interview by Rocelyn Gallito, reproduced with permission
RG: What is your definition of art?
AL: You know, I challenge my students on this all the time, but I’ve actually avoided a working definition because it feels too constraining. I’m interested in things that are not obvious, that are not the things we need every day. There’s a huge part of our world that just isn’t present most of the time. It’s in our minds or it’s somewhere latent, and I try to bring it into realization. That’s what I think art does, so I don't care if it has a definition. As it happens, because of my particular interest, I work a lot with language and visual images and performance. But I don’t work first with media (though I do work with computers as my primary tool almost always). I don’t think of myself as a sculptor or an “X.” I come up with ideas for projects, and then the project ideas tell me what media they need to be actualized in.
RG: Your bio defines you as an artist with a high interest in “constructed realities.” Could you explain what that is?
AL: We have this word, 'reality', that we use as shorthand for mostly ordinary physical experiences. Sensory experiences, phenomenal experiences. What comes to our five senses, particularly those aspects of experience that we immediately think we understand. So, for example, drug hallucinations might be classified as not-quite-reality. Or mystical religious experience might be qualified as on the periphery of reality. And then there is a whole class of experiences in which I count novels, films, virtual realities like games, and online chatrooms where you don’t know who you’re talking too. There, an attempt has been made to 'make real' that fails, but in an interesting way of failing, through creation of a parallel reality to this one. You project yourself into a novel but you think you can’t experience it physically. But within the mind, the neuronal activity is much as if you are physically viewing it, because you are mentally constructing it as you read. In computer games, you do literally see the world, and it looks different from ours, but what matters most is the engagement you’re having with other characters in the world. Some of them are human, some of them are generated by the game, and you don’t necessarily distinguish between them. I’m particularly interested in any of these things in which we experience a sense of divergence from ordinary reality, a tension from not being able to form a completely coherent account of what is happening.
RG: Why do you consider these attempts to construct reality failures?
AL: It’s failing in the sense that we could never bring it to a complete physical reality of the kind we normally experience. We don’t have access to a full parallel world, and I think it's failing in the sense that we would like it to be that thing but we could never get there. It’s a complicated word to use, though, because the minute you present something to yourself as a failure, you devalue it. Part of the attraction of these worlds grows out of our wistfulness towards them. There is a lingering hope that they could become a fully real reality, but we can’t get there, so meanwhile we experience them through particular forms. I find these limitations very interesting and very attractive.
RG: What is multimedia art?
AL: There are three terms that come up a lot, all of which are problematic. One of them is multimedia. I would say that a multimedia project is any project in which people think two ore more distinct media are being merged. Say video and sculpture, or video and 2D art. There is another perhaps more useful term, integrated media, which suggests that when you bring multiple mediums into a project they can't get welded together seamlessly. The different components may take place in different physical places, for example, but are still all part of the same project. They may not be completely integrated into a single physical object or localized experience. Then there is transmedia, which is another term for projects that happen in many different physical registers, such as on screen and on paper. They aren’t really within the same bounds. You might experience part of a project through a gallery and part through a video installation and part through a book publication. Unfortunately, the proliferation of these terms means that people are perhaps spending too much energy parsing out small differences through labeling. In the simplest sense, multimedia and transmedia bring together media and practices that people would ordinarily consider belong in different spheres—different spheres of production as well as different spheres of perception.
RG: Why is the use of technology and digital media such a big part of your art?
AL: I actually started out as someone who didn’t want to be involved in electronics at all; I didn't want my work to be dependent on being plugged in. I started out in art before desktop computers came along, and that’s what changed things for me. I discovered that this was the tool I had been looking for all my life. I had tried a lot of different media—photography, drawing, painting, printmaking, film—and I didn’t feel fully at home in any of them. I discovered that the computer offered me several things that I needed as an artist. They let you make mistakes very fast and very forgivingly. The undo and redo functions give working on computers a kind of experimental speed that I really appreciate. Then there is the ability to bring media together, to link them up and work between them fairly quickly because ultimately it's all about operating on databases. Those are the two things that drew me to the computer as a tool. Later on, I came to appreciate some other things that were not immediately evident to me. One of them was the question of randomization as a way to keep surprise and change in the pieces. This is something I have always appreciated as an artist, since long before I began working with computers. I’ve never been particularly interested in making eight identical anythings. Also, I was drawn to the way coding lets you control your tools in a different way: you build your tools as you build your art. I found that relationship between tools and artwork compelling. It also made me aware of how dependent we are on technology generally. I hadn’t really thought about it in a deep way before. Ever since, I have been using my projects to critique our relationship to technology. You can’t really do that as effectively standing outside technology. As someone who is deeply involved in and attracted to technological tools, I question my relationship to them because they are expensive, environmentally wasteful, time-consuming, and complicated to work with. In many ways, art was psychically a lot easier back when I just had a pencil.
RG: For someone who has become very critical about the human relationship with technology, what drew you to this kind of technological art?
AL: When I was in my early 20s, I was working as a journalist. I worked at a magazine with a typesetting system, and on my terminal I could input basic typesetting codes as I edited, using a markup language similar to HTML. I got used to working with computers, but at that point I didn’t particularly like them. At the end of the '80s, a friend of mine got one of the first Macintosh computers. I went over to her house and watched her working in a basic paint program and thought: I want one of these. Even though you couldn’t do much with them back then. Well, I couldn’t afford one at the time, but later on I got one as a hand-me-down. And after that I had a job that gave me the opportunity to teach myself desktop publishing on an early version of PageMaker, and I started doing graphic design work, and I was finally able to buy my first computer. A Macintosh IIsi.
RG: What inspires your ideas for new media performances and installation projects?
AL: There’s no one way that they come. Most of the performance pieces I've done are collaborations with Robert Allen, who is a theater director. We’ll talk about things, and ideas just come up in conversation. Like with the first Roman Forum project: one day I was talking about Rome and the connection between what was happening in the old Roman Republic and what was happening in U.S. politics. I am far from the first person to make this analogy, but Robert came up with this idea of time-shifting: What happens if you take the Romans and plop them down in the 21st century, and they're going “What the hell?" And that’s how that piece started.
Sometimes, it’s about responding to circumstances. The webcam piece Chronovacuum grew out of my personal response to 9/11. I was out here in Irvine when 9/11 happened, but I had left New York just two years earlier so I still felt deeply connected to New York. But I had no access to it; I was thousands of miles away. And I discovered one day when searching the web for information about what had happened that there were live webcams on top of the Empire State building, one pointing north and one south. And the south-facing webcam, which could be user-controlled, was showing the 9/11 clean-up site. So every couple of days for weeks and weeks, at all different times of day, I would log in this webcam and just sit and look at New York. It was my umbilicus to New York, and it had an immediacy that made me feel connected in a way that was somehow reassuring. That got me really interested in how webcams are positioned in these odd corners of the world and are mostly not paid attention to. Because who looks at the World Trade Center through a webcam? Because of my interest in webcams, I started looking around the internet to see what people are using them for and collected a whole slew of these beautiful, utterly neglected images. This happens a lot: I get intrigued by something that seems to be pushed off to the side, unnoticed or ignored, and I just pursue it.
RG: How do you approach these ideas? Is there a process to your projects?
AL: I’m a little embarrassed to say that I don’t have any idea how I would generalize a process. I know when I’m collaborating or working alone, it’s really different. With a collaborator, there’s a lot of talking back and forth and a lot of ideas bouncing around. For video and performance projects, I always write at least part of the scripts so I have to start with how the language will come into being. For 2-D images and other projects, I just mess about and see where that takes me. I believe in the empirical process. I don’t really do sketches much. I plunge in and make a few false starts.
RG: With advancing technology, has your approach to digital and multimedia art changed in anyway?
AL: I have become more and more interested in obsolete and dead and dying technology. There is this relentless drumbeat surrounding new technology, that it is always better—which is always a lie. The focus on new technology has created a situation that never existed to the same degree before: it puts artists in the position of being considered not just passé on aesthetic grounds—no longer avant-garde—but actually uninteresting once their media become 'old'. The idea of obsolescence gets transferred directly to the artwork through the artist's choice of tools. It used to be that you could fall out of fashion as an artist and then make a comeback later on as a member of a defined period or movement, but now there is this presumption that the art is entirely disposable within three years just because the technology is old and the work perhaps difficult to access. That is a serious problem, and I see young artists commit this error of thinking all the time without ever stopping to think that it will come back to bite them a few years down the line. And because of this pace of change, I believe we are often throwing technologies out before we are really done with them.
RG: What kind of responses or reactions do you get from audiences for your digital art and live mixed media performances?
AL: It has changed a lot over time as people have become more familiar with digital media. Particularly in the first five years, when I would do internet-based performances and virtual-world mixed-reality performances, people often had no idea what they were looking at. They didn’t know it was live. They didn’t know there were people involved. They didn’t realize there was coding involved. To them it was just words scrolling on screen at high speed. I spent a lot of time answering really basic questions, educating people about the various things artists could do with new media. That was interesting in its own way, but it also got tedious because people would ask “What is it?” when the more potent question for an artist is always "What are you trying to do with this?" Sometime in the early 2000s, that really started to die down and people were able to focus much more on what the pieces were about. That’s a huge change.