Interview with Don Foresta
RESEARCH SERIES #14 ‘You go into a technology and just play with it’ By Arie Altena In June 2014 Sonic Acts invited research artist Don Foresta to give two presentations in the Netherlands. Before his lecture presentation at STEIM in Amsterdam, Arie Altena sat down with him to talk about his experiences, working with Nam June Paik, Woody and Steina Vasulka, and other pioneers of video art, and his involvement in the first experiments with network art. Don Foresta answered with what can be read as an insider’s view on the early history of video art and network art. Don Foresta is a research artist, a specialist in art and science and the artistic use of the very high bandwidth network. His career spans over 40 years. He has pioneered the use of new technologies as creative tools since the early 1970s, with recent attention to online creation and archiving. He was the director of the American Cultural Center in post-‘68 Paris from 1971 to 1976. There he exposed the French audience to works by Nam June Paik and the Vasulkas, and invited French artists to set-up collaborations between art and electronic technology. In 1976 he founded the video art department of ENSAD (École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs) in Paris, the first such department in Europe. He worked for Nam June Paik and collaborated for several years with a.o. Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz. In 1981 he organised his first online image exchange by telephone between the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT and the American Center in Paris. These exchanges were followed by experiments with telephone, fax, minitel and the internet. He was a commissioner (with Tom Sherman and Roy Ascott) to the 42nd Venice Biennale in 1986, building one of the first computer networks between artists. His work Mondes Multiples (1990) is recognised as a landmark in the fields of art and science. He has contributed to many publications and has written about philosophical parallels between art and science in a period of profound change. Foresta was also a Professor at the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs in Paris and the Ecole Nationale Supérieure d’Arts - Paris/Cergy. He is currently coordinating a permanent, very high bandwidth network for artistic, educational and cultural experimentation: MARCEL. MARCEL now has 150 members in 22 countries, 40 of whom are connected permanently over a multicasting platform. Arie Altena: In the 1970s you were an American diplomat in Paris. How did you get involved in video art and network art? Don Foresta: I was appointed director of the American Cultural Center in Paris in 1971. Before coming to Paris I was looking for things to bring from the States, things that were not that well known in France. I centered on three things: video art, experimental film and art photography. There were no photo galleries in France at the time. I was particularly interested in time-based image. And so as director of the center I had an ongoing programme of video art, experimental film and photography. Most of the films and video art I was getting at the time came from Woody and Steina Vasulka. They had opened The Kitchen the same year that I went to Paris, and we were in touch. We became quite good friends at the time and the friendship continues to this day. That’s how I got started. AA: You were also close to Nam June Paik? DF: Through him I got involved in video art. When I was in Washington, before coming to Paris, I saw an article on video art in The Washington Post. I thought I should go and see what it was. I walked into the gallery with my second son, who was seven years old at that time. Paik put him in a chair and he was colorised. It was a Nam June Paik piece. I thought wow, this is amazing, I’ve got to take this to Paris. That’s what I did, that’s how I got involved in video art. Paik was in and out the whole time I was director of the center for five years. He was very often there, speaking – as much as Nam June Paik would speak – he would usually fall asleep. It was nice and we kept in touch. At a certain point, I think it was in 1974, I was invited to the Knokke-Heist experimental film festival. The director came to Paris and said that he wanted the next festival to be on video art and could I help? I put him in touch with Gerry O’Grady, Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz. During that time Paik kept saying to me we have to talk, we have to talk. Finally I told him I’m leaving in half an hour what do you want to talk about? He said write to the Rockefeller Foundation they’ll give you a grant. And I said why? And he said: ‘Oh, you make videotape, you make videotape’. It was very funny, and I said: I’m a career diplomat, I have a family’. But he said you should do it, so I did. And they said ‘Yes we have a cheque for you for 36.000 dollars.’ AA: That’s a great way of getting involved in art... DF: Nam June Paik had set the whole thing up. I took leave from the diplomatic service. They couldn’t give me the grant that year, it came the next year. So I asked for an extension in Paris, which I got happily. I left the diplomatic service in 1976, and went home on vacation. On the way back I went to New York and picked up my cheque from the Rockefeller Foundation. I bought a U-matic, two enormous suitcases full of equipment, came back to Paris and made a tape. Paik had started a series that he called Vista. He had asked different people to make tapes on different locations in the world. He called us peace correspondents. So we were all supposed to make documentaries that were a little bit in his style. I did one on Paris, which was called Paris à la carte, which was broadcasted by WNET in New York a year later. I started working with Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, and we did some early video’s. After they went back to the States, I continued on my own. I also worked with John Sanborn and Kit Fitzgerald. We made a documentary that was broadcast. At the same time, I was asked by the School of Decorative Arts to open a video art department. That became my day job. I had a good collection of video art, because people had been giving me tapes over the years. That’s what I used to start teaching. The school bought a deck and a monitor and I just started talking about video art. Little by little they bought equipment and we continued. It became my major income. I also went from the American Cultural Center, which was a government cultural centre, to the American Center, which was a private one. I opened a video art department in the American Center as well. It was run basically in a workshop format with artists both French and American. A lot of people came through in those days. We actually created a movement of French video art. While I was in the American Center, I also worked with Otto Piene and Aldo Tambellini from the Center for Advanced Visual Studies at MIT. We did a network event in 1981. It was the first one between Boston and Paris, between the American Center and MIT. And that’s what got me into the network… AA: What was your motivation at the time to go into telematic art and networking? DF: The artistic approach to technology became my main interest: how do artists ‘break in’ to new communications technologies and turn them into artistic tools? It was one of the recurring topics of conversation with Woody and Steina. Woody, Steina and I did a joint interview on tape and he said the job of our generation was to test communication technology for its artistic potential. That job is far from finished because technology is still in full evolution. For me to move from one technology to another was a very natural thing. It was 1981 when we did the first network event, with a very, very old technology. It was done with slow scan – so it was totally analogue. Slow scan transforms the image in a series of sound frequencies that are transmitted over phone. It was a machine called Robot, and it was invented to sent signatures on cheques between banks for verification. I don’t think it ever worked in that domain, but we picked it up real fast. I used it from 1981 to 1986. It moved from black and white to colour. I did three major events with it. One was the connection in 1981 between MIT and the American Center. Another one took place in 1982 at the Paris Biennial. Reagan had just been elected president, and he cancelled all international funding for culture. The director of the Paris Biennale, asked if I could invent an American show, and I said: we’ll do it all by phone. I got twelve American photographers from different cities around the States to sent images, and twelve French photographers to sent their images back. That was a relatively big network event. I did a lot of smaller events too, many of them with Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz, who had not yet invented the Electronic Cafe, but they were in the process of doing that. Kit was actually my technician in my time of director of the American Center. Sherrie and he were beginning to design what later became their satellite transmissions. We were talking about communication and the artistic use of communication. When they left Paris and went to the States a year later, they did a satellite art project with dancers in two cities, dancing together over satellite. When I was doing the slow scan event with MIT, they were doing Hole in Space. I started collaborating with them later on. AA: When did you start using computer networks for artistic exploration? DF: In 1986 I was a commissioner to the Venice Biennale and with Tom Sherman and Roy Ascott, and we developed a lab. One of my contributions to that lab was slow scan – we had colour at that time. But then I also created a Macintosh network with just Macs and modems, with principally French cities. We had Venice, Nice, Paris, Toulouse, and Nantes. We were sending still images. From that point on I dropped slow scan and I used just computers. By the end of the 1980s we had probably done everything you could do with the exchange of still images over a network. Frankly, it was boring, it was the same thing over and over and over again. Then I started to move in the direction of the performing arts. That made much more sense because by nature the performing arts are interactive. We started working principally with musicians, because they were the people who understood it better than anyone. But we immediately hit the wall of not having enough bandwidth. We did a lot of events from around 1990 until 1996. Often we had disastrous events with delays that were absolutely horrendous. We did one, I think it was 1991, with a saxophonist playing with a musician in Paris. The saxophonist was in Nice, the musician in Paris, and the event was in Paris. We had rehearsed most of the afternoon and everything went perfectly, but then in the evening the whole network traffic pattern changed and the delay between Nice and Paris was four minutes. The guy finished playing the saxophone, put it down and walked offstage and the music was still coming in. It was hard, also because a lot of people just didn’t understand what we were talking about. It took a very, very long time before people could understand that the network could be a space for art. I think quite bluntly it took 15 years, before people would think it had a potential for art… AA: Were there any factors that contributed to your early start in exploring the network? DF: I was lucky enough to have e-mail very very early. I bought a Mac in 1982, and I had e-mail almost instantly. You know Norman White? Norman did an installation for an I.P. Sharpe-building. I.P. Sharpe worked for IBM, and quit IBM to set up an internet network communication system for the petroleum industry, and he made a lot of money from it. They built an office in Toronto and asked Norman White to do an installation for the entrance in the building. As partial payment Norman asked for 200 e-mail addresses. He passed those out to all his artists friends. So we had e-mail in 1981 or 1982. Tom, Roy and I organised our entire section of the Biennale, including installations by Bill Viola and David Rokeby – one of his first – by e-mail. Tom was in Ottawa, Roy was in England, and I was in Paris. It showed us the administrative force of that communication, but also showed us how it could be used an artistic space. After 1986 I stayed with IP technology, which meant I was a victim of its inability to respond to our imagination. By the end of the 1980s I was pretty much fed up with what we were doing, because I didn’t see it progressing. Were just doing the same thing over and over. But I knew that the network was was going to be extremely important and eventually would swallow all other means of communication. The network space would become our dominant communication space. Therefore I stayed with it. AA: And France had Minitel, was that of importance? DF: The French we’re pretty good at the time technologically. They had Minitel indeed. We did a Minitel event in the Venice Biennale. The French had also invented ISDN. So we were very lucky to have ISDN in 1987, which gave us more bandwidth. If you think of it now, it sounds totally absurd. They were also testing all kinds of videophones at the time. They were really crude but fun to play with. They were so bad, you could play with the faults. I remember one thing that I did with Kit and Sherrie. We used the Matra videophone which was very unstable. If you moved quickly, the whole image broke up into pixels. I would be talking to them wearing a certain hat, the image would break up, at which point I would change my hat and when the image would come back on I would be sitting there with a different hat on. That was typical of the 1970s mentality: you go into a technology and just play with it, particularly with its faults and defects. When we wanted to stop playing and get serious with the technology and see what it could really do, we hit a wall because the bandwidth to do what we imagined wasn’t there. AA: Was there ever a network event that pointed in the direction of what you were after? DF: Some of the events we did were historically important. A key one for us was the Saint Patrick’s day concert between New York, Dublin and Paris that Guinness asked us to do. Guinness sponsored it and I think it was in 1994 or 1995. It was supposed to be three concert thing, one in each town, no interactivity. We had set that up with a video connection. We had a very young looking girl as an MC, she was in Paris. I told her, when they finish the next number, ask them if they would play together. So very innocently she did. The musicians in the three locations started looking at each other and looking back and forth and finally somebody called the title of a song, and they played it. By the time they were finished everybody was crying. It worked, it really worked that time. For me that was an amazing event, because I realised that the emotion had passed over the network. If you communicate the emotion with the network, then you have mastered it in some bizarre way. Generally the technology was still bad, but I knew it was going to work. You began to see how the networking technology started to gobble up other technologies. Of course if I say to people now that the network is going to absorb everything else, everyone knows it, it’s already a fact today. AA: How did it progress from then on? DF: In 1996 I was back in the same routine where most of the energy was going to the technical set-up and little of it to anything creative. The only way we would be able to make any impact on the network was by having a permanent network. Since 1997 I have spent most of my energy trying to make a permanent network. That’s a ridiculously long, long time. We were always at the mercy of the technology. I set up a number of meetings in Southern France, in Soulliac, from 1997 to 2000, and invited people from Europe and North-America. We just talked about projects. The first thing we did was writing a manifesto. It was called The Soulliac Charter. It laid out the philosophy of artistic experimentation with communication technology. Little by little I started trying to put together a network, the network which is now called MARCEL. We made two major decisions: we would squat the academic network – because that was the only way we could get cheap bandwidth – the other one was to go for multicasting. AA: MARCEL is a network that runs on top of IP, if I understand correctly? DF: Yes, and it’s a totally different technology, that is very much misunderstood and under-utilised. It’s called Access Grid. The technology is now managed by Queensland University in Australia. Back in 2003 I realised it was chasing people away, because the technology was not good enough, and I didn’t want to only work with technical geeks. I wanted people who hated the technology, but wanted to have music online, or theatre online. Therefore we needed to build our own platform, and that is what I have been trying to do ever since. The solution I found in 2003 or 2004 was to interface the Access Grid with Pure Data. It has taken me ten years to convince people that it is the way to go. Now I have a consortium in Europe beginning to work on it. The idea is to build a system that would allow people to make there own tailor-made platforms according to their particular artistic needs. By interfacing network technology with the library of Pure Data tools, people could do that in relatively easy terms. AA: And this would become a platform for interactive theatre, interactive music and so forth? DF: That’s correct. My major interest is the network as a collaborative tool, not as a broadcast tool. What most people are doing still follows basically a broadcast model. Facebook is not interactive at all, it is people broadcasting themselves. I call it egos online. I’m interested in the real interactivity, where people are actually creating together. It’s not just musicians in the city playing with musicians in another city, it also involves an audience that can engage in different ways. But that platform is not there yet. This is what we are trying to build. AA: But how is this different from what people in a do-it-yourself way could achieve Skype and other tools we now have? DF: Well, some of it can be done with Skype, but it won’t be very good. If you want to get beyond the novelty part of it, you will recognise very quickly that the available technology isn’t up to it. It can’t give you what you want to do as a creator. It also means being a slave of an industry that provides the tools, and I think we have to turn that around. That was one of the premises of the Soulliac Charter. We wanted – and want – to have the artistic demands dictate the evolution of the technology, and not an industry which is guided by the impetus to make money. I try to imagine a situation that doesn’t have any limitations. I don’t want to see the potential limited. That just holds people down and pushes their imagination into a corner. I want to see technology that allows people to do anything they want to do, and see how far they can go with it. AA: That sounds quite idealistic... DF: My mentality comes from the analogue period, when it was very easy to interfere with the technology. With analogue technology you pick up a screwdriver and you can change something. When the technology became all digital and the cameras became sealed boxes, it became much harder to break into it, and begin to play with the image. I always carried that analogue approach with me, the idea that you can interfere with technologies at any level. And it is true, we can interfere at any level, but you have to develop the skills necessary to do that interference. Every time I look at a technology I say to myself ‘that could be better. That’s still limiting’. Because I’ve sensed those limitations for thirty years, they have always been a problem. I’m not saying that we can overcome them now, but we can do it better than ever before. Artists picked up every major communication invention in twentieth century too late. By the time artists started playing with it, they were already marginalised. Cinema started around 1900, the first art films are made in the 1920s when cinema had already been determined sociologically. Its role in society had been decided: it was there to amuse the crowd. Television is the worst example. Television has probably been the most dangerous communication tool we have ever developed, because it’s turning our population in a bunch of mindless idiots. The world wide web has been taken over by commerce. What is seen in the communication space of the web is decided by its advertising potential. In that sense we have lost the web too. AA: But hasn’t there always been this connection between technology and commerce? DF: Technology and particular communication technology has always been at the mercy of industry and at the mercy of a commercial world. Most of the decisions are taken to respond to commercial needs and not necessarily to artistic or cultural needs. Bu this is giving us a very dead communication space. One that I quite frankly think is culturally dangerous. The only way we’re going to change that is taking over the space ourself. That’s very idealistic. We’ll probably fail, but at least we will feel good about it. But who knows. I think it’s worth trying. The consortium that we have put together for MARCEL is a good mix of science, technology and art. Our idea of evolving the communication technology is to do it through artistic and educational events. We organise real time events that allow us to see what kind of tools are needed for that particular event and then make those tools. In the end we will have a toolbox that different people can use in different ways. AA: So it is of the utmost importance to question technologies, and open the ‘black boxes’... DF: It has become even more critical in the twenty-first century because of the importance of our communication tools. But artists have been marginalised. Fascist regimes and communist regimes did everything they possibly could to destroy art and didn’t succeed. Capitalism is succeeding. The market has turned everything into junk. This means we’re losing a very important field of investigation that belongs to humanity. It means we’re going to lose the power of art. AA: What is the power of art? DF: Art is another way of looking at the world and trying to understand reality, if it exists at all. In some respect it’s a communal way of doing it, and in another way it’s a very individualistic way of doing it. Some artistic explorations indicate to a degree where society is going, and I do believe that art is the consciousness of society. It fulfils the need to look beyond our material existence. We’re doing the exact opposite today. Society would like to turn all art into entertainment. But it is not entertainment. Once it becomes entertainment, I think we have lost an essential part of our humanity. We are the society that recognised that art is another way of looking at the world, we are also the society that is trying to erase it. One of the terms that I absolutely detest, is the so-called ‘creative industries’. Once you get away with calling art a creative industry, you turn it over to the accountants. And that just kills it.