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Multimedia Artist Tony Oursler Documents Personal Archive in 'Imponderable' Exhibit and Book
Legendary multimedia artist Tony Oursler has long explored the ways in which the human body is affected by technology. Through works spanning video, collage, sculpture, installation, performance, and painting, Oursler tries to understand the myriad manners in which the mind is seduced by the image as projected by television, technology, violence, media, and mental illness and conceptually draws a thread between these seducers.
In 2000, Oursler presented the major outdoor project ‘Influence Machine.’ That installation arguably marked a new period in Oursler’s conceptual approach. Oursler used objects from nature as projection screens to explore how communicative technology, from the telegraph to the computer, have been used to commute to the dead. He is interested in the connection between the occult and technology in that people who use tech for mystical purposes are inherently in opposition to corporate culture’s primary intention for technology: selling. “While the corporation wants you to consume, some people just want to use corporate technology to become mystical or make art,” says Oursler. “I think it’s really important to interrogate technologies and think about creative, positive, and alternative uses for them. That’s part of my mission.”
‘Imponderable’ is the title of Oursler’s current exhibition at LUMA Westbau in Zurich. Curated by Beatrix Ruf and Tom Eccles of the LUMA Foundation. Partly inspired by an interaction between Oursler’s grandfather, the acclaimed 1920s and 1930s mystery and detective fiction writer Fulton Oursler, and Arthur Conan Doyle that saw the two men debate spiritualism through photographs, the exhibition documents Oursler’s personal collection of 2,500 photographs, publications, and objects that track a “social, spiritual, and intellectual history dating back to the 18th Century.” “Imponderable” suggests an idea that cannot be properly explained through science, and indeed this archive explores the research of mystical uses of technology forming a timeline that would eventually lead to ‘Influence Machine.’ In this show, Oursler aptly displays the occult uses of communicative technology before said technology becomes commodified by corporation. It all seems to suggest that technology is not a problem in and of itself. In fact, if used interestingly it can be a gift. Like anything else, it’s the commodification of tech where things become murky.
The exhibition presents Oursler’s new film shot in 4D with theatrical special effects as well as lectures by Columbia art history professor Noam Elcott, Oursler himself, and more. But with these massive undertakings, Oursler and LUMA were not yet satisfied. Accompanying the exhibition is a gargantuan 655-page book, Imponderable: The Archives of Tony Oursler, designed by esteemed graphic artist Zak Kyes and produced in collaboration with JRP/Ringier. The book documents the same collection as seen in the exhibit. It is a gift, because the exhibition and the material at large is a lengthy commitment. Oursler’s work can not be simply be gawked at. It has to really be examined to fully admire.
This whole onslaught of material might seem daunting to dive into, I’m sure. But Oursler’s exceedingly heady work can be extremely rewarding to spend some time with. Despite its examination of technology, it allows the spectator to take a reprieve from and examine technology as an idea. Oursler’s influence is stamped over a slew of contemporary art. If you caught the New Museum’s Triennial this year, it’s clear that re-thinking the human body and tech is a popular mode in art right now. But Oursler has been thinking about these ideas for decades. To break down this high-concept material, Oursler answered some questions I had over E-mail.
Forbes: What was the process of putting this publication together?
Tony Oursler: It’s a long story but I’ll make it short. My friends Beatrix Ruf and Tom Eccles of the LUMA foundation had many discussions about my archive and specifically a small group of images exchanged between my grandfather and his esteemed friend, Arthur Conan Doyle. Doyle tried to convince my grandfather of the veracity of spiritualism through photographic evidence of my grandfather in turn used photographic evidence to disprove spiritualism. One thing led to another and we began to think about ways to organize my chaos, and the book started to take shape. The LUMA team is very sophisticated and it was great to work with them. We didn’t want to do anything really obvious. the book was structured very openly and poetically with an image flow of some 1200 pictures and it’s followed by 100 page of commissioned scholarly texts by 10 wonderful writers. This offers numerous ways of reading the archive. LUMA also commissioned a film which concerns the Doyle interaction. This is currently on view at the LUMA’s space in Zurich, but that’s another story.
Tony Oursler: Yes, I love the fact that the edges of these and other subjects in the book blur. Science moves forward but the detours and dead ends it takes can often be as interesting as the successes. And of course it’s all filtered through the cultural lens that is forever morphing. The occult is distinctly connected to science at various points in history, specifically the links between alchemy and chemistry and astrology and astronomy. I’m also fascinated by the fact that some of what we know now in science will be disproved in the near future.
Forbes: Your work often examines how the mind can be affected by violence, media, sexuality, an mental illness. By providing this window into your influences with this book and exhibition, are you at all trying to illustrate to the viewer how your mind has been affected?
Tony Oursler: I wish that my mind could be that interesting. To tell you the truth I’m fascinated by systems and by beliefs. Whether we are conscious of it or not we participate in myriad overlapping systems, cultural and otherwise. The imponderable book is kind of an artwork in itself produced by the LUMA foundation. It’s like a Venn diagram. There are a lot of surprises and it’s very visual. The relationship between what I make and what you will see here in the book is often indirect, although many of the subjects you mention are present. For example: the history of early television and psychology tests. I’m sure sanity will be called into question as one turns the pages.
Forbes: What piqued your interest in the face’s mechanical ability to express emotions?
Tony Oursler: There is a connection between my current project regarding facial recognition, computing, surveillance and some of the imagery in the book. The reading of the face is something that comes up again and again. Whether it’s pareidolia (editor’s note: the psychological phenomenon involving a stimulus wherein the mind perceives a familiar pattern when there actually isn’t one, a common one being the perceived “man on the moon”) or a strange form of reading significance into moles and furrows of the face practiced in the Middle Ages. I can’t seem to get away from it.
Forbes: Are you frightened by electronic profiles of humans? If so, why?
Tony Oursler: The interplay between what it is to be human and these technological advances are in flux all the time. Most technology is an extension of human desire, yet technology is non-human. So we get many unexpected side results of these inventions. Privacy is a thing of the past. The individual is dwarfed in relation to the sheer volume of this information that’s being collected and as we all die off it will just get bigger and bigger and live on and on. That is spooky.
Forbes: In your book, it says that you started becoming interested in the boundaries of science and the occult around ‘The Influence Machine,’ was there something that happened that kicked this off?
Tony Oursler: Like a lot of artists I’m an autodidact. I do a lot of research. I explore the world through my work and in the late ’90s I was really interested in the kind of shadow history that was parallel to classical art history. Being an artist who is as interested in painting as I am in the moving image, I began to research the camera obscura and other ephemeral memetic activities. To keep track I constructed a simple timeline. The connection between the occult and technology becomes a metaphor for how we approach any new technology. I discovered that from the camera obscura to the computer, people have used technology to speak to the dead. For some, tech becomes an oracle. So in this work I use the occult as a metaphor for the individual in opposition to the corporate approach to technology.
Forbes: Did you ever get to talk about these subjects with your grandfather?
Tony Oursler: He was dead before I was born but there is some kind of a dialogue for sure!
Forbes: Do you think the hope that we may someday communicate with extra-terrestrial life is futile?
Tony Oursler: I defer to the great minds of physics who are convinced that this is an eventuality.
Forbes: By constantly pondering the effect that image has on the mind, do you feel you have become less susceptible to the seductive power of the image?
Tony Oursler: I think I was born that way.
Forbes: Why did you feel now was the right time to compile these materials and share them with the rest of the world?
Tony Oursler: The timing was serendipitous really. For years, collecting was a very private, almost hermetic thing. It’s what I did in those odd hours, when there was nothing else to do. Even though it’s a private activity, much of this material is very public in one way or another: it derives from popular publications, press materials etc. Collecting can also be connecting. I’ve met very interesting people along the way and discovered other worlds of collections. When LUMA approached me it seemed like a natural moment to get this stuff out there. It just felt right, and what better way to share this than a book?