Interview with Marcos Novak

by Knut Mork, (c) 1995

Images (c) 1994 Marcos Novak
All Rights Reserved

The first time I met Marcos Novak, at last October's Cybersphere conference in Stockholm, I was little versed in the world of architecture. I had never heard of him before. Big mistake. Marcos Novak refers to his Virtual Reality art-works as "liquid architecture and navigable music," and the eerie sense of awe which pervades them lives up to the nifty adjectives. He uses computer algorithms originally intended for music composition to 'compose' architecture: four-dimensional architecture which moves around in space, shifting color, shifting form. And these weirdly fluid leviathan structures play melodies all the while, melodies controlled by the movements of whoever happens to be in there. At the Banff Centre for the Arts he developed

Q: In your essay "Automated Writing, Automatic Writing: The Poetics of Cyberspace," you address the different possibilities for art as based on algorithmic techniques. A lot of algorithm-like techniques have already become very popular in music: techno, ambient, industrial are all very programmed. But in these areas algorithms are mainly being applied to create monotony.

MN: I've never been persuaded that it is fair to project my limitations, or those of anyone else, into the fabric of the world. The fact that we cannot accomplish something is simply indicative of our own lack of imagination. It would be criminal to extend that lack into eternity, claiming therefore that because we have failed, everyone else must also fail. I can at least imagine that someone, at some point, can solve what for me may have been intractable.

Approaching your question from another direction, it seems to me that there are many instances in which some sense of algorithm has produced as much variety as we have ever known. The world itself, as far as I know, is the result of innumerable algorithmic processes, richly interwoven.

At the root of ignorance is the tendency to dismiss anything that is not immediately and easily self-evident. The least we can do is resist that impulse, and think twice, and think again.

Q: At your presentation in Stockholm you asked the audience some questions, one of which I'm tempted to turn back on you: "What would an intelligent paragraph be? Do? Know? Think?"

MN: An intelligent paragraph would be like an intelligent reader, constantly reinterpreting the whole text with each new word that is given. Each new addition to the text would alter a number of internal, hypothetical models of what the paragraph, and the entire text might mean. This act of constant reinterpretation would be a projective act, which is to say it would be less about correspondence with the 'truth' of the writing, which is in any case absent or suspect, and more about constructing several 'possible truths' based on as much context as was available to it. Minute changes in expression would propagate throughout the entire text, not only the paragraph, and 'rewrite' it.

My motivation in asking this question was to use it as a bridge to a larger question, that of 'intelligent environments.' I think it is easier to elaborate the answer to what an intelligent paragraph may be, so I invite people to consider that first. Once you have grasped the nature of the answer of what 'intelligence' may mean in the case of text, you have a point of departure for envisioning the potential of intelligent environments. When I try to make that transposition, I find myself thinking of all the changes that my friends make to my environment, to accommodate me, please me, surprise me, support me, trick me, protect me, and so on. These operations go far beyond the provision of better thermostats, smarter microwaves and videophones. The intelligence required is multimodal, anticipatory, it takes initiatives, and changes its mind on the basis of the subtlest of clues. The problem with all this, of course, is that we still do not understand our own intelligence well enough.

Q: What about the possibilities of working with intelligences so 'other' from our own that we can't relate to them without either dropping all of our preconceptions, or forcing those preconceptions onto the other intelligence? I'm especially thinking about some texts that are coming out of various computer-generated writing techniques. There's one called 'Rubber Blue Biodegradable Robot' which is, in the traditional sense, unintelligible, but purports to be written from a society so far into the future we can't understand it. Understanding our own intelligence is one thing; reacting to intelligences we don't understand is another.

MN: I've been working through what the meaning of 'intelligent environments' might be for something I am writing, and I've come across that question. It reminds me of Stanislaw Lem's 'Solaris' - a entire planet as a single, intelligent creature. It tries to communicate, but the distance between it and humans is insurmountable. If communication is predicated on the existence of common ground, then it would seem that at some point of sufficient alienness, communication would just break down. Interwoven with this is another possibility, though. Written text, movies, digitized sound, anything involving sampling shows that our minds can span individual images and reconstitute animation, can hear individual words and hear continuous speech, focus on individual letters and read continuous words, and so on. Our intelligence is predicated on the capacity of our minds to bridge gaps, to crossover into alien territory. Perhaps just a few commonalties would suffice.

Q: You quote Brian Eno: "I am the sea of permutation, I live beyond interpretation." I recently wrote a very short text piece which looked like a script for generating a poem, and which could unfold in many possible ways as you read it. One reader's response was: "This is crap. It eludes commentary." Is there something in either automated or automatic writing which can bring art outside the grasp of interpretation?

MN: That kind of comment reveals more of the limitations of the reader than of your script for a poem. As I've already indicated, I think that meaning is largely projected: the reader is the light source, and if the light source is dim, little can be seen. The author is the constructor of very special, very reflective screens, screens that allow the subtlest of nuances to be not only reflected, but even amplified and clarified. If the screen is well constructed and the reader can still see nothing, that simply reveals a profound inner absence of light. On the other hand, if the reader's projection is strong, even a dark screen will shine. There is, of course, much to be said about the quality of the screen. That is the subject of poetics: how to create exquisite meaning magnets and interpretation centrifuges.

Q: When it comes to navigating the curved spaces of your "Dancing with a Virtual Dervish," you say that "with a dataglove, one has the distinct sense of carressing a lover's body." This seems a popular idea; the day before, Sadie Plant declared that Cyberspace was essentially a tactile space.

MN: Compared to our present interface with information technologies, cyberspace is extremely physical. Being inside information means our entire bodies, not just our fingertips, are immersed. It is hard to communicate this to people who have not yet experience even today's primitive efforts.

What is fascinating about this new physicality and tactility is the possibility of literally, though 'virtually,' touching ideas and abstractions that were previously entirely untouchable. My term 'dis/embodiment' has everything to do with this new capacity to embody, or re-embody in a new form, what was previously beyond reach.

Q: Dis/embodiment was also very 'in' at the conference. Tell me about it. It has intriguing cyborg implications -- although we're not just adding to our bodies in the cyborg sense, but taking bits away.

MN: I was pleased to see how everyone picked up on my way of writing 'dis/embodiment' - the slash is very important, because it states that there is no actual state of disembodiment, but that there are only alternative states of embodiment in media that are more or less solid. Even if the media turns out to be entirely informational, they would still constitute a form of embodiment, since there would still be the invariance of the relational structure that we are made of. Disembodiment, without the slash, is death, dissolution, disintegration. With the slash, it is metamorphosis, transportation, reincarnation. In either case the components of embodiment continue exist, but in one the signature of the self in maintained and in the other it is lost.

Since you brought up cyborgs, let me add that any of us that have come into contact with technology are already cyborgs. I do not think any of us who use computers will ever escape them, and neither will our children's children. Our particular computers may come and go, but we will always be accompanied by some sort of computer, barring catastrophe. What is curious about that is that our 'informational signature' has therefore already been altered.

Q: Virilio has a book on the architecture/archaeology of old war bunkers which, with their sheer weight, gradually sink into the landscape. A magazine (and, just now, I can't remember which) featured photographs of traditionally inaccessible spaces: the insides of water tanks and the like. Their monumental loneliness reminds me, somewhat, of "Dancing with a Virtual Dervish." You make such massive, beautiful constructs in VR, and yet nobody's there. Your virtual spaces seem, not useless, but unusable.

MN: There are several aspects to what you ask.

First, it was my explicit desire to communicate directly through the new medium of virtual space, without narrative, linearity, reward, or any other such teleological structure. To me the chambers of the 'Virtual Dervish' are what I call 'archimusic' and communicate in the same way as a chord communicates. To me the music I admire music is 'unusable' in just this way. Usable music is lesser music.

Having said that, I have to point out that there are affordances in the world that one can put to use. I see myself as a worldmaker, and my interest is in making the world a rich, interesting, and provocative place. What people do in the world is their own affair. The 'unusability' of these worlds is very much a political statement about the nature of freedom.

Any real world behaves in some way 'against' our will. We can step out of the rain, but cannot stop the raining. This very independence, obstinate but interactive, set ups the possibility of friction, upon which we can construct purpose and use, for ourselves and those who wish to share them, but without totalizing and imposing our assumptions.

Once you construct such a space, the 'loneliness' is exactly what is interesting, in the way that John Cage would point to the silence and boredom as desirable paths to lucidity and freedom. What one must witness to understand this is the behavior of people who enter the dervish worlds: the few people who were given the opportunity to explore them without the pressure of a stopwatch spent hours. Michael Heim spent two hours and a half in a single session; when he emerged from it, I asked him how long he thought he had been inside: "Fifteen minutes?" he asked.

The subtitle of the piece is 'Worlds in Progress,' hinting at the intention to keep inventing new worlds and new aspects of the digital nature within them. To me these worlds are still very simple compared to what I can envision, so I intend to add a great deal more in terms of affordances and interactivities. I doubt any ofd these affordances will be 'useful' in any literal sense.There are several aspects to what you ask.

Q: Well, no. After all, most of art isn't particularly 'useful.' Your reply, though, takes up a great many points. I'm intrigued by the possibilites of VR to mediate non-narrative ideas, having a background in writing poetry, and see the connection to music pretty clearly -- but what do you mean by "usable music is lesser music?" What's 'usable music,' here?

MN: As far as we may have come in to the postmodern, poststructuralist, postapocalyptic, there are still traces of 'form follows function' in the air that must be resisted. My background in architecture make me particularly aware and vigilant against the explication of all that is good in terms of narrow accommodation and suitability to small. clear, and tidy purposes. When I say that "usable music is lesser music" I am poking fun at easy targets of the 'music for ...', 'building for ...', 'room for ...' type, Eno's "music for airports' and other adventures notwithstanding. When I think of all that I admire, I find that excess and overabundance win the day, and that usefulness and accommodation are simply byproducts.

Q: "I intend to add a great deal more in terms of affordances and interactivities." Have any interesting examples?

MN: I have many examples, but I'll just mention a few. One of the first things I want to do is introduce 'windows' within the virtual worlds that look out into the physical world. I want to 'thread' worlds together so that different levels of reality can be encountered simultaneously. 'TransTerraFirma,' the next dis/embodiment of the dervish will connect two Onyxes in different cities, and allow video to be fed into the virtual worlds from the immediate surroundings of the persons within the virtual chambers, from the remote city, and from composite 'video space.' At the same time projections of the virtual worlds will alter the actual spaces of the installations.

Another example has to do with giving the musical algorithms increased control over event and agents in the virtual worlds. The activities within the worlds will be fed into the compositional algorithms; the compositional algorithms will create music, but at the same time direct the behavior of interactive agents, objects and atmospheres within the worlds. When the person within the worlds interacts with these new entities, a feedback loop will be formed that will exhibit all the joys of dynamic systems behaviors.

Finally, as far as examples are concerned, I am fascinated by the idea of 'intelligent space,' space itself become active. I am looking into alternative geometries and constructing models of non-Euclidean or non-perspectival spaces.

Q: As opposed to literature and music, the architectural milieu is extremely academic. What kind of sentiments are dominant regarding your and others' talk of these liquid architectures? What kinds of critiques are coming out against you?

MN: Indeed, architecture has been the slowest to respond. I regret to say this, since I love architecture, but it is true. To be fair, though, there are at least two architectures, the architecture of accommodation, and the architecture of excess. Accommodation produces buildings, excess produces 'Architecture.' This is not a question of extravagant expense, but one of vision and generosity. The architects of excess have always been leading visionaries of their times.

The trouble is that we live in a world where accommodation outnumbers excess and generosity, as training outnumbers education and learning. I have had to fight with this all my life, and I expect that this will not change, since I am committed to keeping myself open and agile.

The critiques are predictable and banal, on the order of "this is not architecture." What is worth noting, however, is that the critiques do not change: the same fears are articulated again and again, true to the tiresomeness of the thinking behind them, with only the name of the 'enemy' changing. The fear of computer-aided design has been replaced by the fear of cyberspace, but the negative rhetoric is identical. If I had a few more lives to spare, I'd write a history of fears. It would very unimaginative, tedious, and repetitive.

Q: Are there any particular architects, musicians, or even writers to whom you feel especially close and/or inspired by?

MN: Of course. It would be a long, long list, and if I mention a few now, it will be more in the nature of a random sampling than an exhaustive enumeration. Borges, Paz, Cage, Deleuze and Guattari, Gaudi, Leibniz, Hafez, Picasso, Lao-Tzu, Sun-Tzu, Ernst, Tzara, Klee, Xenakis, Cavafy, Debord, Heraclitus, Lucretius, Nietzche, Spengler, Lorca, Leonardo, Tesla, Dali, Matta, Galileo, Cohen, Schlemmer, Ghandi, Rumi, many more. The list would include numerous of our more immediate contemporaries as well.

And my Russians! Kandinsky, Malevich, Tatlin, El Lissitsky. Dostoyevsky, too. And non-Russians, Marcel Duchamp, Marcel Broodthaers, Roussel. And Varese. And Kurt Schwitters. And Calvino. And, of course, McLuhan. And Beuys. And Babbage...

Q: Jeffrey Shaw, in his talk in Stockholm, predicted a move of art away from the periphery to the center of discourse, thanks to all of our 'digital superhighways.' Might it really be the center of discourse which is bleeding away and leaving a void which can be claimed by art?

MN: 'CENTRiFUGE' is the name of a web site I have been putting together, with the help of the Advanced Design Research Group [at the University of Texas in Austin]. I see it as an 'asylum for experimental architectures', implying both a center and a 'fugue,' or escape. I like both Jeffrey Shaw's and your recognition of the reciprocity between center and periphery. As I see it, art has always been at the center of discourse, but it has done so by implication. If the center implies balance, then that balance can be achieved in a static manner or in a dynamic manner. Both the corpse and the tightrope walker are in equilibrium, but one is distinctly more alive than the other. Art engages, or enrages, as the case may be, the center by balancing the extremes of experience. Discourse does not always dare to follow, and often plays dead.

Your comment raises the issue of the 'pantopicon,' however. While art expanded around a fairly well defined center, the center itself is now becoming diffuse and hard to locate. This transterritoriality does not mean that centers do not exist - just that they can now only be known stochastically, like the center of mass of a swarm of bees. This is an exciting situation, since it mixes the centripetal tendencies of discourse with the centrifugal elements of art and creates strange, provocative morphings of realities.

Q: In the essay on the Poetics of Cyberspace, you point out the conflict between, on the one hand, the dissolution of categorical thinking, and on the other, the rapidly advancing establishment of the computer, a machine which is very categorical indeed. You say that this is not simply a conundrum of software design, but is a "deep challenge into the very heart of what it is to be human." What kind of challenge are you really talking about here?

MN: Our world, and we as part of it, seems to be built on an immense alternation of regularity and freedom. Everywhere there are rules, but the rules could just as well be accidental features, patterns that fit into patterns because they happen to be configured as they are. Different patterns could have existed, and upon them different super-patterns would have emerged. The categories we encounter are emergent phenomena, as we are.

We are engines of transgression as much as we are well ordered automata. Where the physical world proceeds by the interruptions of the Lucretian 'clinamen,' we set up a mental equivalent of transgression through poetic, that is to say generative, association of dissimilars. We put together what ought not have gone together, and then construct bridges of plausibility to connect the disconnected.

Q: The term "Pantopicon" loomed like a spectre over your entire Stockholm talk without really touching down anywhere. Tell me about it.

MN: Indeed. A trillion years ago, in one of my sketchbooks, I observed that we try to catch truth with a net, as if it were a butterfly, never stopping to think that it might be like the air upon which the butterfly glides. Perhaps it is more appropriate if the 'pantopicon' never touches down anywhere. Ubiquity being what it is, it does not have to touch down to be present.

I use the term 'pantopicon' in contradistinction to Jeremy Bentham's 'panopticon.' The panopticon, or the condition of centralization and surveillance, characterized the age we are leaving behind; our time is not one of centers of power and radiating spokes of vision; it is a time of diffusion into fields of ubiquitous sensors and effectors. Everyone is everywhere, all the time, all at once. Borges saw this in the 'Aleph,' McLuhan saw it in the distinction between 'optical' and 'acoustic' space, Attali speaks about it in 'Noise,' and Cage made music of it in the 'Roaratorio.'

Thinking about the pantopicon as an architectural problem is particularly useful, in that it pits the art most heavily anchored in space, time, and specificity with its extreme opposites: reconciling the two is a liberating effort. I recommend the exercise.

Q: A lot of talk is running around about where all these new art forms are going to fit into social and political context. Some people drop the political question altogether, or at least try. Others are extremely focused on it; in literature, the Avant-Pop movement is very socially aware; in architecture, the work of people like Lebbeus Woods is explicitly political (Woods says: "Architecture is a political act.") Where are you in all this?

MN: Poetry is war. To me these three words mean a great deal, though I would not attempt to unpack them for anyone. What I can say is that all making is political, not in a crude, literal sense, but in the very fiber of its being. What something represents is usually indifferent to me. What something is, what constellations of practices have brought it into being, what rhizomatic structural relationships it has to the its multiple contexts, how strong a 'meaning magnet' it is, or how reflective an 'interpretation screen' it is, are all political aspects. All making is a microcosmic exercise in envisioning alternative worlds. Our constructs and interactions embody values and imply social orders, whether we are aware of this or not.

In our society, it is possible to do anything one wishes as long as it can be put within an appropriate cultural container or frame, such as 'gallery,' 'performance,' 'installation.' Even the most innocent and harmless effort to bypass the system of categorizations and bracketing and to confront 'reality' directly meets immediate and very serious resistance. Both the resistance and the necessary opposition to that resistance are patently political. You can test this yourself: look for something that is accepted within clearly defined brackets, preferably something benign, to make the point very clear; replicate it in a situation that is outside those brackets; sit back and watch the alarms go of, the threats of power arrive at your doorstep. The magnitude of the response will be a very accurate indicator of the degree to which you have engaged 'reality.'

Q: You also refer to the need for today's writers to create a new language in the face of the barrage of TV, junk mail, ad infinitum. What kind of directions are new 'makers' of art going to be forced to go in, thematically, to perform that re-invention?

MN: Although the barrage you speak of continues ad infinitum, its contents are very limited. What I envision is more of a stance than a fixed direction, more of an attitude than a fixation on an outcome. This attitude or stance is oppositional in that it recognizes that infinity is very, very, very large, and that all the things we have tried out are negligible compared to all the things that could be, and that, therefore, everything around us could be otherwise. The free exploration of possibilities is the most life-enhancing activity I know of. In addition, as a fringe benefit, from time to time we actually come across a better way to arrange our personal and social lives.

You can imagine that everything we know is contained in a circle. Most people mill around near the center of the circle. A few wander toward the edges, perhaps walking on the boundary between what we know and what we don't know for a while. A tiny number of people stand at the edge of the circle, take a deep breath, and take a step into the abyss. This is a moment of supreme discomfort, but also of supreme joy. Something magical happens in that moment: the circle of what is known gets just a little bigger, the space becomes a little more generous for everyone, the timid and the brave alike.

Q: And yet (as pointed out in another interview on these pages) artists run into a difficult situation when society as it's forming now has a supreme ability to close its eyes and pretend that circle just isn't there. You can drag the weirdest things in from the abyss and nobody will bat an eye: it's all just media-ized pop-art anyway, right? There are a lot of levels to this re-invention: one thing is changing what people see on TV, another is dragging their faces away from the TV screen.

MN: I do not know that it was ever really different. In every age a small number of people carried very advanced debates about all that was known while the vast majority lived in ignorance. I imagine that the percentages of the population within the circle then and now would be nearly the same. To complain about the society of the spectacle as a contemporary social disease is to forget that it was the Romans who declared that all the people wanted in order to be contented was bread and circuses, or pizza and television, if you prefer.

I'm not really interested in dragging anyone away from their television by force, not even trying too hard to persuade them, since persuasiveness too is a form of force. I think there is much that is wrong in our world, no doubt, and that therefore there is much that can be improved, but I think that the best we can do is act with integrity and let our examples attract whoever is ready to be attracted. If indeed our options are better (for we are masterful at self delusion), perhaps the balance will gradually change.

Another way of putting this is to return to my figure of the circle and modify it by suggesting that we each attempt to increase the fractal dimension of its circumference, until the edge to the abyss becomes infinite in length even as the area within the circle, the ignorant interior, tends to zero.

Q: It's so fascinating to see the different directions people are going in. You, on the one hand, write about and construct quite convincingly a new, fluid architecture which is designed for cyberspace and the changes it's bringing. A few days before the Stockholm conference I was at a debate at the Oslo Architectural Society, which was opened by a talk from a young architect. His talk consisted of a critique of what he (quite vaguely) called the 'Avant-Garde,' attacking it for dissolving into a series of unrelated abstractions which no 'common man' understood. He used this to campaign for a certain return to what he (again, quite vaguely) called 'classical' values; presumably the sense of unity and monumentality which dominated the Classical period. He seems to be against everything you are for. Is this just him demonstrating a fear of the unknown?

MN: Obviously, I cannot speak for this particular person, but I have come across similar attitudes often, and have many impressions and interpretations to share. On the one hand, evoking the understanding of the 'common man' seems to be an anti-elitist gesture, but if you consider it more deeply, you see that it is actually immensely condescending - people, especially young people, open people, can often see much farther than paternalizing academics. Between the Nazi condemnation of 'degenerate art' and the Soviet endorsement of 'social realism,' there is little ground to stand on regarding art that aimed at the understanding of the 'common man.' From another point of view, if you examine the leading edge of anything we really know, you'll see that very few people actually know it, very few others can even attempt to understand it, and so on. If my doctor tells me I need brain surgery, I'll seek a second, third, fourth opinion, but I'll seek it from people who are as well, or better, informed than the first doctor. I would indeed need brain surgery if I walked down the street asking people at bus stops to diagnose and cure my problem. I see no virtue in willful ignorance, or the arrogance of elevating one's own limitations to the level of cosmic principles. Extreme accomplishment requires extreme effort; few people have the capability, opportunity, and luxury of being able to expend such effort; we should be thankful that they do, and try to approach them as well as we can, not drag them down into the gray mud of mediocrity.

I do not believe that people who know, discover, invent, create, and otherwise make the worlds we live in are trying to confuse us. I think they are trying to share the most important things they know in the most concise language they can speak. I think we should forget about that tiny little box called 'the common man' and, instead listen in good faith, and try to learn as many languages as we can, and when we are ready, join in the great conversation we call culture and civilization.

Q: Finally: can you give an idea of when CENTRiFUGE will be up and running? Sounds intriguing.

MN: Centrifuge should be running very soon. I bring it up and take it down all the time as it is, but I keep on wanting to do more. Sometimes I forget to listen to my own advice. But it will be up very soon, probably in early February. There is tremendous interest in it, so I'd like to do it right, and that desire doesn't agree with just how many other fires I have burning.