Renowned French media artist Maurice Benayoun converses with Tanya Toft as they visit Wall Street, Zuccotti Park, the World Trade Center, Trinity Church and St. Pauls in New York City’s Financial District. [30:00]
Transcript of the video,”Maurice Benayoun Occupies the Financial District, NYC”
In the universe of French pioneer new-media artist Maurice Benayoun, art is a tool of change. He creates fictional situations inside reality to make the world more understandable and to expose its economic absurdities. Benayoun brings us beyond the digital era, beyond technology, and beyond the four walls of the museum in forecasting scenarios where “occupation” is a human reclaiming of the world, accessible through the open window (screens) on walls.
STREAMING MUSEUM (SM): In the Mechanics of Emotions series of over 20 works, including Emotion Forecast and Occupy Wall Screens, which Streaming Museum is exhibiting, you take data from search engines and sculpt them into artistic metaphors. What is the statement you are making in this series about capitalism, globalism, and humanity?
MAURICE BENAYOUN (MB): Everybody is using the Internet to make statistics, to try to understand the world. And mostly, these data are used to help the finance world to understand how to create new markets and explore the possibility to make more money. I was really excited about the fact that these data can be about something that is very human. Something that is not usually quantified, like emotions of the world, emotions of people, emotions of the bigger cities, and so on. I consider the Internet as the world’s nervous system where everybody becomes the nerve’s ending. We can get feedback from 7 billion people that tell us how people feel in different places around the world. This is not trying to be a real scientific tool. It is more an attempt to make the human factor a priority, in a symbolic way.
SM: Emotion Forecast makes a hybrid integration of stock quote format and the human factor. What meaning, ideas and reactions do you intend for the general public to have from experiencing this work?
MB: I want people to start thinking that something is happening that can lead us to a better understanding of the world. Technology should not neutralize people. Of course you can expect Emotion Forecast to tell you what will be the feelings of the world tomorrow and the day after tomorrow. What Emotion Forecast analyzes is not the real emotions of the world. It’s the emotions of the world filtered by the Internet, and it is only representing a certain part of the world. The interesting thing in Mechanics of Emotion is that if you look carefully to some of the maps that come from this work, you see that some continents, some parts of the world, are completely invisible. They don’t exist, like missing limbs of the global body. It doesn’t mean that these places don’t “feel”. It just means that the web reflects nothing about what is happening there.
SM: In your manifesto, Art After Technology, you express an understanding of new-media art as constantly in progress. How is the symbolic value of Emotion Forecast and Occupy Wall Screens being altered from their exhibition in New York – In addition to being exhibited in Europe and in cyberspace?
MB: Emotion Forecast could exist everywhere. It is created for the Net for the information to be widely distributed, and for screen on walls. Occupy Wall Screens is different. It is very important for a media work to be context specific and to take into account where it is placed. So I thought about this work, while thinking about New York. For me, it is a beginning of something, of a kind of action that can be an extension of the actual Occupy Wall Street movement. I would like people to think more about how to occupy, through new media, globally. Because this is the place to be when you want something to be heard by everybody.
SM: So Occupy Wall Screens has a home in New York in the way that this was where the idea had its origin?
MB: Yes exactly. I was really thinking about what kind of emotions makes sense to me now. And I have been really impressed by the Occupy Wall Street movement, by the fact that this movement is not coming from a party or from an existing political group. It is just coming from the fact that people can no longer stand the absurdity of the economic situation. And the fact that this is starting from New York, from Wall Street, from a district where people have been defending a certain vision of the world, dominated mostly by money, is very strong. I hope the movement will take other shapes now. I don’t think that the impact in Europe is as big as it should be. So, if it is possible for my work, and other works with similar intentions, to occupy screens all over the world, then maybe more and more people will participate in creating actions and events – maybe new kind of symbols – that will make this movement stronger in the minds of people.
SM: Are you saying that Occupy Wall Screens is an attempt to help the movement progress and grow in people’s minds?
MB: It is definitely a way to give another key to understand the movement and what is going on. I wanted to quantify emotions the same way as the stock exchange and the stock market, and put emotions and economy together in one work where we have them face-to-face. This is the key of Mechanics of Emotions. This is my way to support the movement and maybe to open new tracks and new possibilities of development.
SM: We are in the middle of Zuccotti Park, which was occupied by the Occupy Wall Street protesters. What should the message of Occupy Wall Street protesters be, and to whom should it be addressed?
MB: I think, for me, that this movement is such a strong thing in the way that for the first time, so many people decided to act without any political guidance behind that… we have reached a point in history where the dominant people are just trying to fool everybody, and I think the way this movement spread around the world is the evidence that this is something totally legitimate that should be followed in different ways. And so of course the question is how this movement can have more than a symbolic impact; how can it really change the world. It is time to use the tools that people have to make a big impact. And media are really important. This is why I thought it would be interesting to go from the street to the screen. And then to start, to not only occupy the walls in the city but also to occupy the medias, globally, and to make people think that there is a strong group of people that really want to change the world in a way. The question is: What to occupy? Where to occupy? How to occupy? And what for? What kind of impact we want on the world; what kind of change is really needed now, and I guess now is the time to build on the next step.
SM: Can you give examples of what you intend for the public to experience in other works of yours, such as Tunnel Under the Atlantic?
MB: I am trying to create situations. I am trying to have people in certain situations where they are committed to the act and to act in a way that help them to think about what they are doing. In 1995, in the Tunnel, they were actually digging to meet people on the other side of the Atlantic. It took them five days before seeing the face of the other. There is an important statement to make from this, which is that even if technology allows you to do something in real time, to see people in real time all over the world, maybe the intensity of emotion in the meeting is stronger if it takes five days. In Tunnel Under the Atlantic, the impact of the work was gained intensity because of a delay. People came one or to hours a day, then came the day after and the day after again. This was really amazing because people are not used to return to see the same work. It was not just about seeing the work; it was to have a kind of collective experience with other people and to enjoy being in touch with somebody you didn’t know. That is very often what people do on the Internet.
SM: Is that related to your idea of architecture of communication?
MB: Yes, because I think that technology allows communication; allows the possibility to be in touch; to see the image, to hear the sound. Now we have to give communication a shape. We might have to create a form of architecture, a kind of scenario where this communication goes to another level. On the Internet, people are trying to be in touch with so many people they don’t know. What they want is for all these people to know that they exist. It is a kind of magic mirror. But it is also possible to build this architecture like real architecture in which we have a quality of life, get involved and sometimes meet people, sometimes not. And for this situation of communication I think it is possible to create a very specific scenario.
SM: You have said that technology alters our relationship to the world. In what ways do you think it should be used other than how it is currently being used?
MB: I think that today, technology is mostly being created to be a shortcut between the concept, the idea, and the thing. What we dream of is supposed to be partly possible now, thanks to technologies. And so I think that technologies could maybe help us to see the world in a more creative way and also in a more critical way. And this is why I talk about “Critical Fusion.”
SM: Will you explain the concept, critical fusion?
MB: I have been working a lot on immersion, which means to introduce real people inside the visual world, inside the fiction. I believe that if we want to “change the world”, it is better to introduce fiction inside reality, which is the exact opposite. This, to introduce fiction inside reality, is to create a situation in “the society of the spectacle”. I think it is possible to introduce fiction inside reality to make reality understandable. This is what I call “Critical Fusion”; fusion of fiction and reality in a way that makes the situation visible, that makes it understandable. So it is no longer “the society of the spectacle”, it is “the spectacle of society”. That is what I try to create in my artwork. Creating things that look like business and economics, like Emotion Forecast. I present this as if we are all in a business market of great potential while at the same time I am talking about something that is quite the opposite. This is what I call “Critical Fusion.”
SM: What about your concept of H2H (Human 2 Human), which refers to the idea of B2B (Business 2 Business). What is the idea behind H2H and how can social media play a role in it?
MB: When you think of it, the world is made of people thinking of B2B or B2C; business-to-business and business-to-consumer. What if the world would be built on relationships between humans? I found it necessary to create H2H, human-to-human. Whatever we do, it is done by humans, conceived by humans, for humans. This seems very obvious, but when we don’t think about it we create useless products, useless innovation, rather than thinking about something new to bring to the human kind. So this is why I created the H2H Lab. This is a place where we are talking about human mediations and ways to help people to communicate in any kind of way. Also, considering that art is the forefront, the avant-garde of human mediation, H2H is probably a good way to make people understand that art has a role to play in this direction.
SM: How do you consider the role of the contemporary artist, and how is this different from his role throughout history?
MB: That is always a difficult question. For me, today’s artist is not only exploring the medium. The artist is not always depending on sponsors or on the church, so they can think about a new mission that is not about transmitting religion or to try to magnify the image of a sponsor. Today, the role of the artist is probably more about helping people to understand the world. For me, this is a big mission, but somebody has to do it. Of course scientists, economists and politicians helped us to understand the world, but artists do it in a very different way. And sometimes the artists’ method is stronger because they create the evidence of what is happening.
SM: What mechanisms drive your projects, in the context of the contemporary art world?
MB: I come form contemporary art, although what I have been doing for the last 20 years is probably far away from what people consider contemporary art. Not because the intention is different, but because the means I am using are different. We don’t need technology all the time; we just need not to reject it for what it is or what it is not. There are people asking me about which artists inspired me and so on, and I cannot answer this question because I guess I’ve been inspired by all of art history, but also science, politics, literature and philosophy are part of the inspiration. Artists just have to be a kind of filter. And so, I am inspired by everything that made the world how it is and make it visible, to give another kind of transparency.
SM: Will you describe your work as post-digital art?
I guess so, I am really intrigued about the question of what will be art “after technology”. I think the digital era is creating a big change, a kind of a tsunami that will absorb every domain of activity, every field. And now we are open. We can use all the means available in a very open way. Even the frame is open. We are not obliged to stay in a frame or obliged to stay in a screen. We can invade the city, we can invade the real world; act on any kind of material that is reachable and accessible. This is what I call open media art. This is what I try to do in my work, not to demonstrate that something is possible, but to enjoy this freedom to be able to talk about the world and what is happening to people, by using everything, including the real life.
SM: What is the future of postdigital art, or open media art?
It is always difficult. The future, as we can predict it, is something coming from the present. So it is everything. We can of course choose to deny digital art and do low tech projects. This is one of the trends that will be followed, which we have to take into account, because we are being completely overwhelmed by messages and data information. Sometimes we just wand to free ourselves, and artists will probably have to fight against this as well. It is possible now to act on real life, change life, to create new scenarios for life, avoid scenarios, fight against scenarios, to create new ways of surveillance, avoid surveillance. And we will explore what is possible as well as the potential and the dangers of possibilities.
SM: What is the future of the museum?
The museum is a recent invention, which has probably existed for only two centuries. So the future of the museum will probably not be a museum. It doesn’t mean that the museum won’t exist; it will exist in talks about what has been done before – and in creating documentation of what has been done. But now, we are working more and more in forms of art that are made of streams, that are dynamic forms, that are not finished, achieved objects that are supposed to reach perfection in a way. These forms of art will be processes, they would be impermanent evolutions, and the quality of the evolutions, of the process, will be the demonstration of the excellence of the work. What kind of museum is supposed to be traditionally static? What can it make with something organic? Art is becoming rhizomatic, organic, and we have to face this big change.
SM: Streaming Museum aims to exhibit artwork that resonates across cultures and across differences between cultures. What do you think would be the characteristics of such artwork – for combining and connecting cultures?
MB: For me, for a work to be really successful, it should be streaming. Not in terms of video technology, but in terms of dynamics. Something that won’t be fixed contents, something that would change according to the place, according to the time. And so, we would experience the evolution of the content according to where the screen is located. So for me, what is important is the impact of the context on the work and the impact of the work on the context. The project is to involve the world, or something deeply inside us, that could be considered somehow universal, or, this is something that is time and space sensitive, that is really related to what is going on. And I am sure that it is possible to conceive worlds that make more sense wherever they are displayed or presented.
I really think that “opening windows“ on city walls is probably the future of the museum. So the future of the museum is not a museum. It is something, maybe outside, that becomes a part of our lives. It is not to dissolve art; it is to make art stronger because it is everywhere.