Galerie de La Reine, Brussels, June 22, 2012
Grégory Chatonsky is a French artist who was born in Paris in 1971 and who works mainly with computer technology and the Internet. After studying philosophy at Paris-Sorbonne University and taking an art course at the National School of Fine Arts, he founded in 1994 the website and Internet artists’ collective Incident.net1. Along with his activity as an artist, Grégory Chatonsky also teaches in schools and universities in France and Quebec, such as Paris IV, Le Fresnoy and UQAM. His work is greatly inspired by fiction and references to cinema. His ephemeral works use data streamed from the Internet in order to construct variable and potentially infinite stories, which often question our connections with digital technology and our ever-changing perception of the frontier between what is private and what is public. Emanuel Lorrain (PACKED vzw) met Grégory Chatonsky during his exhibition at Galeries2 entitled Après le cinéma (“After Cinema”) to talk about the manner in which he addresses the problems of computer-based artworks conservation, both in theory and in practice.
PACKED: Unlike certain artists, who leave the problem of digital art heritage to museums and institutions, I get the impression that you approach the subject fairly deliberately, either through your writings or the lectures that you give. How and why did this reflection start?
Grégory Chatonsky: I am interested in art heritage for three reasons. The first one is that, in addition to my artistic activity, I spent three years – from 1994 to 1997 – writing the screenplay for a CD-Rom about deportations and the Holocaust3. It was an extra-artistic activity but it meant that I had to address the issues of memory and archiving. For this project, I went to many archives in the United States, in Israel, in Poland and in Russia. It is evident that these questions are of crucial importance in such a context, which also explains the alleged debate that took place over the negationists and the archives of the Holocaust.
The second reason is that I have personally experienced losses of computer memory; that is to say permanently losing works that were stored on hard drives that were too fragmented, in particular during the “Sur Terre” project4, produced for the television channel Arte. Not only did this leave me in trouble, it was also a delicate experience for me; close to depression, in that I had lost a part of my own memory that I had entrusted to a machine. I therefore saw a new situation arise, which was not just art-related but one that affects us all, because it is a situation caused by the digital evolution of memory. This made me aware of the problem; of the fact that art is memory with a physical medium, and that you should not be taken in by the discourse of immaterialism, which I think doesn’t really make sense.
This is the third reason. For a long time now, I have been surprised by the discourse of digital immateriality, with which I have always disagreed. As soon as you talk about the question of materiality in digital art, the question of memory and that of the inscription of this memory arises. Lectures, such as those of Bernard Stiegler, have inspired me on this matter for a long time. So indeed, I do not address the issue of archiving as being something that should be done as an afterthought, where the artist creates a work and only later is it conserved; I rather think that it should be a continuous process. I am working on a memory that is not my own, of people, of Internet. What is this memory that I have on a device at home; on a hard drive or an SD card, etc? And what will then happen in an institution; what will become of this memory? It is connected to the issue of the institutionalization of art, and therefore with the institutional critics of the seventies and eighties and the artists I relate to such as Hans Haacke. For me, memory is not an instrument. It is almost the language of the new media. Creating a new offer for art and taking its conservation into account is therefore one and the same movement.
PACKED: Since we’re on the subject of your connection with institutions; in what type of institution can your works be found? Are these mainly public collections or private collections?
Grégory Chatonsky: There are a few public collections such as the Maison Européenne de la Photographie5, but most of them are in private collections.
PACKED: When you sell a work of art, what does the buyer get? In the case of an installation, for example, does he only receive the files and the source code, or does he also get the hardware, some documentation, etc.?
Grégory Chatonsky: It depends what they ask for. Often in digital art, if an institution wants to buy your work you say “yes”! You say yes to anything. This is a point that counts; there is a relation of power in institutionalization that should not be underestimated. First and foremost, I give them what they want.
I do not sell works that I know will be unstable or made up of temporary technology, which I would call heteronymous technology. These works are dependent on a technical biotope. I try to sell autonomous works as much as possible. The buyer then gets a machine, which is generally a standard one, mainly Mac Minis. He then receives the software and a handbook. At that moment, we also agree on a life expectancy, as I cannot guarantee the existence of a work that is interactive, generative, or that is dependant on a network ad vitam aeternam. Generally speaking, when an institution acquires this type of work, it is also something that is rather exploratory for them. To my knowledge, this doesn’t fit in with the same criteria as their other works, and they are still trying to feel their way.
PACKED: Can you give us an idea of how long this life expectancy on which you agree is? Is it two years, five years, ten…
Grégory Chatonsky: In general, I follow up a work for five years.
PACKED: Does this mean that the buyer must then take charge of maintaining the work himself?
Grégory Chatonsky: Yes. In the case of a generative work, I offer to make a very long-playing recording of the installation; one that lasts about 24 hours. I have my doubts about a computer program lasting forever, unless you make the components yourself, but then it becomes DIY. What is interesting is that the manner in which the work of art is conserved also corresponds to a certain artistic personality; people who will really build small handmade computers with long life expectancies; this is something that corresponds to geeky or DIY aesthetics. This is why it should not be an afterthought, but an issue that should be addressed straight away. With regards to my personal practices, I mainly use standard equipment and I cannot guarantee a life expectancy of more than five years for my works, because beyond that you won’t be able to find the same computers.
What is indisputable is that a digital artist, despite an evolution with open source and open hardware, is connected to the market of engineering, to the market of computers and companies such as Apple, and it is as if we were in sync with their rhythm. This creates a strange situation. A computer program, a device, and even a video game have a limited life expectancy; this is the time it takes to cover all its aspects. Our works of art inherit this limited life expectancy. It is a dependency linked to a market economy and to its programmed obsolescence that is interesting and a symptom of our times.
PACKED: So, you only sell works that are not ephemeral or that are, in a sense, stable for a certain number of years. What about websites? Do you also consider these to be ephemeral works?
Grégory Chatonsky: I have never sold a website, and I have never tried to. For me, there is a contradiction in trying to sell a website. It should be given away.
PACKED: However, one could imagine that you could sell or give away a website in order to try to guarantee it being maintained, because you may not be able to ensure the maintenance of all your work yourself.
Grégory Chatonsky: For some of my work in the second half of the nineties, I wondered whether to give them to an institution that would take care of them. However, there is probably no museum capable of providing the maintenance of a website connected, for example, to a data stream from the Internet, simply because the technical conditions and the very existence of these data streams cannot be guaranteed. When you create a mash-up6, you connect to heteronymous technology and the source of the data might go bankrupt or decide to change standard at any time. The temporalities of technical innovation and of art conservation are heterogeneous.
PACKED: With an installation, do you provide the hardware each time? The screen, the computer, etc.?
Grégory Chatonsky: For this exhibition, I made a list and they supplied the equipment. Later, we negotiated what I would need, and what I would keep, and what they would keep.
PACKED: So you will keep some of the hardware?
Grégory Chatonsky: Yes, I will keep all the non-standard equipment. Everything standard, and everything they can reuse, they will keep.
PACKED: A projector, for example?
Grégory Chatonsky: Yes, a projector is not specific.
PACKED: You were talking earlier about handbooks for your works. What does this include? Is it a guide to starting up the work, to installing it, to troubleshoot if there is a problem? What does this handbook contain?
Grégory Chatonsky: It includes two things; first of all how to start up the work and open it, and then how it is possible to react in case of a problem. What is the control procedure? In general, I try to create a small program that will listen to the data stream and the way that it works in order to detect the problem. Then I give the technician, or the person in charge of the work, a sort of personalised crash-course. Finally, I can be contacted, because with a computer, even if you write the most precise handbook possible, something unexpected will always happen. Programming causes improbability, this is the paradox.
PACKED: Apart from technical instructions on how to start the work, does this handbook also include indications about the installation’s space, the size of the projections, the type of screen, etc.?
Grégory Chatonsky: Not really. Generally, whenever there is a major transformation in terms of diffusion, the institutions and the collectors contact me directly and we discuss this. I think that my role is to make the diffusion of my work - and this type of creation that remains quite experimental - as easy as possible, not to make it more complicated.
What’s more, this question contains the presupposition according to which there is the intention of an artist, and that the institutions or the collectors would be in the service of this original intention. I do not see my work as an artist in this manner. I rather see it as collaborative work in contexts that are variable. When we talk about variable media, it is true from a material point of view, but also from point of view that is social, aesthetic and in the way in which the work of art is shown. More and more different places are showing works of art, and this influences the technical aspect. Variability is almost an ontology, it isn’t just a technical element; it’s more general than that. When you are facing a variable world, you have to be flexible.
PACKED: Perhaps this question should not really be asked yet, because until now you have always been more or less involved in the installation of your works. Dance With US7 for example was shown differently during this exhibition in Brussels than when I first saw it at Oboro in Montreal in 20088. If you are here and you can be consulted it works out, but what will happen when you can no longer organise this or come and install your work? Would having a sort of list - that would not be too restrictive - be something you would still see as a barrier to your work being shown?
Grégory Chatonsky: Putting myself in place of an artist drawing up such a list would feel a bit weird. I rather think that it is by organising an interview like this one, or by talking with someone who will take up this work later on that the latter will remain coherent. I believe in a sort of oral tradition in these forms of creation, in a musical interpretation: to install is to re-perform.
PACKED: This is what happens more and more in museums where artist interviews have become a stage in the acquisition process and an important tool for the curators.
Grégory Chatonsky: Indeed, and I believe in this oral tradition and this relation of trust rather than in an over-restrictive report, and also because I cannot anticipate everything; I don’t want to. In a more fundamental way, my attraction to programmed art is precisely an attraction to a situation that is beyond my control: I don’t know what the work will be and you have to see this tendency through to the end. Whatever the list I might write; perhaps tomorrow an interface or something else might have to change.
PACKED: I think that for a curator, it shouldn’t mean that the possibilities for showing your work are restricted, but rather to ensure that if you are not there to help make certain decisions, the work will not be totally transformed.
Grégory Chatonsky: Indeed, why not? The only offer that I refused was when I was asked, for example, to work with certain companies in the arms industry, even though it wasn’t their main activity. Apart from that, just letting things go doesn’t bother me at all. I think this corresponds to different artistic frames of mind. Some artists are control freaks, and want to be in a so-called neutral environment. I don’t suffer from this syndrome. The question is rather to know if the institutions are going to adapt the work suitably and show it in an interesting way.
Having said that, is the manner in which the work of certain artists of the 16th or 17th centuries is shown really coherent with the fact that it is religious art? Are we still capable of seeing them? No. But this is another situation and it’s the same for digital art. You have to refer to older works of art to understand that in the end, this variability - the social context, the way it’s perceived, the aesthetic context - changes and we don’t see a work in the same light. If it were forbidden to show the pictures by artists of the 16th and 17th centuries outside of religious places, how would we get to see them? Just because their intention was a religious one, should we avoid showing them in museums, which are atheistic and unholy establishments? I don’t think so, because those artists could not foresee the society in which we live today. A work of art in an exhibition is a relation between a past, a present and a future. Preservation and archiving are not neutral in themselves, because they represent the product of a certain time period. We should go back to the very conditions of our memory. Variability is a way of affirming that memory is something that is yet to come.
PACKED: There is nevertheless a moment when the variability of a work of art is - in a certain way – fixed. This moment often comes when an institution is in charge of the conservation of a work. Even if as an artist you were to say; “you can do what you like”, the buyer would like to keep the work as it is, unchanged, whether it be to preserve a certain authenticity, or because the acquisition is a financial investment.
Grégory Chatonsky: Of course. With an institution, there are rules and therefore it will reify things. But the discourse of authenticity and keeping things unchanged doesn’t affect me, because from an artistic point of view, I am fundamentally opposed to it. I would say that in a way, reification is not my problem; it’s theirs. They know how to do it very well, whereas I am not very talented at it.
PACKED: In a text called Repeating the Limits9, you state that screens "are not a neutral means of accessing these images, rather they are constituent of their aesthetics in that what counts is not so much what we see (the image) as the manner in which we access it (the screen).” You correlate this with the “desire to forget the screen” which, for you, is the “main aesthetical question at the present time”. In your exhibitions, either in Galeries or Oboro, there is often an apparent effort made to avoid showing the hardware, either by adding black or white casing around the equipment, or by using projection rather than monitors. Is the fact that the technical devices are never clearly visible in both these exhibitions derived from this same desire to forget?
Grégory Chatonsky: It depends on the project. I worked on a project for the Montreal Biennial Contemporary Art Exhibition10 on the subject of hard drives where the hardware was not only visible, but also actually formed the sculptural element of the installation. For the exhibitions in Oboro and Galeries, you’re right in saying that I don’t really show the hardware. This is linked to the question of the presence of technology and the machinery. When I create an exhibition in order to say something or tell a story, I generally hide the equipment to allow the audience to concentrate on the intention. The exhibition in Brussels, for example, was about cinema. My goal there was for people to listen. On the other hand, if for example I work on a project about a technical matter, such as the failure of a hard drive, then I will be more inclined to display the hardware. Showing it therefore means having an opinion about the medium; presenting a hard drive as what it really is, just like showing a touch of paint as painting itself. Hiding this device allows another type of narration, and to say something about another part of the world, such as the cinema, for example.
Whatever the case may be, revealing the hardware is not a default choice. It is an artistic one. The day may come when art historians will be able to problematize the default choices that were made at the turn of the 21st century. At present, it’s fashionable when you have a video projector, to show it, to put it on the floor, to make it visible, etc. This is sort of a default choice. I don’t think you have to do things this way; there is no universal method. It is up to the artist, on a case-by-case basis, to ask himself “if I show the equipment, what impact will this have?”. I often wonder about the question of the presence and the weight of technology, and I call this technical gravity. I hesitate every time, I have my doubts. But it is never a technical choice, only an artistic one.
PACKED: Today factors such as the swift obsolescence of technology, the disappearance of cathode ray tubes, the switch from 4:3 to 16:9, etc., have become major issues for video art and digital art conservation. In your opinion, how can the importance of the hardware in a work of art be judged?
Grégory Chatonsky: I think that curators will be able to understand the style of an artist by studying anyone with a body of work sufficient enough to allow comparison: whether the equipment is mainly hidden or visible, the visibility of the wiring, if the screens have been broken down to see the tubes, etc. With a little intelligence, they will be able to readapt or reinterpret, just like you would play a piece of music that was written a century or two ago. It will be possible to respect the spirit of the work with the new means that will become available.
PACKED: So there is this idea in your work of a music score that can be played differently, according to the context?
Grégory Chatonsky: That’s it exactly. I think there is enough documentation about my work, and I have written enough to enable a curator to, after I’m gone, and if he wishes – which is far from certain – communicate with me from a distance. One could speak of a sort of empathy, or curator’s intuition, or feeling close to a deceased artist, in order to talk with his spirit, with his Geist. This simply means trying – and not always succeeding, but it doesn’t matter – to understand the logic behind a work of art in order to then reinterpret it with moderation, and without doing anything and everything with it. It is clear that my work, in certain aspects, is similar to a musical composition that could be reinterpreted.
PACKED: With the risk, as you say, that this curator, in the future, might interpret it wrongly…
Grégory Chatonsky: I won’t be around to tell him; that goes without saying. But there will be another curator to say: “that was poorly interpreted, I can do it better”. There has been a lot of debate about the correct way to play Wagner; Boulez didn’t conduct Wagner in the same way as Karajan, for example.
PACKED: Is the question of equipment similar to that of the musical instrument in this case; such as playing a piece written for harpsichord on a piano, for example?
Grégory Chatonsky: Indeed. If Hans Ulrich Obrist interviewed so many artists, it was because he wanted to be inside their heads, after a fashion. I can’t abandon the idea of a commissioner or a curator getting a little bit creative, without excess. There will be a reinterpretation, because whatever happens, the context of perception changes, and the audience changes too. I do not consider a work of art to be something that is compact, closed or autonomous (even though this idea is attractive), on the contrary it is a system that is open, especially with digital or network art that is connected to the world. Perhaps in tens years’ time, Google will no longer exist; what will happen to my art that works by hijacking Google? It will have to be connected to another service that will make sense to people, or simply be shown as a video of the work. In the former you renew it, in the latter the work becomes a nostalgic trace of a bygone era.
PACKED: Is this idea of changing things also a way for you to avoid a computer that you use today – if one imagines that it is visible in the work – looking like an antique in thirty years’ time, and to avoid the presence of this vintage machine attracting more attention than the content of the work itself?
Grégory Chatonsky: That is indeed a very interesting question. What will a museum for this type of creation look like, other than a technological junk shop? The risk is that they will become a sort of technical curiosity, like the things on display in the Palais de la Découverte11 or the Goodwill Computer Museum in Texas12. For certain works that are about technology, and the state of technology at a given time, I think you can do this. But for other works, I think this would be a drawback because it would divert one’s aesthetic attentions to a side issue. There are artists who are really working hard on this, it’s their subject, but in my case, it is not always the main subject. Sometimes, for example, there is a love story and I want people to talk about the love story. I don’t want them to say; “Ah, so what was that done with? Is it OpenFramework13, or is it Max MSP14, etc.?” This is why adaptability sometimes allows technology to be taken for what it is, depending on the context, something that varies in time and space.
PACKED: Adaptability is something more difficult for works of art where the artist deliberately left the technology visible.
Grégory Chatonsky: Of course, because in this case, the computer becomes a protagonist, a character of the scene, a sculptural element that is a true part of the work.
PACKED: In your work, even if the hardware is not visible, there is a strong relationship with a techno-cultural context, either through the use of Twitter, of Chatroulette, or the visitors’ mp3 player. Do you think that in, say, thirty years’ time, a guidebook will be required in order to understand all the aspects of your work?
Grégory Chatonsky: Perhaps this could be a way for people to discover what our day and age is like, because it will then be a bygone era. Any artistic work has two dimensions; it is an account of a given period and it is also something that continues to reach out to us beyond or before that time. These two levels coexist. But there is indeed a “journalist of a time period” side to it, because it is that particular time period I am interested in. But through this historical time, there is something that travels in time and arrives too. There are these two levels: fact and historical contingency.
PACKED: This account is also told by the technology that is used.
Grégory Chatonsky: Yes, because a characteristic of our time is that one of the only things that all human beings have in common is being a little technological.
PACKED: Also in your text Repeating the Limits, you say that “a step further must be taken by outlining the types of screens, and just as much the placement, and directions, the structural and causal relationships between the screens, the images and the perceivers that we are”. Do you think that such a typology is something that the museums should be trying to achieve to conserve their work in a better way?
Grégory Chatonsky: It isn’t necessarily up to the museums to do this. I would rather say that it should be a necessary part of the training in any art or history of art school. It is to pass on to future curators the idea that a screen or an image is always something tangible. That to make a screen work, there are wires and whether you hide them or not, that these wires go elsewhere, and that they are then plugged into an electrical current, and that further on there is a dam, a river surrounded by trees and that there is no solitary compactedness, auratic and cut off from everything else. That the realisation of a network of instrumental feedback from a screen towards something else is a major realisation that must be taken into account, because when you present it to the audience, you draw the audience into it. So, I would say it is more of an issue for the training of a future curator, so that he or she becomes aware of the connection between a screen and something else; there is a transcendental dimension to technology, to its conditions and possibilities. And this dimension is not only theoretical, because you can experience it.
On the level of museums, since one of their activities is to classify things, it would be interesting to manage to sort works of art into common categories. The challenge would be to see the resemblances in the types or topographies of images known as digital or video. From what type of creative process are they the result? What is the type of diffusion? Simply put, what had to be plugged into what? And with what type of plug? Because a plug is not just technical, it is also functional, productive, procedural and allows the connection of the artist’s means of production, means of conservation, of diffusion and therefore of the perception of the audience. There is a great interview with Bill Viola where he explains how he created Information (1974) by connecting certain outputs with certain inputs. This connection is also a connection between the artist and the audience in a way. Between the two, there is conservation and there perhaps lies the interests of a collector in wondering what is plugged into what.
PACKED: In order to show it to an audience in the best possible way?
Grégory Chatonsky: In order to show it to an audience or to manage to be in agreement with this process and to understand it. Conservation is an intellectual activity; it is not like dealing with antiques. The respect that conservation clothes itself with for the sake of authenticity can become the highest possible disrespect for the living process of a work.
PACKED: Other parts of this text are connected to ethical questions about the conservation of artwork with technical components linked to the idea of their historical nature. "There are countless projects that follow in the footsteps of Nam June Paik and Zapping Zone (1990-1994) by Chris Marker, and use the sculptural nature of screens, which recounts their swift obsolescence and their dissemination”. This brings us back to what we were saying about the importance of the hardware in the understanding of the work’s process, but also how it can distract attention from the work’s content.
Grégory Chatonsky: Indeed, the idea that something that appears to be a part of our daily life today, and that is therefore invisible because we don’t pay attention to it, will appear - within five or ten years’ time - to be something very material, a bit vintage, a bit weighty… is an effect of obsolescence that the artist must anticipate, think through, integrate, because the particularity of digital art is that a lot of work will not age well; it is modernist beauty that withers away before your very eyes. I find this both haunting and interesting.
PACKED: The other reason that incites us to conserve the hardware is that you might end up missing the whole point of a work if you remove the original technology. If we take the example of a website from the 1990s, someone who was born when the website was already designed might look at it and say to himself “what is this website that went horribly wrong?”.
Grégory Chatonsky: Yes or the fact that today, a lot of works of net art, like with all vintage fashions, go back over things of the past, ten or fifteen years later. An example is the comeback of the animated GIF. Just like fashion movements, there are revivals. And a revival embodies all that is kitsch, vintage and out-of-date. Digital art has a side to it that is profoundly out-of-date, and I find this very funny.
PACKED: You have been producing works of digital art for about twenty years now, and I can imagine that some of them have already encountered problems?
Grégory Chatonsky: Yes, and some have even vanished. My first net art productions date back to 1994. For example, I lost a work that consisted of a single page that simply counted the number of people who visited it. Its only content was a counter that counted the hits.
PACKED: Does the five-year guarantee that you offer when you sell your work mean that you will have to update the technology after a while? Is this something that you have already done for a collection?
Grégory Chatonsky: No, I have never done this. The question is valid, but you have to imagine that as an artist, having to do updates as well as struggling to get your work done will be too big a job after a while. For the material side, it is a job for others; the artist must concentrate on production.
PACKED: This is where the institution should have a role to play.
Grégory Chatonsky: It should.
PACKED: Do you use virtual machines or emulators?
Grégory Chatonsky: I use VMWare15 more and more, in order to virtualise my systems and my programs so that they are not hardware-dependant.
PACKED: To avoid the laborious task of recoding or migration…?
Grégory Chatonsky: Yes, a task that no one would attempt because it is too time-consuming and too much of an investment.
PACKED: Do your works include a technical documentation of the software? For example, do you leave annotations in the source code?
Grégory Chatonsky: No, I do not leave too many annotations, because I am not a very good code-writer and my source codes often look like rough versions. However, it is such simple code that a programmer would understand it in thirty minutes. I think that someone trying to get it to work again would code it differently and probably in a much better way. I’m not a real geek and this is also an important point. I think that other artists, who are also real computer technicians, must have programs that are better done and better explained than mine. In terms of code, my work is a little barbaric. I’m self-taught, I don’t come from programming, I come from painting.
PACKED: Do things happen differently when you work with other programmers?
Grégory Chatonsky: Yes, because they annotate the source code.
PACKED: Do they also do this so that you can modify it at some point?
Grégory Chatonsky: Exactly, or so that someone else could master it, for example.
PACKED: What about your personal archives, what do they consist of? The source code, the graphic elements, pictures of the installations, etc.?
Grégory Chatonsky: Yes, it includes all of that and there are three copies. One is stored in a bank, another at my home, and the last one at my parents’ home. My hard drives are a little disorganised, but they contain a lot of material. My dream is that museums will start to buy artists’ hard drives. Not because it is a work of art, but because of what is stored on it. I think that some time in the future, a hard drive will have real value if it is sold at an auction. By browsing through its content, you’ll be able to reinterpret the creative process.
PACKED: How do you feel about the way that certain art collectors now take into account the issues of digital art conservation?
Grégory Chatonsky: I think that certain collectors are starting to become aware of what is at stake, but I believe that two things are slowing down the process. The first is that there are very few acquisitions of digital art, that this type of acquisition is usually a minor one and the problems that these works pose are not yet very important ones for museums. The second thing is that collectors’ budgets are usually already quite battered and as a consequence, investing in this new kind of project is like opening a Pandora’s box of new problems. In trying to put their finger on it, they will lose their whole arm and the rest of their body, so it is risky and this is certainly another reason why the problem is differed. They are aware of it, but it will be dealt with in years to come. On the whole, I think we know what we have to do. We need to create large teams, internalise the technicians, interview the artists, etc. But on a very mundane level, there is a lack of financial means to carry out this work.
PACKED: Nevertheless, the more we wait, the more it becomes inevitable that things will disappear.
Grégory Chatonsky: I think that the current period is a fundamental one, and that it marks a turning point, because there is still time to prepare the ground. In a few years’ time it will be too late. But the thing about a turning point is that it never happens when it should. In practice, this means that it will be much more expensive to preserve a work in a few years’ time than if it had been done today.
PACKED: This idea about a turning point appears in one of the posts on your blog called Autoarchives, in which you speak of “archiving moments”: the moment when the archives are constituted and the moment when they are conserved and incorporated into a museum or an institution. You evoke the concept of “self-constitution of the archive” and you wonder whether it would not be better to “destroy the need for these institutional temples by opening other places of memory? Places that are mobile, temporary, floating and able to follow the flow of our times?”
Grégory Chatonsky: The self-constitution of archives or their self-immunity is a concept created by Jacques Derrida. It means that archives are the construction of an instance, an authority that creates and invents the archive. And yet the invention of the archive is also the invention of the world of artwork, which means that when work is put together as an archive, it becomes a work of art in its own right. A power-play therefore exists.
We know without a doubt the current problems with the memory of archives. To take an example in the news, recently a man butchered someone alive in Montreal and put a video of his act online, which was extremely difficult to eliminate from the Internet. Why? Because this archive was viral, and it spread from one place to another. For digital memory in art, the question is the same. Are museums, which are closed places and specific instances, not going to be overwhelmed at some point by the masses who will have taken over these memories, and who will have stored on a hard drive such or such image or element? A museum and the way that memory is constituted there is dependant on the history of memory itself. Memory is not a phenomenon that is independent of history. Memories and archives have been constituted differently in different eras and it so happens that they are, on the whole, experiencing a revolution in our current society. This will clearly influence museums, but how, we don’t yet know.
It is as if there was meta-historicity or meta-archiving. Meaning, there are archives, and there is meta-archiving, or the way in which archives evolve over time. A particular archive, but also the history of archives. It is a very interesting phenomenon that people such as Annette Wievorka16 and others have been working on. My hypothesis, is that digital technology – and this is the paradox – changes the archive.
PACKED: Digital technology obliges you to think differently about archives and their processing?
Grégory Chatonsky: Yes and amongst other things, about the question of the decentralisation of archives; today, archiving consists in creating compactedness and mutualisation of archives; the sharing of archives could be a logical and efficient evolution with regards to social evolution and that of policies of memory. Internet was originally a means to preserve nuclear research intact.
PACKED: In this text, you write that artists are more and more obliged to think about archiving their work themselves.
Grégory Chatonsky: What is indisputable, is that before, the moment of the artist and the moment of conservation were clearly separate in time. The artist created the work, and the documentation was often made by other people. Today, the artist crosses the line into documentation and even the archiving of his own work more and more. Because the number of artists is growing, the institutions are overwhelmed, and therefore the role that was formerly taken on by certain institutions is today handed down to the artist, and this causes trouble.
The matter of conservation must not only be approached during the training of curators, but also during art-school training. Despite the fact that I have suggested it many times, I am disappointed to see that there are no common training courses for students in history of art, curators and students in art creation, because whatever happens they are going to have to work together at some point.
PACKED: You are a teacher yourself; do you talk about documentation during your courses?
Grégory Chatonsky: Yes, I talk about it a lot. Part of my training consists in teaching the students how to document and classify their own work. Simple things, such as how to name files, how to do backups, etc. because the life cycle of a work of art is 50% artwork and 50% documentation of everything around the work. I try to explain to them that, more and more, they will have to take care of this themselves. So indeed, my training puts great emphasis on this, and sometimes I give classes where their project must cover this.
PACKED: Does technical obsolescence have an influence on the way that you “make” your work? I know for example that some of your work uses Flash17, have you ever wondered if another more open technology, with access to a simpler source code would be a better alternative?
Grégory Chatonsky: For the time being, it has had no influence, although I do think about these matters. Even if I use a compiled language, because I keep my source codes, they are easy to access. But everyone works within his or her own limits. The question I ask myself above all others is: how can I wake up in the morning with an idea and have finished producing it by the end of the day? My goal is speed of execution and that is why I use tools that allow me to get things done quickly. I don’t think about eternity that often.
PACKED: I’ll take this chance to approach the matter of open software and of standards. Unlike many digital artists, you have quite a critical point of view in that you condemn a sort of libertarian utopia offered by the political ideology of open source. Could you explain your point of view?
Grégory Chatonsky: When the demonstrations occurred in Montreal, there were also the “Occupy Wall Street” and “Occupy Montreal” movements. It was a very strong movement in North America, and you could see signs saying "Open Source", "Open Software", "Open Society", "Open Politics", as if that from there, power was seized…. I have nothing against open source, but I think this geek utopia must end. Open source has real benefits, but there are so many artists who have made it their main focus and when asked about works that do not use open source they will say: "Vade retro Satanas, you are the devil, the servant of big business...", to a point where I find it ridiculous. We have to carry out a critical deconstruction of the open source process and of the idea of free software. I think it’s incredible; this notion of liberty – “free” in English -, of free versus liberty, is also a symptom of capitalism.
I think that since there is a dominant approach to digital art, and open source is really ultra-dominant, you have to take a closer look and manage to deconstruct the ideological machinery that is behind it, which is strongly present in this case. With regards to this, what I challenge above all about the open source ideology in digital art is the univocal and dictatorial side to it, because when you create art, you are dealing with singular practices. Open source is becoming the norm: this is intolerable. A program is not a tool; it’s first and foremost an artistic choice. So I am for freedom, because I am a libertarian, and if you want to use Microsoft software, you use it, and if you want to use open source, you can do that too. In both cases, thought must be given to the reasons why a given technology is used. A credo – of open source as of others – is a way to avoid any singular reflection by hoping to find a general solution that is applicable whatever the context.
I used PowerPoint for Power Leak and there is a reason for this; it was to criticise the PowerPoint ideology. I wrote a script for PowerPoint that automatically generates PowerPoint slides. We talked about compactedness with regards to conservation and open source is the dream of a compactedness that has closed in on itself, isolated from the rest of the world. I loathe that purity; I hate it, that pure world where you don’t have anything to do with capitalism, with libidinal economy, with obsolescence. I believe that you have to get your hands dirty. Open source is certainly a way to renew a modernist vision of art, like something by Greenberg. In the end, it is the purity of the autonomy of the medium.
PACKED: Can you agree that if we are heading towards collaboration between the artist and the institution for the documentation and the conservation of artwork, then open source tools and standards really make the job easier? However, do you think that there might also be a risk that this would have an influence on the work if its conservation process is taken into account, upstream, in a way?
Grégory Chatonsky: Yes, it will make the job easier, but it will have aesthetic implications. I understand that it is in the best interest of the curators, but there are aesthetic choices, so it will lead to certain works being privileged. However awful it is, when you create works of art with open source software, such as Processing18, well the work all looks the same. They have a Processing look to them. To make conservation easier, we run the risk of favouring work not because of its appeal, but for its ease of use. We should rather turn to extreme cases of unconservable work: what cannot be saved?
It’s the question of the relationship between archives and the power of archives as a constitution of power. There is always power behind the archive. A place for art is often a power that self-presents its own power. From this moment on, curators must formulate a critical position with regards to this. To put it simply, they must remain fundamentally open to the diversity of practices rather than adhering to the aesthetics of certain things because of the ease of conservation and the ideology behind them. I’m not saying that my ideology is better. I’m just saying that it exists along side others.
PACKED: Since the use of a certain programme is a choice in aesthetics, if in the future your work had to be recoded using another technology, would it be a betrayal to your work, in a sense?
Grégory Chatonsky: Not at all. I’m trying to think of all of my work… and frankly, no.
PACKED: Amongst your work, there are several pieces such as Waiting19 or Trace of Conspiracy20 that are linked to web services, which are sometimes of a very ephemeral nature. Here, obsolescence does not physically involve the equipment, but takes place elsewhere, on the network, and these are aspects that neither you, nor a collector can control.
Grégory Chatonsky: Yes, it’s a sort of socio-economic biotope that will change.
PACKED: Have you ever had to modify the API21 of the services you use in order to show some of your works?
Grégory Chatonsk : Yes, I have to all the time and it’s tricky. It’s really difficult and I am now the Mario Bros of API. Each time, I have to plug up the holes, it’s hell. What’s more, all these web services change their source codes regularly. I do the work of a curator myself, as since I am connected to web services such as Google, Flickr, etc., I am also confronted with technological instability and the lack of standardisation. But this instability is not accidental, it’s a necessary phenomenon, it’s a symptom. You have to confront it, but I don’t mind, because it is the world in which I live. From this point on, one of the long-term solutions for when all of these services will have disappeared is to record very long duration videos. Recording a day or a week of video footage, for example, as if you were shooting a wildlife documentary: how did this work behave in the Google biotope before it became extinct, just like an endangered species?
PACKED: With a recording however, it is no longer really a work, it is an account of the work. There will certainly be a large amount of your work that will only prevail as a more or less faithful documentation.
Grégory Chatonsky: Yes, it’s clearly true and I quite agree with that. It is an account, and it is the same thing for performance art. Just like Gina Pane22 and the pictures of her with her ladder and the sharp metallic shards. It is not the performance itself; it is documentation, even though the photography is superb. When Cézanne paints with pigments and you see two apples there is no problem; we know that it is pigment and not real apples. It is representation. The fact that there is no authenticity is not a problem, since it is an account. A large part of contemporary art is indirect, in the form of a narrative. I think that we have to deconstruct the idea of authenticity.
PACKED: You were talking about the little video case that you use to produce recordings of your work.
Grégory Chatonsky: It is a little device that allows video capture23. In fact, you have to use two computers: one to read and one to record. This allows recording good quality HD video at 30 fps without causing lag on the computer reading the work’s software.
PACKED: Having a very long recording, do you think that this allows you to capture the full potential of a work?
Grégory Chatonsky: Yes, because the characteristic of these works is that they possess a certain limitlessness. For me, quantity, and recording very long durations, is important to being close to this limitlessness; by this I mean that you cannot see the end of the work. This is a job that must be done now because recording a full week of video takes time.
PACKED: If you look at all of your work, do you think that some of it will be able to be preserved for as long as some of the more traditional objects of artwork?
Grégory Chatonsky: Yes, for certain projects, I think that it will be possible.
PACKED: In the end, you appear to be rather optimistic.
Grégory Chatonsky: Yes, I am optimistic. I don’t have any particular fears. I think that we simply have to create common poles between artists, curators, critics, etc. These meetings exist, and we have organised some of them with Annick Bureaud and François Michaud of Paris Modern Art Museum. Making all these people meet to anticipate all of this. It is crucial that they communicate and that they manage to go beyond the traditional statutory divisions that exist between these different domains in order to think together. There will have to be “as many of us as possible, thinking as hard as possible”24.