For Rhizome (

1996 Commentary
Art et Multimedia : Plasticiens et Multimedia (Conference / Exhibit)
@ Institut d'Études Supérieures des Arts
October 2, 1996
5, avenue de l'Opera 75001 Paris
by Joseph Nechvatal

Members of the French and French-speaking electronic art community gathered
the evening of October 2, 1996 in Paris to consider the state of
digital-based art under the auspices of the Institut d'Études Supérieures
des Arts (IESA) ( in conjunction with
the tony art magazine Beaux-Arts. This event's sponsorship by Beaux-Arts
marked something of a watershed in terms of digital art's legitimization in

To begin the evening of web-site and CD-ROM demonstrations/explanations,
Maurice Benayoun, a journalist for Beaux-Arts, presented Benjamin Weil, art
critic and creator of the New York City based adaweb Internet site
( - a site which includes some digital work by Jenny
Holzer and Julia Scher, among others. Weil began his presentation by going
on-line to the adaweb site and by clicking us through the Holzer project
( - a project which proved to be
uncomfortably infantile and non-reflexive. Holzer's by now overly familiar
"Truisms" were torturously submitted to the most juvenile
combination/permutations imaginable by anonymous interactivators. In light
of this infantility, the fact that adaweb receives 1000 hits a day, as Weil
proclaimed, is meaningless in evaluating its current worth.

In comparison with the Holzer project, in my opinion, interconnected art of
merit must insist upon a reflexive threshold which is deviantly operative in
character, a reflexivity which challenges rather than panders to popular pop
taste. Crucial is the implementation of a theory of the virtual from a
viewpoint which assumes a dialogically configured subject. Interactivity in
and of itself is not enough. The obvious problem here is that paltry
reflectivity was offered in the Holzer project's instrumentality.

Another adaweb associated artist, Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, followed Weil
with a demo of her CD-ROM, a CD-ROM which contained a spatial walk/click
through multiple virtual rooms, each containing various colorful art
installations. Here one may click on a window, or door, or artwork and slip
from one silicon salon to another. This is the basic realm of spatial
representation (and the sense of presence it fosters) that is close to home
for architects. Hence, her CD-ROM only took us on a virtual exploration in a
guileless way from the point of view of current philosophy in that it
sustained the instrumentality that maintains a unitary effect upon the
configuration of our subjectivity. Plus her work remained linked in my mind
to the development of computer games, which are one of the primary examples
of an extension into operative virtual space in a way that is specifically
an extension of the telepresenced unified subject. Indeed, this computer
game model continually was the performative force that conditioned the
reception of the works presented at IESA that night - perceptions which
inevitably tried to shape the viewer/clicker as mostly an indolent unified
subject. It is true her spatial work gives us more than the vapid expanded
lexicon of Holzer's project, because it gives us at least a certain mobile
quality that involves us as viewers/participants in such a way that duration
is invoked. What it overlooks, however, is that in French ontology,
particularly with the contemplations of the rhizomatic French theorists
Gilles Deleuze (1925-1995) and Félix Guattari (1930-1992), there has been a
major shift in the way we understand Being - a shift towards the
rhizomization of Being and hence the way in which we pursue our ontology.
Through the writings of Deleuze and Guattari the unified concept of Being
that had remained untried for centuries (since the Greeks in fact) came
under hyper scrutiny following the pattern of certain aspects of
Phenomenology. It was my feeling that the question of being/presence
Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster's spatial conceits suggested here could have
been a bit more open ended vis-a-vis the interface - and thus more
supportive of this shift towards ontological rhizomization.

With Maurice Benayoun's VR piece (shown to us on video tape) called "Tunnel
Virtuel Sous l'Atlantique" the sense of speed associated with the computer
game aesthetic was investigated. This sense of digital speed exceeds the
retinal limit in a way that would previously be outside of thought. The
viewer is taken on a rush down an abstract vortex which I found not at all
unpleasant. It reminded me too of the disturbing reification found in J. G.
Ballard's book "Crash" where Vaughan and Ballard drop acid and perform an
act of sodomy in Vaughan's Lincoln Continental.

The rush in Benayoun piece, for me, accentuates the point that speed plays
in configuring our perceptions and our subjectivities because of the concern
that he apparently has with our retinal limits. However promising, here too
the fixed point of view of the subject resisted rhizomization and I remained
in the logocentric driver's seat. At it's worst, it reminded me of flying at
top speed one of the spacecraft in Lucas' CD-ROM "Star Wars" as the viewer's
perceptual field is restricted to a single scene, never to a multiple
pattern. The retinal model of rhizomatic subjectivity suggested in William
Gibson's "Neuromancer", "Count Zero", and "Mona Lisa Overdrive" has
seemingly not affected Benayoun as by-in-large his dominant tunnel format is
favored over the expansiveness of Gibson's cyberspace. With Benayoun, the
telepresence of the individual's extension into the virtual is blunted. For
me, any sophisticated use of the virtual must take into account a matrix of
choices that unbinds the technology's practical uses. What is missing in the
work of Benayoun at this point, for me, is spatial imagery which does not
depend on induction or deduction but is in fact prior to each of these forms
of controlling cognitions - that field that extends our personal
subjectivity in much the way that our current technology of the hard drive
and the Internet might be said to functionally extend our memory, creating a
deployed trans-subjectivity.

Between the dialogic formation of a rhizomatic subjectivity and the
instrumentalities of cyberspace one might hack numerous underground escape
paths and party scenes. However, in Alberto Sorbelli's CD-ROM called
"underground" there is a staid click mania which evolves from it's
particularly poorly centered instrumentality. He, like everybody here, is
apparently thinking chronologically and working with narrative models based
on literary or pictorial synchronic propositions rather than thinking
dialogically. The prolongation of this kind of essence perception is the
direct presentation of abstracted but recognizable things.

Sorbelli's CD-ROM piece was based on a floating eye peeking out through a
small hole in the monitor's screen. Its navigational interface worked on the
basis of a series of pre-determined clicks which evoked rather technically
crude sound files and image collage bombardments construed with mass media
samples. Its transparent dependence on cyber-market tools was conceptually
limiting and in no way expanded the concept of art as one might anticipate
with the use of the central symbol of the subversive French theoretician and
philosopher George Bataille - the lone eye. There were numerous technical
glitches as well which further unsharpened its sense of smooth flow and
blunted any sense of conceptual urgency. To the extent that I hoped to have
found here an artist that digitally extends Bataille's general force of
thought, I was disappointed.

This somewhat disapproving comment depends upon the reader's understanding
of the potentiality of experimental interfaces and the work's failure to
stimulate a psychoanalytical or textual decoding worth the effort. Despite
its title 'underground', no field of intensities encountered here invoked
the inchoate or even the suspicious.

I had expected Anne-Marie Duguet, professor of contemporary art history at
the University Paris I and director of the CD-ROM collection "Anarchives",
to examine the techniques of the artists presented here from within the
context of the contemporary history of French conceptual art, but she did
not (indeed she only said that she found the digital art culture
'non-conceptual' and hence a break from the legacy of conceptual art).
Rather, she de-emphasized her task as that of cultural critic and emphasized
her role as encouraging teacher. Hence, she merely recognized that our
society is moving increasingly into the technologized virtual and that the
role of the artist is moving ever increasingly into a composite - or cyborg
- condition.

She mentioned the role of the 'active spectator' but failed to discuss the
quality of the interaction - as if any at all was only a good thing. This is
not sufficient. I believe we, especially here in France, must take the
rhizomatic proposals of French theory and extend them into art praxis by
utilizing rhizomatic principles in our digital productivity. This might be
done by articulating the rhizomatic links of that which is beyond the fast
and obvious and accessible while speaking about cancellation. Such a
linking/cancellation would be a admirable move forward in advancing the
eradication of the unified subject. This praxis is difficult, I know,
because in linking/cancellation the very foundation of our traditional
expectations of Being are eviscerated. But without linking/cancellation
virtual art continues to disappoint, as it contains none of the technical
glamour found in any video game nor the conceptual depth of significant
contemporary art.