Future Realism. A Conversation with Zbig Rybczyński

Interview by Piotr Krajewski

In the Transitory Series

Photo: Zbig Rybzyński
Photo: Zbig Rybzyński "Short History of Video Installations" by WRO Concerto for TV Set and the Diode for Voytek (Wojciech Bruszewski) © Z. Kupisz / WRO. Used here by kind permission from the publisher. All rights reserved.

In this conversation the awarded director explains how art is intertwined with both technological and scientific development and imagination. Expressing his appreciation for the art of the 14th and 15th centuries, Rybczyński explains how creative activity in the past stemmed from an everlasting curiosity of the surrounding world and constant willingness for experimentation.

 

Piotr KrajewskiMoving image, which you criticize, is a very elaborate issue. Looking at old masters, who having less tools and more humble technology were able to achieve far more even without recording equipment, you argue that today moving image has lost much of its former strength. You praise artists from the past for their attitude towards realism and the ability to shape mental spaces. In your art you strive to construct moving image so that it reflects mental spaces…

Zbig Rybczyński: I appreciate art from the past – let’s call it representational art, but in the context of the times. In the context of the world those people lived in, and the image of the world that surrounded them – that was being generated at the time.

Somewhere around the turn of the 14th and 15th centuries that scientific and artistic explosion started, and it involved the visual image as well. It’s very interesting that the main type of images people were creating then was the type I call mental images: they weren’t images of what those people saw – that kind of image was very rare. They were images of what those people imagined.

Piotr KrajewskiOn the one hand you point out new possibilities for the moving image, on the other however, you criticize it for not fulfilling mental expectations we might anticipate on its behalf.

Zbig Rybczyński: One remarkable aspect of the art of the so-called Old Masters is apparent if we bear in mind the context, the reality of the times in which they were created, and the level science was at. In the Renaissance, for example, science was practically non-existent; the artists who created those images – the Italian artists, Germans too – were scientists. And in my opinion European science began with the visual image, the visual arts. Those artists knew a lot. These days we’d call it knowledge of physics, mathematics, geometry, but in those days that knowledge wasn’t used at all outside of art – architecture and painting. And it seems to me that that’s what European science in general developed from.

If we pay close attention to what we call realism these days, there's very little of our internal reality in it – we're unable to convey much of our internal world using the technology we currently have. The tools and methods – the language, as it were, that we use to present that reality is very simplistic.

Zbig Rybczyński

Piotr KrajewskiDo you in your artistic practice, in your thinking about the image, attempt to return to this unity between the scientific ideas, visions of the future, mental visions of the world, and the technology that appears to be designed for recording the visible (and reproducing it), rather than creating mental images?

Zbig Rybczyński: I see it as a great achievement – I’d call it a scientific achievement – to create images presenting the symbols, apotheoses and ideas that we see in 15th-and-16th-century art. What else can you call the woodcuts, the maps – for example woodcuts in which we see a bird’s-eye view of an entire city? There were no balloons then, and there are no hills high enough to see a whole city. There are lots of woodcuts as early as the 15th-century that are amazingly accurate – for example in Hartmann Schedel’s so-called Nuremberg Chronicle, printed in 1493. Those woodcuts are wonderful, and in a way they convey how we imagine the city more accurately than any modern photograph. So comparing the world those people lived in – full of dirt, stink, mud, ugliness – to what they created, it’s hard to find any contemporary equivalent of that, and I can’t reconcile that with our contemporary achievements. Nowadays we’re more impressed with scientific achievements in the strict sense than with artistic achievements.

If we pay close attention to what we call realism these days, there’s very little of our internal reality in it – we’re unable to convey much of our internal world using the technology we currently have. The tools and methods – the language, as it were, that we use to present that reality are very simplistic. And it’s important to be an attentive observer, right?

It seems to me that the simplest definition of art that would be adequate for our times is something that comes close to our internal realism. And there’s a lot involved in that. First of all we need to restore our contact with the world, and with the informational image. Nowadays that image, generated using all the available technology, is an external image. Some kind of screen on the wall – whether it’s big or small, we’re physically separated from the image. There’s no connection – we’re at a safe distance.

Photo: Zbig Rybzyński
Photo: Zbig Rybzyński "AC DC IT Ongoing history of video installations," WRO Art Center exhibition view. Photo © Katarzyna Pałetko / Image courtesy of the WRO Art Center. Used here by kind permission from the publisher. All rights reserved.

Piotr KrajewskiI want to emphasize the role of technology in your work. You harness technology to execute your visions. And whether it’s highly developed technology or an emerging one, both may be a field of experimentation for you. Can this experimentation bring about more realism in art?

Zbig Rybczyński: There’s a barrier there – we aren’t physically part of the image. We see it through some kind of glasses, from a distance. There’s a flat image on a screen, but what’s in that image is three-dimensional.

Whatever we look at, we see our own noses and bodies and hands. So that has to be part of the virtual world – we have to be in it, our physical image. That’s technically more or less possible even now, but it would have to be accepted by people who deal with constructing images. I’m sure that’s going to happen – that that’s how the image of the future will look. And I’m really curious – once we have that technology there are lots of problems that are very hard to solve at the moment, so adequate experimentation is needed – for example, how will the editing of these images work? In the real world we can’t suddenly find ourselves in a different place – that would be too much of a shock to our brains. But maybe we can learn to deal with that. Maybe we can learn, and that will lead to a new language and new aesthetics, the way the development of various technologies has lead us to learn to look at the world at different tempos – in slow motion, or speeded up – and we completely accept that now.

The question of how to convey our mental reality is an open subject, and I think it’s a fascinating area to work in. And not only for scientific progress – for everything! A new language – it all has to happen.

You know, I believe a lot of the so-called innovative stuff I’ve done has been based on one thing: that I’m very well acquainted with the history of art. It just seemed to me that there were things that plainly wanted doing.

Photo: Zbig Rybzyński
Photo: Zbig Rybzyński "AC DC IT Ongoing history of video installations," WRO Art Center exhibition view. Photo © Katarzyna Pałetko / Image courtesy of the WRO Art Center. Used here by kind permission from the publisher. All rights reserved.

Piotr Krajewski: Yet you have your own stance on art’s duties in general and on artists’ duties today; developments he or she should be part of. Could you tell something more about it? What is the area in which artists today may use their creativity?

Zbig Rybczyński: In the course of my work I noticed more and more often that I couldn’t carry out most of my ideas. That’s how I got interested in the technology itself. Why can’t I do X, Y and Z? Theoretically I’m supposed to be able to do X, but it wasn’t working – it didn’t work with the geometry of the lens, or with the devices, or I couldn’t move the camera, and so on. That’s why I decided to work on developing the tools. I make my films, my images, but since I don’t have ready-made tools that I feel I need to do things the way I imagine, the way I’m interested in doing them, it means that I have to spend time making those tools.

It’s a vast area for creative work. There are computer processors in digital film cameras and in every other recording device, too. They process the image during shooting and editing, and you can write programs for all these devices, and that opens up extraordinary new possibilities. We’ll be able to generate images that we can’t even imagine now. I’m sure it’s possible to make a Brueghel-style camera, for example, or a Dali-style camera. You could have cameras like that – it’s all possible.

At the moment photographic cameras and film cameras just register what’s in front of the lens. But a new technology has come along: computer graphics, which I’d call an amazing new camera – an intellectual camera that doesn’t register what’s in front of the lens; it generates images from scratch, based on mathematics.

It’s pretty obvious that registering the world the familiar way is going to change into this intellectual way. Which means images will be created on the basis of a great many physical data, not just from the visible spectrum, but from the whole range of our knowledge, material registered in the past, material that comprises particular psychological types – images from the huge realm of mental images. The way people really see. I consider these straightforward topics wanting to be undertaken, as natural developments of many fields of science and human activity. So I envy the people who can participate in the process of creating virtual reality. As I keep saying, we can’t even begin to imagine what’s going to happen in the next few decades.

I’m participating in the process in my own way. Doing what I can.

Photo: Zbig Rybzyński
Photo: Zbig Rybzyński "AC DC IT Ongoing history of video installations," WRO Art Center exhibition view. Photo © Z. Kupisz / Image courtesy of the WRO Art Center. Used here by kind permission from the publisher. All rights reserved.
Photo: Zbig Rybzyński
Photo: Zbig Rybzyński "AC DC IT Ongoing history of video installations," WRO Art Center exhibition view. Photo © Katarzyna Pałetko / Image courtesy of the WRO Art Center. Used here by kind permission from the publisher. All rights reserved.

Piotr KrajewskiI’m wondering if artists participate in such groups? Do they co-create cutting-edge technologies?

Zbig Rybczyński: What’s happened in the last several decades – since around the time when computers were developed – has completely changed our civilization. A lot of areas are very hard to talk about, since a lot of our beliefs and value judgements and the boundaries we see between disciplines come from before the computer revolution. Who are today’s artists? Can I imagine who future generations are going to consider an important artist, who had an impact on the world, on civilization? It’s very hard to say, but we can look at examples from the last few decades. Who were the people that we really appreciate today? Mainly the ones who were very innovative in their time. And in my view they were always involved in technological progress – technology in a very broad sense. It includes music and the written world as well, and the visual image of course – that’s technology, too. Creativity in art – what can that be? Well… participation in the process of improving the world. I’d say that the best definition of art, or the meaning of art, is creating a vision of an improved future world – an expression of a mental image of the future.

At the moment people don’t realize that computer language is in fact very close to traditional written language – the way we write sentences, poetry and so on. In fact all those things can be written using a programming language, which developed out of written language, except that computer languages can do more and more. A computer program can do amazing things – it can operate machines, it can transport us to different times, it can create images and sounds and music. A programming language can be used to write anything that can be written on a piece of paper or other medium – music, images, poetry, anything.

Photo: Zbig Rybczyński,
Photo: Zbig Rybczyński, "Imagine" film stills, 1986. Photo © Zbig Rybczyński. Used here by kind permission from the publisher. All rights reserved.
Photo: Zbig Rybczyński,
Photo: Zbig Rybczyński, "Tango" film stills, 1980. Photo © Zbig Rybczyński. Used here by kind permission from the publisher. All rights reserved.

Piotr KrajewskiYes, but if solving technical issues was the only rationale behind your works, nobody would watch them. I think it’s important that you solved several technical issues and by having done so you developed new ways of expression. At the same time, your artistic language is comprehensible to the general public.

Zbig Rybczyński: It seems to me that participating in creating that form of art – that technology – that’s where the future lies. Everything we’re unable to convey now, we’ll be able to express much better with those devices. The power of the new tools is simply phenomenal, compared with the tools we’ve got now. Creativity and progress consist of carrying out our mental realism, which is also known as our dreams. At the moment in the field of art we’re not too good at the visualization of our dreams, but we’ll get there. It’s a long journey – an endless one, since people’s dreams will always be new. In the past – 2000 years ago, 10 or 15 thousand years ago – people had the same dreams as we have now, but we have different technology. We keep developing our technology, but in the end we want to express the same things. And it fascinates me that I find a lot more attempts to convey mental realism in art from the past than in current art, which isn’t very inspirational for me. Older art is very inspiring, because it deals with internal realism. The kind of realism that has to be expressed, and the studio I’m building will help us express it. We’re getting there – slowly, if you look at the development of our media, all these effects, everything we see in images today – it’s going slow, but we’re headed in the right direction.

Piotr KrajewskiI hope then, hat in your new studio you will combine all the elements mentioned earlier. So programming will meet image, books and other resources to provide a creative atmosphere not limited to any single mode of expression.

Zbig Rybczyński: Speculation about the future is just an expression of various categories of our dreams. It’s very hard to predict what will really happen, how humankind will construct new values in the future, and a code of ethics and aesthetics, what will be a plus and what will be a minus. It seems to me that at least for now, artists have very little impact on creating the world.

We have to do what we believe passionately in – and that’s that. But I’ve got to add one message: What we do entails responsibility. The world will be the way we try to make it. And that’s all I have to say about that.

Photo: Zbig Rybzyński
Photo: Zbig Rybzyński "History of Video Installations" by WRO Cross Feedback TV. Photo © Z. Kupisz / Image courtesy of the WRO Art Center. Used here by kind permission from the publisher. All rights reserved.
Photo: Zbig Rybzyński
Photo: Zbig Rybzyński "Short History of Video Installations" by WRO Cross Feedback TV with curator Piotr Krajewski. Photo © Z. Kupisz / Image courtesy of the WRO Art Center. Used here by kind permission from the publisher. All rights reserved.
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