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Abundance and Proliferation

Interview by Jana Astanov.

Erik Zepka is a life-size virtual reality game committed to increasing guinea pig visibility.

3:AM: How did it all start? What made you an artist?

Erik Zepka: A number of things. My work is about science and technology, about its functions, power and culture. One aspect of this comes from the consideration of literature – from theatrical writing to experimental poetry/stories to messing with computational media. Newer technologies are the latest in inscription devices so I evolved a kind of semiotic new media practice that found a much more consistent home under the category of art than literature. Another strand is my background as a student and researcher in the sciences, particularly biology and medicine. Thinking about both my research interests and my opinions about the science world, this became a motley combination of jumping between disciplines (genetics, pathology, chemistry, immunology, environmental health) based on my interests by reading papers and writing directly to researchers about what I think they should do. This then would sometimes lead to a time in the lab and further contacts that helped me co-found a community science lab, the Open Science Network (OSN). This clustered around questions of technoscience, big science, bureaucratic science – I both wanted to study it and also wanted to deconstruct its technical, bureaucratic fetishes and advocate the kind of citizen science that the OSN afforded.

Thirdly, my own disability led to an increased use of computer tools and networks to facilitate the ability to create, the schedule to make it happen and the flexible network to allow for its dissemination. The internet allows as byproduct a social realm at once alienating and uniquely facilitating – it is immediately connected with the cultural milieus that technology produces, having as primary the languages it speaks and the connections it makes. Superficial, immediate, sensational, fashionable – whatever qualities we might give it.

These three areas (writing, science, the personal) – along with many others (theatre and the performative, philosophy, university parasitism, etc)– begin to chart a common territory – art, cultural production, critical reflection on the spaces created by sciences and technologies – our own societies valorization thereof and what their construction create – expressive technologies versus functionally rote ones, the knowledge that leads to ideas, to objects, to sensations, to projects. What sort of a common space does craft proliferation create, and how can we talk about and re-represent that. What became attractive about art for me was its absolute interrogative nature, at its worst creating endless problem-entities that wondered what the hell they were, but at its best contaminating virtually every discipline through its own uncertainty and allowing for a tenuous hybrid of science, analysis, language and technology.

[From:Computers and Capital]

3:AM: Were there any people who influenced you in the choice of net art?

EZ: The more I thought about writing the more it was clear it should be explored on a computer, the more I encountered scientific problems the more they were mediated – for better or worse – through computational systems. We like new things, we build them, value them and the role they play trickles down to new socialities, there’s nothing in our landscape they fail to pervade. This makes of innovation a total social question, it makes object obsession into a current rhetorical location – the exceptional intimacy of architectonics is banal – the norm is constructed of paradigmatic shifts that capital sweeps and upends into existence. The barometer of that, the culture thereof is accounted for by its users – the popular internet site, the social site.

In using bulletin boards, chat logs, collective fora, public diary sites, there is a type of language I felt that became central – a social media language. The internet as a user space presents a series of questions that are unpredicted by its technical structure which made up most of the early attempts to aestheticize its process. The internet artist evolves from someone versed in its coded architecture to those invested – usually with increasingly inept or simplistically fetishistic technical skills – in its social systems. It was this latter brand of internet artist – what I consider a folk artist – on social networks that for me met a reflective need on what computers were doing. It started to situate a lot of the semiotic questions, bringing together philosophical language with the cultural face of technoscientific explosion – and operating in a malleable participatory space that interactive mediation permits. It’s a great vernacular and also a great canvassing space for the devalued but not entirely invisible – a very flexible voice beginning that brings mass specs to our manufactured culture.

[From: Material Glitch]

3:AM: Which of the notions fit your work best: net art, new media, cyber art, cyber poetry?

EZ: I’m happy with any of them. What’s interesting is what focus and questions they suggest over other labels. Cyber is all about control and the ordering of virtual systems – new puts central the innovative process. And net, networks, connections, relations, also the particular entity – poetry, a type of making. I’m a cyber new poetry art media network. Of course we can look beyond histories and say we simply find cyber and net exchangeable in some common usage. For me personally I like using as many labels as possible, they’re great thought tools and art being the mega-flakey enterprise of what-are-you-talking-about it can hardly be hindered by some aids. I also like replicator, scientist, radiologue, guinea pig, cluster, cereal, writer, robot. Of course labels also delimit potentially problematic categories but abundance and proliferation is a way to deal with that.

3:AM: What are the themes that you explore?

EZ: I think about technology and its science. The knowledge of things. What other knowledges are there – that of self, of observing nature, of analyzing and dissecting things. In this I see a problem of both description and prescription. Where are we and where do we want to be. Within a technical and scientific world, social technological spaces are a starting point for analysis, the language they afford, the behaviours, the immediacy. A number of projects grapple with this, what you could call social media realism or the vernaculars within a technically-immersed public – conceptual projects in this area include Synthetic Selves, Computers and Capital, Flesh and Structure, and Identity Protocols. They involve social media presence, streams of content in a very immediate style, influences of advert composition, fashion, comedy, memes, aphorisms and some other stuff.

Proxy to this task of describing our social sphere within a technical milieu I begin to look more at the apparatus itself. Deconstructive work, glitching game engines, creating oblique interfaces, thinking of floods on a mechanical level. The density and impenetrability of a poetics of bureaucratic nonsense, the hypercomplexity of the objects around us and how totally alien that is – looking deeply at the overwhelming products of our love for creative knowledge and how to find a comparative position on that that allows the freedom to agree or disagree. These projects involve a lot of structural visuals, use of code and new technologies, and are the most properly aesthetic in terms of involving compositional media. Some of these are Speculative Cartographies, Talarepsincrobiugh, Science Fiction Realism, Apotrolepomena and Material Glitch.

[From: Speculative Cartographies (Science Fiction Realism)]

A final cluster tends to be about open science, alterity, politics, disability, materialism and the questions that I think are paradigmatic in advocating and problematizing social spaces. As an artist I see this territory as involving disjunctive narratives and imagining worlds whose cracks bely possible acts of change. Personal science, citizen science, an idea of democratized knowledge in political areas layered in communicative pretense, the persistence of knowledge towards craft, the science fiction of hyperbole that overruns the particular space we may wish to recover from power. Getting deep in to the problem as art can do, and pointing towards new culture and knowledge spaces where a personal portion of science can be rethought. That really I think is a great role art can play in pluralizing the epistemic world – adding more rationalism, more robust models and more imaginative hypotheses – crucial components I’d say of any good knowledge. Projects involving this kind of analysis include Science for the People, Digestive Control Society, Comprehensive Malfunction, Choice, Unspeakable Vessels and The Investigation of Whatever.

From the lived world of technoscience, to its structure, to its other worlds – contingent categories (you could also maybe talk about more abstract and situated projects, or the various roles of organism and fabrication etc) that merge and overlap to create some picture of the space, power structure and influence science and technology has for us.

3:AM: What are some of your notable past projects?

EZ: My conceptual projects morph, dematerialize and remanifest through streams, essays, installations, courses, books and other things. I suppose my most successful projects involve strands of them being taken up in different forms by third parties. A consistent element is the layering of concept as compared with the reification of a specific instance – this I think summarizes what art in our world is doing – continually battling with its status as an (non)-object. So reified elements become rabbit trails towards a more discursive complexity.

One approach then is institutional association – parts of Science for the People were shown at NYU, Canada Council helped to facilitate installations within the Science Fiction Realism projects, Speculative Cartographies was shown at the Whitney, ELO and the MLA have supported the presentation of Apotrolepomena, Identity Protocols was at the Tate, some of Digestive Control Society at ISEA. Conversely, there are projects that took place at more artist-run hubs but where the creative exploration and discourse were extremely rich – projects like Comprehensive Malfunction, Material Glitch, Unspeakable Vessels and Computers and Capital. Galleries like Arebyte in London, Babycastles in New York, Helen Pitt in Vancouver and Underacademy in well anywhere, have perhaps a different model for art than some bigger institutions. And then finally I should say that some of my favourite art-related activities have usually been very ephemeral, online exchanges or posting groups or a good conversation with a friend – perhaps a moot point, but it’s been a consistent experience for me that when projects are more explicable in reified terms they become abstracted out of currency. So what I think is publicly notable tends to have become part of something else, whereas what is personally notable is sometimes uninteresting or difficult to articulate to someone else.

[From: Unspeakable Vessels]

3:AM: Who are the most interesting artists nowadays?

EZ: Always the risk with this I’m going to miss so many I love but I’d rather mention some I like than none.

Artists who help me think about the empirical participatory elements of technoculture (performative systems, distributed works, process and exploration) include Jess Mac, Jeremy Hight, Alix Desaubliaux, Yae Akaiwa (with Sembo Kensukewi/exonemo), Amelia Marzec, Patrick Lichty, Petra Kendall, Bex Ilsley, Klara Vincent-Novotna, Laura Hyunjhee Kim, Marc Garrett, Claudia Hart, Carla Gannis, Leah Schrager, Kasia Molga, Zandi Dandizette

Artists that for me start to uncover the structural activities that comprise media, the material details, the fissures and idiosyncracies of the machine (aesthetics, deconstruction, tinkering): Daniel Temkin, Mark Dorf, Rob Myers, Snow Yunxue Fu, Hector Llanquin, Matilda Aslizadeh, Jan Leegte, Franco Mattes (with Eva Mattes), Rosa Menkman, Julian Stadon, Joseph Weissman, Isabelle Arvers, Ally Mcleod, Elena Romenkova, JG Mair, Carrie Gates, Myfanwy Ashmore, Mark Klink, Alice Lucy Rekab, Petr Svarovsky, Dominik Podsiadly, Jeff Donaldson, Weixin Chong, Miyo van Stenis, Stelarc, Michael Rees, Bianka Oravecz, Ad Minoliti, Alexandria McCrosky, Bruno Fabry

Artists that I find create spaces of advocacy, of alternative investigation, work creating a means for differential thought platforms (of epistemology and valorizing more plurality): Spela Petric, Natalie Jeremijenko, Haruko Harukawa, Giselle Zatonyl, Shinji Toya, Rob Myers, Joseph Weissman, David Khang, Igor Stromajer, Alan Sondheim, Talan Memmott, Yaloo Pleasurably, Judy Jheung, Martina Menegon, Kristin Lucas, Zves Konstantinos, Morehshin Allahyari, Vincent Charlebois, Mary Maggic, Ayaka May Komatsu, Kathy High, Timo Tuhkanen

Again I’m missing so many amazing artists from this list, but hopefully it at least begins to provide context for what I like and find valuable when following artists.

3:AM: What are you working on currently?

EZ: Right now I’m travelling and talking mostly. Hoping to continue to take and build the conceptual clusters I’ve worked with and do some events in Europe over the next little while – next stop is Border Sessions in the Hague.

3:AM: As a character in art history, what impact do you think you’ve had? How have you changed the ways in which people look at art?

EZ: I’m not really sure how much at all, but I try to focus on utilizing art platforms to facilitate conceptual discussions, to think of how art and writing can imagine worlds and how the paradigms of science and technology can be approached from a multitude of perspectives and media. Art I think is very open terrain and can be used to synthesize ideas between disciplines that might prove more difficult elsewhere – I attempt to do that, hopefully some of that rubs off.

ABOUT THE INTERVIEWER

Jana Astanov is a multidisciplinary artist, poetess and Priestess of Impermanence at Red Temple. Her work includes photography, poetry, performance and new media. She published three collections of poetry: Antidivine, Grimoire and Sublunar. She can be found here: website, Twitter, Facebook, Instagram.

First published in 3:AM Magazine: Tuesday, July 11th, 2017.