Steve Dietz are addressing these issues in the U.S., but it is tough to
find an arresting way to present this work that can have impact. Yes, I
think that creating a kiosk or having dedicated computers is great, but
people always say "I can look at this at home". Why go to this reified
space and look at the artwork there? I think maybe one area to look at
is institutional support of this art. Don't commission net.art pieces,
commission net.art projects that are multi-platform, that can exist in
different contexts. Why not commission projects where you are going to
ask somebody to do a work where one part is going to be an installation?
It might mutate and become just online, it could become another
component. We should develop some kind of modular way of thinking of
how, if an institution is going to fund work, how that is going to be
done. Maybe it should be more creatively thought out to accommodate
these different contexts that we have. It is about challenging,
impelling the artists to work in a multi contextual ways.
 
JB:  It is not so much challenging the artists to work in a different
way I think, but impelling curators and the audience to look at this
work in a different way. To show that the internet is not about a
bodiless cyberspace...
 
ET: You're right. I experience this a lot in teaching. I always try to
do a section on hypertext, for instance. For the majority of students
this is totally new. They go through this experience saying "I had no
idea there was stuff out there like this. I go to my MP3 site, or use it
for online shopping!" A very important step therefore is
re-contextualising the medium. It has become a cliché now that it is
dominated still by e-commerce and online shopping. What I was talking
about is maybe go a step further then that and challenging net art again
to keep working with infotech with the Web, but to also be dissatisfied
with that to some extent. To try to explore different, mutated, adaptive
ways of making artwork that is flexible to different contexts. I agree
with you that I have more confidence in artists to do that then in
people that are running institutions that have to deal with their own
politics and histories.
 
JB: I don't really agree on this last remark either though. By giving
institutions some kind of eye-opener you can show them it actually is
more interesting for them too to look at this work in a different way.
 
ET: I think we do agree. Part of the impetus is in changing the modes of
thinking. Fundamentally what is the issue is challenging people's modes
of thinking about certain technologies, which develop out of certain
historical moments. This is a specific instance in that, and that is
valuable to have. I don't mean to totally critique screenal-based
net.art. I just think it is a challenge for net.artists to take this
different perspective. In doing that you are taking into account your
audience, which is always in different contexts physically speaking.
Where are they going to see it, how do they get their information?
Rhizome and other web sites are out there, and they are not hard to
find, but how do people get the information about it in the first place?
How do they become implicated in networks where they can find out about
this stuff? Then how can they have a transformative experience and go
back to their computer to look at whole experience differently or think
reflectively about it. It is the habituation process: it is a black box,
you check your email, it goes wrong, you go crazy or whatever...

JB: Going back to the first part of the interview. In the panel you said
there was no communication between the sciences and critical, cultural
theory. Don't you risk with making art that you are not being taken
seriously at all in both these fields when you criticize bio tech?

ET: I think there is always a threat of recuperation going on no matter
what. What is at issue is the discourse is, who has the authority, the
legitimization to speak on a certain subject? I definitely feel the
challenges involved in that, because I am not a genetics researcher and
formally speaking I don't have that background. It is a real challenge
for people in the US in the sciences to think about this issue of
who can speak on a topic, who can ask questions about it, and based on
that, how will that be received? The experience we were talking about in
New York with the Gene Media Forum [an exhibit of artists dealing with
genetics presented by Exit Art, and funded by the Gene Media Forum, in
the Spring of 2000] was a good illustration of that. I think it is great
they had this exhibition of artists dealing with the net, and it is
great to have this panel of CEO's from biotech corporations. But I
didn't really see a lot of communication going on between those two
groups. For instance in that panel nobody from the biotech panel brought
up art. Nobody even said that it was important, even as lip service. It
was totally absent from the discussion. There was no communication to
begin with, so that recuperation could happen. It is happening in a much
more silent way. The way it was happening was through the funding of the
exhibit and then it's location in the safe space of the gallery. There
are a lot of difficult challenges that are going to come up in
collaborative instances of art that is critiquing biotech. It might be
that it ends up in the same position as certain forms of bioactivism end
up: people crying and whining about something. The science community
always feels threatened by that because it is very oppositional. So it
is a risk to work on this in art, but maybe one way of working is
breaking down those boundaries and saying that in some instances you
need to take an oppositional stance and confront issues. In other
instances it is a lot more complicated then that. The willingness to do
that, the risk of maybe compromising certain traditions or positions
seems to me worth doing.

-

Eugene Thacker
e: maldoror {AT} eden.rutgers.edu
w: http://gsa.rutgers.edu/maldoror/index.html
Pgrm. in Comparative Literature, Rutgers Univ.

CURRENT:
"Strength of Binding between Ultrahigh Molecular 
Mass Polyethylene-Hydroxylapatite Composites
using 3D Spring Lattice Models"  {AT}  DIAGRAM
<http://www.thediagram.com>

"Molecules That Matter: Nanomedicine & the
Advent of Programmable Matter"  {AT}  nettime: 
<http://www.nettime.org>.

"Regenerative Medicine: We Can Grow It For
You Wholesale"  {AT}  Machine Times (DEAF_00,
V2 book, http://www.v2.nl/deaf)

"The Post-Genomic Era Has Already Happened"
 {AT}  Biopolicy Journal <http://bioline.bdt.org.br/py>
¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬
also:
FAKESHOP <http://www.fakeshop.com>
¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬¬

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