From the viewpoint of a cyborg
An interview with the artist Marie-Eve Levasseur,
by Marcel Raabe
**kindly translated from German by Shanti Hudes**
from the book: Du point de vue d'un.e cyborg
Marie-Eve, you are working with various media, combining film sequences, audio recordings, plants, light boxes and other sculptural objects to make extensive room installations. Many of your works are dealing with modern communication techniques as well as with hybrid bodies in which humans and machines merge into cyborgs. In 2010 you created a series of photos in light boxes under the title à travers l'écran / through the screen. What was that about?
MEL: These were portraits of people I talked to, about an object they brought, something that was important to them. What can be seen in the end are shots of their body language. In the pictures, the faces are no longer recognizable, what you are seeing, thanks to multiple exposures, are the many different body positions. These were my first thoughts about a communication that goes through a screen. I started thinking about what you can do with it and what's lost. When chatting in written communications, as well as in videoconferencing, the body language of your communication partner is quite lost. Sometimes you only see the head and not the hands, etc. So, the physical body dissolves through the screen, so to speak.
The thought comes to mind that this reflection is triggered by the fact that you are far away from your hometown Trois-Rivières and that your communication-possibilities between your place in Germany and your family and friends in Canada are quite limited.
MEL: That certainly played a big role. And, so did the stay in a German small town too! When I came to Germany, I had taken up a job as a foreign language assistant in Plauen in southwest Saxony, which enabled me, as a non-European, to get a longer residence permit. But as a newcomer, I had very little social life there. That was an intense experience! It threw me back on my own self, also because of the language barrier.
the frictional landscape between you and me (2015)
Eight months of living in Plauen would be an adventure for me as well! The smartphone, or at first only the touchscreen surface, appears in 2010 in an untitled work for the first time. It's about fingerprints left on the surface as a kind of unconscious painting with the movements you make to influence the data flow. The tracks are reminiscent of the border between the digital and the outside world, a border that is made increasingly invisible by device and software manufacturers.
MEL: Yes, that's a very early study. The final form was conceived in 2015 in "the frictional landscape between you and me": The scanned fingerprints and their traces of movement are transformed into a 3D printed landscape model of sorts, a bizarre, dark landscape. The 3D printing consists of PLA, ie Polylactide Plastic. I edited the scanned tracks in the 3D software Blender, according to the brightness parameters: The bright areas lead upwards, the dark ones downwards. It was the first time I worked with Blender, an open source software, which is a great thing. It’s extremely un-intuitive, but open source, as I said…
Where does the motivation to create a landscape come from?
MEL: It just happened that it has become a landscape. I did not know what it would do, if I converted it to 3D. I wanted to print it on a much larger scale, but I had no means for it. Starting point were thoughts about the surface, the smooth and the rough. And that the screen is never really as smooth as it appears. Even though the skin hits such a smooth surface and leaves organic traces, there is still no intertwining. And this touch, this tactile moment, you have it only with the device and not with the people with whom you communicate. It was mostly these thought fields that were interesting for me here. The tactile element is very important in the act of communicating with someone else, including the distance when you are not together.
absence and addiction (2014)
In 2014 you call a work "absence and addiction".
MEL: Yes, I created these two black T-shirts hanging side by side, with a text starting on one T-shirt, continuing on to the other. The quote embroidered on them is green and says: "Dear Martin, please help me, I've got to get out of Interzone, I'm dying of lonelynesx. I can’t connect with anybody." It's from the movie Naked Lunch with all the spelling mistakes. For me, embroidering was a bit like tattooing, which is also an implanting. The T-shirt has the function of a second skin, it also has a very human shape. But it is empty. I was interested in William S. Burroughs's Naked Lunch, and especially in the film version of David Cronenberg. The quote is written by the protagonist in the film on his typewriter as he tries to go out. He is completely alone with his machine and can’t communicate any longer. There are many experiments with drugs. I wanted to draw a parallel between the dependency that one develops - from one's own devices, Internet, connections - and what drugs can do to the body.
The typewriter is already a machine that may create dependencies.
MEL: In this movie, yes, definitely. In Cronenberg’s movies, the machine often mutates into an organic, almost human subject, or a kind of body extension. Instead of a cyborgization of the body, he makes the machine more organic, rendering it into a sweaty wet, fleshy, almost pornographic thing. The fusion with the human body is fetishized and sometimes brutal, as in his movie Crash, where car accidents are provoked, so that flesh and metal merge into each other.
Is that also meant as cultural criticism for you: The machines make you lonely?
MEL: My point was to illustrate both, dependence and absence of the body, in long-distance communications as well as in drug addictions. You disappear a bit from the social circles in both cases. The work absence and addiction is a bit problematic for me today, because it is extremely dystopian. But there are elements in it, that still keep coming back in my work. Perhaps it is the beginning of an artistic development, where I show the body less and less, reducing it more to surface. The black T-shirts and the green font and the typography are reminiscent of the first computer screens. It is also the beginning for the motives of implanting and the tattooing of the skin. In the meantime, I have come a bit further in terms of this exchange between the technical and the inner world.
Does the drug theme depict the addiction to virtual communication?
MEL: Drugs also function as a kind of implantation of a moment, of emotions, something that is brought into the body, which can change its perception. Communicating through the internet also changes perceptions for me, on longer terms. It is not necessarily very conscious, you do not decide for the next two hours: Now I have this experience. It changes my perception of text, of images… This is something that has been happening for 20 or more years, interpersonal, the way we communicate with each other and how we perceive what others are saying. There are channels like emoticons. Emotions are reduced to a certain selection that sometimes does not quite meet our needs for personal expression. But we have to find a compromise, and so we choose the one or the other smiley... And that works a bit like a drug in the lives of many people. Many can’t let go of the phone. Sometimes, the first contact of the day is the screen for me.
What is the addictive potential, actually, in such programs as "WhatsApp" and "Facebook" etc.? Some cultural critics regret the dying off of interpersonal communication. They say, that people would walk side by side, looking into their monitors and getting lonely. Which is only partially true, because at the other end of the line often someone sends and receives. And yet you have to ask: Why do you opt for this distance communication and not for the conversation with the person sitting right next to you? After all, this is not a rare pathological incidence with individual people, but we can observe it as a mass phenomenon. So, there must be some sort of trigger for our body or mind that enforces it?
MEL: Not only is there a need to communicate. It's also about what we consume. And on social networks, on Twitter, etc., we also consume words and images and thoughts from other people, or references to interesting articles, or information about what's happening in the other's life.
In a situation where folks who know each other are sitting around the table together, and one of them is chatting on the cell phone all the time, it can only mean that either there is really something addictive about something that a physical presence can’t satisfy, or the people you are with, are less interesting than the ones you can talk to at a distance… a social selection of some kind!
MEL: Both are likely. There is also an expectation to respond quickly. We have multiple channels on this mobile device. And many people will communicate directly with you through these channels. They expect a pretty quick answer. Sometimes, it may be urgent. Instead of calling, people write on a particular channel. And if you do not look at it within the next hour, then you have missed something. Or someone is suddenly angry with you, and you do not understand why. There is a certain expectation that comes not only from these communication partners, but also from the communication system surrounding it.
So the speed of the devices and transmissions becomes the yardstick for the expected response. The theme of temporality then appears in the same year in a different way in "fluid intimacies".
fluid intimacies (2014)
MEL: This is a video, or maybe just a tableau vivant, a live picture. It is a picture that changes with time. A hand is holding a black shape, reminiscent of a smartphone. The smartphone melts slowly, for about three quarters of an hour. It is made from ice that is colored black with ink. When it has melted, it leaves a black trail in the hand, in the same shape as the device. The starting point was a study I’ve made before, with a block of ice. It was about the warmth of the body and the coolness of the device. The device will only warm-up when it is either heavily used or when it is in your pocket. But otherwise the device is made of cold material and is nothing that could warm itself, except during extensive operation-times... This is something that may have to do with the tactile experience with the screen. It does not have the same consistency and temperature and surface as another body. And with the ice I have exceeded this ratio. The material, these colored traces, they kind of fuse with the skin and can penetrate into it.
This work is a bit of a marker for me in your transition from installation or performance to the use of video. What is your view on the relationship between installation and video? When and why do you pick what?
MEL: That's more of a feeling thing. In an installation, you have a better picture of the material, since it is present. There is a feeling of closeness with your working material, more then with a video. In a video, the picture is important, as well as the thinking along with the picture. What happens in fluid intimacies can be comprehended: That the ice in my hand was damn cold for three quarters of an hour, so cold that it eventually burned in my hand. You don’t need to put yourself through this to get to a point of compassionate understanding. But sometimes it is more important to have a physical encounter with the material. That’s when I choose to work with an installation or objects in the room. They are just a very different media. It comes by trial, or deliberation, or first impulse: If I see it as a photo, I'll take a picture. Maybe it'll be a video later. Or I wanted to do a book, and it has become an installation instead. It’s a journey through different possibilities to find the form that suits me best. But why, I do not always know.
For example, if you do a Blender video you are not just exhibiting the content of your thing, but Blender as a tool as well. Or just a 3D software, or the concept of creating something virtually. That's something that could not have happened in that way 20 years ago. In this respect, I always see a thematical link between your projects and processes. How interesting is the process-development for you? Are you archiving it? Are you documenting the steps you need to take in your developmental research, when you acquire new techniques for your projects?
MEL: I collect pictures, I read texts. But that does not render it a personal archive. I don’t think about showing my notes to someone when I write them. The fact that I reopened my notebooks to show some of them, is only in the context of this interview-booklet. It’s a pretty personal affair. And you see how chaotic the flow of ideas is, or how the different parts of my life meet on the same side.
Well, using the word chaotic, sounds so negative. But that's the way thoughts work. When you develop an idea, you will not have a very clear structure right from the start. You would have a bunch of impressions at first, that you would then sort by size ...
MEL: ... or by color ...
... and then you bring everything into an order. And when, at the end, there is a work that is being exhibited or that can be bought, or showed in the cinema or whatever, then the bottom line is basically a document of that process, which we are now reiterating with this sketchbook. In terms of documentary work, one might think of starting with the search for different materials, then collecting, sorting and selecting, then restructuring… is a documentary process.
MEL: And a process of rendering into a shape. There are still many questions, where you have to make decisions. That's a really tough point for me and certainly for many others. Making decisions, all alone, with all these many different materials, texts, ideas ... And there's a decision to make: Okay, I'll take these and these and these elements, and that makes SENSE, and I'll do THAT with it. God, that's hard.
That's basically the work you do as an artist. You will be booked for that.
MEL: Yes, booked. But not necessarily paid.
i've got you under my skin (or the anthropotechnoromantic infiltration) (2014)
… not paid. We will return to this weighty circumstance later. First, to your work I've got you under my skin (or the anthropotechnoromantic infiltration). Here you play with the question of how everyday technical equipment - beyond medical applications – gets closer and closer to the body, possibly merging with it. On one hand, this may be an improvement, on the other hand, it may be for surveillance… This time, it is not the human being turning into a cyborg through device applications, but it’s the other way around: The device, integrating human biological elements, is turning into a cyborg as well.
MEL: It's the continuation of the smartphone theme from the fluid intimacy work. There, you may not get the fusion with the body, but here is an attempt to portray it. The smartphone has my skin color, the skin surface was simulated with hairs, etc., and the device presents itself in the hand as an organic extension of the body.
Although in the shape of an iPhone, it looks like a second skin or body piece. How did you simulate the skin?
MEL: I made several silicone casts until they reached about the same color as my skin. Also, I took the imprint of the dorsal skin surface from a friend. Then, I flattened the silicon-cast to put it in this smartphone shape, since there is not a completely flat spot on the human body. I tattooed the brighter and darker spots into this artificial skin and made hair implants. I watched tutorials on special effects for movies to build a hair implant tool. There was also a bit of make-up.
You went through all these efforts to create it physically. But then you ended up taking a picture of your work and you built a big lightbox around it. So, everyone would say today: Photoshop.
MEL: Yes, you could say so. It's also done well enough to believe that.
But why did you decide to do it this way?
MEL: In the beginning, I just wanted to build the object and had no plans for a photo work yet. But the moment when I finished the object and it laid in my hand, I could not separate it from my hand. The picture of it IN my hand was too strong. I did not want to show the object as a stand-alone anymore.
But I would want to see it in the original form for that reason alone, to have proof of a physical replica. This is also a symptom of how questionable the probative value of images has become.
MEL: I was also asked later, to exhibit the object as a stand-alone. But - so far, at least – I have rejected the idea.
mutual teletouch series v.2 (2015)
Another installation is mutual teletouch series v.2. Explain briefly what it is and what it means?
MEL: What is it and what does it mean? Haha... so, you see nine extremely elongated index fingers that point down, arriving at narrow glass plates that have rounded corners in front and a black background: They are extended smartphone screens. The glass strips extend up the wall and transform into nine different skin textures from various Internet sources. The skin textures are usually mounted as material in 3D software programs on modeled polygons. When developing characters for video games or animated films, you need those human skin textures. In the end, it looks like a wallpaper.
Is there a reason why the fingers are extended?
MEL: For me, the extended finger is a picture of how the space is filled between people when they communicate with each other via smartphone screens: Teletouch. It's a suggestion of some sorts, of how we touch each other through the screen, with the fingers hitting a glass plate, nevertheless.
The motive of human skin runs through many, if not almost all, of your younger works.
MEL: Yes, it may be the main image for human cyborgization, the fact that the screen is turning into the skin, or the skin into the screen… We all are cyborgs now, somehow, through our cell phones, these prosthetic extensions of the human body. And the body is completing its form with the skin, and the device also has a surface. When the two merge, we get the image for the cyborgization of human beings.
You have spelled this aspect out in the work An Inverted System to Feel (your shared agenda). First in a large room installation, then as a video. It's about a human skin, which turns into a kind of touch screen with the help of nanobots.
An Inverted System to Feel (your shared agenda) (2016)
MEL: In the original room installation, the film sequences were divided into five different screens and there were different objects. As a film, I found this too restrictive, since it has always a beginning and an end. I was able to resolve it in the installation. In the current video, I have re-translated the installation for a small film festival, so to speak. But I would also like to rebuild the installation. Especially the main element, this luminous massage table. The elements are a bit modular and don’t work as a stand-alone, but there is some flexibility. The narrative nature of the science fiction story still needs to be transported.
How do the narrative elements refer to the objects?
MEL: The objects are supposed to create a kind of scene: A scene like in a future sci-fi tattoo studio. That's why I chose these elements to work with the body and the massage table or chair, that you also use in the tattoo studio. With arm and leg-rests. I started with the text to develop container-type characters, so to speak. So, no character with a name or a precise personality, but individual perspectives such as Mother System or Girl or Nanobots. I have brought them into dialogue and imagined what it would be like, if the skin could turn into a screen. The idea is, that tiny Nano-robots can be tattooed under the skin where they bond together to allow different visualizations on the skin surface. It would be even cooler if they connected to the nervous system and the brain. This would allow you to control them, visualize data, change the color of the skin, depending on your mood and desire. If the skin can be used for visualization and if the nervous system is also there for control, then we could store the data within the body. We would not have to constantly carry an electronic device with us, next to the body, like a smartphone. It might be better to protect the data within the body if it were stored in the organic structure. And the Mother System is the totality of server rooms and data storage that would not be needed anymore.
These are the outlines of a vision you develop. As a technology criticism? Or technical utopia?
MEL: I tried to show a utopian, affirmative, positive future. Or the nice sides of the thing. What it would take to make it possible. What I find particularly nice about the idea is that you could change the skin color, with extremely different skin tones. If anything in color were possible, even in the direction of the rainbow, self-chosen, it would be so different that there was hope that it would no longer play a negative hierarchical role, there would be no privileged whiteness.
In other words, your engineering design or attitude toward modern, postmodern network technology has a certain emancipatory ambition? Your work as a whole is suggesting that. To what extent is this related to the early cyborg theories of the 1980s?
MEL: I would say my interest in science fiction comes straight from the Cyborg Manifesto by Donna Haraway. In it she gives many recommendations for feminist sci-fi and its emancipatory potential for that, what it can bring us. It was quite important in the genealogy of my research and the development of my work, to read this story, where one can imagine a better future, or a better past, as in Afrofuturism. That's what made me chose the form of science fiction.
The political dimension of your perspective can already be seen in earlier works, for example in a video about the Occupy Movement. The science fiction element will be added later. In terms of data volumes, interconnections, etc., science fiction is often the warning medium for dystopian designs. What influenced your work to show, that this genre could indeed be a means to emancipate, to act politically or to use technology?
MEL: I re-read the Cyborg Manifesto after participating for a while in a Summer School with post-humanist philosopher Rosi Braidotti. She is influenced by Deleuze, amongst others, and the summer school dealt with the emancipatory potential for so-called minorities. I found that extremely inspiring and thought that it could be an interesting method for me. I had never worked in such narrative ways before and wanted to give it a try. We then founded this sci-fi reading circle. A research group emerged from it and reflecting in discussions with the group, etc. had an impact on the way I work. These influences, they come straight to my head and body and from there into my work.
What was the focus of the Summer School?
MEL: Rosi Braidotti wrote the book The Posthuman in 2013. I read it and then heard about the Summer School. I absolutely wanted to go there, since she is extremely inspiring, this woman. We also talked about Transhumanism. Her criticism of the transhumanists was, that the body is completely forgotten. Transhumanism is anthropocentric. It's all about the brain. The brain is considered more important than the body. For Braidotti the two are inseparable. What Posthumanism is for her - in short, it is anti-anthropocentric. It is also anti-humanistic in the sense that in Humanism, man is the measure of all things. She criticizes, that in the universities the white, heterosexual European man is taken as a reference for the human being par excellence for centuries. She jokes that as a lesbian she has never been human from this perspective. She tries to use Posthumanism to create a new concept for humans that is not exclusive. It dissolves dualism and involves women, but also people who have a leg or arm less, people of color, sexualized, naturalized or technological others. Transhumanism is more about the desire to overcome the body when it is not up to date anymore: Too slow, too humid, too warm, needing to become more perfect.
Is that a valid vision for you?
MEL: I find perfection boring. There may be practical sides, but also a loss. I don’t know. There is a danger as long as it remains anthropocentric, without questioning the humanistic prescriptions.
But for modifications in general, you are open-minded?
MEL: Yes, it depends on the purpose of the improvements. Technological extensions and prostheses are definitely an important thing for me. But it depends on what goals you have, and who has access to these opportunities. I find it important when bodies can expand, that everyone has the choice.
Do you see the danger of a new hierarchization? If it, for example, permeates a position that improves the body, thus producing efficiency in the sense of capitalist productivity or greater memory. And then, on the other hand, people who decide against it. There is also the thesis of Ray Kurzweil that sooner or later a new human species develops and the other dies out. Not necessarily in combat, but evolutionary.
MEL: I think that's very speculative. These aspects are very interesting, but as long as they are not there, they are difficult to understand.
For example, at the Promises of Monsters exhibition in Hildesheim in 2017, your video also ran under the label Feminist Sci-Fi Shorts. I find it very interesting that these discourses, which are relevant to technology, are often led, at least in my perception, in a feminist context. What is the genuinely feminist in this narrative perspective?
MEL: In Hildesheim, it was called a feminist informed position. So, it's not necessarily about feminism. This may not be directly apparent in my work. It comes out more when you talk about it. I would call myself a feminist, but it’s hard to say, what it is, that makes my work feminist.
Well, the connection is there when you go to Haraway and Braidotti and use the transhumanist possibilities to break through hierarchies, like with the possibility of changing skin colors. And it is with Haraway that the idea comes up to consider the Cyborg affirmatively as an opportunity to transcend the boundaries of the sexes, to see more in it then just a killing machine. You can justify that ethnically or in a gender-specific way, or lead class differences into the field. And there I see the connection in your work, just because I know that you have also dealt with your role as a mother. Did I interpret that correctly or is this my own projection?
MEL: I do not know, I think it's just present. I do not have to think hard about it, to let it influence my work. I will not always address it directly, but it has become part of myself, so much, that it can’t be taken away. I have always observed my work and how it has slowly evolved from this interpersonal communication through machines to a fascination for the screen. And then, the screen is getting closer and closer to the body. And, at that point, I've been busy with dentures, extensions, media theory… until I got to The Posthuman. I already had my daughter there. Of course, that certainly contributed to the fact that I felt addressed by these things.
Why the argument with prostheses?
MEL: Because these mobile screens have come closer and closer to the body. These are body extensions for me. They are prostheses in the sense that they take over some functions of the body. For example, the memory in the brain. As a notebook. The ability to see something better through the zoom: It is helping you to read a little better if you do not have glasses on… and so on.
An Inverted System to Feel (your shared agenda) also features a prosthetic leg. So, something that replaces something lost, but of course has the potential to surpass the original possibilities. In some ways, the horse of the rider, the dog of the hunter, the bow and arrow of the archer, they were all body extensions. Are you holding anything specific in your viewpoint of the current development? Is it a time of upheaval?
MEL: Perhaps the speed with which technical developments create new opportunities: They are doing it gradually, but pretty fast. I do not know when it started, so to speak. But it is clear that the new generations have a completely different life than my grandmother. She has also seen a lot in her life, for example the arrival of the microwave oven. It's clear that the Internet has changed a lot, this networked being, what it wanted to achieve and what it has become, that may be ... I do not know, to call it a revolution, would be too radical and too sudden.
If you had to name a few key points where your life is different from your grandmother's. What would the hard facts be?
MEL: The abolition of distance. The physical, geographical distance is abolished by the possibilities to communicate in almost physical proximity: Not quite yet, but close to it, way closer then by mail or by phone. It is much faster and more efficient. We can also feel very strongly in which system this “networkedness” grows. This internet of fast communication is growing in a society of advanced capitalism. And then it is not so healthy anymore. This speed is also used against the human body and expected of everyone, as a need to respond, a requirement to answer speedily…
In that context, you could see body enhancements as an answer of neoliberalism, to say: Okay, you are not powerful enough, you need an upgrade ...
MEL: ... well, then we'll just make you better and faster, then you'll be able to follow.
If one is open to technology in the first place, how could one delimit oneself from these excesses - philosophically or politically? How can you prevent that there are new hierarchies, if you have just abolished the old with it?
MEL: Accessibility is extremely important to me. New developments must be accessible and affordable for everyone. If it has to be paid. Also, awareness, in terms of education and information, for those who deal with these technologies.
Because you say that the Internet could only develop in a late capitalist environment - neo-liberalism has absorbed and internalized left-wing ideas like the self-actualizing utopia. And produced this project-affine, free, precarious life. Capitalism has created that. Would there be a "left version", so to speak?
MEL: There are hackerspaces. There is a do-it-yourself scene in which people implant themselves things. There are movements that acquire technology to support minority struggles or to solve social problems from the minority. There is a DIY Bio-hacker Collective that has designed gynecological devices to treat and examine women outside the structures of the medical system. People who hack their implants and make it accessible, etc. I also think it's great that children start to do programming at school. The capitalist attitude is: user friendly. So very user friendly that the technology behind it is totally unknown to you. You have no idea of 0 and 1. Click here, and the computer does the rest. I find it important if you live with tools, extensions, to understand how they are built, how they work. You do not have to be a specialist ...
Is that possible in such a highly technical, labor-sharing world to gain such specialized knowledge? Are we not also encountering physical, mental capacity limits?
MEL: I think it's like a new language to learn.
My smartphone already causes me difficulties ... There is a scientific discourse, there is a philosophical discourse, an ethical one… And the art? What role does art play in such debates?
MEL: Art makes it possible to visualize things. To ask questions that perhaps are not just textual. That you question things, out of materials, out of images, out of an affect. Okay, today you're getting a lot of praise in exhibitions. But when one discovers a work of art on its own, one can make connections between what one sees from one's own position: material, pictures, titles, text, whatever. Then other thoughts arise, perhaps as if reading a theoretical text.
Does art have the task of communicating scientific knowledge and making it more widely accessible? Or would you reject that?
MEL: I would not say that she has a job except visualizing things. Of course, that's also political. The moment you make something visible, you are in a political situation. It is public. It is visible and can provoke things, thoughts, questions. That maybe. I would not go further.
Especially in the context of the Leipzig Art Academy in which you have studied, the art-historical conflict between a social mission of art and the complete rejection of such claims is relevant. On the one hand, this earlier dogmatic approach of socialist realism, and on the other, the radically abstract, with which such attacks were rejected in the West. Nowadays, there are many artists who engage in an activist connection with racism and the culture of remembrance, discuss feminist issues, who are committed to refugees, etc. This is what flows into their work and they see themselves apart from the content as well. In the best case- scenario, it is journalism, in the worst, it is propaganda, but art it is not! I also reject the instrumentalisation of art, but find nevertheless, that a certain attitude is necessary, and that it requires a special form. How can this shape look like? Do the questions just mentioned influence the choice of your means and a certain aesthetic?
MEL: On the form? No, not for the form itself. For the content? Yes, but as far as the form is concerned, I am always ready to try a new medium. I keep going if something gets my attention, if I feel it is fulfilling what I want to transport. Then I choose the next technique, the next material. This is often an almost emotional decision.
You said how important it is for you to understand the technique behind the interface and to acquire that language. And that's why you make this technique manageable beyond what capitalism is offering as usability. And you pretty much do that too: You teach yourself Blender, you let your computer spend days at rendering ... what do I know. And of course, that does not look like the digi-smithy in New Zealand, which animates the "Lord of the Rings". But that is a special aesthetic, an aesthetic of appropriation.
MEL: Yes, that's right. This is an appropriation through many YouTube tutorials. Not just for digital software. I think it's great that you can learn so much. If you are a bit self-disciplined, then the information is in bulk. I'm looking for it too, if I want to repair my washing machine ...
So this is also part of the genuinely new thing we were looking for earlier: the availability of knowledge.
MEL: Yes, definitely. Of course, you also need a certain skepticism about the information. If you have a lot of likes, you get money and that's why there is a lot of information circulating that has nothing to do with reality. That's a symptom. Those who shout loudest get the attention and the money.
There are appropriation aesthetics that have been simulated later. It's probably possible to digitally create such a graphic design as in the self-glued punk rock flyers of the 1980s with just one click. Can you say that your work is a kind of DIY aesthetic, in a digital context?
MEL: Somehow. I think such an open source program like Blender is as available today as the black and white printer and the flour and water glue for the self-glued flyers. The aesthetics have of course migrated, now it goes by other means. But that's a bit of a DIY aesthetic. Which does not mean that it costs nothing. Some material costs a lot of money. And then there's the working conditions in Germany. Where there are still no guidelines and legal rules for artist fees.
That exists in other countries?
MEL: e.g. in Canada, where I come from. Compulsory since 1988.
Which brings us to the social realities, the precarious working conditions for artists. You pay hundreds of Euros for the material of your artwork. Then you are sitting here for weeks, pushing the junk together, like twice, when, finally a Plexiglas sheet ruptures. Considering that, e.g., the daily rate of a graphic designer is totally utopian for you. If you calculate together: Your material costs, the - virtual - daily rates of work in the studio and for the research, the transport to the exhibition, the attendances there, maybe the panel discussions. That means you're busy for weeks without money. Sometimes not even expenses. I get also no money for this interview. Why the hell are we doing this?
MEL: It is not possible to say in one sentence where this driving force comes from. I have the feeling that I’m always doing art. That's normal for me. A freedom, also a privilege. Of course, this is difficult to explain to the tax office or the employment office. What should you explain to them? That I hope to live on it someday? The questions, why do you do this exhibition, if you're paid only so much, that is far too little! Yes, I know, but they GIVE me something. I'm glad. Yet in Canada, such royalties for artists are regulated by law. Not in Germany.
The question of working conditions also has another dimension: That of the technological future. The technological future is also the promise of non-work. There is this desire, this utopia, to make work obsolete by robots. At the same time, there are the machine wreckers, this union hostility to technical innovations, because they destroy the job opportunities. This science fiction motif is not only there since Čapek's play R.U.R. from 1920 where the robots rise against their creators and destroy them. Basically, this is the repetition of a biblical motif ...
MEL: These are very apocalyptic, dystopian futures. I think you can cooperate well with algorithms and machines in general. Human beings will never be completely taken out of work. There will always be collaborations, other work opportunities will open up if there really are too many robots in the industry. They offer the opportunity for people to deal with other things. Maybe to do art.
between bodies and clouds (my desired incomputable algorithm and the predictable operator) (2017)
In one of your recent installations, between bodies and clouds, these algorithms play a bigger role.
MEL: It has a much longer title, actually: between bodies and clouds (my desired incomputable algorithm and the predictable operator). It is the attempt of a conversation between two algorithms, or their representation or staging. After all, it has become two monologues. I've spent a lot of time with algorithms in the past year, which are calculable and predictable. And what many codes are used for and how close it is to humans, how it affects or infects people's lives, with these personal assistants, etc.
Affects or infects?
MEL: Affects! Infection is more violent. But depending on it, it can also be seen that way. Depending on the consequences it has, or how intrusive it is. For some things, you’re making a decision. For other things, you don’t decide so consciously, because your own data is simply used, resold. You have a lot of information about every person logging in somewhere, in buying procedures, etc. It's also handy if some algorithms suggest a book to you, if you've read that and that and that. We had a lot of discussions in our research group about this machinic subject - the compatibility with humans, with society, with emotions, poetry, etc. So, in this work there are two algorithmic texts: One is very poem-like and picks up things that one algorithm usually can’t calculate yet. And the other is formally based on python-code. The content may refer to what an artificial intelligence might be today. But it is speculated or "fabulated". It lists things that are usually discarded by an algorithm because they are not calculable. But for the life of people, or for happiness, these things have consequences. For a machine, because it calculates according to other parameters, that does not matter. For example, in terms of health. This is something that is very difficult to calculate. You can calculate how many people died in the hospital, how many people are ill, how many have this or that disease. But you can’t calculate how you feel, how you feel pain. This is organic knowledge, it's your own body knowledge.
Again briefly to the form of this work. It's an installation, I would say roughly three or four parts.
MEL: So, there's this lightbox, the clouds, out of which come arms, or armatures, selfie sticks held by suction cups that sometimes hold skin-colored fabric, in different skin tones.
The algorithm is printed on one of these fabrics. And the "humanoid" lyric is on a transparent material ...
MEL: ... tattooed on transparent PVC. The point is, artificial intelligence is a self-learning algorithm that learns on the basis of existing data or data that reaches it. This data is produced in an extremely unfair society, where white is better than black, where man means more than woman, so where the hierarchy is extremely visible in deciding what is good and what is bad. If an algorithm based on this data is to decide something, then I'm scared. Then I will not come along. Learning with such material is wrong. Because it can have direct consequences on humans, it is printed here on something that is more human-like, fabrics in different skin tones. And the other is more what I want for a future algorithm that may learn with a hierarchy-free data, which is a bit more horizontal. I tattooed it on a very smooth, transparent surface. Tattooing is also an implantation, a body modification that is always connected to the body. But here I tattoo on something that is transparent and extremely smooth. With the tattoo machine. I thought it would only take one day, but it took three days. But I had muscles after that.
You have already integrated text into various works, partly in installations. What role does the written text play in this context, as media technology?
MEL: Since last year or maybe since An Inverted System to Feel (your shared agenda), text has begun to take up a lot of space in my work. As a narrative layer, or can one say fabulatively?
To fabulate... so,to make up a little story?
MEL: Yes, a little bit like that, but you can also imagine something and play with it. Also, a bit like speculating, but a bit more magical. A bit ... unlikely. Alright. Storytelling. Sounds funny in German for that matter....
But why text? One could say, that is a relatively outdated medium, so as printed text. There is indeed the thesis of the re-oralization of cultures. For example, via Internet techniques, video, etc., a creeping departure from this type of textual representation is now taking place from generation to generation; it is again moving towards oral expression ...
MEL: ... with many tutorials and stories to tell!
And so you investigate technical futures and then integrate this supposedly outmoded medium text visually again.
MEL: Why is it outdated? I do not believe that. This is also used to code and program computers. In between bodies and clouds (my desired incomputable algorithm and the predictable operator), the integrated texts play on it. The one mimics the code structure of python coding language and is basically lyric. I do not understand why you think that text could disappear. Text is so present. Everyone writes messages. Although many small pictures are sent as a text replacement, as a reaction, but text is still omnipresent.
An older cultural critic would now say: Yes, just these text messages on WhatsApp, etc. It is always reduced further, there are only abbreviations, in the end, they are just stickers. So away from the text. But that's right, that thing with coding is a crucial argument. As a basis for the programming of the images and to create videos. Ultimately, all of the text below the surface is a fundamental thought.
MEL: It's a language that you have to master with text. One does not speak the code to the computer for it to understand.
I'm sure that will happen soon.
MEL: Yes, that's right.
Whereby it is dissolved in the end again in 0 and 1, on / off and current / non-current. Whether this is still a text, we must probably discuss elsewhere ... One of your latest work is called entanglements (complexes).
entanglements (complexes) (2018)
MEL: This is a series of five rendered 3D digital images. On them are high-resolution scanned pieces of skin that float like cloth. There are finger-like shapes that have a texture like screens. The series is part of the exhibition La promesse thérapeutique et le potentiel de proximité, which deals, among other things, with the phenomenon of compression - originally inspired by these medical compression stockings, which, for example, must be worn on long-haul flights when there is a risk of thrombosis. There I saw a parallel to technology and data flow. You have to compress to expand. Devices are getting smaller, compressed in small chips, with screens that we carry. We compress files and bodies in time and space to squeeze more into that time and space, but in the end, we all die ... except the files? The work revolves around the question of archiving, condensing, so as not to have to throw anything away, to heal the body, to survive, as in breathing ... Technology is compressed and comes closer and closer to the body, data is compressed to - like in the thrombosis stockings - to ensure a smooth flow of information ... “décompresser” means in French, incidentally, as much as “calm down” or “relax”. I find it interesting how similar some strategies are: Health strategies to heal the body, and technology to make everything more efficient. The perspective of a cyborg is an interesting one, because (s)he or it - is affected by and profiting from both compression strategies.
Marie-Eve, thank you for the interview!