Maurice Benayoun is one of the most experienced among digital media artists, both in France and abroad. Principally known as an interactive artist, his research course on visual art and video started from documentary experiences, as testified by his documentaries and video installations about the most influent contemporary artists in the Eighties. In 1987 he was one of the founders of Studio Z-A, one of the first examples of professional studio aimed to the experimentation of new approaches to computer-made images.
Since the Eighties, the history of computer is filled with operative hypothesis, fantasies and imaginations related to the new and astonishing possibilities it offered, even in both aesthetical and communicative field, becoming very soon the new technologic, social and productive reality to reckon with.
Such new presence has been capable of generating new experiences on a global scale where culture and communication were rethought within the new media possibilities of application. Nowadays new media is an old term indeed, since digital media are now so diffused that they partially exceed their novelty. But it is an epochal term as well, and so I am glad to use it in order to indicate a rising culture characterizing an extremely important period of our history.
Maurice Benayoun‘s course followed the development of new media during the last 15 years, with analysis on virtual and 3d image, net communication forms and interactive devices. From the TV series at the beginning of the Nineties, entitled Les Quarks, with 3D narrative animations and SF-like, up to facing immaterial art questions with Art after Museum, Benayoun has always reflected on the problems of digital art seen as disappearance of the tangible works. Works that also become infinitely reproducible, as a perfect replica of an original one.
Among his most significant works emerges World Skin, A Photo Saphari in the land of War, one of the most important productions of all time in a 3D environment where many hypothesis of virtual reality have been experimented. Projected in 1997 in a place called CAVE, a space three meter large where every wall was a screen and stereoscopic glassea were needed to see things in relief, it has been then realized in 2010 as an interactive installation by Rotterdam’s V2.
It is a 3D space where Benayoun sets a travel discovering war, in the dark and undetermined scenery typical of videogames, yet renewed with an original solution: instead of following the restrictive logic of total 3D reconstruction, he inserts graphically defined photographic figures, in order to tread a infinite and practicable path among the common images of war, old and new, a trip among wreckages, weapons, violence. A violence more remembered than represented, in a simple yet complex work, one of the most interesting of immersive reality. In addition to the special glasses, the users are provided with cameras in order to film the virtual landscape. Every time a picture is taken, the landscape disappears and gets immediately printed. The reality of media disappears through its own increase and invasivity. The digital saphari suggests again the theory of media excess and its effects of information subtraction or disappearance. The excessively reproduced reality ends up disappearing.
The Tunnel under the Atlantic is another interesting work. Built with networks, video, audio communication and music, it is a “digital portal” located in the Beaubourg permitting a sort of dialog between Paris and Montréal. The passage under the tunnel chronicles the long cultural and social history which strongly links the two cities. Matters of discussion are obviously time and space. The space generated by the tunnel is a symbolic one, and between the two edges there are waiting and collective communication moments. The connection becomes key for language and pillar of new forms of virtual communication, involving both structures and people in the communicative mechanism.
Maurice Benayoun‘s work seems to us a communication-based one, which utilizes digital media for he considers them the most fitting in his experience. Here today, the day a publication about his first twenty years of career is available, we have an interview with him, persuaded that his works involve the relationship between art and digital media.
Lorenzo Taiuti: How many differences are there between working on new media now and in the Nineties?
Maurice Benayoun: There are lot of them. In the Nineties we needed performative, big computer by Silicon Graphics, utilizable by experienced technicians only, even for the simplest aspects of digital works. The work environment was different as well. It was very small, there were few people working with art and technology. We met each other and we were always the same of us, like a sort of ghetto. Nowadays we can use laptops even for complex works, and academies and universities rose more and more, with new multimedia section where to improve our work. Computers are no longer scary, we use them every day. Though the cultural world maybe is not ready to accept technological art, we feel like we witness a growing absorption of technology in the cultural and artistic systems.
That is why my work is moving into a direction I define as “critical fusion”. I mean a fusion between reality and typical media fiction, as for instance CNN news bulletins showing how we can create a life-size and real-time fiction. The risk of today’s communication (aesthetical or spectacular) is to create illusion and fiction hiding reality, as stated by Guy Debord in his Society of the Spectacle.
Lorenzo Taiuti: Let me understand: is it a work towards didactics and not towards metaphor? Or maybe this work could offer the keys we need to unlock new doors?
Maurice Benayoun: The “critical fusion” should be an element of knowledge, and yet the fusion between reality and fiction risks to distract from reality. It is the opposite of concentration, defined as fusion of the cognitive processes and not function of entertainment, but support to unveil reality.
Lorenzo Taiuti: One more thing. It seems to me new media are still perceived mostly as “special effects”. What do you think about that?
Maurice Benayoun: I think they are rather art/critic effects: we can make sense, create sense with special effects. The important thing is not the effect but the act of seeing and the same applies to the “retinal memory” they talked about many times. Retinal memory does not mean “retinal seduction” (the modernism has always battled against that idea), but a veritable form of representation.
Lorenzo Taiuti: And what about the concept of “critical fusion”?
Maurice Benayoun: It is very important in NeOrizon, my work with street boxes. I see people and vision of things are changing nonotheless, as for instance Yes Men who are working very close to the concept of critical fusion, and so do Art Mark, 01.org, who even work exactly on it. A fusion composed by simple technological elements and new elements of art as well. Open art seen as art opened to media, free diffusion, broadcasting and use of technology. The “dream of creation” does not only mean dreaming to overcome frontiers, but escaping from one’s own identity too. To behave in the world could become realer than reality itself.
Lorenzo Taiuti: Let’s try and explain the apparent contradiction between “technological fake” and the idea of “knowledge growth”.
Maurice Benayoun: We are experiencing a more and more symbolic representation of what is real. Like World Trade Center, that was both a tangible workplace and a symbol of American economy and power. Today it is necessary to include the information world within the “tissues” of the real. But at the same time, this inclusion must cause an awareness. Or, better to say, a crisis. We should come back to the Situationists’ ideas: image hides reality, it does not reveal it. This concept of critical fusion could lead to a decryption of reality and its symbolic functions..
Lorenzo Taiuti: Unless I’m wrong, you did not use any of techno-art’s classical terms so far, as if you are trying to stand back from the technological definition of digital art. I partially agree with you. In the Nineties, against the excess of “technological absolute” they discussed about then, I thought technological art lied in the genetic structures of modern art, and so it was one of its fundamental elements. Would you please tell me your point of view about this?
Maurice Benayoun: Technology neutralizes a tool’s specificity, and people come back to the “essentials” when everybody talks about that. But I never meant to prove the possibilities of technology. In my opinion, I rely on technology as long as it helps me improve and make clear my relationships with other people, or better comprehend and deal with the world. Only then I consider technology as my tool of choice.
Lorenzo Taiuti: I agree. Then tell me what of your works better explain this thought, what do you consider your best on…
Maurice Benayoun: That’s not an easy task because I think each work expresses and goes one step forward in my path. World Skin is the one most able to arouse the highest emotion, by maintaining a substantial coherence and explaining the contents’ goal. I like NeOrizon, especially in the version realized in China, as well as Watch Out and Cosmopolis. And I am satisfied too with my work on the mechanics of emotions, or by the gathering of the world’s moods then turned into visual schemes and objects.
Lorenzo Taiuti: In a few days, Open Art, a monograph on your work is going to be released. How much have you interfered with the book’s conception?
Maurice Benayoun: Well, Open Art has been conceived by others. It is a monograph dealing with all of my works. I just wanted it to include every feeling and emotion of each of the spectators who witnessed my works; this makes them clearer and more linked to human experience. My blog The Dump is instead my biography, containing every unfinished work and ideas. All of this testifies a tale full of ideas and projects, data banks and free access. A critic even said my blog was likely my most interesting work at all. I find that strange yet intriguing at the same time. It has been some times since my blog goes on and I have to admit it has become a full-fledged, composite work. Someone who participated to it, took even some elements from it and reused them. That’s how my blog has become an inspiring work, just as well as the ones I took my inspiration from in the past. Anyone is allowed to have access and “took” the ideas. That’s what I like to call “transaction art”, passing from a person to another.
Then my blog became a text about art’s intentionality and ideas, and also searching for the reason why many of them do not become true. Moreover, it has explained the idea of artistic activity as a process of “re-digestion” of which came before. A Polish critic then used my blog as a stimulus for other artists, thus producing new works and exposing them into an exhibition by the blog’s name, and the subtitle Recycling of thoughts. By dealing with recycling, I utilized the photos of the exhibition for another work based on the same ones. As if to say: recycling, circulation and “transaction” of creativity.
Lorenzo Taiuti: Have you got some new project in mind? And where?
Maurice Benayoun: In Enghien les Bains an exhibition will be organized. There will be some new works of mine, along with photos and a perfume as well: White Cube, the smell that comes from the paint used to whitewash the gallery’s walls for each exhibition (the “White Cube”, the exposition space for modern art). It is the perfume characterizing contemporary art the better. The exhibition will contain interactive works, weird objects, conceptual operations, provocative works and web projects
Lorenzo Taiuti: Speaking of web projects, you often feel similar to artists like Chatonsky, who seems to work mostly on the net though. Did you work much on the net?
Maurice Benayoun: Yes, that’s right, I worked on the net as well. Two of these works have also been exposed in Australia. Moreover, some of my first digital works were made on the net. Besides, I do not like to be identified as a “web artist”, virtual reality artist and so on.
Lorenzo Taiuti: So don’t you believe in divisions among languages?
Maurice Benayoun: Yes, I do. There are some languages I am interested in and can be not so strictly technological. The period in which I was linked to technology the most was the Nineties, but in general I focus on dealing with the world and not on one technology only.