Maia Damianovic
in Conversation with Thomas Feuerstein

Reality Bytes

M. D.: Tell me about Mumbai.

Thomas Feuerstein: Several years ago Bombay was renamed Mumbai. I went there twice and worked together with scene artists from the local film industry on paintings that are part of a larger series of works collectively titled In Search of the Avatar. Bollywood is the name of a large film industry located in Mumbai, which is the commercial center of India and a significant gateway between the East and West. The other significant film center is in Madras. Although both are large and very productive, and the personnel are highly professional, working conditions are totally different than in the States or Europe — quite primitive. Many studios only have a bare infrastructure, some don’t even have electricity, but they are very busy and very quick. The Mumbai film studios are India’s response to Hollywood. That’s why the locals even call them "Bollywood." Movies hold an essential and special place in Indian society. As they are cheap, and since many people in India do not have TVs, films have become a very popular form of entertainment. The actors are all stars. I think that film provides an alternative reality to daily life in India. It offers a collective, fictional experience, a kind of mythical (cyber-) space. The content of the films is for the most part similar, if not the same. Usually, the narrative focuses on a couple in love, but you will never see a kiss, or anything similarly overt. More than anything else, in Mumbai I wanted to develop an artwork on the borderline between different cultural, aesthetic and economic realities.

M. D.: For the "Mumbai" project, you hired scene painters from the local film industry to make large paintings on tarpaulins with topics you predetermined. I understand that most of the time, several different artists worked together on the same piece, and that each one of them specialized in a particular "style" or genre of painting. Some were portrait or landscape painters, others worked in a surrealistic or realistic style. Surprisingly, the paintings, as a group, possess a fluid visual quality. On the one hand, the motivation behind this collective process suggests a desire to develop an elastic pictorial identity. By the same token, did this collective collaboration produce any visually apparent pictorial layerings or lead into any contradictory situations?

T.F.: The Mumbai works are about inconsistency. From the start of the project, I was interested in jumbling identities, not only in visual, but also in cultural and economic terms. Complexity and layering, rather than clarity, are in my opinion, important ways to approach things. You can put different styles and directions together, but they do not always add up. One and one are not necessarily two. But maybe this non-synchronous method can also start a process of communication. Also, I think it is important to see realities and situations in terms of movement — not just in purely physical terms, but also in the sense of transporting and transforming ideas and identities. Movement is essential to all communication networks, both as a vehicle of cultural interchange, and as a way to emphasize or to show gaps between cultures. My interest in this notion of movement was one of the main reasons it was important for me to travel to India to make the Mumbai series.

M. D.: From a conceptual and visual point of view, these paintings smartly challenge the notion of a singular creative "signature" as a mark of authority. The collective collaborative approach they adopt reminds me of the new communication model based on meritocracy-qualification based on differentiation, commitment and team spirit, rather than the more vertical model of hierarchical authority. Taken together as a series, the paintings suggest a more democratic, relativistic and pluralistic creative situation.

T. F.: How can I say it? I don’t think that the "social," the "political" or the "cultural" are ever present in one dimension. And, you can’t simply say things are "real" or "fictional," "correct" or "incorrect," "spiritual" or "banal." Reality can be seen as an unpredictable, unruly, at times arbitrary, flow of qualities, possibilities and interpretations — a complex and radically subjective process. Reality is an ongoing process of reading our interpretations. Maybe, art provides a model, or a chance, to enter into or explore many things on a broader social and interactive level. The collective signature of the "Mumbai" paintings may be conceptually based, but it is also the result of a very real human situation and a desire for interaction and mobility. In the Biophilly project, that includes In Search of the Avatar works, I wanted to show a process of different layers and interpretations of reality at work, regardless of the end product. The various communications that evolved during the entire process of undertaking In Search of the Avatar works, visiting a real life avatar in Kerala, a place in southern India, involving many artists in the making of the billboard paintings, living and interacting with the environment of Mumbai, were as important as any end product.

M. D.: Your journey to India actualized the "Mumbai" works in very real and very personal terms. Does engaging in real life situations allow you to more precisly and effectivly elaborate various social, cultural, political and economic events that you find interesting or significant?

T. F.: As an artist, I am interested in developing projects that would allow me to access and explore various realities through a first hand experience and that would also convey the subjectivity and individuality of my perception, understanding and interpretation of these situations. I think it is important to acknowledge art not only aesthetically, but also in a more complex environmental way that allows the artist to observe or engage different reality bubbles more symbiotically. I have always wanted to introduce reality-based situations into my work. In one of the earliest pieces from the series In Search of the Avatar, I displayed a photographic image of a very ordinary living room. You could call it a typical living room of the kind many people grew up in. I think that at a certain period, the most important things in a living room were the TV set, a radio along with a couch, some lamps. It was a place you could consume media in privacy. Usually, the only other items in the room were a plant, most often a rubber tree — which was a typical plant of the 1970’s in Austria and Germany. So this particular artwork, as well as the "Mumbai" paintings, may seem conceptually based or connected with some system or communication theory, but actually they are all quite personal. The living room reflected a memory of my family reality and, on the other hand, it suggests a solipsistic or autistic media consumption situation. The work I developed in California was as personal. For the Los Angeles project, titled Hire All My Information, I donated my semen to a cryobank. So, the artwork isn’t only a sheet of paper, a canvas, or something else on a formal level; I was using myself to directly represent the encoding reality of a situation.

M. D.: In a unique way, doing so transforms your work into a kind of living narrative or novel.

T. F.: I think that art exists in between things or objects. It’s a subtext and a way to create a story, to count the pictures and the notes in a story, or to produce new pictures, new texts, new music. Both India and California provided ideal places to dive into a direct-live action-exploration of culture, especially media culture — the Internet, as well as popular, mass media — which are topics I am quite interested in. California affords a good representation of what is current in the Western world. It offers it’s special gilded dream: the land of sunshine, surfing and hedonistic lifestyles. There is Disneyland and Hollywood, and the Silicon and Napa Valleys to the north. And, everything is still pervaded by the romantic myth of the sun-kissed Golden West and the cowboy. Aside from these real life fictional narratives, the state itself exhibits a definitive geographic or territorial reality — it lies on the edge of a huge continent and of the western world. All together, these circumstances multiply the possible reality bubbles into a number of narratives. You can expand your territories into the sky or into space. The explosive growth of the Internet in California was probably greatly facilitated by all of this. Instead of cowboys, you get cyber- and spacecowboys.

M. D.: In Count Zero, the seminal science fiction novel, the author William Gibson even calls cyber-surfers: "cowboys" and surfing the net: "cowboying." But, to go back to a question of your work process — at times, as in India and California, interplaying with different real life situations in concrete terms, either as a director or participant subject, transforms you — the artist — into a living mediator of different cultural, social or political realities. This approach to art-making brings about a particular convergence of reality and representation and articulates an interesting strategy of realism.

T. F.: A significant point with the Mumbai and Los Angeles works was to make a journey in real time, with a real body, on a real basis, not a dematerialized journey, an aesthetic or formal representation, or a trip on the Internet to "surf" around. For the genetic project, Hire All My Information, by donating my semen to a Los Angeles donor clinic, I was addressing this becoming reality. I want my work to function as a tool to make various social or cultural networks more readable, or more apparent. I also want it to be actively, not just representatively, involved in socio-cultural realms. In both India and California, it was a kind of real surfing. I was entering into places and situations as a real, not a "locked—in" digital server. Seen from the point of view of art history or art politics, my work from the early nineties could have been considered conceptual, but the distance of conceptual engagement did not attract me anymore. For me, the bind was very basic: how can I make art and still deal with, or address, different external influences and realities, and different personal positions and internal feelings in a closer way. I believe that making art is not only about inventing an aesthetic or concept based object or effect, but also, and more significantly, about inventing the artist as a person. After the earlier conceptual works (e.g. The Marcel Proust Machine, the various music projects, e.g. Hausmusik or Real Data Stampede), the best option for me, at the time, was not to invent new works or installations that addressed reality in a formal manner. I wanted to physically implant, that is, more concretely reinvent the artist within a reality situation.

M. D.: I find this "concreteness," or moving into something real, an affront to the increasing mediation or codification of reality. Endless spins, from the news to the promotion of consumer products are increasingly part of contemporary every day life.

T. F.: We are now beginning to have a new techno-social life reality: things are simply becoming texts. In fact, under many contemporary reality conditions, we don’t really have to create things or mechanically make them. We can "write" them. In that sense, my work could be seen as one possible response to the textualization of reality, but not as a reaction. In a sense, the whole world, and reality, have become a kind of literature — an incessant and ongoing writing in process. It is often impossible to find any space of reflection between the various media spins. I think people are working less with screwdrivers than desktops, and every computer technician is also a writer. Perhaps, they don’t write bestsellers, but a program on a computer, or they "write" an airplane, a car, a chair. Perhaps, this is not exactly present-day reality, but I think that all the new things on the market will be "written." Microsoft and Bill Gates want to set up networks where you can get everything, facilitate any and everything — basically proposing reality as a total service economy based on virtual narratives. At the moment, we are all becoming symbolic workers. In Middle and Western Europe, as well as the States—all over the "globally advantaged" world, many people are, or are going to do their work in a symbolic or virtual way. Perhaps, in ten or less years, most people will work with symbolic things. Then everyone will need a second address. And not only an address, but a second virtual identity, like a digital avatar. They will have to become their own double in a virtual way, and secondly, in a biotechnological way. At the moment, scientists of the HGP (Human Genome Project) and their competitor Craig Venter, president of Celera Genomics, are making a full map of human genes. A person is now becoming a book with about three billion signs. The advent of bio — technology, or gene tech, is as gigantic a revolution as the flexible letters of the Gutenberg press. It is the first rapid project where you can definitely say, not in a speculative or philosophical way, but in a scientific way, what man is. It deals with direct facts, not spiritual or moral ideals. I think that the next revolution is not an electronic revolution, but, in a sense, an coding evolution. And this creates a hybrid situation between technology, computer hardware and software, and biotech.

M. D.: And a very ambiguous situation between traditional humanist, and new hybrid identities and virtualities.

T. F.: Compared to Modernist Humanism: a new reality is creeping in. Seen from the viewpoint of human evolution, this becomes a very new situation, less in terms of thinking than in relation to the making of things: humankind steps from evolution to auto-evolution. The reason that I traveled to India after California, was the totally different concept of the avatar in the West and the East. In California, and in general in the net, the word avatar immediately suggests a digital avatar — a virtual construct representing the human user in virtual reality environments and games or MUDs. I went to Mumbai because I wanted to visit a real life avatar, not a digital one. The journey enabled me to explore the difference between the "virtual" western and the "actual" eastern concepts. Avatar means in hinduism to be a spirit incarnated, that is, materialized in flesh and blood. An avatar is a descendent, a godly spirit, coming down like an angel, coming down from the sky to earth, and logging into a body like a medium, or something that mediates. An avatar is like a flesh/flash medium, a person living in a special state. In traditional Hinduism, an avatar is a god who descends into the earthly realm and becomes a holy man, yet nonetheless is also a very real person. People go to see him and the avatar prays for them, gives them holy fruits, or offers some other form of blessing. You can visit this person. This is the function of avatar in Hindu society.

M. D.: The work from California suggests the notion of "artist-avatar": a creative identity existing between a staged enactment and something real. It lends your work an elusive performative quality.

T. F.: It’s a game. After India and California, I ended up with the notion of avatar as an ambiguous concept — a hybrid identity that merges concrete and virtual possibilties. Although, in some contexts, especially within the fields of bio and info technology, the body still rates highly as the last guarantor or concrete evidence of the real, the performative aspect of my work is less related to issues of the body, or performances of any kind, present day or from the 1970s that in some way involve the direct presence of the artist. They are more related to issues of identity and film making. As an artist, I develop my work like a film director. I like the methodology and process of film directing. Many of the works from The Artist as Avatar series are made in the manner of 3D storyboards that are used in film-making. Most of the pieces are not enacted and function only as models for movie scenes, for a film which I want to make in Bollywood. They are made either of paper or different materials, or they are presented as self-contained stage-boxes, small set up dioramas. These models refer to different projects that were done in different places or countries, like the "Mumbai" paintings, which were not only presented as models, but entered into the realm of every day reality. As I see it, the performative aspect of the artist as avatar is more related to contemporary technical and mythical antagonisms and interactions, like the happenings in MUDs (Multi User Dungeons) on the net. I think the avatar, as a concept in these pieces, works like a game character or a techno-demon. The notion of the avatar in my work is a way to tell a story. Often the story lies between reality or something real, and a creative enactment. In a way, the avatar also presents the artist as an algorithm, still a specific person, but also a person as a concept travelling to India and California and emercing myself into local realities to create the artwork may seem performative. Doing so allowed me to probe in direct terms the identities of these places and the significant cultural contrasts between them. Both places are very tense. India basically isn’t one society, there are many regional economic, cultural and political differences. It is an extremely divisive society. It would be quite wrong to perceive India as just "poor" or "underprivileged." One billion people live there. Many are indeed poor, but in fact, India also has famous cyber tzars and more information programmers than anywhere else. India also has its own "Silicon Valley" in Bangalore. India is a very capitalist society, not quite the bourgeois European cultural tourism cliché it is often made out to be. In any case, the occidental view of India is slanted. For artists, as for philosophers, it is very difficult to make or to introduce social and political models, but I wanted the "Mumbai" paintings to capture, both in terms of process and images, some of these irreconcilable social conflicts. The performative aspect of these works was the result of my attempt to infiltrate in a real, not a virtual way, a social and economic network that is part of the living fiber of Mumbai.

M. D.: Made by hired and — I assume — relatively inexpensive artisans, the "Mumbai" paintings obliquely address a basic contradiction between opportunity and opportunism that is inherently part of any disscussion of globalization. On the one hand, by involving different cultural and artistic backgrounds the process of their making encourages intersubjective communication. On the other hand, the same process offers a rather ironic comment on the notion of a global service economy, where everything, including our tastes, wants and desires, and culture can be provided for on easy access terms.

T. F.: In a way, the "Mumbai" works reflect upon some economic realities. Basically, the world wide web constituted a transition from the stock market and the department store to the Internet, and encouraged, for the most part, a very elitist and hypocritical reality — sort of democratic, but also capitalistic. It seems that the Internet would only become a huge Sears catalog style ordering system for whatever you wanted — a car, a house, a ticket, a wife, a dog. In many ways the Internet becomes an ideal economic tool of global capitalism but, ironically, as the demonstration in Seattle against the World Trade Organization, and the more recent one in Washington against the World Bank and International Monetary Fund showed, the vast movement of ideas facilitated by the Internet created and allowed for the massive and extremely broad-based involvement by different groups. Students, socialists, anarchists and populists marched together, and there was no one that resembled a bona fide leader or central figure. The Internet, which has a huge influence on contemporary reality, is full of ironies and conflicts. In a sense, when I ordered, that is — commissioned — as a patron, the Mumbai paintings, I deliberately wanted them to embody some of these conflicts and subversive ironies. I think that such types of subversion through individuated expression are the big issues in communication, and they provide a new, interesting platform for discussion.

M. D.: From the late nineties on, there seem to be more and more artists dealing with existential issues anew. Does your involvement in various situations and realities as artist-avatar, encourage access to an existential dimension?

T. F.: Maybe it is too easy to answer this way, but this was the direction I wanted to take. Maybe, it’s also a fault or a mistake to think of existentialism in conceptual terms, because you are always a kind of refugee of your own work. On the other hand, as a refugee of your own living situation, you can also see it in another context, or more clearly, more flexibly, so that you can change things or make connections to different realities. In the late sixties and early seventies, there was a vision of a "revolution," of a new society — everyone wanted to change the social and political conditions. To fight against the "establishment" was a widely proclaimed goal. By the mid-seventies activism individually and as a movement became frustrated. For many artists it affords the opportunity to think in closer and more personal terms, rather than following some formal, commercial or conceptual definition. There are different ways to look at the notion of "existentialism," but I think they are always related to contemporaneous political situations. For instance, the art of the 1980’s was quite consumer friendly, a lot of painting, objects, ideologically motivated concept work. Synchronistically, political systems were increasingly moving toward the right. Presently, besides these expansive possibilities, there is also another, more chilling view, of a new existentialism, when technology and myth will, if they have not already, become interconnected. Technology, on a flip side, is becoming a nightmarish scene, a literature of mythological things, mutes and transformers.

M. D.: Today, individual and collective notions of reality are continually exposed to processes of "remythologizing." The global market provides an interesting model. Large companies like Microsoft commonly rely on what is known in the field as "market magic" — a system based on desire and belief in technological virtualities, not necessarily on material realities.

T. F.: I think that social consciousness, as well as an increasing number of products, are media made, in the Duchampian sense. The term "market magic" is just an expression for this symbolic worker society and the new, digital, "textualized" turn of reality. As an artist I need and use various new media, but not in a high technology or "hype" way. As they are part of my ever day life, I use computers and other electronic devices, but earlier, I wasn’t even interested in them. Computerization and new media are more interesting as cultural phenomena that construct and transform society and people. I work with technology both as a cultural symptom and as a tool — something that programs worlds and constructs realities, and as something that helps me tell a story. In a way, I work with, and my work is about the medium of computer. However, I was and continue to be interested in computerization on a social level, not only in technical terms. New media is interesting because it has more than one role or identity. Technology and new media can let you create something you couldn’t have done before. They can offer the possibility to develop a creative, experimental lab for alternate models or paradigms of thinking, or alternate identities, and in this way, they can access an existential realm. The existentialism developing today is not as metaphysical or conceptual as in the past, which could be described as more ontologically centered. Today, existentialism is also quite practical, and it deals with new philosophical approaches, such as constructing identities. It also offers a new kind of privatism.

M. D.: Of the kind happening in France under the new rights to privacy reform, which rule firmly in favor of the individual? The discussion of privacy rights often comes to an intersection between individual priviledges and rights, and the autonomy and rights of the media. For instance, the new French law will prohibit the publication of two categories of photographs: crime suspects shown handcuffed prior to a conviction and more controversially, photographs from crime scenes or accidents that are considered to jeopardize the dignity of those depicted.

T. F.: Rights of privacy are always Janus—faced, that is, they are two-faced, ambiguous. On the one hand, they have the important task of protecting the individual and their interests from the encroachment of the government, of economics, the media, and more and more of biopiracy. In a way, they can be a counter-measure against the increasing web of "big brother" surveillance. On the other hand, rights of privacy may cause a "privatization" of society, splitting the collective social fiber into "corporate identities." As a consequence, private spaces, as well as social and human obligations can be estranged. To avoid social Darwinistic cowboys from dividing up society into their individual shares, or territories, rights to privacy have to come with some form of signed social contract.

M. D.: The Internet is providing a unique, perhaps even revolutionary platform for a discussion of privacy rights. In ideological, political and economic terms, it is creating a disturbance. For instance, the Internet is already the playground that ambiguously interplays the interests of a capitalist hedonism that would divide society up into consumer territories with the anarchy of "cyberrebels" like Freenet, HavenCo or the ex Napster that prefer decentralizing all control of information. One side would gather any information available on a consumer, in the process infringing on all aspects of privacy for economic gain; the other promotes the ideology that everything, including creative content, should be as equally accesible or available to anyone interested. Despite their very different originating ideologies or purposes, the end goal for both is a kind of deregulation of privacy.

T. F.: At this point, the copyright question comes into greater play, not only in legal and political, but in general cultural terms. Industrial countries like the Untied States live from their copyrights. Even though as an artist, I am not part of such global economic games, I find that my working material is more and more regulated and blocked by so called "copyright" infringment. Every single use of visual and acoustic material is subjected to strict regulations. Even short quotations or references can be enough to criminalize a work of art. A similar situation exists in science. As a result, we are running the risk of blocking experimentation, exploration and creativity. Metaphorically speaking, in these contemporary right-protected times, Duchamp’s famous pissoir could easily be seen as a criminal act, rather than a work of art. Maybe, this is why Duchamp signed his "fountain" with the pseudonym R.Mutt, the name of the porcelain manufacturer?

M. D.: The issue of the protection of content rights is so split that it would seem to demand an elaborate discussion of ethics, especially when it comes to protecting and sharing creative content. Unlike the music world, the art world has few, other than tacit guidelines for the protection of creative content. A discussion of the difference between creative exploration and sharing, and creative exploitation and infringement seems timely.

T. F.: Non-commercial art and science projects absolutely must remain free of copyrights. Culture is a dynamic process, in which intellectual property must be respected and recognized. Nevertheless, copyrights must not become a medieval dogma that impedes art, research and experiment. When biotech corporations patent plant, animal and human genes, copyrights show their cynical side. Only an open source idea can keep our society open here, which would otherwise be suffocated by its copyrights.

M. D.: The In Search of the Avatar series brings me to the question of destination. It evokes the idea of an unrequited situation, a bit troubling or unfinished, as if acknowledging the schisms within every day reality. As a whole, your work seems to address the essential issue of relativism, as it often offers a quite elliptical critique of science, the Internet, the media. That is, in terms of conveyance your position is often intentionally oblique. I find this ambivalence quite provocative.

T. F.: Answers and solutions tend to simplification and sometimes produce an euphemistic social order. Although it may sound like an obvious oversimplification, I think that art is less about providing solutions and answers, than on the contrary, generating interferences. In this sense one should answer the question with another question. On a broad social level, this way of approaching things would address the problematics of contingency, that is, of various open ended possibilities on a social level. Or rather, the relationship of reality to accident, chance, eventuality and uncertainty. In a society where there seem to be more and more possibilities — needs and desires, as well as the demand for security and over-determination grows, resulting in a total service economy. By contrast, on a social level, contingency would encourage more numerous, less deterministic possibilities. Rather than something negative or as something that poses a threat or a post-modern anything goes, contingency can be seen, foremost as the challenge of freedom.

M. D.: What do you mean by "contingency" and does it in a way relate to "virtual possibilities"?

T. F.: Along with Gilles Deleuze, one must not posit the real and the virtual in opposition to one another, for the virtual is just as real as everything else. One would have to differentiate between the actual and the virtual, the real and the possible. Related to the computer, the virtual only repeats the relationship between the real and the possible, which is why the sense of the possible, as Robert Musil used it, is that which is conventionally called the virtual and reduced to the world of machines. The possible, on the other hand, describes contingency as something that does not necessarily exist. The non-necessity of being was long described as a scandal, as a crisis of orientation or meaning; in fact, it is the test of dealing with freedom. And this ability to deal with freedom is not only existential today, it is also technologically, ecologically, economically, and especially politically the greatest challenge of our time. Only if society is accountable and respects pluralism and complexity, can we deal with the populism of the new right. I remember Jörg Haider of the FPÖ, a right-wing political party in Austria, commenting that 50 years of "complexity" are now enough. Reality is both skin deep and complex. Still, it’s very hard to deal with perception of reality on that level in an art context, because the explanation is neither quick, nor readily available. I can’t tell a story quickly.

Thomas Feuerstein
english | deutsch

Ulrike Mair

G. J. Lischka
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Rainer Fuchs
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Margarete Jahrmann
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Maia Damianovic