This interview, realized in 1994, has been published since then in multiple versions in several publications. It was published in its entirety for the first time on the Web in Revista do Mestrado de Arte e Tecnologia da Imagem, N. 0, Institute de Arte, Departamento de Artes Visuais, Universidade de Brasilia, Brazil (http://www.unb.br/vis/revista/k.htm).
EDUARDO KAC -- THE AESTHETICS OF DIALOGUE
by SIMONE OSTHOFF
A tricultural, multilingual, interdisciplinary artist, Kac has centered his work around the investigation of language and communication processes, emphasizing dialogic experiences in a world increasingly dominated by the mass media. Originally from Rio de Janeiro, Eduardo Kac has lived in Chicago since 1989. He has just accepted a position as Professor of Art at the University of Kentucky in Lexington, where he will start the program in New Media bringing about curriculum change that will incorporate computer imaging, interactivity, 3-D animation, multimedia, computer-holography, and telecommunications as an art form.
Kac is part of the 80's generation in Brazil, a generation that awoke from the nightmare created fifteen years earlier by the military dictatorship. During the 80's, the civilian society fought for democracy and artists took part in the reclaiming of political freedom. In the first half of the last decade, Brazilian art critics celebrated the return to the pleasures of painting. The trans-avant-garde movement, inflated by the media reached mythic proportions. However, as the decade unfolded, the diversity of the period became more clearly translated in its sculptures, objects, installations, and multimedia works. Following the Brazilian avant-garde tradition which, without ignoring local roots, engaged in the international pool of aesthetic and conceptual ideas, Kac was among the few who continued to chart new territory, becoming increasingly concerned with the experimental use of new technologies and the new set of cultural problems they raise. To his present work with telecommunications and computer holography, he brings the experimental concerns we find in his early underground performances on the beach of Ipanema.
Contemporary Brazilian art has only recently began to receive international recognition through the works of young artists such as Jac Leirner, Daniel Senise, Leda Catunda, Beatriz Milhazes, Cildo Meireles, Tunga, to name a few. However, the rich cultural heritage these artists are coming from, remains still unknown outside Brazil. With few exceptions, such as Hélio Oiticica, who had a large retrospective traveling through Europe and the U.S. last year, and Lygia Clark, whose work was on the cover of Art in America, July 94 issue, Brazilian cultural production is still buried under media images of exoticism -- destruction of rain forests, magic realism, abject poverty, tropical iconography, exuberant sensuality, and urban violence.
Employing language both as material and subject matter, Kac explores in his holograms, hypertexts, and telepresence events, the perplexities of language, culture and consciousness in a new participatory paradigm. Working in the intersection of literature and visual arts, Kac investigates the verbal material in a constant state of flux, engaging the participants in a dialog that is continuously generating new meanings. On the following pages Kac talks about the development of his work from the early 80's, as an experimental writer in his teens, in Rio de Janeiro, to his performances, holograms, telecommunication events, and telepresence installations. He addresses both theoretical questions and social concerns, areas that remain inseparable in his work.
Osthoff- You seem to move very easily between different languages and cultures. Do you think that growing up in Rio de Janeiro might have anything to do with that, in the sense that Rio, as a port city, has traditionally been very cosmopolitan?
Kac- I don't feel tied to any particular place or culture, but I don't know if that has to do with the fact that I grew up in Copacabana, appreciating that multiplicity and diversity as I grew up. Many people I grew up with do not share that view, or feel the same way. My grandparents were immigrants. That may be a factor, but what makes me comfortable today, is the possibility of developing the work. That comes first.
O- You have at least three strong cultural influences. With which one do you identify the most?
K- I like to think of myself beyond national boundaries, and beyond media boundaries as well. I don't see myself as "Brazilian artist" or "American artist" or "Holography artist" or "Computer artist" or "Language artist" or "Installation artist." I find that labels are not very helpful and are often used to marginalize people. I have shown work in holography shows and the same work in shows that address word and image issues, or shows that address the use of new media. My name has been included in shows as representing the U.S. I have also shown my work in Brazil, as part of national surveys. I prefer not be bound by any particular nationality or geography. I work with telecommunications trying to break up these boundaries. Obviously, Brazilian culture is an important part of my identity, but it's not the only one. I don't see why I should have to choose only one aspect of my interests or my identity as the predominant one. I am comfortable with them all. I would like them all to express themselves and be equally present in my experience. For instance, I was in touch with a visual poetry scholar from California. I sent him my work. He sent me a cordial letter back expressing his disappointment with the fact that none of my works reflected, in a direct way, any aspect of a Brazilian identity. I was very disappointed with his disappointment. Can he define what a Brazilian artist or a person born in Brazil that makes art has to do? Does everybody who was born in Brazil have to talk about Carmen Miranda and bananas? Obviously not. People are more complex than any specific compartment that one might want to fit them into.
O- What was Copacabana like when you were growing up?
K- Well, Copacabana has a little bit of everything. It is also the most densely populated neighborhood of Rio de Janeiro. You find people from all walks of life, tourists, transvestites, immigrants from all parts of the country and the world, intellectuals, prostitutes, movie and television stars, poor, rich, middle-class families, senior citizens, it's a mini world in itself, anything but homogeneous. On top of it all, it's very beautiful. It is a pleasure just being there and walking there. These days it's very dangerous as well, a consequence of Rio's many social problems. You have the hills with the shantytowns on one side, and the Atlantic Ocean on the other, with very tall buildings in between. Rio is a mixture of naturally beautiful mountains, gorgeous beaches, and a very cosmopolitan city of about 6 million inhabitants. As a kid, the streets of Copacabana were my playground. I grew up in a middle-class Jewish family. I had lived my whole life in Copacabana, until I left to come to Chicago. I was raised by my grandparents, who had fled Poland a few years before the war.
O- Did they have a big influence in your education?
K- Besides the fact that they supported both morally and financially my formal education up to my BA, they also had a great influence upon my life. My grandmother was a good storyteller and a great listener; she always advocated dialogue. My grandparents were always reading something, books, newspapers, magazines. Reading was an activity they were always engaged in. So, on the one hand literature, and on the other hand comics and television, were very important and influential in terms of my thinking about images in motion, thinking about the interrelationship between words and images.
O- What was the intellectual and political climate in Brazil during the late 70's?
K- In the late 1970's, the country was slowly going through a period of redemocratization, following more than a decade of military dictatorship, torture of political prisoners, and censorship. I became interested in body politics, and found myself reading Wilhelm Reich, Herbert Marcuse, and Roland Barthes, among others. There was a certain sense of recovering a lot of the things that were lost during the previous years, because of the lack of freedom, because of State sanctioned terrorism. In 1979, I was seventeen. Together with this national process of rediscovery of the pleasures of being alive and being free, there was also the teenager's desire to understand himself, understand others, understand his body, understand reality, that was just typical of that age. It was almost as if the country were going through the same process as a whole, that process of discovery.
O- What were your interests at that time?
K- I read a lot. After having read and studied the work of the most important modern and contemporary Brazilian poets, as well as some of the most prominent modern and contemporary American and European poets, I noticed that works that openly expressed what I perceived as political issues related to the human body, were absent from Brazilian poetry. I discovered that poetry and writing actually had a long, repressed tradition, in the sense that poetry was a form of verbal expression that always suppressed anything that had to do with bodily functions, body fluids, body parts, scatology, plural forms of sexuality. Little by little I started to study works that dealt with these issues, going back to Catulus, Martial, Aretino, Gregório de Matos, Bocage, all the way to the beautiful Medieval 13th century "Cantigas de Escárnio e Mal-dizer do Cancioneiro Medieval Galêgo-Português" (Galician-Portuguese Medieval Songs of Sarcasm and Malediction) in which these bards sing the female body and the male body and all the bodily functions in a way that is funny and interesting. So, from ancient Rome through Medieval times through the Renaissance and the Baroque and into 19th century forbidden language poems by Verlaine and Rimbaud, Apollinaire's own "obscene" poems, to the more dramatic Antonin Artaud, in the use of scatology and the body in his poetry, and of course Marquis de Sade, I started to find that international tradition which had celebrated the body free-spiritedly. I also started to dig out a lot of Brazilian writings that had to do with that, that were, and still are, kept buried and in certain cases have seldom or never been published as is the case of Bernardo Guimarães' and Emílio de Menezes's work. Coelho Neto was sort of a late Symbolist who produced works on this theme that are absolutely unknown. Even Oswald de Andrade, who was one of the founders of the Antropophagic Movement of the 1920's, created work in this vein as well, work which came out only a couple of years ago.
O- Were you writing poetry then?
K- When I was 17, I won a national poetry contest, which was very encouraging. Because of it, I met some other poets, writers, and artists. Then, things changed quite a bit afterwards. The poetry I developed after that had strong political overtones and was build on the "forbidden" vocabulary I found absent from the modern and contemporary work I admired. I focused on semantic content without ornamentation or euphemism. I decided that this poetry would also incorporate other elements considered inferior or unacceptable by the critics but which would be empathic with the audience, such as calembours, slang, and humor. But very quickly -- everything seemed to have happened quite quickly, at that stage of my life -- the work moved to the body actually freed from the text and out into space, performing and doing things. I started to write specifically for public performances, rather than for book publishing, addressing the man and the woman on the streets.
O- What made you go from the written to the performed poetry?
K- At the time I started to question a lot of assumptions we have about language, primarily on a semantic level: the stigmatization of language; how certain expressions are created that make references to animals and dehumanize men and women. for instance, you say -- "Fuck you!" as an aggressive comment. How come we got to a point where something that should reflect a very pleasant, enjoyable, orgiastic experience has now turned out to be, in our use of language, a curse? How are certain expressions created that try to denigrate other forms of sexuality that are not mainstream? How are capitalism and imperialism tied to a certain exploration and massacre of the body? I was very interested in the writings of William Reich and his views on sexuality, as well as Marcuse's. It was a concern then that related to the political context, but was also a concern that related to these issues of written language, poetry, and the visual arts. So, all the way from Marquis de Sade to Marcel Duchamp, I started to see that the human body was a fascinating support for work. I didn't want to do body art. But I wanted to do some kind of body poetry perhaps. So I made poetry out of the raw material of the forbidden side of the Portuguese language. I wanted to turn it around and use this forbidden vocabulary with its liberating power, with its cathartic power, and create a political view that was tied in with an appreciation, a liberation, a celebration of the human body. And I wanted that to manifest itself directly in the work. The performances from 1980-82 had elements of scatology, surprise, humor, subversion, gags, and the mundane. In these poetic performances, the so-called vulgar or bad words become noble and positive. Scatological discourse and political discourse were one and the same and were manifested through cheerful orgiastic liberation. It was an attempt of using the body and working with the body as a tool, as a medium to express the multiplicity of the body, the possibilities of the body, the possibilities that involve multiple forms of sexuality as well as scatology, and everything that has been kept suppressed and repressed.
O- Did you perform alone?
K- From early 1980, to February 1982, I worked with a group of people that became interested in working along the same vein. We gave weekly performances in public and private spaces in Rio de Janeiro and other Brazilian cities. During this period I also created graffiti-poems, object-poems, and sticker-poems, which expanded the scope of my performances. In our group we had all kinds of points of view being expressed and shared with the public. Many of us also embraced multiple forms of expression, be it verbal, visual, musical, or sexual or whatever in-between forms you have. There was this view we all shared, just a general openness to any form of expression.
O- Where did these performances take place?
K- Every Friday night we performed in the heart of downtown Rio, in Cinelândia, an open area where you have on one side the National Library, on the other side the Opera House and the State House of Representatives. Theaters, bookstores, motels, banks, movie theaters and bars abound in the area. There are hundreds of people leaving work, hanging out, going to bars and just walking around -- prostitutes, intellectuals, beggars, business executives, transvestites, bankers, street kids, artists, politicians, street vendors. We found that that was the perfect place to perform, not only because it was in the heart of Rio, the very Bohemian "alive" part of town, but also because you could address a very wide range of people. It eventually became known that we were performing regularly and some people came there specifically to see us. We didn't specify time or anything. All of a sudden, when the whole group was in the right mood, we just started shouting very loudly in all directions. We were very colorful and very dynamic, wearing sort of funny, interesting clothes. At the time, my typical costume were these scuba diving red boots. I took my Grandmother's pajamas for pants. I found this Peruvian belt and silk-screened this t-shirt with a distich that was also one of the sticker-poems -- "Pra curar amor Platônico/só uma trepada Homérica."(To cure Platonic love/only a Homeric screw). We used to travel a lot and performed in various places such as the beach, which was absolutely free, but also in theaters, where people would have to pay to see us. We would do sudden performances in the middle of social gatherings and other events. We would improvise a lot. /p>
O- It seems to me that you were using scatology, the vernacular, multiple forms of sexuality, humor, as a political tool, and a way of undermining the phallocentric patriarchal foundation. Was there any specific political agenda in your mind at the time?
K- I guess the 26 years I lived in Brazil taught me not to believe in organized politics. My group believed that we could perhaps change people's lives in a smaller way, opening up their eyes to other forms of existence, forms of behavior, forms of sexuality, and forms of thinking, that perhaps they were not even aware of.
O- Were these performances the only outlet your work had at that time?
K- No. I published two anthologies of poetry, compiling work that was produced in that vein. There was also another aspect of that work -- individual performances. I did a revision of Flavio de Carvalho's "Novo Traje Masculino" piece (New Male Garment). I also did performances that were not for a live audience but for the camera. This whole project was documented in its three-year span in varied forms, including books, magazines, newspapers, and television and radio coverage. In 1983, I published an artist's book, called ESCRACHO, which is a word very difficult to translate. It can mean a number of things, like: direct, blatant, unmasked, perverted, sarcasm, to dress carelessly, to be booked in the police headquarters, demoralize, tease, make fun of, etc. Some of the work in ESCRACHO still has ties with the body-based work I was doing at the time, some is already pointing in other directions.
O- What was your revision of Flavio de Carvalho's piece?
K- I was aware of the work Flavio de Carvalho first did in the early 30's, which he called "Experiences". In 1931, for example, he wore a hat and walked in the opposite direction of a Corpus Christi procession to question the rationale of the ritual and to study the multiple consequences of his own act. The participants wanted to beat him up. Much later with Kaprow and others, this kind of work would be known as "Happenings" and "Performance Art". But Flávio de Carvalho was after something else, a psychological edge. In 1956 he designed and made this whole new male garment, which included a skirt for better ventilation, and he wore it once on the streets of São Paulo. It was shocking. People thought he was crazy, which he kind of was, in the best sense of the word. He proposed to change the way Brazilian men dress. I thought this work was a very important precursor to other ideas relating to the body. I chose to wear a skirt on a regular basis, in the same way a woman wears pants going to the supermarket or to concerts. This "being there" in a real life situation, as opposed to staging a performance, which was Flavio's case, was the next radical step.
O- It is quite common to see men wearing skirts and a general exaltation of androgyny during Carnival in Brazil. However, to do so within a day-to-day context, blurring and shifting gender distinction to that extent, was probably beyond the limits our patriarchal society, still under a military dictatorship, was willing to accept. I imagine that you must have encountered quite a reaction...
K- People yelled at and spat on me... I like to think more of activating the space around myself, making people look back and reflect on assumptions they make about people's sexuality, as well as the conventions that dictate what we can wear, what we should look like. Consequently, this work helps us question the clichés, stereotypes and stigmas that are associated with social behavior, both in language and images in our lives. On the one hand, you can look at this as an extended performance that lasted for about two years. On the other hand, you can look at it as an attempt to break down the barrier of art and life. You see, I am a Jew who doesn't go to the Synagogue as well as a Brazilian who doesn't get into the spirit of Carnival. Dressing like that, to me, had nothing to do with a carnivalesque attitude.
O- The way I see it, the limitations of the official Carnival are not necessarily those of carnivalesque strategies in the arts. I am looking at your performance as a carnivalesque-transgressive metaphor, and in that sense, it has been previously used, not only by the Brazilian avant-gardes, in order to subvert traditional hierarchies. I am just stretching the concept beyond the four official days of Carnival, the same way you did.
K- In that sense, yes. You are saying that I have rebelled against the official Carnival, which is something unthinkable, and pretty hard to do. (Laughs) Never thought of it this way, but it makes perfect sense in light of my general disdain for any form of organized behavior.
O- I must confess, it is very hard to picture you with a skirt on.
K- At the time, I was a basketball player and the muscles in my legs were very salient. I was dating a very sensual and charming 'morena', and I would go out with her, dressed in this pink mini skirt, wearing a t-shirt with the Anarchy symbol, and a punk bracelet. I also had very long curly hair. People could not tell if I was a gay man in the company of a straight woman, or if I was a crazy straight man, a transvestite, or if I was a bisexual. They just could not resolve what the hell I was.
O- What kind of performances did you do for the camera?
K- The idea of approximating the letter and the human body culminated in pieces in which I performed so as to create the letters themselves with my own body. I realized the only way I could push the performances further was to transform my body into an alphabet. One of these photographs was on the cover of ESCRACHO. There were other pieces. In one of them, I am making love to stylized letters that spell POEM. Each letter had graphic sexual innuendos.
O- When did your work with performances end?
K- I realized that by early '82 I had done what I had to do within that framework, that it was about time to move on. It just so happened that the 60th anniversary of Semana de Arte Moderna (Week of Modern Art) of 1922 was going to be celebrated in February. I felt that that was a good date, and decided to take advantage of that coincidence and conclude the project at the same time that the Semana occurred. Not necessarily trying to imply any parallels, it's just that same sense of liberation. It was a liberation to do the work, and it was another liberation to move on, to get out of it. The last performance on the beach was very interesting.
O- In which way?
K- We did the whole body of performance that we used to do, with the verbal presentations, the songs, the puzzles, the surprise object presentation, the graffiti done in real time, all these different things that we used to do. Then, towards the end of the performance, we started to undress, and called upon everybody around us to undress too, and many people did. And there we were in a natural state. And then we made this demonstration, with manifestos, slogans and banners. People that we did not know, all of a sudden, appeared with cameras, with sculptures, with things. We just sort of activated the whole beach. Ipanema beach around 'posto 9' became this frantic, this interesting, dynamic place. Some people followed us. Some people sort of walked around us. Then, towards the very end, as a gesture of rebirth and purification, we all went into the ocean. We came out of the ocean, hand in hand. That was it. It was this rebirth, this stripping down of everything, this rediscovery. That was the end. It was extremely gratifying. Everybody had a great time, not only the performers, but the people. There were no physical boundaries between performers and audience; everybody was mingling together. And there was this wonderful celebration. Oswald de Andrade wrote in 1928 in the Anthropophagic Manifesto that before the Portuguese discovered Brazil, Brazil had discovered happiness. So in a sense, that performance was a rediscovery of happiness and what could have been more appropriate to celebrate the Semana... And to me that was it. That was the last performance.
O- What happened after that?
K- My interest for word and image issues continued to increase as my dedication to oral and versified poetry ended. Between 1982 and 1983 I was very unsatisfied by what I then considered the blind alley of visual poetry. Aware of the multiple directions the genre had taken in the twentieth century, I experimented with different media. I worked with multiple media -- billboards, Polaroid cameras, artist's books, fine graffiti, electronic signboards, mail art, photocopiers, videotext, and finally holography.
O- The show "Como Vai Você, Geração 80?",(How Are You, '80s Generation?) which happened in Parque Laje, Rio, in 1984, is still considered one of the most important shows of the decade, in Brazil. It launched many careers and highlighted artistic tendencies. What kind of work did you show there ?
K- I had already made my first hologram when the Geração 80 show came up. But, I was also working with public installations, billboards. I was making twenty-seven meter square murals based on Cro-Magnon cave paintings that were displayed publicly, both in São Paulo and in Rio. And that's what I showed in the Geração 80 show. On a personal level, it was very important for me to participate in that show because it defined that generation of artists, presenting the multiplicity, the diversity of media and interests, from those who were mimicking Bonito Oliva's Italian trans-avant-garde, to those, like myself, who were interested in exploring new technologies and multi-media possibilities.
O- Could you trace the formal development of your work up to this point?
K- See, my problem was, I was first dealing with traditional language, then the body became the issue. Then the body was performing verbally. Then the body became written language itself. I had moved so far away from the page, from the surface of the page, that I didn't see any going back. Having moved so far from stable surfaces, such as those of objects and those of the surface of the page, I had to find something else. I started to explore a lot of other media and became interested in holography.
O- When did holography become reality, so to speak, for you?
K- I recalled having read in '69, when I was 7, a comic book, of all things, in which the main character was going to fight this villain. And the villain was this gigantic hologram. As a kid, I used to collect comic books, and I still have this one comic book in Portuguese. The hero, in order to fight this villain, had to become himself a gigantic hologram. In some of the balloons, the villain and the hero would explain what holography was in a very indirect way. So that sort of came back to me. I kept reading about the dematerialized image, the multiple points of view, the 3D image contained on a 2D surface. But that seemed to be a pure paradox. I was intrigued but I could not visualize it. An encyclopedia article I read in my teens described the scientific principles of holography, but that was not enough. In São Paulo in 1983, a little before the Geração 80 show, an artist I had included in ESCRACHO, knew someone with little experience who was building a small holographic lab. I called him and he was willing to see me. It was there that I saw my first hologram and I realized immediately that that was what I wanted to do. So, having no clue exactly how holograms were made, or anything, it became obvious that that was the medium that would allow me to solve the aesthetic problem I had imposed upon myself. I worked with him for a couple of years on my project, which resulted in a show -- Holopoesia, at the Museum of Image and Sound in São Paulo. A few months later, the show came to Rio. I received excellent press coverage including from many TV stations. Because on top of everything, this was probably one of the first times that art made with holography was seen there, if not the first time, I don't know, but certainly one of the first times. So there was all that curiosity about it. That was very stimulating.
O- What kind of support did you find for your ideas in Brazil at that time?
K- The new generation of art critics in Rio, including Marcus Lontra, Reynaldo Roels, and Lygia Canongia, supported my work. A few artists, like Abraham Palatnik and Anna Bella Geiger, were also supportive. Some time later, I managed to get several grants from Federal institutions, but my work was not included in the international shows that were meant to be representative of my generation.
O- Did you have any financial or institutional support during 1983-85, in the Rio-São Paulo period?
K- No. Against all odds, I was able to fund this work out of my pocket, as a college student, basically. You know, I was still in college, working part-time and doing whatever I could. I was buying film that was not available in the country, that had to come from the U.S. I was paying for my own expenses, traveling back and forth between Rio and São Paulo, which represents a distance somewhat equivalent to the distance from Chicago to Detroit, on a very regular basis, either flying, or taking the train, or taking the bus, for two years. I guess I carried the same obsession from the performance period into holography in this first phase, but you have to do that. Because it's that initial moment where you're developing, you're learning, you're exploring. This initial two-year period resulted in two shows and also some publications, and then later, in a residency at the Museum of Holography in New York in '86, and a trip to Europe in '87 to show work. Back in Rio, I presented the work in a second solo show in '86. I also organized with Flávio Ferraz, a Brazilian artist who also works with computers, the Brazil High Tech show, which was the first national survey of Brazilian artists working with new technological media specifically. That was also in 1986.
O- Where did the Brazil High Tech show take place ? What kind of work could one see in it?
K- The show was in Rio, at the Galeria do Centro Empresarial Rio, a very nice gallery in front of Botafogo beach. It attracted a lot of publicity and a lot of people. It was the most popular show in the gallery ever. There were eleven artists from São Paulo and two from Rio. We set up a database for art works. When I say database for art works, I don't mean art works that existed previously in other media that were then put in these databases, like people are doing now, Microsoft and many Museums are doing that. I mean that these were art works created for the medium of videotext, and were made therefore available, on-line, so that people could see them from any part of the country. There were also infrared sculptures, computer animations, holograms, videotheater performances, and a robot that was a mixture of sculpture, performer and gallery host.
O- After you came back from New York, did you continue to make your holograms in São Paulo?
K- No. I managed to put a simple lab together in Copacabana, two blocks away from the beach. I went to the beach to get sand to build my vibration isolation table. To pay the bills I worked as a journalist for several newspapers in Rio and São Paulo. I worked all day, came back home exhausted, and went to the lab until 2 or 3 in the morning, basically every night. It was extremely difficult, not only because of my daytime schedule, which , I guess a lot of people had to deal with too. The biggest problem was that none of the materials I had to work with were available in the country. I was never able to buy any film there. Optics were very hard to get. Everything that a holographer needs to work with is virtually impossible to get there. But when my laser broke down for the first time, that's when reality settled in, and I realized that it was impossible to continue to work in Brazil. I sent my laser back to the U.S. once. I got it back. The manufacturer said it was fixed and it just wouldn't work. Either they fixed it and it broke on the way back, or they didn't, but the fact was, I couldn't use it. I sent it back, and got it back and it still didn't work. After the third attempt to fix it, and having spent a couple years doing that, from '86-'88, I realized that this was a dead-end. I was never going to be able to actually be productive and experiment and get my work done. In the meantime, I was working in collaboration with another artist to create my first computer-generated, fully synthesized holographic piece, which resulted in my third solo show entitled Holofractal, in 1988. I realized then that I had to leave, and the country of choice was the U.S.
O- You have always found a way to continue pursuing your interests, inside or outside institutions, being very resourceful in finding information pertinent to your work. As a journalist, you have published important interviews with some key artists in the history of Modernism in Brazil that were left behind, buried by the official accounts of art history, as was the case of the poet Luis Aranha and the visual artist Abraham Palatnik. Is this a skill you developed in the years you worked as a journalist?
K- I don't know. I guess if you really want to know what's going on, the way I look at it, you have to find out for yourself... Ultimately, this idea of researching, and finding out for yourself has always been my main tool, my main method of producing work.
O- You already mentioned Flavio de Carvalho, were there any other early artistic influences?
K- I was always very interested in the avant-garde side of Brazilian art. People are still very surprised when I mention in lectures that modern art started in Brazil with two women. And I do that right in the beginning of my lectures to make people realize that some expectations they might have about what Brazil is all about might fall apart right away. One of them is that Brazilian art is made of colorful paintings and folk objects, which is of course, only one aspect of our heritage, the one normally labeled as the "exotic and primitive tradition". But there is also, among others, a whole tradition of avant-garde innovative work, which still remains unknown. Lygia Clark and Hélio Oiticica, Abraham Palatnik and Waldemar Cordeiro are some of the artists that I admire the most in the Brazilian context. I believe their experiences transcend local issues and have a true universal contribution. What I see as a common ground in them is a total rejection of what they inherited from previous generations. They really decided to digest what had been done, break new ground, and try to find their own path, no matter the price they had to pay. I admire their lesson and yet, I definitely want to avoid duplicating their results, duplicating anybody's results.
O- Hélio and Lygia addressed the relationship between art and life, dealing with the body in a phenomenological sense. Palatnik and Cordeiro worked on the frontier between art and technology. From the beginning of your career you seem to have continuously searched to establish a dialog among perception and cognition, sensorial experience and rationality, and these domains of human culture -- science, art and life.
K- I guess you are right. I am fascinated both by the human body and by the possibilities of technology. These artists have always excited my imagination. The fine arts have traditionally privileged visuality and defined the viewer as this disembodied eye. I think Hélio Oiticica and Lygia Clark put the rest of the body back into the viewer, who becomes participant. And into the artist himself/herself as well. The idea of interactivity, that Hélio and Lygia always pursued in a quite dramatic way, the idea of the work as a living organism, was very important to me. The idea that the work only exists when manipulated by the viewer, that intellect and intuition cannot be separated, is something that has to do with the whole Neoconcrete movement. Hélio and Lygia blended the more rational aspect of Constructivism with the more sensorial aspect of what it is to live in Brazil, and produced very original work out of this. What some could see as antinomy, they saw as perhaps two sides of the same coin. They had already realized that there was much more to art than the production of objects. Today, however, most of these works that were meant to be manipulated are now in important collections and they can't even be touched, which is kind of sad. Hélio's Parangolés are not being danced with. When they are shown in a museum, they are hanging lifeless. They're dry and kind of old. They were not meant to be seen that way, and it's sad that works that do not conform with tradition, that do not conform with the idea of the artwork being an object that you hang on the wall, or you put on a pedestal, end up that way. When they don't even have some kind of material embodiment, like telecommunication art events, then they just disappear. It's another problem that needs to be addressed. A new generation of curators must learn to deal with the problem of preserving, documenting, and sharing with the public, events of that nature.
O- Going back to early influences, how were the experiences of Cordeiro and Palatnik relevant to your work?
K- Cordeiro and Palatnik are different in many ways, particularly in the fact that Cordeiro appropriated the computer, a technology that existed already, for different purposes. And we must remember that the computer at that time was not an image-making tool. It was primarily for business, statistics, and number crunching. I think Cordeiro really came up with something unique when, towards the end of his career, from '68 to '73, to be more precise, he used an IBM mainframe to make images that were very strong in political content, during the height of the military dictatorship. This was very interesting, his whole attitude of realizing that we must investigate the possibilities of new technologies for art making. The work he did during that period of time is really remarkable. Palatnik is by definition the pioneer of kinetic art in the second half of this century. He produced the "cinechromatic" light machine, as Mario Pedrosa once called them, and showed it publicly at the first São Paulo Bienal in 1951. He also worked with motion and magnetism. He came from abstract painting, trying to push it beyond the canvas towards pure light, and then he ended up starting a whole new field. That is fascinating to me. That is the kind of attitude, the kind of lesson I've absorbed and that I admire. He was addressing a fundamental question of art itself. Painters have pushed the canvas and issues of color and light in painting to a certain limit. With Palatnik, we're talking about movement and light. With Palatnik, color is free in space. Painting becomes a time-based event. You look at a Palatnik piece and you look at yourself, you are enveloped in a field of color. Light is floating around you and you are immersed in that field of light. It immerses the viewer in a color field. It's colorfield painting in another sense.
O- And international artists, which ones were more relevant to your work?
K- Moholy-Nagy is a name that always comes to mind. Moholy is an artist whose life and achievements I have studied extensively. He's an artist that I truly admire in all aspects. He always believed in light as an artistic means. He pioneered kinetic art and telecommunication art. Moholy touched on so many different aspects, so many different possibilities for light and art... but again, it is the lesson of inquiry that he left us that I think is truly remarkable. I admired and studied Rodchenko, Schwitters, Duchamp, Takis, Tinguely, Schoeffer, Kosuth and Mark Rothko, to name a few. I like to think of language as colorfields which blend, multiply and change. What happens when you think of language in that way? In my holograms, I try to address this question. That's a connection that I started to make only recently. The point would be, what if you're thinking of the transitions in language in a way that's somewhat similar to the way you see transitions in a colorfield painting by Rothko. These ideas fascinate me because that's an impossibility in terms of language as a practical means of social intercourse. But experimental poetry is not a practical means of social intercourse. Poetry is an open ground for discovery and invention, and so is art. And when visual art and poetry and language art come together, or word and image come together in a color field that oscillates as in my holograms, then, I feel somewhat close to Rothko, to the beauty of that colorfield that is enveloping in a spiritual way.
O- Would you define your work as visual poetry or language art?
K- If we consider these two extremes, writers going towards the world of visual arts developing what is known as visual poetry, and visual artists going towards the world of writers developing what is known as language art, I would like to oscilate between these two poles. I hope that my works would engage the viewer or the participant, both at a literary level and a visual level.
O- You coined the term holopoetry and have been searching the possibilities of holographic poetry since 1983. Could you relate your holopoems to the tradition of visual poetry as well?
K- Many contemporary artists use language, but most seem to be interested in the way language is used in the media. I'm more interested in the zone of intersection between literature and visual arts. Visual poetry, for example, has a long ancestry, which runs from Simias of Rhodes (circa 325 BC), through the Baroque poets, to Mallarmé, to Marinetti, Apollinaire, Housmann, Kamensky, Cummings, and Beloli, and to the experimental poets from the 40's and 70's, including those associated with French Letrism and Poesie Sonore, Brazilian Concretism and NeoConcretism, Italian Poesia Visiva, and many others. I have always been excited about the ideas that came out of the neo-concrete movement in Brazil, and I will give you an example from a collaboration between Ferreira Gullar and Hélio Oiticica, which I always found fascinating -- Poema Enterrado (Buried Poem), which involved viewer participation. The "Buried Poem" was built in Hélio's yard, and Gullar still tells the story today that Hélio's father was very upset because Hélio was digging this gigantic hole in their yard. But they made this hole underground and you had to go inside this underground cube. There you would find another cube. You lifted that cube, and then found another cube, and then on the bottom of this last cube, in the ground, you would read the word "REJUVENATE", rejuvenesça in Portuguese, which is just awesomely beautiful. And that captivated my imagination. How can you use a single word and, by involving the body, using space, color, and the action of the viewer, charge that single word with so much power, that it surpasses any dictionary definition that you can possibly think of, and in many cases, surpasses the whole experience of reading a 50-page poem? How can we push the word beyond syntax, beyond its limits and charge it with energy, with meaning, that you could not do otherwise? You're involving three-dimensionality, verbal economy, and the idea of being born again. Because you're actually going underground, you're in the grave, and then you read the word. You're empowered, you're re-energized by the word, and then you come out. The power of the word, in touch with the body, and with earth, in touch with three-dimensionality of space and time. And no other art movement in Brazilian history touched on these issues as dynamically and as intensively as the Neo-Concrete movement.
O- You have basically only used words as your holographic images. Can you talk about this process of transformation between verbal and visual elements?
K- The reason I got involved with holography in the first place was again because of language. Each of my holograms addresses a different problem so to speak, a different issue. But there is something that underlines them all -- my interest in communication processes. I am not interested in holography as a 3D form; we might as well look at sculpture. I am really interested in holography as a 4D medium, as a time-based medium. In many of my holograms, you have a bi-directional path for time. I just don't think linearly, in terms of one word after another, as we normally speak and write. I just don't think in terms of art works that way anymore. In my holograms, I'm less interested in conveying the result of my thought. I'm more interested in conveying the process of my thought. That's why the language in my holograms fluctuates and oscillates and changes, and disappears. I only work with language, I don't use objects, I don't use people, I don't use any form of figure.
By not having a linear sequence, you can explore the image in any direction you want. You have a time-reversal possibility. There is no hierarchy, no climax. There is no suspense. It's almost like if you had a strip of film that you suspended in time, and that you can, in your mind's eye, project that, in any direction that you want, but not only horizontally, also vertically, diagonally, any way in space. You plan, you orchestrate time structures in space. You're really dealing with a space-time continuum and breaking it into orchestrated discontinuities. I think everything that I have done is a consequence of this fascination for communication processes in it's multiple forms. Be it communicating with the body on the beach, or through an electronic medium, the fascination is with the communication process itself.
O- How would you define communication in art?
K- Absolutely. If something is totally predetermined there's no communication. It is nothing but unilateral transmission. Communication must imply openness. Communication must imply bi-directionality or multiple directionality. In this case you are dealing with a network. It could be bi-directional as on the phone or it could be multi-party, as on a network. I think communication implies, as again Baudrillard has said, responsibility. When Baudrillard talks about restoring responsibility to the media, I love the ambiguity of this sentence because it refers to the social responsibility that the media has, but it also opens up the idea for the artist to restore the responsibility of the media, in the sense that the media must allow people to respond. The media must bring people closer, not keep them apart, as television does. The media must allow for people to interact, to share, to discover together, rather than be at the end as consumers. So this idea of shared spatiotemporal responsibility is what I truly understand by communication.
O- I understand now why you like the telephone so much. I remember a story you told me about being fascinated by the possibilities of the telephone since you were a kid, because it separated voice from gesture and facial movement. It was in the dialogic essence of that machine you were probably interested in.
K- I am a phone freak, I must confess. I like the possibility of exchanging and sharing. I like these forms of communication that involve reciprocity. Lately I have also been working with interactive navigational texts, hyper-texts and hyper-media. I have finished one piece and I want to continue exploring that too. There are certain things that I can only do in holography though; there is a level of interactivity that only holography has. However, there are other things that only in that labyrinth-like structure of hypermedia I can create, as I've done recently appropriating the structure of the Kabbalah tree.
O- This allusion to the Kabbalah in your work, is it a reference that goes back to your childhood? When does that tradition tie into your life and into your work?
K- As a kid, I performed Jewish rituals with my family. I studied Hebrew for eight years, which is kind of lost now because, you must admit it, if you live on Copacabana beach for a quarter of a century as I did, you really have no use for Hebrew. I love the language and I will hopefully come back to it. I don't know if at school, or out of my own curiosity, or if steered by my grandma, the fact is that I got interested in the Kabbalah and the whole mythology and literature that comes with it -- the Golem, the Dibuk, Lilith, who was the first woman, the archetype of the independent woman. I became fascinated with all that mysticism. You start thinking about Golem, you start thinking about the Dibuk, you start thinking about all these things that really excite your imagination.
And then when you talk about Kabbalah, you necessarily start talking about the way language works and how these different systems, such as the system of numbers and the system of language, not to mention many others, are related, and the multiplicity of meanings that result from these complex relations and permutations and layers of simbolic interpretations. I would not have the ambition to say that I fully comprehend nor that I have studied Kabbalah in depth. I've read about it and I keep coming back to it. Dibuk was in one of my three-dimensional graffitis from 1983. My new "Storms" piece, from 1993, is an interactive text, the structure of which is based on a 17th century Sefirotic tree of the Kabbalah. Another interesting point of intersection there is the relation between digital hypermedia and the non-linear structure of the Talmud.
O- When you deal with language in your work, are you thinking of language as a universal category? Does it make any difference which specific language you use?
K- The fact that I am working outside syntax is very important. I remove language from its function as social intercourse and try to get to more fundamental levels. I just respond to different contexts. I will either use one of the languages I am confortable with or do research and work with a particular language, if the concept calls for it. Very often, because I am working outside the syntax of English, some of these pieces can work in multiple languages at the same time. Because once the words are removed from a grammatical continuum, they can be read in multiple ways and in many languages as well, not to mention that certain fragments that float in the holographic space-time can also be read as full words in other languages.
O- What is the importance of holography as a medium to the way you deal with language?
K- The reason I was attracted to holography was because with it I can create very complex discontinuous spatiotemporal events that I could not do in any other electronic medium, like LED signboards and video-text, which I have used since 1984, in Rio. There is something intrinsic about the holographic medium that allows me to work with language floating in space and time, being discontinuous, breaking down, melting and dissolving, and recombining itself to produce new meanings. That kind of work reveals a distrust, a disbelief in the idea that we can simply use language to communicate a message. We say--" Do you know what I mean?"; " Do you know what I am talking about?"; these sentences we use on a regular basis express our attempt our desire to dominate language to make language the slave of a meaning.
I believe that meaning will emerge only through the engagement of those envolved in the process. In the case of the hologram when the viewer comes to see it and starts to look around, bounces his or her head, squats down, orchestrates that whole dance in front of the hologram, meanings will or will not emerge based on the personal experience of the viewer. The engagement of the viewer with the piece reveals the fact that reality, language, the way we perceive and interact, all takes place according to our point of view.
O- Other contemporary artists, Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger for instance, are also situated in this same intersection of word and image. The way I see it, they are using language in a more direct way, conveying straightforward messages that are presented as factual, even when they sound ambivalent. Could you comment on the different approach to language in your work and in theirs?
K- You can not resolve the problem of meaning. Words are not containers that hold "meaning" like a cup contains coffee. I don't think one can even fully understand anything or anyone. I believe that there will always be a tension between what one tries to communicate and what one tries to understand, and this tension oscillates with the dynamic web of language. I don't really believe in the idea of a message that exists prior to the engagement of those involved in the process. I really distrust the idea of communication when it comes from one end and it goes towards the other end, with no opportunity for the other person to participate. That's what happens in television, radio, the mass media, that pretty much define our collective unconscious, the mass media defining what we see, what we hear, what we are exposed to, what we dream of. I really distrust these systems when it comes down to language.
I am interested in proposing alternatives to the unidirectionality of the system of art. I think that, we have come to realize that language is truly unstable and absolutely turbulent. Language speaks us instead of our speaking the language. We would like to be in control of language, we would like to arrest this flux of events that surrounds us. I believe in negotiation of meaning, not communication of meaning. When I defend a model of language as fluctuating, oscillating turbulent and so forth, I am not talking about ambiguity in a stable model of language that can be interpreted in one way or another. I am talking about a completely different model of language, a model in which language in a sense escapes us. The realization that language has its own dynamic, and no matter how much one tries to grasp it, how much one tries to arrest it , how much one tries to condense and objectify it, it's going to continue to spill off, and spill out, and blend and merge and dissolve. When we use language in a linear way, we are in danger of bypassing the fundamental problem of our own medium, which is language itself. What about language's role in shaping our perception of the world? I am trying to deal with a problem that I see as being essentially epistemological. I am trying to reflect on the very nature of language, focusing particularly on written language. How does language shape our reality, define our own identity? How does it engage or not, our thoughts in the process of dialogue?
O- I believe that in Jenny Holzer's and Barbara Kruger's case, there is a political concern, a desire to present the work to a larger public.
K- Everything is political: a bathroom graffitti is political and so is an epistemological discussion.
O- World wide telecommunications create a new context for the political debate. When did you start working with telecommunications as an art form?
K- It was in 1985, around the time of the "Geração 80 Show" that I became interested in working with telecommunication processes. My bachelors degree, from Rio's Catholic University, is in Communications but none of the things I wanted to do in the Fine Arts were really taught in schools at that time. There were no artists, no schools, nothing organized or even disorganized where one could learn holography, computer-imaging, multi-media work, not to mention telecommunications. In 1985, I took part in an on-line art gallery that was set up by a company in São Paulo. Some artists participated in that, and I had some works on-line. One could see that from any part of the country. That was something that encouraged me to continue and to try to do works that were more interactive. So around that time I met Mario Ramiro, a sculptor from São Paulo, who was working with zero gravity and infrared sources. He had done some work with telecommunications. I became very enthusiastic about it, having seen the few things he had done. We explored bi-directional fax transmissions together, developing a whole chart of expressive possibilities of the fax machine, with the support from a local fax manufacturer, who gave us the phone lines and the fax machines to work with. We also worked with fax transmissions involving a live television broadcast.
As a consequence of that work, while still in Brazil, I became interested in the idea that telecommunications could be used for art, not only to send, receive, manipulate, and change image, sound, and text in the process, but perhaps to engage the space where the remote person, remote artist, the remote telecommunication apparatus is located. Maybe that space could be activated somehow through telecommunications. In 1987-88, I drew some sketches for pieces that would use remote control and remote sensing and other related ideas to push telecommunications into a more physical domain. The idea is to do the non-physical where the physical belongs, the physical where the immaterial belongs. All this to destabilize our expectation about how these things should work, to merge them, to bring them together, to see how they produce meaning when they conflict, to study the tension between them. It was not until I came to Chicago to get my Masters degree, in pursuit primarily of access to holography facilities and more appropriate conditions to develop the work, that it became possible to develop, in collaboration with Ed Bennett, what I now call telepresence installations.
O- Why Chicago?
K- I received a grant from the Brazilian government to pursue my graduate studies abroad. I chose Chicago because it has a very strong tradition in holography, and you have the School of the Art Institute which has been teaching holography as an integral part of the curriculum since the early 80's. There is a nucleus in the city that is not exclusively related to the fine arts, but is interested in promoting holography. I taught studio and art history classes for more than three years at SAIC, until I moved to Lexington, Kentucky, this past August.
O- You have lived here in Chicago for the last 6 years. What has been the impact of the move to the U.S. in your work?
K- Well, I was already doing the work with holography that I do now starting in '83, and I got here in '89, so in that sense, it didn't really change the work dramatically. However, it made possible for me to continue doing it, in the sense of having access to the material conditions that allowed me to take the work to the next step that I wanted to take it. That was actually the main reason why I left Rio and came to Chicago in the first place. Although it really hasn't changed much in terms of "what is it" that I'm doing.
O- Did you find a more supportive environment for your work and your ideas here in Chicago?
K- In a sense, yes. I have met and collaborated with many artists both in the U.S. and in Europe since I arrived here. I worked a lot with Bruce Breland, and the group DAX, in Pittsburgh. One of the pieces we did between Chicago and Pittsburgh was called Interfaces, in which I tried to restore some of the spontaneous quality of face-to-face conversation, but using video images transmitted one at a time over the phone line. So we had no verbal or oral communication, but we would send images of faces, created live on the spot. These faces would overlap on line and this was projected on a very large screen here in Chicago, so people could see that. But this was really not work for an audience. The work in telecommunication is for anybody that participates in the work, not for the concept of somebody watching it, although you can make it available so people can see what's happening. In this case, intermediary faces were being formed. So, we were sharing and creating identities over the phone line, collaging my eyes with his face, part of his mouth with my face. These elements were ever flowing and changing. They were never quite resolved. And this was happening as a sort of conversation. And that was happening bi-directionally, continuously, live, through the phone line. That was Interface in 1990. Since 1989, I have developed with Ed Bennet the telepresence series of installations.
O- How would you define telepresence art?
K- Telepresence art can be identified in the intersection of robotics, telecommunications, and computers. It is part of a wider framework of electronic interactive art. It implies less stress on form (and composition) and more emphasis on behavior (choice, action) and negotiation of meaning. It highlights the public who, as participants, acquire an active role in shaping their own field of experience. The role of the artist here is not to encode messages unidirectionally, but to define parameters from which experiences will unfold. Telepresence art also implies the primacy of real time over real space.
O- The emphasis on experience and process seems to be central to your telepresence installations. How do you deal with this issue of real time over real space in your work? Could you talk about a specific event?
K- I create the installations to the scale of the telerobot and conceptualize a certain electronic sensorial apparatus on board. Having done that, I ask you to navigate in this space from a remote place, to move around, to make decisions and to experience this space according to your own decision making process, so there is nothing that will determine your experience prior to you having it. For instance, in this particular case of Ornitorrinco on the Moon, which took place in '93, between Chicago and the museum Kunstlerhaus in Gratz, Austria, people would come to the museum in Austria and push the buttons on the telephone and they would see a monitor, which happened to be green this time. I treat the keypad as a Cartesian grid. You push the number 2, the robot moves forward immediatly. You push the number 3, the robot turns right, and so forth. We keep changing the installation in all aspects. The robot is never the same, the interface is never the same, nothing is ever the same. What is it? Well, it's nothing until you make it. So you push the buttons on the phone, and you navigate around. You see the different places. You construct, through these isolated still images that you capture from the point of view of the robot, the space in your mind. But then comes the next person and navigates in a different direction, does not perceive the same thing you saw, and that person constructs a completely different space. So, the things people see, the notion of the three-dimensional space they are navigating in, all these different things are relative to the points of view that you pursue in your exploration of that space. And each person leaves that space with a different Moon, a completely different understanding of what that space looks like. It's not that they are failing to accomplish anything. No, they are accomplishing what is out there to accomplish, which is to navigate in a situational enviroment and construct their own experience.
O- What was the telepresence installation Ornitorrinco in Copacabana like?
K- The installation was part of the Siggraph Art Show in 1992, in Chicago. People navigated in the installation from McCormick Place, where the telephone and the video monitor were, but the installation itself was in the Electronics department of the School of the Art Institute. So, people came to McCormick Place and through a monitor and a telephone link, controlled the telerobot at the School of the Art Institute and looked at the space. But there wasn't in the installation really anything that would mimic Copacabana in particular. The leaves were improvised. The images of fish were drawn from life at Woolworth. And the lizard, for example, I drew from life watching a lizard in this pet shop on Belmont street, close to where I used to live. That's Copacabana for me. Copacabana is my suitcase. Copacabana is like this postcard I have on the wall, but it's a postcard that is also in my heart. But my heart is my suitcase and my suitcase is on my wall.
O- What was the public's reaction after they experienced "Copacabana" through the eyes/camera of Ornitorrinco?
K- Some loved it and some didn't. Many didn't understand it. Curiously, during the Siggraph Art Show, among the 25,000 people that came to the show, this gentleman experienced the work, and started this conversation with me about the piece. He said that he believed the work was interesting but that he didn't think it was art. I was then talking to him about some of the ideas behind my work, about using communications not to simply send and receive messages, but to create an experiential context with it. He said-- "Anything is an experience. When I put my shoe on in the morning, it's an experience." The natural response to that was -- "Sure, you have an experience when you put a shoe on, but not from the perspective of the shoe"...
O- Ornitorrinco means platypus in Portuguese, a hybrid of reptile and mammal. I find it a great name for your telerobot because it suggests so many heterogeneous mixtures. However, the idea of looking at the world from the perspective of the shoe, from the perspective of the object, or from the perspective of the other, although fascinating, seems still an impossibility.
K- Klee once wrote that objects in his studio contemplated him. Lacan speaks of objects looking back, in the sense that objects have meaning not only because we can see them, but because they are part of a much larger network of meanings, which includes language. No idea in art can be looked at literally. Look at Mondrian's "straight" lines from upclose. They are anything but straight. Art works are not functional as chairs and tables, they can't be understood only from the point of view of their material manifestation. Otherwise, you have people visiting museums, looking at a Jackson Pollock painting, and saying the famous words: "my four-year old can do this in five minutes!" What the telepresence installation with the Ornitorrinco telerobot is all about is to metaphorically ask the viewer to look at the world from someone else's point of view. It's a non-metaphysical out-of-body experience, if you will. You are asked to remove yourself from your direct experience of the space that surrounds you and transport yourself, in space and time, to another body, to another situation, to another identity. You're asked to put yourself in somebody else's shoes.
O- So, Ornitorrinco in Copacabana has nothing to do with the real Copacabana.
K- Actually, our very first event with Ornitorrinco was performed in 1989, in a link between myself in Copacabana, and Ed Bennett in Chicago with the telerobot. But the issue here is not mimesis, or duplication of an existent space. I am working with geographic displacements, mythical as well as imaginary landscapes. My next installation, for instance, to be presented next October between Chicago, Seattle and Lexington using the Internet, will be Ornitorrinco in Eden...
O- Your work seems to imply that the fundamental relation today is that between appearance and disappearance and no longer between appearance and reality.
K- We live in a world where our mental images of places, cultures, and people, are no longer acquired through direct observation. We can conjure up images of the Moon, we can dream and see ourselves on the Moon, although we have never been there in person. We have memories of places we have never visited. We think of places and we have developed concepts about cultures that we have never seen, never experienced, based only on clichés that are circulated by the media, Hollywood, television, magazines and so forth.
In my telepresence installations I'm making geographic displacements that reflect that. How do you go to Copacabana, to the Moon, and to Eden without ever leaving Chicago, or Graz, or Seattle? People might expect, "Well, Ornitorrinco on the Moon , I'm going to see a moon-like installation." No, you won't. Because the name is no longer attached to the object. We live in a world where the signifier has fallen away from the signified and is no longer structured in that neat signifier-signified model that we inherited from the structuralist thinkers. Ours is a very unstable world in which everything seems to fluctuate and be inconsistent, therefore the inconsistency between what the name means and what the place means. Well it doesn't mean anything until you're there moving around and making your choices. Again, nothing exists until you make it your own, until you claim it, until you create your own narrative, until you construct it.
O- What is the place of the body in your work today, in relation to the beginning of your career?
K- In my work in the early 80's, the body was everything. The body had to be present. It was from the sounds of the body that the work emanated. The body was the tool I used to question conventions, dogmas, and taboos -- patriarchy, religion, heterosexuality, politics, puritanism, etc. The body became my writing medium at the very end ultimately. But ours is a society that can save lives or massacre other societies from afar. Physical presence is acquiring a more and more secondary role in both processes. We use remote vision to look inside our own bodies and inside celestial bodies. We collect samples of both. Ironically, the distances between different cultures shrink on a physical level but remain largely untouched on a social and political level. The perpetuation of distance as such, be it territorial or symbolic, becomes an impediment to knowledge of different cultures and viewpoints. In this sense, perhaps, the simulated experience of a new identity with Ornitorrinco (the participant "becoming" the telerobot) might have implications other than strictly artistic. Telepresence implies a removal of the artist and the artwork. This is necessary in order for me to accomplish what I want to do, which is, among other things, to break away with the complete, final art work that implies a certain sense of closure, of cohesion, of completeness.
O- Is there a late Modern attitude of investigating possibilities intrinsic to the medium in your use of technology?
K- My whole use of technology is, in a sense, to humanize it, to bring it back to the human, individual scale. But at the same time I want to explore what is unique to the media, which could be an interesting tension to explore. Technology is definitely not the focus, but without it I simply cannot do the work I do. I am using it to question a lot of the elements that inform the so-called technological "progress". The political (military) structure in which new technologies are produced, the utilitarian uses they are meant to be put to, the increase in control they imply. So there it is, you wouldn't be wrong to identify a certain late modern discourse exploring the specificity of these media. The curious side of this is that I am always using the lowest end of technology. I am using low-power lasers. The telerobot Ornitorrinco was made basically with Radio Shack technology, mostly paid for, to give you an idea, with the little money I made teaching part-time. My videophone, my fax, and my computer are discontinued models.
O- Your work seems to embrace the new technologies with a certain ambiguity. On the one hand we can see the enthusiasm for new artistic possibilities. On the other hand, we find a critical perspective, a concern for the social implications of these same technologies. In your telepresence events you are basicly removing the artist from the artistic experience. What would the role of the artist be, in this case?
K- The artist is no longer someone that creates a closed structure to be pondered on, or gazed at. The dicotomy abstraction vs. representation no longer dominate the aesthetic discourse of our time. Artists can realize new ideas in a small scale, in the immediate present, ideas that can reflect or suggest models for new ways of thinking and for social transformation. I think that artists must have a sense of being uncomfortable, of investigating, of asking questions, of experimenting, or taking risks. When you look at stable three-dimensional works of art, the stability in these works seems to resist the fluctuation, the flow, the instability we experience in our thought processes, in our environment, in world politics, in our lives. I'm trying to acknowledge that instability and build it in the work itself.
Without the active participation of the so called viewer, none of my works really exist. And that is true of my holography , and is true of my telepresence installation. It's also true of the new work I'm doing which involves interactive multimedia works that are meant to be experienced on the computer and/or through the Internet. I've been working a lot with the Internet lately. My next work with telepresence installation and with interactive concepts will involve the Internet more and more. I have at present a piece called Storms that is available, free of charge, through the Leonardo Electronic Almanac. It's on line right now. Anybody that subscribes to Leonardo, including libraries, and that has access to the Internet can read about it and can see it. This is a piece that is an interactive navigational visual text based on the Sefirotic tree of the Kabbalah. So from Kabbalah to Copacabana, you have the whole kit and caboodle. (laughs)
O- What do you think the potential for the Internet is as a venue for artistic investigation?
K- I think the potential is great. On the Net you already have art galleries with shows and independent projects taking place. At the end of his life, Moholy was complaining about the status of filmmaking at the time. He felt that in the 1930's and 40's, filmmaking was no longer a medium the independent creator, the independent artist could work with. Because cinema had become such a corporate-dominated medium, by Hollywood and many other film companies around the world, there was basically no room for distribution of independent films. But this is to say that we must prevent the same thing from happening with the Internet. We have examples from history. Another example that comes to mind involving the issue of communication and telecommunication comes from Bertold Brecht. Brecht wrote a magnificent, short essay on the problem of communication. He was complaining about the fact that radio was unidirectional. He said that by being unidirectional, this media would be dominated by the producers. He said that radio must be bi-directional. Radio must empower people. Radio must be a means for social transformation, social change.
And of course, there's also the issue of censorship. I think that the Internet today has the potential of realizing Bertold Brecht's dream of being not only bi-directional, but multi-directional. And multi-directional hopefully, also on other levels, cultural levels, allowing for expression of multiple, uncensored, points of view. That would allow people to share all kinds of insights about all kinds of aspects of culture. There is a lot of garbage too, but that is the price of freedom and democracy. However, there always is the fear and the danger of the Internet becoming corporate and becoming absolutely commercial. The Internet sort of grew out of a military network, which is kind of scary by itself, but has become a gigantic mother of all networks. Anybody can virtually transform his or her own computer into another node on this network and share. So I think that there is the potential for redefining the social role of the artist. I think we must do everything we can to prevent it from becoming this corporate-dominated commercial enterprise. The Internet should be a place, or a space-less place, that allows everybody, anybody, anywhere in the world, to move around, to share information, to have access to information, so information becomes decentralized. But when we talk about this issue, of course we run into the problem of Third World countries. If you look at the map of the Internet, you see that Africa and South America do not have the same density of nodes you see in Europe and North America. People that live in these continents are being underprivileged, left behind. This is another very important problem because you're talking about new technologies and communication media on a global scale. Think of Brazil for example. In Rio, if you pick up the phone, you don't know whether you're going to be able to get a line or not, and if you get a line, you don't know if you're going to get a connection or not. In many underdeveloped countries, even a basic thing, like the phone, is a very complex problem. I think there are layers and levels of meaning that technology has in our lives that really haven't been addressed. And I think that's true from a political view. If you look at it.... Technology has the potential to empower people in many ways. If we leave technology behind in art, if we don't question how technology affects our lives, if we don't take charge, if we don't use these technological media to raise questions about contemporary life, who's going to do that?
Back to Kac Web