A Conversation w/ Oliver Hockenhull
The following email conversation took place over the course of a month (in the spring/summer of 2014) upon the acquisition of Oliver Hockenhull’s Robot Pavlov Sputnik (2014) for active Video Out Distribution at VIVO Media Arts Centre. Some of Oliver’s new work in distribution will be shown as part of an upcoming Recent Acquistions Screening at the centre this November.
Jeremy Todd, Outreach & Distribution, VIVO/Video Out: Robot Pavlov Sputnik, your latest work in active Video Out Distribution, seems consistent with a lot of your output already with us — in conflating or amalgamating research, historical subjects/figures/visionaries, art and a fascination with altered states of consciousness — I’m thinking of everything from Aldous Huxley: The Gravity of Light (1997) to Neurons to Nirvana (2013) — even though the new work focuses on a kind of structural reinvention of a preexisting work for its genesis. Were some of these elements a part of your practice as an emerging artist and filmmaker? Have these interests always been interrelated within your practice.
Oliver Hockenhull: Please note that there are two versions of Neurons to Nirvana — one is From Neurons to Nirvana: The Great Medicines (108 min) and has much to do with what is termed the Bardo state in Tibetan Buddhism, the near death experience accessible via high dose psychedelics. The second version of the film is called Neurons to Nirvana: Understanding Psychedelic Medicines (69 min) and is much more of an advocacy film. Both works include extensive interviews with a large number of research scientists and therapists who work with psychedelics, individuals who are well accredited and who are doing research at major institutions like John Hopkins, UCLA, and NYU.
I do not have a fascination with altered states of consciousness. I do have an interest in questions of consciousness and society. The films you mention (the Huxley film, N2N) are only one current within a stream of works that includes experimental films, art/political films & installations — subjects ranging from architecture to evolution and installations involving Kafka, information theory and chance.
I haven’t been an emerging artist for a bit less than three decades, but I do continue to delight, and wish to delight, in visual intensities that evoke the ecstatic and sublime. I think in general the documentary form is exceedingly stale and unimaginative, that all manners of dominant cinemas rarely use the extraordinary capabilities of the medium to intrigue the more astute or less conditioned viewer. As Vertov has said (and it continues to hold true) cinema was co-opted by those powers and those makers who sell the medium as some manner of theatrical narrative. My interest in motion pictures is in the medium’s ability to be as complex as any visual artwork and to be as intellectually inviting as the most literary of genres. This includes narrative but also so much more. Life’s too short to be stingy. I is an expansive engagement.
Robot Pavlov Sputnik is visual art — though the historical references are alive and pertinent to our circumstances. The clip of Pavlov derived from one of the earliest documentaries, Mechanics of the Brain by Pudovkin in 1926, the sputnik clip from 1957 (the year humankind made an excursion off the cocoon of the planet). The more that historical study is given its fair due the more opportunity there is for an open future — but we do live in a gnat like culture, a culture with the attention span of gnats! My works are often best understood as a speaking of the future by an appreciation of the struggles of history — which means the root politics of the day.
“[…] Nothing that has ever happened should be regarded as lost for history. To be sure only a redeemed mankind receives the fullness of its past — which is to say, only a redeemed mankind has its past become citable in all its moments. Each moment it has lived becomes a citation à l’ordre du jour — and that day is Judgment Day.” – Walter Benjamin
VO: In asking about the formation of your work as an emerging artist I wanted to get a sense of how the diversity of contents and processes within your practice have come into being. Perhaps you can talk more about questions of consciousness and society? Given this interest (and quotation of Walter Benjamin here), I wonder if you’ve been thinking for a long time about various critical concepts associated with the Frankfurt School and New Left in relation to post-war consumer culture and capitalist relations (such as false consciousness), or, perhaps some of the ideas articulated within psychedelic counterculture (such as Terrance McKenna’s assertion that culture and ideology are not one’s friends)?
OH: Yes the Frankfurt school, but also the phenomenology of Merleau Ponty, Karl Jaspers, the writings of Dziga Vertov, Malevich, Bataille, Freud, McLuhan, Brecht, Bookchin’s Communalism, German romantic philosophers, Bateson, information theorists, Philp K. Dick, Longchenpa, Huxley, Orwell, Zielinski, Ernst Bloch, Marion, the Buddha. It goes on and on. Nothing is lost. It all becomes in some intuitive way the ground from which a work is assuredly built upon.
So there are quite endless influences, yet there is a gravitational pull based on perceived social necessity towards an appreciation of consilience; of the partnering of the sciences and the humanities, an appreciation of the technological as an embodiment of cultural codes, of a need to understand communication technologies as forms of layered rhetoric.
It’s a grand agenda, to re-conceive time and the time-based mediums, to recover the import of history and a fostering of the culture of the future “not-yet”, a distanciation to make meanings, thought shared, thought democratized, a sort of framing of modernism and post modernism illuminated and colored by a sci-fi encompassing baroque — the Real by another name.
We live in a military state founded on colonialism. Presently an oligarchy rules whose main products are domination, subsistence, ignorance & anxiety — for everyone else. These are not random ravings. They’re practically mainstream analysis… Think of the recent papers out of Princeton and Northwestern detailing the facts of the US as an oligarchy, or look at the attention that Thomas Piketty’s book Capital has received.
The vast majority of individuals don’t recognize (or don’t wish to recognize) how profoundly marked, limited and controlled they (and their ideas and social placements) have become under such a regime. The outrageous economic disparities of our society prevent us from making the open society we not only crave but require for our survival, let alone our fulfillment (psychologically, aesthetically, spiritually, materially). Our current institutional/medium/sphere and educational systems are an imposition of control, profoundly repressive and pervasively, perversely hierarchical — it’s basically a monetization of consciousness — our brains repackaged as media/dopamine hits per second — consciousness enslaved as a product transit of consumption and status recognition.
We’re also mind-colonized to uphold unquestioningly the elite and to accredit the circus illusions of our parliamentary democracies as legitimate structures of power that are assured and given substance by the Currency of the Realm — the means to pay for our peon rental existence — the ridiculously patriarchal God, the foreign Queen and the absent Country, the makeshift community in the company town called Canada, imprinted with the symbol of a hardworking beaver, a beer, a gas-guzzler mega truck and a hockey puck.
“Control of thought is more important for governments that are free and popular than for despotic and military states. The logic is straightforward: a despotic state can control its domestic enemies by force, but as the state loses this weapon, other devices are required to prevent the ignorant masses from interfering with public affairs, which are none of their business … the public are to be observers, not participants, consumers of ideology as well as products.” – Noam Chomsky
Canadians are prone to believing that they have some modicum of liberalism within their state media institutions. They provide an illusion of availability, of participatory engagement in support of “Canadian expression”, but these organizations are not in the business of democratic participation, they shun dialogue and ignore criticism.
To quote Chomsky again, people “entering the system are unlikely to make their way unless they conform to these ideological pressures, generally by internalizing the values; it is not easy to say one thing and believe another, and those who fail to conform will tend to be weeded out by familiar mechanisms”.
Ok so that’s that.
My own work has taken place within the margins of the diy movement, bolstered on the rare occasion by patrons and investors, and by peer juries at the Canada Council for the Arts and BC Culture.
VO: When I first watched Robot Pavlov Sputnik I was engaged by a kind of hypnotically instantaneous visual experience. I was reminded of the immersive immediacy that has often been ascribed to modern abstraction in painting — despite the complex palimpsest of meanings and references within Robot Pavlov Sputnik and its durational form. Was painting on your mind as the work developed?
OH: Yes. Colour was on the mind followed by form conditioned by time. My mother was an abstract expressionist influenced by the Refus Global movement. The painterly interests I have were first inspired by her.
VO: I wonder how many artists with video work in the VIVO archives can identify with that response (colour was on the mind followed by form conditioned by time)?
OH: I don’t think my aesthetics — which are often formal, sometimes quite technical and characterized by the experimental film tradition, the film essay form or painterly interests — fit into what Video Out is most known for, or in terms of the personal background of the founders of the institution.
VO: I’m led to a question I’ve wanted to ask from the beginning of this exchange. What has your relationship to VIVO been like over the years?
OH: I first engaged as a student at SFU with VIVO (when it was the Satellite Video Exchange Society). I think Paul Wong was the director at the time.
I liked the open ambience of the centre — something I think it has managed to hold onto throughout the years and I’ve continued to be impressed by — also its outreach to various communities, its rooted stance on the coast & politics, and most importantly, the embrace of innovations in technologies and the priority of art making over the ambitions of an industrial mode of production. I’ve always felt welcomed even if I never was a close member of the VO community or involved in the organizational structure.
VO: Have you and your practice benefited from various people and activities involved with the centre?
OH: The people in the distribution area have been a great help in attempting to get my media works out into the world and the gear access has always been trouble free. I’ve been to a few quite good parties/screenings/art talks and gave at least one lecture presentation about the web — for artists back in the day. VIVO gave us (Alex Mackenzie and I) a letter of support for our DAMP book project. I took a processing workshop last summer sponsored by VIVO and enjoyed it tremendously. Yes, I have benefited from the association and do hope to contribute more to the organization in one way or another. How about a photophone system [based on the first wireless telephone message by Bell and Tainter, June 3, 1880] to communicate by visible light beams, bouncing lasers and an array of mirrors throughout the new building?
VO: That would be amazing Oliver. You’ll have to help us with a project grant for that initiative. Speaking of new ideas and projects, can you tell me about some of the things you’re working on right now?
OH: Seeking sponsors, commissions, residencies and support for (in order of conceptual history):
a) the Photophone project
b) Reading the Similkameen (a documentary on the Similikameen river read as information)
c) experiments in fog & water screens — sort of a live compositing screening/sculptural presentation system
d) a dramatic script, Blessed, that speaks to Vancouver — an Iñárritu formally inspired raincoast magic realist script
e) most currently/active — Citizen Planet: The Empire of Meaning, a speculative documentary/ebook on governance in the digital age
The human species has entered a new phase of evolution; we have the ability to define clearly and with some precision our own evolutionary path as the result of our increasing facility with a technology that is nearing the realm of the fantastical. I am not talking about advancing democracy by making more efficient and sticky electronic bulletin boards or proposing that direct democracy will be hastened by the inclusion of a comment thread on a news story. The ambitions of the project and the covenant of the exponential curve of humanities’ growing computational and technological ability are acutely dramatic and beyond vivid.
I am working at crowd funding/sourcing Citizen Planet: The Empire of Meaning on the new dana crowd funding site.
f) finding an archival home for some of my early films and finding some cultural institution to finance the digital transfer of the film, Determinations (70 minutes, 16mm, 1987, on the Squamish Five Direct Action Group).
VO: Thanks very much for this conversation Oliver. Your energy and engagement are truly inspirational. We look forward to your next submission to Video Out.