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Photograph: Andrew Tess

Tony Oursler on art, technology, deep history and the Hudson River

Tony Oursler’s love letter to New York connects the dots between the telegraph and AI, Timothy Leary and Frederic Church

By Paul Laster
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A New York-based multimedia artist, Tony Oursler makes fractured narratives that mix technology with storytelling. Exhibited internationally, Oursler latest project, which was commissioned by the Public Art Fund, takes place through Halloween at Riverside Park. A love song to New York, Tear of the Cloud uses digital projection on the remains of an abandoned gantry, a weeping willow tree and the waters of the Hudson River to tell the tale of the city constructed from elements of history and urban myths. TONY recently sat down with the artist at his LES studio to discuss his theories on how things from the telegraph to artificial intelligence—and plenty in-between—are interrelated.

Photograph: Andrew Tess

How did you come to video as an art form?

I started as a painter at Cal Arts and got introduced to the Portapak [an early protable video camera and tape deck system] about 10 minutes after I arrived there. I had always felt that something was missing from my paintings, in a visceral way. Growing up as a TV-generation guy, it seemed to just click immediately. From that moment on it was a kind of energy that worked with making images.

You usually merge video with sculpture, right?

Sculpture and installation, as well as painting—wall works and screens, as I call them. It’s the juice that flows through all of it. I make a few things that don’t plug in, but not that many.

Are you more into the narrative or the visual impact?

Good question. I was very conscious of that with Tear of the Cloud because I had returned to fractured narrative in my last two or three projects. I’m not a classical storyteller, even though there’s language in the work. I’m not an historian, even though a lot of previous projects have had elements of real events in them. I had to kind of say to myself, ‘this is visual work.’ I may inject sound, language, motion and this and that, but my emphasis is on visual art—otherwise, I’d be making movies or writing books.

What’s the storyline for this Public Art Fund project?

It’s about the Hudson River. I see it as a mnemonic sequence of things that I experienced growing up near it. Whenever I traveled up the river, I’d note Spuyten Duyvil or Sing Sing prison; you’re going up the river means you’re going to jail at Sing Sing. Then there’s the Palisades where movies were shot by early silent film studios in Fort Lee. This was going on in my head all of the time and I wanted to bring it out. It’s a shared circumstance. We all have a way of registering where we are.

How did you choose this site and how are you transforming it?

It was a matter of finding the right location. I worked with the Public Art Fund to see what areas might be available and what might be possible. We combed the shores until we found this fantastic park, where we chose five different points for projections around an abandoned gantry. I wanted to work with a mix of language, music, performance and imagery. I’m painting areas with computer registrations of characters and tropes that I developed for the spot.

How many historical subjects are you referencing?

There are about 40 scenes, but it’s not only connected to history. We’re constructing history at any moment, at least that’s my strategy for this project. There are layers of information. I wanted to connect the present and the past. For example, the Internet couldn’t exist without the talking drum and Samuel Morse. Things that happened 200-300 years ago are actually still happening right now. I tried to draw a line from today backwards and forward in time.

Photograph: Andrew Tess

I see that the artist Edward Hopper is one of the subjects. What role does he have in your scenario?

I grew up in Nyack and there were three artists that have permeated my childhood and adult life: Edward Hopper, Joseph Cornell and Thomas Wilfred. Hopper was always a presence. His painting of a house in Haverstraw inspired the Bates Mansion in the movie Psycho. Friends of mine broke into his home in Nyack and stole the bed and sold it to a junk shop, but it was rescued back before the house became an historic site. All of the houses in Nyack look like the houses in his paintings, so I kind of grew up in his art. He’s really a presence, but Cornell ends up more often in the piece because of his use of appropriation. I wedded him to scratching and Grandmaster Flash, who becomes Cornell and then his muse, Rose Hobart, who talks about the House Un-American Activities Committee—it’s a long digression, as I tend to do.

Is there a narrative that you’ve constructed from these disparate parts or does the viewer create his own?

The viewer definitely creates his own story. I point to certain unexpected connections, but I like to leave it open. For example, I use the image of a horse, which I connect to the legend of The Headless Horsemen, Edgar Allan Poe’s reference to Henry Fuseli’s painting The Nightmare, and the origin of cinema with Muybridge’s animated horse. Then I stumbled upon the encoding of those horse images onto DNA and the headless association with Timothy Leary’s supposed decapitation after death, which may be a hoax. We kind of melt his head in the piece, like he melted so many other people’s heads with LSD.

How do you get from Jimi Hendrix to artificial intelligence bots?

I connect Electric Lady Studio, which Hendrix founded, and his album Axis Bold as Love, which has the Indian mandela tableau, to the early, Gothic multicultural patched-together architecture of Frederic Church's house, Olana, which takes us to the Hudson River School and utopian experimentation that went on Upstate. You follow that down to Hendrix and Leary’s estate at Milbrook, but you get to artificial intelligence through the horse again, which is symbolized by the chess piece. It’s the knight move that destabilized the Russian chess master Kasparov in his losing game against the IBM supercomputer Deep Blue in 1997.

Photograph: Andrew Tess

Your depiction of the Oneida Community [a religious commune founded in 1848] looks like a trailer for an S/M or horror film. Is there an underlying spooky nature to the project?

Well, let’s say that the final day of the three-week run is going to be Halloween. However, I tend to drift that way myself, even though I tried to reign myself away from anything from the previous projects that had to do with overt spiritualism. I’ve studied a lot of the Upstate cults and became fascinated with Oneida because their use of craft in supporting themselves through the production of silverware and hunting traps. They were also a kind of free-love group that tried to rethink sexual bonding by having non-sticky interactions, as they called it. Oddly enough, a lot of their advertising hinted at eroticism.

What does the title refer to?

It refers to Lake Tear of the Clouds, which is said to be the source of the Hudson River. As soon as I discovered that I said this project is blessed with poetry on some other level. I updated and altered the name to reference the digital Cloud.

Do you hope to leave viewers in a New York State of mind?

Absolutely, it’s a love song to New York. I looked at the Seal of New York City, with the native American on one side and the settler on the other side, and thought, what a strange symbol when everyone’s talking about immigration today. When did we forget that aside from Native American we’re all immigrants? What I love about New York is that all cultures are accepted here. It’s the possibility of what America can be. As many mistakes as we have made, the main message of this piece is that creativity moves us forward.

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