Suzanne Treister is more than a pioneer in the digital, new media, and web-based artistic fields: she is a visionary and her oeuvre, an oracle. Focused on the relationships between emerging technologies, society, and worldviews, her multi-modal artworks offered portals to the future we find ourselves in today.
Treister began developing projects about video games, virtual reality, and software in the late 1980s. Conjuring and rendering uncanny technologies in a painterly form has been one of her primary mediums for distilling and communicating a vast range of information throughout her career. SOFTWARE, for example, is a series of imaginary software packages channelled and painted across 1993–1994 that suggests the haunted nature of machines. Such ghostly or otherworldly images occasionally coincided with the use of the technological mediums depicted by the work — from her early experiments with the Amiga personal computer to create worlds from imaginary video games, to the publication of a CD-ROM-based game of her own, No Other Symptoms — Time Travelling with Rosalind Brodsky in 1999.
Artworks such as HEXEN 2.0 (2009–2011), ALCHEMY (2007–2008), and HFT The Gardener (2014–2015), grounded in intensive and elaborate research, are profound yet playful resources for understanding the development of today’s complex systems (including social, biological, and botanical sciences; algorithmic finance markets; cybernetics; and surveillance) as well as the lesser known ideologies, movements, and trajectories that have defined them over the past century.
The mysterious, unseen forces that shape both consensus reality and the way in which we experience its unsettling strangeness are interwoven throughout Treister’s universe. Real-world histories mixed with stories of her own construction produce multilayered situations that resemble paranoid hallucinations, at the same time revealing and concealing the fictional nature of all narratives.
HEXEN 2039 (2006), initiated by Rosalind Brodsky (Treister’s alter ego, described as the artist as “a delusional time traveller who believes herself to be working at the Institute of Militronics and Advanced Time Interventionality”) gives a taste of the intricacy of Treister’s practice. Brodsky’s research programme investigated “new military-occult technologies for psychological warfare” and its results were said to be deployed between 2040 and 2045 for the development of “a range of non-lethal weapons for remote alteration of belief patterns in the subject.” Through drawings, diagrams, a website, video work, and site-specific interventions, HEXEN 2039 manifested this para-scientific research into the manifold and seemingly nefarious links between a cast of actors, operations and systems of belief: “conspiracy theories, occult groups, Chernobyl, witchcraft, the US film industry, British Intelligence agencies, Soviet brainwashing, behaviour control experiments of the US Army and recent practices of its Civil Affairs and Psychological Operations Command (PSYOP) and new research in contemporary neuroscience.”
For the K21 Collection, Treister has created The Cosmic Number, in which the blockchain is transmuted into a kabbalistic system, giving access to other dimensions through the number 137. An integer of particular importance to quantum physicist Wolfgang Pauli and psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung, 137 is found at the root of the universe and the Kabbalah. Before reaching the K21 vault, the work will pass through the orbit of 137.eth, extending the mystery it perpetuates into a new substrate.
In the interview with the artist below, she shares her reflections on some of the important artworks of her career, as well as the genesis of many of the ideas touched upon above.
Your work is prophetic in that it represents a powerful synthesis of the strongest currents in culture today — magic, video games, conspiracy, technology. You’ve been working with these subjects for much longer than most. Can you tell us how that journey began?
I had an early interest, from my teens in the 1970s, in areas like Kabbalah, philosophy, socio-political systems, prejudice, psychology, non-Western belief systems and ideas about the paranormal in relation to science. I wanted to get my head around all of it and save the world. I was making paintings in my teens. I believed that art could transcend everyday reality and devised coded philosophical abstractions to try and express some kind of illuminating transformative vision. After art school (1977–82) and toward the end of the 1980s, I became interested in emerging technologies through video games, wondering and imagining how these and other new technologies like virtual reality might change the world. So I made paintings about them and from 1991 started working directly with computers. At the time this was very unfashionable — there was a great fear of the machine, of a technological erasure of humanity, as there is again today in the face of AI and machine learning.
In 1989 you produced a series of works, FICTIONAL VIDEO GAME PAINTINGS, and an incredible series of fictional software products called SOFTWARE. You then went on to produce a video game. It seems there’s a spiral nature in your practice, of working with technologies and then abandoning them, and in later artworks representing this focus purely in traditional mediums. What brought you back to painting and drawing?
At first the Fictional Videogame Stills (1991–92) I was making on my Amiga computer, compared to the previous video game paintings on canvas, felt like new imaginary scenarios created in immaterial digital space, apparitional alternate realities illuminating possibilities for ways of thinking, understanding, and questioning in regard to the present and future. The digital is relatively immaterial, code transmuting in and out of hallucinatory images and texts, and it appeared to me at the time as a more direct pathway to the transcendental and as a more eloquent means of suggesting alternative or new states of consciousness and understandings beyond observable realities and current socio-political paradigms than the materiality of traditional art forms. In the 1990s this space felt to me like a terra nullius, and with the advent of the web, a space to colonize with art and ideas and new political models of global inclusivity and communication.
In 1993 I began a project envisioning software applications of the future, what we now call apps. These works consisted of painted boxes and floppy discs describing the imaginary software, which since it did not yet exist couldn’t be constructed digitally as it was so hypothetically way into the future and could only be suggested by invented titles and handmade images. At the time I was only aware of civilian software being available for word processing, accounting, and basic imaging, and so an example of one of the works, SOFTWARE/Q. Would you recognise a Virtual Paradise?/Sacred Vision, overtly suggested this idealistic idea of the transcendent and transformative possibilities of the new technologies.
From 1995 to 1999 I went on a steep learning curve and made a interactive CD-ROM, No Other Symptoms — Time Travelling with Rosalind Brodsky, which functioned like an immersive video game, investigating the life of an invented alter-ego, Rosalind Brodsky, who worked for a military time travel research institute in London. This multimedia work included animation, video, music and sound, all brought together to take the viewer on a vast and complex nonlinear journey through history and the future.
It is interesting to me to envision future technologies and outcomes before they happen, before they become an opaque part of the everyday, early on when paths and options feel open, when things can perhaps go in a multitude of directions, before, in the case of the new media and the internet, the pragmatics of corporate and government manipulation and control closed down that imaginary space and filled it with forms and feedback loops. This is primarily why, after 2000, I began again to use traditional media alongside computers. Digital space felt more clogged with toxins than the history of art, and I needed to step outside of it to see more clearly into its, and our, hypothetical futures.
You use drawing (in addition to painting) to organize and reflect on huge amounts of information drawn from your research, whether that is the psychedelic properties of plants or the history of cybernetics, as we see with the very well known cult HEXEN 2.0 tarot deck. Could you tell us a bit about your research process, and some of the discoveries you’ve made that have transformed your work?
Generally these projects are driven by a constructed narrative. HEXEN 2.0 (2009–11) was an attempt to present a big-picture history so audiences could understand how we had arrived at that moment when our lives were being uploaded to governments and corporations, and think and take action about how we might prefer to live in the future. This was the objective of the tarot deck, to allow people to play with all the histories and concepts and possibilities and come up with dynamic positive new strategies of survival.
HEXEN 2.0 looks into histories of scientific research behind government programs of mass control, investigating parallel histories of countercultural and grass-roots movements. It charts, within a framework of post-WWII U.S. governmental and military imperatives, the coming together of scientific and social sciences through the development of cybernetics, the history of the internet, the rise of Web 2.0 and increased intelligence gathering, and implications for the future of new systems of societal manipulation toward a control society. It specifically investigates the participants of the seminal Macy Conferences (1946–53), whose primary goal was to set the foundations for a general science of the workings of the human mind. HEXEN 2.0 simultaneously looks at diverse philosophical, literary, and political responses to advances in technology including the claims of Anarcho-Primitivism and Post- Leftism, Theodore Kaczynski/The Unabomber, Technogaianism and Transhumanism, and traces precursory ideas such as those of Henry David Thoreau, Josiah Warren, Martin Heidegger, and Theodor Adorno in relation to visions of utopic and dystopic futures from science-fiction literature and film.
After this more overtly political project, HFT The Gardener was more of a meditation on entangled themes of psychedelics, banking and high-frequency trading, outsider art, electronic communications, and the nature of consciousness. It took the form of a series of works made by the fictional character Hillel Fischer Traumberg (HFT) at the time of his transition from high-frequency trader to outsider artist, during which he became obsessed with psychoactive plants and inserted the molecular formulae of the active ingredients (the alkaloids) into his trading algorithms to see whether they would have a similar effect on trading as they did on the human mind. He ended up wondering whether reality was holographic or whether consciousness or the entire universe itself was part of a giant algorithm.
Hillel Fischer Traumberg’s theory about the holographic principle — which hypothesizes that beyond acknowledged art historical contexts and imperatives, artists may have also been unconsciously attempting to describe the holographic nature of the universe — became the subject for a project I made at CERN in Geneva in 2018, The Holographic Universe Theory of Art History (THUTOAH). THUTOAH tests this theory in a video by projecting over 25,000 chronological images from global art history, echoing conceptually the actions of CERN’s particle accelerator, the Large Hadron Collider (LHC), accelerating at 25 images per second in a looped sequence, alongside a soundtrack of interviews with, and watercolors by, a group of theoretical particle physicists at CERN.
Between HFT The Gardener and THUTOAH, I made SURVIVOR (F) (2016–19), which was a purely imaginary project, a hallucinogenic exploration of a future reality in undetermined time and space. Whether manifestations of a survivor of the human race on earth, in space, on a new planet, or in a parallel universe, or of an artificial superintelligence (ASI), SURVIVOR (F) presented visions of a post-futuristic sublime, charting an existential imaginary of potential human/non-human agency/non-agency, of the psychedelic consciousness of SURVIVOR (F). Survivor (F) is intended as a poetics of the future, a contemporary futuristic alchemical depiction of the universe and beyond.
So my process is different for each project. Sometimes I start with a mission and collect a huge amount of data from endless reading and gradually work it into a narrative structure, but other times it all comes out of my head. Sometimes it’s a combination of the two, like my recent project, TECHNOSHAMANIC SYSTEMS: New Cosmological Models for Survival (2020–21), where I started off with a mission to challenge impending government and corporate colonization of the cosmos and ended up developing multiple themed works imagining alternate future visions of peaceful survival and interplanetary communication and cohabitation.
Within some of these works, such as HEXEN 2.0, HEXEN 2039, and ALCHEMY, you frequently map and unearth the relationships between many of the shadowy entities that influence our world. For instance, the blockchain emerged from an unidentifiable individual known as Satoshi Nakamoto. In developing this project, have you had thoughts about the nature of the blockchain and how it connects to the evolution of technology as captured in your earlier works?
Yes, I’ve been thinking about the blockchain on various levels. As the enabling technology of the multi-headed hydra of the crypto world, it presents many conflicting issues to unpack. But what interests me most is the transparent, publicly distributed ledger system of the blockchain itself as a democratized, decentralized, potentially non-hackable system that could offer a more secure digital future and a lessening of the possibility of erasure or censorship of data in general.
As with any new technological or scientific development, these capabilities could be utilized for the betterment or the degeneration of humanity and the rest of the planet, and a lot of things in between. It could in future guarantee that no one, centralized corporation or government could ever monopolize, censor, alter, or delete, for example, a digital library. It could be very positive for music distribution. Then there are the personal privacy issues to take care about, but it could enable personal data to be controlled only by the user, and person-to-person sharing. Then there is the question of whom to believe and what is possible when it comes to the ecological problems of energy consumption and their resolution. But the overriding issue is that, like most new technological developments, the blockchain is unlikely to go away. It will grow and morph and evolve, and it is our collective responsibility to engage with it and direct it for the betterment of the planet, for a better future, rather than let it be directed by those with toxic interests.
Although it was developed as a technology for cryptocurrency, technology per se is not evil or destructive, nor is money, or language for that matter. They have that capacity built in as well as their own built-in tendencies, but it should be within the power of humans to override these, to determine directions and outcomes. Numerous charities now accept cryptocurrency, and it is many of these charities themselves who are working to save the planet from human destruction and to whom billions of amassed cryptocurrency could potentially be offloaded. New technologies often begin with counting and writing, moving on to encompass entire alternate realities and previously unimaginable futures. Earlier forms of technology―calculating machines, devices for reading the stars, machines for printing and writing and weaving―have developed from the material to realms of the immaterial, and so in turn one can begin to imagine where and how blockchain technology may develop and be used, where it may lead us or where we may lead it. Will it become Web 3.0, a web of new safety, security, and stability? But who will oversee the ethics? When a techno-architecture is democratized and not centrally controlled, this will then be up to all of us. We all need to recognize our complicity in the future of the blockchain and the future of the planet and act ethically, responsibly, and creatively.
In your piece for K21, THE COSMIC NUMBER, you zone in on the significance of the number 137 and its importance to two figures, Carl Jung and Wolfgang Pauli. Can you tell us how you first encountered this number and why it was important for you to explore in this work?
I first encountered the idea of this number in the book 137: Jung, Pauli, and the Pursuit of a Scientific Obsession, by Arthur I. Miller, just before I began a residency at CERN, where the Pauli Library is housed. 137 is the number potentially at the root of the universe that describes the atom’s fine-structure constant, a number that determines how stars burn, how chemistry happens, and whether atoms exist or not, and that within the alphanumerical system of Hebrew Gematria corresponds to the word “Kabbalah”. The relationship of the fine-structure constant to light in physics parallels the Kabbalists’ concept of connecting with light, or becoming enlightened by shedding the ego. For quantum physics pioneer Wolfgang Pauli (1900–1958) and psychoanalyst Carl Gustav Jung (1875–1961), who enjoyed a long association, mathematics held one of the keys to the door between their two worlds, the number 137 exposing extraordinary links between physics and mysticism. In the 1950s Pauli developed a friendship with Gershom Scholem, a prominent scholar of Jewish Mysticism. Two keys words in the Kabbalah are “wisdom,” which has a numerical value of 73, and “prophesy,” which has a numerical value of 64. 73 + 64 = 137.
The Cosmic Number takes the form of an interactive image of a Kabbalistic tree of life, where each sephirah leads further into the work and eventually to the top sephirah, where the number 137 appears.
At its base the blockchain sephirah opens into a large diagrammatic transcription of the books in Pauli’s library, which are currently housed inside the Salle Pauli, in Building 501 at CERN, in Geneva. Pauli’s eclectic library contains books on Chinese and Indian philosophies, religion, mysticism, science, theoretical physics, telepathy, literature, the classics, iconology, love, Western philosophy, and many volumes by Jung. It also includes volumes written after Pauli’s death concerning his scientific work and correspondence, his relationship with Jung, and the number 137.
The particular format of this diagram parallels visualizations of the blockchain’s structure, as a distributed ledger system securing data in multiple locations at the same time, a condition attained for books since the invention of the printing press in the fifteenth century.The Pauli Library CERN sephirah leads to a moving-image transcription of the contents of Pauli’s library composed of over thirty sequential images of each individual bookshelf, photographed at CERN, overlaid with filmed footage of the diagrammatic transcription of the library, alternating from transparency to opacity, by turns revealing and obscuring the images of the books on the shelves.
The Wolfgang Pauli and Carl Jung sephirot lead to images of Pauli and Jung, animated from watercolor portraits through multiple echoing and paralleling digital processes, to create pulsating hypnotic artificial presences.
The Kabbalah sephirah leads to a text work in which the word Kabbalah is painted in Hebrew with gematria calculations showing the resulting cosmic number 137, across which an illumination travels.
The 137 sephirah leads to a commentary on the cosmic number, below which a duplicate 137 sephirah leads to the door of Salle Pauli on the first floor of Building 501 at CERN. This door opens onto the video of the library. To the right of the Salle Pauli door is a second door, numbered 137, which returns you to the commentary.
The Pauli Effect sephirah opens onto this explanatory text:
The Pauli effect is the alleged tendency of technical equipment to encounter critical failure in the presence of certain people. The term was coined as a result of numerous accounts describing instances in which demonstrations involving equipment suffered technical problems only in the presence of Wolfgang Pauli. In their correspondence Pauli and Jung agreed that the effect was an example of the concept of synchronicity.
The Cosmic Number incorporates the idea of consciousness enhancing synchronous acausal connections or parallelisms, where the Pauli effect creates a fissure, revealing pathways to potential ethically and spiritually focused technological shifts and developments, as the ghost of Pauli’s library and the cosmic number 137 enter the nascent system of the blockchain.
What do you think the likely effect may be of 137 entering into the blockchain infrastructure?
Inserting the cosmic number 137 into the Blockchain feels like setting off a small chain reaction, or like making a wish, for a democratized, decentralized internet of the future — in other words, the internet we may have hoped to get the first time around. So the effect functions on an imaginary and motivational level, encouraging, I hope, those who encounter and spend time with the project, to work toward resolving the negatives and enhancing the positives of this emerging technology for the benefit of everyone and everything. Or this may happen all by itself, because of the cosmic number 137 doing its own thing with the machine.