Interview with Olia Lialina

July, 1997

Olia Lialina is a net.artist. She lives and works in Moscow. She is also a filmcritic and filmcurator. We talked in Ljudmila Media Lab in Ljubljana in May '97, on the first day of the nettime conference, while the conference was in progress with an American history lesson of the Internet in the main room. We were sitting between other escapees that were doing mail or surfing and the friendly kitchen crew. (JB 1997)


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"They must feel like strangers, those people who make their homepages representing their products."


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Olia Lialina: It is complicated to be a net.artist in Moscow, because there is no context where you can appear as such. You first must explain what it is for an hour or two hours. I have different identities for different places.


Q: Isn't that normal with 'net.personalities', that you are more of a personality far away then close by? Being a net.artist you are recognised more by people that are online and often far away and not by your neighbour?


Olia Lialina: Yes, but also it is difficult to understand who is the nearest neighbour, because when you communicate a lot through the net, it seems that your nearest friends and nearest neighbours from abroad are much closer. Now I feel since a year of this intensive net.communication that I have more friends that I have never seen. On one side its a problem, on another side its a reality.


Q: A reality can also be a problem. Is it pleasant?


Olia Lialina: Its pleasant. As far as I have different identities I don't feel this problem. If my friends don't know what the Internet is in Moscow, they do know what film is, what a critic is, what an experimental filmclub is. They know and still love me. Also I don't have so many problems with these different activities because a year ago I didn't stop this filmcurating in order to make net.projects. I started to make an experimental filmarchive on the net and so it was a very soft transition from one field to another. I started to make this archive, so I started to search the net this way. I started to make net.films. At first I thought how I could represent film on the net. After some time I understood that its not necesary to represent film itself, but if you can put your filmic way of thinking in the net, in this environment, it is more useful, more interesting. You can do more with both. So I tried to experiment with language, to combine film and net.language, but now I am more concerned with developing net.language itself. I want things to speak their own language. For me for example net.reality is not only the cyberideology. I think that many things from real life can exist in the net, many feelings, and many thoughts. But they should speak the language of where they are. If something is in the net, it should speak in net.language.


Q: I understand you are exploring what net.language is. Is it a language that is developing?


Olia Lialina: It seems to me that I am a person who develops this language. What I am thinking about, I am trying to defend the Internet. That is my attitude. Not by special ideologies, not by proclaiming something, but by developing its own language. If artists develop and give a life to the language for this environment, it is more difficult for commercial structures, for people who just want to represent their works in the net. It is more difficult for them to feel comfortable in this world after it has its own language. They must feel like strangers, those people who make their homepages representing their products.


Q: How do you work on developing this language?


Olia Lialina: Difficult question. What is the structure of my work, the process? I just think what I want to do in general. If I have something in mind, the only thing I try to do is doing it in the net. I don't have restrictions. I don't look for a special topic that fits the net. It’s absolutely intuitive. My English is quite poor. I stay far from discussions and articles from theorists written about net.ideology and economy. Especially when I started I knew absolutely nothing. When I made "My boyfriend came back from the war", it was a pure experiment with frames and html language. I didn't expect it would 'sound' in this context, that there was allready this context. After I heard all these theories about "My boyfriend came back from the war", only after I started to think about myself. I worked out my attitude. The main thing i can say is that the net is a place for self-expression and nothing can restrict it. Of course it is not just that, but it could be a place for self-expression.


Q: When you talk about developing language I thought you were talking about filmic language in an image kind of way, but you are talking about words, about prose or poetry?


Olia Lialina: You know, this frase netfilm for example appeared when I thought about films. I can say that I don't make netfilms, but more netstories. Some kind of narrative. Narrative in my works is everywhere. It can be with words, with pictures, but its always dialogue or monologue. I think because the Russian tradition is quite literal in art and mostly in Moscow, I can't stand outside of it. It is somewhere in me, this desire to work with words, with sentences, with paragraphes and so on. But at the same time, which might be interesting for you: I can't do anything in Russian. "My Boyfriend" or "Anna Karenina" or other projects I didn't think about in Russian first. Everytime I start to do something in the net, my mind switches to the English language. Its a very poor language, more poor then net.english, my english. But for me it is enough to express in the net. I thought about why this is so. I speak very good Russian, I make excellent jokes (laughs) in Russian, I always experiment with words. I have a very rich Russian language. I think that if I would start to make my projects in Russian, it would be another game. It would immediately be a game with the Russian language, not with net.language. I think these are two very different and serious things for me, they can't be together. They start to fight with eachother inside me.


Q: How does your communication with all your friends through the net influence the development of your net.language?


Olia Lialina: I can't say that it works, because this communication is more a personal one. I can't remember we discussed problems of in our letters. Speaking about the English language again, you must remember this story when I asked what is the word "ditched", when David Garcia wrote that the term must be ditched. People appreciated the irony, but it was a real question, I couldn't find the word in any dictionary.


Q: Can you give examples of projects you did on the net?


Olia Lialina: I made "my boyfriend"...It was just a desire to tell this story on the net using html language. After I made it, I realised this story can exist on cd-rom or you can make a video out of it and show a video-projection. Its my most succesful work, but it is not a real net project. The fact that it can exist on cd-rom, that you can put it on a floppy and go to any computer and show it offline, makes a difference. After this I decided to make another project that is as close to the Internet environment as possible. I made " Anna Karenina goes to paradise ", which can't exist without search engines, three searchengines simultaneously. This project can't exist either without one french server, where you find a lot of pictures of trains. So it was not only the story. It was a story again, but a story that contained sentences not written by me, but that existed allready in the net. It's a net.comedy in three acts. Anna looking for love, Anna looking for train, Anna looking for paradise and an epilogue. Anna is looking for love through Yahoo, for trains through the Magilan search engine and Anna is looking for paradise through Alta Vista. After the epilogue there is a conversation between Anna and the three searchengines and two browsers: Netscape and Explorer. Also I spoiled the search engines, I captured and spoiled them. They are all bit maps, black and white. They look absolutely not commercial, but they work as real search engines.


Q: You mean you changed them?


Olia Lialina: (laughs) No, really spoiled, but they still work. I only prepared an interface. All links, all cgi scripts exist on their servers and they work in the normal way.


The project that is in progress now, "Heaven and Hell", is a dialogue with Michael Samyn, a Belgian artist. For some years he pretended to be group-Z from Belgium. The famous project of group-Z is "love". Its on Adaweb. After our communication through email, we decided not to go to this stupid level where men and women who never met eachother start to write to eachother: "Why do I never see you in real life, I want you to be here.." and all those kind of stupid things, we decided to do something more constructive. So we started to write articles and make this "Heaven and Hell" project, which is a dialogue between two servers. The structure is two frames: I am in Heaven, he is in Hell. He makes something in the lower frame and makes a link to my not existing yet site. I make the answer in the upper frame, and make a link to his now not-yet-existing site. This way it goes on. It’s not in realtime. If you look now for this server, you will now see the complete work. All upper and lower frame sites are on their places. They appear one after the other. Yet now the end is for example his not existing site. After now allready 20 pages you will see an empty page. There is written: No such file on this server. I didn't check wether he put up his last contribution yet. This work is more interesting inside maybe, because when we send the names of the not existing files to eachother, they say maybe even more then the allready made files with this name.


Now the princip of this work is not so simple: I am in Heaven, he is in Hell. Now sometimes I go to the lower frame, to Hell, he sometimes is in Heaven...Everything already is confused. He used to be a professional designer. He is very skillful with all this Java, with applications like Shockwave. I have a more conceptual tradition. That is why I try to involve sites of other people into my frame. There you can see American Vietnam Veterans warpages and the Chechen governement page. I try to involve all this into 'Paradise'.


Q: Are you influenced by the work of other net.artists?


Olia Lialina: No, I am not influenced.


Q: Do you feel connected to them?


Olia Lialina: Yes, I feel connected, and I am very happy now that my first meeting with the Internet itself was in a situation where Alexei Shulgin showed it to me. The first things I saw on the net were not homepages of different companies, but work by Jodi, the nettime mailinglist. That’s why I was influenced in a very good way. I am very happy I knew before what were works of not-commercial people. Only after the BMW site and so on. I knew what was before I knew what was webdesign, which is what I wanted to say. But I can't say that in my work I am influenced by other net.artists.


Q: What do you think of the whole discussion about what is?


Olia Lialina: Maybe you allready know that I don't like this discussion. And I don't like it when Robert Adrian starts to talk about After the discussion he said: hello Olia, I know your name but never saw your works. Not only mine. It seems he doesn't know many net.artists. Yet he was the main person in the discussion. Now the best critique is for example what you do. The best addition to recent nettime discussion was your interview with Jodi. It gave much more then all these answers to questions like: What is I think that the double interview we did with Michael Symon is also not a bad contribution.


I had an idea: to stop with presentations of our works at this conference and start to analyse works of other artists. Maybe I am going to organise something in Moscow in December. I will try to make not a conference but more an educational meeting for Moscow young people. I want net.artists to meet with Russian students for example. I think it will be more interesting when we analyse works of eachother, not show our own projects. It’s a more creative situation during the presentation. It is more creative for you. You not just recreate your feelings of artists to words of a lecture.