Okay, so enter 1983. I don’t know what you were doing at this peri­od of time, but a lot of things hap­pened. The first mobile phones, com­pact discs, Michael Jackson, WarGames…a lot of things, depend­ing on your interest. 

In my case [modem con­nec­tion sound starts play­ing] I think it was some­thing which was not glam­orous, not tan­gi­ble, not even vis­i­ble, some­thing hap­pened that kind of changed the way we were deal­ing with every­day life. And it’s the shift that hap­pened from the NCP pro­to­col to the Internet Protocol suite. The net­work design was open enough to con­nect poten­tial­ly every com­put­er world­wide, and it became the most widely-used net­work, and we’re still using it today. [modem sounds end]

83 Time Cover Gatefold

I’m not inter­est­ed in the tech­ni­cal aspect of this inno­va­tion. What inter­ests me is how peo­ple at some time, at some point, made it vis­i­ble some­how. This cov­er of Time (You can see we like Time mag­a­zine.) is [express­es] a lot of the kind of ten­sion and the mixed feel­ings about the com­ing of tech­nol­o­gy in the house­hold. The face to face of these char­ac­ters, they don’t know exact­ly how to com­mu­ni­cate. They don’t know what to do with this new non-human agent that came into their life. And it looks a lit­tle bit like they are wait­ing for a sig­nal, some­thing that can help them to com­mu­ni­cate. It’s a lit­tle bit the calm before the storm. And there is one detail which is quite strik­ing. It’s the win­dow, which com­mon­ly is the open­ing to the world. The win­dow is black, and the real­i­ty is seen on screen.

At the same time, by coin­ci­dence, President Reagan launched a new era in space explo­ration with the devel­op­ment of the pro­gram called Strategy Defense Initiative. The idea was to make a satellite-regulated shield that could auto­mat­i­cal­ly dis­man­tle nuclear pro­jec­tiles. This was a very big shift in the way the United States were deal­ing with space explo­ration. And the pro­gram, very expen­sive, was dubbed Star Wars” by its critics. 

I’m not going to deal in this polit­i­cal agen­da, which was quite com­plex. What inter­ests me is the way they used visu­als, espe­cial­ly com­put­er graph­ics ani­ma­tion, to pro­vide legit­i­ma­cy to the project. Suddenly, this kind of imagery, which used to be used in films like Tron or was com­mon in video games, was used in for­eign pol­i­cy speech and sud­den­ly gave strong cred­i­bil­i­ty to this kind of imagery. Computer graph­ics imagery almost became objec­tive tools like pho­tographs used to be from the inven­tion of photography.

This links to anoth­er kind of imagery which is quite inter­est­ing. All the ren­der­ings, the dia­grams, and the images that were pro­duced dur­ing this time and for this project had dimen­sion, artist con­cept, artist vision, artist ren­der­ing. Sometimes they were even signed. And it gave a seri­ous sci­en­tif­ic author­i­ty to the artists.

So that’s a lit­tle bit how I came to go in this direc­tion. I was inter­est­ed in the way artists in this spe­cif­ic con­text trans­lat­ed this his­toric moment in their pro­duc­tions. I decid­ed to focus on two very seemingly-opposite artists. One is David Em on the left. He lives and works in Los Angeles. He began mak­ing sculp­ture, film, pho­tog­ra­phy, and print­mak­ing before becom­ing one of the pio­neers of dig­i­tal art. During the 70s and 80s, he worked at Xerox PARC and JPL (Jet Propulsion Laboratory), the place where the Star Wars pro­gram was elaborated.

On the right is Rammellzee, a visu­al artist, musi­cian, per­former, poet, born in New York in 1960. In the 80s, he was part of the first gen­er­a­tion of graf­fi­ti artists to get world­wide recog­ni­tion. They seem to belong to total­ly dif­fer­ent worlds, and the idea of this pre­sen­ta­tion is a lit­tle bit to see how they are not so different.

David Em, "Escher" 1979

David Em, Escher” 1979

Coming back to the work of David Em. He worked dur­ing the 70s at JPL, a branch of NASA which was spe­cial­ized in space explo­ration. By chance, he did­n’t have to work for the Army, but he had access to the state of the art in com­put­er graph­ic soft­ware. He worked with mas­ters in com­put­er graph­ics like James Blinn, whose soft­ware helped him to devel­op his own style.

He also liked to make the link between his for­mer sculp­ture prac­tice and what he called the vir­tu­al world. He liked com­put­er graph­ics because it allowed allowed [him to stretch the can­vas, to open hybrid ter­ri­to­ries that are locat­ed out­side the tra­di­tion­al art net­works. He was very pop­u­lar among the public.

One of his most icon­ic images is called Approach,” and it referred to this very icon­ic image we saw back in the 60s, or that were pro­duced back in the 60s, show­ing this lit­tle Earth in the mid­dle of the uni­verse. This image polar­ized opin­ion, because it has a strange poet­ic feel­ing. It kind of shows the glob­al pen­e­tra­tion of tech­nol­o­gy. And it looks a lit­tle bit like a plan­et which is seen through the lens of a machinic vision.

If you’ve seen this pho­to­graph before, it might be on the cov­er of the album Future Shock. Herbie Hancock pro­duced this album, a series of three albums actu­al­ly. All of them have David Em art­works on the cov­er, and Future Shock was the most suc­cess­ful album. The image went viral. The title is bor­rowed from a book Alvin Toffler wrote in 1970 which was quite influ­en­tial. And most of the project is deal­ing with the idea or the con­cept of infor­ma­tion over­load that is part of the main hypoth­e­sis of Toffler in his book.

What is inter­est­ing in the big suc­cess of this col­lab­o­ra­tion between Bill Laswell and Herbie Hancock was the sin­gle Rockit.” I don’t know if you remem­ber it, but back in 1983 you had this very strange video, and this very unusu­al noise, which is the noise of Grandmaster DST scratch­ing, appro­pri­at­ing the turntable and mak­ing sounds that were not very com­mon on a record at this peri­od. The video is also this very strange and creepy flat where these robots are kind of mak­ing stac­catos fol­low­ing the rhythm of the track. This was a very strong image that kind of also opened some new son­ic ter­ri­to­ries, I would say.

col­li­sion music” involves seem­ing­ly dis­parate ele­ments being thrown togeth­er in an attempt to cre­ate new sound.
John Doran, Bill Laswell Interviewed: Bass. How Low Can You Go?”

Regarding the con­cept which was behind the project, Bill Laswell liked to talk about col­li­sion music,” the idea of bring­ing dif­fer­ent ele­ments togeth­er and open­ing some new sound or new ways to lis­ten to music. This con­cept of col­li­sion is real­ly at the core of the work of Rammellzee. So I’m going to go a lit­tle bit fur­ther describ­ing his universe.

Rammellzee had a very big time in 1983. He did a col­lab­o­ra­tion with Jean-Michel Basquiat on a sin­gle called Beat Bop,” and this was a very suc­cess­ful record which is always one of the most sought-after rap records. He also played in a film called Wild Style, and anoth­er film about graf­fi­ti art that is called Style Wars. That was the moment where the hip-hop move­ment broke into the main­stream and the world was just dis­cov­er­ing youth cul­ture, which was using old tech­nolo­gies inher­it­ed from the indus­tri­al era, like high­ways and the train sys­tem, as a new means of communication.

And that’s when Wild Style and the uni­verse of Rammellzee and the uni­verse of David Em are com­ing togeth­er. David Em was very impressed by the graf­fi­ti he saw in the cities of Philadelphia and Los Angeles back in the 70s. He was real­ly impressed by the aes­thet­ic of this graf­fi­ti, but also by the free­dom that these youth got to make their art. He was so into it that he start­ed to pho­to­graph and col­lect dif­fer­ent inscrip­tions and made a doc­u­men­tary in 1978 called Graffiti Fever, which is about the emer­gence of the street art move­ment. It’s one of the first graf­fi­ti doc­u­men­taries, and it kind of made a very strange con­nec­tion between the ear­ly exper­i­men­ta­tion in com­put­er art and this youth move­ment that was com­plete­ly ver­nac­u­lar somehow.

David Em, that I inter­viewed recent­ly, was men­tion­ing this moment say­ing that back in the mid-70s when he saw these inscrip­tions, it kind of pushed him to define his own style as a dig­i­tal artist. And this is an inter­est­ing con­nec­tion, I think.

Going back to the work of Rammellzee, he also saw a very spe­cial way to deal with graf­fi­ti. His trick was to kind of make some con­nec­tion and add some tech­ni­cal con­cept to his writ­ing. He con­sid­ered graf­fi­ti as virus­es. And what he liked to do was to con­nect his pro­duc­tion to mil­i­tary lan­guage. He was say­ing that the graf­fi­ti artists were in a kind of sym­bol­ic cam­paign against the stan­dard­iza­tion of the alpha­bet. He liked to cre­ate idio­syn­crat­ic lan­guages and was kind of mim­ic­k­ing the lan­guage of the Army. On the right, you can see these let­ters mor­ph­ing into rock­ets. All this kind of eso­teric the­o­ry, he called it goth­ic futurism.”

Sometimes one can find some strange exam­ples where his draw­ings are almost the same as the draw­ings made by the weapons man­u­fac­tur­ers at the time. So here on the right you can see the let­ter sig­ma mor­ph­ing into a rock­et, for exam­ple. And on the left it’s an orig­i­nal ren­der­ing of the SDI made in the mid-80s. Somehow he was kind of hack­ing the mil­i­tary lan­guage and the lan­guage that was used for the ren­der­ing of the Star Wars prod­ucts or development.

He also used to work in 3D, some­how. Like mak­ing these sculp­tures from waste mate­r­i­al that he found in the streets. He called them Letter Racers” and they were made from pieces of wood merged with dis­lo­cat­ed dolls, skate­board ele­ments, and oth­er toys. That was an inter­est­ing pre­cur­sor I think of the way we use 3D print­ing nowa­days. And these let­ter [rac­ers] for exam­ple are kind of all based on a let­ter, which is kind of dif­fi­cult to read, but he had def­i­nite­ly some­thing that was linked to the let­ters and the language.

Another thing that he liked to do was to stay anony­mous. He hard­ly ever appeared in pub­lic with­out a cos­tume or a mask. He kind of cre­at­ed a lot of avatars that were inex­tri­ca­ble from his work, and he liked to role play and dis­cuss the idea of iden­ti­ties. Somehow he pre­fig­ures the way we’re deal­ing with avatars in social net­works. I would say that he is a fig­ure of the hacker.

Technology has tak­en us by sur­prised, and the regions that it has opened up are glar­ing­ly empty.
Siegfried Kracauer, Kreise und Tanz, 1925

I like this sen­tence from Kracauer that I think still works nowa­days. These exam­ples, David Em on his side, Rammellzee on the oth­er, what they brought us is a kind of vision that helps us to fore­see a lit­tle bit what tech­nol­o­gy could bring us. They are some­how the aliens of these new territories.

Regarding what we could say about this inher­i­tance, I think the idea of 3D print­ing and the way we are deal­ing with body enhance­ment, for exam­ple, are good exam­ples of what Rammellzee was doing in a very DIY way. 

There are also artists that are deal­ing with the lan­guage, for exam­ple Constant Dullaart with his project DullTech, who is mim­ic­k­ing a lit­tle bit the world of the start­up, mak­ing what he calls dull tech­nolo­gies. And also we kind of find this divi­sion in the way Rammellzee was deal­ing with the DIY ethos.

I was think­ing also of Hito Steyerl, in a movie deal­ing with mass sur­veil­lance and the way the con­tem­po­rary visu­al regime is more and more militarized. 

There are also some exam­ples in music, and I want­ed to fin­ish with this quote that comes from Cybotron. Enter is one of the first tech­no albums. 

Enter the new round
Enter the next phase
Enter the program
Technofy your mind
Cybotron, Enter”, 1983

Thank you.

Nicolas Nova: Thanks, Joël. We have quite some time for ques­tions, so let’s talk more about these things. One of the projects you men­tioned, wa a series of projects, is by David Em. If I remem­ber well, David Em used to work with com­pa­nies like Xerox PARC, for instanced. To clar­i­fy the con­text, how would you define his work, think­ing about what you showed, what’s the role of this in Xerox PARC at the time?

Joël Vacheron: I don’t know much about David Em because I dis­cov­ered him work­ing on this talk. But I’ve been very impressed [with] the way he was hav­ing his own way of deal­ing with dig­i­tal art. There’s a doc­u­men­tary that you can see on YouTube that explains his vision a bit, and it sounds so con­tem­po­rary like, you have the impres­sion that it’s a post-Internet artist some­how. And I think at the time, he had a lot of free­dom to exper­i­ment and go the way he want­ed to go. But for that, he need­ed a strong vision and I think he got it.

Nova: Did he do that as a side-job, com­pared to what he was used to do there, or…?

Vacheron: I have the impres­sion that he was pret­ty full-time, but I’m in dis­cus­sion with him. That’s the kind of ques­tion I might ask him.

Nova: What is also inter­est­ing with Rammellzee, the artist who did the masks and the machines out of dis­card­ed objects is that this looks very con­tem­po­rary, as you said. And it seems like if you look at the word of some artists now, work­ing with a cri­tique against mass sur­veil­lance or cam­eras, there’s a very inter­est­ing echo. But of course it’s dif­fer­ent because it was in the 80s. So what do you think made Rammellzee antic­i­pate that? Was he inter­est­ed or focused on think­ing about some sort of sci-fi dystopi­an world, or was he inter­est­ed in some sort of repur­pos­ing of exist­ing technologies?

Vacheron: I think he was already a kind of mav­er­ick. And he had a lot of humor, and he must have had fun because he died in 2010. But I fig­ure he had fun mak­ing these lit­tle game role-plays. And he was also part of this tra­di­tion that we could call Afrofuturism, which is… We know like Sun Ra back in the 50s, 60s, already start­ing from the sound of the Moog, the first Moog sound, like elec­tric Moog, start­ed to devel­op a rhetoric about space trav­el and all these things. So he kind of also had a her­itage or tra­di­tion in which he could eas­i­ly go.

Nova: One of the rea­sons why I was inter­est­ed in this 1983 top­ic is that a lot of the exam­ples that Joël has showed antic­i­pate the world of today. But I’m curi­ous what hap­pens when you teach at the acad­e­my. You have stu­dents who were born after 1983. What hap­pens when you show them these kinds of exam­ples? Does that make sense for them, or is it sur­pris­ing? What kind of debate does that lead to?

Vacheron: I think it’s inter­est­ing because this exam­ple espe­cial­ly, regard­ing dig­i­tal arts kind of lot it cred­it, some­how, back in the 90s and ear­ly 2000s. And it comes back. And I’m always sur­prised to see the stu­dents, the new gen­er­a­tion even younger than…people born in 1983, real­ly like this kind of approach. And I think what they like is the fact that it’s strong vision, and peo­ple real­ly believed in what they want­ed to do and did­n’t care about any peo­ple who don’t Like when they post some­thing on Facebook. I don’t know. I think for them it’s a very encour­ag­ing sign that there’s pos­si­bil­i­ty to do things that last.

Nova: One of the mes­sages here is that if you look at artists’ work at that time, for instance, that antic­i­pates trends in terms of cul­ture and tech­nolo­gies. But that was 1983. Can you give us some exam­ples of artists from today who not nec­es­sar­i­ly might be the next Rammellzee, but who might tell us some­thing about the future of technologies?

Vacheron: I think the quote of Cybotron is quite inter­est­ing because this is offi­cial­ly the begin­ning of the tech­no move­ment, 1983. Juan Atkins is part of this first gen­er­a­tion of tech­no pro­duc­ers, but he’s still present. And if you lis­ten to tech­no music, it has changed of course, but it’s still the same some­how. And the same with rap music, which kind of broke out back in 1983 or ear­ly 80s. So I think there are things that last and we still hear them as original.

Nova: But are there new ones in visu­al arts, or in oth­er types of arts nowa­days that would be inspir­ing for you as a way to think about the future?

Vacheron: Yeah, Hito Steyerl, Constant Dullaart, and I would say Kim Laughton, for exam­ple, and artists that are so recently…who does a lot of things based in Shanghai that kind of pro­vide a real­ly inter­est­ing vision of how the world could [look] when most of the cul­tur­al exam­ple ele­ments would be Asian or Chinese.

Nova: Thank you very much, Joël.

Vacheron: You’re welcome.

Further Reference

Bio page for Joël and ses­sion descrip­tion at the Lift Conference web site.