Baruch Gottlieb

An Interview with Baruch Gottlieb: Flusser, Art and the “Modern Apotheosis”

by  Vit Van Camp

 

Dr. phil. Baruch Gottlieb, trained as a filmmaker at Concordia University, has been working in digital art with specialization in public art since 1999.  From 2005-2008 he was assistant professor of Media Art at Yonsei University Graduate School for Communication and Arts in Seoul, Korea where he founded and still directs, with Ji Yoon Yang, Korea‘s first Sound Art festival SFXSeoul. He is active member of the Telekommunisten, Arts & Economic Group and laboratoire de déberlinisation artist collectives. Author of “Gratitude for Technology” (ATROPOS 2009) and “A Political Economy of the Smallest Things” (ATROPOS 2016), he currently lectures in philosophy of digital art at the University of Arts Berlin and is fellow of the Vilém Flusser Archiv. He is curator of the exhibition series “Flusser & the Arts” based on the philosophical writings of Vilém Flusser, which, after premiering at ZKM, Karlsruhe, has traveled to AdK Berlin, West, The Hague and now GAMU Prague. He writes extensively on digital media, digital archiving, generative and interactive processes, digital media for public space and on social and political aspects of networked media.

 

Vít Bohal> Apart from curating the exhibition ‘Without Firm Ground: Vilém Flusser and the Arts,’ you are also an active media artist and theoretician. What originally drew you to Flusser’s philosophy of art and how do you implement it in your work?

 

Baruch Gottlieb> Working as a film maker in the early nineties I was confronted with the industry-wide integration of video in film production, and it has since been endlessly fascinating to probe the differences between the two technologies of film and video. Having read McLuhan, I was very attuned to differences between the techno-industrial predicates of each form, and I began to see all films as advertisements of film equipment and all videos as advertisements of video equipment. I took a step back and got involved in performance, dance, music and sound art for about 10 years.

 

In 2005 at EGS, I had the great fortune to study with Siegfried Zielinski who introduced me to his fascinating and revealing anarchaeological approach to technical aesthetics. In 2008 Prof. Zielinski kindly offered me a researcher-in-residence position at the Vilém Flusser Archive where I was given the task to digitize all the video materials of Flusser in the archive. It was a great way to get to know Flusser’s scintillating wit and unique approach to technical change and its effects of culture and society. What I found at first most interesting and useful was that his “dimension theory” allowed for the ever accelerating curve of technological transformation to be articulated into techniques and processes, processes which were all finally grounded in linear writing and causal thinking. This gave me a great ballast to encounter the dizzying and giddy enthusiasm of the early Internet Age. We might be in post-history, but sustaining this condition are technological processes from the historical age. Flusser’s genealogy of technological change describes how we still have agency and responsibility despite intensifying automation.

 

I come to see Flusser’s understanding of art as indistinguishable from his understanding of technology in general.  After all, ‘techné’ is ‘art’ in Latin, and Flusser was someone who derived much inspiration from etymology.

 

Your book Gratitude for Technology (2009) focuses on themes of New Media and the potentially emancipatory role of technology.  In his Towards a Philosophy of Photography, Flusser also speaks of the necessity of labouring and playing against the constraints of the technological apparatus itself which he understands as a method through which an artist may develop any truly informative work of art. How do you, in your work as artist and theorist, approach the constraints of technology, and in what manner do you find yourself working against them?

 

First, we need to understand language itself as a technology which has enormous sociocultural implications; implication which we are still dealing with today. Silent, anonymous, perpetual written language created Plato, The Republic, democracy and many of the institutions which still shape our lives.  Playing with and against these technologies is the elaboration of our – what Flusser considers uniquely human – capacity to generate negentropic “unlikely information” through dialogues and interventions in what he calls the “apparatus,” meaning the technical environment we inhabit.

 

In the frame of this exhibition project, one aspect I am most satisfied with is the symposium approach I developed with Steffi Winkler to help reprocess and metabolize the complex themes and engagements running through Flusser’s thought and life. This dialogical structure is an attempt towards a Flusserian and utopian social practice, working with/against the institutional apparatus of public panel discussions and academic colloquia where we, the participants, can surprise each other with the exchange and collaborative generation of unlikely information.

A central question of Gratitude for Technology was the epistemological importance of the Human Scale – meaning the dynamics of elating our empirical world, our grammars and metaphors which are based in conventional human experience through the senses, to that which is generated at the speed of light and at subatomic scales in electronics. Flusser provokes us to elaborate new Humanisms for the new infinitesimal and enormous phenomena we must contend with today. “A Ptolemaic counterrevolution is required.”

 

The exhibition which was recently on display in Prague is a part of a series of exhibitions which explores the relationship of philosophers to artistic production (ex: ‘Jean Baudrillard and the Arts,’ ‘Foucault and the arts,’ etc.). In what manner does philosophy inform the artistic process in 21st century Western culture, and where would you say it continues to find its relevance?

 

The emergence of Humanist science, which makes contemporary digital aesthetics possible, cannot be distinguished from its philosophical traditions. Flusser likes to remind us that today’s “technical images” may look like the iconic images of the pre-literate age, and we may want to respond to them as human beings did to the ancient images, but in fact “technical images” are something quite different. Since they are produced through technologies inscribed with the scientific method, rather than being images of the world, they are images of those scientific and philosophical texts.  Flusser encourages us to criticise these images, not merely in terms of their “content” but in terms of the technologies which produce them. Understanding digital communication as projections of the linear codes inscribed in the apparatus, we can hope to reprogram the apparatus rather than to simply function according to its program.

 

Peter Weibel initiated the series, which included “Max Bense and the Arts,” “Paul Virilio and the Arts” and “Michel Foucault and the Arts,” These projects were attempts to grasp and understand the socio-cultural transformations of the electronic age, generated through the interface of science and philosophy as manifested and catalysed in artistic practices. In the case of Virilio, we even have a thinker who was trained as an architect and worked as a photographer. Flusser also saw collaborations with Fred Forest, Louis Bec, Andreas Müller-Pohle and others as a way to generate new synthetic modes of thinking which could better grasp the concepts constantly emerging in contemporary society, heterogeneously disrupted through technological developments.

 

Certainly, at one point the series must be extended to produce a massive celebration of the unique visionary and critical creator called “Peter Weibel and the Arts.” This is not to forget Siegfried Zielinski, without whom we may not have the Vilém Flusser archive today, and who stood at the origin of this Flusser exhibition project.  He is another audacious and inspiring thinker with deep interest in artists and in the arts who deserves a “Siegfried Zilelinski and the Arts.”

 

Although born in Prague, Flusser was a cosmopolitan, and a self-professed nomad. To what extent would you consider his philosophy to be deterritorialized in its themes, content, and form?

 

Flusser’s exodus was involuntary – he fled from Prague at the beginning of the German occupation. He writes with alarming frankness about this dark and miserable period when he had lost all hope in the Humanist project – a project which produced such a living nightmare as the holocaust was.  He found himself as a migrant confronted with a profoundly modern apotheosis.

 

He was able to embrace his migrant fate in a nation of migrants. He began to see the migrant identity as emblematic of the contemporary age when, whether people perceive it or not, every notion of home and father- or mother-land is perforated by “visible and invisible cables like an Emmenthaler cheese.”

 

Das heile Haus mit Dach, Mauer, Fenster und Tür gibt es nur noch in Märchenbüchern. Materielle und immaterielle Kabel haben es wie einen Emmentaler durchlöchert: auf dem Dach die Antenne, durch die Mauer der Telephondraht, statt Fenster das Fernsehen, und statt Tür die Garage mit dem Auto. Das heile Haus wurde zur Ruine, durch deren Risse der Wind der Kommunikation bläst. Das ist ein schäbiges Flickwerk. Eine neue Architektur, ein neues Design ist vonnöten.

 

“The safety of home with its roof, wall, window and door now only exists in fairy tales.  Material and immaterial cables have perforated it like an Emmenthaler cheese: on the roof, an antenna, through the wall a telephone wire, instead of windows, television, and instead of a door, the garage with a car.  The safety of home has become a ruin, through its cracks the winds of communication blow. […] Instead of this ramshackle home, a new architecture, a new design is required. “ (my translation)

 

In Flusser, only the Migrant has an authentic experience, and the migrant experience calls for new forms of philosophical practice.  This understanding informed some of his most ambitious institutional projects such as the “House of Colour,” and his re-envisioning of the Sao Paulo Biennale. It was also, however, apparent to him that had the Second World War not cast him adrift, he would never have become the thinker he became.

 

Since Flusser’s death in 1991, his work has been getting seemingly more and more attention. Has there been any shift in the reading public’s and academic reception of Flusser’s work in the last decade?

 

The recent surge in attention to Flusser’s work is certainly due to the increase in available translations. Flusser was an intellectual outsider and he did not publish in academic journals.  Having had to break off his academic studies to flee Czechoslovakia, he could never become a university professor. Happily, this did not deter him, and he always found ways to get an audience for his thinking. However, his unorthodox career generated an approach to writing which was somewhat incompatible with academics.  Therefore his work was enthusiastically embraced at first mainly by artists and designers.

 

Flusser’s discursive style is always performative. He developed his ideas in correspondence with his peers. He is not someone who is easy to quote at face value, as his propositions are often made with a categorical brusqueness, but one which yearns for the reader’s response. You can see this in his later computer-based interactive works, where there is always the affordance made for the reader to intervene and even alter the text. These works were visionary, and if he had lived longer, he certainly would have risen to public attention sooner.  In 1991, appreciation for his work was at its peak and he certainly would have had several more breakthroughs had he not suddenly died in a car accident.

 

Today, the academia is also changing under the pressures of new technologies, globalization and neo-liberalism.  We see the lines between theory and practice breaking down. Flusser’s synthetic approach seems very well suited to this current environment, which may also help explain his increased popularity.

The exhibition has so far been on display in Berlin, The Hague and Karlsruhe. Is Prague its final stop or will there be occasion for another reprise in another context?

 

There is a lot of interest in bringing the show to some further destinations, Slovenia, Korea, Canada and, of course, Brazil.  The latter destinations seem the most plausible since a lot of materials already exist in English and Portuguese. Translation is the most expensive and demanding aspect of a show like this, where we are trying to manifest thinking.  I am very happy that this occasion in Prague allows us to generate new Flusserian content in the Czech language, and I am very grateful to the team here, Eliška Žáková, Pavel Vančát, Kateřina Krtilová, Martina Špidlová and our volunteers for putting in the time and careful effort, so that the work we do for this exhibition can continue to help cultivate Czech Flusserians into the future.

 

For Flusser writing was essential “scribere necesse est, vivere non est,” and though he sought new technical forms of philosophy which were adequate to grapple with our perceptions of our world today, my experience with the show is that audiences appreciate, and even require, quite a lot of textual assistance to enter into his universe of ideas. It is a challenge to provide this in a way that contributes to the synthetic aim of the exhibition and also doesn’t overload the viewer.  As we adapt the exhibition to each new context, I feel we are improving our techniques, so if there is a next one in this series, it might be even better! As we bring the exhibition through the world, we produce many unexpected new trajectories to engage with Flusser.

 


The text first appeared in Czech translation in an April, 2017 issue of A2 magazine: https://www.advojka.cz/ .

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