Interview with Eugene Thacker

published: 
March, 2001

Eugene Thacker is a writer, theorist and artist. I know his work mostly through his collaboration with the New York based net performance group Fakeshop, but he has also done solo projects and is mostly a writer and theorist. Eugene Thacker's work centers around bio tech, science fiction, experimental literature, art and science. We talked at DEAF'00, The Dutch Electronic Art Festival organized by V2 in 2000.

JB: Can you tell me about your background? Your work with Fakeshop made me wonder if you have a background in art at all?

 

Eugene Thacker: My background is not in art actually. My background is more in critical theory, or literary theory. Basically I come from literature. In college I was really involved in the experimental literature community, zines and so on. When the web came around I got into that and hypertext. Like a lot of people at some point it made sense not to just limit yourself to just text, to try to work in different media. I have always been interested in approaching things from a theoretical viewpoint as well as exploring the same issues in, for want of a better term, an artistic domain. Sometimes getting different results, sometimes seeing what you can learn from doing those kinds of activities.

The intersection with the sciences for me is much more recent. It arises out of a real, deep interest in the body and the relationship of the body to different technologies. At some point I was doing a lot of work with people like for instance George Battaille and science fiction writers like Ballard, looking at how they were seeing the body reconfigured by different technologies. How they were seeing different kinds of anatomies, how they were imagining different kind of anatomical formations that were contextualized by desire and so on. At some point I felt like I was dancing around the topic, not really confronting it directly. Part of that was disciplinary.

In the US it is not yet widespread to simply jump around in these very different disciplines. So I decided I should really open some anatomical textbooks. What is going on with anatomy research now? Where is it? I felt like for me it was a change to more directly deal with philosophical and political issues of, say, the anatomical body by looking at actual research that was going around, but looking at it through that theoretical lens. So Bataille was always there.

I was looking at things like the Visual Human project where they sliced up a body and archived it in a database through that lens and in the process I was trying to understand the science as well. When I was in college I was a biochemistry major, and I worked in a pathobiology lab for a number of years too. This was before graduate school. I was very interested in the science part of it, but also in the ethical part of it. It is easy to look at things in hindsight to make sense. At the time I was really interested in the science fictional aspect of it. You know a lot of science fiction is quite tacky, it really gets into the nuts and bolts of the details. I think that was what was going on earlier on. I quickly found out working in a lab where you're one in dozens of people working on this tiny miniscule issue it wasn't the kind of thing I wanted to do. Then I switched over to humanities.

So I had this weird cycle going round. I started here and now I am going back to biochemistry and genetics, but through a very different viewpoint. That background has really helped me, so it was not so hard to look at genetics research itself, because I had some of the basics of what scientific knowledge was. To try to answer your question directly: I have always been trying to balance the humanities and the sciences in what I am doing.

 

JB: And the arts as well?

 

ET: Yes, definitely, which to me is much closer to the theoretical work then it is to the sciences. The artistic dealings with these topics have mostly been extrapolations of the theory that I was doing. I haven't yet really explored hardcore direct collaborations with different scientists. I think there are other groups that are doing that in an interesting way, but it is not what I am interested in right now, which is mostly writing in different types of discourses that are going on.

 

JB: Did you only do artwork together with Fakeshop and how does your artwork relate to your writing?

 

ET: I mostly started working as an artist because of the web actually. Like I said, I was doing writing before. I really came to think of me as an 'artist' when I was working with the web and I was doing not just text, but html, image, video, sound, exploring all these different things.

 

I have done a lot of different projects dealing with biotech. One was shown at Ars Electronica in 1999, a project about the visible human project, about the notion of digital anatomy. This is a project by the national library of the US where researchers took the body of a convicted murdered, a convicted criminal, and they proceeded to slice him into a thousand pieces, in transfer sections. Then they encoded each of those slices into digital files and made a database out of it. It was going to be used for medical education, for research, to assist surgeons in virtual surgery and have all these medical applications. Of course this is this incredibly gothic moment of this corpse that was reanimated in the computer basically. It was a very fascinating field to look at in terms an objectification of the body by the sciences. Anatomy is one of the oldest traditions of that approach to the body. Here is a contemporary instance of anatomical science that is coming from this long tradition in the west, and it is now engaging with computer and web tech. One of the most intriguing things about this is that this is a body that was archived into a database. This database, as a mode of categorizing the body, seemed really interesting to me. I got a license to use those images in the database and started creating a kind of counter database of images. What you can do very simply is take each of those sections and line them up in cells and create an animation, or to use filmwatch. You can create these animations as if you were flying through the body. Using morphing programs and also basic animation you can create completely unrecognizable anatomical animations. These are bodies that 'slipped through the cracks' of anatomical categorizing.

The theoretical jumping point was again Bataille's notion of the formless, a term that confronts ambiguity through structure, but 'undoes' in the process. It is trying to locate this slippage, this moment of unrecognisability. I did that using digital anatomy on virtual surgery, as well as using 3D modelling. It was a theme's inspiration piece about databasing the body.

 

JB: Has your writing been connected to your artwork mostly or have you also done independent articles?

 

ET: Yes. Most of it recently has concentrated on biotech. But I have written a lot about new media and also science fiction. Right now I am trying to work on the relationship between science fiction and science. Trying to find more provocative ways of talking about that. I wrote an article in Art Journal that was about new media artists that are engaging with the techno sciences. They are trying to find complex ways of bringing up some of the issues that are of controversy in them, such as bio tech hobbyists, or Critical Art Ensemble, Mongrel.. Each are approaching different issues, using different strategies, different technologies and each group are coming up with different responses. What I used to contextualize that was science fiction in art practice, using that as a critical tool.

 

JB: When you are exploring these issues in the net or in the web, you are exploring them in the anatomy of a body that is also still being developed, which is also being criticized. How do you rewlate your investigation into these sciences to this highly unstable environment you are presenting a lot of your work in?

 

ET: What you just pointed out is one area for new media art to work in. To work with the instability of the medium, the certain points where it resists an instrumental codification. That is the tool that we know how to use in a predictable way. To intersect that instability with some of the bio science research, I think there has yet to be one interesting project that (as you can imagine) deals with bio informatics. Which has to create very articulate databases, which have to be up to the minute updated, that can be highly flexible. This is all based on having a stable medium. This is an online genetic body. I think there is a wonderful opportunity for somebody to do a really great new media net art piece and work with the instabilities. What happens when you get scrambled code? What happens when you get noise online with these genetic bodies? What happens when your connection drops? You can imagine all kinds of very unstable instances that are not just oppositional, but they are raising problems that are part of the medium, the technology.

 

JB: Is that the line you would also like to pursue? Which direction would you like your work to go most of all?

 

ET: In terms of the new medium, the artwork, now what I am pursuing is this relationship to science fiction. That is why I am working with Fakeshop. For us a point of departure for a lot of the pieces is science fiction films. They tend to be particular films from the late sixties to the late seventies. What they do is they create these immersive spaces, these spatially oriented web bodies or networked situated, modeled, posed bodies that are contextualized in many different ways. What is attractive to me about this is that science fiction on the one hand can form the function of critique. It can take some of the scientific knowledge out there and speculate on that, put it in an imaginative context. To bring up certain social and political issues. That is part of it. The other reason is that science fiction can create these affective spaces. If you have ever seen an installation that is immersive and you walked in, that can be a very powerful  experiential moment. When we are doing a specific piece, like Multiple Dwelling which was about Coma and bio medicine, we get very interesting responses. That is not exclusive to science fiction of course, but it has the same affective resonance that I identify with writers like JG Ballard, who is very much about creating haunting technological spaces.

 

JB: A technical question about the Fakeshop performances: what is your experience with a possible difference between an online and a real life audience?

 

ET: The respons of an audience member's body to the space they are experiencing the piece is of course very different from an online viewer. To generalize, what usually happens is that the people that physically present in an installation space experience that affective immersion, that "what have I walked into" type of feeling. For obvious reasons that is not present when you are an online participant.

A good example again is the Multiple Dwelling piece. The physical installation has bodies and performers in there. Then we create a virtual space. The connection between them is the body of the performers. In this futuristic hospital those bodies get digitally encoded and mapped in VRML space. That is the web component. At the same time you have an online networked 'community' being created, say, through CUseeme, and participants can re-transmit back, if they feel like it, their own bodies. These can then be re-assembled in the installation space. On the desktop, on the screen. These participants are also chatting. The chat texts always take these organic, weird, evolutionary, strange results. It is the networking of the virtual and real spaces and the different experiences that each of those people have that to me is exciting. It is exciting because you are insisting that net art is not just screenal. You are rubbing it up bodily materiality, you are making it confront that. It might fail miserably, or something interesting might happen, but it is really important to do. To not be satisfied with just the screenal net art.

 

JB: What could be a strategy to deal with institutions that very often do not wish to confront the physicality of net art?

 

ET: I have been really frustrated by it, for several reasons. I can only talk about my experiences in the States, which is very different than in Europe I think. In the US it is difficult to find institutions, even individuals, willing to take an open ended, risky maybe, but essentially creative view to approaching this kind of art. I am not a curator, but I recognise you have to deal with these issues of: how do you buy this art,  how do you collect it, how do you exhibit it, how do we fit it into the tradition of art museums that our culture has?

 

People like Steve Dietz are addressing these issues, but it is tough to find an arresting way to present this work that can have impact. Yes I think that creating a kiosk or whatever having dedicated computers is great, but people always say "I can look at this at home". Why go to this reified space and look at the artwork there? I think maybe one area to look at is institutional support of this art. Don't commission net art pieces, commission net art projects that are multi platform, that can exist in different contexts. Why not commission projects where you are going to ask somebody to do a work where one part is going to be an installation? It might mutate and become just online, it could become another component. We should develop some kind of modular way of thinking of how, if an institution is going to fund work, how that is going to be done. Maybe it should be more creatively thought out to accommodate these different contexts that we have. It is about challenging, impelling the artists to work in a multi contextual ways.

 

JB:  It is not so much challenging the artists to work in a different way I think, but impelling curators and the audience to look at this work in a different way. To show that the Internet is not about a bodiless cyberspace...

 

ET: You're right. I experience this a lot in teaching. I always try to do a section on hypertext for instance. For the majority of students this is totally new. They go through this experience "I had no idea there was stuff out there like this.. I go to my mp3 site, or use it for online shopping!" A very important step therefore is re-contextualizing the new medium. It has become a cliché now which is dominated still by e-commerce and online shopping. What I was talking about is maybe go a step further then that and challenging net art again to keep working with info tech with the web, but to also be dissatisfied with that to some extend. To try to explore different, mutated, adaptive ways of making artwork that is flexible to different contexts. I agree with you that I have more confidence in artists to do that then in people that are running institutions that have to deal with their own politics and histories.

 

JB: I don't really agree on this last remark either though. By giving institutions some kind of eye-opener you can show them it actually is more interesting for them too to look at this work in a different way.

 

ET: I think we do agree. Part of the impetus is in changing the modes of thinking. Fundamentally what is the issue is challenging people's modes of thinking about certain technologies, which develop out of certain historical ... This is a specific instance in that, and that is valuable to have.  I don't mean to totally critique screen based net art. I just think it is a challenge for net artists to take this different perspective. In doing that you are taking into account your audience, which is always in different contexts physically speaking. Where are they going to see it, how do they get their information? Rhizome and other websites are out there, they are not hard to find, but how do people get the information about it first? How do they become implicated in networks where they can find out about this stuff? Then how can they have a transformative experience and go back to their computer to look at their whole experience differently or think reflectively about it. It is the habituation process: it is a black box, you check your email, it goes wrong, you go crazy or whatever..

 

JB: Going back to the first part of the interview. In the panel you said there was no communication between the sciences and critical, cultural theory. Don't you risk with making art that you are not being taken seriously at all in both these fields when you criticize biotech?

 

ET: I think there is always a threat of recuperation going on no matter what. What is an issue is the discourse: who has the authority, the legitimation to speak on a certain subject? I definitely feel the challenges involved in that, because I am not a genetics researcher and formally speaking I don't have that background. It is a real challenge for people in the US in the science field to think about this issue of who can speak on a subject, who can ask questions about it, and based on that: how will that be received? The experience we were talking about in New York with the gene-media forum was a good illustration of that. I think it is great they had this exhibition of artists dealing with the net, and it is great to have this panel of ceo's from biotech corporations. But I didn't really see a lot of communication going on between those two instances. For instance nobody from the biotech panel brought up art. Nobody even said that it was important, as lip service, to say that. It was totally absent from the discussion. There was no communication to begin with, so -that- recuperation could happen. It is happening in a much more silent way.  The way it was happening was through the funding of the exhibit and then it's location in the safe space of the gallery. There are a lot of difficult challenges that are going to come up in collaborative instances of art that is critiquing biotech. It might be that it ends up in the same position as certain forms of bio activism end up: people crying and whining about something. The science community always feels threatened by that because it is very oppositional. So it is a risk to work on this in art, but maybe one way of working is breaking down those boundaries and saying that in some instances you need to take an oppositional stance and confront issues. In other instances it is a lot more complicated then that. The willingness to do that, the risk of maybe compromising certain traditions or positions seems to me worth doing.