Simone Osthoff is an artist and writer based in Evanston, IL. She teaches in the Department of Art History, Theory, and Criticism at The School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Her writings have appeared in World Art, New Art Examiner, and Leonardo, among others.
|Language's Uncertainty Principle: An Interview with Eduardo Kac|
1983, Eduardo Kac invented the word and the concept "holopoetry,"
around which he developed a groundbreaking body of work.
For this work, a unique word-and-image blend centered on interactive
readerly strategies, he received the prestigious Shearwater Foundation
award in 1996. Kac's holographic poetry, with which he
pioneered the use of computers in holographic art, has been shown
in several countries and has, in recent years, gained increased
tricultural, multilingual, interdisciplinary writer and artist,
Kac (pronounced "Katz") has centered his work around
the investigation of language and communication processes, emphasizing
dialogic experiences in a world increasingly dominated by the
mass media. In the summer of 1997 he accepted a position as Assistant
Professor of Art and Technology in the Department of Art and
Technology at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where
he teaches a wide range of media and issues, including digital
imaging, multimedia, computer-holography, interactivity, telecommunications,
critical issues in art and biology, and the history of electronic
language both as material and subject matter, Kac explores in
his holograms, multimedia texts, digital poems, 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 since the early
80's, focusing on his holographic poetry. He addresses
both theoretical questions and social concerns, areas that remain
inseparable in his work.
seem to move very easily between different languages and cultures.
You have at least three strong cultural influences. With
which one do you identify the most?
I like to think of myself beyond national boundaries, and beyond
media boundaries as well. I work between literature and
art. I don't see myself as "Brazilian" or "European"
or "American". I was raised by Europeans in Brazil
and became fluent in English at an early age. Neither do
I focus on a single medium or material. 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 experimentation
with 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 publish often in literary and art journals.
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 be equally present in my experience.
In the early 80's you worked with performances, visual poetry,
graffiti, and other media, before focusing on holography.
What was this process like?
In the early 80's 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,
video, mail art, photocopiers, videotex, and finally holography.
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 ?
I had already made my first holopoem 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 multimedia possibilities.
Could you trace the formal development of your work up to this
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. This work is partially
documented in my artist's book ESCRACHO, from 1983. 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.
When did holography become reality, so to speak, for you?
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 explained 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 1972, when I was 10 years old, described the
scientific principles of holography, but that was not enough.
In São Paulo in 1983, a little before the Geração
80 show, Otavio Donasci, an artist I had included in ESCRACHO,
knew a psychologist called Fernando Catta-Preta who was building
a small holographic lab. I called him and came over.
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,
realized in 1985 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. So
there was all that curiosity about it. That was very stimulating.
Did you have any financial or institutional support during 1983-85,
in the Rio-São Paulo period?
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 a national
survey of Brazilian artists working with new technological media.
That was also in 1986.
After you came back from New York, did you continue to make your
holograms in São Paulo?
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 on
my first computer-generated, fully synthesized holopoem, 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..
Would you define your work as visual poetry or language art?
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 oscillate between
these two poles. I hope that my works would engage the
viewer or the participant, both at a literary level and a visual
You coined the term holopoetry and have been developing holographic
poetry since 1983. Could you relate your holopoems to the
tradition of visual poetry, and talk about the process of transformation
between verbal and visual elements in your work?
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 to the 70's, including those associated with French Lettrisme
and Poésie Sonore, Brazilian Concretism, NeoConcretism,
and Process/Poem, Italian Poesia Visiva, French Spatialism and
Oulipo, and many others. The reason I got involved
with holography in the first place was again because of language.
Each of my holograms addresses a different problem, 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 holopoems, 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 holopoems, 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 holopoems
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.
not having a linear sequence, you can explore the word-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 dematerialized 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 multiple forms.
Be it communicating with the body on the beach, or through an
electronic medium, the fascination is to investigate the communication
How would you define communication in art?
By communication process I mean a reciprocal space, a shared
space, a space in which there is what Baudrillard has referred
to as responsibility. There is room for response, interaction,
interactivity, change. Interactivity here is not necessarily
that of the computer, where you pretty much interact with something
that is already pre-encoded, although that is also interesting
because it pushes the work beyond the stable object on the wall.
I don't have a definite solution and answer to this. Iif I had
I wouldn't be writing and making art. The point of being
involved in this process is an attempt to understand the complexity
of these issues, and that's what fascinates me.
Then, you are defining communication as discovery, is that what
Discovery is very important. If something is totally predetermined
and leaves no room for the reader or viewer there's no communication.
It could be unilateral transmission, or persuasion. Communication
must imply openness. Communication must imply bi-directionality
or multiple directionality, as in the case of a network. It could
be bi-directional as on the phone or it could be multi-party,
as on the Net. 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. Holography today must be recorded,
but in my work I show that it is possible to undermine the stable
recording process with unstable syntaxes. In the future
holography will be scriptable, and it will be possible to transmit,
receive, and transform holographic images in real time.
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?
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 respond to different
contexts. I will either use one of the languages I am comfortable
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.
What is the importance of holography as a medium to the way you
deal with language?
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, 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 which
we use on a regular basis express our attempt, our desire to
dominate language, to make language the slave of a meaning.
I'm more interested in suggestion and evocation.
believe that meaning will emerge only through the engagement
of those involved in the process. In the case of the holopoem
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 work asks
that the viewer or reader be active and explore it, and when
the viewer explores it, it changes. Not much is seen otherwise
from a stationary point of view. The engagement of the viewer
with the piece reveals the fact that reality, language, the way
we perceive and interact, what we think communication is, all
takes place according to our point of view. There is no
detachment from the language we use and the reality we observe.
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
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. In holopoetry I don't simply allude to this
tension, but create the very experience of its oscillation. Static
media can allude to the problem, but due to their stable material
condition they can't create the unstable language experience
I seek in holopoetry. 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, or negotiate
the meaning. 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. If one tries to subvert
the content of the message but uses the same mass media logic,
we still find ourselves in the same monologic space. 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, and turbulent,
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, no matter how much one tries to make it concrete,
language will resist, it's going to continue to spill off, and
spill out, and blend and merge and dissolve. Even in poetry
language is not concrete; it's fluid, malleable, unpredictable.
When we use language in a linear or rigid way, in art and in
poetry, 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?
© 1999 Simone Osthoff