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Alan Butler In Conversation with Alessandro Vincentelli

"The whole intention of the film and subsequently my remake is to overwhelm."

In BALTIC’s new group exhibition Digital Citizen – The Precarious Subject, Dublin-based artist Alan Butler presents the work On Exactitude in Science.

This two screen installation is a synchronized presentation of Godfrey Reggio's 1983 experimental film Koyaanisqatsi (1982) & Alan Butler's Koyaanisgtav (2017). Butler’s work uses the virtual worlds within popular video game Grand Theft Auto to create a shot-for-shot remake of Koyaanisqatsi. Featuring renowned music by Philip Glass, the narration-less Koyaanisqatsi. presents a visual essay in slow-motion and time-lapse of the many cities and natural landscapes across the United States of America.

Alessandro Vincentelli, Curator of Exhibitions & Research talks to artist Alan Butler about this new work and digital citizenship.

AV: When did you first gravitate to the possibilities of a game like Grand Theft Auto developed by Rock StarGames? Are you a gamer?

AB: Yes, I am a gamer, although I only really got into games properly in my late 20s. That said, I grew up playing some titles, such as the Civilization, Doom, and Grand Theft Auto series. I made my first work based on a video game in 2005, which was a single-channel video documenting a glitch in Grand Theft Auto: Vice City. Recently, more and more of my practice has involved exploring video game worlds. I am interested in these corporate virtual reality simulations as a sort of metaphorical space to explore our digital existence. However, I came to this place through an accidental gaming-as-research practice. The first significant project I made in this way, came about from my gamer life more than my artist life. It is a wide scoping series called ‘Down and Out in Los Santos,’ which photographically documents homelessness and poverty in Los Santos, the virtual city of Grand Theft Auto V. Having completed the story-driven components of the game twice over, I had been playing GTAV for about 18 months. One day, I was driving around inside game, doing absolutely nothing, and I noticed a gathering of homeless people under a bridge. I’d been so involved in the various acts of violence and capital accumulation, that I had not noticed that the city has a population of homeless people that exist as non-playable characters. They live on the peripheries of society. They gather in areas which form as a sort of byproduct to the hyper-capitalism all around. Anyway, I pulled my car over to the side of the road, got out of the vehicle and approached these digital creatures by foot. I took out my virtual smartphone (every player has one of these in the game, stored in their virtual pocket), and opened a camera app on it, called ‘Snapmatic’. It’s basically an Instagram replica. I started taking pictures of the homeless, their surroundings, their clothes, their mannerisms. From then on, I had abandoned the violence driven narrative of the game, to engage with what was going to be an extensive photographic documentary series about poverty in this game world. I have become interested in this modality of ‘peaceful interloper’ within these otherwise carnage-filled simulations.

Another project I have ongoing, spans many game titles, and is called ‘Virtual Botany Cyanotypes.’ Using the format of Anna Atkins’ botanical cyanotypes from the 19th Century, I have been exploring the ambient nature inside video game worlds and collecting plants, flowers, algae and grass specimens from various titles. I use these samples as exposure transparencies to produce real photochemical cyanotype prints. While they become works that embody a sort of virtual/real spectral presence, the series ultimately also documents the depth of realism and optical resolution of contemporary virtual reality experiences. They catalogue the complexity of digital worlds, and the details we might miss while exploring the main interface. I see so much potential for exploration in these worlds, and I want to know where is the point of access for artistic autonomy within a corporate virtual reality space. The more we exist in and around digital networks and their layers, the more important I believe this question to be. In fact, I think visual art is in a unique position to explore such philosophy. Perhaps even in a way that written practices cannot. The sensory realm is a perfect place to unravel the discourse around these environments, especially considering how immersive they are.

AV: It is an entire parallel world and it is a simulation of the United States. How real is it?
AB: Well throughout its ‘life’, the GTA series has simulated various locations around the USA. The last one GTAV, was a replica of Los Angeles and the rural surroundings of the south west of America, called Los Santos. The world of GTAIV was based in Liberty City, which is based on New York City. They are real in a photographic and cinematic sense for starters. So much of their narrative and aesthetic borrows and appropriates cinematic tropes and vernaculars. Aside from the scripted, story-driven narratives, they operate in a modality that is known as an ‘open-world’ game. This means, players can just explore and interact with the virtual world as a space outside of the game’s violence. When the open world is explored, the true sense of these games as social realist artworks can be experienced. The streets feel alive, as if there is a world happening there without us. As I write this, it is the 25th of December, 2018. I am sitting in Downtown Los Angeles, and the streets are very sparsely populated, because of the holidays. In GTAV, the streets are less populated than in real Los Angeles to conserve memory and CPU resources on the players’ consoles and PCs. Today LA feels very much like Los Santos. No traffic jams and a light smear of people are dotted around the streets. I’ve not been to LA before and considering my very intimate, or maybe even forensic, relationship to Los Santos, I am weirded out. Big time. I can walk around here without a map, because the game world has replicated so many signs, buildings, carparks, streets and public spaces, so that I already know where I am, and in what direction to walk. So in this way, it is very real. I have been here many times before.

Similarly, my experience walking around Venice Beach and the Santa Monica pier was spooky. I am haunted by a previous knowing of this place before I encountered it with my legs. The shops, the conversations from the passersby, the spatial layout, the homeless, the entertainment, and so on. It is the most Baudrillardian thing I’ve experienced personally. His ideas about how we experience the ‘Real’ first through its simulation are completely and utterly literalised for me at this moment. It has forcefully reaffirmed my belief that modern video games that are based in real world cities, like GTA or Watch Dogs, are actually works of extraordinary social realism. In this way, we can look at these worlds in order to look at our own. They hold a mirror up to our reality, they expose our collective desires, the existential banality, and the nasty consequences of our modes of existence. In this way, I believe that they are reality.

AV: The extraordinary film Koyaansqatsi (1983 dir. Godfrey Reggio) that you draw from, or that triggered your project, has zero dialogue and no discernible narrative? What spoke to you about it?
AB: In a way it was the fact that the narrative is grounded sensory experience, which drew me towards it. It is a narrative that was not developed with a traditional, dialogue or character-centric screenplay. Instead the photography was produced over the course of six years in constant dialogue with an evolving score by Philip glass. The edits and sequence were adjusted as the music was developed and laid down, and vice-versa. The result is a piece of cinema with which the audience must allow themselves be carried away. It is something in which the viewer is immersed. The pace and informational density is also something that affords multiple visits. This mode is not entirely unlike video games in an entertainment sense. Also, the focus on using photography to document a society in the throes of capitalism, is something that is in synchronicity with the kinds of simulations I like to play in. Koyaanisqatsi’s subject is the anthropocene; the geological age where mankind has utterly changed the physical and ecological order of the environment, not as a project, but as a byproduct of the economic and societal drives that have pervaded in the last couple of centuries of our species. It brings together scenes in train stations, and fast food restaurants, and factories that are as awe inspiring and majestic as the landscape shots at the beginning of the film.

In a way, it almost de-anthropocentrises our existence, and examines our species and activity in an ontological way. As much as people are represented as individuals with dreams and feelings and heartbreak, Koyaanisqatsi permits us to see ourselves as organisms within an ecosystem. Again, there is such potential here for us to think about social realist video games in this way too. The beauty and tragedy of life and human history haunt the video game world as much as they do our own. The arc of the Koyaanisqatsi leaves us in the early 1980s, in a world of microchips and stock-market trading. The new algorithmic ways of being that have since evolved lead us to Grand Theft Auto and so it is an opportunity to reflexively contemplate our proximity to the worlds both new and old, both real and virtual.

AV: When did you realised you could remake the whole 86 mins frame by frame? How did you go about doing it?
AB: It was a lot of work. A lot. Off the shelf, the game maybe allows for 30-50% of a film like this to be reproduced. There is a movie director mode that allows some film work to be produced, this is incredibly powerful, but it is limited. So I had to hack the shit out of the game. Luckily there are already existing mod-packs and mod-communities for the game; huge groups of people who modify video games and share their modifications online. So a huge amount of my film extends well beyond the version you can buy in the shops. It’s quite amazing what these games become when society begins to co-operate further and re-imagine the world. It meant that I could use map-editors to make custom scenes using the library of 100,000s of objects already in the world. It also meant if I needed to replicate a paint job for a 1980s 747 United Airlines airplane, some wonderful modder with an aviation enthusiasm has already shared it online. I had to program custom camera rigs, code out camera distance limitations, recode how the game uses RAM and GPU resources on the PC, and really pull the program apart so that the game could truly look at itself in a clearer way. Koyaanisqatsi is not a documentary film, and there are many post-production aspects in the original, so this permitted me to really go wild in terms of how I manipulated the virtual world and the imagery that came out of it. But I produced my version chronologically. I had a big notebook that listed the timecode with a textual description of the corresponding shot for every single cut in the movie. Literally thousands of different scenes. Each of them requiring a new location and set up. It’s the kind of scale of work that you’d only think is possible while you’re in the middle of it. If I had known how insane and deep the project would go, I would have loved the sound of it and avoided it like hell. It’s really maniacal looking back on it. I must have been possessed.

AV: In the last six months you had a chance to meet and negotiate with Godfrey Reggio what was that like? Did they like it?
AB: It was amazing to have a sit-down with Godfrey. I’ve loved that film since I first saw it in the 90s, so it was nice to have a quasi-professional. He is an incredibly balanced and collected individual. He has been an incredibly politically active person his entire adult life, with a deep ability for critical thinking. While we had spoken a number of times on the phone when I was producing my work, it was a privilege to actually sit down with the man and talk about everything from cinema, to anarchist politics, to the Catholic Church to capitalism, to video games and his current projects, which I probably can’t mention yet. But I will say, the guy is 80 years old and is as engaged and as active as ever, he’s about to start a new project that re-imagines another genre aside from cinema, it’s inspirational. He was very interested in the video game world, because it is not something of which he has great knowledge or experience. He was told me that when himself and Ray Hemenez (the research producer for the Qatsi trilogy) watched ‘On Exactitude in Science’ first, they had a conversation that was about how my work pulls apart video game narratives and experience in a similar mode to what they set out to achieve with cinema before making Koyaanisqatsi.

This is an interesting perspective, because I had not thought much about how my work would be understood by practitioners of single-channel cinema. I also hadn’t thought about how my work would be understood by Godfrey for that matter, but he’s such a supportive artist he engaged with my project in an incredibly generous way. Their production company has to be so protective of the original work in order to make sure that it is not being exploited for purely capital gain, and I was quite nervous about getting permission to use it. I think once I laid out my more academic and artistic concerns, Godfrey really became so generous in terms of his time and intellectual engagement with my work. He and the Institute for Regional Education (the Qatsi production company) have a strong focus on cinematic production as praxis for education and ideas. From their funding model to the finished product their work is unlike other cinema-centric artists because they retain total creative control. This means executive producers placed by the financiers aren’t butting in with hot ideas, and their output remains focused and artist-centric. I think in this way his practice is more along the lines of a visual artist than Hollywood-movie type, and I think we click because of this.

AV: Is Koyaansqatsi a story of the anthropocene? Of an ecologically affected planet, human interactions, war, destruction, with nearly all life effected? Despite the fact just the US is depicted.
AB: Koyaanisqatsi, is most definitely a story of the anthropocene. Even though the word arrived in the 1930s it was made long before the term or idea of the anthropocene was really in the collective conscious. Godfrey really has an ability to see through time, space and ideology and produce a portrait of our planet, or at least the US, from an angle not perceivable from the human eye. It pierces through reality, creating a wormhole connecting us to an understanding of the relationship between ourselves, capitalism and planet Earth. Other films in the Qatsi series, particularly Powaqqatsi, really go beyond the US borders to look at other parts of the planet. Though I think Koyaanisqatsi manages to capture the idea of anthropocene extremely well. The fact that the concept is popping up everywhere in the last few years made it quite timely for me bring up Godfrey’s film at this moment.

AV: With all your hours spent navigating the game space, what is your favourite or most surprising space? Were any shots particularly difficult to achieve?
AB: There are so many things that could be my favourite. Almost every time I had to find a new location, it was such a wonderful task to find it and modify the game, if necessary, so that it would perform like the film. There are things like when I was filming the moon for that iconic shot when it disappears behind the skyscraper. GTAV has its own time, even in a cosmological sense. I had to figure out how to play with the dates inside the game to ensure that I was on the right moment of the lunar cycle, at the right time of year. Something like that might take a few hours to work out and then another couple of hours to shoot and capture, but it’s just so magical to discover that the GTA world has such detail. There are loads of things that couldn’t happen in the game that I used very primitive gaming methods to achieve. For instance, there are shots of nature in Koyaanisqatsi showing vapor come out of rocks in the morning. There’s no steam coming from rocks in GTAV, so I was off camera and throwing teargas canisters into the vicinity of the shot. You can see them fly past the camera and I left that in, in order to reveal how the virtual world has its own set of constraints.

Similarly in Koyaanisqatsi, there is shot of a large mining truck that becomes engulfed in its own exhaust fumes. I had to not only throw teargas canisters into the reversioning of that shot, but I made a mod for the game that makes the gas black in colour. And it was things like that which were really fun to discover and explore, not just what the off-the-shelf game can do, but what can be explored through creative exploration of the game world and its code. In this way, my film doesn’t just take place in the video game world, but also in its code and the mod communities who explore this. There’s a young Irish woman in the mod communities who made Garda Síochána (Irish police force) cars and uniforms, and a Bus Éireann (Irish national transport company) bus. This is kind of insane and niche, but the magic of finding these things in the online repositories is amazing. It’s activity that is born out of love instead of gain. And that love also enabled me also to feature a Rockwell B-1 Lancer aircraft in my re-make, because fighter jets from the 1970s don’t just exist in the game as shipped.

I think the most difficult thing to achieve really lay in the hands of the computer hardware. I was using an insanely powerful PC, and pushed it to its utter limits to make more pedestrians and traffic appear. Current technology is so far off from achieving the level of detail and chaos of reality. It made me appreciate the wizardry of the game programmers and designers, how they generate a sense of reality for us, despite our current technological short-comings.

AV: You created another work called Down and Out in Los Santos: Constructions of poverty and of the dispossessed. These are filters in a ‘game’ that recreate real world inequalities? Precarity reproduced for the digital age?
AB: I described previously what this project was and how it was made, but I think it might be worth just saying how badly this reflects on us as a society. The very fact that, in order for Rockstar to achieve a high quality sense of realism, it must include homelessness and extreme poverty; a real-world tragedy of the highest order. Furthermore, the stroke of genius that sets these non playable characters to exist on the periphery of the main agenda is truly an indictment of our society. It is a disgrace and a tragedy that Rockstar’s job must include these things, but if they are doing their job properly they must certainly be included. It’s not an accident that the digital depictions of the most vulnerable in the Los Santos community have little or no agency in the game. Again, this is why I say that this is reality. It’s easy to just think of simulations as just fun stuff or art. But we need to think more critically than this. Why are these things here? What does it say about us? It matters that it is the game world, because it is in our world. So if we want a game world utopia, the best place to start is the voting booth and collective bargaining.

AV: Do you think about disrupting ideas of truth and non-truth in your work?
AB: For sure, but in my work I try not to think about these as binaries. I try to think about our proximity to truth and non-truth. To think about proximity, is to think about our own relationships to power in an ontological sense. Ultimately, we find these things subjectively, but art that provides a space for the audience to discover their own cartographical position to various aspects of reality is art that also ideologically leaves space for both the individual and cooperation. The balance of which gets lost in the world today, perhaps everything is seen on this left/right paradigm. When I make cyanotypes of game world flora, the end result isn’t truth or non-truth, rather an object that embodies potential for both and neither. For ‘On Exactitude in Science,’ it was crucially important for me to include ‘Koyaanisqatsi’ in the installation. Not because they are binary opposites, but rather when the viewer is experiencing the work, a tension arises between the two when one might forget which on is the ‘real’ one, when in actual fact neither are.

AV: What does citizenship mean in the digital age?
AB: While I think citizenship fundamentally remains grounded in traditional political hegemony, there are new layers of power being exercised in and around our modes of being. Beneath, alongside and interwoven within the usual political modalities, new zones of power influence and enable our day to day interaction with society. These zones, that we once may have considered virtual, are informational and flow from computer server farms in California, Dublin, The Netherlands, Moscow, the UAE, and beyond. They seduce us into participation through the interface, a cheap piece of XHP code. Its real power is exercised out of public view through C++, Haskell and Ruby code. As we carry out more of our daily lives via digital networks, algorithms begin to make robust graphs of our psychological states, our desires and political dispositions. The more we use these networks, the more detailed these graphs become, and the more detailed the graphs are, the more power they can wield. We have of course seen this information put to use during the election of Trump and Brexit Referendum, when Cambridge Analytica’s data was used to sway and manipulate the British public. But it is likely this is happening in every country. In Ireland, the Fine Gael ruling party has been offering its citizens opportunities to vote on significant human rights referendums in recent years. It would be more than conceivable that Ireland’s fiscally conservative government used online data to identify issues of certainty that they could get behind, in an effort to align their public image as socially liberal. Social liberalism, in this instance, becomes an informational medium to exploit, and one which is potentially useful in the face of a very real and massive housing and homeless crisis, and growing economic inequality.

The buying and selling of information in a data capitalism market is one way to identify public desires and know which horse to back in the race for, say marriage equality for instance. This information could be used against us from the other side, by those wishing to fight against social liberalism. But interestingly, Ireland’s recent abortion referendum is a good example of how Russian bot swarms and targeted propaganda won’t always be able to manipulate public opinion. The bots were out in 2018, but they failed to stop the referendum from passing, because the people of Ireland voted on this issue based on their beliefs which were mostly formed years before any referendum was even announced; even years before data capitalism was even a twinkle in Mark Zuckerberg’s eye. I think this is important, because it shows how much power still lies in the atom-world. This issue was one that was fought for three decades offline by women and men around the country who worked tirelessly to educate the public about political reality. In the end, the right-wing forces against progress failed to retain the legal status quo, despite being armed with their back-end, networked weapons. What we should take from this, is that real political agency still exists outside the networks, at least for now. We still have power, at potentially if real ground-level politics is carried out. This is why I describe these new forces that flow through the digital as ‘layers’. They don’t replace the current systems, rather they provide new spectral cartographies for those who wish to wield power, or even fight it. As citizens, we must take responsibility collectively as we exist on, and participate within, multiple layers of atom-world and digital existence.

AV: While we can see a significant fragmentation of the present moment. What is your take on the possible threats to democracy some aspects of technology present, should we be worried by the rise of AI ‘bots’ and simulation?
AB: I think we should be very worried. Not because of the bots or simulation, but because of the political and economic structures that will exploit this tech. There is nothing inherently evil about these technologies, but when they are being used for motives relating to capital gain then the users (us!) will be harmed. I think we really need to smash this free market notion that companies like Google, Facebook and Apple, are just innovators. They are capitalists; their primary motivation is to exploit their users for profit. Their platforms are almost entirely based on the work of countless hours of free human labour in the field of open-source software. They have re-skinned these free libraries and made them unfree. They then use this unfree technology to track and surveil their users and sell this information to the highest bidder. This would not happen if technology was being developed outside of a capitalist, for-profit modality. They are masters of self-propaganda, presenting themselves as progressive utopians, when they are just run of the mill crypto-fascists.

There’s nothing evil about the internet as a concept. But as soon as we relinquish control of this technology to people, when, in order to keep it afloat, it needs to farm and sell us to whoever has money, then harm will be done. At this point it becomes evil. In the face of climate change, which is entirely incompatible with capitalism, the current systems and power structures have gone into hyper-drive in order to extract as much labour value as possible before we are all 20 meters below sea-level. Hyper-capitalism is the utterly worst moment for AI to appear. Machine learning algorithms, if wielded by those in power right now or those who can afford the technology in order to gain power in the future, are going to kick our heads in. And a big part of the problem here is education. Most people see Facebook along the lines of the company’s mission statement; “Give people the power to build community and bring the world closer together.” It clouds from view the reality of its physical, informational and algorithmic structures that then harm us ecologically. If people really knew to what extent that their existential rhythms and vibrations and being tracked, well, maybe the company would need to find a different business model or even a different product. If we don’t prepare for AI and machine learning through mass education, then this is going to be even more trouble than social media nazi bots. These new technologies will be layered on top of current ones, and will be layered on top of and woven into the fabric of reality itself. They will be layered on top of those in power and capitalistic structures. If we don’t collectively know how it works, why it’s being used, and then importantly what happens at its point of outcome, we are in big, big trouble. Again, this needs to come back to the point origin. We cannot stop this technology happening any more than Metallica managed to stop MP3s being shared online. So we need to change the system of power in society so that the primary motivation of tech giants isn’t ‘farm the humans’.

AV: What is the relationship between memory, lived experience, and the virtual in your practice?
AB: As I said previously, I am writing this response during my first visit to Los Angeles, and I have been thinking about nothing else over the past few days. Personally, it is beyond spooky not only having previous knowledge of the approximate location of Korean Town, Venice Beach, Hollywood, highways, certain bridges, train systems, but details even specific hotels and building sites and laneways in the Downtown area. My existing relationship with the homeless of Los Santos has certainly made me more open to talking to their real world counterpart in LA. Their back-stories have been similar to those which are just hinted at in the simulation. These include PTSD from war, mental illness, drug and alcohol abuse as a result of negative life circumstances, historical head injuries, etc. I weirdly cannot fault the game designers and scriptwriters for their accuracy, considering the very superficial level of AI of which modern game technologies are capable. The timeline is a strange one though. The games I have been exploring that featuring homeless people, are based on a past tense reality, someone else’s memory in fact. This second-hand memory is experienced as the present tense when I am inside the game, and forms a first-hand memory. Consequently my day today in Los Angeles feels like my past tense in Los Santos. Time and space folds back in on itself and is turned inside out. I think it reaffirms my belief that reality and representation, or reality and simulation, are no longer really separable. Reality is in this way feels like an information zone with multiple authors and timelines.

In my practice, I am often trying to capture these multiple authors and timelines in one moment, one image, one object. This phenomenon is present in the works I have mentioned in this interview. It is making GTAV perform like ‘Koyaanisqatsi,’ to create this illusion that there is an entire world happening at which I am just pointing a camera. It is taking a snap of a homeless woman under a bridge at night time, in the rain, at the exact moment she makes eye contact with my lens – a moment captured that is not reproducible by any other player. Or making a unique physical object of a video game flower, which was previously only meant for infinite reproduction/spawning in the virtual world. The simulation embodies the past, I access it as the present, and the result uses pre-existing artworks or photographic tropes to merge the two times and places into something that is neither.

AV: Finally, what can Koyaanisqatsi teach us now?
AB: A recent presentation of ‘On Exactitude in Science’ was attended by the curator’s father, who at the end said “There’s just really no hope is there!”; which is good response, because it’s a good starting point. The whole intention of the film and subsequently my remake is to overwhelm.