Tony Oursler photo: Edouard Caupeil
with Michaël Amy
Tony Oursler, Cyc, 2003, Fiberglass Sculpture and DVD Projection, 33 X 27 x 22 inches
The American video and installation artist Tony Oursler has built a vast oeuvre that stands out for its variety and complexity, plunged within the realm of the absurd. Oursler did away with the television set—which his predecessors Nam June Paik and Bruce Nauman had brought into the gallery setting—by transferring its forms and meanings to the viewer’s space. Pandora’s box—all over again. The Twilight Zone on speed, knocking Leave It To Beaver out cold. Happy Days, but with The Fonz buried up to his waist in the role of Winnie. The world on its head as conceived by the Medieval mind, and The Theater of the Absurd.
Enough with the parallels, though Oursler invites us to always connect. Witness the evidence, as far as this artist’s ongoing affair with the absurd is concerned. Cyc (2003) consists of a voluptuous 3D form resembling the number 8, but with a moving eye above and a twitching mouth below fulfilling the roles of the voids in this numeral, invented in a distant time and place. Oursler’s giant is all head, standing upright upon the floor, and its single eye designates it as the Cyclops of ancient lore, turning us into Ulysses, or Galatea. We look the part. The distortions of this head—that most recognizable, and thus most revered part of the body of an individual—haul in Pablo Picasso’s unsettling experiments, Francis Picabia’s bad taste, and Kenny Scharf’s zaniness, projected onto Jasper Johns’s Figure 8 (1969). In other works, such as Influence Machine (2000), Oursler projects heads onto treetops, an obvious conflation in hindsight, considering that our heads, when we are lucky, are situated at the top of our trunks. Once again, a classical motif: Nature, filled with spirits. Oursler takes pantheism the extra mile.
Oursler developed his most recognizable imagery in the early nineties when he projected the filmed faces of performers onto the blank heads of dolls, whose bodies are immobile but whose distorted physiognomies are racked with expression, as they rant and rave, describing their misery to us who are compelled to make sense of this madness. These were extraordinary signature works, incorporating ready-made objects and/or the enveloping architecture to underscore the drama. Other artists would have milked this compelling strategy, combining disjointed narrative, the moving image, and three-dimensional form, for all that it is worth for the remainder of their careers. Not so Oursler, who went on to explore the media, multiple personality disorder, magic, mysticism, madness, and facial recognition systems, thereby greatly expanding the envelope.
Tony Oursler does not sit still. He cruises ahead, lobbing painful questions at us that have to do with what it means to be human at this moment and in this place. The answer to all this prodding, he suggests, is that we are all fallible, and that there is no way out. He is what the French would call a peintre philosophe, though his brush is the video camera, and his weapon grim humor. Oursler rocks the boat. He is an artist-scholar and a connoisseur-collector of the arcane, who knows an enormous amount about the history of moving images, illusionism, and delusion. His field of inquiry lies outside of high culture and high society. It has its roots in the suburban teenage angst he knows so well from personal experience, and which got him going at such a steady clip from the seventies onward. The fear and loathing that lay on the periphery only decades ago—though a galaxy or two away, as far as the art world was concerned—is now situated front and center in everyday life, and art, whether we like it or not.
Tony Oursler, 1>mA, 2016, Birch plywood, gesso, media players, sound and video projection, courtesy of the artist and Magasin III
Michaël Amy: We are awash in more information today than ever before. Is your ongoing project, among other things, about information glut?
Tony Oursler: The way in which we make art today reflects that sea of information we find ourselves in. Why not be expansive? I am attracted to information. Many who look for more minimal approaches to art and culture are overwhelmed by the noise. Out of chaos come new re-combinations of data; this is key to art making, and to how I construct my projects.
We, who are not biologically equipped for the technology around us, must adjust. Parts of our brain, including the amygdala, are of great antiquity. These parts trigger immediate reactions to perceived threats, while having trouble with present-day stimuli. The result is that we are subject to anxiety and to an onslaught of scenarios and interpretations of new fact-patterns. Now, there are two ways we can go about this as a species, namely through creative collage, or destructive conspiracy. The same old area of the brain is engaged when we look at art. For example, when looking at two disparate images that are put together to form a collage, the amygdala allows for endless new thought structures and interpretations. When faced with puzzling or challenging social or political situations, the amygdala spins out endless scenarios, which can turn into conspiracy theories. The way in which we creatively put together facts is key to future solutions.
Tony Oursler, Imponderable, 2015-16, 5-D multimedia installation, Museum of Modern Art, New York, courtesy of the artist
MA: The 18th century is the century of the Enlightenment, of the Industrial Revolution, of critical advances in the fields of science and technology, which century I therefore conclude you attach considerable importance to. Many people believed back then in the betterment of future societies. Is this positivistic credo, which reached new heights in the 19th century, one you share?
TO: It is—that era reverberates today. Social order and popular culture always come at the expense of some person or group. Digital democracy and much current cultural production is polarizing and playing to the middle. For society to evolve, the majority must protect the small. Our subcultures must be defended, which is difficult to do in the age of Amazon. Diversity was alive from the start in the US, in the realms of religion, the sciences, and the arts. Art finds its way around the monolithic cultural structures of the past, as novelty, ingenuity, and diversity are recognized, thereby highlighting the perspectives of others.
The Internet is an atomizing machine that fractures attention, reduces communication down to emojis, comments, Twitter slogans, and TikTok edits, yet there is so much information available for other engagement. I recently saw a beautiful map of the USA which showed the most popular downloads of music by region, and it was highly unexpected. I can only imagine the overlays involving belief systems. Big data will eventually be available to all, to allow us to understand more fully what it means to be a citizen. We are on the verge of comprehending human nature in totally new ways.
Technology has a hidden downside. The utopian freedom offered by the early Internet is choked by corporate monopolies and unforeseen social conflicts. Today’s technology allows for the indulgence of echo chambers of infinite personal taste which may be causing infinite splintering, amounting to millions of little narcissistic gods chasing a dopamine rush. Everyone is located at the center of his or her own social media universe while unwilling to accept the perspectives of others. We remain frozen in a delusional selfie. The arts may one day be weaponized again; remember the Degenerate Art exhibition in Munich? For the moment, we are OK. However, the library wars have begun here with book bans both on the right and left.
Art is a powerful tool. We have antidotes to Hollywood and advertising, and I imagine that we can work in art with big data as an antidote to surveillance and marketing, which currently poison the masses. I explored this through a large series of works relating to facial recognition. Face Wreck is the first time the cold eye of technology has really looked back at us. A portrait is no longer a rendering of light playing over the surface of a face full of expressions. Your portrait, going forward, begins with the simple geometry of cardinal points between features, which are unique to your face, resulting in a number. From now on, you are that number plus an aggregation of data which keeps on growing daily: Your education, health, spending patterns, Internet searches, and so forth.
Technology saves so many lives. I would be long dead were it not for penicillin. The same is true for about half of the earth’s population. I’m not sure people appreciate what they have today, how things are better in so many ways. The general population does not, or cannot, keep up with what is happening on the technical front. Many people cannot tell you how a toilet works, let alone CRISPR. That spectacular gene-editing-science can alter evolution during our lifetime. Yet, as we can tell when looking back at developments from the dawn of the Industrial Revolution to the arms race and global warming, the dark side will be revealed. AI is developing new antibiotics; one study recently generated 57,000 variations of LSD over a short period of time. Covid-19 is a good example: Although it may, or may not, have been hatched in a laboratory, the vaccine which saved millions was generated by CRISPR. This is merely the beginning. How do we make art out of all that?
Tony Oursler, Specular, September 3rd - November 21st, 2021, Kunstraum Dornbirn, Dornbirn, Austria
MA: Your archive, of which a large chunk was recently displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City (2016-2017), is part of your ongoing project to collect information, preserve it, and share it, thereby fulfilling the role of the artist as one among the creative individuals who generate and disseminate knowledge.
TO: Cultural research was always part of my process; I developed an archive in the wake of my activities. The focus, early on, was on my personal landscape as a young man, which was informed by media culture. Technology and entertainment flowed through my work, sometimes by means of second-hand references, witness my interest in MPD (multi personality disorder) which subject came to my attention by way of movies, television, and the Internet.
The book Imponderable included close to 2,000 images from my collection, and 10 commissioned essays examining some of the main themes I have been involved with. The juxtaposition of my 5D film installation Imponderable (2015-2016) and my archive provided me with an opportunity to place art and research in dialogue with each other. That was powerful. The archive was divvied up into seven sections evoking the seven principal characters who appear in the film. That documentation was displayed in an anti-chamber preceding the theater. The feature-length movie was presented via a Pepper’s ghost effect, which is a physical 3D double exposure that is almost holographic. The experience of first encountering the historic characters through the documentation and then seeing them in the movie amplified the filmic experience.
Tony Oursler, Tear of the Cloud, installation views, 2018, outdoor projection installation, Riverside Park South, New York, courtesy of the artist and Public Art Fund, photographed by Nicholas Knight
MA: Edifying narrative was, for a long time, considered the highest form of visual expression in painting. You, however, do not seek to edify in any traditional sense of the word.
TO: Tear of the Cloud, my work comprising digital projections that were splashed onto the 69th Street Transfer Bridge and the Hudson River (Public Art Fund, 2018), incorporates an arc of historic events which occurred in the Hudson Valley. That multi-media endeavor commemorated a series of creative adventures across time, reaching from the Hudson River School, that problematic and wonderful first American art movement, up to AI developers at IBM. That project developed around a seed lying at the core. For me, the edifying quality is collaborative, as this work involves the viewer in a non-hierarchical way, and with open language. I use images which are readily available on a pop cultural level—in this case from the first video game of Pong and Tank Commander, and combined these with Samuel Morse’s last painting, which was made while he was inventing the Morse Code system. That painting, Samuel F. B. Morse's The Muse (Susan Walker Morse, ca. 1836-37, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), depicts the artist’s daughter seated and holding a pencil above a sketchbook placed across her lap. My tableau vivant, based upon the 19th century painting, reveals that the picture’s composition is identical to the design of the telegraph invented by Samuel Morse. In my environment, the Muse comes out of the painting and dances, as in the Fortnite dance. We thereby see a juxtaposition of Morse’s final picture and his first design for the telegraph, placed between wooden stretcher bars, the kind that are used by painters working on canvas. I am fascinated by the connection between Morse’s last painting and the development of telecommunication. It is so inspiring to see creative energy converted from failure to such a fabulous leap into the future. This work of mine—leading into the arcane world of telecommunication—is accessible on many levels, depending upon how much one knows about popular culture. I set up an open structure, allowing children in who may know the Fortnite dance, while my generation knows Tank Commander. People may draw a connection between the origin of coding on the Internet and the Morse code. They may also deduce a connection to the military industrial complex DARPA and video games. Installation or multimedia, whatever one names it, can work on different levels, even in a landscape, among ruins, at sunset. The Hudson River was turned into a surface that can be read. The subjects I am interested in reach beyond the visual spectrum. That's what happens when you live in a world built up of information. The nature of the moving image is unstable, as is the narrative. It's ultimately written by the viewer.
I love to learn, share, and suggest connections. That is part of my creative enterprise. For Tear of the Cloud, I traveled to the Thomas Edison laboratory and the first movie studio (at Glenmont, in West Orange, New Jersey). I conducted numerous interviews with experts concerning a range of topics, such as the Oneida free love community, and Timothy Leary's LSD retreat in Millbrook. Tear of the Cloud became a palimpsest for us to experience, opening itself up to a kind of reading that may only happen in art, which offers the possibility of endless interconnections. I conducted numerous interviews with experts concerning a range of topics, such as the Oneida free love community, and Timothy Leary's LSD retreat in Millbrook. That work became a palimpsest for us to experience, opening itself up to a kind of reading that may only happen in art, which offers the possibility of endless interconnections.
Tony Oursler, Tear of the Cloud, video documentation, 2018, outdoor projection installation, Riverside Park South, New York, courtesy of the artist and Public Art Fun
MA: You avoid the linear storytelling of most novels and movies. Tell us why.
TO: Pleasure lies in navigating the unknown, rather than reaching the conclusion. Once the territory is staked out—a fascination on my part, and perhaps a compulsion—a resonance occurs. There is an intuitive moment in the process. It has got a life of its own. The sum amounts to more than the parts. The art is a narrative system consisting of clues, colors, symbols, and sounds. Those are there to be decoded. Significantly, I did away with language and sound in several recent major works.
Tony Oursler, Tear of the Cloud, installation views, 2018, outdoor projection installation, Riverside Park South, New York, courtesy of the artist and Public Art Fund, photographed by Nicholas Knight
MA: By the late sixties, written or oral declarations sought to replace the object or act in tandem with imagery in conceptual art. Your earlier actors’ anti-rational, frequently disjointed rants or anguished outcries, so different from conceptual statements, aimed to unsettle, instead of clarifying.
TO: I love conceptual art. I studied with the masters; their works adorn my walls. Conceptual art opened onto new ideas and forms, which evolved or died. Fast forward, and here we are. The minimalist approach eventually proved too constraining. I have a problem when someone proclaims: "This is the way". I wonder: “Why not go the opposite way, instead”? Artists can go through many lifetimes within their work. They can change, and even contradict themselves—why not? Nothing stays the same in our world: Painting, photography, film, video, computers, and now we stare at our phones. What comes next? I was trying to trace a sort of media-saturated-consciousness with my early projection works. Many projects later, the art changed, because a high level of information is built into my works, which surfaces if one cares to dig deeper, starting with the Influence Machine, which comes with a written timeline in the accompanying catalogue. That work is fantastical. It is filled with mysticism, as well as pure scientific facts. At the dawn of telecommunication, you have the birth of the Spiritualist movement. I connected the two. The Influence Machine is as rational as a history class, and as mad as a hatter. That's art drifting into reality.
MA: You had a Catholic upbringing. Are you a religious person?
TO: Art is my religion. I am fascinated with all forms of religion and have a syncretistic perspective.
Tony Oursler, Susan Walker Morse (The Muse) and Samuel F.B. Morse, Susan Walker Morse (The Muse), 1836-37, oil on canvas, 73.75 x 57.625 inches
Bequest of Herbert L. Pratt,1945 Collection Metropolitan Museum, NYC
Tony Oursler lives and works in New York, NY, USA. He graduated from the California Institute of the Arts, Valencia, CA, USA and collaborated on early works with artists such as Mike Kelley. His museum exhibitions include Photo Elysée, Lausanne, Switzerland (2022); Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts, Kaohsiung City, Taiwan (2021); Musée d’arts de Nantes, Nantes, France (2020); Guild Hall, East Hampton, NY (2019); Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA (2017); Magasin III Museum & Foundation for Contemporary Art, Stockholm, Sweden (2016); Hessel Museum of Art, Bard College, Annandale-On-Hudson, NY, USA (2016); Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA (2016); LUMA Westbau, Zurich, Switzerland (2015); Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam, The Netherlands (2014); Oude Kerk, Amsterdam, The Netherlands (2014); Pinchuk Art Centre, Kiev, Ukraine (2013); ARoS Aarhus Kunstmuseum, Denmark (2012); Helsinki City Art Museum, Finland; Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, USA (2005); Kunsthaus Bregenz, Austria (2001); Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, USA (2000) and Kunstverein Hannover, Germany (1998). In addition to participating in prestigious group exhibitions such as documenta VIII and IX, Kassel, Germany (1987 and 1992). Oursler’s work is included in many public collections worldwide, including the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC, USA; Centre Georges Pompidou, Paris, France; Museum of Modern Art, New York, USA; National Museum of Osaka, Japan; Tate Collection, London, UK; Van Abbemuseum, Eindhoven, The Netherlands and ZMK/Center for Art & Media, Karlsruhe, Germany.
Michaël Amy is a critic and art historian with a Ph.D. from New York University’s Institute of Fine Arts. He is a Professor of the History of Art in the College of Art and Design at the Rochester Institute of Technology, working in Renaissance, Baroque, modern and contemporary art.