Portraits of Artists 37

Conversation with Tony Oursler

Stella Rollig: I would like to ask you at the beginning to describe your very own point of departure, how you developed your work as we see it now .

Tony Oursler: I think, why I became attracted to video to begin with was that here you had this medium that had aspects of many different ways of working, you know, many different media all together in one. You would have like a graphic quality or painting quality – which I was trying to incorporate into that early work – and then certain narratives, broken narratives, language, sonic elements, musical elements and of course performative, theatrical elements; and later that kind of break out in a way from the TV set and back into the world, you know. Because the problem of that kind of medium space, this kind of permutated space that someone said you can travel into and you can kind of get a dialogue between the real world and the screened world, kind of breaks down in the installations where you have like, hopefully, a kind of transmutation between the two. So then it goes back into real space .

SR: Do you think that has to do with the fact that you are part of actually the first generation that was raised with TV and this change between the TV space and the real living space that you constantly experienced?

TO: Absolutely, I mean there is no question about it. I still believe that today and it is kind of surprising to me that not more people are really working with that. I sometimes think that in 1000 years from now or whatever they look back at our culture and they will think of our culture as the "watchers". You know, the kind of people who sat for the maximum of hours a day and watched something which at least in the US is quite prevalent, you know. Now with the computers it is a kind of another relationship to the screen, you know. Time eaters! I think it is quite a big shift in the way people use their bodies and their time. I think being the first generation to grow up with TV is a kind of definite dissolving of personal culture and popular culture that happens, because television, unlike cinema, allows you to have a personalized, domestic relationship to media, like the radio or something. Cinema is much more a kind of collective situation. So, I think we have the beginning of a kind of psychonormatic revolution, and television is the first primitive step.

SR: (.) I wanted to ask about your time at CalArts – when was that exactly? Sometime during the seventies?

TO: Yeah, '76 to '79, I guess.

SR: Because now, from the remote viewpoint, it seems that there had been a very special climate. Because with the people becoming well known like Mike Kelley or others, it seems that there had been a special interchange between musicians, visual artists, like a special performance culture, as you said, a very "post-Warholian" popular culture and visual arts movement. Did you have the feeling that this was special for "CalArts", of the Californian art scene of that time?

TO: Well, I think what happened was that it came out of an amalgam of conceptual art at the same time that a lot of people were interested in popular culture. We were able to experiment and there was a great time of breaking things down; the idea of craft, you know, being broken down. The idea of perfecting a craft in terms of art production being replaced with the idea of ideas, having a well-crafted idea perhaps being more important than a sort of a skill. (.) I think there is a kind of seriousness towards popular culture at that time in our generation and I guess it was maybe some of the teachers that we had, like Laurie Anderson or Julia Hayward, Baldessari, people like that, who were interested in a kind of breaking things down but also somebody like Laurie Anderson whose intent was really to cross over, I think, had a kind of an impact on the way we thought about things. So, for her, making music was just as serious as anything else, you know, for obvious reasons now, but at that time she was not really considered a rock star, she was considered something else. One of these things a lot of artists have to worry about is becoming kind of stale with their work, you know, where they just get in a run. I like to keep it a little bit more alive. I just end up doing things that I might not do by myself, you know, where I can bend and stretch in different directions and see what would happen. For instance, this performance for Rick, the performance "phantastic prayers", which you saw part of the development, the scrap performance .

SR: On World Wide Web?

TO: Yeah, on the World Wide Web. It really was like a three way collaboration, also with Steven Vicello who is a composer and a guitarist, and a lot of different artists came into that. We invited Julia Scher to do something which actually is not on the web site yet, but we will have it on there, and Jim Shaw again comes into it. So this was really so full of these different collaborations, you know, wheels within wheels, that in the end, when we did the performance, I was like perplex, like as to have it happen, to begin with.

SR: And on working on it, did you change your way of working together like you started using "e-mail" or something like that?

TO: Well, no, I did not. We were thinking about opening it up for people to contribute through e-mail or through dropping videoclips into the net, that we would maybe use later parts of the performance or something on a CD-ROM, or who knows . But I mean, there is a funny thing about collaboration. At a certain point you have to wonder why are you collaborating, and at that point, you know, it might be interesting to see what someone else would want to give you. But I am a producer, so I have a lot of things I want to do myself! Or it is just like you are shuffling information from one place to another. I mean, this is kind of an interesting question because there is this whole idea of media interactivity and the idea that a viewer could collaborate. Or that there is no longer the idea of a viewer per se, and that everybody is an artist and that when we are going to the internet or in virtual reality, you know, there is no more hierarchical structure whatsoever. These are quite problematic ideas in terms where it gets down to "who makes what" and "what is interesting". You know, a lot of things can be made and you can press a lot of buttons and shuffle a lot of information around, but in the end somebody has to make something that is interesting.

SR: I have the feeling we should go back a step in the conversation, because we made this jump from your beginning of using video to the internet and we should probably talk about the change from the video tape to this kind of installations you do. You began introducing these dummies on which you project your video images. Could you start to tell a little bit about how you developed this kind of installations?

TO: Well, I was always trying to really dissolve the boundaries of the screen which I found quite disturbing as a kind of formal problem, like what you are looking at now on this screen that is designed by somebody in 1940 or something is a kind of proportion and a way of restricting an image. So I was always trying to experiment with mirrors, with glass, with reflections, with different ways to remove this kind of powerful medium from the screen itself, you know, which is like saying to a painter: "Work on one size canvas", or something, you know. So, sculpturally I was removing these things in the early eighties and then in the late eighties I started to work with these smaller projections which allowed me to really take the video image away from the TV set and do things with a little more finesse than I have been working on for many years, ten years. But the idea of the dummy itself was kind of a strange evolution because in my early video tapes I was trying to figure out different ways of representing the body, or character, or personas, psychological states manifested in flesh. I was very fascinated by what constitutes an entity in media, it was one of the main subtexts in my work through the years: how does one decide that what they are seeing constitutes a being, you know. So in the early tapes I experimented with like dolls, bits of paper, etc. I saw it as a kind of refuse: that signed actor, you know, different body parts, isolated parts of the body, the hand, eyes, genitals, whatever. Trying to involve kind of a rich vocabulary of "actors". (.) So this was happening inside the screen, you know, and if you look back to the video tapes it's all there. (.)

SR: You are always using very intense, psychic situations. The feelings that these dummies express are feelings like fear or very strong emotions. Is it that you are using like a filter, and are you using emotions that are created by media and exaggerate them like to their strongest point?

TO: That's as you said, going back to media, because one of the things that was always fascinating for me was the idea that as our culture sits in front of movie screens and TV sets they get through this series of different physical changes and emotional changes and why we choose to do that and how we create that in the media structure because we need it. So what is happening, how is that fulfilled and how does the audience create it or is it created for the audience and that's feedback? It was really just exploration of this: Why are we attracted to these traumatic situations? The crying dolls were the first. For some reason the doll also had this kind of scale. That became quite interesting and it's also for me about media, because that is something that quite obviously happens in the TV. So, anyway, I am going off, maybe you have some other comment because I could just keep going .

SR: I think these different levels that you use creating your work is what makes them so intense. You create really intense situations for the viewers and it kind of comes together: The intense situation that this other person, this dummy is in and your own situation. It's a projecting process, like back and forth. Then, when you create these domestic environments that's another level with these flowered sofas and everything. They are upside down, they are turned and the people who appear within them are in a state of confusion, fear. So everything collides and collapses in a way. I was wondering, because it can be read as a kind of a media critique and on the other hand you do the same as TV, as media, you manipulate, very strongly in a way. For example a friend of mine told me that one of your dummies for Salzburg came back in her dreams!

TO: Oh no!

SR: So it was a really strong image for her, like in a bad dream! So how do you feel about manipulating, do you intend it ?

TO: I hope that it goes beyond that, you know, beyond just manipulation, because that's one of the things I find are detestable about, let's say, somebody like Spielberg who makes you cry on command. If there is just a particular frame in the movie you're gonna go "Oh, it's so sad", you know. But hopefully these works go beyond that so that people can get into some other dialogue with why that's happening to them.

(Vienna, May 1995)