[This interview was made by the end of December 2019, as an addition to the essay “The Deep Meaning of Poetry. Eduardo Kac’s Art of the Fundamental Processes” I was writing for the volume A. Sgamellotti, B. G. Brunetti, C. Miliani (eds.), Science and Art. The Contemporary Painted Surface, London, The Royal Society of Chemistry, 2020 (pp. 338 – 355). The Part 1 of my text has been published here]
[P.L.C.] I think it is very interesting that in your work you have used many different techniques, technologies and tools: poetry, photography, performance, holography, computer, networks, telepresence, robotics, biotechnologies, creating inorganic and organic-based art forms. Is it possible to draw some kind of a poetic and artistic line across all your ways of intending and making art?
[E.K.] Yes, because the question I am interested in is not technology itself, in fact everything is technology: pencil is technology, oil painting is technology, every tool that we employ is technology. So, as a poet, as an artist, I create form, I create form that gives itself to the senses which is to say, form that provides an aesthetic experience. That is what I do and that is what art is supposed to do. What is particular in what I do, that is unique and underpins all of my interests, is that early on in my life I understood that life could not fold into haze: either we would find ourselves in a condition that we would be free or we would find ourselves in a condition that we would not be free. We could rebel against that lack of freedom and we could seek to change reality as we found it. What struck me was the analogy that I perceived between artworks that come to you completely close and leave you the possibility of accepting or refusing to engage, but the form itself came completely pre-packaged, so it is basically a question of accepting or rejecting. That reminded me modes in which you, on the receiving end of the experience, lacked greater freedom.
That led me to the idea of developing forms of art that were dialogical: that acknowledge that you are there, engaging in the work right now and that mattered that it is you, not a human, not a person, but you, because only you will make the decisions that you will make right here, right now, decisions that might be different tomorrow. This mode of working in which you do not have a subject to object relationship but a subject to subject relationship, which I called dialogical, became a lifelong pursuit.
[P.L.C.] It seems that communication – media, interaction, dialogue, and so on – is at the heart of your artistic research and poetics, at many levels, from the inner existence of the living matter to the reason of making art, to the way the artwork can dialogue with its environmental and human contexts.
[E.K.] From a larger philosophical, materialist, perspective, what that means to me ultimately is that when we talk about communication most people do not realize that what they mean is a subset of the world of communication. When they say “communication” they usually mean “persuasive communication”, this is why you have the expression “Do you know what I mean?”. So, basically, everything that is involved in the communication process, the sender, the channel, the noise…, becomes irrelevant because what is important is that you get what I am saying to you, as a result that you behave in a manner that I expect. Well, in reality that is a minute aspect of the communication processes. Instead what I am really interested in is creating communication processes that remain open ended and producing works that create conditions for subject to subject to engage and, ultimately, that reveal my understanding of communication as, quite possibly, the most fundamental of the living processes, because a rock does not communicate anything to a piece of plastic, that is my perspective, and any attempt to read anything communication in a rock or a piece of plastic is a human projection, in my view, over inanimate objects. There are certainly bacteria that live inside the rock and on the surface of the plastic, but I am talking about a hypothetical communication by the plastic and by the rock itself.
Communication in my view is a fundamental material, physical, underline process of reality. Let us imagine the moment when the first single cell emerges: if that single cell could not communicate to another single cell there would not be the formation of the first complex creature. And not all communication is about coming together, some communication is unfortunately lethal: when a virus communicates its contents to a bacterium, the bacterium dies, but the possibility of commingling, and coming together, and exchanging information, in my view, is the fundamental substrate of reality, so that is what I seek to explore and capture.
[P.L.C.] In 2007 you published the Space Poetry manifesto, and in 2017 you created Inner Telescope, an artwork aboard the International Space Station specifically conceived for zero gravity, which was made in space following your instructions. Inner Telescope is an instrument of observation and poetic reflection, which leads us to rethink our relationship with the world and our position in the Universe. This is a dream that you long pursued, why “space art” is interesting?
[E.K.] Again the question is not technology, the question is more profound. I made my first digital work, which was a digital poem, in 1982. I started very early at the age of 17, I formed a performance group in 1980 and I worked in mixed media, multimedia, with the performance from 1980 to 1982, but when I finished that project I realized that everything that had been done up until then – everything from the first cave paintings to Pollock, to Warhol, including my old work up until that point – was analog, early computer art was on paper, everything was analog. And I understood that this emerging form which we call “digital” was more than a technique. I understood that it was the beginning of a new culture. I lived in an environment in which I was surrounded mostly by painters and poets that published books.
Although critics were interested in what I did, almost nobody else was. I explained that in the Sixties and Seventies we had gone through something that Oscar Masotta from Buenos Aires had described as dematerialisation, which he actually got from Lissitzky. He puts an epigraph in his essay on dematerialisation in which he quotes Lissitzky, who said: “We live in an era of telegraphy, radio, et cetera, these are dematerialized forms”. And then he wrote that dematerialisation was the order of the day in the late Sixties with newspapers, magazines, television and all that. So, what I am saying is that we – for me starting from 1982, with my first work – are no longer experiencing dematerialisation, we can now create works that are themselves directly immaterial, because they are digital. It is no longer a question of diminishing the importance of matter, it is a question of creating directly work that is information. That signaled, in my view, a new culture. As a young poet and artist I wanted to participate in this new culture, contributing to the development of the art and poetry of this new culture, which I did for many years.
With space there is a similar situation: we are in the beginning of a new era in which space will progressively become accessible to the individual, to the civilian. Space tourism will become ordinary in the next decades. It is quite conceivable that there will be a space hotel eventually as well. We will build a base on the Moon which will serve as a preliminary area for study about living outside of the Earth because, as we know, our body did not evolve for that purpose, and eventually we will land on Mars. The landing on Mars will be significant for us as a culture, but we are not going to start colonising Mars anytime soon. We will however have a space station around the Moon in about 15 to 20 years, and we will have a Moon base where people would be going to on a regular basis, like they go to the International Space Station right now. But most importantly, we will have suborbital flights as an ordinary event, we will cross the hundreds kilometers from the surface line that separate us from space, and we are gonna do that on an ordinary basis. At that moment you have lots of people having similar experiences and sharing them, describing them, and creating works for those experiences, a new culture emerges. As that new culture emerges, more people will want to participate with new forms of cuisine, of theater, of performance, of poetry…
My Inner Telescope is a work created for zero gravity. Creating work that is specific for zero gravity is not a trivial thing, because we have no tradition, we have no landmarks. You know what Beethoven did, what Bach did, what Chopin did, so you have landmarks that stay as a reference: you can go in or against that direction, but we have no Mona Lisa of the space age. One thing that is significant about Inner Telescope is that the work was actually made in outer space. It is the first poem, the first artwork that was crafted by hand outside of our home planet, and that is the landmark, like the flag on the Moon: we have arrived, here we are, we can only develop from here. That is why I think that Inner Telescope is both a visual work of art and a poem, because for me poetry is an art form, and I pursue poetry in a way that is visual, sensorial, multimodal, I have always done that since I started with digital poetry. I have always pursuit poetry in this malleable, transformable way that involves visuality and other senses, because I see a continuum between word and image, between visual art and poetry. I know that for many people poetry is contiguous to music, the beginning of poetry was like that and many people explore this way which is wonderful. For me personally, as a practician, I explore this continuum between visual art and poetry and I have always done that. Conceiving something for zero gravity, where the rules of Earth do not apply, is a particular challenge, but many people will tackle this challenge in the future, and the new space culture will emerge.
[P.L.C.] The relationship among art, science, technology and society is at the basis of many of your artworks and your making art. How do you see the relationship between art and science?
[E.K.] I think the question is: why haven’t we recognized that art has influenced science, when everybody thinks that science has influenced art? I think that is the real question. Science has always been influenced by art, it is just our prejudice we have not acknowledged that. I think there is a book that has to be written about how science borrowed from art. It has always been reciprocal but we have not recognized science borrowing from art. We will give some examples. The metaphor is a tool of the poet and science has always borrowed this instrument but pretended that it did not, and by pretending that it is not borrowing anything from poetry, science produces facts. Let us give an example: the concept of the gene. The concept of the gene was speculated upon already in the Thirties and before the discovery of the double helix structure there was speculation on what it might look like, but also what it might be, how it might function, and the result of that is that this metaphor was coined: that the gene works like Morse code. It was an analogy between something that you do not know because you have not seen, you did not know that this thing really existed, you speculated on its existence, you had not seen its structure, you had not really proved its existence, but it was speculated on the notion of a unit.
It was Schrödinger that coined this analogy when as physicist, he looked at biology from the perspective of a physicist, and in his book What is life?, published in the Fourties, he coined this metaphor. So, it is by collapsing the metaphor and pretending that they did not employ that tool: so you have two elements of an analogy and then you have the link through the metaphor, you collapse the metaphor and then you link the elements of the analogy into a fact. This is the basic mechanism of the rhetoric of science, and many people have written long essays in exposing how this logic works. But not only the instrument of the poet, perspective was invented by artists, photography was invented by artists, and can you imagine science without photography? The debt that science has towards artists is fundamental. You look at an X-Ray picture of the cosmos, those pictures are raw data, there is no color and then scientists in order to communicate an idea employ false colors, we invented that: painters invented false colors to communicate an idea or an emotion. The list goes on, it is a very long list that we would have to track down in history and different cultures to demonstrate that it has always been a two-way road, it is just that out of prejudice the society has only recognized one side.
[P.L.C.] Some people today consider that the recent acquisitions of AI, Big Data, Deep Learning and machine learning, robotics, are leading to some kind of dishumanization, are a threat for humanity. This is a long standing idea, what do you think about, and how do you see the future?
[E.K.] This feeling of being inadequate because traditional modes of existence have been disrupted by technology is quite old itself. Most people, when they complain about technology in one way or another, do not realize that they stand at the end of a line that goes back in time, since technology was not controlled by a small group but started to be part of society. Of course this phenomenon started to be accentuated during the Industrial Revolution, when the ordinary folk started to be touched in a more direct way by technology.
The earliest example that I casually have found – I have not really stopped to research this and do an extensive examination of people responding negatively to technology – is in Edgar Allan Poe, who lived in the first half on the 19th Century. In fact I am currently reading an anthology of Heinrich Hein, the German poet that operated this transition between Romanticism and Modernity (he precedes Baudelaire, he is a contemporary of Poe), and he too has a passage in which he complains about the “humanizing technology” which for us today would the object of laughter. It is a feeling that has been shared socially since technology has started to touch society, and it is often the feeling that the young people do not have, it is the older folks, who knew the world before these technologies and who feel nostalgic about the way the world was, that express that feeling.
The young folk that did not know the other world are perfectly happy in this new one. That is one thing, the other thing is that, as we know, the elephant in the room is power. Everybody dances around all kind of issues, but the elephant in the room is always power. The question is not abstract, it is not technology itself, the question is that those who are in power will use these technologies to perpetuate themselves in power. Those who consolidate wealth will use these technologies to increase their wealth. This may be less apparent in Europe but it is certainly the case in the rest of the world. The ultimate challenge is not to stop these technologies but to find ways in which they are used in a manner that assures a democratic distribution of power and a fair distribution of wealth. That is the real question, it is not the technology itself.
[P.L.C.] Through sciences, technologies and the resulting tools, our species is deeply pervading and modifying the world it lives in, it is influencing the environment and threatening the other species, transforming the meaning of “Nature”. According to some thinkers and philosophers it is fundamental to go back to be human, the solution is “more humanity”. Is it really so? Or, since just “being humans” has led to this situation, it is necessary to go beyond humanity?
[E.K.] I do not think that we can “go back to be human” because there is nothing specific in my view about being human. The human is an entity that continuously transforms itself, evolution has not stopped, we have not arrived at anything, we are just here as a part of a continuum that will develop and transform indefinitely, and there is nothing to go back to because there was nothing there to begin with. For example, we were talking about bioart, and it is really interesting that the Human Genome Project revealed that we all have bacterial DNA in our genome. What do you call a creature that has a DNA of another creature? Transgenic: we have always been transgenic, we just did not known until the Human Genome Project. So, going back to be transgenic again? Well, we have always been, we just did not know. So what does that mean, going back to what? I do not think there is anything to go back to, because we are malleable and transformable.
The problem is the same: the problem is power. It is not that humans have created global warming, it is power, it is the wealthy, it is countries that put their own interests first and not the interests of humanity as a whole, that pollute immensely. We know who are the top polluters in the world and there is no more body of water that is not contaminated by plastic. Any form of water that you drink will have some plastic. Not to mention the islands of plastic in the ocean. It is power, it is greed, it is the accumulation of wealth that have led to this, so those are the real issues. If those issues could be addressed everything else would follow.
[P.L.C.] What is your position about contemporary issues that are transforming the natural, geopolitical and economic balance of our Planet, like Climate Change, migrations, economic crises? May exist an art that can deal with these topics?
[E.K.] In the Sixties an art form emerged that is called ecological art. Artists were already dealing with ecological problems: they were, for example, looking for plants that could absorb pollute in an area et cetera. It is wonderful, it is great, but art can talk about any topic: you could make a painting about global warming, but the planet itself, reality, life, those are too large for a single artist to resolve. That has to be resolved at the level of United Nations, by elected politicians that represent the ultimate aspirations of the world’s planet, which are survival, happiness, fair wealth distribution, access to education, access to hygiene, access to hospitals… The solution for the planet, the real solution for the planet, is not to be looked for in art, is to be looked for at a political level.
But artists can raise issues, they can make us aware of these issues, they can produce insight that motivates us to action. So art can play its part. But we should not look for solutions directly in art because these problems are too large and they have to be resolved politically. For that we need democracy, and for that we need ways in which we can be vigilant. So that we protect ourselves from the most dramatic effect of our era, which is beginning to be known as “information world war”. We have started a new phase of history that is likely to be remembered as “information world war”. In the wars of the past you knew exactly your enemy and where they were, even though you had coded messages that had to be cracked, but the war of today is one in which people hide behind IP addresses. Shell after shell after shell, and they exert influence in other societies at a distance. So democracy alone without protection against the effects of the information world war will suffer, as we have seen. I think it is a time in which a lot has to be rethought, reconfigured, re-examined, and then we need to start anew.
We need to understand what is coming to us from all these fronts, and we need to ensure that the possibility of a genuine free exchange and communication takes place, so that we can elect democratically politicians that will in fact make changes to protect the planet and to ensure fair access to all the human rights. I think that is the real issue.