Artist Profile: Ofri Cnaani

A number of your works deal quite complexly with preexisting texts, from the Talmud to Jorge Luis Borges. What are your textual sources and how do they shape your sense of narrative and the "backstory" in your art?

I started reading talmud legends at quite a young age. There's a long tradition of working with mythology, namely Greek and Roman mythology and the public's command of these stories is quite amazing. I'm not a scholar and my knowledge of these stories is not organized; I am interested in the fact that these legends are rooted in a dialectic tradition. Almost all of these stories written at a certain time in history and arise from a tradition of "What if?". Two scholars would sit and discuss a subject, and then take an extreme case study, the answer to which will take the form of a story. So the structure of the discussion is polemical but the answer is always a narrative, which is something so beautiful and rare. These stories are short, ten or fifteen lines long, and like all good mythology they include a lot of happening as well as a dark side and a certain level of  "the impossible" in their relationship to reality. Like Zeus falling in love with Leda, coming down from the Olympus as a swan, making love to her and her then giving birth to an egg—and it all makes sense. 

The world is comprised in the kind of fashion that it all makes sense. And it works that way in what I call Jewish mythology, too. I really love this structure of taking one coded text and deconstructing it as a way of studying it. Even though I worked with mythology in the past, I never thought I'd work with this material, but there was a moment where it all seemed to fit in, to tell a story that is both amazing—almost like Hollywood or contemporary fiction, but also incredibly problematic. What I was interesting in doing here, my challenge in this story, was to take the story of Sota, of two sisters who understand the system and go against it, and do a similar thing artistically. Leave the structure of the story while going against it.  

Your works use technology in a variety of ways, often emphasizing what is old tech versus newer, shinier technology, or slowness versus the pace of new invention. Even though you utilize technology to the fullest, as is quite obvious from the technical specifications of the Sota Project, where the narrative develops on all four walls of the gallery space, using multiple projectors and synchronizers. How did technology develop alongside this project, and what did you look at in order to shape the aesthetic of this video work?

As far as I'm concerned the adaptation of Sota happened on two levels—one is, of course, the level of the story, but the other was the way I wanted to tell the story in the form of a spatial narrative. The story is told in twenty-two minutes—in time—but it actually is presented on the four walls of the space. My process of working on this was to begin with the idea of never using any cinematic apparatuses: there are no cuts, close-ups, or shot/reaction shot. I never used any of the basic tools of storytelling in moving image. The result was that I looked at other forms of storytelling in visual arts, mainly drawings that follow a tradition of continuous narrative: Renaissance painting like Giotto's, where you see a building from the inside and the outside at the same time, and a lot of the tradition of panoramas that actually use perspectives of information rather than perspectives of space. The form of presentation is used in order to show as much information as possible about the story itself.  And Sota also refers back to theatrical tradition: everything is frontal, so for example, when people approach the camera they grow larger and when they move away from it they seem smaller—it's as simple as that.

This was my method of using technology in this project. But then came the moment where I had to link the ten projectors used for the film and I discovered that it would take an enormous budget to make a coherent, seamless image out of it. There was no way of doing it which wash't incredibly software and equipment heavy. And then, in a conversation with a group of open source activists, they decided there must be a way of solving it—and we all developed an open source software that can synchronize, blend in, and calibrate both sound and ten projectors, and now it is open source and available to all artists who want to use it.

And to stay with the sense of technology in itself, you seem to be fascinated with the objects or the material of technology in itself: an old floppy disk drive becomes magic, old visuals (such as slides and transparencies used for the Moviemakers series) are activated to be featured in newer works in newer contexts. Where do you find these objects and how do you tie them in with your work?

Sota was the most technology-heavy work I've ever done. It became an enormous film production, and my reaction to it was, in part, that my studio practice really took form of something that is analogue and handmade, really a return to the studio. A lot of what I do relates to technology but I do it myself. Or fail while trying to do it alone. I also like elements that have magic in them, that are unexpected, so I enjoy building machines.

Since I'm a pretty didactic person, I have a strong attraction to presentation methods and media that is meant to be between the levels of education and entertainment. These devices fascinate me. Quite a few of the things I am interested in include the question of reenactment: How to tell the story, what are the morals or the wrongs or rights of a story. Right now I am building "moviemakers" that use overhead projectors: 24-frames per minute where you see the whole film as well as its own projection. I'm also working on a microphone that is actually a speaker: it gives you directions, and on what I call a double agent slide projector. It's two slide projectors that screen on top of each other. I use found slides so it has artist's slides, family trips, art history lessons, etc.—so when you screen them on top of each other it creates hybrids of these.

Can you talk a little more about your relationship with technology and ethics or morality? You've said in the past that you are interested in the way different media and forms of technology (you brought up the examples of WikiLeaks and Photoshop) shape our view of concepts like "truth," or "betrayal." Can you talk to your own works in this context?

My recent research is into women in history who have used their body to perform acts of national betrayal. For a young and ideological nation like Israel, women's role is to bear the children of the nation, so for them to stand in the front line and be traitresses is just unbearable. It's interesting to see how betrayal is political but in the case of women, the punishment is in the physical, sexual arena. The traitresses research takes many forms. One work that feeds on it is a computer keyboard that became a piano keyboard, where I type in comments from Tali Fahima's blog. Fahima is an Israeli left wing activist who was incarcerated for charges of assisting the enemy during war. The structure of the comments on the blog is actually quite poetic: it's short lines that are, after all, repetitive and I type in the texts that—as you can imagine turn very soon into insults: Nazi, terrorist bitch, and so forth. All these hurtful places that reflect our perception of national identity, the other, the woman, the enemy, the good and bad—it's all there in the text that is so linguistically broken. when you type it in to my keyboard it create a sound that is maybe reminiscent of John Cage, for example, the texts are full of exclamation points, which create very sharp disharmonious sounds.






How long have you been working creatively with technology? How did you start?

I started working with video during my BFA. I'm the kind of creature who, when I connect two cables it will never work. I totally have a technology phobia. Failure is a strong part of what I do now and I always need help. What was so appealing in video was that on the one hand it's a realistic medium but it also has the durational aspect. For someone like me whose background is in dance, the ability of connecting images with duration was something that I could never imagine. All my videos until Sota were never narrative, nor are any of my works now. They have a strong sense of storytelling but nothing that could count for a conventional narrative. I was always interested in playing with the medium. 

Describe your experience with the tools you use. How did you start using them?

It never works! My experience is one of failure. I know that this is what I do so I have to learn it. But at the end of the day, failure is very transformative. I rejoice in playing. This play is so difficult but it's my privilege. Failure is a central part of this play and my aesthetics go in the direction of the non-functioning.

Where did you go to school? What did you study?

BFA at Hamidrasha School of Art in Israel, MFA at Hunter College studio program.

What traditional media do you use, if any? Do you think your work with traditional media relates to your work with technology?

I really work in a lot of mediums. For a long time, I worked a lot with drawings and video. It balanced my studio work—things that are small and numerous in contrast with video productions, which I could only do about one a year. People ask how these link quote often, but the classic manners like animation didn't interest me. Now, with the slides, I cut through them and draw on them. The conversion from 3D to 2D in the projection works, the positive/negative is much rooted in this combination.

Are you involved in other creative or social activities (i.e. music, writing, activism, community organizing)?

Not really.

What do you do for a living or what occupations have you held previously? Do you think this work relates to your art practice in a significant way?

I make a living from talking about art. I'm on faculty at SVA and Transart Institute and give guided tours through museums and galleries. I've waited waited for this moment for so long: my current performance with all these machines I build will take the format of a guided tour, so i'm finally using what I do for a living for my art practice.

Who are your key artistic influences?

Google images.

Have you collaborated with anyone in the art community on a project? With whom, and on what?

My latest project for the BMW Guggenheim Lab was a performance in collaboration with Cheryl Kaplan. It was part of the research into the traitresses. I'm working on a project about this, that takes many shapes, from performances to objects, part of which i'm working on with Cheryl. 

Do you actively study art history?

I'm teaching a number of art history classes and lecture in many museums and galleries, as well as work with grad students on their theses. So I'm constantly learning.

Do you read art criticism, philosophy, or critical theory? If so, which authors inspire you?

One of my Facebook friends recently posted, "Last night I was almost tempted to read my baby the new Artforum as a bedtime story." That's the only way I'd have the time to read it.

Are there any issues around the production of, or the display/exhibition of new media art that you are concerned about?

A lot of the things I do are presented somewhere on the scale between the white cube and the black box and it's actually the work with defunct technology that allows me to work in a way that is more horizontal—like with the slides, that people can bring their own slide collections. It makes me more of a facilitator, and the final projected image is personal and concrete, which I think is actually more general. A private collection of slides can be very generic. This kind of project—a media mount—can find itself in many formats, from museums to the public spaces and I find it quite refreshing to be able to have these options.