Victoria Vesna is an artist, Professor at UCLA’s Design and Media Arts Department, and Director of the Art|Sci Center at The School of the Arts and the California Nanosystems Institute (CNSI). She has spent her entire career to creatively explore and experiment how communication technologies affect human perception, of the self and within society. Most of her research revolves around the analysis of the structure of data and of data aesthetics: data that shapes human nature, such as the one that «write» our DNA, as well as that related to network organization. Vesna’s research has been strongly influenced by visionary minds, like architect Buckminster Fuller (1895-1983), and has always being evolving through dialogue and collaboration with scientists as well as professionals of other disciplines.
Through her open vision and approach, Vesna has been capable of detecting the common ground that crosses disciplines, macro and micro universe, science and cultural paradigms, the visible realm with the invisible one (invisible to our eyes). Her curiosity sinks its roots into the molecular realm – as much in depth as the progress of nano-technology allows to. From here, she reconnects to the universal dimension and to new modes of reception and fruition that stretch beyond visual horizons. The possibility to «perceive» the presence of tiny particles such as those detected through nano-technology, in fact, calls into play and implements other perceptive qualities, including hearing or – more generally- intuition. This is the humus from where her projects come into life, destined to live and grow with the spectators’ active participation.
It is with pleasure that Arshake releases, in four parts -starting from today and on a weekly basis – an interview between Victoria Vesna and art historian Dobrila Denegri, currently Art Director of the Torun Center of Contemporary Art (Poland). The interview has started in 2005 and continued throughout time as far as today, on different occasions, between Rome, Los Angeles and Torun. In this dialogue, Vesna recalls her pioneering projects which were carried out at a time when «database aesthetics» were pretty much a visionary phenomenon and the role of nano-technology was not as a recognized as it is today, moreover when into the artistic sphere. In the last part of the interview, she talks about some of her recent projects, such as Blue Morph and Hoz Zodiac. Her research pushes forward the analysis of organizational structure of data, examined along with the way they shape language, how they direct the communication processes. She detects morphological elements that are common to different species while monitoring and studying the metamorphosis processes. Yet, again, science and art are intertwined with cultural factors. Furthermore, Vesna recalls the beginnings of her famous collaboration with nano-systems scientist Jim Gimzewki that started back in 2001 (still in progress), as well as the ones more recently established with neuro-scientist Siddhart Ramakrishnan and evolutionary biologist Charles Taylor.
Dobrila Denegri: You are involved for quite some time in the projects that connect science, technology and art, and have strong experimental and interactive character. I would like to start this conversation by asking about your initial projects and in what way they led to what you are doing now?
Victoria Vesna: My work has always been focused on exploring ways our bodies extend out collectively and through technology. Bodies INCorporated (1996) was anticipating how we incorporate ourselves in this huge machine network, the Internet. This piece evolved from my first work dealing with physical / virtual space – Virtual Concrete where I encountered and started a new relationship with the audience and my work process shifted and expanded into a more collaborative way of working. People created bodies from male, female and child body parts and their avatar would become part of the corporate body with information forever embedded in the machine. Even when they wanted to delete the «body» in Necropolis, the data would remain – invisible, inert, but there to be mined if necessary.
As I continued working on this piece, I questioned how we project ourselves in this space, construct our bodies that are essentially made of information and started to think that the representation of the avatar as a human (or an animal, or even plant) is an outdated idea, just as cyberspace architectures based on our bodily designed buildings are. So my focus shifted on thinking how one would represent bodies of information and I started to deconstruct the incorporated body into a «no-body», based on time and connections to other bodies (minds). I moved into thinking of how communities are created on the Internet and wondered how one would connect people who have no time to be online. Just like so many people I knew, I had less and less time and questioned how come the machines that promised to save us time actually made us more busy than ever.
The industrially constructed time we live in is not working very well for us. We have moved away too far from any biological / analog measurements of change to 24/7, to nanoseconds, and we are overwhelmed with information, processed much faster than we have ever been built to absorb. As our bodies are reduced to large data-sets, we are entering into an entirely different age and need to start rebelling against the industrial / product(ive) time. The project entitled n 0 time dealt with the amount of time that none of us have. With this project I wanted to explore the notion of time and how we perceive it in our physical space and how in «virtual» space. As I developed the physical installation, I discovered that there is a huge difference in our experience – but connected. To emphasize this aspect I decided to develop a parallel work for the screen, as sort of a screen saver that runs on an idle computer, constantly contributing computer’s amount of wasted time to our central n 0 time database. Screen-saving participants could contribute their own n 0 time to either their very own n 0 time bodies, or those of other people. This was called n 0 time-sharing. One could continue working in a online community while away from his or hers computer and see how much denser the n 0 time body has grown by the connections made in physical absence. Once a thousand links are made, the n 0 Time body implodes. You were able to decide if your connections are made every hour, day, month or year – the faster your links are made, the faster you ex or implode. This is to show that we are not designed to have so many «friends» and our nervous system can handle only so much before we become collectively neurotic. Here I am mentioning n 0 Time body, but in this work it didn’t have any resemblance with shape of human body at all.
I wanted to propose shedding the idea of the «body» in cyberspace and starting over by building a tetrahedron. I find this shape fascinating for number of reasons, from which I could just briefly name a few. First, one would be that the tetrahedron is the first case of insideness and outsideness in one. Second, it is unique in being its own dual and third, it has the greatest resistance to an applied load. It is the only system that cannot «dimple», reacting to an external force, it must either remain unchanged or turn completely «inside out». In the work these tetrahedronal n 0 Time bodies were formed of lines and words, of intervals and memes as elements which defined their morphology and dynamics of their movement. Memes are like contagious ideas that replicate like a virus, passed on from mind to mind coined by evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins in his seminal 1976 book the Selfish Gene. They function the same way genes and viruses do, propagating through communication networks and face-to-face contact between people. The root of the word is a shortening (modeled on gene) of mimeme from Ancient Greek and this idea grew into a field of study which postulates that the meme is the basic unit of information residing in the brain and is a mutating replicator in cultural evolution. Examples of memes include melodies, icons, fashion statements or phrases and in this context – new forms of art.
Can this work be seen installed also in the physical space? Can computer and net art be at the same time site-specific?
With n 0 Time I realised that it is extremely difficult to transpose a work created for the screen and for the net in the physical space. Our perception of time in physical space is totally different from that in Internet space. The physical installation was quite complex with audiences entering a space where they influence the replication of a «body», a person from the local environment by the amount of time they spend looking at their information. More attention meant an evolving complex structure and this was programmed by Gerald DeJong, a computer scientist from the Netherlands who I met on the internet through our shared interest in Buckminster Fuller’s geometries and philosophy. We first worked together on Datamining Bodies without meeting physically until the installation at the coal mine in Ruhr.
Regarding site-specificity, I consider most of my work site specific. Data Mining Bodies (1997) is a work very strongly related to the place where it has been exhibited, which is a coalmine in Dortmund, Germany. And I would like to underline that physical space is really important to me – it is vehicle for the «virtual» just as our body is for the «soul». I cannot start work on an installation before I am in the space, feeling its specific quality. As far as the installation in the coal mine goes, it was done for a group show for which I was commissioned to do a piece that was connected to the net. I first did some research about the site itself, then started thinking of the mine and data metaphorically. Zeche Zollern II/IV is a coal mine that ceased operations in the late 1950s and that had been recently converted into a museum dedicated to technology. In World War II, it was one of the largest Nazi shelters. The exhibition was a sort of a celebration of a move from the Industrial Age to the Information Age and the media artists were seen as the signifiers of this transition. I had a problem with this concept. There is no clean shift from one age to another and I did not want to participate in this approach. So I decided to challenge it by connecting it to the uneasy idea of datamining bodies. Datamining is a term used in computer science, traditionally defined as “information retrieval. Many metaphors that refer to the physical act of mining, such as «drilling» or «digging,» are commonly used when discussing the activity of accessing information.
What is striking, if not disturbing, when researching the practice of «datamining» information (whether it be medical, statistical or business), is the «inhumanity,» the disassociation from the people who actually carry or contribute this information. Additionally, this was the year that the DNA was decoded (2000), and our biological genetic bodies were now data. With this in mind, my aim was to create a site-specific piece that commented on the abstraction of information by looking at the notion of mining data in connection to the metaphorical representations of the human body, and the false notion that there had been a clear-cut shift from the Industrial to the Information Age. I felt that the site of the now defunct coal mine was ideal for delivering a message of warning about the dangerous aspects of mining bodies of people for data. Or, worse, reducing people to abstracted data. For this work I worked with a programmer from Holland who based a lot of his work on Buckminister Fuller’s philosophy of geometric space. We created tetrahedronal, tensegrity bodies, with very geometrical shapes that one could «mine through». That meant that one could pull out information from them and get to know more about the space itself. Considering the fact that this coalmine was previously Nazi shelter, it is not that you got happy news digging through this information.
After «Data Mining Bodies» you did a work using cell phones and exploring interpersonal communicational patterns. What triggered this work?
Cellular Trans Actions could be described as a sort of collective performance that focused on issues dealing with real time, physical space interruptions, and the performative aspects of everyday life. Instead of being asked to turn off their mobile phones persons were asked to turn them on, exchange numbers and talk with each other in the same space, be it a conference room or exhibitive space. This was at the very beginning of cell phones entering into our social sphere and I was fascinated by the public performance that is now taken for granted. In San Francisco I discovered and found quite interesting is that if bigger group of people talk simultaneously on cell phones in the same room, apart of creating quite chaotic situation, they would cause jam of the phone network. When I found myself in residency in Germany at the time of 9/11, I facilitated this performance and people were discussing politics with strangers in the same room, in their language. At one point of the event I literally walked away and no one noticed and I noted that as a real success – the audience took over. Another interesting thing that emerged from work I did with cell phones, satellites and phone networks concerns the very shape of the network, which resembles structure of beehives. It has this hexagonal structure and our cities are actually split by this invisible hexagonal network. This is really the beginning of my interest in making the invisible visible, the inaudible audible…
Hexagonal structures, beehives, tetrahedrons and tensegrity… all this leads us towards Buckminister Fuller. His work and ideas are interwoven in many ways with the kind of work you are doing. How you got acquainted with his legacy?
Well, it was a really fortunate meeting through his daughter, Allegra Snyder Fuller who I met after one panel discussion at UC Santa Barbara (1997) and who introduced me to the amazing archive that he left behind. Soon after, I became an artist in residence and was privileged to see his unpublished works, writings, library, the «Chronofiles» and this became my center for writing my PhD thesis – «Buckminster Fuller Networked Personae». Here I also discovered the little known close friendship of Bucky and John Cage whose work was also very influential on me. Bucky was a man obsessed with cataloguing himself and this was interesting for me on its own merit – it was database aesthetics of one person in physical space! He called himself «Guinea Pig B».
Buckminister Fuller is still a very inspiring figure, both for his work and for his really visionary and unorthodox ideas. There is one his quote that could be easily associated to the kind of work that you are doing, and it goes: “The more advanced science gets, the closer it is to art; the more advanced art gets, the closer it is to science.” What is in Fuller that you find particularly inspiring and important for your own work?
Here I’d like to answer by quoting Buckminster Fuller’s thought that I recognized at the time as guiding path for my work: «The great aesthetics which will inaugurate 21st century will be the utterly invisible quality of intellectual integrity. The integrity of the individual dealing with scientific discoveries, the integrity of the individual dealing with conceptual realisation of comprehensive inter-relatedness of all events. The integrity of the individual dealing with only experimentally arrived information regarding invisible phenomena and finally integrity of all those who formulate visibly within their respective minds and invisibly with the only mathematically dimensionable, advanced technology on behalf of their fellow man and woman.» When I was doing my research in his archives I looked to all those never realised projects, and loved his wild, crazy ideas! And really, why we have to accept that our homes and houses have to be just squares and rectangles? Why not like our ancient tipi and domes? We somehow totally lost the circle and became disconnected from nature and from nature’s geometries, too.
Most of all he liked to define himself «Anticipatory Design Scientist» and isn’t it curious that it is truly so — how he even got connected to the nano science?
Oh, yes, it is such a wonderful story that he in a way bonds us with this new dimension we are entering in. For nano science was crucial discovery of Buckministerfullerene just two years after Richard Buckminister Fuller died. Until 1985 we knew only for two molecules of carbon: graphite and diamante, when scientists Sir Harry Kroto, Rick Smalley, Bob Curl and their team discovered a third one, winning for that a Nobel prize. During the time they were doing research, instruments were not so strong to enable them to decode structure of molecule, so one of them remembered the structure of the great Dome constructed by Buckminister Fuller for American pavilion for Expo ‘67 in Montreal. It was certainly one of most beautiful geodesic domes Buckminister Fuller ever constructed and it had hexagonal structure based on incredibly precise geometrical and mathematical calculations. Indeed, the structure played such an important role for the discovery of the third molecule of carbon, that it carries his name. I find this a really important story that links culture and science and shows how much artists / designers / scientists / anticipate the future. This molecule became really important for research linked to the nano science and can be considered a symbol of nanotechnology today. The particularity of Bucky Ball, as it is called, is in its «cage» shape that allows manipulation, it allows the scientist to insert atoms of other elements into it, and this gives amazing potentials for creation of new materials and applications. Hundred years ago, when electricity was discovered nobody could imagine a kind of world we are living today, and now we are in the same position, just at the beginning of a new period that we can’t imagine, we really can’t have a clue how the world will look like in a hundred years. It is going to be equally outrageous and different from the way our predecessors were imagining the world we are living. And this molecule called «Buckministerfullerene» became a symbol of that.
(cover) Victoria Vesna, n 0 Time Bodies, tetrahedrons, hexagons (1) Buckminister Fuller, Dome, American Expo ’67, Montreal, courtesy Buckminister Fuller Archive (2) Victoria Vesna, Data Mining Bodies,2004, scheme of the installation for the Ruhr coal-mining installation (3) Victoria Vesna, Virtual Concrete, 1995 (4)Victoria Vesna, Bodies INCorporated, 1996, snap shot from website (5) Victoria Vesna, n 0 Time Bodies, tetrahedrons, hexagons (6) Victoria Vesna, n O time, 2001, installation (Oklahoma Museum of Art, 2002) (7) Victoria Vesna, Data Mining Bodies, 2004, in collaboration with Gerald de Jong and David Beaudry, snap shot (8) Honeybees hexagons (9) Buckminister Fuller, courtesy Buckminister Fuller Archive (10) Bucky Balls.