Interview with Claudia Hart: Subverting Simulation

Interview with Claudia Hart: Subverting Simulation

Claudia Hart has been subverting computer graphic imagery (CGI) and simulation technologies since the 1990s. Her sustained interrogation of these tools has not only provided a much needed feminist critique, she’s also opened up wild aesthetic frontiers—reconstituting figurative representation through embracing the idiosyncrasies of CGI, and virtual and augmented reality.

Claudia is represented by bitforms and Transfer Gallery, and splits her time between New York City and Chicago. She is also an Associate Professor in the Department of Film, Video, New Media, Animation at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Below she speaks to her ongoing engagement of CGI in her practice, her recent work in mixed reality installation and performance, and a selection of works she has released through Sedition.

Ophelia, CG animation (2008)

Of the works released through Sedition, I’m stuck on Ophelia. Your 3D portrait of her floating form reads a bit like a fly in amber; I’m struck by the calmness of her femininity, which resolutely contrasts the restless (male) ennui at the heart of Hamlet. Could you talk a little about your relationship with Ophelia and how this piece fits into your broader practice?

Claudia Hart: I have several obsessional themes in my work that are consistent over the decades that I’ve been working with simulations technologies. I think they are actually consistent with what I was doing before, in the decade that I was showing what was then called intermedia—from the late eighties until 1998 when I started with CGI. My work always reflects my own split, which is also reflects a line drawn down the middle of western culture—between epistemology and phenomenology: meaning the way we create and categorize knowledge and the way we actually perceive and feel the world around us. So let’s call that conflict mind vs. body, or nature vs. culture, or the gender binaries (the logocentric male patriarchal order vs. the realm of the ‘goddess,’ the fluid, the female, etc.). In other words, I’m referring to the kind of categories that are the polar opposites to the way in which I was educated, as a cultural historian, to organize my thinking.

In relation to this, CGI initially struck me like a lightning bolt in the mid-nineties, though I didn’t really understand why at the time. My practice is actually a kind of developing research into my own evolving insights about why the medium itself has always resonated with me so much. My reasons are multivalent, but seem to always circle around and return back to certain themes. I think this is because as a medium, simulations are so uncanny. By this I mean that opposed to ‘capturing’ the real, as photography does so by making a kind of fossilized imprint of light on paper, CGI ‘models’ it, meaning it simulates nature by means of computer. I need to foray into a bit of a tech discussion here, because the symbolic meaning of my work is related to its formal language, the result of its technology. Simulation technologies models the phenomenal by numerically calculating the impact of physical forces such as gravity or wind on the measured and enumerated properties of real materials such as oak or granite; they are then visualized in representational form in the same way that scientists and engineers visualize the impact of disease on the body, or stress on a bridge, or the workings of subatomic particles, or the outcome of nuclear war. The software then also simulates a model of a camera with an interface almost identical to that of a digital camera based on a traditional mechanical, analog camera. As a result, in many ways CGI seems photographic in the way that light and physical forces are conveyed, but in other ways it appears to be illustrational and graphic. Artists who use it view their visualizations in schematic form ‘inside’ of their computers, meaning through software interfaces, their ‘windows.’

So by implication, inside of a computer there lives a parallel universe, a simulated and modeled one, based on calculations derived from measurements—meaning those computer models still stand on old-world ideals about indexing just the ‘facts.’ This sounds obtuse, but what this means is that CGI images seem to be alive, and natural in many ways, at the same time as they seem are more or less obviously not alive, and not real. CGI exists in the realm of the Unheimlich, what Freud called the feeling that perhaps one has lived something before, before ones current life, a previous life—implying one once was dead and are now reborn, somehow alive. CGI images seem uncanny because they seem somehow dead and yet alive at the same time. I didn’t understand this when I first saw Toy Story in pre-release at the Berlin Film Festival in 1995, but I did feel mesmerized and astonished. I felt I had to learn how to do that.

This brings me back to Ophelia, and your question about how it ties to my current work. The real physically embodied world is tied to time, to real time. Events unfold in time, a time in which our bodies also exist, as they march towards death. Time is money as they say, because our time is limited, meaning, we are all gonna die. Time is a currency that we spend as each day passes, and which will ultimately run out. With this in mind, I was fascinated by the historical and art historical figure of Ophelia on many levels. First, and generally, by how pornography when slowed down always end up representing the orgasmic as death, the petite morte. This is also true in the art history of painting and sculpture. I’m thinking here of Bernini’s Saint Theresa, and of course the Ophelia by John Everett Millais. Both images are strangely static and frozen, conveying death as erotic and beautiful. I was always in love with this kind of work, from the time I was a child and used to wander around the Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum, both in NYC where I grew up. My mother would bring me to them, but they were a few of the rare places I was allowed to go by myself. I was fascinated by this kind of ecstatic work and also by other uncanny artists who seemed to freeze time: Vermeer, who used a camera obscura and Dürer, with his elaborate perspective machines. They all represent a kind of frozen eternal time, their subjects eternally a kind of gateway between life and death—a liminal forever space. I didn’t understand any of this, or why I was so fascinated, but now as an adult, in my 60s, marching towards the endpoint, I think it was some kind of deeply rooted death anxiety that I felt even then, and that this kind of work is all uncanny, promising eternal life in a liminal world beyond time. Like the end of Kubrick’s 2001—and he’s another favorite artist—where David Bowman, the astronaut, finds himself in a neoclassical outer space, somehow outside of all binaries, where the audience can’t quite determine whether he is dead or alive. Kubrick shows him as existing outside of those categories.

Anyway, when I first saw Pixar’s Toy Story, I connected it to these kind of paintings. This is where Ophelia comes from. She is also a feminine political heroine, someone squeezed to death by logocentric patriarchal power. I slowed her death down, placed her underwater, bobbing around in algorithmically simple, random-ish wave patterns, so she became erotic yet mesmerizing. In 2007 when I made her, my shelf software—Maya—was limited in its ability to simulate nature, so the work has an illustration fairy-tale quality, like Millais’ painting.

Optic Nude, CG animation (2013)

Stepping back from Ophelia, your artist statement positions your practice as seizing the CGI means of production from the male developer/engineer class, and rebelling against its militarism and spectacle with sensuality. How has your sustained commitment to this agenda changed your thinking about these technologies?

CH: Over the years, as I continuously made these kinds of simulations, I understood better what I was really doing. I’m self-taught, and with each piece I mastered a skill, which lead to a deepened understanding of the cultural meaning of the simulated real. My artistic agenda expanded as my insights into my own motivations deepened. At the same time, I also had the opportunity to develop a program at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, attached to the Art Institute museum across the street. I developed a curriculum based on traditional studio practices, but couched on the platform of simulation technologies. I started with CGI animation, thinking of it in the terms of experimental film and video—particularly structuralist filmmakers and videoists like Michael Snow and Bill Viola. When newer technologies like augmented reality and virtual reality were invented, I added them to my artistic and pedagogic pallet; I deconstructed their embedded meanings for my students. As a pedagog, I constantly had to unpack the meaning of my medium. Because the SAIC students are generally very talented, we researched and produced work functioning as a fluid hive mind, a term often used for the collective group thinking that occurs on social media. My practice expanded into this kind of academic research, but using the language of the humanities rather than the sciences.

Since teaching and curriculum development seem important to you, I have to ask: how have your students’ attitudes towards (and capacities with) ‘simulation technologies’ change over the years?

CH: My students have always been very enthusiastic about simulations technologies thinking they belong to them—meaning that the simulated real is the language of their generation and of their time. This goes for gamers but also for art students who reject popular culture and have never played games. My post-Internet students want to claim simulation as their artistic territory, to use it to make art and to analyze it endlessly. This is not surprising, but what is actually astonishing is how much their learning curves have shortened over the years. These kids are smarter and faster at rhizomatic and relational thinking—they are wizards at topography and non-linear algebra. They are almost scary, but I’m so glad they are here, aiding and abetting my own obsessions.

Alice Unchained, mixed media AR/VR installation (2018)

I’m super interested in the dense iconography that enclose your recent 3D works. These seem purpose-built for CG in Alice Unchained but spill into real space in the The Flower Matrix and The Dolls. Could you talk about the aesthetics, symbology, and functionality of these ‘wallpapers’?

CH: My newer works, the labyrinths, are covered with varieties of animated patterns emerging from an earlier transitional piece I did in 2013, Optic Nude. For that piece, I created an avatar in an architectural environment covered with a spotted animated texture. In my virtual workspace, I projected a simulated strobe light on it, also pulsing and animated. I then made an animation of this scene, using the files for it as another animated texture applied to a swath of simulated cloth that I imagined to be a curtain on a window, blowing slightly in the wind. I was going through a particularly virulent period of insomnia at that time. I produced the work to lull myself to sleep. It’s 23 minutes long, and by the time I would get to the end of watching it, I would pass out. After I made it, I consulted with one of my grad students who had trained as a neurologist, and found out that I was actually hypnotizing myself! It was truly mesmerizing. That knowledge evolved into the labyrinths, again through happenstance.

As I said, I’m a native New Yorker. At one point I actually had a studio on Times Square, and spent a lot of time there late at night when it was relatively empty. In Times Square, the pulsing of the lights, the elaborate overlays of different throbbing patterns, and the hyper-saturated colors are also hypnotic. After my experience with the Optic Nude, I learned about the mathematical and phenomenological reasons for this, too complicated to discuss here. I also experienced Times Square as mesmerizing, realized then that this was an intentional strategy employed by the advertising industry as a means of creating powerful symbols of the hypercapitalism that envelops our world. I translated all of these things into both the Dolls ballet and installation and the Flower Matrix multi-channels and AR/VR environments.

The Dolls, media ballet (2015)

CH: In The Dolls, from 2015, I used ancient heraldry appropriated from various collapsed empires that I culled from world history. I mixed them up with corporate logos to make complex, hypnotic patterns. I then mapped them on animated architecture and live ballerinas garbed in paper-doll tutus that I copied from the Diego Velázquez masterpiece, Las Meninas. The result is a hallucinatory experience in which power and history seem to be crumbling before your eyes, an experience made more extreme by the elegagic, trance music composed for it by my partner, the audio-visual artist Kurt Hentschlager.

I based the Flower Marix on the Labyrinth of the Minotaur, the mythological space from ancient Rome. For this on-going work, I appropriated a 3D model from Google Earth, covering it with complex animated patterns. The Minotaur labyrinth is a place that one can’t exit once one enters. One walks in never to escapes. I think of it as a place somewhere between Times Square and the hyper-capitalist liminal space of the Internet. The Flower Matrix is meant to be seductive, and as Baudelaire described his favorite art, both terrible and beautiful at the same time. The walls of my matrix and the tree-sized gigantic Alice flowers that populate it, are covered with flickering, strobing, complex animated patterns made from emoji and computer symbols, all designating power, money, control, and addiction. It is mesmerizing and sugary but also sad at the same time, particularly because of the beautiful cello music played by Danielle DeGruttolla, who improvised it while being physically inside of the virtual Matrix while she played.

Alice Unchained is the last piece I’m currently producing in the Flower Matrix. It is also the last of a series of audio-visual works made in collaboration with the composer Edmund Campion, also the director of CNMAT, the Center for New Music and Audio Technology at UC Berkeley. Because UC is a research facility, I’ve been able to work with audio engineers functioning at a very sophisticated level. We are currently developing a tool that mixes live VR and music, to create a kind of ‘virtual chamber for chamber music.’ It is very loosely based on Alice in Wonderland, the paradoxical Lewis Carroll world of inverted logic, where opposites collapse into one another—the uncanny liminal space between two worlds that I’ve always worked in, in which little girl takes the heroic lead. I’m calling this last matrix piece Alice Unchained, to close a series of four psychedelic gardens. The next body of work will hybridize the first period using the bodies of female avatars, and the graphical ones, the artificial landscapes.

Alice Unchained, mixed media AR/VR installation (2018)

Alice Unchained seems super invested in the radical, perception altering capacity of augmented and mixed reality. I’m curious, what kind of attitude do you have towards the commercial AR realm. Do you pay attention to or have an opinion about the more generic utilitarian and entertainment applications of these technologies? To what degree do you think these medium’s potential is being realized outside artistic applications?

CH: I’ve been using edgy media for over twenty years, so I’ve experienced a pattern with them. I don’t actually believe that artists invent technologies of any significance, but we do very easily figure out how to break the ones that other people do. We are by nature systems hackers. This means that we very fluently make new aesthetics by breaking and then combining and recombining media tropes. Then these new forms are just as fluently absorbed and adopted by the advertising and entertainment industries. I do regret the no-money part of art making, but not the creative freedom I have to do what I want, when I want to. I guess art is also a prison one can’t escape, but it’s mine, a prison of my own making. So I can’t complain.

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Claudia Hart
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