Pockets Full of Memory: A Conversation with George Legrady
George Legrady teaches Interactive Media at the University of California, Santa Barbara. He has previously held full time appointments at the Merz Akademie, Stuttgart, San Francisco State University, University of Southern California, and the University of Western Ontario. Recent interactive installation exhibitions have taken place at the Centre Pompidou, Paris [Pockets full of Memories], 2001; the new Richard Meier designed Siemens World Headquarters in Munich, 1999/2000; the Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, Sept-Nov 98; the Kunst und AustellungHalle der Bundes Republik in Bonn, [Tracing], 97-98; the National Gallery of Canada and the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photography, 97-98; the Palais des beaux-arts, Brussels, fall 97. His project “Slippery Traces” was presented in the Siemens. He curated “Deep Storage” exhibition at the Haus der Kunst, Munich, Aug 97; the Kunstforum, Berlin, Fall 1997; the kunstmuseum, Dusseldorf, Spring 98; Projects Studios One, New York, summer 98, and the Henry Art Gallery, Seattle, Fall 98. CD-ROM publications include the National Gallery of Canada catalog “George Legrady: From Analogue to Digital”, (1998); “Slippery Traces”, in “Artintact 3”, ZKM, Karlsruhe, Germany (1996); and “An Anecdoted Archive from the Cold War, HyperReal Media Production (1994).
S. S.: When did you begin your work with new media?
G. L.: My background is in photography, a technological mediating device itself. I have been working with a conceptual approach to photography since the mid-seventies, when I was in graduate school. Photographic work tends to be about documenting the world but at that point my focus shifted towards the examination of the medium itself. In 1981 I moved to San Diego and met Harold Cohen who gave me access to his computer studio. I learned programming and during the following years tried to figure out how to incorporate computers into art practice. That was quite a challenge because there were very few models available at the time. I found it especially difficult to integrate digital media into photography. The thing that really drew me into computer production was the “undo” button which I came across around 1978. Digitalization, in combination with the undo button, provides a whole new perspective on how you can represent the world. I was also very interested in getting precise results, something that chemical based photography could not offer. In 1986 AT&T came out with the Truevision Targa video card for IBM’s and I began to program for this card, as there were few programs available. At that time I was basically looking at how I could process and transform images numerically. Between 1986 and 1989 I produced a series of digital images, all of which came out of cultural questions related to the relationship between signal and noise. I became interested in Claude Shannon and the notion of our belief or disbelief in images. I had an exhibition in a gallery at the Santa Monica Mall in 1987 which I turned into a working private office for my exhibition. People regularly came in, looked at me asked me where the art gallery was. The place looked like an office for digital production and I spent the days manipulating TV images digitized from the Iran-Contragate hearings. I produced my first interactive work in 1991. The idea was to come up with an image that would be the result of programming, but that would at the same time have the essential qualities of the photographic. I never thought that I could produce an image that actually flickers, that goes in and out of focus just through programming…
S. S.: How did you experience the difference between traditional and digital photography, between analogue and digital recording?
G. L.: When I was 23 I went to the sub-Arctic for two summers to do a documentary about the James Bay Cree who were busy battling the state for land rights. After a while I discovered that my photography of their way of life had very little to do with them but a lot to do with my own ideas of representation and art. From that point on, I questioned the cultural bias we bring to the representations we create. A lot of the work I do is still shaped by questions coming out of photographic practice, but now I use the photograph in a very different way.
S. S.: Tell me more about your interest in Shannon. Is digital programming a form of cryptology? And what about the “belief in images?”
G. L.: I come out of conceptual art where the artwork emerges from a set of (linguistic) structures. As you know, Shannon investigated redundancy in language. I was interested in the idea of signal and noise and the boundary between the two. The thing is, you can never have pure signal because you always have some level of noise mixed in with the signal. Engineering aims to reduce the noise but artists usually enjoy the noise component. Still, if you have too much noise, the signal becomes unclear resulting in chaos. So you have to find the boundary between signal and noise. A lot of the image processing software that I was doing for myself from 1986 to 1989 was very similar to filters published later in Photoshop. These things are called “2D convolutions” consisting of altering the pixel values in an image in relation to the values of the surrounding pixels. This approach comes straight out of Shannon’s information theory; the philosophy behind it is simply logic.
S. S.: Did your moving away from (digital) photography have anything to do with interactivity, the possibility that computer programs offer to involve the user/viewer in ways that photography does not?
G. L.: The idea of interactivity is that the audience has to actively participate to some extent, make choices and decisionsinstead of being recipients to a predetermined work. This situation creates a higher level of engagement and changes the audience’s response to the work. There is the impression of a greater investment. When you have this kind of situation in a gallery where the audience walks up to the computer to interact with it, then that person creates a narrative based on the particular sequence of things he or they look at. For the Anecdoted Archive and some other of my works it was important to create an environment where the viewer would come across things they selected and things they would normally not choose to look at. My Archive piece is based on this idea of confronting one set of information with a different set of information. Viewers select something of interest but then through the act of “looking around” find themselves confronted with things they would not have chosen. In the process they string together small stories that becomes in their mind the work. Viewers normally spend about twenty minutes going through the categories but it would take about an hour and a half to look at the whole piece, so every viewer makes his or her unique selection that is completely different from the next person looking at it. The other thing about interactivity in a public space is that the person who makes his or her selection becomes a performer, with the rest of the audience as his or her audience. If I click on one thing in a public museum, then everybody around me sees the subject matter I am interested in…The question becomes, should I make my desires visible to the public? In recent works I have introduced camera tracking and motion sensing, which means that the presence of the public in the space by itself is used to influence what information is recalled on the screen.
S. S.: This reminds me of Dan Graham’s Present Past Continuous where a camera tracks your every movement in the installation and where large mirrors on the wall give you the (as it turns out, premature) impression that the movements of your body and your perception of these movements are perfectly in sync. Yet when the footage recorded by the camera is replayed with a certain regular delay, a distinct gap opens up between your own perception of yourself in the mirror and the replay, giving you a sense that what you are consciously experiencing is, in fact, an effect of the recording. What is the difference between this type of “passive interactivity” typical of a certain period in contemporary art, and what you are doing?
G. L.: Interactivity is about creating self-consciousness, or consciousness about one’s presence -the minute a person walks into the interactive space, the work comes alive and the person realizes that he or she is the cause of the action, influencing it with every (recorded) step he or she takes. The viewer is an active participant in the work and there is the realization that by being present in the space, they determine the effect. For example, as a person is walking around in an installation, different parts of the image may come into focus. This is the work of the database that is running in the background, keeping track of how much time the viewer spends at each location in the installation.
S. S.: The following question concerns your Anecdoted Archive From the Cold War, but also other works related to it. You have long been interested in collections, archives and the like. In some ways, the Anecdoted Archive From the Cold War was an early combination of these interests. It seems to me that there is a certain tension in your work between the media archive, on the one hand, and, let’s say, the museum collection, on the other. Could you describe how you view the relationship between a collection and a (digital) archive? Are those completely congruent or do you see a tension between them, a difference?
G. L.: When you say “collection,” do you differentiate between official and personal collection?
S. S.: Not necessarily, though one could of course differentiate between, say, an institutional collection such as a museum and a private collection. I wouldn’t insist on the distinction for the purpose of this question, but if you’d like you certainly can.
G. L.: The initial idea with the Anecdoted Archive From the Cold War was to create an archive that would integrate all the odd bits of information I had at hand (and in storage) about my leaving Hungary and growing up in Canada during the Cold War. The challenging question for the work was “how can I develop a coherent narrative out of odds and ends and multiple ideological and cultural perspectives?” or “How can I make sense of my own history through these things I have kept and is it possible to convey the personal value they have for me to others”. The first solution was to come up with an organizing device that also had a multiple play of expectations. I used the floorplan of the Budapest official propaganda museum as a way to organize all my things to be included in the archive. In this official symbolic structure, I inserted official and personal material, a lot of which you would normally not find grouped together.
When the Anecdoted Archive is installed in a museum I set up the installation space to create a mood of institutional archiving. I paint the room gray and install on the wall a listing of all the chapters or rooms of the archive, and of all of the things they contain. But this list or grouping do not yet make a story, let alone history. I realize of course that any story I construct with these scattered objects cannot be comprehensive or complete. All that can be done is a kind of sampling, organizing a particular set of data into some kind of system or logic. That’s what the Anecdoted Archive is about. The thing about digitalization is that through databases and through various forms of information processing and data mining you can very effectively organize data and reduce the differentiating markings that separate official and personal sources. So my idea was to construct a digital archive where if you select one thing the program goes and dynamically tries to find other related things, similar to search engines today. That was the original plan but I didn’t have the means to realize it at the time. The two following projects, The Clearing (1994), which dealt with Bosnia, and Slippery Traces (1995) which consisted of a database by which to navigate through a series of postcards, explored further the challenges of structuring cultural information through data structures and interface metaphors.
S. S.: I am interested in the relationship between information and remembering. You talk about information, data, digital recording, you talk about Shannon, Wiener, and so forth. And yet, most people who discuss your work, and sometimes you yourself, use the term “memory” in relation to what you are doing. What is the relationship between mnemonic storage and “information”? Are you dealing with information, or are you dealing with memory? Or are the two one and the same?
G. L.: The minute you organize information you make selection, the result of which is a kind of storytelling or narrative. What I do is focus on the potential of organizing information as a means to create narrative. Now what is information? Information is data. Data become meaningful through contextualization. For example, in The Clearing, I looked at the conflicts in Yugoslavia in terms of how people from different sides spoke about the situation. I included perspectives from the various players: Bosnians, Serbs, US news media, etc. Earlier in 1994 I had gone to the Oakland Data Center where you can go through boxes and boxes of newspaper clippings about any topic. I went there to look at material related to Bosnia and became interested in bringing that material into a digital context. The question is of course: how did I select the information? Basically I just sampled the material at hand, so the selection is very unsystematic and unscientific. Memory as well is a similar form of narrative production. One constructs for oneself a particular perspective about an event based on sampled or incomplete information. Memory then seems to be the result of a process where one starts with an experience or bits of information and it eventually becomes concretized into meaning. A process which seems quite similar to the production of my interactive projects.
S. S.: Which is typical of the archive in general, i.e., that it collects more or less indiscriminately. You have said in the past that in order for us to be able to orient ourselves in a digital interactive space, we need metaphors and narrative; hence your reference to the museum and the Anecdoted Archive. Is this not what I’d like to call the humanization of the digital medium, and is there not an aspect of archives that resists such narrative, such an alignment with humanism, narratives, stories? What exactly is the relationship between these metaphors, this narrative, and the digital space in which it orients or guides us?
G. L.: My sense is that all information can be recontextualized and made to have meaning in one way or another. That’s where interface design comes in, the design of the digital environment through pictures, layout, sounds, symbols, timing, and movement. All these things influence how the particular information will mean something. This process engages both logical and aesthetic approaches. I am shaping the meaning for the viewer like an author would shape meaning through the writing process, or the way a lawyer would build an argument through sequencing one information after another. It is true that I use the term “narrative” loosely. Somebody told me that what I am doing is not narrative but indexing, and somebody else countered that indexing is a component of narrative. Be this as it may, the minute you begin to use the word “narrative” it positions information in a cultural ideological framework which means that someone is speaking. I am not convinced that there is such a thing as objective information. Take the Internet as an example. You move from data to data and it all seems to be very objective, but in fact there is a particular cultural point of view that is being conveyed, shaping the way we see the world.
S. S.: Do you think that erasure, forgetting, getting rid of material is an important operation performed by archives or is an archive just for accumulating information?
G. L.: To answer this question, I can tell you a very personal experience. I store all the information I produce in my computer, and then after a while I need additional space and I archive the material-never to see it again! Which raises the question, why I do archive it in the first place? The answer is that at some point I imagine I may need to get access to that particular object. In my garage, I have boxes filled with old issues of ArtForum from 1972 onward. Sometimes I think, wouldn’t it be great if there was a fire and everything would be destroyed. I just collect and organize information. I don’t know if it is something cultural or behavioral, but there is the assumption that out of the one hundred files that I have in a particular folder, I may need to retrieve one or two files at some time, so I save all one hundred.
S. S.: Yes, exactly. If you look at city archives or state archives you realize that even they, or they especially, periodically run out of space. At that point they destroy a certain portion of their older files because they need to add new material. The archive exists in this kind of interstice between destruction and accumulation. For the archive, getting rid of material is as important as adding new material. In digital space, I suppose, the problem presents itself differently, because you really do not run out of space the way you do in a garage.
G. L.: You don’t run out of space, but the data get lost because it requires a lot of work to create a catalogue of how to access certain data, where to find it. So in digital space it’s more a problem of access as there is no material evidence of its existence.
S. S.: Some of your work of the early 80s was focused on Hungary, the country that you left when you were six years old. Is that a continuous interest in what you are doing?
G. L.: I grew up in Canada, with my father telling me that Hungary was the motherland. I first went back when I was about twenty during Communism. It was an emotional experience because I hadn’t seen the place since the age of six. Prior to making the Anecdoted Archive, I have gone back to research and collect information about the country, for instance, videotaping country weddings and collecting Socialist iconography. If I revisit Hungary now, about once or twice times a year, it is as if being there is an extension of my life here. The strange sense of “otherness” created through geographical, political and temporal distance has faded. My works have been shown in Hungary through the c3 media center and I have invited c3 to collaborate in this year’s Pockets Full of Memories project for the Centre Pompidou.
S. S.: How did you experience the fall of communism?
G. L.: The Berlin wall preserved a symbolic sense of “otherness” or displacement that one lived with day-to-day. When the wall came down the distinction between “there” and “here” seemed to evaporate. János Sugár pointed out in a text about the coincidence of the collapse of communism and the development of techno-culture. Today, everything has mutated into a multinational techno culture. Like anywhere else, youth culture easily engaged with digital media technologies which has resulted in a major shift in power relations and information exchange. During my former visits, I was struck that due to the scarcity of materials under communism a segment of the population became quite theoretical. It’s no wonder that so much media art has come out of Eastern Europe. together?
S. S.: Your latest project is called Pockets Full of Memory and is currently on view at the Centre Pompidou. Could you explain how this installation works?
G. L.: As you enter the gallery you are confronted with some computer kiosk terminals, a data collection space which I initially wanted to look like the ticketing counter at an airport. You are invited to enter an object into the exhibition’s archive by scanning it and describing it on a touchscreen. You can scan any object, but I determine how you describe it. First, I ask the visitor to give a description of the object, indicating where the object comes from and some additional keywords that come to mind. You can either select keywords from a list or add new ones. Afterwards you are asked to rate your object according to a set of binary categories, such as old versus new, natural vs. synthetic, disposable versus one-use, personal vs. non-personal, usefulness vs. useless, functional vs. symbolic, and so forth. The final questionnaire screen asks for personal data about the visitors-who they are, how old they are, where they are from. The data is then fed into a database organized by a self-organizing map that organizes the data on a continuous basis in such a way that objects with similar descriptions move towards each other in a 2D map that is projected large scale on a screen that serves as an inventory-map for the archive. On the screen all we see is 280 objects, but in fact the algorithm is constantly looking at the whole collection of objects in the database which by now has about 6000 objects. Once the visitor has entered their data they usually go standing by the large screen waiting for the object to appear.
S. S.: Do you in any way determine the order of the objects on the inventory-map?
G. L.: No. I do not predetermine the order of things by saying “all keys should go into this corner and all apples should go into the other corner”. Instead the self-organizing map looks for the best fit, the best match and places objects side by side based on the similarity of their verbal descriptions. When you see the map of all the objects on the computer screen, the objects placed side by side may have no visual properties in common, except for their (invisible) verbal descriptions. Only if I click on an object can I actually see its description. What I am interested in is not so much the objects themselves but how people describe them. If for example you give ten people a red apple, and you ask them to describe it, you will have ten different descriptions, and you will find these ten apples all over the map. The map with all the objects contained in the data base is continuously recalculating, it remembers all of its decisions from the very beginning, learning as it goes along.
S. S.: So the apples can show up in different places, even though ostensibly they are all apples, and you might expect to find them in a single class or archival category?
G. L.: Yes, because what is important is not that they are apples, but how people describe them in terms of literal, symbolic and cultural meanings. Some people might mention Adam and Eve, some people might mention health food… I have been watching a metal lock moving around on the map since the exhibition opening. Over time, the lock got positioned surrounded by a lot of keys and metallic tools. In time, these things may disperse and enter into relationships with completely different objects, keys, photographs,or handkerchiefs…
S. S.: What is for you the content of this archive, of archives in general? Is it the objects that they contain, or is it the digital coding that allows you to store, sort, or classify these objects? What is actually being stored in this and the other archives that you have put together?
G. L.: Basically the conventions of how we classify information, the information itself, and the play of their relationship. In this artwork, the public provides the information, so what we end up with is an overall picture of the community of who came to the exhibition. It’s a kind of data sampling of a particular group of museum visitors.
S. S.: Could we say though that in some sense the real archive is the map or the algorithm itself, and not the images we see on the screen? Isn’t the algorithm the equivalent of, say, the signatures in a library that tell you where to find a certain book?
G. L.: The algorithm is the system by which the data are organized. A lot of what I am interested in my work has to do with making these invisible determining systems visible. On a conceptual level, for sure, I am very much interested in how the algorithm works. I wonder if it can reveal to me relationships I would not have thought about otherwise. On a cultural level, I want to make visible its social influence, to show that every time you buy something or you go to an ATM there is some form of information processing that takes place and that these processes have a distinct cultural impact.
S. S.: Thank you very much for this discussion.
Santa Barbara, October 2001