Interview with Catherine David
CD: Your work explores the world of today, a world where telecommunications technology tends to abolish space and time. In this context of worldspace, you advance the idea of a general delocalization. How would you define a delocalized art?
PV: It’s clear that one of the great philosophical and political questions of the day is deconstruction, and deconstruction in a broad sense, not only that of Derrida. Myself, I would say that art may have anticipated this debate over deconstruction, long before architecture and long before the philosophical situation as it stands today.
I would like to recall that the word delocalization has the same root as the Latin verb dislocare, to dislocate; the two words have the same source. The question is then to what extent art can be dislocated, delocalized? And that leads to the question of virtual reality.
We have gone from spatial dislocation – in abstractionism as well as cubism – to the temporal dislocation that is now under way. This means virtualization in its very essence: the virtualization of actions as they occur and not just simply of what was, to recall Barthes’s idea. This is not the virtualization of photography, of reproduction or of film; it’s no longer only in a time lag, but in real time.
I would also say that relative speed has been the speed of art in general. All art has been a relative speeding-up, not only dance and music, but also painting. What is coming into play today is no longer relative velocity, but absolute velocity. We’re running up against the time barrier. Virtuality is the electromagnetic speed that brings us to the limit of acceleration. It’s a barrier in the sense of ‘no crossing’. This is the whole question of live transmission, global time, near-instantaneous intercommunication. Is the time barrier not also a barrier for art? Doesn’t art have to deal with this contingency, when it comes up short against the barrier of real time?
CD: How has art reached such a barrier? In what forms and under what conditions?
PV: In order to see what has happened between the inscription of art and its delocalization, we need to look back in time. Art was initially inscribed in bodies and in materials. With cave paintings and tattoos, art was traced in matter. The art of the inscription is what it was, in a material fixity. That was art’s localization. Art and its localization were inseparable in the body of the marked man or in the body of the cave, and then later in frescoes, mosaics, etc. Thus there was a grounded localization of art since its origins; and then, in the course of time, delocalization began, with the easel painting that stepped free of the cave and the skin to become a displaceable, nomadic object. This was still just a relative delocalization, that is to say, not yet a loss of place, but a possibility of movement. Painting, for example, was still inscribed in the reliquary, the illustrated book, the canvas. The Très Riches Heures du Duc de Berry were delocalized in the sense that they could be taken away by the feudal lord, but they were still localized in the book. The delocalization we’re dealing with today is nowhere. Art can be nowhere, it only exists in the emission and reception of a signal, only in feedback. The art of the virtual age is an art of feedback. And I’m not yet even talking about the Internet. So, moving from its initial inscription in a place, in a cave, pyramid, or castle, via museums, galleries, and travelling collections, and then through photographic reproduction – where the trip is of another nature – and the CD-Rom, which is still a material support, the art of today with its interactive techniques has now reached the level of instantaneous exchange between actor and spectator, the final delocalization.
Modern decomposition – divisionism, pointillism, cubism and abstractionism, which were all decompositions of figures – manifests another type of delocalization; these artistic movements are no longer to be read in human or animal figures, but in broken figures. This process of decomposition culminates in the fractal image and in computer graphics. We go from modern decomposition to fractalization, the digital image, and finally to absolute virtualization, that is to say, the emissionreception of images which are totally instrumental.
That’s a brief summary of the process which has led to the dislocation or delocalization of art today.
Now, to understand what’s at stake here, I’d like to briefly evoke what I call cybersexuality, the climax of virtualization, which is now being pushed, by the Japanese in particular, toward the separation of bodies, the most absolute divorce there is. You can make long-distance love from thousands of miles away, by means of sensors that transmit impulses. I never laugh about cybersexuality, I really don’t find it funny …
Now, if even sex becomes virtual, what will happen to art? Cybersexuality is the example of total dislocation or delocalization: there is no longer any specific place, just the emission and reception of sensations. It’s clear that art will suffer the consequences. It seems to me now that land art was the last great figure of an art of inscription, before the total delocalization of art in virtual reality. It was inscribed on the scale of the earth, the largest territory possible. Is it the beginning of a possible reterritorialization of art, or is it the very last sign, the swan song of art’s inscription on the terrain before its final disappearance into the virtual reality of instantaneous exchange?
CD: Let’s pause for a moment over land art. It seems to me that it’s one aspect of what was called the ‘dematerialization of art’ in the late sixties. The work took place in complex spaces – here and elsewhere – which Robert Smithson, but also Marcel Broodthaers, articulated in their exhibition structures. It was a way of expressing the fact that aesthetic experience takes shape in material and mental spaces which go beyond the singular object.
On the other hand, if you take a quick scan of the art scene today, what’s interesting is to see that all these artistic moments or phases are still present. You still have painting, sculpture, installations, cinema, and so-called ‘Internet works’. So there’s quite a broad range …
PV: Hasn’t that always been the case? In the nineteenth century, impressionism coexisted with art pompier, with the very worst of art. What interests me is the leading edge …
CD: There’s just this one difference, that right now the most significant research is no longer necessarily connected to places of display, or to the traditional places for the experience of art. Could that be the problem today?
PV: That’s exactly why land art is such an important phase. Contrary to other transient forms, land art lasts long enough to exist. Inscription came before exhibition: even if a man exhibited his tattoos, the tattooing was initially done to mark a body. In the same way, if you believe Leroi-Gourhan and other anthropologists, the cave is first of all a place of mystery and initiation. I’m wondering, then, if art didn’t regress from the exhibition, the installation on a wall or in a gallery, to the inscriptions of land art, only finally to disappear, no longer inscribed anywhere but in the instantaneous exchange of sensations offered by virtual reality. What we have today would be a sidereal aesthetics, an aesthetics of disappearance, and no longer one of appearance. Can we hang on to the Raft of the Medusa represented by land art, like a kind of life-saver that would carry us toward a reinscription and reinstallation of art in the here and now, the hic et nunc that I insist on? Or is this life-saver the sign of a sinking ship, and will the victory fall to virtual reality as reciprocal electrocution, the instantaneousness of an art that leaves no trace?
CD: The works of land art which have best resisted are precisely those which were able to articulate different places and/or times: Smithson with Spiral Jetty and The Monuments of Passaic, or Walter de Maria with Lightning Field. In that last work, the lightning field is integrated by the artist. The work was conceived for a non-urban space, wild, magnetic, and so on, a place you can decide to go to … The access and the effect are deferred, mediated, controlled by the artist himself, particularly through a very rigorous use of photography, which in this case can in no way appear as a convenience or a concession.
PV: I’d like to remark that with Lightning Field it’s also a case of electrocution! I feel like comparing this lightning field to the work of Stelarc, who is another man of electrocution. Body art doesn’t interest me in the least, but Stelarc interests me. He is a lightning field; he is already the support of an electrocution, of a terrifying feedback, like the earth is for Walter de Maria. He returns to the body, a body that is being absorbed, destroyed by foreign cells. He wants to become a non-body, a posthuman body, a ‘beyond-body’, to borrow the theme of an issue of Kunst-forum in which I participated. You had a territorial body for land art, an animal body, male or female, for body art. There is a correlation between the lightning field with its electromagnetic activity and Stelarc’s attempt to be the lightning field himself, through all his electric hook-ups.
CD: Don’t you get the impression that it’s a direct, almost archaic return to the body, a certain way of playing with living flesh, if I daresay … I’m wondering if he isn’t replaying some of the actionists’ strategies, or the strategy of Chris Burden when he had himself shot in the arm. These have never been precisely resituated in their context, the post-1945 context.
PV: Stelarc predates the attempt to replace man by machine, he is the contemporary of a crucifixion of the human body by technology. He is a prerobotic man, the apostle of the machine that will come after him. In a certain way he is the end of his art. He wants to be the Saint John of the body’s Apocalypse, the Saint John of Patmos who prophesies the Apocalypse. That’s why I liken him to Antonin Artaud. Like Kafka, Artaud was a contemporary of the concentration camps. Stelarc is the contemporary of the terrifying things that are happening right now in Yugoslavia and elsewhere, which are not much discussed in art and which we should discuss. I’m still scandalized by a Venice Biennial that takes place a few cable’s lengths from a civil war in Europe, and by the penury of references to that war in Venice. That war cuts right through us, and a man like Stelarc illustrates the fact that man has become useless, that the machine is replacing him. He plays out this loss of his own body; it’s his Baroque side. He actually brags about letting his body be replaced by the machine. [Outside, echoes of a demonstration by strikers and students.] The people marching in Paris while we do this interview are people cast into the street by mass unemployment, because electronic automation and hyperproductivity replace man. Man as a producer, a soldier, a parent, a procreator, is outmoded.
But to return to Walter de Maria, those lightning fields were ‘contemporary’ with the atom bomb and the flash of Los Alamos. They aren’t ordinary flashes of lightning. They come after the flashes of the bomb that exploded not far away …
CD: Your interpretation is quite different from the traditional readings of Walter de Maria, which have locked him away between minimal and land art, or criticized the megalomaniacal, even authoritarian aspects of his work [B. Buchloh].
But I’d like to return to your regret over the lack of political involvement or strong testimony in contemporary art, apropos of Venice and Yugoslavia for example. Doesn’t the fading or disappearance of what could be called the critical art of the seventies have to do with the growing domination of communications, with everything involving advertising, with television, or in short, with the forces that tend toward consensus and homogeneousness?
PV: Communication has been taken captive by the media system and the advertising system. The movement of advertising practices is interesting, because it has gone increasingly toward the sidereal and the subliminal, where there is nothing to be seen. Only imperceptible, unconscious sensations, but very effective ones.
The art market is an advertising market, and not only in the economic sense. It is clear that the critical function – and the function of art criticism – has in fact disappeared in the commercialization of signs. So when I refer to Artaud, for example, it is because Artaud was an art critic, he wasn’t simply an artist: he criticized his time with his art. Like Kafka, he was a kind of prophet of artistic calamity, and at the same time, a prophet of political calamity. Through his confinement and his Judaism, Kafka anticipates the camps – and they’ll all die there, even Milena, in Dachau. In his own way, Stelarc ‘prophesies’ through the very violence of his tribulation, through the dangerous pressure of technology on his body. Of course that’s not a political commitment like Picasso’s during the Cold War, with his doves and so on … Nor does it have anything to do with Sartre’s engagement.
So when I see Walter de Maria’s lightning field, I can’t help but think of Electromagnetic Impulses, EMP. I’m what’s called a ‘defensive intellectual’, in the sense that I’m familiar with military affairs, and with generals! The time of Lightning Field – 1977 – corresponds to the period of tension between the power blocs. A debate was raised over the EMP effect, that is, the electromagnetic discharge provoked by nuclear explosions in the upper atmosphere: before attacking the other side, a bomb would be set off in the upper atmosphere to knock out all the communication systems, all the intercommunication between the chiefs of staff. In fact, this was why the Americans launched the Internet, which at the time was called Arpanet. In the event of atomic war it was supposed to function after EMP, allowing for communication despite the destruction of other networks. It’s a matter of armouring the communication devices against this electromagnetic effect that blows all the fuses. Now we’re really in the theme of the flash! And lo and behold, an artist, who may not know a thing about it, stages EMP. His field is more than just lightning flashes, it’s a kind of atom bomb!
The delocalization I’m talking about proceeds from electromagnetism. The problems of proximity, of localization if you wish, have always been linked to energies. The first proximity was linked to animal energy, it meant walking or going on horseback. The animal is the energetic element of the past and it’s no accident if people painted them in caves. Later the relations of proximity and localization are linked to mechanics, it’s the railway, the automobile, we’re still living in this one. But since the seventies we have entered an effect of electromagnetic proximity, through impulses, always that famous feedback between an emitter and a receiver.
Therefore I have the strong impression that this question of dislocation and delocalization in art is also linked to the energy that replaces the mechanical energy of Léger’s Ballet mécanique, and of the experiments in concrete music which had such a formative influence on us. Because you need energy to delocalize, to lose your place.
CD: One also gets the feeling that excepting the minority of artists who are already working in virtual reality, the most visible, most spectacular development is the parasitic absorption of art by the aesthetics of communication, or better, of design, cultural, social, or political design. Energy isn’t really my specialty … But if you take a quick look around the scene, doesn’t it seem that the artistic postures or positions that can still hold their own are those that can mark distances, or as Godard would say, can still change speeds?
PV: That’s exactly what’s threatened …
CD: Such works aren’t caught up in events, in things, they avoid idiosyncrasy.
PV: Isn’t dislocation precisely a resistance to this dissolution of art? Take the example of architecture: it too is threatened with dissolution by the new technologies. The various avenues of research into glass and steel are signs of a possible dissolution of the materiality of architecture. When architecture is threatened with dissolution, that is, with ‘anything goes’, what’s brought into play is a kind of deconstruction: people invent forms that dislocate the geometrical orthodoxy of architectural space, of simple architectural figures. This is what you have with Libeskind, Zaha Hadid and Eisenmann. Faced with the threat of a dissolution of art, could a form of dislocation be an attempt at resistance?
CD: How would you identify the artists of dislocation on the contemporary scene?
PV: They would be people working precisely with the fact that art no longer takes place, that it has become pure energy. Lots of artists have anticipated the loss of place, the non-place of art, they anticipate it in an energeticism that can include the most shocking of images, or the most rapid of images on the feedback level. Is this attempt at energeticism one of the last ways of standing up against dissolution? Like someone who feels his strength failing him and puts all his force into his last punch, precisely because he knows it’s his last.
I see that in dance, in theatre, in video, in all the arts I still enjoy. I’m repelled by the plastic arts now, there’s nothing left, for me it’s over …
CD: Great news!
PV: There’s dance, there’s theatre, and video installations in the broad sense. Theatre, for example, is playing with video. It no longer plays with film as it once tried to, with little success. I’ll take the example of a very successful play by Heiner Müller which wasn’t much talked about, Bildbeschreibungen, which appeared shortly after my book Logistics of Perception: War and Cinema [1984/1989], and which was influenced by it, as Heiner Müller readily admits. I have great admiration for Heiner Müller. Here is a theatre that really plays with the deferred time of video: you have a video receiver that functions as a rear-view mirror, letting the spectator see something other than what’s to be seen on the stage. There’s a direct vision of bodies on the stage, plus the retroactive time of video that plays something else. That’s an experiment in the area of theatre; we could find many more. Let’s take another example from dance. I like William Forsythe very much. The effort demanded from Forsythe’s dancers goes all the way to the breaking-point. It’s a performance of the body. Forsythe is on the edge of dislocating his dancers.
As for video installations, they are dematerializing. The coherence and structure of Michael Snow’s La Région centrale – an absolute masterpiece in my opinion, as Deleuze also said so well – made it the film of the here and now: you plant an object in the ground, make it turn, and on that basis you show a world. That was absolute localization. When you see installations now, they are dislocating themselves, delocalizing. They are efforts to break through, to lose place, to be nowhere. To be dislocated, delocalized – and the people out demonstrating in the streets don’t realize this clearly enough – means being nowhere, not going somewhere else. In France people speak about delocalizing corporations and administrations. But being delocalized doesn’t mean going to the suburbs or the provinces, it means no longer being anywhere! This year IBM delocalized its head office to go nowhere, next year IBM won’t have any head office, the first delocalized corporation …
I’m mixing levels, of course, and I’m doing it on purpose. I’m not an art critic, I’m a critic of new technologies.
So it seems to me, through these examples of dance and theatre, that in order to resist the dissolution of art, not to say the end of art and its total disappearance, people are risking the challenge of dislocation, of delocalization, of a transfer into energy. An art that would be nothing other than energetic.
CD: You haven’t mentioned cinema at all.
PV: For me, cinema is over. For years I haven’t been able to put up with cinema, first of all because I can no longer put up with the ritual of the movies. Cinema should have changed its theatres. It exists by virtue of a space called the movie theatre, and the movie theatre should be constantly revolutionized, like art. But obviously it’s more expensive to make new movie theatres every two years than to make new films every two years … Serge Daney and I often spoke of this: we need Godards of the movie theatre, otherwise Godard himself will disappear. Cinema takes place, it has its dark room, its camera obscura, and it needs to make that place evolve. Today the camera obscura is virtual space, it’s the video-helmet, there’s no more dark room. That’s another delocalization …
CD: Aren’t the plastic arts somewhat like cinema in that they fundamentally need a place, even if it’s only temporary?
PV: That brings us back to the same problem, the problem of the body. You no longer make a phone call from your home, in a place, but you phone out in the street, the telephone is on you, it’s portable, cellular. Are we heading toward a cellular art, just as we have cellular telephones? A portable art, on you or even in you?
CD: How do you interpret the attitude of certain young artists today who claim to work on and in the social?
PV: Lucy Orta, for example, has done work along those lines. Work on the body, on clothes, on the portable. Her clothes are not for fashion but for survival, they are apocalyptic clothes in a certain way. She makes clothes for several people, five people who put on the same outfit: kinds of diving suits, places of junctural proximity … She does it because there are more and more people out in the street. In fact she began at the Salvation Army where her first exhibitions took place. Her art is a kind of alarm signal: the symptomatic clothing of a drama, the drama of survival in the city under normal conditions.
CD: Would that be a critical contemporary art?
PV: Yes, in the sense of Kafka or Artaud. In the fundamental sense, not in the sense of political commitment. I’d like to return to the last hold-outs against delocalization and dislocation. Since art has already left its spaces and begun floating through the worlds of advertising and the media, the last thing that resists is the body. Whatever artists like Stelarc may think, whatever dancers and theatre people may think, they are artists of habeas corpus, they bring their bodies. And yet they are on the front lines, the possibility of going beyond the body is posited through them. The dramatic thing in theatre, dance and body art in the sense we were just talking about, is that they prefigure a limit. They ask the question ‘How far?’ That’s also an ethical question in the context of genetic engineering, in the problems of traffic in human beings as improvable raw materials, the body considered as raw material, the body of ‘hominiculture’, as some scientists say.
That’s why I’m in love with bodies. I think that alongside ‘SOS save our souls’ we should invent an ‘SOS save our bodies from electromagnetic electrocution’. Everybody ought to reread the great book of Villiers de l’Isle Adam, Future Eve, the source for the Maria of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, the electric woman. The book prefigures the overcoming of the body by wave bodies, bodies of emission and reception, and therefore cybersexuality, but also cybersociality and cyberculture in general …
CD: How would you explain the paradoxical co-existence, among the youngest artists, of a certain kind of work on the body and a fascination for the Internet at the same time?
PV: It’s very tempting to become an angel, but there’s a thin line between being an angel and not being at all. Many young artists are tempted by dematerialization, it’s the angel’s leap. They don’t want to die, they want to be dead, that is, to be deprived in a certain way of the bother of having a body, the bother of feeling tired, of being disturbed by the people around them. And telecommunicating is a way of zapping your communicatees, of privileging the farthest over your neighbour. ‘Love the farthest as yourself’, said Nietzsche: that means being able to zap him. On the contrary, loving your neighbour is more difficult, because there’s no zapping; you have to deal directly with your neighbour, he smells bad or is demanding … There’s a kind of myth of becoming an angel which is tempting. When you’re older, you know that you will very soon be an angel …
CD: If everything shifts, if even for a short time, you can no longer inscribe the meaning of it all, then what can you do?
PV: You shock the other, you electrocute him, you put him out of action. Terrorism isn’t just a political phenomenon, it’s also an artistic phenomenon. It exists in advertising, in the media, the reality show, the pornographic media. The last thing to do is to give the other a punch in the face to wake him up. It’s the image of that blind, deaf, and dumb kid in the 1950s who was totally isolated from the world and who was knocked out of his isolation by a slap. The shock gave him his speech back.
You can see that in the suburbs right now, speech is replaced by violence. The punch is the beginning of communication: a punch brings you back into proximity when words are lacking. Art is at that point right now. The terrorist temptation of art has already settled in everywhere. But the exhibition Fémininmasculin should have been done as a punch in the 1950s, or in the Victorian age, today’s it’s just marketing.
Despite Auschwitz, it’s true, everything has been done. One should never forget Adorno’s idea, ‘Can poetry still be written after Auschwitz?’ After the end of abstract art, after all those people who were still people of culture, we have stuttered the horror revealed by Auschwitz and Hiroshima.
CD: And yet there was cinema, Rossellini …
PV: It’s true, at the same time there was Rossellini, Rome Open City, all that extraordinary documentary work …
CD: In this context, what is the model for an exhibition?
PV: You have to fight for the here and now. Being here is now one of the great philosophical questions, but its also one of the great artistic questions. Telesexuality is the disappearance of being, it’s a phenomenon of the diversion of the human species: making love with an angel, with the future Eve. The question of the here and now is an absolute question in all fields. It is absolute in democracy, in mores, in sociality. In the same way, you have to ask the question of the presence of art. Is there a telepresence of art and to what point can art be telepresent without disappearing?
CD: This is the problem of the exhibition that must create or recreate a place for itself, even temporarily …
PV: The installation interests me because it poses the problem of place and non-place. Let’s take three examples in architecture: first, the non-place of the vestibule in the bourgeois home, a semi-public, semi-private space. The people entering are in a quasi-virtual space, because they enter without being greeted; that’s the case for the postman, for example. The second place is the telephone booth, which is also a semi-private, semipublic space, there’s no more body, there’s only the voice, and even that … And the third, which has just been brought into operation, is the virtual portal, what I refer to as the calling chamber. A room entered by the clone of your visitor, his spectre. Inside your data suit you see the clone, it sees you, you shake its hand, you smell its perfume. The only thing you can’t do with it is drink a glass of Bordeaux, tele-tasting is not possible, not yet!
This example is the final delocalization, the meeting of spectres, of angels, the dislocation of the real encounter with the other.
Art participates in this situation. The here and now is equally put into question.
CD: The ultimate interest of an exhibition is to offer an alternative to the meeting of clones. You take the trouble to go, you travel to see things you would never see elsewhere, or at least not under the same conditions.
PV: What has actually happened to the real presence of art? Here’s another image, Michel de Certeau gave me this one. When Galileo’s telescope was invented, the Jesuits of the time raised a theological question: do we attend mass if we watch it through a telescope?
Today when Bill Gates calls up all the paintings of the Louvre onto the screens lining the walls of his bunker-architecture, he sets off the process of the telepresence of art. The question of reproduction has been asked with photography. Barthes said it all on that subject. It’s a movement toward the spectralization of art, toward cloning!
Even the non-place evolves and progresses toward the immaterial. The non-place in the sense of Marc Augé, airports, telephone booths, freeway interchanges, is none the less a constructed non-place. While the telephone booth is still quite present, the modular structure heralds the spectre. The statue of the commander is all of us.
So, is there a phantom of art?
CD: The great contemporary artists, like Smithson, Broodthaers, and Dan Graham, have worked intensively with exhibition structures. With Broodthaers, for example, the work is conceived as an exhibition and the exhibition as a work. We’re still far from telepresence.
PV: But they’re threatened with dislocation! Let’s take video, a medium that still had some materiality. Even if video was an art of the non-place, it still had an inscription, a materiality that virtual reality and computer graphics no longer have. So I come back to my question: what has happened to the presence of art? It’s a philosophical question which is practically without an answer, and at the same time, it’s the question being posed concretely right now.
CD: Nonetheless, it seems to me that there are two realities: possibility and actuality. I have the feeling that telesexuality, for example, is not widely available … In the same way, only a minority of artists are working in virtual reality.
PV: Of course, but it’s a tension. What’s interesting is not the fact that it exists, but that it’s being actively sought. The Gulf War was already a war by telecommand, long-distance. Now they’re working on cyberwar, with insect-size sensors. Instead of reconnaissance aircraft or drones, you send out tiny sound-and-image sensors that survey space like bees. And at the same time, it’s true, the war in Yugoslavia exists.
CD: In the same way that art still assumes a material presence.
PV: For how long?
CD: An exhibition like Documenta tries to work in the here and now.1 Therefore we have to enquire into the way of presenting works that still propose a real experience, an aesthetic, cognitive, sensible, even ethical experience.
PV: What should be shown is everything that fundamentally resists, not in a conservative way but a provocative way. I’m not a curator of ancient forms of art, I say that conservation becomes a provocative phenomenon. The conservation of the here and now, of presence and localization, is a provocative phenomenon. The Fauves of today are those who are working on the presence of art.
CD: That means inventing exhibition structures. It would be foolish and dangerous to try to outdo television. Some people consistently cite television as a possible model of exhibition. On the contrary, I believe it’s urgent to set up barriers to zapping.
PV: Anyway, television is out of date. It’s already in a state of breakdown! Multimedia will be the death of television, its absorption into virtual reality. Cinema is dead, as I already said, but cinema is what makes television resist. If there were no more cinema, television would be long gone. The two cadavers hold each other upright. I say that from within a love of cinema which I once had and can have no longer …
In a period of occupation you don’t speak of resistance, said Serge Daney. The occupation is by the media. We are occupied by teletechnologies and we must be part of the resistance. Today there are the collaborators and the resistance.
Me, I’m in the resistance. What we’re actually doing here, with lots of questions, is exploring the dark spot of art today. That’s resistance. It’s not conservative resistance, but liberating resistance.
CD: How can an exhibition – which is more and more a place of cultural consumption ‘without qualities’ – be a space of resistance?
PV: At the time when François Burckardt was at the Pompidou Centre, after Lyotard’s exhibition Les Immatériaux, Lyotard and I received two commissions. Les Immatériaux was one of the great exhibitions, a failure and a stroke of genius all at once, a successful failure, a contradiction. He got a commission on resistance, all forms of resistance, electric, social, military, etc. And I got a commission on acceleration. Two contradictory exhibitions, obviously. Everything I’m talking about happens within an acceleration that emancipates us from places, from the body, from ourselves, from others, and finally from democracy …
CD: Can strategies be invented to resist acceleration, to maintain the distances, depths and heterogeneous elements that still exist in aesthetic production – strategies other than desperate attempts at restoration, like the one we saw in Venice this summer?
PV: Initially, at the time when the Pompidou Centre was still being planned, what was envisioned was to present not only exhibitions but also art in the making, studios and labs, a zoo of working artists. It’s clear that it didn’t come out that way, but that aspect was at the basis of Beaubourg. A place where creation would be exhibited while taking place, not a depot of works but a research centre. The Frisco exploratorium has the same kind of dimension in a certain way; you have the work of the day, the work is presented as a trajectory and not as an object. You’re offered whatever has just arrived, like in a railway station. In this idea of Beaubourg, art was in the trajectory of art and not only in its arrival.
But that wasn’t really a new idea, the romantic painters of the nineteenth century had artistic duels at their openings, they finished the canvas in front of the visitors. When Turner added the steam to the locomotive emerging from the fog and figured speed for the first time in a painting, he was anticipating art as a trajectory by trying to finish the painting in front of people. Something was played out there which continues in the idea of Beaubourg. Not consuming the finished product, but being at the level of the act, of the theatricalization of the act. It’s the idea of an art that wouldn’t be deferred but would exist in real time, live. Behind this temptation, something is being declared about the time of art, I don’t know what. It’s the same interest in improvisation, in jazz, an interest in art being made.
CD: Nonetheless I have the impression that behind this desire for real time there are other, less admissible preoccupations, the search for the spectacular, the exhibitionism of the medium … Everything is art, all the time, everybody is an artist – absolute relativism!
PV: It’s true that if everyone is an artist there’s no more art, and that’s what’s happening. That’s the reason why I say that for me, the plastic arts are finished, it’s over, alles fertig. I’m not joking!
CD: You’re saying that to someone in charge of a major exhibition! …
PV: … which is called ‘alles fertig’, it’s all over? No, let’s get serious again! The presence of art, and therefore its localization, is threatened. And yet that’s exactly where the solution to the threat lies, in the question of the temporality of art today. We have attained the limit of velocity, the capacity for ubiquity, for instantaneousness and immediacy. The fact of having reached the wall of the speed of light makes us the contemporaries of ubiquity. Art is in the phase of globalization.
I don’t have the answer, but it is in this question that the answer lies, and it’s up to the artists to answer. Some video artists have done it, Gary Hill, Michael Snow, Bill Viola; theatre does it, choreographers do it, plastic artists don’t do it enough.
CD: But what’s happening in theatre, contrary to the plastic arts, is of the order of representation, and representation implies distance. An aesthetics with no step back is just advertising. How would you discuss this question of distance?
PV: It’s the problem of the interval. The interval of space, of time, and the third interval, according to physicists, the interval of light, the zero sign. This third interval is what brings ubiquity into play. It’s what allows you to be the contemporary of an event on the other side of the world.
CD: Without an interval you’re in ‘the same’, you cannot be a witness. To be a witness is to have seen, from not far away. Can art still bear witness? I don’t want to subscribe to all the sociological recipes that are being served up just now. But the dimension of witnessing is important.
PV: We always come back to the dark spot of the presence of art today … The possibility of a disappearance of art was evoked in the nineteenth century by Rodin, Cézanne and many others, who thought at that time that art could disappear. They weren’t pretending. Nor did they say it was apocalyptic. Art can disappear. In a certain way Auschwitz was a disappearance of art, an event so far outside history that it is a kind of proof that the worst can happen. I am of the generation that can envisage the disappearance of art. All the questions that we’re asking here turn around this possible disappearance. As long as people censor the possible disappearance of art there will be no art. To think about the here and now, the temporality and presence of art, is to oppose its disappearance, to refuse being a collaborator.
Now, art plays with this possible disappearance, finds it amusing, because it doesn’t take it seriously. Lots of artists are already profiting from the death of art, they’re not like Artaud who announced the possibility of the end, they’re already in the after-death and they’re profiting. They’re inheriting from the cadaver.
I think our time is as unheard-of as the period before the Renaissance. Before the incredible explosion of the Renaissance there was the tragedy. Today we’re entering the tragedy. A world is coming to an end. Careful – it’s not the end of the world, I can’t stand all the apocalyptic ravings people indulge in today. But I’m sure it’s the end of a world. Once you recognize this situation – and what a daunting situation it is, to topple over into an unheard-of and ungraspable world – then you also have to recognize that it’s fantastically exciting!
Translated by Brian Holmes
© 1996 Kassel: Cantz Verlag and Paul Virilio. Interview with Catherine David. documenta documents 1, 1996. © 1996 translation by Brian Holmes.
VIRILIO LIVE: Selected Interviews/ © Selection and editorial matter, John Armitage 2001/SAGE Publications London. Thousand Oaks, New Delhi