#ELRFEAT: Language’s Uncertainty Principle: An Interview with Eduardo Kac (1999)

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The ELR is happy to feature this interview made by Simone Osthoff to Eduardo Kac, a contemporary artist and professor of art. In this interview Kac talks about his concepts of art, poetry and multimedia which are at the base of his projecects since the early 1980s.

The interview is republished with the permission of Eduardo Kac and it marks the first attempt of the ELR to do a research on art themes in relation to electronic literature.

In 1983, Eduardo Kac invented the word and the concept “holopoetry,” around which he developed a groundbreaking body of work. For this work, a unique word-and-image blend centered on interactive readerly strategies, he received the prestigious Shearwater Foundation award in 1996. Kac’s holographic poetry, with which he pioneered the use of computers in holographic art, has been shown in several countries and has, in recent years, gained increased attention.

A tricultural, multilingual, interdisciplinary writer and artist, Kac (pronounced “Katz”) has centered his work around the investigation of language and communication processes, emphasizing dialogic experiences in a world increasingly dominated by the mass media. In the summer of 1997 he accepted a position as Assistant Professor of Art and Technology in the Department of Art and Technology at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, where he teaches a wide range of media and issues, including digital imaging, multimedia, computer-holography, interactivity, telecommunications, critical issues in art and biology, and the history of electronic art.


Employing language both as material and subject matter, Kac explores in his holograms, multimedia texts, digital poems, and telepresence events the perplexities of language, culture and consciousness in a new participatory paradigm. Working in the intersection of literature and visual arts, Kac investigates the verbal material in a constant state of flux, engaging the participants in a dialog that is continuously generating new meanings. On the following pages Kac talks about the development of his work since the early 80’s, focusing on his holographic poetry. He addresses both theoretical questions and social concerns, areas that remain inseparable in his work.


Simone Osthoff: You seem to move very easily between different languages and cultures. You have at least three strong cultural influences. With which one do you identify the most?


Eduardo Kac: I like to think of myself beyond national boundaries, and beyond media boundaries as well. I work between literature and art. I don’t see myself as “Brazilian” or “European” or “American”. I was raised by Europeans in Brazil and became fluent in English at an early age. Neither do I focus on a single medium or material. I find that labels are not very helpful and are often used to marginalize people. I have shown work in holography shows and the same work in shows that address word and image issues, or shows that address experimentation with new media. My name has been included in shows as representing the U.S. I have also shown my work in Brazil, as part of national surveys. I publish often in literary and art journals. I prefer not to be bound by any particular nationality or geography. I work with telecommunications trying to break up these boundaries. Obviously, Brazilian culture is an important part of my identity, but it’s not the only one. I don’t see why I should have to choose only one aspect of my interests or my identity as the predominant one. I am comfortable with them all. I would like them all to be equally present in my experience.

Simone Osthoff: In the early 80’s you worked with performances, visual poetry, graffiti, and other media, before focusing on holography. What was this process like?

Eduardo Kac: In the early 80’s my interest for word and image issues continued to increase as my dedication to oral and versified poetry ended. Between 1982 and 1983 I was very unsatisfied by what I then considered the blind alley of visual poetry. Aware of the multiple directions the genre had taken in the twentieth century, I experimented with different media. I worked with multiple media — billboards, Polaroid cameras, artist’s books, fine graffiti, electronic signboards, video, mail art, photocopiers, videotex, and finally holography.

Simone Osthoff: The show “Como Vai Você, Geração 80?”, (How Are You, ’80s Generation?) which happened in Parque Laje, Rio, in 1984, is still considered one of the most important shows of the decade, in Brazil. It launched many careers and highlighted artistic tendencies. What kind of work did you show there?

Eduardo Kac: I had already made my first holopoem when the Geração 80 show came up. But, I was also working with public installations, billboards. I was making twenty-seven meters square murals based on Cro-Magnon cave paintings that were displayed publicly, both in São Paulo and in Rio. And that’s what I showed in the Geração 80 show. On a personal level, it was very important for me to participate in that show because it defined that generation of artists, presenting the multiplicity, the diversity of media and interests, from those who were mimicking Bonito Oliva’s Italian trans-avant-garde, to those, like myself, who were interested in exploring new technologies and multimedia possibilities.

Simone Osthoff: Could you trace the formal development of your work up to this point?

Eduardo Kac: I was first dealing with traditional language, then the body became the issue. Then the body was performing verbally. Then the body became written language itself. This work is partially documented in my artist’s book ESCRACHO, from 1983. I had moved so far away from the page, from the surface of the page, that I didn’t see any going back. Having moved so far from stable surfaces, such as those of objects and those of the surface of the page, I had to find something else. I started to explore a lot of other media and became interested in holography.

Simone Osthoff: When did holography become reality, so to speak, for you?

Eduardo Kac: I recalled having read in ’69, when I was 7, a comic book, of all things, in which the main character was going to fight this villain. And the villain was this gigantic hologram. As a kid, I used to collect comic books, and I still have this one comic book in Portuguese. The hero, in order to fight this villain, had to become himself a gigantic hologram. In some of the balloons, the villain and the hero explained what holography was in a very indirect way. So that sort of came back to me. I kept reading about the dematerialized image, the multiple points of view, the 3D image contained on a 2D surface. But that seemed to be a pure paradox. I was intrigued but I could not visualize it. An encyclopedia article I read in 1972, when I was 10 years old, described the scientific principles of holography, but that was not enough. In São Paulo in 1983, a little before the Geração 80 show, Otavio Donasci, an artist I had included in ESCRACHO, knew a psychologist called Fernando Catta-Preta who was building a small holographic lab. I called him and came over. It was there that I saw my first hologram and I realized immediately that that was what I wanted to do. So, having no clue exactly how holograms were made, or anything, it became obvious that that was the medium that would allow me to solve the aesthetic problem I had imposed upon myself. I worked with him for a couple of years on my project, which resulted in a show—Holopoesia, realized in 1985 at the Museum of Image and Sound in São Paulo. A few months later, the show came to Rio. I received excellent press coverage including from many TV stations. Because on top of everything, this was probably one of the first times that art made with holography was seen there. So, there was all that curiosity about it. That was very stimulating.

Simone Osthoff: Did you have any financial or institutional support during 1983-85, in the Rio-São Paulo period?

Eduardo Kac: No. Against all odds, I was able to fund this work out of my pocket, as a college student, basically. You know, I was still in college, working part-time and doing whatever I could. I was buying film that was not available in the country, that had to come from the U.S. I was paying for my own expenses, traveling back and forth between Rio and São Paulo, which represents a distance somewhat equivalent to the distance from Chicago to Detroit, on a very regular basis, either flying, or taking the train, or taking the bus, for two years. I guess I carried the same obsession from the performance period into holography in this first phase, but you have to do that. Because it’s that initial moment where you’re developing, you’re learning, you’re exploring. This initial two-year period resulted in two shows and also some publications, and then later, in a residency at the Museum of Holography in New York in ’86, and a trip to Europe in ’87 to show work. Back in Rio, I presented the work in a second solo show in ’86. I also organized with Flávio Ferraz, a Brazilian artist who also works with computers, the Brazil High Tech show, which was a national survey of Brazilian artists working with new technological media. That was also in 1986.

Simone Osthoff: After you came back from New York, did you continue to make your holograms in São Paulo?

Eduardo Kac: No. I managed to put a simple lab together in Copacabana, two blocks away from the beach. I went to the beach to get sand to build my vibration isolation table. To pay the bills I worked as a journalist for several newspapers in Rio and São Paulo. I worked all day, came back home exhausted, and went to the lab until 2 or 3 in the morning, basically every night. It was extremely difficult, not only because of my daytime schedule, which, I guess a lot of people had to deal with too. The biggest problem was that none of the materials I had to work with were available in the country. I was never able to buy any film there. Optics were very hard to get. Everything that a holographer needs to work with is virtually impossible to get there. But when my laser broke down for the first time, that’s when reality settled in, and I realized that it was impossible to continue to work in Brazil. I sent my laser back to the U.S. once. I got it back. The manufacturer said it was fixed and it just wouldn’t work. Either they fixed it and it broke on the way back, or they didn’t, but the fact was, I couldn’t use it. I sent it back, and got it back and it still didn’t work. After the third attempt to fix it, and having spent a couple years doing that, from ’86-’88, I realized that this was a dead-end. I was never going to be able to actually be productive and experiment and get my work done. In the meantime, I was working on my first computer-generated, fully synthesized holopoem, which resulted in my third solo show entitled Holofractal, in 1988. I realized then that I had to leave, and the country of choice was the U.S.

Simone Osthoff: Would you define your work as visual poetry or language art?

Eduardo Kac: If we consider these two extremes, writers going towards the world of visual arts developing what is known as visual poetry, and visual artists going towards the world of writers developing what is known as language art, I would like to oscillate between these two poles. I hope that my works would engage the viewer or the participant, both at a literary level and a visual level.

Simone Osthoff: You coined the term holopoetry and have been developing holographic poetry since 1983. Could you relate your holopoems to the tradition of visual poetry, and talk about the process of transformation between verbal and visual elements in your work?

Eduardo Kac: Many contemporary artists use language, but most seem to be interested in the way language is used in the media. I’m more interested in the zone of intersection between literature and visual arts. Visual poetry, for example, has a long ancestry, which runs from Simias of Rhodes (circa 325 BC), through the Baroque poets, to Mallarmé, to Marinetti, Apollinaire, Housmann, Kamensky, Cummings, and Beloli, and to the experimental poets from the 40’s to the 70’s, including those associated with French Lettrisme and Poésie Sonore, Brazilian Concretism, NeoConcretism, and Process/Poem, Italian Poesia Visiva, French Spatialism and Oulipo, and many others. The reason I got involved with holography in the first place was again because of language. Each of my holograms addresses a different problem, a different issue. But there is something that underlines them all — my interest in communication processes. I am not interested in holography as a 3D form; we might as well look at sculpture. I am really interested in holography as a 4D medium, as a time-based medium. In many of my holopoems, you have a bi-directional path for time. I just don’t think linearly, in terms of one word after another, as we normally speak and write. I just don’t think in terms of art works that way anymore. In my holopoems, I’m less interested in conveying the result of my thought. I’m more interested in conveying the process of my thought. That’s why the language in my holopoems fluctuates and oscillates and changes, and disappears. I only work with language, I don’t use objects, I don’t use people, I don’t use any form of figure.

By not having a linear sequence, you can explore the word-image in any direction you want. You have a time-reversal possibility. There is no hierarchy, no climax. There is no suspense. It’s almost like if you had a dematerialized strip of film that you suspended in time, and that you can, in your mind’s eye, project that, in any direction that you want, but not only horizontally, also vertically, diagonally, any way in space. You plan, you orchestrate time structures in space. You’re really dealing with a space-time continuum and breaking it into orchestrated discontinuities. I think everything that I have done is a consequence of this fascination for communication processes in multiple forms. Be it communicating with the body on the beach, or through an electronic medium, the fascination is to investigate the communication process itself.

Simone Osthoff: How would you define communication in art?

Eduardo Kac: By communication process I mean a reciprocal space, a shared space, a space in which there is what Baudrillard has referred to as responsibility. There is room for response, interaction, interactivity, change. Interactivity here is not necessarily that of the computer, where you pretty much interact with something that is already pre-encoded, although that is also interesting because it pushes the work beyond the stable object on the wall. I don’t have a definite solution and answer to this. Iif I had I wouldn’t be writing and making art. The point of being involved in this process is an attempt to understand the complexity of these issues, and that’s what fascinates me.

Simone Osthoff: Then, you are defining communication as discovery, is that what you mean?

Eduardo Kac: Discovery is very important. If something is totally predetermined and leaves no room for the reader or viewer there’s no communication. It could be unilateral transmission, or persuasion. Communication must imply openness. Communication must imply bi-directionality or multiple directionality, as in the case of a network. It could be bi-directional as on the phone or it could be multi-party, as on the Net. I think communication implies, as again Baudrillard has said, responsibility. When Baudrillard talks about restoring responsibility to the media, I love the ambiguity of this sentence because it refers to the social responsibility that the media has, but it also opens up the idea for the artist to restore the responsibility of the media, in the sense that the media must allow people to respond. The media must bring people closer, not keep them apart, as television does. The media must allow for people to interact, to share, to discover together, rather than be at the end as consumers. So, this idea of shared spatiotemporal responsibility is what I truly understand by communication. Holography today must be recorded, but in my work I show that it is possible to undermine the stable recording process with unstable syntaxes. In the future holography will be scriptable, and it will be possible to transmit, receive, and transform holographic images in real time.

Simone Osthoff: When you deal with language in your work, are you thinking of language as a universal category? Does it make any difference which specific language you use?

Eduardo Kac: The fact that I am working outside syntax is very important. I remove language from its function as social intercourse and try to get to more fundamental levels. I respond to different contexts. I will either use one of the languages I am comfortable with or do research and work with a particular language, if the concept calls for it. Very often, because I am working outside the syntax of English, some of these pieces can work in multiple languages at the same time. Because once the words are removed from a grammatical continuum, they can be read in multiple ways and in many languages as well, not to mention that certain fragments that float in the holographic space-time can also be read as full words in other languages.

Simone Osthoff: What is the importance of holography as a medium to the way you deal with language?

Eduardo Kac: The reason I was attracted to holography was because with it I can create very complex discontinuous spatiotemporal events that I could not do in any other electronic medium, like LED signboards, which I have used since 1984, in Rio. There is something intrinsic about the holographic medium that allows me to work with language floating in space and time, being discontinuous, breaking down, melting and dissolving, and recombining itself to produce new meanings. That kind of work reveals a distrust, a disbelief in the idea that we can simply use language to communicate a message. We say–” Do you know what I mean?”; ” Do you know what I am talking about?”; these sentences which we use on a regular basis express our attempt, our desire to dominate language, to make language the slave of a meaning. I’m more interested in suggestion and evocation.
I believe that meaning will emerge only through the engagement of those involved in the process. In the case of the holopoem when the viewer comes to see it and starts to look around, bounces his or her head, squats down, orchestrates that whole dance in front of the hologram, meanings will or will not emerge based on the personal experience of the viewer. The work asks that the viewer or reader be active and explore it, and when the viewer explores it, it changes. Not much is seen otherwise from a stationary point of view. The engagement of the viewer with the piece reveals the fact that reality, language, the way we perceive and interact, what we think communication is, all takes place according to our point of view. There is no detachment from the language we use and the reality we observe.

Simone Osthoff: Other contemporary artists, Jenny Holzer and Barbara Kruger for instance, are also situated in this same intersection of word and image. The way I see it, they are using language in a more direct way, conveying straightforward messages that are presented as factual, even when they sound ambivalent. Could you comment on the different approach to language in your work and in theirs?

Eduardo Kac: You can not resolve the problem of meaning. Words are not containers that hold “meaning” like a cup contains coffee. I don’t think one can even “fully” understand anything or anyone. I believe that there will always be a tension between what one tries to communicate and what one tries to understand, and this tension oscillates with the dynamic web of language. In holopoetry I don’t simply allude to this tension, but create the very experience of its oscillation. Static media can allude to the problem, but due to their stable material condition they can’t create the unstable language experience I seek in holopoetry. I don’t really believe in the idea of a message that exists prior to the engagement of those involved in the process. I really distrust the idea of communication when it comes from one end and it goes towards the other end, with no opportunity for the other person to participate, or negotiate the meaning. That’s what happens in television, radio, the mass media, that pretty much define our collective unconscious, the mass media defining what we see, what we hear, what we are exposed to, what we dream of. I really distrust these systems when it comes down to language. If one tries to subvert the content of the message but uses the same mass media logic, we still find ourselves in the same monologic space. I am interested in proposing alternatives to the unidirectionality of the system of art. I think that we have come to realize that language is truly unstable and absolutely turbulent. Language speaks us instead of our speaking the language. We would like to be in control of language, we would like to arrest this flux of events that surrounds us. I believe in negotiation of meaning, not communication of meaning. When I defend a model of language as fluctuating, oscillating, and turbulent, I am not talking about ambiguity in a stable model of language that can be interpreted in one way or another. I am talking about a completely different model of language, a model in which language in a sense escapes us. The realization that language has its own dynamic, and no matter how much one tries to grasp it, how much one tries to arrest it, how much one tries to condense and objectify it, no matter how much one tries to make it concrete, language will resist, it’s going to continue to spill off, and spill out, and blend and merge and dissolve. Even in poetry language is not concrete; it’s fluid, malleable, unpredictable. When we use language in a linear or rigid way, in art and in poetry, we are in danger of bypassing the fundamental problem of our own medium, which is language itself. What about language’s role in shaping our perception of the world? I am trying to deal with a problem that I see as being essentially epistemological. I am trying to reflect on the very nature of language, focusing particularly on written language. How does language shape our reality, define our own identity? How does it engage or not, our thoughts in the process of dialogue?

Written by ELR

March 9, 2018 at 10:00 am

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