Interview: FRED FOREST, from video art to net-art

Pioneer—this is the term most often used to describe Fred Forest in the playing field of media arts. Two more words form another refrain: “network” and “territory”, like the X and Y axes of his artistic activity. This practice is rooted in the last century, as he began by “trafficking” images and paper, and then progressively annexed every mode of communication, from video tapes to virtual worlds.

Born in the pre-television era (in 1933 in Mouaskar, Algeria), Fred Forest has experimented both on his own and as a university professor (after presenting his Ph.D thesis as a happening) with the many facets of sociological art and communication esthetics. This exceptional journey has led him to view the current art world with an uncompromising eye, while affirming his singular status among the “professionals of the profession”. His “multimedia” experience has also helped him, again and again, to renew himself, to seek out other forms of artistic expression, other esthetic performances. After the United States and Brazil, and thanks to Centre des Arts d’Enghien, France has finally decided to dedicate a retrospective to this media man par excellence.

For people who may be unfamiliar with your work, how would you summarize your field of artistic activity?

I am a media artist who made his first famous artwork in this field as early as 1995 (1), but I prefer to describe myself more accurately as a transmedia communication artist. My work (which began more than half a century ago…) has pioneered media such as participative communication in the outskirts of Paris (1965), video (1967), press inserts (1972), telephone (1972), national radio (1972), national TV (1975), Minitel (1982), slow scan (1987), LED electronic newspaper (1986), cable (1987), fax (1987), radio airwaves (1987), Internet (1989), Second Life (1998). Please excuse this fastidious enumeration, but it is necessary to educate French institutions, which are unfortunately always lagging behind, and teach them what they should have known long ago…

I also claim the identity of communication artist, among others, for the events that I have initiated, for example: my actions during the 12th São Paulo Biennial, Mètre carré artistique, Madame Soleil’s exhibition at Musée Galliera, the world premiere sale of Parcelle/Réseau in Drouot, my own wedding with the artist Sophie Lavaud on the Internet, or my candidacy for president of National Bulgarian TV as the representative of the opposition to the communist regime. To summarize, I would say that my artistic activity has developed around criticism, crossing all the media that I have appropriated over time. I act at the heart of the media and/or urban fabric, conducting a thorough examination of the communication systems, both visible and invisible, that condition cultural, political and financial powers in our societies.

You are presented as both an artist and a theorist. Which is your preferred “status”?

To be honest, they are both the same to me. First, I claim the full status of an innovating artist, then I accept the fact that I am an academic who initiated two artistic movements—sociological art and communication esthetics—to which I have continued to contributed both in theory and practice (sociological art with Jean-Paul Thénot and Hervé Fischer from 1974 to 1981, communication esthetics with Professor Mario Costa from 1982 till now (2)).

You were already the subject of a retrospective at the Slought Foundation  in Philadelphia in 2007. What is the difference with this event?

May I gently remind you that I also had a previous retrospective in 2005 at Paço das Artes in São Paulo, Brazil. In a way, I accumulate retrospectives that are sequential but not similar (laughs). The first in São Paulo, under the wing of Daniela Bousso, with Priscila Arantes as curator, had all the necessary space but unfortunately lacked the financial resources to translate the full spectrum of my work—and a plethora of work it is. Then in 2007, the Slought Foundation and senior curator Osvaldo Romberg had the necessary finances, but not the space.

The originality of my retrospective at Centre des Arts d’Enghien in January 2013 is that I myself am the curator! The budget is sufficient but modest in this time of crisis. In terms available space, it’s well below capacity for translating in detail an artistic activity that has spanned half a century, representing more than a hundred materialized works, and more than 600 numbers, registered with Ina’s national heritage, constituting half-inch tapes, VHS, U-matics and audio cassettes. And since the walls can’t magically expand in a concrete architecture, I think I made the right decision.

Meanwhile, I await my next… retrospective, which is already currently being negotiated between two American academics with lots of degrees and the enlightened representative (the only one I know) of a large French institution. If it works out, this will be my fourth retrospective (laughs). But as retrospectives are usually a prerogative of people who are already dead, I still have some time ahead of me to not give up prematurely and collect retrospectives like others collect butterflies. Of course, I would have to slow down on my current productions, if I still want to find a balance between available budget and space to fill (more laughs).

How did you select the works? How is the show structured? By periods? By media? By intention ?

This is where we inevitably get to the more annoying questions. ;-) Or more precisely, that which goes against the grain of the experts. Between choosing a traditionally chronological approach, or one based on intentions by media or themes, I decided to make the—yet again transgressive—choice to not choose! I don’t have anything against structured education, and my former students from École des Beaux Arts and the university will confirm that. However, given the limitations that are inherent to the space available, I am offering visitors a creative path through the exhibition. This means placing a few symbolic milestones in my process here and there throughout the space.

For example, M2 artistique in the form of enlarged press inserts, Vidéo Troisième âge with an installation of photos and video documents, or Le blanc envahit la ville in analogue, or even Avis de recherche de Julia Margaret Cameron, the social media safari hunt that uses daily classified ads in Var Matin, radio, TV channels FR3 and Antenne 2, where for four months, the whole city searches for an imaginary character, identifying and communicating with him through postal mail and Minitel. Twenty screens will punctuate my exhibition in order to present these various installations.

Avis de recherche de Julia Margaret Cameron

With hindsight, how do you judge your old works? What problems do they bring over time?

My old works are very current. The issues I raise are the same as the ones I develop in more recent pieces—a critical questioning of art and society, as well as the future of human behavior within this new environment. For me, ethics has always had priority over esthetics in my work. So much for background. Otherwise, over time, the basic concepts established by artists of the 1970s have turned out to be the same ones that are simply “reactivated” by using certain technologies: remote presence and action, real-time, social games and role-playing, ubiquity, interactivity, exchange, contributory participation, gestures and behaviors, networking, territory, power, hybridization, coexistence of the imaginary and reality.

Yet we might have expected a renewal. I find that the younger generations, with their more prominent use of new media and programming, have made little progress in terms of new concepts. I mean concepts other than the ones that seventies artists pretty much created, such as Roy Ascott (the “shared”, “distributed” author) or Robert Adrian, among many others. It’s as if the use of new tools has somehow made the contributions numb to any expected analysis. Contributions to art, philosophy, anthropology, sociology, what else? Meanwhile, we have all too often seen technical expertise dominate our thoughts. This infatuation, not to mention this trend of technical manipulation in the context of art is completely sterile, in my opinion.

It’s completely sterile as long as all that we see emerging in the art field in the next few years is scientific data, which is often poorly digested and integrated into artistic expression, dominating and superposing it. This has generated more genre confusion than relevant enlightenment from an art standpoint. Technical manipulation can never replace thought itself, even if it sometimes results in practical invention, by little tinkering genuises who thankfully give technological arts some air of nobility. As to the trend of participative contribution, which seems to have seduced many artists today and fascinated a few ignorant intellectuals for the sole reason that it passes through social networks or the Internet, I refer them to the classics, or more precisely their elders, who for the most part prefigured the Internet, even before it existed.

Will there also be new works/installations?

Oh, yes! There will be a website for criticism and contributions on the state of the media [], where people can share in real-time their opinions on the topic of broadcasting videos, which everyone can see today on YouTube. This biased view of media is one of my recurring themes. There will also be a kiosk where you have to take off your shoe and offer your foot to the Internet in a global ecumenical operation called Universal Foot, which invites you to take your eyes off the screens for a moment, in order to become aware of the terminal part of your body in its intrinsic nudity. All these scanned feet will circulate on the Internet at different speeds to be stored in a foot database, without any guarantee of seeing them possibly resurface one warm day, thanks to a provider in the Caribbean. Finally, this biennial is open to participation by artists from around the world, without any institution, curator or censorship—in short, uprecedented.

Will there also be performances/talks during the event?

Yes, on opening day there will be a simultaneous performance in Second Life and in the exhibition venue, where both online viewers and real-space visitors are invited to dance on “Wall Street”. In a way, this is to celebrate/denounce the crisis with a popular grand ball, animated by two American rappers brought together by Ferdinand Corte and a video by Robin Alamichel.

What about your fight against cultural institutions, your vision of media art in relation to the current art market?

My fight against certain institutions—representing the international art market more than French artists, who shall remain nameless—after my performances at MoMA and Centre Pompidou, is still ongoing, and more than ever headed toward victory, as imagination is, of course, on my side. Culture jamming still has some fine days ahead of it to win the fight for sure in the long term through derision, misappropriation, subverted signals or guerrilla semiotics. Whether or not media art enters the market isn’t my problem. If it does enter the market one day, it will be through radically different organizations and a mindset that is independent from the artists themselves.

What’s happening with the Webnetmuseum?

It’s doing very well, thank you, although ever since it launched it has been waiting for the culture budgets necessary for it to fully develop. These budgets never came, because the two muses who weigh down its grant committees—Christine Bravache and Pascale Chassedeau—have declared once and for all that it’s not art! Well, what was thought just yesterday is thought a bit less today and will be even less thought tomorrow. But it’s not a big deal when you see who does get grants from these ladies about ten percent of the time. We’ll just have to wait for our time to come, which it will, one way or another.

Over time, what developments have you observed regarding “technological” art—artistic practices that use or reappropriate photography, video then computers, digital media, online networks, etc.?

Here again, “technological” art has hardly innovated when it comes to the concept of reappropriation since the 1980s. It has merely adapted pragmatically to new forms of communication and used the great echo chamber of mass media, and more recently YouTube and social networks. This applies to the Yes Men with TV, or to the students in Quebec who hacked domain names and created fake government websites during their last protests. In my opinion, the most successful form of reappropriation is the group Etoy Corporation, founded in 1994, which brings together hundreds of people communicating online almost in real-time in order to subvert commercial societies that are well versed in consumerism.

Other forms of artistic activism, positioning themselves between politics and economics, refuse an art market based on financial speculation, which they consider contrary to the ethical values ​​advocated by the Internet, which are based on sharing and disinterested solidarity. For them, this is the only reasonable position to end our above all moral crisis and create conditions for a better society that can herald a new phase of humanity, tomorrow. This questions the current direction of art, which is tributary and increasingly dependent on technical and scientific progress, when we should be more committed to an ecology of the mind, which artists are best appointed to naturally promote.

Besides the purely technological aspect, have new media really redefined art practices?

I can’t answer your question as posed, because in practice, the tool used to make the art is fundamental. And from this point of view, art practice is obviously radically different between digital media and painting, for example, both physically speaking and in terms of material and light effects. On the other hand, there are many media artists, who are culturally and viscerally attached to models of great painting, or easel painting, who haven’t yet gotten their feet wet, and who, if I may say, are painting with digital technology, in response to the latest mainstream preference.

Of course, we can consider that they have progressed further than those who are still painting with turpentine, but I’m not so sure that the turpentine painters will be among those who will have invented the visual and invisual models of tomorrow. But good for them… Let’s just say that new media hasn’t yet really redefined art practices, but they are close to doing so for a handful of the most enlightened media artists. And considering the time that it took for Marcel Duchamp, born on July 28, 1887, to become the emblematic artist that he is today, we have plenty of time to be patient…

Besides “semantic” variations (media art, multimedia, etc.), is there anything specific to media art in France?

No, neither in France nor elsewhere, now that globalization has flattened out everything on the horizon.

What future developments do you see or wish for “media” art?

I wish for dazzling developments at lightning speed that will stun and amaze us, but that won’t happen, of course, because the chemistry of time, as I mentioned above, this maturation requires a long development over two or three generations and drastic changes in our cultural, social, economical, political, environmental contexts… unless there occurs an ecology of the mind, which could arise at any moment if Apple, Google and Microsoft benevolently (?) conjugated their efforts in order to find this new, miraculous gadget that may well change everything inside our heads (laughs).

What message do you have for younger generations, who were born and raised in a digital environment?

I send them the following message: Now it’s your turn. We’re happy to pass the baton, on the condition that you always look straight ahead, just as we did, without sacrificing your efforts and your creativity, to use these extraordinary tools that were born alongside you, not to show off some random technical feat but to make art, and beyond art itself, to make art that aims to change the world. That is your responsibility today, a responsibility that you must assume yourselves, under our attentive, benevolent and critical gaze.


Fred Forest : l’homme media n.1, exhibition/retrospective at Centre des Arts d’Enghien, from January 25 to March 31, 2013. 


interview by Laurent Diouf

(1) De Casablanca à Locarno, l’amour revu par Internet (Grand Prize of Locarno at Electronic Arts Festival, 1995)
(2) cf. Art sociologique vidéo (Éditions 10/18, Paris, 1977), Manifeste de l’esthétique de la communication (Revue+ - 0, special issue n°43, Brussels, October 1985), L’art à l’heure d’Internet (L’Harmattan, Paris, 2005), Art et Internet (Éditions Le cercle d’art, Paris, 2009)

This interview is published in Digitalarti Mag #12, available online for free.

Digitalarti Mag 12 EN