a dream come true--interview with Michael Samyn

Posted by Rhizome | Tue Apr 18th 2000 1 a.m.

The following dialog sprung spontaneously from recent email
correspondence with Michael Samyn of entropy8zuper.org (a collaboration
with Auriea Harvey).

We pick up after Michael emailed me his new piece for the Rhizome Splash
page.

I started with a confession...

+ + +

Alex Galloway: i really love your stuff...

Michael Samyn: Thank you. It feels strange for us to be appreciated by
someone @rhizome. We always have the feeling that Rhizome is interested
in a totally different kind of Art, you know the kind of art that
*looks* conceptual and only uses code as an aesthetic element and is
never about anything but itself.

AG: yeah you're probably right about that ;) ... but mostly by default
since i think that much of the early net.art stuff had no choice but to
be either formalist (i.e. jodi) or conceptual (i.e. heath bunting)... it
was primarily due to the bandwidth restrictions, imo. but that phase may
be over now...

then people came along and started working in flash and java, but they
really didn't have any artistic vision.. just wanted to play with the
technology.. you know, the "pointcast" effect. your stuff is powerful
because it's some of the first truly immersive net art, like watching a
feature film. and it's emotionally immersive.. not just visually...

MS: I like to believe it also has to do with a new medium maturing. In
the beginning people didn't know what to do with all these new
possibilities. A part of them just imposed old media concepts on it
(hence the words 'browser', 'page', 'bookmark', etc, still causing a lot
of confusion) and another part, which we now know as net.artists, did
that other traditional modernist thing: deconstruct the medium and make
work about it (painting about painting). Only a small part was really
trying to be creative and make something new. I never tried to make art
in the first place. For me, interactive media were like a dream come
true. Finally we could make a perfect mix of entertainment and art
without having to be ironic about it. On the other hand, I think the
choices Jodi and Bunting made were conscious and they would probably do
exactly the same thing even when they were given unlimited tools and
bandwidth.

AG: yes i agree with that.. one point to add about net.art being about
it's own making.. the idea of "website specificity" might be important
here. That is, since we can do new things on the web--and those things
are good (i.e. more democratic, a better convergence of creativity and
experience, breakdown of author/viewer dualism, etc.)--it is our
responsibility to accentuate those things which are specific to net.art.
so one of the goals of net.art should be precisely *not* to make its
content that of old media (the shoveware trap). i see a lot of self-
reflexive net.art being about this desire to get out of the traps of old
artistic media.

...those last two sentences were a little incoherent.. but i think you
see what i'm getting at ;)

MS: You say "more democratic"... Democracy is not necessarily a good
thing. If it were up to democracy, art would be abolished. Hm... maybe
that *would* be a good thing. ;)

I think those things were already true for previous media and have more
to do with time. It does strike me that many of the artistic
postmodernist theories that sounded weird and dazzling when applied to
traditional media, become very real (hyperreal ;) ) when applied to the
net as a medium.

AG: yeah, i've always thought that all that french theory was a little
odd.. because they never really *had* "decentered subjects" and
"discourse networks" and "rhizomes" to examine first hand (or at least
they were very primitive and intangible), those categories were their
way of being resistive to the dominant. but today, cyborgs and
simulations and rhizomes are as normal as breathing... on the one hand
it's very exciting because we can read deleuze and have a very real
thing to compare it to, the internet. but on the other hand.. being
rhizomatic is not resistive anymore, precisely because (grant me a
theory moment here) the power networks themselves are rhizomatic! i
think the key is in *how* one uses a network, and what one's overall
goals are. if you're time/warner it's one thing, if you rhizome.org it's
another.

MS: Hm. I thought McLuhan said that the content of new media is always
old media as such, not the content of old media. Early television was
about theater, etc. In that sense new media would always start as meta-
media, as information media, telling you something about the previous
medium. It takes some time for media to develop their own specific
format and to start dealing with content. The funny thing is that it
seems to me that that 'mature content' is always the same for each
medium. The maturity of a medium is judged by its power to immerse the
spectator 'in another world' and each medium has to find its own way of
achieving this through trial and error. For a long while oil painting,
for instance, thought that accurate representation (trompe l'oeuil) was
the way to do this, a far too obvious choice, in retrospect.

AG: exactly, the *content* of new media are a previous media.. but not
always *about* the previous media. so, CDs contain sound waves, films
contain photographs, email contains word processed text which contains
typewritten text which contains text which contains words, and so on..

now, what makes net.art interesting (the early conceptual variety of
net.art, that is) is how it shrugged off this impulse, and instead made
art about the *internet* itself and not about some previous media. see,
i think McLuhan's insight is that new media are always conservative in a
certain sense. they don't really want to do something new. this is why i
often say that the greatest struggle of net art is to prove its
autonomy.

MS: I don't agree that the typical net.art is about the internet. What
is confusing things here, I think, is that, unlike any other medium ever
before, the internet is so many things at once. It is the canvas, as
well as the gallery, as well as the art magazine, as well as a home
where you meet friends, as well as a library, a source of entertainment
as well as research. What you make on the internet is often a
combination of many things, one of which is art. As a result net.art is
never just art. Net.art is about what the internet is about, not about
the internet itself. The very typical net.art that likes to play with
the aesthetics of code, viruses and computer errors, does not tell me
more about the internet than my email correspondence does.

+ + +

AG: back to your work. talk to me about this "perfect mix" that you
mention above. i like the "no holds barred" attitude you have about
creativity. how does your mix of javascript/dhtml/flash help you do
this?

MS: I use Javascript/DHTML/Flash just because that's all we have at the
moment. I know that some people may think that using these technologies
(together) is high-tech and "cutting edge" but personally I think it's a
very primitive way of trying to do what I want to do. But the medium is
still very young and I am developing together with the technology. If I
was given the perfect technology right now, I would probably not be
ready for it anyway. I want to make environments that are immersive. My
idol medium is the book. I want to make websites that are as good as
good novels. If it weren't for Hollywood, the film might have been my
idol medium. Part of me believes that the interactivity and the pseudo-
intelligence of computers that the new media have introduced, are
excellent tools for achieving a higher level of immersion than was
previously possible. Auriea might disagree with me on this, but for me
art is a tool that I want to use to make better entertainment. Art is
not the goal, entertainment is. And art is a means to reach that goal:
better entertainment.

AG: yes yes. i agree. although "entertainment" is such a dirty word.
these days it means sitcoms and bad movies. but i see what you're
getting at.. i think the way i'd phrase it is: the revolution should be
fun. people shouldn't need a spoonful of sugar when they want to swallow
real, meaningful culture--let's face it, a Godard movie just ain't as
much fun to watch as the Matrix.

MS: Maybe 'pleasure' is a better word than fun. And maybe a Godard movie
gives one more pleasure than the Matrix. Of course both pale in
comparison to directors who can fuse art and fun, like Almodovar,
Hartley, Greenaway, Lynch, etc.

AG: what types of barriers (for lack of a better word) are you breaking
down... the first thing i can think of is the emotional barrier between
user and content. this seems to be a problem for a lot of net.art.

MS: I prefer to think of our work as building bridges rather than
breaking down barriers. In my experience there are not many barriers to
break down. Probably because this is a new medium, most people seem to
be very willing to 'suspend their disbelief', very open to experiences.
What we as 'artists' have to learn now, is how to use that willingness.
We have to find a form(at) that can communicate and for that we need to
learn about this medium. It takes time. (And probably as soon as we
achieve this, it will be commercialized and therefore lost. Like what
happened with television.)

If we are trying to break down anything, it is probably the conservatism
of art lovers/critics who seem to have a whole list of properties that a
work of art needs to have in order to be considered 'good'. We get very
extreme reactions to our work: some people think it is very old
fashioned and simplistic and others think it is totally surreal and
"weird". Both are right, I guess. :)

Another thing we may be trying to break down is the fact that you do not
have to break down everything. Old media have accomplished a lot and we
should not dismiss that knowledge, but use it to our advantage.

AG: your stuff is very narrative..that's why i mentioned the connection
to feature film. most other narrative net.art is of the "here's a story
of such-and-such" variety... that or hypertext which isn't very
compelling to me. this comes down to formal techniques. can you
articulate some of the formal techniques that you use to enhance
narrative and immersion?

MS: My major discovery was linearity. In all the confusion and
excitement about new media and hypertext, it took me years to discover
that one of the best ways to engage a viewer is linearity. And while I
do like narration, it is not really the goal of my work. Maybe the
"narrative effect" is a result of using linearity and not vice versa. Or
maybe narration is another means and not the goal. On the other hand,
Auriea and I seem to be rather exhibitionist and we seem to have an urge
to tell people things about our lives that for most people should not be
made public. Another technique is limitation of freedom. Giving the user
too much interactive power will take away from his or her experience.
She or he will get distracted when there are too many buttons to click.
And last but not least, graphics. Entropy8 was a very simple website,
technically, but one of the main reasons why it was so appealing to many
people was the fact that looked the way it did.

AG: in terms of formal techniques, i'm thinking specifically of the part
in skinonskinonskin where the user must type a phrase 5 times (i forget
exactly) before being able to advance to the next page..

MS: It was 10 times 'i love you', 'i need you' or 'i want you',
depending on which flower you clicked on the previous screen. The main
reason for doing it this way was that Auriea and I wanted to make the
user do what we were doing all the time. :)

AG: you also use html forms in very smart ways, to both convey meaning
and also to lead the user along by requiring them to do something (click
a button) that makes them complicitous--like with the "a physical need
for wonder and poetry" button at entropy8zuper.org. of course you didn't
invent that technique but...

MS: Let's say that we want to create beauty with the primitive elements
that technology gives us. Both us and the typical 'blinking pixel' net
artists abuse this technology that was not made for us or our needs. But
rather than exposing its inherent ugliness and absurdity, we try to use
it to make something poetic and beautiful that is about human things
rather than machines.
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