On the power of stories: in conversation with Alex Verhaest
Jul 25, 2022
Humans are governed by stories they create, which shape our understanding of the world from very early stages, helping us make sense and confer meaning to what surrounds us. The practice of Alex Verhaest stems from this reasoning. Interested in the intersection between language, communication, narrative and technology, the Flemish artist continuously investigates these elements through her work, which spans from video-games to interactive cinema. Fundamentally, Verhaest’s work deeply investigates the roots and limits of humanity’s linguistic and communicative capability. Ludwig Wittgenstein once said “the limits of my language are the limits of my world”, a hard truth which Verhaest challenges by trusting the power of stories to shape thoughts and preconceptions, and - perhaps - to welcome change. If not stimulated by diverse visions of the world, we become redundant.
Change is as well the protagonist of Verhaest’s most recent exhibition at Barakat Contemporary in Seoul, titled The Archive of Unattained Futures (Jun 8 - Jul 31, 2022). The exhibition explores the power of stories that lie in relation to change through two new interactive works: The Archivist (2022) and Ad Hominem (2022). Inspired by Sofie Verraest’s doctoral thesis “Eutopia Unbound”, which analyzes the roots of western utopian thinking, the works invite us to confront ourselves with how canonized utopias (and dystopias) influence and govern our understanding of the present. Within this framework, change becomes not only a leading character, but also an invitation to think about our own capability of going forward, and what prevents it.
In this conversation with Alex Verhaest, we explore together the exhibition at Barakat Seoul, taking it as an occasion to delve into the artist’s practice and fascinating thoughts on humanity and its effort to make sense of the world.
Valentina Buzzi (VB): In the current exhibition at Barakat Contemporary in Seoul, titled The Archive of Unattained Futures you present two ambitious new works, The Archivist (2022) and Ad Hominem (2022). They both deal with questions of utopia, change, communication, technology, narrative – all core aspects of your work. I would love to start our conversation by asking you about your interest in utopia, and how it is developed in the two works presented at the gallery.
Alex Verhaest (AV): I started working on the subject of utopia when I moved back to Brussels from Amsterdam. As a capital of Europe, Brussels has a strong political involvement with many grassroot organizations. Over the past 6 years I have gotten more and more involved with those organizations, whose aim is to push forward new legislation and ideas. Thus, by moving from Amsterdam, I found myself deeply engaged in a political reality.
Utopia as a concept was a challenging idea to work with, and I continued to connect and reconnect with it through different concepts for a while. What was interesting is that, obviously, returning where you come from after a while confronts you with your “new you” as well as your “old you”. This concept (which I further explored as the concept of “change”) and the idea of utopia(s) became pertinent during the pandemic. It was fascinating to witness social media posts, which were either completely apocalyptic, or were aiming at saving and changing the world.
Furthermore, as a university professor, I saw how these topics became strongly relevant for my students (mostly coming from Generation Z). They all started working with ideas of utopia and Apocalypse since the Covid-19 pandemic started, elaborating them in a brilliant manner. I remember a student of mine working on a video piece based on a comparison between the biblical apocalypse imagery and the current news. All these elements made my interest in the concept of utopia grow strongly. I then read the doctoral thesis of Sofie Verraest “Eutopia Unbound”, which became the groundwork of the work I presented at Barakat Contemporary, Seoul.
VB: For Ad Hominem (2022), you were largely inspired by Sofie Verraest’s doctoral dissertation “Eutopia Unbound”. In her work, she explores four types of utopias (communitarianism, futurism, isolationism, hedonism) which appear constantly in post-war western creative works. By responding a series of questions, the players of Ad Hominem will end up aligning with one of the four possibilities. Could you tell us more about how you developed the video game and how "Eutopia Unbound" influenced your work?
AV: Ad Hominem (2022) is based on the cliché story of the hero, who traditionally either returns from another place with gained wisdom (eg. Ulisses), either is a representation of classic elements of masculinity. I wanted to write a story about an ungendered hero/heroine coming back to their own hometown and having to confront old friends and acquaintances, who wouldn’t necessarily connect with their “new/changed self”. Coming back to one’s hometown, for those who have traveled, is a shared universal experience, as we return with new ideas and visions of the world. On one side, it represents the luxury of our generation, but there is also a deep un-rootedness (in French déraciné) that is at the core of today’s existential crisis. Which is good, it represents the root of our globalized reality.
Within this framework, Change, the main character of Ad Hominem (2022), is an old revolutionary who comes back to their hometown with new and maybe old ideas. Through this character, I developed the content of Sophie Verraest’s thesis, rendering it as the matrix of the video-game, functioning as its score system. For that score system, I was initially inspired by the early beginnings of Facebook - where you would like or unlike posts. As a human being I was frustrated by the binary framework of the online environment, which would enforce polar declinations of thought. This concept of polarity was, though rendered complex, strongly engaged in Verraest’s Ph.D, which made me realize that it was a proper widely human shared framework of thinking.
In a sense it connects with how language works. We frame things in different boxes of meaning to understand them better, but at the same time language puts meaning towards itself as well, and what is signified and thus interpreted/decoded becomes very wide. The video game reflects these elements as well, and the way you can navigate the story through your choices is strongly inspired by the “choose your own adventure” books I used to play with in my childhood. It relates as well to the utopian quality of the video-game environments, which incorporate a form of escapism. Everything somehow clicked together.
VB: In Ad Hominem (2022), the protagonist is “Change”, a revolutionary character that comes back to their home and must deal with re-connecting with such an environment. I am interested in your conception and understanding of Change, and how change and utopia interrelate.
AV: We are creatures of habit, and change is something complicated. There’s a certain saying, “the status quo is the devil you know”, that I think reflects this situation. Convincing people to behave differently is very difficult. But it’s absolutely necessary for survival. Our habitat is not static. If we, as humanity, don’t evolve and change, we’ll die out. Stories are machines of empathy. They propose safe spaces of identification, they challenge us to discuss and question things. Stories can bring change forward in beautiful and frightening ways. For too long, history - and thus storytelling - has been dominated by very homogenic voices.
The servosystem of our human thinking has become limited to identification with these voices and this brings a status quo beneficial to these ruling voices, but not very beneficial to anyone else. This is detrimental to a system. The only thing that we can do, as storytellers, is to make sure that there is a wide diversity in the stories told, so change becomes possible. That might sound like a bit much to ask from an artistic video game, (haha). But I do hold to this holistic conviction. To me, making art and telling stories is a spiritual practice.
VB: And how was the response from the audience?
AV: Many people were very surprised that the answer didn’t match with their own political ideas, and told me that they often found themselves agreeing with some sentences, which would be very extreme and/or conservative. It is interesting that the sentences are extrapolated from philosophical, political, sociological writings and so on, but in the game they are de-contextualized, so the player is unaware of who they are agreeing with.
Apparently many loved to play it in groups, which would spark discussions about one’s choices - and this is exactly what I wanted, to stimulate conversations. It was the whole point of Ad Hominem (2022), for which I don’t see an evening land of a perfect word, but rather the very much needed discussions and different voices. This also relates to how we think about the world, and how that thinking is connected with the stories we are raised with. It implies both terror and confort, recognising that this framework means connectivity but also that we are governed by those stories that have become the canon, and by the lack of alternative ones. It is terrifying and comforting at the same time.
“You wrote about the idea of difference. You'd write that change is the pivotal point between things. The ungraspable that holds everything together. It is our highest virtue because of what we sacrifice for it. You wrote me: I will have spent my life trying to understand the function of change, which is not the opposite of conservation, but rather its heartbeat. We do not change, we rewrite memory much as history is rewritten. How can one remember a cloud?
Text excerpt co-written by GPT-3 & Alex Verhaest
VB: For Ad Hominem (2022), you worked as well in co-writing with AI, using GPT-3, a program which uses deep learning. Could you tell us more about this process? What are the possibilities and limits with working with AI?
AV: It was also terrifying and comforting (hahah). Previously I worked with GPT-2, which was trained with fewer parameters than the current GPT-3, and it is known to produce sexist and racist feedback. On the other hand, the current GPT-3, trained with so much more data, works exponentially better. Though still very problematic at times, it is far less limited. On that note, there is a beautiful humanistic message which responds to the diversity of our stories - included in this wider parameter for GPT-3. Maybe in the future we will arrive at a reality that is more inclusive, as we continue to share and diversify stories.
There is also something unsettling about AI. For instance exploring my work with GPT-3 and how it responds, it confronts you with the limits of human thinking. We have an interpretive function, yet we are limited by the stories we don’t know and governed by the ones we know. Just like GPT-3, which was trained on 8 billion parameters, human intellect is also trained by a limited data set. That is an unsettling part to me, it shows us the framework of our own limits. And there is something existential in this whole reasoning that is somehow frightening.
VB: And what is your general take on technology as a medium and its relation with communication?
AV: In general, for me, every generation has a responsibility to work with its own medium and technology, otherwise - if not explored with creativity but just as a tool - they would become solescent, neoliberalist, and cold. We live with technology all around us. Life doesn’t imitate art but it’s vice-versa, so it is important to work in this sense.
Social media and communication technology are part of our daily life, we basically function constantly in three time-zones with the tools we have today. Yet, even in the age of communication par excellence, we seem so underskilled in communicating between humans. I think it derives from an internal conditioning, or something in that sense. I explore this aspect very much in my work.
VB: How is your practice rather discussed and explored in The Archivist (2022)? I am also interested in the aesthetic choice of the work, which reminds me both of Nam June Paik's work as well as Aby Warburg's conception of Atlas.
AV: It is fun that you made a comparison with Warburg. In a sense, in The Archivist (2022), change is a sort of fictionalization of Warburg who returns from the depths of the internet, as a time traveling AI, and starts to tell stories following four tropes. It is based on four utopias, but it looks at them like countries of the mind, like real places. And Change tells the story as if it was a traveler’s letter. Sometimes it is representative of each utopia, other times I changed the structure to create similarities between the four polarities of dichotomies. If you listen to the four of them, it becomes a meta-story of the reality of somebody traveling through time.
There is a beautiful thing going on right now in the art world, in any kind of medium, which is the return to the narrative, which is so comforting to me. After World War II and everything that happened in the 20th century, it was obvious that art had to respond through abstraction, expressionism and the denouncement of “big ideas” etc…but right now, we are returning to stories. Some examples are artists such as Paula Rego, Neo Rauch, or Brussels painter Delphine Somers, who return to the narrative and fantastical qualities of painting. Other examples could be the immersive narrative installations of Ulla von Brandenburg, recently featured at the Palais de Tokyo, or Dora Benyo who works with a mix of fictionalized documentary video and painting to tell the story of her revolutionary grandfather, or my teacher and friend Béla Tarr, who retired from filmmaking but now creates these heartbreaking immersive installations that function like true baths of empathy for stories unheard. There is a return to narrativity in the arts, that surpases the cheap cynicism of the Y2K era. It’s exciting and fresh and just heals the soul, really.
VB: And why do you think there is a return to narrative?
AV: I think it has to do with cycles. We are in the 21st century now, and we have surpassed the time in which we lost the big stories that structured the world (through post-structuralism and the break of grand narratives). I think that as humanity we function like in Hansel and Gretel, we lose the crumbs but they are in the same forest, as are we, so with time we eventually find them. The humanity from a previous generation is re-interpreted by a new generation.
In that sense, art - as well as telling stories - is almost a spiritual thing. Everything is intertextuality, even in aesthetics. And maybe because of the internet and globalization, we have sort of thrown off the cloak of mythology to work with newness and uniqueness. Nothing in a sense is new, but there are things that are renewing.
If you write or work within stories or art - and particularly within stories - you realize that they are structured profoundly with human life. They work with life, ending, and death. Every story communicates with the ones that have been written before, with deceased voices and with people that are yet to be born. It is - for this reason - of utmost importance to work on stories which encompass the wider perspective possible, because if they are not canonized in the collective subconscious of their generation, then they will be lost. Look at all the female voices we lost through the centuries for example. Imagine what the world could have been if they could have been included.
VB: In your work and research at large, you focus on language, history, and impossibility of communication. How did you become interested in the themes and how did you develop your approach to them?
AV: We are governed by language, and language governs us in a way. Language, fundamentally, is just a liquid crystal screen, pulling the meaning towards our understanding of the world. On the other side, it is agreed that language is too wide, and that there’s too much room for interpretation. We, as humans, are all in the golden cage of our own perception, being failing interpretative and empathetic machines. It is beautiful and sad and terrifying and glorious at the same time. It defines the human condition.
On a personal level, the whole interest in language may have stemmed from the fact that I was born in Belgium, and spoke both Flemish which is Dutch but not really, and French which is not really French. And growing up with undubbed English and American television. I have also been struggling a lot with how meaning is lost or changed in translation, throughout my whole life. I think this has influenced me a lot.
VB: I would love to ask you about how you developed concepts of narrative, communication, and language in previous work. Although not included in the current exhibition at Barakat Contemporary, works such as Temps Mort (2013) or To Insanity (A’ la folie) (2016), respectively explore concepts of family and love relationships. What do they tell us about your vision and ideas at large?
AV: Temps Mort (2013) is based on a simple story. It is about a father who had commited suicide and his family is left to deal with the aftermath of his death. At the time I was very inspired by medieval palliative pamphlets that guided the sickly towards a godly death, but also by these family dinners that everyone experienced for decades, where nobody really communicates.
The work is activated by a phone call, as a reminder and investigation on how we use technology often to delegate our emotions. It is a perverse paradox that in the age of communication we are still very bad at it on a human level. I was therefore interested in investigating the interrelation between language and technology, and how they could be intersected and worked with on a narrative level.
To Insanity (A’ la folie) (2016) is inspired by Kafka's metamorphosis, and it examines the differences between language and structure. The opening sentence is sampled from the novel, and it is interesting that if you read it in German or English it changes the entire meaning of it based on how the structure of the sentence changes. I thus transformed the Kafkian story in five different ways, ranging from just staging it as a canon love story, to something very absurd. It is an interactive installation, in the sense that the longer you stay in front of the work, the more absurd the story becomes. The story is told five times, diverting continuously into symbolism. At the basis, there is the communication between the couple, a brother and sister in Kafka’s novella, re-staged as a lover’s discourse
To sum up, Temp morts (2013) was more referencing the family drama genre, To Insanity (A' la folie) (2016) refers to the romance genre, and Ad Hominem (2022) is a sort of a hero story.
VB: It is so insightful to know more in detail about works that are much layered. Finally, could you tell me how you approached film as a medium, and how did you develop your practice into extended cinema?
AV: I did my MFA in photography, but I felt cramped by the medium. I therefore started making videos when I was graduating, where I presented an installation with voiceover as my graduation project. My interest in cinematic work started during my time at Le Fresnoy, and developed from there. The idea of working with interactive cinema (with its roots in cinema extended) originated in my time in Shanghai, where I started working on the combination between art and technology moved by my experience with the IT communities in China.
Alex Verhaest: The Archive of Unattained Futures at Barakat Contemporary, Seoul is on view until Jul 31, 2022. For more information about the exhibition, please click here.