In praise of sensitive technology

Interview with Catherine Ikam by Paul Ardenne (exerpts).

separationPaul Ardenne : In the presentation of one your works – Valis, in Paris at the Centre Pompidou, in 1987 – you quote this phrase by Philip K. Dick, “Reality is what refuses to disappear when you stop believing in it.” And yet, beginning in the 1980s, your work seems to suggest that reality needs to be taken on by the image – notably electronic – and complexified, replayed via visual simulacra, virtually and no longer according to the traditional criteria of realism. In short,“to disappear”…

Catherine Ikam : I’ve always liked playing with the appearance of things. I wondered what image of ourselves the different technologies surrounding us reflect back. Is it the construction or destruction of our identity? At first, I worked with video. I used it like a distorted mirror, for its potential to create a discrepancy with reality: presence/absence, pause, discontinuity, time lag; fragmentation in space, change of scale. I created an exhibition in 1980 at the Centre Georges Pompidou that was a piece revolving around expectation: a game visitors played with themselves in search of their identity as the cameras presented it, fragmented in the installation space or with a time lapse.That same year, in 1980, I discovered the work of Philip K. Dick, which had a big influence on me. He describes a universe where you can no longer distinguish between illusion and reality, where the memories that warrant our experiences are totally artificial. I started working on a video adaptation of his novel VALIS (“Vast Active Living Intelligent System”), which is an astonishing metaphor for what the Internet turned out to be a few years later.

The exhibition at the MEP is presented as a retrospective covering over a quarter century of your artistic work. Could you specify the mjor themes?

The main theme is identity, the way we perceive ourselves through the prism of technology that allows us to revisit different archetypes.There’s this quote by Emmanuel Levinas that seems very accurate, “The face that looks at me affirms me”. We exist in function of what we look at. It’s the face-to-face encounter that makes us exist. Face to face with the other that could be our own face. Face to face with our desire to be deluded… In Identité III, each visitor is filmed from different angles using cameras fitted with lenses of varying focal lengths and then faced with his or her own fragmented image magnified on nine screens. Further on, Elle and Oscar, virtual characters that possess artificial intelligence with unpredictable moods, await the visitor for an unlikely encounter that’s different every time.

What’s the operating principle of Elle or else of the interactive faces like Oscar? Is it a real interactivity, or simply a formal game between the viewer and the animated piece?

Starting in 1990, it became possible to model more and more believable faces using human fa- ces, and I became fascinated with that. I thought it was interesting to work in the margins of the living and the artificial.When does a human face stop being human and become a model you can reproduce ad infinitum? What parameters of artificial intelligence must these models have to create the illusion they possess intentionality and autonomy?

The issue isn’t technological prowess but the emotion these artificial characters awaken within us.That comes from the fact that the real time interaction lets you create the illusion that an encounter has taken place.

All of your work talks about the body: that of the viewer, that which the work stages. It also talks about the face too, the seat of identity that you reduce to the point of creating “replicants”, in the words of Philip K. Dick, that can’t be distinguished as human or machine. Identitary blurring?

The first short story I read by Philip K. Dick,TheVariable Man, which Peter Földès recommended to me, tells the story of earth getting invaded by automatons that are more and more perfected in their semblance.The last ‘model’ is in the form of a little boy with a teddy bear missing an eye. These little boys arouse pity in humans and through that, they manage to invade the earth and populate it with androids that wipe out any trace of life. It’s also the theme of Blade Runner, where we find flesh and blood beings that are almost capable of feelings, but not empathy.

I feel nostalgia for these intermediary beings that are the angels of our time.

There’s something which remains problematic in interactivity: the relationship of immediacy that’s obligatory in a work of art, the challenge of memory.Are we not, in front of your works, condemned to the instant, deprived of history?

I don’t think so. First of all there’s the question of our relationship to the temporality of the works.That starts with the video feedback that projects what the camera is filming onto a screen, then there are the time delay devices. Next comes the interactive works in real time, in other words where the delay of response between the action and reaction is below our threshold of perception.What I mean is that interaction isn’t an end in itself.What counts is the content of a work, the emotional charge or the magic it’s capable of generating. No technological device, no matter how entrancing, is self-sufficient.

For me, the absence of perspective, of historical depth seems linked to the era we live in, it needs the immediacy you’re talking about, more than the use of technology, no matter what that might be. It’s the opposition that Gilles Deleuze talks about in A Thousand Plateaus, between the smooth and the striated. For me, smooth is flattening out perspective, the impeccable surface of all these advertising images.The striated is the strata of our history with its accidents and ruptures.

Regarding this, I recently felt the need to delve back into my own history. I looked for photos, bits of film and video, voice recordings… all sor ts of odds and ends lying about my studio in Montreuil that I’d forgotten about and that, in 2005, were very present in my life. For example, that parti- cular afternoon near 1982 where Jean-Paul Fargier and I were playing around with a handheld camera when Allan Kaprow came along, took the camera and made an impromptu happening. Last year in Fresnoy, you presented a monumental interactive work calling on multiple pa- rameters of utilisation and, this time, bits of human memory: post cards, photographs, visual references to the past… What place does this creation – on display at the MEP exhibition – hold in the continuum of your work?

Digital Diaries is a work about memory, about the passage of time. It’s memory that’s become a space, a landscape, a sort of laminated continuum made up of photos from childhood – mine and others as well – of encounters – some of them recorded and others that didn’t happen – and many faces you glimpse by chance over the course of life.

Next to these illusory faces, there are others whose traces make up the virtual landscape of Digital Diaries, faces encountered here and there, but that slip out of reach and can’t be grasped, very different from the smooth and integral aspect of those that never existed.As if the creation of the ones formed a kind of talisman against the disappearance of the others.What’s important for me in this installation isn’t the interactivity but the immersion in a kind of Palace of Memory that’s like being in a forest where you feel a little lost, like Tom Thumb.

More technically, we created a 3D database comprised of about 500 elements, photos, video, text, voices and sounds. Each element that’s part of a family is assigned a position in the 3D database.This database, that we’re able to navigate around in, is progressive and animated by a continual movement in real time. A system of stereoscopic projection and glasses lets us see it in 3D.

Technology as a means of presenting life in a variety of forms, in a way…
Fragmentation of form, discrepancy of time, simulation, histories to be lived, frozen mirrors, distorted mirrors.What’s important for me isn’t to favour one form of technology over another but to find dream paths, in the Aboriginal sense, a kind of magic. Like Nam June Paik said,“There is no rewind on the betamax of my life.”

© Interview with Catherine Ikam by Paul Ardenne (Extrait) – Turbulences Vidéo #87

Links : FACES / OSCAR / DIGITAL DIARIES

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