Reality: Virtual versus Perceived
Geoff Bunn on the development and philosophy of virtual art
Chris Todd: Much of your work, but not all of it, and that of Marc and ... (the others) is set in a virtual world. Not ever produced. Not concretised. I'm thinking of your Unfound Work and also of The Trees by Bergerman. It's a deliberate attempt to leave things unattainable except in idea. Is that why and how you are called by some a Conceptual artist?
Geoff Bunn: Yes. And of course that had been done before by other Conceptual artists.... (there was) work which had never actually been produced and yet it was considered valid. As for the label 'Conceptualist', to insist on a label, from the outset, that was my idea. I like labels. They can be used to advantage.
CT: But it was the internet, back in the late 1990's, which gave you the new medium, the new vehicle, for the 'old' Conceptualist idea?
GB: Well, no, in fact it began in the late 1980's on what was, in effect, the precursor to the internet. (Bunn is referring to 'Joint Academic NETwork' - editor). We realised that we could create effects on distant computers and so change the 'reality' that people could see on their monitors. We did this in a rudimentary artistic manner by using flashing screens and so forth. But of course from the outset there was a problem. As a completely new media and something so very little understood even today - I mean philsophically speaking - it did, and still does, create it's own unique problems.
CT: Could you elaborate?
GB: Well the internet has, really, to be viewed like a large book. A mixture of fact and fiction. Today, still, and to my surprise really, too many people still do not see it like this...
CT: People take it too literally?
GB: Yes. When (in fact) it is really like Ulysses (A seminal work by the author James Joyce - editor) with a language all of it's own. An insane plotless narrative. And of course anyone - and everyone - can and ought to contribute a sentence, paragraph or chapter. It is a fantastically anarchistic space.
CT: People expect the internet to tell them the truth? Whatever that particular 'truth' may be.
GB: Well, yes and no. I think the majority of ordinary folk probably take a lot of what they find on the internet with a pinch of salt. They are usually too busy trying to make ends meet to care about petty arguments on the internet. But there are still plenty of (more intellectual) folk who see the internet as some sort of repository of reality. Only it has to be their own version of reality. And if what they find on the internet challenges their inner 'comfort', in any way, they can get very offended...
CT: Yes. That is a familiar sight on internet forums across the world. But do you think it this is because people fail to see the limitations of their own 'old' reality as it were?
GB: I wouldnt put it quite like that. But yes, there is a struggle between these two realities today. We were only dimly aware of it back in the late 80's and early 90's. But now there is, on the one hand, the reality we all 'know' - which we learn or are told. And then there is that of the collective and virtual world.
CT: Geoff, what do you say to those people who say that what you and the others do is not art?
GB: (Laughs) Well, I suppose it's a compliment really. They called Braque and Picasso fakes when they advocated Cubism. The same thing happened with the Impressionists. It's what generally happens in art, I think. Anything new, really new and so outside of the commercial space, is called nonsense or whatever. The artist is usually called a charlatan.
CT: And would that trouble you, being called a charlatan?
GB: No. Not at all. I don't expect everyone to understand the almost limitless nature of reality. Especially of virtual reality.
CT: But, then, there is an irony here, isn't there? The art establishment itself has no problem with what you do. Albeit it has been slow to accept it. But it is invariably artists, outside of that establishment but desperate to break into it, who point the accusing finger at virtual art and insist it is not 'real' art.
GB: You may be right. But I've never met an artist who claimed that. At least, not so far. Generally artists are ready to embrace new ideas.
CT: And what about those who accuse you of using the art world for your own ends?
GB: Oh well I agree with them. I do use it for my own ends. (But) I don't know of any artist who has not done so...
CT: So, to sum up, your work is all to do with the nature of reality: it is about the idea of what is and what is not 'real'. Or, put another way, it is to do with the notion of accepted reality. Of the limitations on it. That people only call accepted 'things' real and so argue, often angrily, that anything else, any other viewpoint is necessarily 'false'.
GB: Yes. Exactly. For example, in art today, success is all about publicity. And the 'reality' which flows from that. It is about a public being told what is art and what is good. And, so by ommission, what is not art, not good. It has very little to do with artistic ability. Even less to do with integrity.
CT: It's a form of brainwashing?
GB: A commercial form. If you like, yes. In art, there are thousands of truly competent and often quite brilliant artists out there. Craftsmen and craftswomen too. But they will never hang on the walls of the National Gallery because they did not get that lucky break. Often, they were not born into the right family at the right time. So they are not broadcast in the press.
CT: Starved of the air of publicity, they are not called "great" and so the rest of us are not led to admire them. In art terms, it's a horrible loss?
GB: I think so, yes.
CT: And all of this ties in with the notion, you have expressed elsewhere, that you do not believe in genius per se?
GB: Yes. It is frankly nonsense to suggest that every Rembrandt is the work of genius. A lot of his work is pretty ghastly. And only really of interest to the art historian...
CT: So there is no genius?
GB: No. I have never said that. Quite the opposite really. Genius flares up within a person. But within any person. Then, usually, it soon dies back down...
CT: Everyone is a genius?
GB: Anyone can be.
CT: But no-one can be all of the time?
GB: That is what I dispute and why I object to the whole notion of "great artist". There is great art. There are great moments. But there are no remorselessly great artists.