Interview – Laurence Rassel

Interview with Laurence Rassel on Roseware

Laurence Rassel is a Cyberfeminist and member of Constant vzw, an
artist-run organisation in Brussels which links artistic and theoretical
thinking on the Internet and digital communication. Constant is active in
gender issues, alternatives to copyright, networks, etc., developing
projects in different places and within different layers of the code
behind the digital media. With Interface3, a centre for womens’
vocational training and the ADA network programme for women and
technology, Laurence is an organiser of Digitales working conference
bringing together since 2001 women from various backgrounds dealing with
new technologies.

There is not much documentation left of Roseware, there is only this little text on the website of Constant. So I would first like to ask to tell a bit about the background of the project, how did it come to live and what was the initial intention?

In 1997 Dirk De Wit (who was the founder of Constant) produced a programme called ‘Selected Memories’. It was built up around the video installation ‘Silent Movie’ by Chris Marker. The main issue and theme of this project was ‘memories’ and how memories where made up of sounds and images. This also was one of the themes of Chris Markers film Sunless (Sans Soleils). At this occasion Chris Marker came to Brussels and this was when we first met. Then, in 1998, I was working with Dirk De Wit and Constant on the festival Verbindingen/Jonctions. The idea was to have a programme with Chris Markers’ Silent Movie, the installation Zapping Zone, and the presentation of his CD-rom Immemory. Imemmory is like Silent Movie, or like Zapping Zone in a way. In all of these projects Chris Marker proposed a travel into his memory using sounds, images and texts. You would go through snapshots and sounds that he collected and you would encounter countries, regions and concepts. The booklet that accompanied Immemory explained that Chris Marker wanted that everybody would recognize enough signs or posts so that they could make there own memory of images and sounds. And he had the same thoughts on Sunless and Silent Movie, hoping that the new media would be a tool for every one to make art. I took a few of these quotes out of Sunless, Silent Movie and Immemory and I said to Chris Marker: “Why don’t we do this? Why don’t we give the tools to the people to make their own sounds, images and texts and so on.”

At that time there was a lot of art done around this idea that internet and new media could allow the link between image text and sound and that one could create an emotion, a moment by using hypertext and links. The new technologies seemed to make it possible to create artificially an emotion, a feeling. This was the reason why it made me impossible to show Chris Marker as a work of art, art understood as a closed system, because it’s starting point was that it could be done by everyone. Every one is potentially in the possibility of creating something of his or her memory. So I started working on this with Chris Marker because the technique was there and he was the one who wanted to do this in the first place as became clear out of the texts explaining his works. From the beginning the idea with the cd-rom Immemory was that you could have an empty cd-rom that people could fill themselves. For Roseware we wanted to start from an empty structure and what we did was to create this empty structure with hyperstudio which was the software available at the time. It was like an empty book and people could fill it in themselves using this very easy software. In the museum we had Zapping Zone, we had Immemory and just nearby there was Roseware in a room with a computer, a camera, a slide projector, a digital camera… People could draw, could create images. In a way we created what could be the studio, not of Chris Marker, but of someone who was creating this type of work, with this type of software and this type of tools.

The most places where Roseware took place where a museum which from the beginning is a more static context where most people come to look at art and not to engage with art. Since it was largely a cd-rom project that was trying to stimulate people to produce themselves and to create their own memory, then why choose the museum? How did you manage to fit this project in into the museum? And why? Was it a deliberate choice that you made at that time?

There are different things. I got this same question from people from Spain and they told me that for them this was typical of the nineties. I don’t know. But anyway there was this possibility in the museum. Before they already showed video installations, but suddenly there was a new art form made on computers. It happened that the computer was installed into the museum, but this was not what we wanted to do, just to display a cd-rom so that people could click on it and then just go away.
The museum was not really a deliberate choice. At the time, constant was guest-curator inside the Palais for Fine Arts (Bozar). We could go in and perform the work we wanted to do. This has always been a starting point for Constant, we didn’t want to have our own space, but we wanted to invade other spaces and at that specific moment in time it was a museum.

Roseware in the first place was a gesture which was time and context based. It was not an installation, it was a conceptual work. It was not meant to become an object, it was to be an act under the circumstances at that time. There was the artist Chris Marker working with past and present memories in images, sounds and texts, there was the public and there was Constant. We wanted to transform the museum from a place where the spectator is just a passer by to a place where the spectator could become a participant. Because most of the time people are just walking through the museum as like they are walking through a park and the idea was to stop them and say: the technique allows you to understand from the inside what it is to make this piece of art. For me it was not the same as a painting workshop for children in a museum. For some it was the same, but not for me, because there was this technology in between. So the idea was to be in the museum and to accompany this retrospective of Chris Marker. There was Zapping Zone, Immemory, the film programme and Roseware. We used the same set up in Barcelona and Sevilla. Roseware was not meant to be alone because it would loose the whole context if it was not linked to a historical view of the work of Chris Marker.

Since Roseware was a gesture, a concept and not so much a product, we wanted to keep it very basic. We used the furniture that was available in the museum, not furniture from a famous designer but just the stuff that we could find in the basement. We would go inside the museum to install and explain the project and then we would go away. The idea was that someone, an art student or graphic designer, anyone who had the need for money and the need to learn this technique would teach the people how to use it. It was part of the process of making the museum look like a working space. It was interesting to see that the first people to participate, to give a piece of their memory, where the guards, the producers, the curators, the people from inside the museum.

Did it work? Could you achieve what you wanted to do? Where you able to show people, here are the new technologies you can use them to link up images and sounds which will make you able to refer to some sort of memory or immemory and that this is possible inside a museum.

Oh yes, it really worked, it was a success. But there where a few things that disappointed me. People didn’t really made a link between themselves and Chris Marker, they where more interested in themselves. We also proposed them to be linked with other persons inside the project, but no way, this didn’t work. People where also disappointed that they didn’t have an object in the end, something to take home with them. The second problem was that we where not that good at technique also.
I’m not regretting the disappearance of the thing but I’m really surprised that 6 years later everybody is asking me about the project. For me it was really important, but it was not meant to last.

How about archiving, or not archiving a project like this? There is not really an archive, only the boxes, or the things that happened at that time. So there was this first idea not to create an object but to create a context, but was it also intended to make something that not lasted in the first place? There does not seem to be an intention or a will to keep anything.

There was not one specific reason, I don’t want to give the impression that we thought everything out. There where different reasons. It was saved on Jazz not on cd-rom. The idea was to use jazz so that we could create sorts of notebooks which would be filled and used forever. But jazz happened to disappear quite fast.
I realised that when the museum was in contact with us there was a misunderstanding. This happened more often with new media. It was not an installation, it was meant to create an open space in the museum. People wanted to have Roseware, but it was all process, not object. We could have tried to keep it all on line but in the end we couldn’t have done this because the software we used, hyperstudio, was something to use on cd-rom. To put everything on line afterwards who have meant really huge programming work. We wanted to know about the memories of the people at that moment, we where not occupied with keeping everything in an archive, it was not the next step to go on line. This also has to be seen in light of the history of Constant. It was one of our first gestures, as Constant, as a group of people, coming from art. With no idea about technique and new technologies.

You already emphasised the role of technology that was available at that time. In what way is “new media art” dependent of the new technologies? Do you think this type of art will always use the new possibilities of certain technologies available at a certain time. Or, do you think it is possible to go back? Not with the exact same tools, but in a sense use the same kind of technologies.

I don’t know what is “new”. We where coming from the art world, using Macintosh and we didn’t think of using something else. You know Constant is involved in the developing of open and free software. We are now working on a form of free distribution. Verbindingen/Jonctions 9 will be on the code itself, and on the language, the onthology of the code. But Open Source and Free Software are as old as hyperstudio. For us it is not a question of new, but to go deeper inside the understanding of the tools, and this was the first layer. For Roseware we would use the software available at that time, but now we would say: Ok but is it not possible to do the same in Open Source? We would go deeper into the issue of production, and so on. We would ask questions on the copyright of the stuff. For instance I don’t know what was happening to Zapping Zone because it contained a small television. What happened with the copy right on the found footage? But at that time we where just learning how to work with basic tools, together with the public.

What was interesting about new technology was not that is was new. The difference with fine arts like painting and so on is that they are not that interrelated with politics or economy. You build your own frame, you make your own painting. But to use technology always is a political act. Every step can be different and can be influenced by the politics and economics. New for me would be the product of new circumstances, new laws, new patents, or creative commons coming to Belgium. Or what has happened in the last Belgian or European elections. You could ask why an artist should care, but I think this is really important. New is about contemporary questions and technique.

Do you think the museum has a role to play in these political and commercial questions?

Yes, I think it does. For instance the question of Open Source is very important for the way you deal with your archive. If you archive something in a format that you will never be able to open again then you make a mistake. This is our concern and this should be the concern of the museum too.
But Roseware was really basic, it was really something from a fan. I was a fan of Chris marker and did fanwork? People critiqued this because it was pure admiration, but I have no regret.
It was not that much about new technologies, it was about working in the space of the museum, it was about being ourselves in that space. What happened in the Fondation Antonio Tapies is that people entered and thought it looked so real. There was the book library, there where the computers but why did it look real? Because it was used and we where working directly in the space. Should the public have acces to work in the space of the museum? Yes, I think they do.

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