Yann Minh: “Cyberpunks are far from dead” (2/2)
Published 27 October 2019 by Ewen Chardronnet
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 2 of an in-depth interview with this prolific artist.
In Part 1, Yann Minh talked about what motivated him to come to the Technomancie festival in Marseille, his introduction to Second Life, his NøøMuseum and his cybersex creations. Here he discusses the limits of Second Life, his more recent projects and his vision of the cyberpunk movement.
After 15 years of living in Second Life, do you still visit often? How do you see it evolving?
I still have the gallery of my NøøMuseum located at coordinates 173/240/345, 350m above Nigorigawa on the Mainland of Second Life, which I often use for private nøøconferences with avatars. Above the NøøGalerie, at 2000m, I installed a virtual green screen studio, which I also use for shooting.
But I’m much less involved in the social life of the metaverse. For me Second Life is a tool, an efficient social and cybersex network. Digital social networks are powerful existential tools. As with any tool we use, we try to push the limits of the cyborg that we become with this technologically extended graft. It’s what Marshall McLuhan calls Narcissistic Narcosis in his book Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man, and which is often confused with the concept of addiction. But it’s not addiction, it’s a cognitive process provoked by the use of powerful tools, whether they are vehicles, weapons, computers, musical instruments, cameras, software… The entire history of humanity can be viewed through exploring the limits of our tools.
According to my own experience and other aficionados, it usually takes around two to three years of intensive daily activity in Second Life to reach our limits with this tool.
I reached the boundaries of Second Life when, through an experiment in modified consciousness, my avatar Dyl, who is also the heroine of my novel, gained self-awareness and started talking to me!
But Second Life continues to exist. There are even twice as many users now as during its media glory days from 2007 to 2010, even though many people believe that the metaverse has disappeared.
There are actually a multitude of different metaverses, the most famous being “open sims”—free open source versions of Second Life, often used by teachers, where we can run simulations on our own servers. The biggest French open sim is Francogrid. Linden Lab, the company that manages Second Life, has built a new metaverse with better quality graphics but only available for PC. Philip Rosedale, the original creator of Second Life, built a new persistent world which is pretty good called High Fidelity… Steam also has its metaverses, and as VR takes off, we’re seeing more new immersive metaverses like VRChat… Google and Facebook have made several aborted attempts… And we already know that one of Facebook’s prospectives is to migrate its entire social network into a VR cyberspace with avatars. Facebook’s investments in Oculus headsets are part of this long-term strategy.
But for me, Second Life will owe its success over time not so much to future technologies such as haptic systems, high-definition, crypto-economy, direct neural interfaces, etc., but to its continued tolerance and promotion of cybersex among consenting adults. All other attempts at persistent worlds that prohibited cybersexuality have failed, or are barely surviving. To put it simply, the future of persistent worlds will be cybersexual or nothing at all.
So what came after Second Life?
For me, all these explorations in Second Life culminated in the performances of our digital creative group Cyberesthésie at Demeure du Chaos and at T.O.T.E.M in Nancy in 2010, where we demonstrated cybersex in real life.
Cyberesthésie, Borderline Biennale, Demeure du Chaos, 2011:
I created the word “cyberesthésie” to describe our capacity to extend our exteroceptions beyond our body, via a technical installation, a tool. For example, a champion Formula One pilot knows the exact breadth of his car down to the millimeter. We can extend our field of consciousness well beyond the body, and networked cybersex extends our sensuality on a planetary scale. Through persistent worlds and avatars, we are making love with humanity, maybe even with Gaïa or the Noosphere as defined by Vernadsky. Contrary to what many people believe, VR and haptic systems are massively reintroducing the body into the cybernetic command loop that we are now witnessing.
Can you say a few words about your “NøøScaphe”?
NøøScaphe designates navigation interfaces in cyberspace and in the nøøsphere. A theater hall, a video-editing room, a film set, a writing studio, a temple, etc., are nøøscaphes—vessels for exploring nøøspheres.
Then there are more specific nøøscaphes, such as the one I imagined in the 1990s, which I called NøøScaphe X and has since become a nøøentity, that is to say, an immaterial creature, of which I hope to make a life-size version one day. Twenty years ago, the technologies were inaccessible, but now it’s quite affordable with 3D printers. So I plan to make a life-size version of it by 2022. But I won’t hesitate if a generous patron wants to help fund its fabrication before then.
You identify as cyberpunk, but hasn’t the idealist dream of cyberspace been compromised in the last decade by the invasion of social media and smartphones, commercial data, user manipulation and the age of fake news? What do you think of the so-called post-digital age, reflected by the younger generation of artists?
“Cyberpunk” is a complex term that refers to very different things. It’s not synonymous with cyberspace, even though they share a lot in common. The word cyberpunk first appeared in 1983 in a science-fiction short story by Bruce Bethke, published in Amazing Stories. The word cyberspace was coined by William Gibson in his famous book Neuromancer, published in 1984.
What’s interesting is that “cybernetic punks” have hardly disappeared, instead they have become a social norm, in the sense that technological progress has transformed most citizens of industrialized nations into cybernetic punks despite themselves. Who doesn’t have on their computer pirated movies, pirated music, pirated software?
Every day, we are living the dystopias of SF cyberpunk literature of the 1980s. So for me, not only are cyberpunks not dead, they are more alive than ever, in the sense that the greatest contemporary cyberpunks are major corporations, secret services, state governments… Examples of cyberwars or organized hacking are hardly lacking.
The disillusionment of hippie digital utopia was largely anticipated by cyberpunk literature. This dystopic drift has only recently become a reality that everyone can see. Digital utopia was born in Silicon Valley, supported by a whole generation of developers, coders, engineers, post-hippie hackers, many hoping for a virtuous revolution through computers. I often quote Ted Nelson, who invented the word hypertext, who in 1974 put on the cover of his book Computer Lib/Dream Machines: “You can and must understand computers NOW” above a revolutionary fist and diskette.
Like many cyber-hippies, Ted Nelson was convinced at the time that computers would liberate us in a revolutionary sense, but SF authors very soon prophetized their dystopic drifts. Bruce Bethke’s short story Cyberpunk foresaw contemporary cyber-crime. William Gibson portrayed cyberpunks as virtuous and utopic Robin Hoods, protecting citizens from the totalitarian drifts that he calls MegaCorporations, which prefigured GAFAM.
But cyberpunk is not just a fictional character of literature, film or video games. In the 1980s, most video artists, myself included, were cyberpunks in real life, without necessarily claiming it. In order to make our video and digital artworks, practically all of us had spontaneously developed strategies to hack TV studios, and later creative graphics tools and software that were worth a fortune.
So on one side there are the fictional cyberpunks, who only exist in novels, increasingly simplified in video games and popular TV series as overweaponized paramilitary jocks, or else as the adolescent fantasy of the sexy bimbo brandishing giant phallic bazookas. On the other side are the real-life cyberpunks who spend their time hacking computer systems: to counter their totalitarian or criminal drifts, like Anonymous or white hats; or to make digital art in a global process of creative empowerment; or to get rich and control people, like state governments, secret services and major corporations… In short, “cybernetic punks” are far from dead… On the contrary, they are massively propagating. I recommend reading Pekka Himanen’s Hacker Ethic.
What are your current and future projects?
In November I was invited to give a nøøconference on artistic empowerment and digital creation and present my works at the Settat Amateur Film Festival in Casablanca, where I’m showing the NøøMuseum in VR and giving a workshop on creating immersive artworks using Unity. In France, I’m preparing two exhibitions of augmented artworks at the Satellite gallery in January and at the Naïa Museum in Rochefort-en-Terre. And I continue to augment the network of galleries of my NøøMuseum, in standalone version as well as in Virtual and Augmented Reality.
Part 1 of this interview
Yann Minh’s NøøMuseum