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Tony Oursler: Imagining the Future of Our Collective Unconscious

January 26, 2021


The new year reliably brings with it thoughts of what’s next, new hopes, new fears, new visions (and maybe vision boards). We think back, we plan ahead, we dream, and project our own image of what’s to come.

Plans, projections, dreams — should our goals for tomorrow, next week, the rest of 2021 and then some, be defined by realism? What about idealism, even fantasy? What use is the inscrutable, the insular, the hermetic in building a collective future?

Artist Tony Oursler finds himself continually enraptured by the oneric, the hypnotic, and the otherwordly; he is keenly aware of the overlap between of the mystical and the technological, how prophetic and confusing and mesmerizing both can be

AWGTHTGTWTA (Are We Going to Have to Go Through with This Again?) is a video project from 2008 inspired by the online gaming and chatting habits of contemporary kids and teenagers, developed in collaboration with students from Liberty High School and Clinton Middle School in Chelsea. Oursler asked the students, many of them recent immigrants for whom English was not their first language, to write about their ideal or fantasy place and their images of the future then recorded them reading their responses. (All the participates are well into adulthood now; it would be great to hear their current day reactions not only to their youthful responses but to that moment in time, the era of their adolescence.) The artist also wrote a script to be performed by the chorus of teenagers and filmed their group chanting. The resulting piece combines scenes of the students reciting the text in unison, excerpts of their imaginative responses to Oursler’s question, and video clips, found on the Internet, of compulsive online gaming, SMS text messaging shorthand, and YouTube improvisations. The six-and-a-half-minute single-channel video was projected on a wall of the basketball court at the Fulton Houses, a New York City Housing Authority facility that provides government-subsidized housing.

To be fair, the messages were muddled. But, in tapping into personal visions and interpersonal forms of communication, Oursler cracked open the intense mutability of language, its flexibility and inventiveness and fantastic reinventions, its ability to be both deeply personal and unifying, exclusive and communal, meaningful and nonsensical. Oursler is adeptly attuned to the possibility and precarity of digital authorship, particularly if young people’s only experince thereof is mediated by Big Tech. What kind of language(s) create a community or define a generation? With what tools exactly will the future be built? What is the Internet but a form of collective consciousness?

This interview with Oursler about the project, originally conducted in the fall of 2017, has been edited for length and clarity; you can read the full piece in More Art in the Public Eye, now available from Duke University Press.

AWGTHGTWTA is very interested in the collected voice of a group chant. Within the chant, within the chorus, you’ve got individuals who then form a group, and things get kind of amplified or expanded upon in a group. That feeling was very much part of what I was thinking about: trying to get the notion of a chorus, of a group of people working together, working their way through time, identifying as a generation, and then sort of splitting apart into these individual stories. In that sense, it almost takes on a kind of musical composition, like concrete music. [The composition was generated] on the spot of shooting and then augmented later. The authorship moves around.

The idea [was] to get a group together and speaking a unified text — some of which they wrote, some of which I wrote, some of which was found — and to then re-present it in the community where their school is and where there’s a kind of proximity to their life in general. Having it presented on the walls of the buildings in Chelsea, which might also be inhabited with graffiti, provided a platform for the kids to exert agency over their environment and to give them a position of transgression. When you walk around New York and you see these kinds of scribblings on the wall or detritus of graffiti in general, you can’t help but think of a kind of collective unconscious that harkens back to the fundamental language of human expression, akin to cave painting or something like that. There’s something so primary about marking a surface like that, that says, Hey I was here, or I exist in this spot, I’ve been here, I’ve marked my turf in some way. I wanted to just play with that a little.

I’m interested in utopian notions as a kind of social agitator, as a progressive idea in general. And the younger the kids are, the more fantastical their approach is, and more optimistic, hopefully. I was hoping to use that as a bit of a barometer of the group. Of course they’re our future, so it’s important to hear what they have to say in general about their notion of an ideal situation. The piece really had to do with the language of kids. Roughly half were English as a second language [learners], I believe, so I was kind of juxtaposing their nascent accents with this notion of “future speak,” and of course looking at the crossover among the kids who were from another culture. The process by which immigrants are incorporated into society and how they then become the new society, that’s a very particular American saga that really interested me. It’s really a vernacular poetry that I was interested in, blending the texting; the subcultural language that involves slang; and the subgroup of teenage, adolescent language use as a way of forming identity into the future, and [seeing] how that changes from one moment to the next. I’m sure a lot of the acronyms we used are obsolete now, there are new ones cropping up. There’s an idealism [in] that language, a kind of hope and optimism. Somehow that’s what I see, that it’s new and individuated from one point to the next. I’m kind of a slang collector — I love it from all eras — so the acronyms of the phone, of texting, I thought it was absolutely wonderful. And of course [it] separates one generation from the next. I had to look it all up. I couldn’t understand any of it; it was all new, it was Greek to me.

I was really interested in taking the stuff that was partially hermetic — these things that were between friends, these missives between friends on the phone, or these hypnotic game spaces which are often made privately and in these almost kind of trance states — and putting it out there for people to think about a bit, to air it out in that sense.

There’s a kind of ebb and flow with what you’re suggesting about the collective unconscious — I’ve always loved that notion. Regardless of its veracity, I’d like to think that there could be a collective kind of progress in some way, although recently it’s hard to believe that that’s occurring. Again that goes back to the kids and thinking about them as the future and wading into this great pool of their ideas and their hopes, and putting it back out there to feed into the cycle.

I’ve said that how we deal with the moving image is probably one of the most important things that we do in terms of the future of culture. People have taken that as, “Well, you’re a video artist, of course you think it’s super important.” That’s not what I mean. What I’m talking about is: if authorship is made impossible, we’re doomed.

These kids are learning a kind of language by participating in this stream [of cultural communication], immersing themselves in this flow of images. But the point is then to activate them creatively. Another part of this process was to show the kids that you can get a camera, shoot some things, play around in front of the camera, edit it, project it, and then have it be a project in some sense. Open up [the media-making process] for them to see how it’s done. But there’s a larger issue at stake, about enabling people to use these technologies for their own stories and for their own creativity and to talk to one another in their own language — [instead of] a corporate language or a corporate filter and so forth. So when I say it’s the most important thing, I don’t mean that it’s the most important thing as opposed to painting or some other structure; what I’m talking about is that it’s the most important thing in that we have to learn to control this technology.

I’m interested in measurements of time. If the culture is spending like 60 percent of its time doing something, then that’s the area that people have to engage with. It’s not rocket science here and it’s not about mediums — I’m talking about people being able to engage in and control the forms that they’re immersed in. If you have kids who don’t understand computers and don’t understand computing and spend all day doing that, then who controls it? The question that remains is how to set people up to act with agency.

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Excerpts are from More Art in the Public Eye, distributed by Duke University Press, now available in paperback and ebook formats; Micaela Martegani, Jeff Kasper, Emma Drew, editors.

Header image:AWGTHTGTWTA (Are We Going to Have to Go Through with This Again?) (2008) combined neighborhood students’ drawings and dreams, group chanting, and Internet chat and gaming slang to create a new hyper-specific vernacular. The final composition was projected on the basketball court at the Fulton Houses in Chelsea, Manhattan. Project by Tony Oursler, commissioned by More Art. Image courtesy of the artist.