Displaced Familiarity. Interview with Scott Kildall about Paradise Ahead
Scott Kildall (http://www.kildall.com/) is a visual artist currently living in San Francisco, where he is working as a fellowship artist with the Kala Art Institute. In 2006 he received an M.F.A. from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Starting in 2001, he put together a huge body of work in a variety of media including video installation, sound architecture, electromechanical sculpture and single-channel video projection.
Being interested in issues such as “dislocation, transition and emotional upheaval” and in the “exploration of anticipatory moments”, it's no surprise that he was attracted by Second Life, where he become Great Escape, the purple-faced member of the Second Front performance group, that he co-founded in 2006. There he anticipated the re-enactment trend with his print series Paradise Ahead, and there he is developing (together with artist Victoria Scott) his last project, No Matter, one of the winners of the Mixed Realities Commissions organized by Turbulence.org and Ars Virtua (see the end of this interview for more details on the project). By the way, No Matter is not the first fruit of this collaboration: in 2006 they made, for a residency at the Banff Centre for the Arts, 2x2, an interactive (that doesn't mean digital) installation about the psychology of online social networks: basically, a message board with a grid of holes where people can put their messages (written on rolled-up post-its), read and take away messages left by other people in an evolving, “anonymous and public information system”.
I interviewed Scott for my blog Spawn of the Surreal (http://www.domenicoquaranta.net/blog/) about Paradise Ahead, a series of 12 large scale digital prints which documents re-enactments of historical performances - but also sculptures, videos and photographs - he made in Second Life, often with the kind help and participation of another Second Life star, Second Fronter Wirxli Flimflam.
DQ. When and why did you start your Paradise Ahead series?
SK. I began working on the series in September 2006; I produced the first performance-print Void in November 2006. I followed this with Shoot in December. I finished the last one in the series of twelve in May 2007.
When I began exploring in Second Life, the unlimited real estate captivated me. I saw an extension of the California dream. Empty structures populated the landscape. Various architectures and landscapes fused in dreamlike configurations. The geography indexed a cultural desire for a world that both conforms to and escapes the ailments of modern life.
My research led to making artworks of remediation of iconic performances, sculptures and video. These produce a feeling of displaced familiarity. At the same time they link Second Life back to what has been done in the physical world while asserting the primacy of the document in the artwork itself. Here, I place the geography in the background of the prints while still examining questions of the body in a simulated world.
DQ. What's the meaning of the title?
SK. The title refers to Milton's Paradise Lost, which details Satan's fall from the heavens and subsequent interference with humankind. In the last 400 years due to advancements in science and philosophy, spiritual space has slowly collapsed, favoring a singular physical reality. Milton's poem was the last of an era - when the concept of a soul space equaled that of reality.
Second Life opens an alternate space - one that resembles our physical reality but doesn't exist in any sort of tangible spatial-time grid. The potential is huge. I see many in Second Life looking for transcendental experience. What interests me with this series is capturing those common feelings of hope and fear associated with this re-spatialized world.
DQ. Why did you choose to translate this series of performances into a series of prints, rather than videos?
SK. The original artworks exist in our cultural memory as single frames. Yves Klein's Leap Into the Void is a photograph; Maurizio Cattelan's The Ninth Hour is a sculpture. While the video documentation of Chris Burden's Shoot is available in galleries and even on YouTube, it is this one image before he is shot that propagates throughout art history books.
These documents serve an archival purpose and feel frozen in time. They embody a pastness to them related to the role of the photograph. I wanted to mirror the role of the archived document and capture the feel of this simulated world in 2006-2007. In 20 years, I'll look back at these and think that was what Second Life looked like as a snapshot.
I considered using video, but I felt that this would dilute the tension inherent in the content of each of these performances. An avatar viewed in mid-air after leaping from a building captures the state of being in-between; in a video the avatar would land unharmed in an act of slapstick comedy. By using a single image, I let the viewer resolve the consequences of the action.
DQ. Among the works you recreated in Second Life (not only performances, but also sculptures and photographs), there are not only historic pieces, but also some very recent works. Why? How did you choose them?
SK. My starting point was with conceptual art performances of the 60s and 70s that were captured on video. This is a turning point in performance art where the mediated environment began superceding live performance. A small number of people have seen one of the Yoko Ono's Cut Piece performance; many times more have watched the video in galleries and museums. The video has both eclipsed and substituted for the performance.
Many recent works have progressed this experience of the mediated environment. Doug Aitken's Electric Earth is an eight-channel installation dependent on the viewer walking through the space. But, the lone image of the shopping cart in the parking lot is what lingers. Even in a recent artist talk I saw by him, he showed a few minutes of single-channel video of the shopping cart scene played from his computer. He didn't even mention that it was a multi-channel installation!
The Ninth Hour by Maurizio Cattelan depicts a sculpture of the pope after being struck by a meteorite. But the photographs make the figure look so real that it seems like a person doing a live performance. From viewer's vantage point, the media gets obscured. Although we read that this is a sculpture, it feels just like a still from a performance piece.
DQ. I read Paradise Ahead as an effort to question Second Life as a medium of representation of reality. It's like if you are saying: if other media (such as video, photo, installation etc.) are able to reproduce reality, Second Life totally betrays it. You can't preserve it's own emotional atmosphere: tragedy becomes parody, the drama is completely lost… Am I right?
SK. The experience in Second Life can't be captured through media. Any sort of representation appears as an unreality but when operating your avatar, it feels real in many ways. I see a chasm in between viewer and producer that is greater than in video or photography. Because the prints directly refer to other works, we can look at comparisons to other media.
Most people I talk to about Second Life have never ventured into the environment. Many think the prints are from a video game, but then something doesn't make sense. The scenes are obviously staged and feel familiar. The 3D graphics are unsophisticated compared to current game engines.
Because the prints are indirect in representation but figurative in content, audiences have vastly different reactions. Some see them as emotionally bereft, others as satire and some as hyper-dramatic. I am compelled by the various reads on the works as they point to our collective notions of emotional content in surreal space.
DQ. If simulated worlds can't be used to reproduce reality, what you - as an artist - can do with them?
SK. Simulated worlds compel me precisely because they fail to reproduce reality. Besides the disembodied actions and 3D graphics, there are many other layers of socialization and economies that diverge from real life. I'm most interested in the gaps between the desired representation and the actual result. From here, I examine at how others relate to the dissonances in the simulated - whether it is as a viewer, performer or active participant.
I am currently working on a Turbulence commission called No Matter in collaboration with Victoria Scott. We are commissioning builders to make "imaginary objects" - material things that have never existed in pure physical form such as the Holy Grail, Excalibur, Schrodinger's cat and The Book of Love. Also studying the virtual economy, we will pay them Second Life wages, which are below minimum wage. We will extract these models and print them as foldable paper models. At the exhibition, viewers will assemble these on factory-style tables into 3D paper forms using scissors and glue. The get paid the same Second Life wages. Afterwards we will sell the models of eBay as finished artworks.
With projects like this as well as my continued work in the performance art group, Second Front, I've seen an incredible amount of artistic space in simulated worlds. I think artists are just starting to uncover other areas for exploration. The combination of simulated space and massive social interactions is unique. Between a whole other concept of space and a semi-anonymous relational environment, there are many facets beyond the reproduction of reality to artistically explore.