On October 12-13, Deletere Labs hosted at Couvent Levat in Marseille Technomancie 2, a festival that combines technology and magic as a hypothetical practice for artists. Co-organized with Diffusing Digital Art, the festival invited Yann Minh, French grandmaster of cyberpunk art and cybersex. Part 1 of an in-depth interview with this prolific artist.
What motivated you to participate in the Technomancie festival this year?
It’s rare that I’m not motivated by this type of event, but you could say that the primary reason was that I was invited by the artist Nao, whom I first met at the international video art festival in Casablanca. We had both been invited by the festival director Majid Seddati. I liked his performance, but also his extraordinary personality, which seems to come straight out of Japanese atompunk manga, anime or novels.
With Nao, the sensation of experiencing in real life the dystopian fantasies of 20th century science-fiction is more intense than ever, and I wasn’t disappointed discovering along with him the Couvent Levat site, Deletere and the other organizations and artists who contribute to it.
Couvent Levat is what I call a mapped TAZ—as opposed to the original TAZ imagined by Hakim Bey, inspired by pirate utopias that should not be “mapped”, as explained to me by Arthur, one of the founders of the TAZ at Gare XP in Paris. What I call Couvent Levat’s “Temporary Autonomous Zone” is not hidden or clandestine, but in a way “officialized”. It consists of ephemeral spaces in which virtuous creative and artistic utopias can blossom and contribute to the creative progress of the arts outside the traditionally rigid cultural hierarchies. Sometimes they become permanent, like Les Frigos in the 13th district of Paris, but most, like Otomo’s T.O.T.E.M. in Nancy, only last a few years until the system ends up destroying them. But during their brief periods of existence, they are spaces of intense creativity and prospective, in which we can read our artistic future… through techno-mancy, or technological divination.
So the name of the festival is the second reason. Technomancie induces in a very relevant way this magical and divinatory relationship that we have with machines when we use them to make art.
From a Marshall McLuhan-inspired perspective, machines are amplifiers, and in the case of digital arts, they amplify our poetic irrationality, the subliminal part of our humanity. Machines enable us to explore these complex and ineffable spheres of the arts and, like all our artistic tools leading up to the stone age, to open the doors of the NøøSphere. For me, the NøøSphere is that informational and immaterial space, of a literally metaphysical nature, which, by inversed thinking inspired by the mystic French priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin with his “NooGenesis”, but also paradoxically by the atheist, anti-creationist researcher Richard Dawkins with his “Memes”, instrumentalizes matter via the living… I know, I’m on my soapbox now (laughs).
In your presentation, you mentioned an impressive number of projects, including the NøøMuseum and your dungeon in the heights of Second Life. How did you get interested in cybersex and how did you get into the SL dungeons, what kind of hacks did you have to use to access them?
Whoa, it would take a entire novel to answer all that! I discovered Second Life realtively late, in 2007, whereas what we call this “metaverse” or “persistent world” has existed since 2003. First, a bit of etymology: the very poetic term “persistent world” reminds me of ukiyo-e, the Japanese artistic genre best represented by Hokusai, which translates as “picture of the floating world”. There is a subtle conceptual similarity between the two expressions, which may otherwise seem contradictory. The “persistent worlds” in cyberspace, or MMORPG, are particularly impermanent and ephemeral, unlike what their name seems to suggest, and are in many ways “active metaphors” of this impermanence of reality evoked by fantasy manga and the ukiyo-e prints of Hokusai.
The qualifier of “persistant” attributed to Second Life is inherited from video games, which, as they became “massively multiplayer online role-playing games” have acquired a perennial form that mirrors the real world. Even if players quit the game, the game itself persists and continues to evolve in cyberspace with the other players who are online (or not).
“Metaverse”, the other name we use to designate cyberspaces like Second Life, comes from Neil Stephenson’s groundbreaking 1992 novel Snow Crash, which describes very precisely this type of immaterial digital space populated by avatars, in which users lead very intense social lives, in parallel with their daily lives in physical and biological “meatspace”.
And how did you get interested in cybersex modeling?
I’m pretty sure I fell into cybersex as soon as I hit puberty. The word “cybersex” designates various practices. For me, in a large sense, it designates any sexual activity that uses tools to amplify sensuality, so in this sense, prehistoric humans were already practicing cybersex by using dildos—the oldest dildo discovered dates to less than 24,000 years ago. In this broadened sense, my first cybersex experiences consisted of stimulating my penis with electric motors from my miniature model sets, while drawing erotic scenes inspired by comics or photos from fantasy horror films. But I was also very aroused by Renaissance paintings that often represented the martyr of Catholic saints in relatively suggestive poses.
Once their erotic and sensual aspect is clearly assumed and shared, photographic and video representations are powerful amplifiers of sensuality, complex cybersex installations. Using cameras and staging scenes, my partners and I generated very erotic situations. The photos we got were less important to us than the erotic moments we shared during and after the photo shoot, which was only a pretext.
In 1979, when I moved from Brittany to Paris to study art, I discovered and experimented with what comes the closest to contemporary cybersex installations, in the literal sense: cybernetic sensuality. Except that I was using an analogue set-up instead of France’s digital telephone network, which was certainly the first large dematerialized cybersex social network in history.
In the 1990s, in the BDSM world where tools play an important role in sensual amplification, my friends and I did a lot of cybersex experiments that inspired another installation of mine called NøøScaphe X, which was presented in a pseudo-holographic version for the exhibition Persona, strangely human, at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris.
But certainly the most etymologically relevant, and also most efficient cybersex tool is Second Life. I discovered Second Life through a friend who was both a world traveler through the physical materiality of our planet, but also a “worldbuilder” who created virtual universes for the video game industry. For several days, she insisted that I experience this virtual world, and when I finally did, my first attempt was pretty much a disaster.
After a brief venture into the metaverse, I reacted with radical rejection, and in a very primal macho way, I blamed her for inviting me to visit such a stupid game. The next day, another artist friend asked me on the phone:
– Did you see the S&M dungeons?
– What do you mean, the S&M dungeons?
– Go online, I’ll take you to visit the S&M dungeons.
She was going to take me to “visit the dungeons”…
The way she phrased it provoked in me a surreal mental bug, a very particular form of cognitive stupefaction. 3D digital gaming spaces were not new to me, as I had long been exploring virtual labyrinths in “shoot’em up” games like Unreal Tournament, with which I created my first NøøMuseum in 2003. But that time, she wasn’t inviting me to play a game, but to “visit” BDSM “dungeons”, the same way you would visit a real place. It was a strange, surreal overlapping between fiction and reality, which I didn’t get out of until after three years of daily immersion, often for sessions lasting over 48 consecutive hours.
Having explored BDSM sensuality since puberty in real life, I had forgotten how my first sexual fantasies originated from a sort of demateralized spatial relationship with representations of the martyr of Catholic saints in Renaissance paintings. The physical body in BDSM sensuality had become so crucial during those years of practicing submission and domination with my partners, that I could no longer understand how you could practice sado-masochism virtually with digital avatars.
So for several years I immersed myself in the persistent world of Second Life, until I reached exceptionally modified states of consciousness. With social relationships dematerialized via avatars, I reached the limit of what Marshall McLuhan calls narcissistic narcosis.
Through analogy with our perceptions of the physical world, persistent worlds operate in modes that mimic the rules of the “real” world. Because of this fact, the particularities of virtual worlds, which belong to computing logic or their own culture, often result in a sort of surreal and poetic strangeness, that is even more fascinating and pleasurable than the illusion of perceived “realism” of metaverses.
For example, in Second Life, avatars and objects can fly. So at the beginning of Second Life, there were these nomads/hackers that settled in the sky above the lands of newbie “owners” at altitudes of up to 4096 meters, which was beyond the 50m-172m default limit imposed on avatars. These relatively sophisticated bits of code had pretty names like “flight plume” or “feather”…
Metaverses are complex cosmogonies, which require a certain amount of acquired experience to master the codes, protocols, conventions, navigation interfaces, terminology… So a seasoned user can easily identify a newbie by their lack of knowledge of awkwardness, or simply by the clumsy way their avatar moves by default—and which can be improved by purchasing more elegant “postures” called AO for “animation override”.
Second Life is free as long as you don’t plan to build anything in it. So you can simply wander around, as in the real world, but if you want to build a house, open an art gallery, a shop, a dungeon or any other more permanent structure, you need to buy land. The size of the land determines the number of polygon groups (“primitives” or prims) that you can place on it. The bigger the land, the more objects you can “rezz” on it. The word “rezz”, which comes from the movie Tron, means to create an object in the virtual world.
Second Life newbies who buy a land don’t necessarily master the ratio between their land area and the authorized number of primitives to build things, and especially, they don’t know that it’s possible to rezz above the 172m height limit, by using free scripts that are available in most online freebie shops.
Newbies also don’t know that by default, as long as they don’t limit this option in their settings, anyone can rezz on their land. So it was relatively easy, once you found a piece of land belonging to a newbie recognizable by their clumsy moves, to squat behind their backs by installaing above 1000m our own “skybox” constructions and houses. Of course, the newbie eventually stopped being a newbie and noticed that they didn’t have the correct number of primitives available on their land, asking questions in forums, sandboxes or “meeting sims”:
– It’s weird, I hardly built anything on my 512m2 land and I’ve already passed the authorized number of 117 prims.
– Did you look in the sky above 1000m to see if there are any squatters?
– Uh, you can go up to 1000m?
– Hold on, I’ll send you a script that you attach to your avatar, and you can go past the altitude limits. And don’t forget to check the box “auto return other resident’s objects” in the object menu of your land to kick out the squatters…
So the newbie, equipped with the “feather” script, rises into the previously inaccessible immaterial skies, and discovers a whole community of clandestine squatters hippies cyberpunks settled on the land, indulging in cybersex orgies in their skybox dungeons.
An artist friend, science-fiction illustrator and designer “Marulaz Merlin”, squatted newbie lands to install his gallery in the form of a spaceship. In 2007 or 2008 I bought the entire region of Aogashima on the Mainland. I chose this “sim” after exploring the Mainland for a long time. Its real estate value was fairly high, as the Linden Lab teams had set up their first lands there, and the constructions were pretty elaborate and esthetically harmonious. I also discovered strange skyboxes hidden at very high attitudes full of Linden avatars lined up in tight rows but connected.
The Aogashima sim covered more than 65,000m2 and could accommodate over 15,000 primitives. I invited Marulaz to dock his beautiful gallery there, and he tied it to the great flying pyramid of my NøøDungeon.
Part 2 of this interview
Yann Minh’s NøøMuseum