Digital library (interview) RAI Educational

Lewis Baltz

Naples, 22 January 1998

"Subjects and objects of the new technological culture"


  • Baltz never had any profound loyalty to the idea of photography as a medium but simply as the most efficient way of making or recording an image. Now the most efficient way is to work with digital technology (1).
  • The crisis of representation occurred before digital technology. Digital technology simply offers another dimension (2).
  • The balance is tipping in favour of the virtual and away from the real. Whether that change is an improvement or is dangerous is impossible to say (3).
  • This century has given us a number of paradigms of space and time that were unknown before. We are moving away from the linear into an open-field paradigm (4).
  • Baltz and the architect Jean Nouvell are considering constructing a transparent building using light boxes and columns of images (5).
  • Digital technology may make it theoretically possible for everyone to be everywhere all the time. This runs counter to the post-modernism dictum of the disappearance of the subject; instead it becomes the multiplicity of the subject (6).
  • Photography can become integrated with architecture. It is a question of using a building and the activities in that building as a way of generating a dialogue in images (7).
  • Younger artists take for granted that a wide variety of mediums are available and have their particular qualities. They move very gracefully from one to another (8).
  • Young people are training themselves to use new technologies. Children all over the world seem to have an innate ability to manipulate digital symbols (9).
  • One of the most engaging legal struggles of the next twenty or thirty years will be to see where creative property rights begin and end (10).



digital library

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Question 1
Why do you prefer digital technology and what are the benefits you have found working on digital photos?

I think it goes back to my relation with analogue photos. I never had any profound loyalty to the idea of photography as a medium but simply as the most efficient way of making or recording an image. And that has changed over the last few years. Now the most efficient way is to work with digital or with digital-analogue or between the two. Eventually, I'm sure it will be entirely digital. It's simply the prevailing technology, the available technology now. I think in the future we won't even have a choice.


Question 2
An analogue photo seems to maintain a strong link with the real thing that it represents, as we have the negative. So we have a material sign of the passage from a reality to its representation in the picture. With digital photos we don't have any material sign but only a line of numbers, zero and one. So do you think this mean we are getting too far from the real things we see and that we want to take in a picture?

No. I think it's interesting that the questioning of the photograph in its relation to the reality, the interrogation of representation, the famous crisis of representation, really all took place before digital technology. Digital technology, you see, is not the villain here. It simply offers another dimension. I'm not sure if it's a farther remove from reality than analogue. I think if we can speak of reality, if reality and representation can be spoken of in the same sentence, if reality even exists any more, digital is simply another way of encoding that reality. I don't think it's farther from or, for that matter, closer to this concept of reality than anything that came before. I don't think the question of "materiality" is really what's at issue here. Photography is less material than painting; digital is less material. But the dematerialisation of art again is something that began thirty years ago as a conceptual gesture and long before people realised that it was not only a possibility but would in fact become the dominant technology.


Question 3
But in some ways digital technologies change the relationship between the real and the virtual, because we have a real virtual world now. We have virtual reality in which we can have another world different from the real one...

I think the balance is tipping in favour of the virtual and away from the real. But as I said before, I think that that balance had already started to tip before digital technologies. Their presence now accelerates that. Not only the presence of the technologies but the availability of the technologies. Everyone now can work with some sort of digital procedure. People are on the Internet, people work with digital cameras. Almost everything now has that possibility, maybe even the necessity, of some kind of digital interface or intervention. So in that sense, the sense that it proliferates, that it's everywhere in society, I think that will yet further detach people from whatever 19th century idea they had about reality, the phenomenal world and their relation to it and in it. Whether that change is an improvement or we are entering a dangerous brave new world, it's really impossible to say. In any case, it is the reality, it's the world we are entering, it's the world we're already half into.


Question 4
This world is one in which space and time are very different.

This century has given us a number of paradigms of space and time that were unknown before. Photography really belongs to the 19th century. But there's certainly that idea of photographic space which has carried through into cinema. Cinema structured time in a very different way than any other medium had ever devised before. With video you have a double structure. You have that structuring of time in cinema but also you have this possibility of zapping , that is, the director of the film is not absolutely the final determiner of the order or the speed in which you see the images. You can take any film home on cassette and deconstruct it as you wish. The model, I think, becomes more of an open-field model with digital, the CD-ROM where there is an order of play. There can be an order of play, but there can also be random access, so that it's structured and completed by the user. That's a different kind of time; that's a different kind of intervention. It's an intervention done by a user, in their real time. It is also true with work on the Internet. Obviously, we're moving away from the linear into an open-field paradigm. But again it's not so new; McLuhan wrote about that in 1963. Now he's being rehabilitated; he was not simply a show-off, but was in fact something of a visionary.


Question 5
With Jean Nouvell you have considered constructing a transparent building using light boxes. Could you start giving us a description of this project, explaining the role of photographs in this project?

Jean Nouvell is one of the two or three most interesting architects working today, both in terms of practice and especially conceptually. His vision of architecture is something fluid. Jean is interested in making buildings that respond to change. Now, architects have always made buildings that have responded to certain changes, the change in light for example. But Jean is interested in something else: a building that would respond to change in temperature, in time, in use. He's always been fascinated by the idea of integrating architectural space with image space, with signage. The building project that we're discussing now has one similarity with several of his projects, which is this question of transparency. Jean wants his buildings to be transparent, to be constantly mutable even by human use. It's not physically possible to build an absolutely transparent building. Physically, in engineering terms, it has to be anchored with certain materials which are opaque. To play with that a bit, Jean proposed making columns of images, and then we began to talk about what kind of images these would be, how these columns would be structured, whether they would be autonomously self-illuminated, or whether they would respond to the light in the building, what kind of subjects would be interesting to introduce in this particular building. I don't think I want to talk too much more about that, because the building project is still at a point of discussion and it isn't even really realised as a formal proposal.


Question 6
Do you think that this is just a way of obtaining a material sign of this invisible city that digital connections are creating?

I really don't know. Perhaps we could speak of it as the opposite, from the invisible city, from Calvino's invisible city to Virilio's over-exposed city. The digital technology may make it possible, at least theoretically possible, for everyone to be everywhere all the time. This really runs in a way counter to the post-modernism dictum of the disappearance of the subject. You could say it becomes the multiplicity of the subject. The subject is no longer one. The subject is two or four or many or billions.


Question 7
In this way, photography becomes an inner part of architecture...

To work in a way integrated with architecture, I think the work we're speaking about here is not a question of putting my work in his building but a question of using that building and the activities in that building as a way of generating a dialogue in images. The work is not even site-specific, it's really site-generated. It's something that's made exclusively for that space and that space with its present series of functions. In that sense it becomes like most works today ephemeral. It's not a timeless work. It's not a work that can be taken away from its location and admired aesthetically. It's something that's intended to function hopefully very, very effectively in its space and nowhere else.


Question 8
You are a photographer, you are a writer, you make CD-ROMs, so you are really near to the multimedia culture. Do you think that working in a multimedia dimension is an important transformation of the artist in general?

Recently I was asked to be one of many advisors for a Biennale that's going to be in Paris next year, dealing with the work of young people working with images. And what I found was that with the younger artists, the people under 35, no one is going to be media-defined. No one would speak of themselves as a "computer artist", as a "video artist", as a "photographer", as a "filmmaker". They simply take for granted that all these mediums are available and have their particular qualities. They move very gracefully from one to another. So again I think that question of medium is something that seems to be kind of mercifully disappearing now. I don't think anyone really identifies themselves by the medium, except maybe painters—who will hate me for saying that.


Question 9
What do you think of the importance of training young people in the skills to work with different means?

I hope it doesn't sound like too facile an answer, but I think they're training themselves. And then they're training us. A few years ago I was in California, in Los Angeles, staying with some friends who had a seven-year old child. She was saying good-bye to her friend and she said, OK, I'll see you later. I'll e-mail you tonight. This is kind of amazing. People over thirty generally have to be taught to do these things. It seems like there's another generation that's arising; that it's almost become a genetic change. There children all over the world who seem to have some innate ability to deal with information on the screen, to manipulate digital symbols, to feel comfortable with this as though they had drunk it in with their mother's milk. It is almost their second nature. And perhaps a new kind of human being is evolving in front of us and we're not sure how to name it yet.


Question 10
I'd like to know what you think about the problems linked to copyright and digital manipulation in general of a piece of art.

I think it's an amazing period for that. I think probably if you had a child and you wanted to advise him on a profession to enter, I'd say be a copyright lawyer in the digital age because this is something that all of the attorney's all over the world are going to benefit from tremendously. So on the one hand you have organisations -think of Disney, Microsoft - that are trying to gain exclusive rights and copyrights to everything on earth and ownership of imagery in a way has never existed before. And yet at the same time there's the possibility technically of truly duplicating, cloning imagery greater than ever existed before. So I think the most engaging legal struggle of the next twenty or thirty years will be to just to see where these rights of property begin and end. I assume that once something goes on the Internet, once something is released as a CD-ROM, it belongs to everybody.


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