Art In Conversation
TONY OURSLER with Thyrza Nichols Goodeve
“If you look at the function of conspiracy theories and how they are produced, you're right, it's close to how art is made.”
In the far away world of the late 20th century, when the future was still the future, few would have chosen Tony Oursler as our unwilling prophet or seer of the current 21st-century psychotic media polis we inhabit. But here he is in the following conversation, if not a prophet, positioned as an unwilling pseudo-documentarian. It may be due to the fact that both he and I are children breastfed on the woo-woo marvels of ’60s living room TV such as My Mother the Car or My Favorite Martian, who experienced the dark science fiction of J.G. Ballard (“Why I Want to Fuck Ronald Reagan” written in 1968), William Gibson, Philip K. Dick, Paul Virilio, and the films, The Road Warrior (1981), Blade Runner (1982), Videodrome (1983), and the Terminator trilogy, as fables of the scary sci-fi (masculinist) future, instead of field guides to the present. But Oursler is no dystopian—rather, like his grandfather, the writer and magician Fulton Oursler, friend of Houdini and Conan Doyle (not to mention, father of Fulton Oursler Jr, founder of Angels on Earth magazine), he is our visionary medium/magician—part mad scientist historian, part hilarious techno-wizard, and 100% other-worldly being.
Thyrza Nichols Goodeve (Rail): I see you as the seer/prophet of our paranoid, hysterical, psychotic media landscape; one we’re not too happy to be in, but you’ve been investigating the fragmented psychological effects of media technology, various kinds of technopsychosis, and conspiracy theories since the beginning of your career. You know we were both born in 1957…
Tony Oursler: Star twins! We’ve got the same timestamp. There is a fine difference between making connections and paranoia. Our journey has been a post-Pop look at the vernacular. When the Russians released Sputnik—so we were born at the moment of the Cold War techno-paranoia that changed the way we looked at the heavens—and it’s also when the film The Three Faces of Eve came out.
Rail: Think of the TV shows we were brought up on? Lost In Space, My Favorite Martian, Outer Limits, Bewitched, Star Trek, The Prisoner, I Dream of Jeannie, My Mother the Car, which are all soft utopias. There was of course the darker The Twilight Zone…
Oursler: Colonel Bleep also dropped in 1957. A postnuclear cartoon that spooked everyone. Our generation is the first to grow up watching television more than we did anything else but sleep.
Rail: Where did you grow up?
Oursler: I grew up in Nyack, a small little town up the Hudson which was a wonderful place to grow up. Edward Hopper was from there—friends of mine broke into Hopper’s house and stole a bed—eventually it was returned. It’s a Hopper museum now and I have a piece up in it. But Joseph Cornell and Thomas Wilfred were also from there. Wilfred is one of my favorite media artists—a link between abstraction, psychedelic, and installation. I’m kind of convinced that I met him when I was just a little kid, because he used to open his studio up in Nyack and invite people to come in and see his light shows. He did these wonderful moving light shows that had a duration of up to seven years without changing. I don’t really know if it happened but I kind of imagine my mom taking me there in the station wagon and just checking it out. I’m going to go into hypnosis and figure that one out.
Rail: When do you plan to do that? You must have undergone hypnosis before?
Oursler: We go in and out all the time. They say we daydream 1,500 times every day. Artists know and work with that, sort of learning to control what they call ADD. You know the phone is a hypnotic device connected to a capitalist system. I’m working on a two-part project with Pascal Rousseau at the Musée d’Arts de Nantes that combines a history of hypnosis with a large installation of mine. I’ve come to see hypnosis as a battleground between creative agency and mind control.
Rail: You have a storied family. I’m not sure people realize your grandfather was a detective writer and journalist. And your father published some kind of magazine about angels?
Oursler: I think of them all as creative people, storytellers, and artists. My mom was a nurse, as is my sister who is also an artist. My mom’s father was a postal worker and her mom was a schoolteacher in Carteret, New Jersey. My mom, who could naturally draw anything, is still with us, thank goodness, and my dad’s gone these days, but he was the one who carried on working in magazines like his parents; editing at Reader’s Digest where he worked with Alex Haley on Roots: The Saga of an American Family (1976) and commissioned books on the Kennedy assassination. He also worked at Guideposts and finally started Angels on Earth, devoted to real-life encounters with angels, a nonprofit, which is still going today. He comes from a writing and film family—Fulton Sr. and then Grace Perkins, his partner and wife, who were both editors, writers, and wrote many books and plays and screenplays. My famous grandfather had his first bite of the Big Apple with a play called The Spider (1928) on Broadway which involved breaking down the fourth wall and involved spiritualism and magicians. He was a magician himself and my grandmother wrote wonderfully racy pre-Code stories. One of her books, Night Nurse (1930), which I quote in the Imponderable film and installation, was made into a pre-Code film starring Barbara Stanwyck. Both of my grandparents used a bunch of different pseudonyms: Dora Macy was Grace Perkins—Fulton Oursler was Anthony Abbot, Samri Frikell, and people like that. So they liked to play around with the names. They were friends with people like Arthur Conan Doyle and Houdini.
Rail: Your background is not exactly typical suburbia. You went to CalArts in the mid1970s?
Oursler: Yes, it was the transition between hippie and punk, did you feel that? CalArts is where I met Mike Kelley, Jim Shaw, Ericka Beckman, John Miller, Nina R. Salerno, Sue Williams—John Cage as there, and John Baldessari, or “Big John” as we used to call him, was our teacher and he helped me in moving from being a painter, which I arrived at CalArts being obsessed with, until I was introduced to the old camcorders, as they were called back then.
Rail: Thinking back, you were all working across media—painting, performance, video, music—which is taken for granted now but at the time was very unusual. Talk about The Poetics.
Oursler: The Poetics was a kind of open-ended experimental performance-music-rock band. We did soundtracks, radio shows, dances, choreography, and performances. I was the singer, Mike was the drummer. Mitchell Syrop was in the band. Jim Shaw was kind of an honorary member, and John Miller of course—a whole cast of characters cycling through. We did a radio show with Doug Huebler—and one of the rare photos of that time is actually taken by Darcy Huebler, Doug Huebler’s daughter. You can actually go to the Pompidou (post-COVID) and see a semi-permanent installation by The Poetics there. In 1997 we went back and remastered the tapes and put out a record for the first time. We made a massive installation for documenta X with curator Catherine David, which was exhibited by Christine Van Assche and brought into the Centre Pompidou collection. I kept a notebook with all of the lyrics and designs for things and so Mike and I both went back and divided up the task of taking the designs that were represented in the notebooks—like 20-something years later—and using them in the installation.
I did quite a few interviews for the project, with David West—he’s a great artist—with artists like ourselves who had broken the sound barrier, like Laurie Anderson, who had been our teacher at CalArts, Lydia Lunch, David Byrne, Alan Vega, Glen Bronca, Kim Gordon and Thurston Moore…and many more. The idea was to look at the moment when art drops off from this classic notion of something on the wall and employs different energies. A lot of the bands, you might or might not know it, started out as artists. So, it’s an honor to have that moment of The Poetics, this idea of the synesthetic moment that can happen in art and the politics of that, be featured at the Pompidou. It’s something dear to my heart—the creative energy of that DIY aspect of conceptual art fueled a lot of that.
Rail: Which segues nicely into your work with David Bowie in the ’90s who of course came out of art school in the British context. How did you end up working with him?
Oursler: He was a hero of mine and my whole family. He’s a meta-figure in that he not only generated great art but encouraged many of us through his work. At some point I ran into him through an unexpected set of circumstances and then he reached out to an assistant of mine, a dynamic artist, Kristin Lucas, who had travelled to set up a show for me that David was in and he told Kristin that he wanted to meet me, and, of course this was back in the fax days, so it wasn’t easy to communicate. Anyway, one thing led to another, and he was apparently a big fan of my work, so he appeared at my hovel one day. It was just a thrill, because—talk about a person who could evolve and change across multiple personas and the positive side of it and opening up gender issues and culture wars and so forth—so it was an incredible moment to work with him. We made a few things together, one of which was the stage set for his 50th birthday party which was up at Madison Square Garden. The whole experience was this crossover dream where I got to work with this artist I always fantasized about, as well as see the artwork get out of our little art world and into a bigger context.
Rail: The video you made with him in 2013, “Where Are We Now?” is just plain spooky to look at now that he is gone.
Oursler: David loved my studio, I think because it was so chaotic. He used to come over and check out what was happening, marvel at how much of a mess it was—total disarray. So he had this idea for this video, which would take place in the studio, emerge from the mire. For 10 years, he didn’t put anything out, you know, he had gone very quiet, there were rumors of health issues. We sort of kept in touch and saw each other just once in a while but then he just came a long one day and said, “Hey, what are you doing?” and I was like, “Nothing. What are you doing?” [Laughs] He wanted to very secretly make a video which would just drop onto YouTube at midnight, the second of midnight, on his birthday, January 8th when his birthday began, and that’s the way he would break his 10 years of silence. He had basically made the video in his head, and we just put it together in my studio…It contains images of when he lived in Germany with Iggy Pop, and with Coco Schwab, and you can see his old flat. The twin dolls are David and Jacqueline Humphries next to David.
Rail: Watching it now, it has this whole other spooky association with your interest in technology and spiritualism and speaking to the dead.
Oursler: Yes, there’s a really amazing band up there someplace with a lot of my friends in it. But seriously, I’ve lived long enough to see some theories related to technology play out on a personal level and also on a wider social scale. Now with COVID we are living in a real techno-twilight.
Rail: Well that was quite a detour. We left off with you in your own rock band in art school in the ’70s. The videos you made there and into the ’80s are some of my favorite works of yours. Do they get out much?
Oursler: I love that you are interested in them. For me they are a strange mnemonic path to another time in my life. Not sure how much they are shown around these days, but the homemade quality to them and the scale shifts could have something to do with the phone production.
Rail: I was watching some of them again and kept thinking how perfect they are for our COVID lockdown nutsoness—like The Loner (1980) is one of my favorites. It’s described as “the story of a polymorphous humanoid adolescent. The protagonist is racked by his multiple complexes, obsessed by his auto-erotic fixations and devoured by acute paranoia.” But it’s the aesthetic, a kind of demented, DIY Pee-wee’s Playhouse, raw, crazy painted kitchen scene with the handmade alphabet cereal or the huge pink cockroach crawling up the wall or the Op art papier-mâché bar scene using your limbs, friends, fingers, and legs as characters. It fits our small screen cabin fever COVID-19 quarantine sensibility. I imagine people being inspired to make tiny sets in their apartments and shoot early Oursler-esque videos with their iPhones.
Oursler: Good, that’s the main thing. I really want people to make things! As soon as I got the video camera I made the leap into a three dimensional painted space, like The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari (1920), and Georges Méliès—filmmaking that came out of stage design. My painting sort of expanded into video space, and then the video space became more sculptural, and then the sets became installations. Like the piece I did at the Kitchen in 1983–85, L7-L5 (1984) was one of my first bigger installations and it had to do with looking at the notion of science fiction as a cultural catalyst that ranged from Star Wars (1977), which kind of irritated me at the time. I had a small budget from the Kitchen, and I wanted to find people who really met aliens and maybe went to space themselves—so I took an ad out in the Village Voice: “$25 an hour for firsthand encounters with aliens or UFO’s.” Some of the interviews ended up in the piece. Although the first generation of video artists was enamored with the idea of the screen and the television as a kind of sculptural object, I was not, so most of my installations had to do with reflecting the image off the television set, and would involve these sculptural objects that were sort of like video games or reflecting pools—or where the television is reflecting light up into the sculpture as in the Kitchen piece where you look up at this house—which is 3 by 3 feet but it’s up on a six foot pedestal, so it’s probably nine feet high or something. Projected onn it is part of an interview I did with a woman who went by the name of “Gloria,” because she didn’t want anybody to know who she was—who believed in UFOs and had encountered aliens in her bedroom on a nightly basis. She described scenarios where they drew her blood and bewitched her in various ways, and then vanished. Some are available on my website and through Electronic Arts Intermix and the Video Data Bank. This sort of connects to an early archive project I did with Branden W. Joseph at Columbia University where we showed an installation of videos and photos related to my collection of UFO images and “Effigies.”
Rail: The alien abduction narrative was everywhere as though the effects of My Favorite Martian (1963–66) and Bewitched (1964–72) twisted into people’s neural networks and became fact. So much there but we have to move on—during the ’80s, what inspired you to project faces onto dolls?
Oursler: I was teaching up at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design and living with my old friend, Joe Gibbons, the filmmaker and artist. It was a super productive time like living in the wilderness but with a cool cultural scene around the ICA and schools. In fact we spent a lot of time in the manufactured “wilderness” section of Olmsted Park which was next to our apartment. We were making a video series called “On Our Own.” And Joe made a feature film starring Karen Finley, me, and Tony Conrad. I’d been making these scarecrow figures out of different clothing: businessman, floral outfits, and playing around with gender assignment and so forth—using surveillance cameras with them. I would set up scenarios or installations, photograph them, and take them apart. But I couldn’t get the faces right. And then these tiny projectors came out, I ordered one and within a few minutes of it arriving in the mail, boom! I was projecting my face on a Barbie-type doll in a wedding dress on our kitchen table. You may wonder why I had a doll with a blanked out face on the kitchen table, but it had to do with a Rudolf Steiner idea of dolls with blank faces. This was a fantastic moment that opened the medium up in new ways for me. It was as if the characters from inside the TV, or inside my head were able to escape and populate a different sort of art space. I started to think of them as electrical effigies. I immediately started working with them and with Constance DeJong and Tracy Leipold, my friend and a great performance artist. She would come to the studio and cry and became my alter-ego—we collaborated a lot.
Rail: Collaboration has been important to you since the beginning: with Mike Kelley and the Poetics, with Tony Conrad, with Constance DeJong, Kim Gordon. Even Beck or Philip K. Dick back in the ’80s and your piece Telemimesis (1988)?
Oursler: A few weeks ago I had the good fortune to work with David Johansen which was a spectacular surprise! It turns out he’s also a really interesting painter. I love collaboration because it’s a way of being closer together with people and also to explore new territories. The magic in that equation 1+1=3 is real and it is magic. It extends to performers and curators and even historians lately. I’ve been lucky with some people like Constance DeJong to have done many projects together, Fantastic Prayers along with Stephen Vitiello, Relatives (1989) a performance, we have a dialogue which continues for many years. Now I see collaborating as a form of improvisation, I’ve learned to be open to it. Just like life in general, at any second things can go one way or the other, it helps to have eyes wide open.
Rail: In relation to your interest in technology and psychological states, coincidently, we shared an interest in multiple personality disorder at the same time in the late ’80s. I mean we never talked to one another about it but you made the piece about Multiple Personality Disorder (MPD) in the 1980s and I published my first piece in Artforum for the special “wonder” issue edited by Ida Panicelli in the summer of 1989. I was in graduate school working with Donna Haraway on science fiction as political theory and was interested in the way lobotomy literalized Cold War metaphors of “severing connections” between ideas and affect and how MPD, not to romanticize it, but I was amazed at the idea, that from this kind of trauma where you’re so fragmented that you have to dissociate and become something else, survival manifests as different personalities which separate and take charge of different kinds of affect (for instance: one for desire, one for rage, one for insecurity, etc.). In the article I talk about the Troops for Truddi Chase who wrote When Rabbit Howls(1987). They started to develop into hundreds of what they called functions, not even personalities. And of course, it was the ’80s so they were splayed across television talk shows.
Oursler: Fascinating territory and maybe a good time to revisit? It’s so interesting that you and I both tracked MPD as a symptom or alternative to Cold War technology. I saw some of the patients used the TV term “switching”—and they started with a few personalities, like TV at first had only a few stations and then patients with MPD started to present more and more personas, as though they were going through hundreds of channels on cable. As if the introjection of all this information was creating new psychological models. With MPD it was always presented as traumatic but there are possibilities, as Jung suggested, to focus these inner entities creatively. Pathologies are always on the spectrum and if you look at the general population, and changing technology, it seemed to me that people would likely be using technology to develop more fluid identities, the ability to morph into anything they want which is what began happening with the internet. But back in the late ’80s, I was really interested in how empathy was passed on through technology. By the early 1990s I started to think of these artworks as empathy tests or some form of psychology tests in relation to the viewer or participant. This is how the work Getaway No. 2 (1994) came about. It was based on a role reversal for a young woman, of the way one is harassed on the street by people, whether it’s sick catcalls or a hapless people yelling “fuck you.” I like the idea of an artwork that is passive-aggressive that hides and also jumps out at the viewer as a challenge, her head is stuck under a mattress screaming at the viewers. Tracy was able to mine her own personal experience for the role which she did brilliantly. It was a lot of fun, probably irritating to some people [laughs]. With the installation Judy (1994) which dealt directly with my interest in MPD. I had been reading, as you had, many books on the subject of MPD and loved the language and domestic scenarios and wanted to make a soft floral world for these characters to exist within. Judy was imagined as a broken line fragmented on a diagonal across the installation space. The idea was that characters split off from the core character who is then transmuted into various splintered selves across the room of installation. It was set in a domestic situation so there were stuffed chairs and floral arrangements and curtains with one of the personalities being projected into the flowers and the horrible mother figure. The viewer could sit in the work, in a stuffed chair and see through and speak through and animate a figure outside the museum where I had a dummy connected to a surveillance camera and a microphone. This part was inspired by those psychology experiments by Milgram, like, let’s see what people will do if they have the cloak of anonymity.
Rail: Manic maker that you are, you are also an historian, a kind of Jerry Lewis Nutty Professor (1963) kind of historian. Your major installations of the 2000s The Influence Machine (2000), Imponderable (2015–16), Tear of the Cloud (2018) aren’t just spectacles, but associative historical dramas about the deep history of image technology and what I’d call occult media studies, from the camera obscura to Étienne-Gaspard Roberts’s 18th-century phantasmagorias, to 19th and 20th-century seances to magic shows, spiritualism, and spirit photography, to cinema, television (all those ’60s TV shows!), the internet, and now our everyday life in Zoomland where, yet again, we are positioned as characters in another TV show we grew up with—Hollywood Squares (1966).
Oursler: I think artists have to create their own histories because for their specific interests, like who was Philo T. Farnsworth, the guy who invented television, that nobody knows about, or E. Gaston Robinson, who developed the phantasmagoria in the 18th century which was kind of a pre-cinematic sort of installation. So, around 2000, I was very interested in looking at where I was in time as a media artist. I was fascinated by how there are all these incredible technologies in people’s homes and lives that people had no idea where they came from so I started writing this history of technology, that was a very simple timeline—an optical timeline. I hope to publish this in book form sometime soon (but you can access it on my website). I began to see cultural patterns related to the technologies and it generated lots of projects in the studio. I started to see these moments of flux when a new technology is introduced and has not been codified or capitalized—when people were confused by technology and assigned it kind of mythic status, as having an ability to cross over into another realm. I’ve always been interested in that moment of openness when technology is born before it gets economically codified, and people say, “Oh, this is the way you’re going to watch film or TV or use the internet.” These moments reveal much about human nature and how technology extends our desires, aspirations, and beliefs. There are many strands to this research but The Influence Machine came out of the fact new inventions were repeatedly assigned oracle qualities or the ability to communicate with the dead. Jeffrey Sconce and Marina Warner are some of my favorite writers regarding the politics of spiritualizing technology. For example spirit photography came about right around the same time as the invention of photography, with William H. Mumler, right here in New York City. The telegraph in 1848 was the first real telecommunications, was adapted by the spiritualists’ so called “spiritual telegraph” and the rapping of the Fox sisters in upstate New York. I also found examples of spirit TV stations and posted hard drives. This became the conceptual structure for my first big outdoor projection project with Tom Eccles and the Public Art Fund and James Lingwood and Louise Neri at Artangel, The Influence Machine.
Rail: Imponderable: The Archives of Tony Oursler at MoMA in 2016–17 was not a public artwork, its scale as far as research was massive. The book is a wonder machine.
Oursler: Imponderable was and is an ongoing project developed by the LUMA Foundation and links films and installations to my archive and the book which is about to go into a third printing I think. It started with LUMA producing the book which came out of my timeline research but was very private and I never thought to share it publicly. Over many years I had amassed images and objects related to my interests such as ectoplasm, spirit photos, occult manuscripts, film and magic lantern materials, UFO photos, cult ephemera, and so on. Then my friends at LUMA invited me to make an art work related to the archive. I chose a few objects I inherited which started with the story of my grandfather debunking Arthur Conan Doyle’s belief in spirit photography. I wrote and produced a film/installation which used a 3D system known as a Pepper’s ghost, it was completely based in fact but very fantastical. It was a family story regarding my grandparents, Houdini, Arthur Conan Doyle, and the psychic Mina “Margery” Crandon that mixed-up strands of religion, stage magic, magic, and belief systems. It was shown along with the archive so there was a play between fiction and history. You could see the fairy photos Doyle believed in, as well as photos of the vaginal ectoplasm Crandon produced in seances, and then watch the reenactments. The 5D film is now in the collection of the MoMA and LUMA I’m happy to say. The whole project sort of birthed my overt relationship to the archive, history, recent, deep, and personal. Since then I’ve done numerous projects that are parallel exhibitions with archive and art works. I’m super excited about the hypnosis project that will happen in Nantes this October. We will have Franz Mesmer’s only existing baquet and incredible material from Charcot and a large new installation.
Rail: I saw The Influence Machine when it was up at Madison Square Park in 2000. Louise Neri invited me, it was the first time you and I met. The layered projections hanging in the air on smoke were extraordinary. It and Tear of the Cloud are public artworks.
Oursler: Good times in the park at night, it was like a dream. Influence Machine is still shown here and there and is now in the collection of the Tate. It was really one of the most important projects in my life, and we met there too! I was able to work on a large public scale for the first time, which is politically and artistically important to me. It’s difficult to imagine ideas, sound, and images coming alive in a cityscape without support. I take these opportunities seriously and have evolved a very private research process that infuses the work. Tear of the Cloud, is the second project I did with the public art fund this time with curator Dan Palmer. It is the culmination of a very personal perspective on the history and landscape surrounding the Hudson Valley. You know I mentioned growing up in Nyack, so I always had this love of what happened along the Hudson and had a kind of memory palace of events and occurrences which happened to be linked by the geographic line to the Hudson River. I took the poetic perspective of its flow as a kind of creative catalyst connecting across time and space. I took the title from the source lake, Tear of the Clouds, and dropped the “s” to give it a computational slant. We found an incredible location to work with and Kim Gordon contributed a beautiful score. We projected onto the landmarked 69th Street Transfer Bridge Gantry, as well as the actual surface of the Hudson River using it as a kind of liquid screen of organic material.
Rail: Like you projected on smoke in the Madison Park installation of The Influence Machine?
Oursler: Yeah, testing is a big part of the process. I knew the metal structure of Gantry could work with some images but my dream was to use the Hudson itself. I thought maybe because of the silt in the water maybe it could catch an image; that I kind of knew from, God forbid, swimming in it back in the ’60s. So when we got the projector out there on the long peer and shined it into the water the image was transformed in such a beautiful way, beyond anything I could have imagined. Then I knew the project would work. With this work, it’s connected with something you brought up before, this kind of notion of getting people creatively activated, making things. This kind of agency is now important to me and the motivation behind this piece. I was interested in piecing together this necklace of creative events, like the fact that Edison’s Black Maria film studio was just across the Palisades there. The fact that the first artificial intelligence was developed by IBM up along the Hudson—and the fact that the very first art movement of the US was the Hudson River School—to look at the sort of problematics of that, and that it all began along there, this flow. And Grandmaster Flash and the beginning of hip-hop in the Bronx in the ’70s and the relationship between sound sampling and the moving image appropriation of Joseph Cornell. To show how this is alive now, today, in the culture of this area. To focus on this part of the world as a polyglot where people come together, and the friction there develops into this wonderful kind of creative engine. And to use the metaphor of the Hudson River, this kind of flow in and out, up and down, and the fact that everything has changed along the Hudson for millions of years except the Hudson itself, is a kind of reminder of some kind of baseline unification.
Rail: Our time is running out, I’m so sorry we have to rush like this but let’s make sure we talk about the exhibition that is up now at Lehmann Maupin.
Oursler: You know, in the time of COVID-19, everyone that we know has been shifting to see if we can really live online with one another and it’s great to see how galleries are working on it. The show is called Magical Variations and it’s painting and drawings embedded with digital screens—mostly circles punched in. I think I was thinking of my old friend Baldessari—how he would just punch holes in things and then unlock the power of some kind of portal.
Rail: Are they narrative paintings?
Oursler: They sort of tell stories and are connected to the recent research I've been doing about magical thinking and the internet—how bots spread these erroneous situations. There’s a piece with male figures dressed in the woman’s outfits worn by the 19th-century Luddites who went out with hammers to destroy the new factory technologies which were taking away their jobs. In the painting the figures are burning a 5G tower, you know there’s this whole kind of new mythology that evolved around the 5G towers because people thought they were destroying the oxygen in their blood, and maybe spreading COVID and somehow also connecting to Bill Gates and the chips that are eventually going to be put into us through the vaccines and so forth and people were going out and destroying them. So, I was looking at these kind of totally insane theories, and how they spread which connects to a whole history of Luddite mentality.
Rail: These are the same themes as your very first video installations when you were dealing with conspiracy theories and technologies and working with Philip K. Dick. What’s so unnerving is back then you were kind of a black comedy satirist where as now you’re kind of a documentarian [laughs]. The slapstick humor of your early work with video games and conspiracy theories is now our Clockwork Orange reality—the violence and authoritarian conditioning of a monster-TV-toddler-clown ruling the most powerful country in the world (if we are still that) through conspiracy theories linked to sex trafficing cannibals in the Democratic party!
Oursler: It’s frightening how many conspiracy theories there are and how prominent they are, the Q Anon and so forth, that there's actually candidates and government officials who believe in these kinds of theories. Science is an ally, and we need it to be able to mobilize the culture of resistance, to be able to reinvigorate the creative impulse, not in a way that’s destructive, because you know the fact that people kind of love these outsider mythologies that are occurring, there’s a wonderful sort of political aspect to it, where people are just like, “I will not think in the prescribed way, I will believe in UFOs.”
If you look at the function of conspiracy theories and how they are produced, you're right, it's close to how art is made. By definition a conspiracy theory is the connection between any two random points of information. It’s exactly like collage: a combination of any two images. From this we gain new meanings, readings, dreams, maybe even possible solutions. The difference between the two strategies is the valence of the act of making these connections: one is positive and the other is negative. One builds you up while the other nullifies you. The amygdala is the part of the brain which gets activated when we have confusion or cognitive dissonance, it quickly generates possible explanations and scenarios to fill in for our lack of knowledge. The trick is to harness this energy in a way that gives us agency. I understand that what we are seeing is the result of mass confusion and the manipulation of that state and that much of the public feels disenfranchised. I highly suggest The Age of Surveillance Capitalism (2018) by Shoshana Zuboff to understand some of the connections to social media and technology. But I think it’s fair to say if your conspiracy theory puts you in a position of nullification, or a frozen state, then you need a new way of looking at those two points. You need a new theory. I like to think this is what art can offer.
Q & A
Rail: Thank you Tony, a great way to end. We have time for some questions, so I’ll turn it back to Louis Block.
Louis Block: Thank you Thyrza and Tony. Our first question comes from Scott Lerner, and I’m going to ask you to unmute right now, Scott.
Scott Lerner: Hey, I’m a big fan Tony. This is a kind of personal question going back to art school, but it seems like you had a really incredible confluence of artists when you were at CalArts, I was curious if you could elaborate on some of your more formative experiences there?
Oursler: Formative, sure. I really lucked out. I’ve come to have a great respect for what happens when people go into that space of art school, having gone through it myself. Because you have these preconceptions that you walk in the door with, but they have to change. Whoever you are when you come in, you’ve got to alter your perspective kind of radically. And I’m not so sure regular college is like that. Art school is a very sensitive situation, at least it was for me and a lot of my friends. But what a wonderful adventure we had at CalArts, just great people. So you will have the same thing in school, you’ll find allies in your own generation I’ve mentioned some but there were others—Ericka Beckman was there, Ashley Bickerton and Susan Rothenberg, Jonathan Borofsky was there, Laurie Anderson, who I mentioned before, Julia Heyward, and even John Cage of all people was there. So, it was a great experience, but very intense, you know, very intense, trying to alter all the preconceptions you have about art, for better or worse.
Block: Thanks Tony, our next question comes from our own publisher, Phong. You should be able to unmute now, Phong.
Phong H. Bui: Thank you Tony, thank you Thyrza, for an amazing, intimate conversation. I have a question about Howard Wise, who created that legendary gallery that showed people like George McNeil, Milton Resnick, but then he closed it down. He then started Electronic Arts Intermix. Did you get to know him? Because I know that he died in the late ’80s, so I never really got to meet him.
Oursler: I think I met him once or twice at Electronics Art Intermix, but that history of New York was incredible. I mentioned Thomas Wilfred, he had a big installation at MoMA that was permanent until 1985 or something like that. It was near the coat room or something, down in a lower section. But to go back to Howard Wise and that group of people who were in New York pushing forward, like Barbara London and the great people at the itched, Carlotta school. The history of early experimental technology was broken down into separate spaces, people might not know this—so Electronic Arts Intermix was made for video art. And the Kitchen was made for performance, music, video, film, kind of like that. And you’d go to a museum and they had a little video area, or not so little, or a performance area, or an experimental film area, and it was kind of all segmented off. And then it all mixed together. But there’s a great history of these kinds of experimental spaces—Oswego, upstate New York, the Experimental Television Center, and of course Buffalo and my old friend Tony Conrad, who was connected to Hallwalls. It was a great network. But Phong, what you are doing here, I know that people are having a tough time in COVID, and so what you are doing—and Thyrza, thanks for the positive energy—and how you’re able to keep people connected, I think is important because who knows how long we’re going to be hibernating. It’s good to know that other people are doing things, and that we can get to something better when things get back.
Block: Thanks Phong, our next question comes from Lisa. I’m going to hand you the microphone, Lisa.
Lisa: Hi Tony, I’ve seen your work for about a million years. I actually used to live on Chrystie Street down by where Lehmann Maupin had their gallery for 20-something odd years. Anyway, here’s my question—the last thing you showed were the Magical Variation paintings, and I had never seen any paintings, and the question that popped into my head is: for so many years, you worked in all these new mediums, pushing boundaries, and I think of painting as one of the hardest things to do, because of the long history, and I was curious why you returned to painting?
Oursler: Yeah, it’s something that I never really gave up on. You know I think of two- dimensional graphic space as the basis of everything. So painting is something that I began with and it’s been with me. I’m kind of a closeted painter and I do drawings, but since the Magical Variations have video, I don’t know what to call them.
Rail: We have time for one final question, and it’s going to come from John Capone. Passing the mic over to you now.
John Capone: Hi Tony. You clearly have an affection for the history of psychics, illusionists, mystics, and the kind of charlatan and flim-flam side of that world. And artists, especially in the 20th century, have always sought to upend the idea of the consensual hallucination of reality. But while we were having fun with that, as a kind of critical or philosophical or visual strategy, we’re now living in an age where authoritarian political forces have seized control of those strategies, as a tool of repression, and control, with these instant conspiracy theories. My question, I guess, is: what can we do about that? Seize control of that narrative again, and use it as a tool of liberation rather than repression? And that’s a very big question, so at the very least, what’s your opinion of how that got flipped around?
Oursler: That’s the trillion, zillion dollar question, what can we do when the strategy of the left is being used against the left, and how the left is being taught to eat itself and so forth? How do we move forward to a new paradigm of working together? Right now, maybe what you’re implying is that critical deconstruction is a strategy that maybe doesn’t work anymore, and that people have to offer new models, and I think that’s something that a lot of artists have to grapple with. I think there’s going to be a lot more of this kind of PSYOP situation happening between now and November, and the best strategy is to question the origins of everything and where our information comes from because there’ll be arguments that you think come out of the left but actually come out of the right, and their intention is to split the left so that we lose the election. So, what can we do right now? Listen and think and get to the voting booth and vote for America.
Capone: And maybe we need to take the power of absurdity more seriously.
Oursler: There’s a lot to be said about that. I’ve been thinking a lot about the politics of Pop art, and how we got to the point where we have a TV loser in office. This whole thing about the willing suspension of disbelief, and how a guy who played a good businessman on TV is now in office, but…I don’t know if I’m adding anything to the dialogue, but defund the military and convert the military peace dividend into education, the arts, medicine, science, research. I’m all for that.