Smoke and Mirrors

A conversation between Tony Oursler and Louise Neri
New York City, May-August 2001

Louise Neri: A few years ago, you embarked on two ambitious projects simultaneously: Timestreams, a mapping of the origins of technological imagination and its discoveries, which was realized as a project for the web. And The Influence Machine, an outdoor son-et-Iumiere which was presented in New York's Madison Square Park and London's Soho Square last Fall. How did they both come about and how have they informed each other?

Tony Oursler: I compiled a timeline entitled I hate the dark, I love the light for my Williams College retrospective in 1998 because I was fascinated by how technologies like electric light, film, optics, radio, and the codification of the rainbow interrelated over time. I found myself being lured back into the historical labyrinth by a number of interests - the invention of television in particular - and then I had to keep investigating. My general theme was mimetic technology, that is, technology that could be perceived as a direct extension of psychological states.

LN: What do you mean by "mimetic technology"?

TO: I borrowed the term "mimetic" from pharmacology, where it is used to describe that class of drugs which mimics psychological states or provokes heightened states of consciousness. In the same way, or perhaps even more effectively, technology creates a dream space that mimics reality.

LN: So how did this lead to the idea of son-et-Iumiere?

TO: After our initial discussions about a public commission, which rekindled my interest in the public spectacle of son-et-Iumiere, I began a long period of pre-production research, during which information revealed itself serendipitously, interconnecting across time. Out of this process categories and historical figures emerged. On one of my first trips to London in connection with the commission, I was introduced to the work of Etienne-Gaspard Robertson, the eighteenth-century inventor of the phantasmagoria, through the writer Marina Warner.Robertson's spectacles, in which he used magic lanterns and smoke projections, were the earliest instances of moving-image theater, staged in a crypt in Paris.

LN: How did Robertson become a pivotal source for you?

TO: Apart from Robertson's phantasmagoria, which I saw reconstructed at the Museum of the Moving Image in London, I read his autobiography, parts of which he wrote in a kind of dialogue with previous masters of optics, Alhazen (10th century) and Kircher (17th century). The autobiography also revealed his enduring obsession with the devil. He recounts that after failed attempts in his youth to conjure Satan himself, he invented certain special effects by which to make images of him instead. So there was a major paradigm shift from religion to entertainment. Hundreds of years later, Robertson inspired me to restructure my own timeline in a more subjective manner, based on darkness and light. And the sound-track for The Influence Machine which was written and produced by Tony Conrad, included a score for glass harmonica, a haunting Gothic instrument which was a favorite of Robertson's.

LN: How does your timeline differ from others?

TO: I tried to connect things that are not usually associated with each other. By necessity, the histories of Science and Art tend to specialize and focus on specific ideas to the exclusion of the big picture. Take, for example, the camera obscura: traditionally art history has treated it as a mere aid to perspective and drawing. But, more importantly, it was the first cultural production of virtual space, installation, and the precursor to the mediated world of photography, film, and surveillance technologies. Since those categories are now part of art history, it's important that they be integrated into the central narrative. As a media artist, I wanted to make my own version of cultural history which incorporated these new mediums and technologies. Remember that it is only recently, in the last thirty years or so, that the moving image has been accepted into art history.

LN: Why did this history become so important for you?

TO: I have always been interested in both the origins of media and "deep media structures" - meaning how people interact psychologically with technological media as the basis for my own installations. I had also studied the development of special effects through the histories of theater, film and video and eventually taught this in art schools. But historical research was a new proposition for me. I like to keep the viewer in the vernacular, the here and now: sitting in a movie theater, or watching TV, or looking at a streetlight. So the challenge was to extend certain characters and events of the timeline into the present, and to link the viewer's current practices to other times. Each of the works that I produced from the timeline up to and including The Influence Machine - Skulls and Still Lives, Empty Cabinet, The Darkest Color Infinitely Amplified, Through the Hole, Blue Transmission - were in dialogue both with history and with contemporary social situations.

LN: Was it this that prompted you to transform the timeline into a web-site?

TO: I was invited to develop a website for The Museum of Modern Art, which seemed like a natural extension of the timeline I had begun for the Williams College retrospective. I was excited by the idea that a web-site makes the material available to people in different ways. I expanded the original material by about one third; most of the new entries were to do with contemporary technology; electronics, computers, Internet, and finally, all the psychic material. In tran~forming and expanding the timeline into the web-site Timestreams, I was able to crystallize how technological breakthroughs occurred, how they then entered the public domain, and the apparent psychological affect.

LN: What is it in particular that fascinates you about these moments of technological breakthrough?

TO: I fell in love with the epiphanies of technical invention and their narratives. I tried to strip them down to their bare facts, leaving the reader to embellish them. Take Faraday, who discovered photoconductivity, the ability of light to regulate the electrical conductivity of metal: Faraday was working at his desk one day and perceived an electrical cable being struck by sunlight; he noticed a voltage fluctuation. It was, literally, an epiphany, an illuminating moment. The importance of this moment was far-reaching. The reader might surmise how this moment evolved into numerous applications in the public sphere including the fax machine and television, where pictures are divided into blocks of light and dark signals, which are then sent along a wire to be decoded or reassembled in another location.

LN: What is also striking about many of these discoveries is their "improvisational" quality, their paradoxically "Io-tech" nature.

TO: Yes, it's always amazing to me how simple they were, that is, before the advent of electronics. But then it all starts getting very complicated. The last part of Timestreams was difficult because of this fact, whereas the early part was all about optics and alchemy, most of it beautifully simple. Some of these early methods and mechanisms remain unsurpassed, like the camera obscura which is pure and simple mimetic technology, a hole through which light passes, rendering an exact mirror of what exists in reality. We don't even really know how long ago the camera obscura was invented, although it is thought to be by the Chinese in the fifth century B.C

LN: Are you making an analogy with the artistic process?

TO: Right up until Thomas Edison, these investigations and discoveries were more or less the personal and private experiences of technological inventors. Philosophers, tinkerers, scientists, amateurs and professionals alike, were individual, sometimes hermetic, players in the technological timeline. Edison was one of the first inventors to work in a workshop-like laboratory, which heralded the shift of technological investigation into a more corporate context, where inventors became purveyors of ideas to the popular realm rather than solitary artists. Edison hired other scientists to work on his ideas; he worked to perfect existing ideas, and regularly visited the patent office to keep abreast of new developments.

LN: You've spoken about the literal aspects of technological development, but where does the issue of affect that you mentioned earlier come into it?

TO: During my research, I discovered a different narrative lurking in the shadows. It started with spirit photography and had to do with using technology to communicate with the dead. In 1844, Samuel Morse invented Morse code, enabling people to communicate instantly over long distances (Interestingly, he invoked God's role in the invention of the first message!) A few years later, a teenage girl called Kate Fox in Rochester, New York began communicating with the spirit of a murdered peddler by rapping on the walls of her house, using her own crude alphanumerical system, a kind of "folk" appropriation of Morse code. Her psychic activities caused a sensation parallel to the telegraph, sparking the New American Spiritualist Movement, which is still in existence today. This relation between psychic communication and telecommunications runs through each successive invention - the radio, the television, and finally, the computer.

LN: So how did all this relate to The Influence Machine?

TO: The Influence Machine took the advent of telecommunications as its point of departure and attempted to work with its discoveries in relation to the "deep media structures" I mentioned earlier. I'll give you an example: in physics we know that knocking is caused by energy transfer from hand to medium; a transformation from vibration to sound, from flesh to thought. This is a rudimentary technological transfer of waves of information, of life, "through mediums."

LN: Deer, for example, communicate to each other through the earth by stamping their hooves, whales by emitting sonic messages through water... and so on. Echo was a mythic personification of early technology... what you are describing was represented literally in The Influence Machine as a huge projection of a fist knocking on an invisible surface...

TO: I came across this connection between the telegraph and psychic communication in a book by Jeffrey Sconce entitled Haunted Media. Morse code was the first thing that connected distant cities in real time and the fact that this moment in 1844 was the beginning of the telecommunications network we have today makes it one of the powerful moments in the history of the world. Imagine, when suddenly people could "talk" to each other in real time in another city, or travel by air, or were confronted with many electric inventions. Human consciousness expanded exponentially with these technological possibilities and, with this, humans became extremely susceptible; anything seemed possible. Even scientists like Edison believed that there could be a machine to communicate with the dead. (He even made a wonderful film called A Visit to the Spiritualist!) If you suspend your disbelief for a moment, you will understand that the most powerful influence of all was the fact that people wanted to believe that all these things could be possible. And that belief persists today. I was able to track down groups on the Internet who practice communications through the computer, or the wonderful group in Luxembourg who have set up a television studio to broadcast and receive signals from the spirit world, using video feedback as a way of capturing these supernatural signals!

LN: So are you saying that "deep media structures" contribute to the mechanisms and functions of human belief in greater powers?

TO: Well, I am investigating how and why throughout history these discoveries become culturally symbolic; whether they themselves create new systems of belief.

LN: Can you elaborate?

TO: I wanted the timeline to be open-ended, so that others could use it as a tool. It had to be historically accurate. But, as the material came together, I started to see patterns which emphasized the ruling moral dichotomy of good and evil, expressed as darkness and light with various subplots. This added a new dynamic to the dry, historical facts and it seemed a natural way for me to organize material. The devil has worked his way into a number of my projects over the years, so I was interested in the connection to the Gothic and to technology. The devil, as the ultimate personification of evil, undergoes an elaborate transformation over time, from the theocratic world to the fragmented, secular world. He moves away from religion into magic and entertainment and, finally, cyberspace. This shift is most clearly laid out in my workThe Darkest Calor Infinitely Amplified.

LN: So where did the ideas for The Influence Machine come from?

TO: I've always been attracted to luminescence and colour. During one of my research trips to London, I came across documentation of Hauksbee's eighteenth-century invention, the Influencing Machine, a spherical glass vacuum that spun on its axis and emitted a greenish glow when rubbed, which was known as "the glow of life." In other words, a static electrical charge is introduced to a vacuum. At the time of its invention, the Influencing Machine had no scientific relevance. It was a useless yet strangely potent piece of equipment which became a kind of pseudo-scientific novelty or cipher used in sideshows and ascribed various talismanic powers, like a crystal ball. It is an example of another timeline theme: Quackery. (I am not using the term in a derogatory way, but rather as a tribute to these moments of oddly powerful human creativity.) Then there was another strange coincidence. British historian Mark Cousins brought to my attention the work of Victor Tausk, one of Freud's students, who wrote an obscure but compelling text with the same title The Influencing Machine. He never refers to the historic machine but rather defines a psychological malady which he had observed in patients, a feeling that they were being controlled by a machine resembling a body but made of wildly complex electrical and mechanical parts.

LN: So what was its larger significance in your project?

TO: Arguably, the Influencing Machine was the first television set. It used the same basic technology, the glowing vacuum tube, and it had a similar mesmerising effect on its audience. From this simple technology developed hundreds of inventions including the cathode ray tube, the x-ray and the television. So it allowed me to link historical figures, such as John Baird, the British inventor of the mechanical television. Another extraordinary coincidence was that Soho Square, the site for The Influence Machine in London, is a stone's throw away from Baird's original Frith Street laboratory.

LN: It seems that people became susceptible to the Influencing Machine precisely because its powers were so abstract and unspecified. It was like a blank screen with many "points of entry" for self-realization.

You present your work as a "field" to be occupied, moved through at will. There is no single point of view. Likewise, with The Influence Machine, you transformed the classic form of the son-et-Iumiere - which usually takes place before a seated audience in linear dramaturgy - into an environment of different projected events occurring simultaneously. You combined the presence of electronic technology with the technology and collective energy of theater... it reminds me that when we were investigating sites for the work a couple of years ago, you actually considered an open air theater in London's Regent's Park.

TO: The Influence Machine is theatrical but, ultimately, I realized that I wanted to keep it in the context of art rather than theater, to present it as an installation, a visual and experiential "state" rather than a narrative. A park was a perfect place for it, where the viewer was able to wander through and around an environment rather than being presented with a fixed perspective. I gave a lot of thought to the way that the viewer moved in space, in some cases intercepting the light and smoke sources, which instantly and directly affected the forms of the projections themselves.

LN: So rather than working with the fixed spectacle of the medium, you were finding ways of visibly breaking it down into all the various elements that constituted it.

TO: Yes, it moved back and forth in time, ultimately collapsing in the mix. That is also what was important about staging the work outside, in direct relation to a city, rather than containing it in an interior space. Everything dispersed in open space - the sound, the smoke, the light, the viewers. The installation fused with the larger mechanism of the city - the ambient light and sound, the traffic, the streetlights, the weather. The outside poured into the piece, the piece poured out into the city.

LN: This process of dispersing, channeling, pooling was something of a breakthrough in your work. In doing so, you managed to infuse specific locales with the idea of a bigger "beyond," both sonically and visually, through the history you were drawing on and the broad range of people you brought into the creative process and the work itself - the chorus, the medium, the talking street light.

TO: It was a big departure for me to make artworks as various kinds of channeling devices. For the talking light, a web-site was set up to which people could write. Their texts were transcribed daily onto a CD and then broadcast in the park each evening. It was something like Speaker's Corner in Hyde Park in London except the speakers were disembodied; their "voices" came from the Internet and were broadcast through a synchronized streetlight.

LN: What were the texts like?

TO: Declarations of love, imperatives, hellos, laments. Some kids typed in their messages then came to the park to hear it broadcast.

LN: What about your own scripting for the installation?

TO: In the process of culling the various events from the timeline for The Influence Machine, I had to think about how to give voice to their central characters. I wanted different voices, different vessels for my text to run through. Tony Conrad and I visited the famous psychic community in Lily Dale - which was, incidentally, where the house of Kate Fox was eventually moved to. There I observed and taped professional psychics, how they channelled the spirits of the so-called dead. It was a pretty profound experience.

LN: So how did this experience affect your actual writing style? You once described to me how you usually write your scripts, with several audio sources turned on at the same time so that you can channel and mix the information as it is broadcast, resulting in a form resembling stream-of-consciousness. Was it very different this time?

TO: Yes. My writing tends to be rather opaque. In this instance, because there was so much historical information and it was a public situation, I felt I had to be very clear in order to communicate specific meanings. I edited much more than usual. The performers were more varied. I wanted a social cross-section and when I cast the characters, I rewrote the scripts specifically for them. Ultimately, I knew that most people would only spend a few minutes in the park watching, but if they wanted to go further into the material it was all there. That's how it was written.

LN: Can you describe the installation itself?

TO: There were five parts to the installation: "Mediums," "Chorus," "The Technician," text messages, "Talking Street Light" and, finally, "Knocking I Spirit Voices." Each had a different sort of script. In the Medium work, in which apparitions of historical characters appeared projected onto smoke, I used very simple transitions, introducing each character - "Coming to you from 1932, this is Baird," and so on - because I realized that if the script was too obscure, the content would be lost. I combined my own original writing with first-person quotations, drawn from first-person accounts, such as Robertson, Baird, and Tauske. They spoke through two characters played by Sidney Lawrence and Tracy Leipold, mixing together in a sort of conversation as their images drifted in the smoke.

LN: Conversation or, rather, seance... In French, seance also means a cinema-screening, so the relation between spirits, technology and screen memory is implicit. Jeffrey Sconce discusses the equivalences between technological and human bodies, for example the flow of electricity versus the flow of human consciousness, the human fascination with the "living" quality and live presence of popular technologies.

TO: Technologies attach themselves to the interface between our conscious and unconscious states so, in a sense, they are alive. Or at least, they seem to be. That's the confusing thing. If we can be sufficiently convinced to think that we experience media in the same way that we see reality, then it will not be an issue - A.I. (artificial intelligence) or not - the blurring effect will be the same, which opens us up to the possibility of mind control in entirely new areas. The anthropomorphising of media is very natural: the soundtrack for "Knocking" incorporates found "spirit voices" from various ghost-hunting sites on the Internet. These sounds are like audio-Rorschach tests recorded from "dead" channels, the white noise of radio and TV.

LN: What do you mean when you describe media as "natural"?

TO: When I was a child I believed that what went on on television was real. Now I see kids talking to my installations. I am interested in what this innate human desire for mimetics is, why we like sitting in dark rooms, in front of screens, absorbing programmed material, rather than actually participating in the contingencies and textures of life.

LN: Long ago, theorists and writers speculated that media interface would increasingly come to substitute "real" social connection. That time is now. In addition, "Reality TV" has become more and more popular, perceived "real" situations that people can empathize with and obsess about. Timothy McVeigh was executed while the families of his victims watched on closed-circuit TV. This touches the other realm that you are dealing with in your work technological control and psychosis.

TO: In Timestreams there is an entry from 1975 claiming that by the time the average kid finishes high school, s/he will have spent almost twice the time spent at school watching television, approximately 20,000 hours. And that was before the advent of personal computers. I read more recently that in this same period today, the same high schooler will have "witnessed" 16,000 violent deaths on television. These facts suggest larger issues about human susceptibility and the drift away from one reality to another. The mimetic world of violence finds the weakest link in this psychological chain and activates it.

LN: Reality is harder and harder to locate because of this so-called mimetic technology. Because I disagree with you that it is truly mimetic; it's not a mirror image of reality like the camera obscura; rather it reflects a modified reality that is rendered comprehensible along certain lines that we mayor may not be aware of as viewers.

TO: Sometimes I think a machine could be made that would have perceived intelligence. One could construct a very "intelligent" machine by tailoring it to the basic parameters of human need. That speaks to the whole code of why movies and TV work so well. There are a limited number of things that most people want to see. So the ability to control comes down to simply perceiving behavioral frameworks. Mapping out what people like to do allows the machine to occupy people's minds. The machine takes on an almost sentient quality although it is completely stupid and inert at the same time, like the new electronic animals for kids.

LN: So where does your work stand in relation to this discussion? Obviously you embrace the seductive powers of technology, yet your work often appears as being "flawed," overfilled and confusing and irrational. You tend to work things until they barely hold together. This idea of breakdown and dispersal functions as being anti-authoritative, anti-persuasive. You expose the mechanisms and the relations in your work - like the talking heads that are barely audible, or the characters that all talk at once. The power of the image is all but cancelled out across a common zone of activity because all the images compete for the same (human) attention, which is both maddening and mesmerising...

TO: Some are very clear and focused; you can hear every word. Other works play with overlapping texts and levels of auditory hallucination; they invite the viewer's collaboration. Traditional art forms contain less information on a certain level and thus encourage people to fill the space with their own readings. The brain is an organic thing, identity is always in flux, cognition is changing all the time, thus a static artwork takes this into account and has a longer life than a film in some ways. Less information equals more power as it reflects the changes of the viewer more clearly. "The Technician," from The Influence Machine which is projected scrolling text is based on a typed conversation I found between a person on a computer and a spirit which was typing back from the "spirit side." I love the creativity, the engagement, the human instinct implied. The problem with media is that it occupies so many senses at one time that it can tend to cancel itself out. I always hope that the viewer will find his own position with regard to my work, rather than just being persuaded by it. That is really the subliminal theme of The Influence Machine, how we can grasp the corporate mechanism and use it for our own individual ends.

LN: You have been accused of being repetitive and relying on spectacle, but I think that is a superficial response to the work. Each one of the talking heads has a different script, exploring different ideas and themes. Those pieces give the viewer the impression of entertaining, of occupying that passive space in the dark which the viewer of technology occupies so readily. But I would argue that there is a whole other layer of activity that exists in your work which often gets passed over.

TO: With The Influence Machine, I wanted people to have this experience in the park so that the information would reach them in a state of active deconstruction, so that the technological "miracle" would be rendered transparent. I wanted to present it as an inquiry into why we human moths are so mesmerised by the technological flame, as opposed to other active human options. The art world is growing exponentially and I think the reason is that art imparts a different experience than media. In art, people are part of the process in that their critical faculties are activated. It's not like being moved through a Spielbergian maze.

LN: Or a seamless, logical narrative with a beginning, a middle and an end.

TO: No, yet I am convinced that the narrative impulse is so innate to human nature that no matter how chaotic the information, people can make their own story from the information they are given, ascribe it meaning. I think it's important to invigorate that aspect of human perception. That is why we go and look at art, as an experience that respects our integrity as participants.