Steve Dietz on Tue, 7 Mar 2000 09:53:30 +0100 (CET)

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[Nettime-bold] shulgin_bookchin interview - universal page

email interview between Alexei Shulgin and Natalie Bookchin, January


The Universal Page [] is open for public
viewing on the occasion of the Walker Art Center exhibition "Art
Entertainment Network/Let's Entertain". Funded by the Jerome
Foundation and the Walker Art Center, the project was first envisioned
and is now being orchestrated by Natalie Bookchin and Alexei Shulgin.
Both are artists, theorists of the Internet and professors of
contemporary art and new media. Bookchin is an American based in Los
Angeles, in the United States of America and Shulgin is a Moscow based
Russian Artist.
Programming: Alexander Nikolaev, Fund of Perspective Research, Moscow.


Alexei Shulgin: Dear Natalie,

I know your background (as mine) was photography. How come you ended
up in virtual space?

Natalie Bookchin: Most of my education in photography began after
getting a job at a university as a professor of photography. I had
already moved away from photography a number of years before and was
working with installations using a variety of different media and
materials, including embroidery, video, paper clips, and CD-ROM. But
universities, like other institutions, lag behind individuals.
Universities have bureaucracies, budgets, and students who are paying
money and often expecting a particular product. As the providers, we
often perpetuate this exchange in order to survive economically, and
squeeze ourselves into the institutions' limited slots, trying to fit
within or stretch the boundaries in which we are enclosed.

My move to virtual space was also initially stimulated by economics. I
was asked to teach a large lecture class called "Introduction to
Computing in the Arts"
( agreed to do it
in part because I needed health insurance . . . another long story.
This class became my introduction to "computing in the arts." I spent
the summer of 1997 online researching and preparing for this class and
began running into work and activities of some artists that blew my
mind. I didn't know anything about these people, but it turns out that
one of them was Alexei Shulgin and another was Heath Bunting.

Ultimately, I do not see my move and commitment to virtual space as
arbitrary. As a tool, I find the computer to be extremely useful and
exciting. As a means of communication, the Internet is more powerful
than any other mediated tool that I have come across -- it allows for
ongoing, lengthy, and complex communication with fairly large
audiences, and also allows for interventionist and disruptive new
types of social and cultural activities for limited amounts of money
and technical expertise.

In the past I was rather unfaithful to media. I was always suspicious
of disciplines and over-specialization. Now, for the first time, I
have found myself remaining more or less "faithful" to a medium. This
is not to say that I will not and do not work in other ways, and with
other tools, but I do believe that the Internet and the computer are
the most important media of our times. The computer obviously isn't
even a medium in the way that we used to think about the term. Even
this needs to be redefined. It is a "meta-medium": a simulation
machine, and in this way very hard to pin down.

I think that because the computer and the net are reshaping most
aspects of our lives and redefining what it means to be alive today,
it is crucial for artists and others to work in this space, to use it
in unexpected and unintended ways, to question and work against the
way that it limits our lives as well as to investigate ways that it
might be used to "enable" our lives.

These technologies have a strange, complicated, and quite ugly history
that continues in all its ugliness to this day. In part, because of
this curious and problematic history -- although I, unlike others,
would not want all artists and intellectuals to abandon their pens and
paintbrushes and race to the keyboard -- this is where I am committed
to be.

AS: What do you mean here?

NB: The ugly history of the computer, as we know, includes its
militaristic origins and continued uses. Also, given the huge costs of
technological development and now the great potential (and success for
some) at achieving enormous profits, this technology more often than
not falls into the wrong hands and leads to its consistent and rather
successful usage for social and economic control. Also, there is the
problem of the Internet in particular being seen as a viable
substitute for real (physical) experience and human contact. And
finally, the computer can make real life appear as an abstraction. The
most dangerous and extreme example of this is the way that war and
genocide are presented as abstractions and simulations and are so
easily removed from their real-world effects.

Oh, and I shouldn't leave out the current moment in this technology's
strange history, with the recent AOL/TimeWarner takeover as an example
of the steady and continuous takeover of the Internet by gigantic

AS: Since the number of ideas that might come to human minds in a
period of time is limited and the possibility of spreading information
on the Internet are almost unlimited, don't you think that "art on the
Internet" will become (if not already is) very repetitive and
plagiarist? In other words, too few ideas for such big space.

NB: No, not at all; because I think that the Internet and its impact
on our lives is constantly changing, evolving, and growing.

I do think, however, that the term "art" (as in "art on the Internet")
can be used to limit the impact of some activities in this medium.

It is at times wiser not to place ourselves or our activities into the
category of art, as it can be used to justify and tame otherwise quite
radical activities (although others are bound to place us there). The
term "art" can be used as a quick way to understand and justify an
otherwise complicated series of activities.

AS: In official situations you usually present yourself as "artist and
professor." To make this list a bit longer, what definitions of
yourself would you add?

NB: When I am filling out official forms (for customs, health
insurance, etc.), I say I am a professor. Definitions are slippery,
and depend very much on context. Dictionaries have to be updated
regularly, and in this sped-up era, words and their meanings change
even more quickly than they did in the past.

As for context, in certain situations I have defined myself as an
artist. Other times I insist that I am not an artist at all but that I
am an activist. There is a range of definitions in which my activities
can fall. Definitions -- just like language (and media) -- both limit
and enable communication.

AS: Is controversy between art and life painful for you? If so, how?

NB: Do you mean separation rather than controversy? I'm not sure I
understand your question.

I do not know how to compartmentalize my life, so there is rarely any
easy separation between art and life, unless it is forced upon me. Our
collaboration has been a very clear example of my limited ability to
separate art and life, and how the reality of our circumstances can
make this lack of separation painful (see

The Net can make it seem that we are very close in our work and
activities but cannot help us transcend the reality that you are in
Moscow and I am in Los Angeles, and there remain enormous distances
and disconnections.

But I do not mean to suggest that a separation between art and life is
my desired state of existence, because it is not. It's just that
society is now structured to compartmentalize all aspects of an
individual's existence. Any sort of active resistance to a status quo,
if it is taken seriously and lived out, cannot help at times being

AS: Did you ever consider stopping doing what you are doing and
starting something completely different?

NB: No. I haven't considered this since I discovered the power of the

AS: How do you see changes in notions of "private" and "public" on the

NB: I see that these changes are profound and massive.

AS: Eh, Natalie, you've started with long detailed answers and what is

NB: What is what?

AS: I mean the short answers you just gave. Another coffee, maybe?

NB: Exactly!

I am going to make a coffee right this minute.

Want some?

How are you?

AS: Fine -- thinking about women.

NB: Your questions required long answers.

AS: Take your time.

The Universal Page is not the first project that you have done with
Alexei Shulgin. Why is this collaboration so attractive to you?

NB: I found this friendship and collaboration as a result of the

It is quite unique and also a product of our times that I have found
this kind of affinity with a man who grew up and lives on the other
side of the world both geographically and ideologically. Before
working with Alexei I went through a number of unsuccessful
collaborative efforts.

Collaboration has been extremely appealing to me, in part because I am
most interested in making complex and substantial connections with
other people and least interested in work that is about self-analysis,
expression and self-promotion. In a successful collaboration, you have
to leave behind narcissism and the isolated and heroic self quite a

AS: Why were they not successful? What have you learned from those

NB: I think that they were transitional collaborations. I was still
holding on to older and more traditional ways of making art, which
very often goes against giving in to some of the more amazing results
of collaboration.

They were collaborations made specifically for a museum or gallery

This is not necessarily a problem, but I think that with collaboration
you have to remain open to the possibility that something other than
what you are planning and expecting results from your activities, and
that includes where your results might end up and what form they might

AS: That's good, but don't you think that working with another person
brings limitations and leaves you less flexibility?

NB: These days, my activities include working with a collective,
working with you, and working by myself. When I need a break from one,
I move to another. Each one has limitations, and each one can bring
unexpected and often quite exciting results. I would not want to give
up one type of activity for another, and I am happy to report that I
don't have to! Each one satisfies, produces, and frustrates.

AS: Don't you think that the way your Universal Page looks brings some
sad thoughts, like there is no hope and meaning in all human activity?

NB: You mean OUR universal page. No. If I thought that there was no
hope and meaning in human activity, I would retire (or worse.) I think
provocation is different than nihilism.

AS: Please change this for the record. What provocation?! We did it
without knowing results . . .

[ The Universal Page is the objective
average of all public content on the Web merged together as one. A s
script crawls and searches the entire Web, analyzing and processing
current data and generating an average according to precise
algorithms. The Universal Page is a pulsating, living monument
commemorating no single individual or ideology but instead,
celebrating the global collective known as the World Wide Web. ]

NB: True, but I won't change this for the record unless you can do a
better job
of convincing me!

AS: Dear readers of this text . . .

What are we doing now? Trying to talk or presenting ourselves for
other people? Don't forget about the honorarium: we have to deliver an
interesting text!

NB: Sad thoughts can lead to new ideas and activities. I think that
the Universal Page signals the end of a particular set of activities
on the Web -- the artist's Web page -- and asks for a new type of
activity. It is the LAST Web page. The ULTIMATE Web page.

AS: ??? It's not an average of artists' pages, it's all the Internet.

NB: Yes, of course, but it ends up as artists' Web pages, of sorts.
And it is being shown in the context of an art museum. I think there
are some similarities in this work to our essay "An Introduction to 1994-1999" ( in that it can be
seen as a manifesto and a plea for movement. Our project could be
interpreted as a very cynical statement. but that would be a
superficial reading of it.

AS: What would be the profound reading of the project?

NB: It is (like you and me) a mixture of intense belief and hope in
the possibilities of this new medium (and in art in general), together
with a strong distrust of and frustration with its extensive hype and
its numerous failings.

It is also a comment on the cultural loop: the constant swallowing up
of "avant-garde" practices by institutions and our constant (and
necessary) attempts at resisting this assimilation. It is about the
dangers of making universal statements and the importance of

It is as I said before -- a provocation.

Today, beginning and ending with a Web page is no longer enough. The
conversation that follows and the activities that it stimulates or
encourages are what is important. We have yet to see the results. We
can only hope!

AS: And where will we go after it?

NB: This is a key question. One place to go is to RTMark
( But there are many other places needed. And not as the beginning of a genre. I am not looking for that at

AS: What are you going to do next?

NB: After the ( series ends at the end of
May, I am going to be working on a number of computer games. RTMark
and I are going to be working on a game using artificial life whose
working title is The Genetic Game, although I am sure this will
change, and I am going to be turning my game The Intruder into a
freestanding arcade game (see

AS: The genre of game seems to be important for you. Why is that?

NB: I want to work with a genre that has mass popularity. Many people
play computer games. Very few people look at I want to have
some access to this audience of game players. Computer and video games
are both enticing and problematic. Computer games are used to justify
war and genocide and to teach this way of thinking. Lovers play games.
I like the metaphor of gaming to discuss real life: love, politics,
war, gender, storytelling, and death.

AS: How do you see role of an artist in the modern world, and how has
it changed since the emergence of new informational paradigms?

NB: The role of the artist is both necessary and irrelevant -- a
massive contradiction (a mass of contradictions). I think it is
impossible in this era for our lives not to be filled with
contradictions. Also, I think it is important to admit to these
contradictions and to reject the myth of purity. There is no
possibility of purity anymore.

Part of what can save us from getting too tangled up in this is to
continue to be open, to move and change. No final solutions for me!

If you can forgive me using such a simple metaphor, I think that the
inability to fix digital information is similar to the inability to
fix our roles and activities today.

AS: I think it's a very good one. and it gives an answer to the
question "Why do artists get on the net?"

Seems like your life had reached a very high level of activity and
emotionality. Aren't you afraid of loosing all your energy and having
a deep nervous breakdown after that?

NB: Yes.

AS: How do you protect your sanity?

NB: I don't know, but I'm open to suggestions.

AS: You know my inspiration page
( Shall I make another one asking
for people's suggestions about protecting sanity for a superactive and
emotional artist?

NB: It is an appealing suggestion but I am afraid that there is not
really a solution. This is the time for superactivity. I am only doing
it because I need to. I think that I can protect my sanity by knowing
that there will be a time for inactivity following this period of

AS: Why is this the time for superactivity?

NB: Because there are vitally important things that need to be done. I
was rather confused by your inspiration project, for example, because
I cannot imagine the experience of boredom at this moment. Things are
changing so fast, and I think we need to act and resist total
corporate, technological, and institutional takeovers.

Besides, there are many exciting things to do that have nothing to do
with obvious acts of resistance, but simply with creating and
inventing and playing.

Maybe your reaction to this speed was to temporarily shut down and
interpret that as boredom?

AS: Perhaps. I think that things are changing so rapidly that it is
very difficult to observe and understand these changes. It's easy to
get lost; information becomes just a noise. But I also wanted to
provoke some reaction from people -- similar to yours -- and try to
understand what is going on.

NB: Did it help?

AS: Too early to say, but I've found correlations to some ideas of

NB: I have to admit that I look at your inspiration page quite often.
Also, I occasionally add to it. Even if I cannot find any solution
from the submissions, it is more a matter of it always being a
possibility -- i.e., it is about the desire, not the answers.

I am thinking of taking a bath now. Should we continue?

AS: Should we continue after the bath?

NB: Should I look at my answers and elaborate? I answered you quite
quickly and could probably revise and or elaborate.

AS: OK, take a bath, think on texts. I'm feeling like going to sleep
now. Send me stuff. I'll continue tomorrow when I get up. OK?

NB: Good night. Sweet dreams. Talk to you later.


AS: Have a nice day!



Steve Dietz
Director, New Media Initiatives
Walker Art Center
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