Artist Interview: Ali Hossaini, (interviewed by Andrew Rosinski, April/May 2010)
Ali Hossaini is an American philosopher, a filmmaker, an artist; an innovator, a pacifist, a seer; a visionary. A warm-hearted man with a mystical, ubiquitous vision for progress. Common themes in Ali’s work include, “a commitment to freedom and innovation that breaks disciplinary boundaries.”
Ali serves on the Board of Advisors for Anthology Film Archives and the Water Mill Center for the Arts. He is an Associate of the Liverpool-based FACT, the Foundation for Art and Creative Technology, where he serves in a development role.
Ali Hossaini (view his IMDB page here) works on the cutting edge of film, television and interactive media, and in addition to his 2010 Ouroboros exhibit, the 6-channel 3D video exhibit collaboration with SWEATSHOPPE, Ali has been involved in the launch of several television channels, including LAB HD, the only TV channel devoted to video art, Equator HD, Gallery HD, Oxygen, TechTV, NOW, and LinkTV. He is currently proprietor of Pantar, a media production company that specializes in talent-driven projects of artistic merit. Much of his work involves organizing international production, financing and exhbition.
Hossaini’s productions include the Voom Portraits, directed by the avant-garde visionary, Robert Wilson, which includes performances by Johnny Depp (one of my favorite actors, who starred in one of my all-time favorite films, Dead Man (1995) — a film by the brilliant Jim Jarmusch), Salma Hayek — Brad Pitt — Winona Ryder, Robert Downey Jr, Princess Caroline of Monaco, Sean Penn, and other cultural icons. He has produced numerous documentaries and factual television series relating to travel, natural history, culture and sustainable living. In 2009 he produced Self-Portrait, a short film by Dennis Hopper.
7 question INTERVIEW: Ali Hossaini
(1) Please tell us about your artistic process and how it has evolved throughout the years.
For me the first stage of inspiration comes through adventure. My fundamental drive is curiosity – I’ve always wanted to know everything. I love reading, and I might have been very bookish, but (fortunately for my love life) that intellectual drive is matched by a robust physical and emotional urge to see the world. So I’m constantly exploring, whether through mind or body, then reflecting on what I’ve learned. In the course of this process one naturally makes connections. Some of these connections are straightforward, following established rules of analysis or synthesis. And some are poetic: associative with resonances that are more generative than conclusive.
It is through the latter process that I produce something people call art, though for me it’s more precisely called poetry. I like calling myself a visual poet because the term relates to poesis, which for the Greeks was very specific kind of creative process. (Also the words “art” and “artist” today imply a lot of things I find horrible.) For me poetry arises from a process of disintegration in the fullest sense of that process: the coherence of things breaks down, and previously unrelated structures start bumping against one another, adhering and forming new structures which may or may not make immediate sense.
When I’d started trying to express myself I had a lot of trouble coming up with ideas. And I was unconfident about them. Creativity is a natural secretion of consciousness, and, now that I’ve had a lot more experience, new projects flow faster than I can realize them. One way I think about the creative process is alchemy, the transmutation of dross into gold, an image I love. (This is silly, but I secretly think of the need for artistic expression as a full bladder—you just gotta do it.) In Hindu culture the transcendence of creativity is represented by the lotus, a beautiful flower that rises from muck. Years of reading and travel has enriched my daily experience. When I look at things, I see the thing in front of me, for sure, but it’s in the center of a vibrant, fluctuating, utterly delightful web of connections – historical, scientific, aesthetic, emotional, literary, social and philosophical. My rich inner life contrasts with my Spartan approach to possessions. I live very simply because have a lot of trouble with stuff. Material possessions make my heart sag and distract my thinking, so I find living plants and organic forms to be the best environment for creativity.
ISE Cultural Foundation is pleased to present an exhibition, “Ouroboros: The History of the Universe”, curated by Koan Jeff Baysa, MD.
Video artist Ali Hossaini teams up with artists Blake Shaw and Bruno Levy, aka SWEATSHOPPE, to present Ouroboros: The History of the Universe. Over 30,000 images combine to tell the story of cosmic evolution in an immersive 3D video environment generated by SWEATSHOPPE’s own software. The artwork was inspired by Hossaini’s investigations into the psychology of vision and SWEATSHOPPE’s interest in the hypnotic, meditative and mind-altering potential of the moving image.
Visitors will be handed 3D glasses that reveal mesmerizing arrays of animated holograms, created by seven channels of video, within a 2,000 square foot gallery. Original compositions of ambient sound have been produced by the artists, and a limited edition of 3D prints will be available for purchase.
Aesthetics and craft are very important to me, so I work hard to make experiences that are beautiful. Beauty has been an unpopular category in art for some years, with the justification being that aesthetic criteria have less validity than concepts. I take the diametrically opposite view, as I don’t think artists have much to contribute in the way of original concepts. What the artist can offer is a rigorous craft based on trained manual skills and aesthetic principles. The mandate of art is to create something beautiful – this doesn’t mean that it can’t be critical, provocative or idea-based, but those qualities emanate from the relationship of art to disciplines better equipped to handle them.
Some might say I am dumbing down art, but to me beauty relies on processes that are far more sophisticated than the verbal ability required to appreciate the irony, cynicism and self-referentiality of conceptual artworks. Beauty arises from the innate mathematical abilities of our mind. While our verbal brain lumbers along with kludged linear processes, our visual faculties contain dedicated neural circuits that instantly analyze multidimensional fields. To say concepts are more sophisticated than beauty ignores the fundamentals of cognition, and it also disrupts the organic connection between our intuitions, life processes and the physical world.
(2) The process in creating Ouroboros: when did the concept arise, what do you wish to explore and unveil, and what is the aim of the exhibit? How did you secure funds for the exhibit?
The concept for Ouroboros arose in summer of 2009, not long before the exhibition. The Ouroboros is a powerful symbol in hermetic traditions. As an object for contemplation it’s meant to evoke the self-sustaining nature of the cosmos, eternal life and the unity of being. Since childhood the Ouroboros has been one of my favorite images—that snake has such a self-confident expression – but before last summer I’d only considered as a potential tattoo. Then I started thinking about the degradation of our school system, particularly right-wing attacks on cosmology and evolution, which I think is a real problem because it creates ignoramuses who are ill-prepared to be responsible citizens. It’s kind of weird that the same people who are crying patriotism want to turn America into a ignorant theocracy incapable of technical progress.
This provoked a strong desire to do a work that drew on science, especially the threatened theories of the Big Bang and evolution. At the same time I reflected on why social conservatives and a lot of other people rejected science, and I thought maybe it’s because they don’t feel how scientific theory connects to their own lives. Scientific theory excites me, and it evokes a sense of wonder that makes me feel at home in the cosmos. It sings. How could I convey these feelings to a mass audience? Not by talking about them – BORING – but as a direct experience so they could feel what I feel. It occurred to me that I could do a “history of the universe” animated by images drawn from the Internet. Why not show the unity of being by creating an immersive visual mix poem that stretches from the Big Bang to Lady Gaga?
When the curator Koan Jeffrey Baysa offered the Ise Cultural Foundation as a venue, the project was off and running. Koan generously agreed to split his curatorial fee with me, which provided about 5% of the budget, and my collaborators SWEATSHOPPE covered another 5%. The balance of cash expenses were covered from my savings.
Conceiving of Ouroboros was a lot easier than creating it. It seemed like the faultlines of modern experience run through the boundaries of matter, life and spirit, so I made storylines corresponding to physical, biological and psychological evolution. I wanted to create a visual mix of these three realms, and 3D video was the obvious way to do it, particularly since I’d just produced a 3D film of Robert Wilson’s Kool: Dancing in My Mind. But existing technologies were too expensive and difficult to execute.
(SWEATSHOPPE VIDEOS — Live 3d video/av performances)
Then I met SWEATSHOPPE aka Blake Shaw and Bruno Levy. They are an art collective that do remarkable live performances that combine music with live 3D video. Their work bowled me over the instant I saw it, and I instantly knew they were the friends and collaborators I needed to make Ouroboros.
SWEATSHOPPE has created a cool 3D aesthetic based on Chromadepth technology. Within it you can assign any set of images to layers within a holographic space. Layers are coded red, green and blue, and the effect is incredibly robust – you can walk up to an image, and it maintains the illusion of depth. And you can view it in 2D without glasses, and it retains its sharpness, so it’s perfect for a standing piece of art.
We had a lot of discussions about how the concept of Ouroboros could be expressed through the SWEATSHOPPE aesthetic. The tripartite layers neatly fit the three realms of Ouroboros, so the aesthetic provided the perfect grammar for the poem. They taught me how to use their software tools, which was easy, but I also had to learn how to make crisp, coherent sequences, which was a lot harder. Fortunately we share a lot of the same interests, and we were completely receptive to each other’s ideas. The expression of Ouroboros got even larger, as it expanded to include SWEATSHOPPE’s focus on mandalas, hypnosis and primary shapes, and the installation evolved into two triptychs, one of which was representation and the other abstract. SWEATSHOPPE and I both aim to make art that is complex and provocative yet accessible, and I think we succeeded. The audience for Ouroboros was completely universal – it’s appeal didn’t break down across educational, class or generational lines. Sure we got the art audience, but the building’s maintenance staff, babies, toddlers, seniors citizens all responded positively, and creating something that appealed to everyone was our most important goal.
(3) Would you say that some of its content chases the chimera?
When I was a kid my mom would sing, “Merrily, merrily, merrily, merrily, life is but a dream,” to help me fall asleep.
Dinca note: The word “chimera” is chiefly known to be, “(in Greek mythology) a fire-breathing female monster with a lion’s head, a goat’s body, and a serpent’s tail”; our intended usage of the word is in its lesser-known definition, “a thing that is hoped or wished for, but in fact is illusionary, or impossible to achieve.”
(4) Ouroboros certainly is psychedelic, top-to-bottom. Why?
Reality is psychedelic. I guess I should explain what I mean. Many people treat psychedlia as an aesthetic, and I think the art world mirrors society by marginalizing psychedelia. They seem to think it’s a simple-minded or lacks conceptual rigor. However I am grounded in philosophy, psychology and cognitive science, and I’ve done a lot of introspective work on my perception, what some might call phenomenology. It is easy to go through life accepting the world as appears in normative experience, but scientists, mystics and, yes, a lot of old hippies will attest to the fact that normative experience is a mental construct. That mental construct makes a lot of sense because it evolved to maintain the continuity of biological and social life. With a little poking this construct comes unraveled, and then we confront primordial questions. What am I? What is reality? What should I be doing? Within psychedelia these questions appear as living presences. It is easy to shrug them off in the dry setting of Philosophy 101 or when given ironic distance in yet another piece of conceptual art. Psychedelia confronts Being, and it does it directly with an intellectual, scientific and emotional discipline that I find unmatched in other movements. At the same time, it’s a lot of fun.
(5) You premiered Guy Maddin’s Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair in Times Square last December of 2009. Was it a party? When and how did you meet Guy Maddin?
My connection to Guy is through Isabella Rossellini, whom I met several years ago during my production of the Robert Wilson Video Portraits. Bob portrayed Isabella as a wild anime character, and while we were in makeup she insisted that I check out the films of Guy Maddin. The Saddest Music in the World had just opened. Of course I loved it, and then I found out that my friend Jody Shapiro produced a lot of Guy’s work, so I was able to see Sissy Boy Slap Party and a lot of other Maddin classics. I’d recruited Isabella to be chief juror of the Metropolis Art Prize, a project of Babelgum Networks, and I’d decided to screen the winners in Times Square.
I wish I could take credit for the idea, but it was Isabella who suggested we premiere Send Me to the ‘Lectric Chair as part of the program. Of course I jumped at the possibility, but it took some diplomacy on my part to make it happen because the film shows Isabella being jolted into an ecstatic state (to put it mildly) after being strapped into an old school electric chair. I won over the gods of Babelgum and midtown Manhattan by arguing for the artistic merit and press worthiness of Guy’s work. For an hour we watched the winning videos, which were really wonderful, and then we premiered ‘Lectric Chair over an installation that contained the actual electric chair from the film, which was incredibly campy. The crowds loved it, but for me it was a delightfully perverse thing to do. Watching Guy’s visuals detour over Times Square is one of the high points of my professional career. It was a doubly great night for me because I met SWEATSHOPPE right after Guy’s film premiered. My client had recruited them to perform the afterparty at Jonathan Levine Gallery, right after Isabella gave the art video awards.
(6) What is next on the art plate?
I’m working on a bunch of projects, but two stand out. One is the final realization of my video installation Epiphany. I started working on Epiphany in 2006. It was shot on location in Greenland, Iceland, France and the USA, and I edited it into an 85 minute film set to the Renaissance composer Palestrina. The film is about cycles of life and rebirth, so I used a requiem mass and a beautiful motet based on the Song of Songs, a Hebrew poem that celebrates sexuality and life. But my goal was always to collaborate with a composer on an original mass in the motet style. Then I would edit the Epiphany visuals into a 4-channel immersive piece that created a visual motet. Last year the composer Paola Prestini, whom I think is one of the great talents of the 21st century, recruited me to create the visuals for her opera, Oceanic Verses. And this year she agreed to compose the Epiphany Mass.
Another project that stands out is Alternative Cognitions. Have you ever wondered what it’s like to be dyslexic, autistic or synaesthetic? Our shared world is build around cognitive norms, and I’m researching the ways people deviate from them. My plan is build environments that recreate the worlds of people who perceive or think differently than we expect. There’s great literature on these topics, but I’m starting to interview people about their experiences, and the process is really inspiring all kinds of reflection on other issues. It’s a place where philosophy, politics and practical matters interest. I’m a philosopher of science by training, and I’m working with Koan again, who’s an MD with a research interest in olfaction, so we’ve got a really strong collaboration going for this topic.
(7) What is your spirit animal?
You’d think it would be the snake because the Ouroboros has always held a lot of significance for me. And I do like snakes. But it would definitely be the cat, traditional antagonist of the serpent. I’ve cats across the spectrum in my mythological self, falling under Leo in Western astrology, the Tiger in Chinese and Lion in Burmese. I’ve got a lot of admiration for the grace, determination and self-restraint of cats.
(7.2) The Ouroboros is …
… a cosmic key.
More on Ali:
The American Museum of the Moving Image maintains a permanent exhibit devoted to LAB HD. Other productions have been exhibited at theLincoln Center, the Tribeca Film Festival, the Montreal Festival of Film on Art, PS1/MoMA, The Hackney Empire, SF Cinemateque, Pacific Film Archives, the Beijing Borderlines Festival, Couvent des Cordeliers, and many other international venues. His production of Don’t Trust Anyone Over 30 appeared in the 2006 Whitney Biennial. His directorial debut, Epiphany (2006), premiered at Anthology Film Archives.
As a vice president at the women’s TV network Oxygen Media, Hossaini developed numerous initiatives related to programming and social networking. At TechTV, he launched Chat Day!, the first application to merge chat, webcams and live TV in a virtual environment. Hossaini is a member of the Academy of Television Arts and Sciences and the National Association of Television Program Executives.
He regularly speaks at conferences in the United States and Europe. In the 1990s he was a regular guest on The Site, an award-winning MSNBC newsmagazine. Hossaini recently completed a manuscript, Vision of the Gods: How Optics Shaped History, and he contributed three entries to the Encyclopedia of Photography, published by Routledge in 2005.
His writing has appeared in Village Voice, The Nation, Verlag Spotlight (Germany), openDemocracy (UK), New York Newsday, Maclean’s Magazine (Canada), Logos Journal, and Al-Ahram Weekly (Egypt). He is anthologized in the textbooks Passages and Considering Cultural Difference, and his essays on photography are frequently included in college coursebooks.
While working as an acquisitions editor at the University of Texas Press, which publishes books and journals, both for a scholarly audience and for the people of Texas, Hossaini published one of the first electronic books in conjunction with the Coalition for Networked Information.
He also developed Surrealist Women, an anthology of suppressed female artists, and he successfully funded the Texas History Series.
As a graduate student, Hossaini was awarded fellowships for poetry, photography and philosophy. He received his doctorate in philosophy from the University of Texas at Austin in 1994.
His dissertation, Archaeology of the Photograph, traces the history of geometric optics from Sumer to the Classical Era.
Talk about about merit — I recommend clicking every hyperlink in this article. It’s well worth your time.
Ali kindly participated in the following seven-question interview, and his responses are insight, not only for artists, but for any and all striving to achieve their golden vision, and progress.