Saturday, January 12, 2008

Obrist/Abramovic/Chaitin interview, Kitakyushu, Japan, July 2001

This conversation between curator Hans-Ulrich Obrist, performance artist Marina Abramovic and mathematician Gregory Chaitin is on pp. 29-44 of a collection of Obrist interviews published by Edizioni Charta in Milan, Italy, in 2003.

HUO: Marina, I know that you've been reading this interview with Gregory done by Guillermo Martínez that will be published in Conversations with a Mathematician: Math, Art, Science and the Limits of Reason (2002), and that you found some interesting biographical similarities. Maybe we should open this conversation on these similarities.

MA: Yes, I thought there were some amazingly interesting points in our biographies which kind of cross. The one thing he couldn't tell me was where your grandparents come from.

GC: They came from Borispol, the airport of Kiev, on my father's side. My mother's side was Romanian---Moldavian actually---and Odessa. Those are my grandparents.

MA: Mine come from Montenegro, Yugoslavia, and are very strongly oriented towards Russia, so I think geographically there is a connection between us. The second thing I found out about you is that you said that you have been working on one idea since you were 15. I've also been working on one idea since I was 15.

GC: Really?

MA: The main idea of my whole work is the body. What is yours?

GC: Randomness.

MA: So randomness and the body it is!

GC: So we were both obsessed by one idea---our lives have been consumed by one idea?

MA: Another interesting similarity here is that you are interested in putting complexity into simplicity.

GC: Okay.

MA: You have said that you want to put very complex things into the smallest possible data.

GC: I like unifying ideas, yes.

MA: I also try for a synthesis of information into a really simple message, and to create a strong image. And this is an interesting process.

GC: It does sound related, yes.

MA: Another similarity is this enlightened effect, you know? You were talking about this in the city [Kitakyushu] yesterday, that in this lifetime there are very few moments that we can describe as enlightened states.

GC: Yes, it does seem like enlightened states are what some people would describe as a spiritual experience, I think. All of a sudden, it feels like your mind is working more clearly and somehow you understand and you're more connected with everything. It's actually quite an amazing experience. Do you have a similar kind of experience?

MA: Yes, that's one of the most important experiences I'm waiting for, and it is unpredictable. You never know when it will come. It sometimes comes as a total surprise and it's very short, but unholdable. I was always interested in how I could learn some kind of method so that I can really live in this moment, so that this moment is extended.

GC: These moments are just magic, and that's why when I get in this emotional state I don't let anything distract me. For example, if I've been trying to write a book and it starts to work, I don't stop, because I know I can't stay in that state forever. So I'm pushing. I'm trying to sustain the emotion, to keep the mood going long enough to get to the end of the book, you see.

MA: Yes, yes.

GC: So when a moment like that comes I just push everything out of the way. I don't pay my bills; I don't do anything else in my life. I just concentrate on following the inspiration and on working---working like mad because, as you say, these moments are magic and you never know when they're going to come and how long they're going to last.

MA: These moments don't always come when you're in the studio, when you're in a situation where you're really working on something, but instead when you're hiking, walking or swimming---it can be totally unpredictable. This is a strong link with the state of the artist. Sometimes we work very hard on one idea and it doesn't work; it doesn't actually bring any results, so you start on something completely different, and suddenly the solution or the result comes as a shock, in a completely unpredictable way.

GC: I think your subconscious is working on it like mad, even when you don't realize it---if you've been really obsessed by what you're trying to do---even when you think you're not working on it.

MA: There's one very strange example, and perhaps we should ask our colleagues about this; it's in The Idiot (1868) by Dostoyevsky, when one of the main characters has an epileptic attack. He described the situation before the epileptic attack as being a feeling of absolute clearness---a kind of stillness with nature, total harmony with the outside world. And this sensation is so strong that his body and mind cannot bear it.

GC: As if one can't bear the presence of God---it's too much for him.

MA: And then it turns into an epileptic fit, a kind of drastic solution from the brain. Why is it that at the moment of total harmony, we can't bear it?

GC: For me it's a moment of elation. I wouldn't say you can't bear it. What I can't bear is when I come out of that and I have to go back to real life.

HUO: So it always fades away at a certain point?

GC: Yes, but it can last for a month while I'm working on a book---the inspiration and the feeling of elation. I often think of it in terms of mountain climbing. You go up to the top of a mountain and the view is wonderful, the air seems so clear, it's an absolutely exhilarating feeling, and then there's that horrible problem of having to get back down. Getting up, you want to go up, so it doesn't matter how tired you are, you have this wonderful goal. But getting back down, you're tired, you're exhausted because you made it to the summit, but then, unfortunately, you have to go all the way back down, and that's not a goal really worth striving for, and it's very unpleasant.

HUO: Perhaps you could both speak about the beginning. How did you, Marina, come to working almost only on the body, and you, Greg, on randomness?

GC: You've always been an artist, would be my guess. And I've always been doing research. I didn't have my first idea when I was 15; I was doing research before, all the time. Isn't it the same with you?

MA: Actually, I've never doubted what I was going to be. There wasn't one second of doubt. I've never even considered other professions. I had my first exhibition when I was 12 years old. It was like nothing else.

HUO: Was it in Belgrade?

MA: It was in Belgrade. And in a funny way, at the time when my mother was pregnant with me, she was studying art history, just after the war. And then they took me to museums when I was born, so one of my first words that came out, when you say mama and papa for the first time, I said ``El Gleco''---it was El Greco!

GC / HUO: [Laugh].

MA: You put all your energy in one direction. It was almost like a distorted energy.

GC: Same in my case. But my parents also took me to museums. I practically lived in the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. I always loved art but I somehow always knew that I wanted to be a scientist. Exactly what kind of thing I would do, that was another matter. I think at first I was interested in physics, astronomy and cosmology.

HUO: Do you remember the first science book that you read?

GC: It's hard to remember, but one that I remember from a long time ago was by the Russian-American, George Gamow: One Two Three... Infinity: Facts and Speculations of Science (1947). There were also math books I read very early in my life. I just lived in the library.

MA: Did you ever try any poetry?

GC: Did you?

MA: Yes I did, very much. I was so romantic. I am so amazed, I always had a totally different opinion of mathematicians being very dry, very exact, very realistic, but then I find that firstly you're very poetic and second that you have this enormous erotic energy.

GC: Uh-huh?

MA: It's amazing.

GC: For me, mathematics is a passion really. [Laughs]

MA: Sexual energy is the basic energy that people have.

GC: It's the life force; it's the life force, that's right.

MA: You have to be as passionate about life as you are about your work.

GC: You have to be incredibly passionate. I'd like to hear, Marina, about how it is with the kind of art you do. With the kind of mathematics I do, you may spend many years trying to solve a problem, and you have to be really passionate about the importance of what you're doing and about your desire to understand. It takes enormous energy and, I would say, optimism, to do that.

HUO: And is it also about taking risks?

GC: It's very risky because you can spend years working on something and not get a good idea and not understand what's happening. That never bothered me somehow. I was just so passionate about these ideas. I loved them so much. Maybe it was all a form of misplaced sexuality, since we're talking about sex, you know!

MA: No, no.

GC: Having one hundred women---many men have done that, but maybe it is more interesting to put all that energy into mathematics!

HUO: Many artists say that doing art puts oneself in a risky situation somehow.

MA: Exactly. The risks are so important because if you don't take risks, you don't move on, there's no progress.

GC: That's right. Exactly.

MA: I was interested by Hans Ulrich's statement in your previous interview with him when he quoted Man Ray to you. In science, there is progress, and Man Ray said that there is no progress in art, there are just different ways of doing it. And somehow I don't agree with that. I think there is progress, but it is in the development of the artists themselves, and the phases of development they are going through. There can be inner progress. There has to be emotional progress when you're going from one state to another and so on. In mathematics or in science in general there is this kind of result, going from one theory to another, progressing. It is exactly the same in art. I definitely don't think that there is no progress.

HUO: I wanted to ask about this notion of ``big steps'' in both of your work, because you both stated that an artist or a scientist doesn't have that many main ideas, and rather that there are only a certain number of ideas that they will have. Greg, you said before that a mathematician had only three main ideas in his or her life.

GC: It all depends on the size of the ideas. Some ideas are major, and others seem like a breakthrough for you at the time, but you realize that they're not at the level of your best ideas.

First of all, I'd like to speak about taking risks. It really depends on the person. I think we have another thing in common, Marina. What you're doing, a lot of people say isn't art, and what I'm doing, a lot of people say isn't mathematics. The mathematics community is upset, many logicians are furious at me. I'm an unmentionable name. And it's also a question of risk-taking. For me, there is no point in doing anything the way anybody else does it, because if somebody else is doing it, it's been settled, it's being taken care of. So I think that the only activity that's worth it for me as an intellectual---and perhaps it's the same for you as an artist---is to go off in a direction that nobody else would dare to, except perhaps for you and me. And I don't view it as a question of risk---I just think it's a complete waste of time not to do this. There was never any doubt in my mind about picking an unusual path, because, otherwise, what's the point of doing it at all?

I've always had the feeling that one should not be a cork, one should not be passive. The waves are going by and you're just a cork going up and down! There's no point to that kind of life, really, because soon it's going to be gone, and what did you do, what did you accomplish? You did nothing. You did what other people wanted you to do. G. H. Hardy, a mathematician, put it this way: he said that it's never worthwhile for someone who's first rate to follow a majority view, that is, if there are already plenty of people who feel a certain way about something and who believe in it and are going to argue in that direction. So if someone is first rate, it's a waste of their time to agree with the majority; you always have to go in a different direction. That's the role we can play for human society.

Marina breaks the concept of what is the artist and what is the observer, and in my case, I'm challenging mathematicians' conceptions of what mathematics is. I'm claiming that mathematics is more like physics than mathematicians think. I'm not saying it's identical, but that it's much more similar as an intellectual enterprise than people thought. And mathematicians either say that they don't understand what the hell I'm talking about, or else they just get furiously angry at me. I consider that a good sign, because no one would get furiously angry if I weren't touching on something important for them---they would just laugh and say ``poor fellow.'' A reaction of outrage is often a good reaction.

HUO: Does it also have anything to do with changing the rules of the game?

GC: Aren't you doing that Marina? Looking at your work I really felt that you were changing the rules of the game.

MA: There's a wonderful quarter page of text---I can't quote it here, but perhaps we can insert it later. Basically it was talking about how the father of John Cage was an inventor.

GC: ... John Cage the musician and composer?

MA: ... And he said that what he learnt from his father the inventor was that whenever he made something that was accepted by society, he immediately moved to an area where it wasn't, and that's very important.

[``Well, I keep telling everybody this, and it's actually kept me in good stead because I was the son of an inventor. The fact that people weren't accepting what I was doing indicated that I was inventing something. In fact, I developed the opinion, which may be right or wrong but I still have it somewhat, that if my work is accepted, I must move on to the point where it isn't.'' (John Cage, 1982)]

GC: And he knew he was doing something wrong if it was accepted.

MA: It's this immediate consumption, making things so simple. I think that art has so many layers, and that every society can benefit from one layer at a time, as even simple things can be very complicated. There is complex complexity and complexity of simplicity, you know, and what is so important is this pioneering of new territories---that's the main thing. How can you actually find a way to break through the unknown and find different ways and different rules? That's very interesting.

GC: Pioneering is so much fun!

MA: To shift the way society thinks into different directions, that is incredible. The intensity of that moment when you realize that you're on the right track. It doesn't matter that you're not accepted at that moment, because deep down you know that you're right. Throughout history people have had to die and the ideas wait hundreds of years to be consumed by society.

GC: I worry if people like what I'm doing too much.

MA: It's like reading the daily newspapers---tomorrow it's an old paper. You have to go beyond that, beyond the daily news.

HUO: Marina, could you speak a little about some of the key moments which have changed you and moved your thinking forward?

MA: I was working as a painter, and I had different periods in painting. At one point I had this obsession with sky, so I was painting sky. And I remember so clearly when this happened. I was painting the sky and I was always looking at clouds. And at one point there was a totally clear sky and there were 16 military airplanes passing through the sky of Belgrade, and that was such a revelation. I saw this wonderful drawing that the planes had made. I saw the making of the drawing, I saw the existence of the drawing and I saw it disappear---I saw the whole process in just a few minutes. There was such a realization that my paintings were complete nonsense---there was something two-dimensional about them that didn't have anything to do with anything. So I decided to go to the military base, to ask them for 15 planes to make drawings for me. And so I did it. I went to the military base and they called my father, who is a military man, and said, ``Take your daughter out of here. Do you know how much it costs to make 15 planes fly to make drawings for her?''

GC: [Laughs]

MA: But it was an incredibly important step because it meant that I left this two-dimensionality of painting and I started using real materials. And I started working with sound and projects, and then this led to performance and so on. Another important moment was when I walked the Great Wall of China and understood the relationship between landscape and different states of mind, and the importance of the magnetic energy lines. And I wanted to transport the feeling of the experience to the public. Then I found this form of transitory objects, and I knew I had to work with transitory objects.

HUO: It occurred to you when walking the Great Wall of China?

MA: Yes. I never wanted to make sculptures because I'm not a sculptor. I wanted to make something of a cross---using just experience---you have the experience and then it can be moved. I found there to be a very voyeuristic relationship between the performer and the public. The public doesn't really get into it, they just always take the same role as the viewer. And I wanted a public that can only be transformed if they have their own experiences.

GC: The public has to take a risk, you might say.

MA: I was arguing with a scientist that they're always observing but they don't make observations of themselves. I wanted the observation to be central in you first, so you are the first one to be observed and to be changed and transformed. So that was the next step that I made---the public body, the public as performer. So this was really important to shifting the rules of the game. The problems of serving art are in there somewhere. So the public became the art, together with the object. There was another moment, in the early '70s, when we had a very small number of public, say 10 or 15 people. It was very underground; performance was not accepted and so on, and we just made our performances. At one point I ended up in a very large exhibition---documenta 6---for which, together with Ulay, I performed a piece called Expansion in Space, and it ended with 1500 people present, for the first time in my life. That was the first time that I understood the power and the energy of the public and how, as a performer, you can take this energy, transform it, and give it back to them. This was the first time that I understood what it means, what an energy dialogue is, and how the energy in the performance works.

GC: You know that mathematical research is all energy. You have to throw yourself at the problem. It's like you're running up a mountain. You're not just going up, you're running up. And you've got to make it to the top of the mountain, and it's a tremendous burst of energy and concentration. So when you say the word ``energy,'' you know, that's a key word for me.

HUO: Can you give me one or two examples of such situations, where you are ``running up mountains?''

GC: In my research? It's so completely emotional to solve a mathematical problem. You have to really want to solve it. It's like adrenaline, it's like energizing yourself. I want to smash against the problem. I'm going to run and throw myself against the wall. I'm going to smash through the wall. I think of it as a wall, you know, my lack of understanding. And you want to just smash right through it. It's just a question of energy, it's energy. That's the key word; otherwise you can't do research.

MA: There is a text in my last book called ``Towards the Pure Energy'' (Marina Abramovic: Public Body, 2001) and that's really what it's all about. And that's the kind of special state where you really want to be. You have to question everything to transform it to the same state.

GC: And human society doesn't want us to do this because it's too dangerous, you know. You're supposed to stay in your place and do what you're told. And to crash through the barrier is to break through. But this is the kind of energy that can make a social change, not just an intellectual change. It can transform society. It's the life force. It's the only basis for anything of value. Every time one does anything of value---like the Center for Contemporary Art here in Kitakyushu for example, someone was telling me what they were going through politically to be able to have this institution. Every time you want to do anything good, you have to fight the whole world to do it, because this planet is arranged so that everything is okay as long as you do what everybody else does. But that doesn't create anything new. For our personalities, Marina, that's impossible, but everyone is fighting us. That reminds me of a story I heard about Fermilab, in Illinois, which is the biggest accelerator in the United States.

HUO: The Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory. It's a particle accelerator?

GC: It's a particle accelerator, right. The man who built that accelerator, Robert Wilson, built it under budget; he built it ahead of schedule, and he managed to make it more powerful than it was supposed to be. He's even an artist---he put sculptures there, and used the material they had excavated from the tunnel to arrange in interesting ways. So what was the result? Of course, everybody hates him. So what you do is, after he creates this, you immediately fire him and you put another man there---another man who has not made enemies accomplishing this wonderful thing. It's a typical thing to do. You use someone to accomplish something, but to accomplish anything of value you make enemies everywhere, you rock the boat. So the moment it's done you get rid of this person and you put in a nonentity who hasn't made any enemies because he hasn't accomplished anything, and then everyone's happy. The world goes back to its normal state!

MA: Can you tell us the precise moment when you really found your randomness?

GC: It's hard for me to remember. I was 15. I just had this tremendous, essential joy in reading and understanding mountains of books. I was wildly enthusiastic about it. And I wasn't just reading in one narrow speciality; I was reading all kinds of things. I was following my intuition, reading everything that excited my imagination. Computers excited my imagination, cosmology excited my imagination, all kinds of things, I don't know. There were areas of mathematics I somehow found beautiful, other areas of mathematics I thought were infinitely ugly---I couldn't force myself to look at them. It was all done completely emotionally, like when you see one woman and you find her exciting and beautiful, and another woman you don't. And you can't explain why, there's no way to explain it. It's just a total reaction that one person feels and another person doesn't feel. It's not rational; I just followed my feelings. And then I had lots of ideas that I was excited about, but they were all from different areas---people who don't normally talk to each other. And all of a sudden I saw a connection. It looked pretty obvious to me. It was a way of defining randomness, but it required combining ideas from four or five different fields.

HUO: What were those five fields?

GC: I was combining ideas from probability theory, from game theory and information theory (which is communications engineering), ideas from the philosophy of physics and the foundations of quantum mechanics, and ideas from mathematical logic and the foundations of mathematics. A whole lot of areas, and I saw the connection, it was obvious to me, it was my definition of randomness. But this was because I was looking at a whole bunch of fields, and because I didn't see a wall between those fields. But certain people in these fields, especially logicians, hate me. They used to mention my name occasionally, but not anymore. I consider this a compliment by the way, and I'm not just saying this for psychological reasons, as a defense mechanism. The fact is that before, logicians in the United States used to occasionally mention me, nicely even. Now there is a conspiracy of silence. My name has become unmentionable!

To give you an example, the man who wrote the ``official'' biography of Gödel, John Dawson (who is accepted as the official biographer of the great mathematician, at least in the United States), he has a chapter in his book talking about the work that followed Gödel's work, and I'm not mentioned anywhere in that book, not even in that chapter, where I certainly should be mentioned. But this man knows me so well that he sent me a copy of a previous book of his with a dedication. He certainly knows about my work, if he sent me a book of his with a dedication on it; he signed it and sent it as a present. I think that it's great that these people are so threatened by my ideas that they react in this childish, emotional way. I think it's fantastic. Of course, if it costs me my job at IBM, or something like that, then it stops being a joke.

I should mention that there is a lovely biography of Gödel written by two men who live in Vienna, John Casti and Werner DePauli, and their book has a chapter on my ideas.

I don't know how I got onto this. What were we talking about?

HUO: I was asking about when you found out that randomness was your idea, and about key moments in your work and how they occurred.

GC: There's another key moment in my research that I want to mention. It was when I had an idea in Rio, the week before carnival. Being in Brazil was very exciting for me. The sensuality, the women, the tropics, the colors, the heat. I was living in Buenos Aires, which is very European. It's not the United States, but it's inhibited, it's middle class. And you go to Rio and it has this African sensuality. The women love being women, you know, they want to drive the men crazy. The sex in Brazil is not like in France. In France the women are very sexual, but it has to be done with elegance, right? But in Rio they throw it in your face!

HUO / MA: [Laugh]

GC: So what did I do in Rio? You might think I spent all my time making love to these beautiful women. Maybe that's what I should have done, but instead it just energized my mind. I had all these mathematical ideas!

HUO: And what came out of this stay in Rio?

GC: I realized that even though most things are random, according to my definition of randomness, you can never prove it in individual cases.

MA: Are there any sexual undertones?

GC: It's theorems, it's mathematics! The normal output of sex is children, beautiful children, so math is a more interesting, or certainly a more unusual output, let's put it that way! I had come up with a definition of randomness and then suddenly I realized that it would give me a completely new attack on Gödel's incompleteness work. This had subconsciously been my goal all along. One of the reasons I went into mathematics, besides the beauty of the ideas, was Gödel's Incompleteness Theorem, which was a main source of motivation for me. But when I got the idea of randomness, I had years of work to develop it. And you temporarily put aside a more important goal to concentrate on that kind of subsidiary goal. It was a stepping stone; but while you're working on that thing, all your concentration is on that and maybe you forget the original reason that you went in that particular direction.

So after I finished developing my idea of randomness, I was able to relax, to calm down and step back and ask myself ``What now?'' And then I was in Rio and all of a sudden I realized that this definition of randomness was perfect, it was exactly what I needed to be able to get back to incompleteness, which had obsessed me and brought me into mathematics. I realized that randomness completely changed the way you think about incompleteness. This was not by chance. I'm sure that for subconscious psychological reasons I had been going exactly in the direction for penetrating the fundamental mystery of incompleteness---because that's where mathematics turns back, where mathematics stops, you know, where there's a wall. I felt this was so fascinating---how can mathematics show that mathematics has limitations? And so this is what happened in Rio, and then I spent years working on that.

Another idea I had was more technical. In my theory, the proofs, the reasoning, they were ugly. I was annoyed. I had developed a theory but it seemed a little clumsy. Even though I had achieved my goals---I had a theory of randomness, I was applying it to incompleteness---the proofs bothered me, they annoyed me. It's like a painting when you feel it's not finished, that there's something wrong with it but you can't say what, that there's something that isn't right. And I was looking at this painting, and it was a good painting, but it wasn't finished.

This led me to redo my theory. I changed the definition of randomness, in a way that would be hard to explain to you. It was a technical change that all of a sudden made the theory more beautiful. I don't know how to describe it. It's as if I had been looking at everything out of focus, and suddenly I adjusted my binoculars a little and could see sharp, you know? The theory was suddenly right. I had the feeling that this had to be the correct theory. Afterwards, it seemed inevitable that the new theory was the right theory, but it had taken me a lot of work and a lot of experimentation to get the right formulation. But afterwards I said to myself, ``How could anyone ever have conceived of doing it any other way?'' And it's good sign when you feel like that.

MA: There was another moment in my life, which happened some time ago and I really think I'm right, but it's still not there. It's like the whole idea of how art's going to look in the next century. How are things going to develop? And I honestly strongly believe that art is going to the point where the objects will be removed---there will be no objects: no paintings, no sculptures, no installations, whatever. There will just be this artist directly translating energy through the public, with no object in between, and that's it. Objects won't be necessary any more; but to get to that point, the public has to be prepared as well as the artist. And one of the reasons for these transitory objects is to prepare the public to be able to receive it, so it can really be developed in the same way as artists, because artists go through the process of change, but most of the time the public doesn't. It is a two-way process: the public body performing and the artist's body performing to find an end point for this transformation---without objects---to take place. This is really my vision of the future.

GC: Let me react strongly to that, Marina. The crazy thing is that I feel like I'm a performance artist too, really. For me also, apart from creating new mathematics, one of the most intense moments is transmitting it to the public---I feel I'm a performer. I love sharing my enthusiasm for ideas with the public.

above copied from:

No comments: