US DEPARTMENT OF ART AND TECHNOLOGY
Randall Packer interviewed by Ryan Griffis
Four years ago, I moved to Washington, DC. After some exploration of the "nation's capital," with its monuments, the US Capitol, the White House, etc., I found myself in the midst of the greatest of all spectacles, the most ostentatious of all theatrical sets, the backdrop for America. I wanted to insert myself as a performance and multimedia artist into this space. I wanted to incorporate it through appropriation and transform it into an alteration of what it was originally intended to articulate as a proposal that repositions the role of the artist on the world stage. This was the germinal idea of the US Department of Art & Technology. US DAT became a site-specific performance work emulating systems of government in order to re-engineer those systems through the prism of the artistic lens.
> Your art and writing (and from what i gather, your teaching as well) often addresses the ever-expanding 'totalizing' effect of what is called 'multimedia.' There's both a utopic and dystopic side present to notions of singularity. What kinds of relationships do you see between Virilio's Total War and Wagner's Gesamtkunstwerk?
The totalizing properties of the Gesamtkunstwerk (Total Artwork) have driven my own research and artistic production over the past 15 years. I was fascinated early on by Wagner's approach to the theater, he could not fully realize his work until he had completely overhauled the "platform" of the opera house, creating a medium for immersing and directing the full attention of the viewer on the illusionary or 'virtual' space of the theatrical stage.
With US DAT, I was thinking about the total collapse of the fourth wall, that imaginary line between audience and the stage (still sacred in Wagner's theater), in order to extrude the work from the stage into the space of the "real world," to dissolve the distinction between the two. This is to me is a further implementation of the Gesamtkunstwerk, in which the totalization of the experience of art is one in which the "real world" is transformed using techniques of media and illusion. (Regarding Virilio, you could say that war as theater constitutes the ultimate transformation of the physical space.)
I was invited to speak at the Transmediale Festival in Berlin in 2002 as the Secretary of US DAT for their opening ceremonies, alongside several politicians and diplomats. No one was told I was a fake but there was great confusion in the air. It was arranged that I was to be introduced by an actual government official, the Cultural Attaché of the US Embassy in Berlin. Now if there really were a Secretary of the US Department of Art & Technology, this would be the protocol. And so he played it completely straight. He gave a stirring introduction, indicating that the US Government was now embracing a significant role for the arts. I couldn't have said it better myself.
My speech, delivered to an audience of over 1,000, was a dadaesque collage of President Harry Truman's address to the United Nation's in 1945, mixed with texts appropriated from the Futurists, Berlin Dadaists, and even some of the hyper-utopian descriptions of artist works presented at Transmediale. The conclusion of the speech ended, appropriately with the following line, taken from the famous words of President Kennedy, "In this city of dada, decadence and indulgence, ich bin ein Berliner, Kunstler!). Most everyone recognized by this point it was a performance, except for one rather confused media critic whom I won't mention by name, but who thought I was an American government official posing as an artist. I found this reversal most delicious.
> The breaking of the "fourth wall" you mentioned in terms of the US DAT project has of course a history with political avant-garde performance, but with more complex communication technologies, the "fourth wall" seems to transform into something of more consequence. I'm thinking of other performance-based projects like the Electronic Disturbance Theater, Critical Art Ensemble, subRosa, and US DAT where the difference between symbolic action and "real" action is not so clear. This seems to have something to do with the openness of "outside the theater" participation and effect, maybe. How do you think the practices of performance are reacting to multimedia technologies?
What is actually happening here, in breaking the 4th wall, is dispensing with the theatrical space altogether. Whereas Critical Art Ensemble, and particularly Electronic Disturbance Theater, in my estimation, are more activist oriented, in terms of using electronic means to intervene or even disrupt, US DAT is more concerned with the power of illusion (an age-old political tool). It is a delicate balancing act between the real and the virtual - the emulation of government systems in order to transform them, to critique them from the inside out, rather than the outside in. US DAT is using multimedia techniques to parody the political obsession with image and the spectacle. And unlike the site-specific nature of political theater, or activist techniques that occur in the physical space, the transformations of US DAT often take final form in the digital space. This medial space is wide and varied, ranging from news releases distributed via email, to the Department Website where you can find ideologies of the artistic avant-garde superimposed with bureaucrat-speak extracted from the real government, to video works that hype Department events, initiatives and speeches of the Secretary. I consider the combined use of text, video, sound, Net, etc., in the context of live performance, to embrace the techniques of multimedia in relation to the Gesamtkunstwerk.
> I'm wondering what your thoughts on the potential (positive and negative) of aesthetic/conceptual collaborations with research/science are currently, especially given the fact that there is now a history (albeit a limited one) of such work. The big collaborations now are obviously biotech and IT. What are your thoughts on the known directions in these areas?
US DAT in many ways parodies and exaggerates collaboration between government, arts, science, and industry, while at the same time, promoting it. While it is naive to think that artists can successfully change the thinking of the corporate world or government, US DAT constructs a utopian view of such an overblown, world-stage role for the artist. For a brief moment during a speech, while the suspension of disbelief is in full effect, the Secretary becomes quite a real possibility and the message is very clear and plausible. This is how I believe it is possible and necessary to articulate the vision of US DAT. Since it would never be taken seriously as a "real" initiative, losing its impact as an actual entity, I implement it through the power of performance and the suspension of disbelief. When reality is not a concern, the mind can reach to the most far-flung places of the imagination, and that is where I prefer to live. I am an artist, not a bureaucrat, and so I fake bureaucratic systems in order to deflate them, to transcend them, to virtualize them. Perhaps it is at that moment when you can paint a better world, to go beyond what is and show what could be. Is this changing the world? Probably not. But artists are able to visualize through models, and perhaps... change may occur.
> Maybe the "tactical media" model of art collectives like the EDT wasn't a good fit for what you're doing with the US DAT. There aren't that many examples of this kind of theater, at least not that actually function in a larger sense. The Yes Men come to mind as a project with similarities. The relationship between the "creation of consent" and information technologies seems to create a strange situation that provides both a stage for critical, multimedia theater, as well as a curtain that renders it almost invisible, as the Yes Men illustrate quite well. Maybe you see the situation differently?
The illusionary nature of US DAT's intent is very important to the transformational effect, in which the curtain or fourth wall is meant to be invisible, or possibly seen as shifting. This is carried out through a careful consideration of various types of media. I believe this to be in line with Critical Art Ensemble's definition of tactical media, in which the term refers to "a critical usage and theorization of media practices that draw on all forms of old and new, both lucid and sophisticated media, for achieving a variety of noncommercial goals and pushing all kinds of potentially subversive political issues." US DAT employs a broad array of tactics and artistic strategies that range from performance, to appropriated and remixed government documents, to the use of email, the net and other electronic media, to stage a transformation and virtualization of the physical space - in this case, Washington, DC, the center of power in the Western world. Through these means, as mentioned before, I activate the "suspension of disbelief," allowing the viewer to experience a changed environment, a set of new possibilities, new ideas, thus subverting the original intent of the US Government. It is all about ownership. Who owns the environment, the monuments, the White House, the Capitol? Who owns the government, isn't it the people's government? Isn't it the job of artists to challenge the status quo? I believe it is the role of the artist to make this challenge by visualizing, re-engineering society (and government) according to their own vision, through whatever tactics of media are useful to the situation. To quote the motto of the Experimental Party, an initiative of US DAT, "Representation Through Virtualization." This suggests that the artistic technique of representation can serve the dual purpose of envisioning for aesthetic objectives, as well as engaging in the political process through social critique.
> Have you received any form of responses from the US bureaucracy regarding the US DAT?
The US Government has surprisingly left me alone, though I imagine someone, somewhere in the Fed has compiled quite a file. I know in fact they are aware of the project. In May of 2003, a feature article on US DAT, written by the art critic Jessica Dawson, was published in the Washington Post. The front page of the style section included a full color reproduction of the Department's official seal. Since the article mentioned President George W. Bush, the White House press office would have been required to distribute copies to its staff, perhaps even the President. Regardless, I have been left quite alone. Perhaps we really do live in a free country? Only time will tell.
> There are some obvious qualities that seem endemic to the US in terms of media and government (and definitely in the relationship between the two) that allow for the US DAT to be quite effective in many respects. What are the sources that most inform the direction and thematics of projects like the US DAT for you? Does institutional critique, whether it's Hans Haacke or Bill Moyers, provide any sort of foundation or parallel form of investigation to follow?
US DAT is a critique of government systems and bureaucratic processes that functions somewhat like a virus - inserted into the system, it emulates the system, but carries a new, subversive message. The Department has been constructed as an appropriation of legal documents, government news releases, political speeches, and executive orders remixed with manifestoes of the avant-garde and other hyper-proclamations and prognostications of the contemporary digerati. This literary form has been referred to as "socio-poetic assemblages of intimate bureaucracies" in Craig Saper's book, Networked Art. I have drawn texts from Futurism, Dada, Surrealism, Constructivism, Fluxus, Situationism, etc. and used them in the transformation of political texts derived from the White House Website, Presidential speeches, and texts culled from a range of government agencies and departments. In fact, the official biography of the Secretary of US DAT is a remix of Attorney General John Ashcroft's. I believe this is a way of subverting the status quo, transforming bureaucracies into poeticisms, what I would call a form of artistic mediation - viewing the US Government as a vast repository awaiting cultural appropriation and transformation.
> I'm wondering if you could talk about the working methodology that the US DAT has employed up to this point... how are decisions made via the different nodes (The Experimental Party, We the Blog, specific media projects...)? How important is collaboration (in all its different interpretations) to these projects?
Collaboration is essential to the US Department of Art & Technology. I have worked very closely with many collaborators including: Mark Amerika, Jonah Brucker-Cohen, Jeff Gates, Jon Henry, Lynn Hershman, Andrew Nagy, Trace Reddell, Rick Silva, Wesley Smith, as well as the 50 or so staff members of the Department, all of whom are listed with their grandiose titles on the Website. When the Secretary gave a speech to open Transmediale two years ago, he called on an international group of artists to form the Global Virtualization Council, and designated them as Ambassadors in order to "mobilize and coordinate artistic forces of virtualization internationally." The Canadian media artist Luc Courchesne is the Secretary General and has been an ardent supporter of the Department.
In late August of 2004, in conjunction with the Republican National Convention, US DAT is staging the Experimental Party (Un)Convention and (Dis)Information Center at the LUXE Gallery in New York City - engaging delegates in hyper-political propaganda. The writer and digital artist Mark Amerika is my principal collaborator in this project, along with several others who have been participating in US DAT over the past three years. The featured project will be the Media Deconstruction Kit, created in collaboration with Wesley Smith, in which we will be re-mixing Convention coverage from the cable networks live and in real-time. The altered material will be streamed instantaneously out to the Internet. We believe these techniques can be used to swamp the mass media with total illusion as the Convention rhetoric heats up.
This is our plan - to spread the spirit of experimentalism and hyper-political propaganda through the power of artistic mediation. This is the role of the artist in society - and yes, we will prevail...