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Video Games, Cosmology, Kabbalah: Suzanne Treister’s Inspirations

The prophetic new media artist speaks with Las Bang Larsen about her practice and collaboration with CERN

Lars Bang Larsen You bought a Commodore Amiga computer in 1991 and, using the graphics program Deluxe Paint II, created fictional video game stills. You titled one of these series of works ‘Q. Would you recognise a Virtual Paradise?’ [1992]. Would it be relevant to ask the same today, 30 years down the line and many digital revolutions later?

Suzanne Treister Well, people seem to ask that same question today, as if it were a new question, which I find a little disturbing. Back in the late 1980s, when I became interested in the idea of video games, my mind was in overdrive as I tried to imagine how these new technologies might affect society, our way of life and the planet. It felt like parallel hallucinatory universes were being formed, with huge paradigm shifts lurking ahead. In the early 1990s, I would go to SegaWorld at the Trocadero in London’s Piccadilly Circus, where you could find virtual-reality games on the top floor. You put on a headset, with your body surrounded by a padded barrier so that you didn’t wander blindly off IRL, and entered a VR chequerboard platform in outer space. In that world, there were monsters on staircases that led to a zone that stopped you when the code ended, making it impossible to jump off into the cosmos. My ‘Virtual Paradise’ works were more about the future of technology itself and its possible dangers and downsides. For instance, texts on the game screens read: ‘Not enough memory for operation’, ‘Now enter a virtual wilderness’ and ‘No message [proceed]’.

LBL As a painter, working with computers must have felt like a leap out of art. I suppose that the UK art scene at the time didn’t offer much in the way of a context for new tech experimentation. Was your computer an escape vehicle?

ST I didn’t know any artists who had a computer. At the time, they were very unfashionable and people feared the technological erasure of humanity – as many still do today, in the face of AI and machine learning. People warned me that I would be ‘taken over’, and they assumed that the computer would generate the work without any human input. It felt like I’d travelled to a whole new planet, where I was totally alone. In the late 1980s, no one really understood my paintings of video games. I remember a studio visit from the Arts Council; they asked me what a video game was.

In a way, it was inevitable for me to start working on computers, since they were the medium of the games themselves. I felt I needed to use that digital language to address the issues. It happened in a flash: one minute, I was reading William Gibson’s Neuromancer [1984]; the next minute, I was on Tottenham Court Road spending my savings on the Amiga; and, by that afternoon, I had worked out how to use Deluxe Paint II to make imaginary videogame stills. It felt like a weird moment of no return and a brilliant escape from the small London art world of the time, which seemed to be all about career paths and the market – not what I had bargained for as an idealistic teenager.

LBL This all happened a few years before Donna Haraway published Modest_Witness@Second_Millennium. FemaleMan®_Meets_OncoMouse™ [1997], in which she took to task contemporary technoscientific narratives for being ‘salvation dramas’, promising fulfilment and the restoration of human nature. ‘Art and technology’ has often been an arena for dialogue with the metaphysical promises of engineering, cybernetics, cutting edge media and so on. But, in your work, you have consistently made a conjunction with alchemical art, cosmograms and Jewish mysticism that makes any rationality feel superimposed. Are these metaphors for the hidden irrationality of our tech imaginaries?

ST From my teens, in the 1970s, I was interested in Kabbalah, philosophy, socio-political systems, prejudice, psychology, non-Western belief systems and ideas of the paranormal in relation to the boundaries of science. I wanted to get my head around all of it and save the world. I had this feeling that art could reveal and express other layers of reality. The digital is relatively immaterial – code transmuting in and out of hallucinatory images and texts – and felt like possibly a more direct path to the transcendental, a more eloquent means of exploring alternative or new states of consciousness and understanding beyond observable realities and current socio-political paradigms, than the materiality of traditional art forms.

In 1993, I began a project that envisioned software applications of the future – what we now call apps. These works consisted of painted boxes and floppy discs describing the imaginary software, which was so hypothetical that it could only be suggested by invented titles and handmade images. At the time, I was only aware of civilian software for word processing, accounting and basic imaging, so the work – SOFTWARE/Q. Would you recognise a Virtual Paradise?/Sacred Vision [1993], for example – both suggested and questioned the transcendent and transformative possibilities of these new technologies.

LBL Your work seems like a deliberately contradictory third way of inquiry that steers clear of tech hype and boosterism on the one side, and new-media utopias on the other. How does gender factor into all of this – for instance, with your time travelling heroine Rosalind Brodsky, from Time Travelling with Rosalind Brodsky?

ST When I started that project in 1995, I totally got into the programming, which was a radical thing for a woman to do at the time. I made an interactive, multimedia CD-ROM that allowed users to explore the life of my alter-ego, who worked for a time-travel research institute until her death in 2058. She visited the Russian Revolution of 1917, London and Paris in the 1960s, and attempted to rescue her grandparents from the Holocaust. She underwent psychoanalysis with Sigmund Freud, Carl Jung, Melanie Klein, Julia Kristeva and Jacques Lacan. She had a television cookery show, a band in the 2030s, and a spy satellite probe in outer space constructed from Jeanne-Claude and Christo’s Wrapped Reichstag [1995]. The whole thing was a one-woman trip around the universe, which allowed me to deal with the horrors of my family history on my Polish Jewish father’s side, in relation to my own identity as a 20th century female artist. The Holocaust made me into a futurist because I wanted to anticipate impending dangers.

After the grassroots net-politics period of the 1990s, I became disillusioned with new media and with the idea of the internet as a potential utopian space. It was becoming so corporatized and government-controlled; I returned primarily to traditional media to speak again about technology from the outside. For me, Marshall McLuhan’s widely accepted concept that the ‘medium is the message’ – from Understanding Media [1964] – is problematic because I am always somehow trying to transcend any media I use, but digital space suddenly felt more clogged with toxins than the history of art!

LBL You have dived deep into historical scenarios to read the future. The final part of your Brodsky project was HEXEN 2039 [2006], which – drawing on actual events – charts her research towards the development of mind-control technologies for the British Military. In HEXEN 2.0 [2009–11], you map genealogies of cybernetics in these wild, expansive diagrams.

ST Yes, HEXEN 2.0 explores the Macy Conferences [1946–53], which were aimed at preventing fascism in the aftermath of World War II by developing a cybernetic theory of the workings of the human mind in order to control it. And cybernetics has evolved right into the present day, into Web 2.0 and the internet of surveillance, feedback and control. This was the focus of HEXEN 2.0, which includes a tarot deck comprising all the data in the project, allowing groups of users to construct and analyse alternative futures.

LBL One of my favourite works of yours is The Spaceship [2013–18]. What kind of work is this? Is it a monument?

ST The Spaceship is part of a triptych of public works I made for the city of Bordeaux between 2013 and 2022. It re-creates one of the World War II battleships submerged in the Garonne River as a spaceship, in an attempt to raise the minds of the public away from the horrors of the past, to envision and construct a better future. So it is also a memorial, or you could say a monument. The second work, The Observatory [2013–17], transforms an existing observatory into a library of science fiction, whose authors convey utopian and dystopian visions of the future, on Earth and in outer space. The third work, an eco-green neoclassical pavilion titled The Well/Library Concerning a Technological Society [2013–22], focuses on the writings of French anarchist philosopher Jacques Ellul, whose book The Technological Society [1954] warned us that unless we control technology, technology will control us. Books by writers with related concerns are also housed in this library, and quotes from their writings are inscribed on the floor. A well leads to the waters of the Garonne, which, without the help of technology, would flood upwards into the pavilion and destroy the books.

LBL In your work, you insist that AI is both a cosmological and an aesthetic operation. The multi-platform projects Survivor (F) [2016–19] and The Escapist BHST (Black Hole Space Time) [2018–19] are like agit prop for a ‘relocation to new dimensions of lost consciousness’, as you write in one drawing, through the adventures of an intelligence – human or not – that appears to be consubstantial with technologies-to-come in some delirious, post-futuristic interplanetary sublation of our species. What tech-upheavals do you think next await humankind?

ST With these projects – as well as with Techno­shamanic Systems: New Cosmological Models for Survival [2020–21] and Kabbalistic Futurism [2021–22] – I am trying to create a futuristic poetics of data, AI and space travel. As meditations on the universe and future life on Earth, I see these as radical alternatives to the invasive agendas of private or corporate enterprises and government programmes, such as the exponential rise in human-data harvesting which are driving us towards the Singularity and societal control, plans for asteroid and planetary mining, and the colonization of Mars.

I am currently collaborating with 14 theoretical and experimental physicists at the European Organization for Nuclear Research [CERN] in Geneva, on a series of science-fiction short stories, titled Scientific Dreaming [2022–ongoing], asking them to imagine radical scientific breakthroughs which could lead to paradigm shifts in our understanding of the universe and possible massive outcomes for the planet. I have worked with them to construct plot diagrams from which they will write stories that reach deep into future hypotheticals. For example, what might happen if we develop fault-tolerant quantum computers or discover the nature of dark matter and dark energy.

LBL Apart from your studio, where do you go to meditate on possible posthuman futures? Gardening pops up in your practice, such as in HFT The Gardener [2014–15]. In Candide [1759], Voltaire famously responded to his Western contemporaries’ blind trust in progress, reason and science with the practical advice: ‘You must cultivate your own garden.’ Do you have a garden?

ST I don’t have a garden in London, but I spend a lot of time hiking in the mountains. This may be why I developed an interest in psychoactive plants – a focus of the HFT project, which entwined their data, using Hebrew gematria, with high-frequency trading and the global FT index to create a narrative that resulted in the work’s protagonist, Hillel Fischer Traumberg, becoming an outsider artist and developing theories of altered states in relation to holographic dimensions of consciousness. How would Voltaire write Candidenow, I wonder?

This article first appeared in frieze issue 231 with the headline ‘Interview: Suzanne Treister’.