INTERVIEW WITH YUCEF MERHI
Bio : Yucef Merhi is an artist, poet, and programmer based in New York. He studied Philosophy at the Universidad Central de Venezuela and holds a B.A. from New School University. In 1995 and 1996 he received a grant to participate in one of the most prestigious poetry workshops of South America, at the Center of Latin American Studies Rómulo Gallegos (CELARG).
Merhi’s career includes a world wide exhibition record with shows in major galleries and museums, such as the New Museum of Contemporary Art, in New York; Galería de Arte Nacional, in Caracas; Museo del Chopo, Mexico; Paço das Artes, in Sao Paulo, and the Borusan Culture & Art Center, in Istanbul; among many others. More recently, his work was included at the 7th International Festival of New Film, in Split, Croatia; SIGGRAPH 2003, in San Diego, California; an the exhibition Poetry and Contemporary Art, at the Hunterdon Museum of Art, in New Jersey.
During the last years, Merhi has lectured at the California Arts Institute, New York University, the New Museum of Contemporary Art, and the Museum of Contemporary Art of Caracas. In 2003, he was jury member of the Digital Arts competition produced by the worldwide news network, CNN. As an independent curator he organized the first Digital Salon of Venezuela, best known as the Pirelli Salon of Young Digital Artists, at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Caracas’ website; and Vidéo Femmes, presented at the Museum of Contemporary Art of Los Angeles and The Americas Society in New York.
Carlo Zanni - You are a poet but also a coder: can you please tell me about the relationships between database, code and poetry in your practice?
Yucef Merhi - When I started writing poetry, at the age of 10, I was already involved with programming languages. The connection I established between poetry and code took place in an unconscious state of mind that later on I became aware of. Since net@ari, produced in 1985, I've been exploring the bond between natural languages (English, Spanish, Hebrew, etc.) and programming languages (Basic, C, Java, Assembler, etc.). To me, code and poetry are very similar in structure and production. Even when they seem to be opposite, as poetry comes from grasping your emotions and code from digging into your brain, the way I write a poem or a piece of code is using the same tools, the same approach. When both languages are merged having poetry as a foundation, a new kind of interaction emerges. The Poetic Clock 2.0, The Poetic Machine, and Poetic Dialogues, are some examples of how I've been relating code and poetry. In each case, a database is present. Databases retain the content of poetry, in other words, they supply the information that is visually presented on the computer monitors, TV sets, and wall projections. Databases play an important role in many of my works. At some point, the awareness of this element led me to develop a certain aesthetic where databases became the medium to depict a sort of visual poems. This is how I conceived a concept called 'Datagram'.
In the computer lexicon, a datagram is the basic unit of information passed across the Internet. It contains a source and destination address along with data. Large messages are broken down into a sequence of IP datagrams. When they travel over the network, its arrival, arrival time, and content is not guaranteed. Similarly, but In the visual arts context, a datagram is a method to visualize information by displaying databases using a chaotic structure, showing them as wallpapers where printed pages are placed in different angles and interconnected by the subject of the data. This is the case of Seguridad and Máxima Seguridad, where the user-database of the largest internet company in Venezuela and the personal emails of Hugo Chávez, the President of Venezuela, where hacked and exhibited in major museum and gallery spaces. In both cases, the information turned out to be an enormous visual poem, connecting code, poetry and database as part of the same experience.
C.Z. - Can you please tell us about your social hacking practice? In particular, I am interested in knowing more about the Hirst Affair that I see as a really complex narrative performance (action, poetry, hacking, spy, sculpture, narrative)…
Y.M. - I prefer to employ the term used by Kevin Mitnick, social engineering. I started developing my social engineering skills at the age of 8 when I got into private birthday parties (known in Venezuela as 'piñatas') by pretending to be a friend of the kid who was having the birthday. Soon after, I found how to use the subway system without paying; how to replicate prized collectible cards (cromos); among many other deceiving actions. By 16, I was making free long-distance phone calls, either using a blue-box or getting connected by a friendly operator who was one of my Bulletin Board System (BBS) users. Also, I found that the Venezuelan phone company (which use to have the monopoly of telecommunications until the year 2000) had a large network of 800 numbers that enabled me to access faxes, modems and private numbers from all over the world.
Later on, I was granted access to the largest scientific network in Venezuela (SAICIT), so I got free Internet access. Unfortunately, it took them a while until they enabled a graphic interface (do you remember Winsock for Windows 3.1?).
A good hacker is not only a good machine programmer, but also a good human programmer. As Mitnick said, social engineering is "to get people to do things they wouldn't ordinarily do for a stranger by using persuasion and rhetoric." During all these years, I enhanced my expertise in the art of hacking, as well as the purpose of these actions.
I hacked Damien Hirst is an action that took place on October 10, 2000, when Damien Hirst was having a show at Gagosian Gallery (555W 24St.). When I visited the gallery I saw an installation displaying a very peculiar object. It was one of Hirst's big glass rooms, containing two office desks, a sandwich, newspapers, books, ashtrays, a phone, and other objects. Among all the stuff, there was something that I couldn't believe was there: it was Damien Hirst's MasterCard®. The credit card was placed in a way that viewers only could see the back of it; also, the card was expired. But if the CC was real, just by changing the expiration date anyone would be able to use it.
I took some pictures clandestinely, I went home, and then I started to think what to do. After a couple of hours I entered Artforum's website and subscribed Mr. Hirst for an annual subscription. It was a symbolical gesture to verify his CC and see how far this can get. To my surprise, the next week I received the October Artforum's edition. In this way, I found what you can call a 'bug', a 'back door', innocently placed by Hirst in his own work. Maybe the not so Young British Artist didn't think that someone in the art world could take advantage of a small detail like this one.
Through this action, it was demonstrated that hacking is not only limited to computers but it can be applied to anything, including "works of art." The magazine I received, gently packed in a white plastic envelope, turned out to be the trophy, the evidence, and the artwork of this non-fictional performance. Few days later I sent to Hirst a check with the total amount of the Artforum's yearly subscription and a letter explaining how I hacked him. The check was never cashed and the subscription was canceled. One week after I received a burned envelope, which I presume came from Mr. Hirst.
C.Z. - Do you think of text as a sort of "brush" or tool to help you build your work? Or is it something external that once it is done, get incorporated (or temporarily incorporated) into your sculptures and installations?
Y.M. - If I would be a traditional painter, text would be my paint. Text is not a mere addition; it is a fundamental element in my investigations and work. In one of my installations, titled Telepoesis, a digital telescope was displayed inside of a museum. When people looked trough the telescope they saw a poem (placed in Central Park, New York). Here, the work of art is the image you receive from reading the words, the poem. However, the telescope and the experience of looking through it is also part of the 'poetic experience'. Many times the writing process happens at the same time of the artistic development, but as a poet, there is a mutual relationship where I depend of words and words depend of me. Text-Poetry is the subject and the instrument. Its absence will result in a dead body of works. Try, for example, to imagine DO NOT TOUCH (an aluminum plaque with a Braille inscription that says "do not touch") without the text. It turns into a meaningless object. It is like taking out the wheels from a bike: you just go nowhere.
C.Z. - Can you tell me about your use of randomness (which I assume to be an important part of your practice)?
Y.M. - Randomness provides a dynamic status to my works. This condition is present in some of my early projects, like net@ari (1985), and later on it became notorious when the Poetic Machine (1997) was first made. During the 90's I got deeply involved with the writing practice using surrealistic techniques, influenced by literary Venezuelan movements settled during the 60's, like 'El techo de la ballena' ('The Ceiling of the Whale'). However, the investigation and application of randomness comes from my academic study of logic and semiotics. The intersection of logic, surrealism, chaos theory, and kabbalah, granted a strong foundation for the implementation of the random factor in my body of works.
It is also relevant to mention that the Internet has been stimulating me to think in different ways to assemble the poetic-art experience. WizArt and White on White are some Internet Projects that involve interactivity and randomness. I like to create non-lineal poetic narratives, and by using this flexible-omniscient-powerful medium it seems possible to do it. On the other hand, the kind of randomness attached to these projects is not only based on algorithms and scripts, but also in human relationships and social interactions. Poetic Dialogues and the ArtBoom are probably the best examples. In both on-going projects I invite people to participate and become part of the work of art. In the first case, people come to my studio -sometimes, they are people that I've never seen before- and I explain them the process. After that, if they agree, they perform one verse that I previously wrote in front of my wristwatch camera. At the end, I compile the images into a movie sequence as a Flash file; the sound is merged, and the file is uploaded to the website. When users interact with Poetic Dialogues, a dialogue between 3 characters is randomly generated every time the play button is pressed, producing hundreds of new poems. From the beginning to the end of the process, randomness is present, but, at the same time, fate is behind, secretly operating.
C.Z. - Your ArtBoom art-family tree image collection led me to wonder about how you approach and convince people, and talk them into agreeing for you to shot them with your old casio watch camera. Have you ever thought of those dialogues as a sort of "on going" narrative? Also, I see another link here with your social hacking attitude…
Y.M. - The ArtBoom is a compilation of images of the art network that I've been doing since I started to show in galleries and museums. It embodies a genealogical tree where every person I've met has been classified by its profession and connected depending on how was introduced to me. All the portraits have been taken with a wristwatch camera prototype since 1999 until the present. As an on-going project, the ArtBoom is updated almost every day.
The ArtBoom works in several ways, and can be understood from different perspectives. When I initiated this project, I wanted to create a sort of blog that transcended time and space. People are connected by how we got introduced and not when or where (excepting the city of New York, which is also an icon). Artists, curators, critics, collectors, designers, musicians, and actors from all over the world are connected here. Many times it happens that these individuals are also related to other people in the ArtBoom, showing how small the art world can be. Nam June Paik, Louis Bourgeois, Bill Viola, Mariko Mori, Ernesto Neto, Fred Wilson, Jenny Holzer, Christiane Paul, Dan Cameron, and Harrison Ford, are some names from a vast list that figure in the ArtBoom. It is an Internet Project, a database, a performance, a tracking device, a tool to visualize social networks. The ArtBoom is the creative people of our time, the known and the unknown cultural producers that are making our contemporary art history.
Nevertheless, the art world can also be an illusory world made by deceptive arguments related to social and economical interests; a social machine established in the universal principles of entertainment. Art can be used for many purposes, but no matter what, artists still have to deal with 'social engineering' in order to gain access and broadcast their work.
Using a novel device, like a wristwatch camera, I've been able to seduce and capture the attention of all kinds of persons. It was interesting the way Mary Boone, for example, modeled in front of the microscopic lens of the wristwatch and soon after introduced me to Chuck Close. Occasionally, I feel the same as Warhol when he had to be at openings and social events: it's like always working. In this sense, the art world is my raw material. Amusement, paranoia, vanity, confidence, are some of the reactions that take place when someone is asked to be photographed with this unusual device.
Coming back to your previous question, randomness plays a major role in the constitution and evolution of the ArtBoom. Every time I include a new face, the tree changes. Sometimes, I have to reorganize an entire branch or move several branches in order to include one single person. Chaos, randomness, and instability, are immanent elements of this project. Its process making reminds me some methods applied by Dada, the Surrealist, Fluxus, and John Cage. The ArtBoom is also a poetic act, where time is translated into identities, where the artist's studio is nothing but a wristwatch camera.
Interview by Carlo Zanni