Alex Galloway: Let me start with a confession... I really love your stuff...
Michael Samyn: Thank you. It feels strange for us to be appreciated by someone at Rhizome. We always have the feeling that Rhizome is interested in a totally different kind of art, you know the kind of art that *looks* conceptual and only uses code as an aesthetic element and is never about anything but itself.
AG: Yeah you're probably right about that ;) ... But mostly by default since I think that much of the early net.art stuff had no choice but to be either formalist (i.e. Jodi) or conceptual (i.e. Heath Bunting)... It was primarily due to the bandwidth restrictions, imo. But that phase may be over now...
Then people came along and started working in Flash and Java, but they really didn't have any artistic vision.. Just wanted to play with the technology.. You know, the "pointcast" effect. Your stuff is powerful because it's some of the first truly immersive net art, like watching a feature film. And it's emotionally immersive. Not just visually...
MS: I like to believe it also has to do with a new medium maturing. In the beginning people didn't know what to do with all these new possibilities. A part of them just imposed old media concepts on it (hence the words 'browser', 'page', 'bookmark', etc, still causing a lot of confusion) and another part, which we now know as net.artists, did that other traditional modernist thing: deconstruct the medium and make work about it (painting about painting). Only a small part was really trying to be creative and make something new. I never tried to make art in the first place. For me, interactive media were like a dream come true. Finally we could make a perfect mix of entertainment and art without having to be ironic about it. On the other hand, I think the choices Jodi and Bunting made were conscious and they would probably do exactly the same thing even when they were given unlimited tools and bandwidth.
AG: Yes, I agree with that. One point to add about net.art being about it's own making. The idea of "web site specificity" might be important here. That is, since we can do new things on the web - and those things are good (i.e. more democratic, a better convergence of creativity and experience, breakdown of author/viewer dualism, etc.) - it is our responsibility to accentuate those things which are specific to net.art. So one of the goals of net.art should be precisely *not* to make its content that of old media (the shoveware trap). I see a lot of self-reflexive net.art being about this desire to get out of the traps of old artistic media
... Those last two sentences were a little incoherent... But I think you see what I'm getting at ;)
MS: You say "more democratic"... Democracy is not necessarily a good thing. If it were up to democracy, art would be abolished. Hm... Maybe that *would* be a good thing ;)
I think those things were already true for previous media and have more to do with time. It does strike me that many of the artistic postmodernist theories that sounded weird and dazzling when applied to traditional media, become very real (hyperreal ;) ) when applied to the net as a medium.
AG: Yeah, I've always thought that all that French theory was a little odd. Because they never really *had* "decentered subjects" and "discourse networks" and "rhizomes" to examine first hand (or at least they were very primitive and intangible), those categories were their way of being resistive to the dominant. But today, cyborgs and simulations and rhizomes are as normal as breathing... On the one hand it's very exciting because we can read Deleuze and have a very real thing to compare it to, the internet. But on the other hand. Being rhizomatic is not resistive anymore, precisely because (grant me a theory moment here) the power networks themselves are rhizomatic! I think the key is in *how* one uses a network, and what one's overall goals are. If you're Time/Warner it's one thing, if you are rhizome.org it's another.
MS: Hm... I thought McLuhan said that the content of new media is always old media as such, not the content of old media. Early television was about theater, etc. In that sense new media would always start as meta-media, as information media, telling you something about the previous medium. It takes some time for media to develop their own specific format and to start dealing with content. The funny thing is that it seems to me that that 'mature content' is always the same for each medium. The maturity of a medium is judged by its power to immerse the spectator 'in another world' and each medium has to find its own way of achieving this through trial and error. For a long while oil painting, for instance, thought that accurate representation (trompe l'oeil) was the way to do this, a far too obvious choice, in retrospect.
AG: Exactly, the *content* of new media are a previous media. But not always *about* the previous media. So, cds contain sound waves, films contain photographs, email contains word processed text which contains typewritten text which contains text which contains words, and so on.
Now, what makes net.art interesting (the early conceptual variety of net.art, that is) is how it shrugged off this impulse, and instead made art about the *internet* itself and not about some previous media. See, I think McLuhan's insight is that new media are always conservative in a certain sense. They don't really want to do something new. This is why I often say that the greatest struggle of net art is to prove its autonomy.
MS: I don't agree that the typical net.art is about the internet. What is confusing things here, I think, is that, unlike any other medium ever before, the internet is so many things at once. It is the canvas, as well as the gallery, as well as the art magazine, as well as a home where you meet friends, as well as a library, a source of entertainment as well as research. What you make on the internet is often a combination of many things, one of which is art. As a result net.art is never just art. Net.art is about what the internet is about, not about the internet itself. The very typical net.art that likes to play with the aesthetics of code, viruses and computer errors, does not tell me more about the internet than my email correspondence does.
AG: Yes, yes. I agree. Although "entertainment" is such a dirty word. These days it means sitcoms and bad movies. But I see what you're getting at.. I think the way I'd phrase it is: the revolution should be fun. People shouldn't need a spoonful of sugar when they want to swallow real, meaningful culture - let's face it, a Godard movie just ain't as much fun to watch as the Matrix.
MS: Maybe 'pleasure' is a better word than fun. And maybe a Godard movie gives one more pleasure than the Matrix. Of course both pale in comparison to directors who can fuse art and fun, like Almodovar, Hartley, Greenaway, Lynch, etc.
AG: What types of barriers (for lack of a better word) are you breaking down... The first thing I can think of is the emotional barrier between user and content. This seems to be a problem for a lot of net.art.
MS: I prefer to think of our work as building bridges rather than breaking down barriers. In my experience there are not many barriers to break down. Probably because this is a new medium, most people seem to be very willing to 'suspend their disbelief', very open to experiences. What we as 'artists' have to learn now, is how to use that willingness. We have to find a form(at) that can communicate and for that we need to learn about this medium. It takes time. (And probably as soon as we achieve this, it will be commercialized and therefore lost. Like what happened with television.)
If we are trying to break down anything, it is probably the conservatism of art lovers/critics who seem to have a whole list of properties that a work of art needs to have in order to be considered 'good'. We get very extreme reactions to our work: some people think it is very old fashioned and simplistic and others think it is totally surreal and "weird". Both are right, I guess :)
Another thing we may be trying to break down is the fact that you do not have to break down everything. Old media have accomplished a lot and we should not dismiss that knowledge, but use it to our advantage.
AG: Your stuff is very narrative, that's why I mentioned the connection to feature film. Most other narrative net.art is of the "here's a story of such-and-such" variety... That or hypertext which isn't very compelling to me. This comes down to formal techniques. Can you articulate some of the formal techniques that you use to enhance narrative and immersion?
MS: My major discovery was linearity. In all the confusion and excitement about new media and hypertext, it took me years to discover that one of the best ways to engage a viewer is linearity. And while I do like narration, it is not really the goal of my work. Maybe the "narrative effect" is a result of using linearity and not vice versa. Or maybe narration is another means and not the goal. On the other hand, Auriea and I seem to be rather exhibitionist and we seem to have an urge to tell people things about our lives that for most people should not be made public. Another technique is limitation of freedom. Giving the user too much interactive power will take away from his or her experience. She or he will get distracted when there are too many buttons to click. And last but not least, graphics. Entropy8 was a very simple web site, technically, but one of the main reasons why it was so appealing to many people was the fact that it looked the way it did.
AG: in terms of formal techniques, I'm thinking specifically of the part in skinonskinonskin where the user must type a phrase 5 times (I forget exactly) before being able to advance to the next page...
MS: It was 10 times 'I love you', 'I need you' or 'I want you', depending on which flower you clicked on the previous screen. The main reason for doing it this way was that Auriea and I wanted to make the user do what we were doing all the time :)
AG: You also use HTML forms in very smart ways, to both convey meaning and also to lead the user along by requiring them to do something (click a button) that makes them complicitous - like with the "a physical need for wonder and poetry" button at Entropy8Zuper. Of course you didn't invent that technique but...
MS: Let's say that we want to create beauty with the primitive elements that technology gives us. Both us and the typical 'blinking pixel' net artists abuse this technology that was not made for us or our needs. But rather than exposing its inherent ugliness and absurdity, we try to use it to make something poetic and beautiful that is about human things rather than machines.