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Interview with Dan Oki 2011

Dan Oki

As a pioneer of media art in Eastern Europe in the early seventies, you have a good overview of east west relation in this field. Are the things changed today?

DM: It is dangerous to generalize such a wide field and I am not particularly informed to be able to discuss this matter seriously. It seems to me that in the, let's say seventies, we didn't bother so much with the geographical or ideological aspects of our work. The people and the places that use to organize festivals, screenings or media exhibitions didn't care about that stuff either. It was all more or less part of an alternative scene, it was more about enthusiasm and experimentation than about cultural division and divided territories. We were all primarily video artists who didn't want to see video instutionalized, appropriated either by TV or museums. We both know that there are certain expectations, certain prejudices, certain perceptions of the East European art and artists on the so called West. From the nineties on there were many big shows that dealt with east European art but instead reaching for the individual artists and artworks they most often fitted already existing prejudices and tried to fulfill the existing expectations. Easter European curators and theoreticians often add to such ghetoisation by insisting on idiosyncrasies that should define or differentiate Eastern art from that of the West. The need for such differentiation comes primarily from the art market. My work is a part, and hopefully takes part in social environment in which I work. At the same time I try not to bring into it any of the folkloric elements that could make it recognizably ‚?ěEast European‚?? or ‚?ěBalkan‚??.

There are not so many of your works dealing with east-west relations, but there are lot of your works which can be considered equally as a part of western and eastern artistic circle. Do you think that this is true?

DM: One of specificities of being a young artist in the sixties in the then existent Yugoslavia was that, although the regime was communist, one didn't feel as being under the iron curtain. We were able to travel which meant that we could stay abroad if we wished to. The exchange of information was much better than it was in, say, Poland or then existent Soviet Union. In the early seventies Beuys came to Belgrade, and from mid seventies Italian gallerist Paolo Cardazzo organized regular video meetings bringing video equipment and facilitating video production for artists from Zagreb. For these reasons I believe my work was not defined by the East or the West. They are just ideological constructs anyway.

Large part of your recent work belong to the so-called Data recovery. Such title points toward information technology, computers, the sphere of the digital, but your work doesn't depend that much on hi-tech, does it?

DM: You are right, I am not illiterate when it comes to computers and hi-tech but I don't consider myself a technical person. I try to be a qualified user but I am not fascinated by technology. In fact, I was in the US last month, and I was shocked by the addictive behavior of I-Phone owners. You see people in the caffees, in the restaurants, in the galleries, everywhere, compulsively pushing pages on the touchscreen of the phone by the middle finger. The finger that served for sending a ‚?ěscrew you‚?? message of independence and dissent now becomes the tool for permanent contact with the device. Something else I find interesting when dealing with technology. Every new technological era brings changes in social relations. It is specially the case in the late capitalism because capital uses technology to turn citizens into users. So, I try to trace how certain aspect of it interfere with these relations. My first ‚?ěseries‚?? type of work I called Binary series. The title suggests, just like the data recovery, information technology but I was interested primarily in the situation when most of the controlling content becomes coded. Ofcourse, I am not the first to notice the new paradigm, Lyotard defined the digital code as a code without an analogy to its origin.

What are those works about?

DM: In one hand I wanted to explore the hidden dimension of the artwork, that level which is not instantly readable, i.e.. not the visible layer which uncovers material, form, metaphor etc. I was wandering what happens if under that accessible layer I add another one that hidden in a code. Such work acquires a dual nature - visible-iconic and crypted-numerical, it becomes a carrier, a structure that holds a form to the outside and a message to the inside And what if there lies something totally different from what the work seems to communicate? What if there lies a subversion of the visible? Would it be possible that the work plays to the expectations of the viewer and simultaneously sends suspectable and problematic, controversial messages? Could such artwork be cozily placed in a conflictless museum space and at the same time critically address real social issues? On the other hand I wanted to look into our concept of reality and explore how many for our life important elements are still in that visible layer where there is still an analogy with their origin. The first work from Binary series was hidden in a video film ‚?ěDutch Moves‚?? I made 1985 for ZDF television in a scene with two saxophone players whose instruments emit light impulses. In 2001 I re-edited famous Hollywood movie Maltese Falcon with Humphrey Bogart, in such a way that a binary coded message is inscribed into it. The 0‚??s are turned into black frames while 1‚??s are left as originally filmed frames. The movie acquired a flickering feel typical for the old movies from the beginning of film history. The hidden coded message is ‚?ěChiapas: The Southeast in Two Winds‚??, essay by Insurgent Subcommander Marcos of the Zapatista National Liberation Army, written in August of 1992.

Let‚??s go back to Data Recovery...

D.M.: Data Recovery is a procedure of partial recovery of lost data from the memory without the context which, before the loss occurred, gave the positive informational, social, or other meaning. As with the loss of data on the computer disk which is sometimes possible to retrieve only fragmentarily and dispersed outside the original files, this procedure is an attempt to recover pieces of action, events or situations which are lost in our general memory-loss. The important thing is not contextualize such event through interpretation, historicizing and manipulation of the lost meaning. The history is a continuous succession of confabulations, spontaneous production of false memories. Instead of the description which places the content in the historical time and place I want to generate what Wallace Stevens called ‚?ěan occurrence without context which completely conforms to the real event‚??.

Does that relates to the social, historical or political context in which you work?

D.M.: Data recovery series is ofcourse strongly related and/or influenced to the above mentioned social environment. For the readers we should say that Croatian society is postsocialist society going through the critical period of transition. Yugoslavia fell apart in the early nineties only after a brutal and bloody war which destroyed the existent social fabric. Many wounds are still open and the issue of memory is a critical one. We know that person must be able to forget in order to avoid continuous post traumatic pressure. At the same time society needs to remember in order not to fall into the famous Marx claim that history happens twice, first as tragedy, then as farce. Data Rec is obviously about the memory or lost memory and how to retrieve it and what is that thing we are retrieving.

When did you start to work on the series of works under the name of Data recovery?

DO.ME.: I decided to group certain works under the common title Data recovery around 2004 I think. The trigger was an event that happened on Dec. 27, 2004. The monument to Yugoslavia's late antifascist fighter and communist leader Josip Broz Tito was blasted with an explosive device in his native village of Kumrovec in northern Croatia. I went there and took the emptied post on the pedestal to commemorate this date. Since the government tried to minimize the damage with the statement that the sculpture will be restaured promptly I thought that I could make a monument to the destruction of the monument. My taking place of Tito on the pedestal was meant to underlay its absence. As I stood on that marble with the golden letters TITO incised in it as his stand-in my personal experience was very strong, I became aware that this particular place was a taboo, a place no one should ever dare to take, not in physical, not in political, not in symbolical sense. The performance provoked intense media coverage and started the discussion about the collective denial syndrome of Croatian recent history. Later I did several projects which dealt with Tito and events of his speeches in public urban spaces, like city squares or from the balcony above it.

Do you think that even before you started working on this series, actual concept was already embedded in some of your previous works?

D.M.: These works opened the issue of chronology. It shows how questionable the concept of chronology as a model for judging creative process is. It is questionable in establishing relation between original and generated event as well as in relation between the works in the series themselves. That‚??s why I try to observe an event or a gesture diachronically, in parallel temporal and social frameworks. Data recovery work is contemporary because it is anachronistic, anachronism is its structural characteristic. Data recovery concept is embedded in some of my very early works, it seems that they were waiting for me to catch-up.

One of your recent works is reading of TV news journal from 1974 in ex-Yugoslavia? Is it as much related to your own work from that time as on the historical time itself?

D.M.: This is the best example of early work with Data recovery potential. I made my very first video in 1974. by pointing video camera at TV set on which I arranged some kind of nature mort with plaster sculpture, fruit and cloth. The concept grew from the limitations since I was not allowed to take the equipment out of the classroom of a school which owned it. I waited for the evening news and started videotaping. The video lived its life as such for 35 years and then, in 2009, I realised that I have saved in it the whole news show of that particular day. So, I decided to redo the News, now with all the contemporary technical, graphic and media elements but keeping the original transcript intact. The work is called TV News Sept. 4, 1974., and to come up with the exact date I had to consult a sport journalist at Croatian Television because in the sport section of the news there was a the information that on the same day Yugoslav runner won golden medal at European Athletic Championship held in Rome. It is strange how many things have changed or disappeared in this period of 35 years. The social system changed dramatically, from communism straight to late capitalism, damn it, the country we use to live disappeared altogether, the war happened, I became a father... On the other hand some things stayed strangely untouched: the divided Cyprus, Israeli occupation of Palestine, the issue of terrorism...

The idea of superimposition and the time bridge is also present in the recent work. I am thinking about autobiographical concept which was constructed around the idea of answering your own questions publicly asked 31 years ago. How did you feel answering questions from the past on 1st channel of Croatian Television?

D.M.: Yeah, it is ‚?ěDalibor Martinis talks to Dalibor Martinis‚??. The concept was very demanding and it meant more self-obligation than any other work that I did. The performance of the same name I did in 1978 in Western Front art centre in Vancouver. In it I posed 22 questions to my self but the answers to them I was to give in the year 2000. I did that in front of an audience and TV cameras. The tape with the recording of the performance then sat on the shelve for 22 years. In 2000 I realized that I don't have the right situation for completion of the work. Interest for it was too weak and I decided to wait 'till things change for better. Finally at the beginning of 2010 I talked about the project to a woman from Croatian Television who runs her talk show and she loved the idea. So, suddenly, after 32 years of waiting the Dalibor Martinis talks to Dalibor Martinis was done, I sat in the studio of the talk show in front of the big plasma screen on which the old tape with questions was played back and answered them. The show was broadcast nationally and regionally. Many people saw it and it attracted quite a bit of media coverage. The first question Dalibor Martinis from the year 1978 posed to Dalibor Martinis from the year 2010 was: ‚?ěIs Dalibor Martinis alive?‚?? At that moment that seemed like a joke but actually it was a fair question because 32 years is almost a life time, isn't it? If you watch the show it seems as if a son is questioning his father and in fact both the questions and the answers have something of the generation gap feeling, like each of them, or us, or me, is trying to outsmart the other.

Today we have explosion of broadcast yourself situations on public networks. Do you think that this has became an important artistic context?

D.M.: The potential is great but the openness of the platform may soon become the main obstacle. I remember the time when the concept of open access television started in New York. It was in the late seventies when the city obliged all the cable TV operators to leave some channels open for the people who want to show their on programs. I was staying there together with Sanja Ivekovic and we went one day to one of the cable TV stations with our video. They took it and immediately gave us the scheduled time of broadcast. We felt great but soon after we realized that there were maybe a dozen or more such channels together with hundred of commercial channels and the number people watching our video would most probably be really small. Then, just like now, most of the people who started their own little shows had very narcissistic drives, they were trying to catch some attention without having anything to say actually. That, ofcourse, doesn't mean that on YouTube you can't see anything interesting, it's just that so much stuff is there.

What do you think about the idea that we have partially freed our ability of self expression by network platforms. Not just by the fact of avatars and eradication of spatial communication boundaries, but also because of every day life alterations?

D.M.: It seems great that anybody can become anybody but even now as I say it such opportunity appears somewhat tautological, doesn't it? If I can be somebody else, somebody who is not me in the real social circumstances, then how do I know to whom I am talking to? What is the purpose of not me talking to not somebody else? It actually started before social networks were born with the growing attention to the diversity of lifestyles as the way to personal freedom. But the free choice of personal lifestyle didn't free the people, unemployed person can't change his or her social condition by choosing another lifestyle or another personality.

You have made couple of web related works. How did you contextualized it in your artistic research?

D.M.: I did several web projects and when I think of them I could say that they all came out from a process of some sort of quantification of certain aspects of social relations. One of the projects is Variable Risk Landscape in which I decided to mimic the monthly curve drawn by particular stock of the stock market by hiking the same curve up or down the mountains. The value of the art project itself is fixed to the value of that stock so it changes continuously. The other is Marchonline which is a platform for online demonstrations either to support some political aim or as a dissent, depending on who starts the march and with what motivation. The third one, called ..... is an urban project which moves from city to city, always to a location that has certain importance or meaning in the particular town. On that location it shows the quality of global human condition by using a color scale. The system is online and uses the web as a source for drawing the data in order to choose the according color. Although they all try to be an adequate rendering of real social conditions you can sense certain irony in all of them. I believe that social change can happen only in the physical world, in the world were our bodies are, because social change has to be enforced upon bodies.

Recently we witness that lot of Art Academies in Eastern and Western Europe are heading towards artistic research as a university based PhD programs. So called practice based PhDs. What do you think about it?

D.M.: It is a strictly academic issue, I don't see the purpose or the meaning for this outside of academic circle. Can an artist with PhD claim better career? Would that be of any significance in the museum and gallery circle? Some artists, very often including myself, work on the project type of works were research is its structural part, but I wouldn't like that to become a rule or a fact by which somebody measures creative process or evaluate the artist. It teach at an art school just as you do and I wonder what is your opinion on this matter?

Where is your next research going?

Actually, I am working with Bryan Reynolds, performance theorist on a collaboration piece, a theatrical play which will have as its subject the idea of communism. I just came from US where we did a research work for the project. The play will have bodies of 5 dead communist leaders, or dictators, if you prefer, Slavoj Zizek as a morgue attendant, and a female dancer as communist idea. The play is divided by genre in two parts following famous Marx' claim that history happens twice, first as tragedy then as farce. The concept came out from a performance ‚?ěSimultaneous Speech‚?? that I did in 2008 in a theatre in Regensburg. That piece had a language and text as a medium by which one can intertwine historical and present events into a new event. Simultaneous Speech recalls the scenes of the speeches of world leaders at the UN where the speaker is attended by tens of interpreters. With all the institutional effort to overcome the Tower of Babel syndrome, in fact in similar situations one can never be sure how much and to what extent such a speech and its signifiers are understood in each one of the translated languages. In ‚?ěSimultaneous Speech‚?? 12 interpreters sitting deployed over a stand behind the speaker in fact do not translate his speech, but instead read out 12 different texts. These texts are transcripts of speeches made by famous 20th century artists and political leaders. The contents are dislocated with respect to the original linguistic, geographical and cultural contexts and driven into those languages in which their original meaning can be understood or interpreted differently. Marinetti‚??s Futurist Manifesto is spoken in Swahili, Joseph Beuys in Hindi, Duchamp‚??s lecture in Chinese, the statement of Osama bin Laden in Spanish, and so on. I am just finishing a book of the performance with video DVD.