Excerpts from an Interview with Jack Burnham

by Lutz Dammbeck (Professor of New Media, Dresden School of Film and Art)

Note: the videoclip above is only about a minute long - it shows Jack answering the first question.

Spelling, punctuation and grammatical corrections have been made to the transcript given below. The raw text is online at http://www.t-h-e-n-e-t.com/html/_film/pers/_pers_burnham_R.html


D.: How did you come in contact with the ideas of Norbert Wiener?

Back in 1952 when they published his first book on cybernetics; that was like a breakthrough, and at the same time cybernetician Ross Ashby published his book, which I think is a better book, on the basic mathematics behind cybernetic - behind feedback theory. I was fantastically interested in them. I thought well, you know, you know - When I began to write Beyond Modern Sculpture, I devote several chapters to the Vitalists and to biology of the 19th century and how it influenced 20th century sculpture. I thought: My God, here is a whole... Here is a whole area of biology that artists are going to get into, that deals with the nervous system - not just morphology of shells and evolution and things like that.

D.: But what was so fascinating for you in Norbert Wiener's and Ross Ashby's theories and models?

Well, I was interested in mathematics at the same time, and I began to read a little bit about group theory, and I said: My God, this is all group theory, you know, all this business about recursion, about, you know, search procedures, you know, which was just beginning to become high in-in-in fifties, early sixties computer technology. And I thought to myself, you know, this is the way artists think, you know. It's the same thing.

D.: - To think in a mathematical way, or ...?

No, no, artists think the same way chess players think. You know, they have a set number of rules, they make an exhaustive search about probabilities, the way the chessboard is set up. They say: 'Well I can make a move here, a move here, this is bad, this might be good.' They push it two or three moves further and they say: 'Aha, this is what I will do.' This is what recursion is. And it's ... it's really the whole basis of problem solving.

And you know, back in 1997 when the Russian world championship - the champion was - was defeated by [the] IBM program 'Deep Blue'. The difference between them is, you know: he uses recursion by... He had in his memory bag maybe two or three hundred possible previous set-ups in that approximate position, whereas the Deep Blue program probably had twenty or thirty thousand that it could do recursions from. So - it was just more powerful and this is what he complained of. He also complained: 'Look, these programmers are changing [Deep Blue] in between games.' And they could have said: 'Well, you change your mind in between games too, it's no different.'

D.: It is also funny: In 1957 the Russians started the Sputnik... OK, you were one of those who were fascinated by technology and mathematics. Were you a technological fanatic or - ?

Oh, I - I would say, they were mindsets. And you know, young people particularly, their brains are at war, they have two or three paths for personalities, depending on where they find success and what their education is and what their former background is. They go in this direction or that direction, and I would say I was really driven between a very artistic Dada-revolutionary background and a technological background and both were strong. And that's where... when Marcel Duchamp came, because I said: 'My God, here is a brilliant mathematician, a great technological man, who is also totally subversive.' And one of my real problems with Bauhaus and these other people was that they were so regimental - so regimental, you know, so - so structured. And I - I thought to myself - you know - Duchamp is so beautiful because he destroys structures and this seems much more like the method of [the] 20th century. He is so structured, he uses structure and he destroys structure. That is what is beautiful to me.

D.: He was two systems; he was an open system and a closed system at the same time?

I wouldn't say he was an open system destroying a closed system, very much.

D.: And then you went to the Lincoln Lab. According to the information I have it was a closed system?

Well, this is, this is what you have to understand, you know. In 1969, ah, 1968, 69, 70 at Lincoln Labs they had a big IBM time-sharing computer. And really you had to be an expert to use it, because it was time-sharing, because if you missed your... you missed your program, your next step, it might take 15 minutes to get back on because they were so crowded. And so if you were nervous like me or the two other artists they had, it was very difficult.

This was the whole problem with the Software show. The Software show cost 75,000 dollars. To have done it properly it would have cost 200,000 dollars. Today, 6th grade students would say, 'Oh, 10.000 dollars could have funded the whole Software show' - if they were working today with the intelligence and the computer capability that they have today. Sixth grade students, very bright 6th grade students with 10,000 dollars. So, you know, what a difference 30 years makes...

D.: In the sixties you were one of those young people who were fascinated by computers. Some years later you say: Most of computer art is just junk. How did this come about?

I don't think I will call it junk, but it seemed to do two things. It seemed to be very beautiful - like people who make electronic patterns and then make, say, IBM coloured printouts of those electronic patterns. Or, people who use ideas - like, say, Harold Cohen - from traditional art, and then use a certain amount of free programming to sort of create his own style, or to create in the style of other artists. And I think a person like Harold Cohen - whom I've met and talked to at length - how he has worked is interesting. I've seen him on a panel, terribly attacked by computer scientists and programmers who thought he was extremely naive. I have seen him handle himself very well. I think his work on some levels is perhaps naive and I think on other levels he is one of the real pioneers in trying to get concepts and art historians and art critiques - just couldn't do that using a computer. Very much like my son studying Egyptian hieroglyphics with a computer. He used a very, very sophisticated tool. I think in some respects he is ... maybe he hasn't got artistic results, but he has interesting psychological results.

D.: And then you gave up making art, gave up being in the art and technology business. What means this term 'art and technology business'? You realised it is a dead end. Please could you describe this more precisely?

I don't think it's a dead end, you know. On many panels I said: 'Look, you know, this thing could blossom, it could go on, it could be very interesting.'

I don't see it for my own sake. At that time, I became interested in Duchamp. I became a grantee from the Guggenheim [Foundation] to work on a book on Marcel Duchamp. I became much more interested in structuralism and linguistics and became interested in mysticism, too, and I went in those areas, I thought they were fruitful for me.

Also I began to see this problem: the most sophisticated artists in the twentieth century have all been artists - Paul Klee, Picasso, Marcel Duchamp, Jasper Johns - who had a fine appreciation of the whole history of western art. They weren't that naive. And the computer artists I saw working were naives. It's as if they took a dog and cut off his tail and said: 'Well, who worked with the tail of the dog?' You know it's dead. It doesn't make any sense. They didn't have the understanding of the whole dog. You know, they took a part of a system and said: 'We're going to make art out of this.'

D.: Is it only a problem of artists who work with computers, or a problem of engineers, scientists and technological people in general?

No, it's this kind of problem: it's a software/hardware problem. People on a level of Jasper Johns or Anselm Kiefer or Paul Klee or Picasso or a dozen others - Mondrian - they are working at a very, very high level of software. Most of the computer artists I see are working on a high level of hardware but the software is like, you know, Kinderspiel, you know, it's nowhere, it's so simple.

D.: And the real scientists, computing specialists or engineers?

Well, the real scientists, I guess they are interested in linguistics, they are interested in making, you know, the machine assisted problems, you know, making sensory devices that begin to simulate real-time human experience that they can program into computers that makes them much more adaptable computers. I think that's very important, enormously important.

D.: But are they naive?

They're maybe used by people using computers for art purposes, but from what I've seen, still at a very, very low level, on a basic level. Maybe the sophisticated artist will come.

D.: I don't know if I have understood. My question was: Are these scientists and engineers also naive like these artists, who are working with computers and art - computer artists? Behind them are the real computing engineers and scientists. Are they naive?

No, they are not naive. I mean they are not adepts in art, that's for sure. But, well, art is very programmed. It's extremely programmed. I mean the whole history of art. I already have two classes of artists - those who understand the program and those who don't understand the program. And the ones who understand the program are using very, very sophisticated methods to do their art. And of course they are invisible. Have you seen the exhibition at the Bern Kunsthalle?

D.: From Duchamp?

Yes, the Duchamp exhibition.

D.: No.

I wonder - I doubt - I don't think they would have The Large Glass there. The Grande Verté - The Large Glass. This was Duchamp's 'Magnum Opus,' his 'Great Work.' It covers many of the problems that you were just talking about right now.

D.: Back to the engineers, they are working on a high software level. What does that mean? What do they think? What are their goals?

Well, first of all, I don't think many of them are interested in art. Many of them look at art and say: well, we could understand, say, up to the point of peeling - before it left the canvas and became series of objects. And now it's become anything, you know, anything can be art, you know. If you can put it in a museum-place, it's art. And this is so unstructured and so random as to defy classification. You can't classify art anymore. There are - There is classification. Somehow it is art - very little - but it is art. It's also art, high level art.

I teach classes in semiotics and much of what I teach has to do with the semiotics - basic, say, basic theory of how to read photographs, how to read cartoons, how to read stories. In other words, many artists work on that level. It's not - It can be profound, but in most cases it's not profound. I mean, the psychology of advertising - somehow it's very beautiful and sophisticated - but basically a lot of artists today are working on that level and using the same mathematics that advertisers are using, in constructing a, say, photograph or magazine.

D.: But is this not a result of a process which opened or destroyed the borders between art and non-art?


D.: But you were one of the founders and supporters of this process with your Software exhibition.

Well, I believe, like Duchamp, you just go with the flow, you know. If the tide is coming in, you don't try to stop the tide.

D.: You gave a quotation - Matthew Chapter 9: 'Do not put old wine in a new bottle.' - connected to our conversation about technology and problems of technology. Please, could you repeat this and interpret for us?

The basic thing, like, I can say here is that if we look at western art, say, from about 1200 AD - from, you know, the high Middle Ages - and this is where usually art history textbooks begin - it's very programmed. You know: Italian primitive art, early renaissance art, high renaissance art, baroque art and so forth. It's extremely programmed, in terms of its dramaturgy, its subject matter, technique, everything. And what I am saying is, there is a method behind that, there is a very specific idea behind that. But a lot of this has to do with, you know, the idea behind chaos theory, that comes, you know, that comes about at a level, at the fourth level in chaos theory, at about a point which I call, you know, 'quick en masse'... A system breaks into chaos, it falls apart. It's like seeing the wave in which the top of the wave is just pure foam, pure bubbles. That's - It's structured chaos. It's part of random theory. Basically this is the same condition of art today, in the 21st century: structured chaos.

D.: And the problem with technology?

Well, the problem with technology, that's - It hasn't quite - the artists that use technology haven't caught up to that idea. They don't know what it means. You know, I also said that much of what we are producing today is like - like leaves falling and beginning to rot in the ground, you know. And basically the idea of mulching is very much of what the artists are doing today. It's there, it's a lot of vital activity, but it's going to rot, [to feed] what the producers will be [about] in the future, but not today. Part of what's happening today is that we're - the whole artworld is suddenly, suddenly - and it's very interceptible in destroying the idea of the masterpiece. You know, a nice piece worth forty million, a hundred million dollars. It's just - very gradually - becoming passé. Don't tell the museums that, but [it's what] I believe.

D.: But the term you used - 'mulching' - also means a belief in nature?


D.: But technology is on a different way. It's on the way to develop a new technological nature, to build another nature. What do you think about these connections?

Well, for most - A lot of the technology - All technology is ultimately nature. But the technology that is anti-nature - that destroys nature - will in turn be destroyed itself. No technology that isn't pro-nature will last. It will be destroyed. And, you know, when we are getting to see the fall-out of the twentieth century - it is an extensory. But actually, the development goes more and more to microstructures, circuits that are micro-thin, and every 2 or 3 years, according to Moore's law, they become thinner and thinner and you can put more transistors onto a sheet. And this is the whole basis of a modern PC - computer. We have an Internet, we have fixtures. We can put more and more in less and less. And Moore's law also says that by about 2020 microtechnology, in terms of silicon - computer chips - is going to be at an end. In other words we are all made a - We have compacted circuits as much as we can, put as much information, put as much computers on them as we can. At that point, you know, we are going to think seriously about other technologies. If they want to continue we need more complex computer-brains.

D.: I thought silicon couldn't be used for 'mulching,' this material?

Well, that's the point I'm getting into. So much technology, so much art from the 21st century, we don't have any ethical boundaries. We have no religion that covers its use. We have no overview. We have nothing to guide us, you know, no religion, no philosophy, no nothing, you know. Just a lot of dumb politicians and very eager scientists. Which is a recipe for chaos, which is a recipe for self-destruction.

D.: Do you think in the inner core of these machine-based systems, or in the machines, there is nothing?

No, I do think a new - a new philosophy, a new religion - I don't know what it is, call it what you want. We will develop. Well, it will take a lot of pain. It will take a lot of human destruction before it happens. It will take a lot of... Look at the Roman Empire, you know. Duchamp uses a lot of lead in his - in his late constructions. Joseph Beuys used a lot of lead. He used snow, he used sleighs, he used ice. They were all saying the same thing.

D.: Art exists today in the white cube, in the gallery, and also other places outside museums. But the other things, or technical tools, are in every house, in every part of the world and this has the power. But the art works are only in a catalogue, or a gallery - without this power.

Well, for what it's worth, art works not from what you see, what [one] could say about art, but what you see and you don't understand. It's totally subconscious. All great art is worked towards the subconscious. It hadn't worked towards the conscious mind. This is why it's valuable. I guarantee within the next few years you'll understand what I am saying.

D.: Back in the sixties, the artist had a main role in formulating interactivity and also was a foreplayer for computing. But when the concept became reality - Internet, etc. - the artist had disappeared and economy had taken over. Why did this happen?

Well, I think because of - From my experience , you know - I worked with Sylvania Inc. for a while. And, you know, like all large corporations that support technological art, the art-market, they always want to know: what is the bottom line, what is the pay-off, what do we get out of this besides a little publicity. And if they don't see a bottom line, or if they don't see a pay-off: it's kaput. It just doesn't - They stop funding it. I think this is part of the problem. I also believe that when someone like Joseph Beuys does his Volkswagen project - these lays with blankets in them, with filth, filth blankets and a flashlight and fat - he is saying more then five hundred computer-artists. He knows what he is doing. He is talking subconsciously. But he is getting there, people are understanding him on a subconscious level.

D.: But I think the problem is not the computer-artists. The question is: is a computer the solution or the problem?

Both, both, both. You know, there are historians of science and there are philosophers of science who are well aware of all things I've said. You know some lecture on the future of art that I gave. But nobody has the solutions, because solutions are educations and solutions always come from pain. As, for instance, the whole universe. They want pleasure, but education comes from pain, unfortunately.

D.: Pain?

Or fear, maybe. Or fear. Yeah, pain, fear, destruction of what they hold dear, security. And I guess this is why I am saying we're in a mulching stage. We are, like - we are, like - we are getting growth that goes underground, it decays, it becomes mineral matter and it becomes preparation - it becomes food - you know, food stuff for new - for new plants, for new growth.

D.: But on the other side, Minsky and other people, they want their own biology and evolution and they have the power and the DoD-money backers...

Who is this?

D.: Minsky.

Oh, Minsky.

D.: And the big companies. They are working for their own - for the new evolution, a technologically based evolution.

Well, I think Minsky and some of these people are the American Dr. Strangelove.

D.: Forget Minsky! Take a big account on these, they work for the big solutions. What do you think?

I - my feeling is that solutions only come from people who are - have enormous sensitivity, enormous lack of pride. I think there is too much pride in technology. This is what I saw in many technological artists, in many people who work in - They are little Strangeloves, you know. On the way they say they are getting an advantage. They are working with more than a million dollars worth of equipment, you know. Why can't that be wonderful? But, you know, artists work with - you know - four forces in nature, or five forces in nature. One of them is called the weak force, you know. It's [radioactivity]. And this is the way that artists work, you know. Artists work with weak forces. They don't work with strong forces.

D.: But one goal should be communication between people. But companies and people like D. Gelernter, their proposal is communication on computer systems.

Yeah, I - Well, from what I saw, art and technology in New York in the 1960s, and what I saw in San Francisco when I was there with Alec Cohen and other people, Jack Noland in Boston. If you have engineers and artists who have modest personalities, who have humility, you'll rather get a good idea. But if you have arrogant engineers - or if you have engineers who are working for a bottom line - or arrogant artists - then it's quite a self-destruct. Humility is everything. Know Duchamp. This is Duchamp's Large Glass. It's a great work. But the entire title of this is 1): 'The waterfall' and 2) 'The illuminating gas'. You know, we talked about this the last time. The waterfall is earth in water. It's like, very much like gravity, and a strong force. Those are the two forces in nature that make matter. And what he is saying is all art is going towards Mannerist, not going towards pure material, which is like the bride here. And we are in a stage now of acute materialisation in art. It's like the end. It's like a leave falling. It dies, it withers and it goes into the ground. And a lot of leaves have to fall. A lot of water has to flow, before you get this illuminating gas. 'Erleuchtung' you say in German? 'Erleuchtungsgas' and that takes a long run. That takes a lot of humility. That takes a lot of work. It takes a lot of pain.

D.: If you try to find a position between these points - nature/technology, art/non-art, real life and virtuality - we discussed with Hans Haacke: If you see a system go into the wrong direction, what can we do? An artist, normal people or a scientist? Methods, strategies? A pupil of Haacke's (Paul Garrin) proposed funding a company and to have a tactical capitalism and go on the battlefield and fight with these companies...

Hans mentioned the way of democracy, to found a party, go [to] parliament, work the media: destroying, bombing, attacking system in another way... books to find solutions to this question... People at Lincoln Lab save the world - save our children, cats nature. You know the French phrase 'laissé faire economy'?

D.: No.

It means to let [the] economy alone, not to change it by government, not to change it by agitation, not to change it by left-wing, right-wing. Just let it go. And Duchamp was very much a laissé faire artist. He changed everything internally, subconsciously, from the inside. This is the only thing you can do.

I think the political moves are, well, they are nice, and you get five minutes on television, you make your statement. But they are not... I tell you what. You know, let the technologists do what they want, no. If you go back to the third century in Rome - well, in the fourth century, Rome began to be destroyed by the Goths and Vandals and everybody coming in and invading it. Well, if you talk to some systemic historians, they will say: Well, the Romans got used to indoor plumbing, the got used to enormous baths, baths, terra cotta and so forth. Their problem was they used lead joints and they used lead piping. And Rome itself poisoned itself, and began to have a high increase of cancer. A lot of Romans went crazy. They had mental problems. The technology destroyed itself.

D.: And the model by Thoreau? To go into the woods and 'create your own space and defend it'?

Have you ever read this book? Well, I think Thoreau was a very interesting example because I used to go and sit on, like, Walden [Pond]. And I grew up near there when I lived in Boston. And well, there are some things you can say about Thoreau. One is he stayed there exactly two years - two years, two months. He gave up a lot of things. He had almost no money. He built on a piece of land that was given to him by Emerson on one side of a lake. He was very fortunate in that he had a mother and a sister, and Mrs. Allison came and brought him biscuits and brought him bread and coffee. He was invited to dinner by several people who lived in Walden. So he wasn't exactly self-sufficient. But he - no, he did catch fish. He spent about... all about 28 dollars per winter and he would go and buy cornmeal and salt and soup work and dried apples and some things for himself to get through the winter on. But I think, you know, if you go out to Nebraska and, you know, read some of the exploits of the pioneers in the 1860s, they were much more Waldens than what Henry Thoreau did.

D.: But it is a model to oppose against a technological system, which we cannot stop?

No, no, I don't think so. Not at all, not at all. In other words: if it's a new philosophy, a new ethic - there is always a conversion point. There is always reconciliation of religion, philosophy, mathematics and art, you know. They all come together.

D.: But Duchamp has only some parts. It's not a philosophy, only a proposal for an atmosphere. It's interesting, but is it enough to build on this ground a big new building?

Well, I hate to disagree with you but Duchamp has a very strict philosophy. I mean his philosophy would make Hegel look like a schoolboy by comparison. Of course Hegel used some of the same ideas, but... No, he is extremely philosophical. The only difference is, he didn't broadcast his philosophy. He kept it to himself.

D.: But we know him only as a fool.

We know him as a fool, yeah. He was - he was a 'Narr', I guess that's what you are saying in German.

D.: And how would you explain this?

Oh, well, look at the Tarot. What's the first card? It's a... it's the Fool, you know. It's a holy useful man.

D.: Now at this point I must ask for the Unabomber. Is he a copy of Thoreau or is this like Chaplin? Or what kind of fool is he?

I wish he was Charlie Chaplin. No, I think he is a very poor imitation of Charlie Chaplin. I, you know, he is probably Chaplin as a schizophrenic. Probably... That's probably his problem: paranoia, which is a form of schizophrenia.

D.: And why do you think so?

Well, you know, taking a rubber life [boat] and going out in silence and trying to stop an aircraft carrier, it is very much like sending bombs in the mail to scientists. It does absolutely no good. It gets in the newspaper, perhaps, but it's a work of sheer egotism. It's falling, you know. That's a real fool. Not a clever fool. Well, I suppose you could have a whole culture of the Unabombers. I mean, my God, near where I was raised we have a whole [lot] of Unabombers, if that's what you want?

L.D.: Why do we have a culture of Unabombers [in the US]?

I think it's pure frustration. I think it's desperation, frustration, a lack of [or] unsophisticated understanding of their own religion.

D.: And the reason for that?

Somehow we have to see the West - mostly the United States, a little bit Europe - as being the Great Satan. The great, you know, the great evil in the world. I ... that's very interesting, I mean ...

I talked to Duchamp. I had a chance when I came home from San Francisco in 1961 and I was just getting out of graduate school, and I saw a notice in the [Yale] Art School. And one of the teachers who was a teacher of French art history knew Duchamp in New York and he asked him to come out. And he had a school of backward art students. And so he made a whole seminar of different people, like [Buckminster] Fuller and John Cage, to come and talk to his backward art students at Yale. I thought this was hilarious. And so, since I was interested, I came and sat in. I was very fortunate because most of the people - there were about 15 - knew nothing about Duchamp's work, except he was crazy. He was sort of a failed Dadaist who sort of pooped out in the late 20th and stopped making art. So I had a chance to talk to him and ask him a lot of questions. And he was extremely interesting, in his way, in what he didn't say, as well as what he did say...

I said, well have you ever thought of taking some of the machines in the Large Glass and translating them into three dimensions and making real things out of them? He says: 'Oh God, no, [perish the] thought. We don't need any of that.' And I was thinking of Jean Tinguely, things like that, at that time, and he said, you know, it's an allegory, you know. And it's an allegory that works on many different levels. But there was one fellow in the class who was insane. He was schizophrenic. And he was an artist and his thing was to go to, say, seminars or go to lectures by [big] artists, and to do his piece, which was to insult the artist. And it was amazing because he began to... He got on everybody's nerves... because he began to insult Duchamp. And Duchamp just sat there and smiled and smiled and... to a point where he really got dangerous and I said look, I think you should go now. And the teachers, the professor said yes, please go now. And he said okay, raise your hands, everybody who really wants me to go. Everybody raised their hands, so he fortunately left, so that Duchamp could keep on talking.

But Duchamp was working on his Étant Donné, his large new figure for the Philadelphia Museum, at that time. And I asked him if he was working on something secret, and he giggled. And I said: 'Do you have it on 14th street?' Because I knew that was where his studio was. And he said, well, he didn't. He wouldn't say. But of course that's what he was working on. And of course that has many pieces of lead in it. Because lead is an outcoming symbol of this decay that I'm talking about, where technology and art begin a self-decay...

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