INTERVIEW WITH MILTOS MANETAS BY OLIVIER ZAHM,
DRAWINGS MAI UEDA
Greek artist Miltos Manetas has migrated from
Athens to Milano to New York City, finally settling in Los Angeles, a city
lying at the very limits of the West's Greek heritage. He has made videos and performance
pieces, becoming a computer fanatic and eventually turning to making paintings
of and for computer screens. He manipulates video games and now talks about the
end of art and his newly created fantasy of an art of the future which he calls
"neen"-a youthful-sounding word he bought from professional logo
creators and applied to his end-all, begin-all art scheme. A corrosive humor
lies at the core of the end-game strategy he has constructed out of commercial
ideas, commercial products, and a publicist's view of art.
Olivier Zahm: You created a new art or
esthetic movement and called it NEEN. How did it start?
Miltos Manetas: For a long time, I asked
friends, curators and writers to invent a new movement, or at least to find a
name for one. I was tired of being seen and categorized as a contemporary
artist-artists who do mostly photography, objects, and installations, and with
whom I feel no affiliation. Someone like Damien Hirst, for example. I wanted
something similar to movements like Dada or Cubism. The question was to find a
name with glory which would also function as a barrier to keep away any art
that doesn't realSpring 2002
ly matter co or concern it. But no one came up with a usable
name. There were some trials. Nicolas Bourriaud, introduced, in 1995,
Relational Esthetics and, in 1996, the Purple group came with Beige. But I
couldn't go to my father and say: "I do Relational Aesthetics," he
would say something like, "Oh god, my son is a scientist, or social worker
or something." Beige was very good for a moment and there are still things
happening which are Beige. During 1995-1997 Beige was the spirit of the times
more than anything char British artists were doing. Then, in 1998, everything
changed and Beige could not cover my theories or those of my new friends. Even
computers ceased to be Beige and all the suggestive romantic misery started to
look fake and really cheap. Therefore, there was an urgency for a new name.
How did you come up with the name NEEN ?
I happened to read a story in Wired magazine about
Lexicon Branding, the company that created the names Pentium, BlackBerry and
PowerBook. Suddenly I knew that these were the people who I should ask for a
name. They were professionals. They find names for whatever. They charge an
average of $ I00.000 to $150,000, and they offer different names from which to
choose and to purchase.
So you paid for it.
Of course not. I contacted Yvonne Force and
Art Production Fund and we realized the project together. She actually
suggested that we offer the name to the public in a performative and glamorous
way, with important personalities as guest stars. This is how we decided to do
a big Demo at Gagosian gallery in Chelsea, and write an elaborate press
release. We did it on the last day of May 2000. We set up a panel with the president
of Lexicon, David Placec; neurologist Steven Pinker; games critic and the
writer of Videogames Nation, J.C. Herz; art theorist Peter Lunenfeld and a
special appearance via video of Joseph Kosuth. We had a Sony Vaio laptop
introduce it, using its robotic voice: "Ladies and Gentleman," it
said to a shocked public - the new name for contemporary art is NEEN. We hope that
like it! N-E-E-N. A computer program found the name. Have a nice evening."
We had Warhol paintings of the diamond. shadows all around, and we projected
NEEN samples. And Gnac wrote the music: the NEEN scene.
How did you get Lexicon to go in such a
Yvonne and I went to their office in
Sausalito, California and
we showed them works by different artists, providing them with a frame of
reference and the "landscape" of activities we were asking a name
for. We explained to them that the name should represent mostly things not yet
made, that it should recall technology, new media, computer screens, and
computer culture, and that most of all, it should allude to works which are
apparently unrelated, such as a sliced canvas by Lucio Fontana; the Capri
Battery by Beuys, which is a yellow lemon next to a yellow light ball; the
large paintings by Anselm Kiefer, which look so much like video games in
reproduction and so obsolete in reality. I suppose that we confused them, but
three months later they emailed us a list of about a hundred names, among them
Is Lexicon a computerized semiotic production company? How
did they come up with the name?
They use work groups composed of
different types of people, who work together and separately to find names. They
also have a proprietary software. A program was actually created for NEEN. I
think they mixed the words "screen" and "seen" and were
looking for a palindrome like Dada, because we told them that we wanted
something as fresh and unpretentious as the word "dada".
What other names did they come
I am not allowed to disclose
them, but one was TELIC. Another was OLO which is a cubist word, others were
ONQ and ESC.
Why did you choose NEEN?
Because Mai Ueda [Miltos'
girlfriend] and other Japanese people really liked it. Mai immediately starred
to call her
self a NEENSTER. She likes art, but she feels slightly embarrassed
calling herself an artist. NEENSTER worked fine for her. Later, another friend
from Tokyo explained to me that when Japanese do branding, they always try to
include an 'n' and an 'e' because, for them, the sound of those letters are a
successful combination. Think about Sony, Nintendo, Pokémon, ere. After we
chose ic, it also occurred to me that NEEN, in ancient Greek, means now.
ls NEEN an art category or is
it a nonartistic term?
It functions like a third
category: good, bad, and NEEN, or art, nonart, and NEEN. It refers, in a way, to
the Internet and to computer art, to software and hardware, and even to
architecture and design. For example, the new Apple Cinema display is NEEN and
the fat monitors we used to have on our desktops are not. The way Sony builds
tops is NEEN, and Apple's laptops were once NEEN, but now they're not-they
look like covers for toiler seats. Emulation software and Macromedia's Flash is
NEEN, while Microsoft's produces are never NEEN. In terms of architecture, we
want to separate conservative solutions, such as the architecture of Bernard
Tsumi, from visionary works, such as 3-D world building, the book S, M, L, XL
by Rem Koolhaas, the architectural work by Andreas Angelidakis
(angelidakis.com), or the computer engineering, non
building architecture of Takehiko
Is NEEN a political word?
We wanted a name that would defend
open source, freeware movement. Freeware is NEEN, while serial numbers and
registrations aren't. We are currently doing a website against intellectual
property and copyright (iamgonnacopy.com), where creators can vote if they
agree that everything should be allowed to be copied or if they are for IPs
Why does NEEN fight against
The copyright is one of the most
urgent social and political issues for NEENSTERS. Our world is largely composed
of information, in the same way that yesterday's world was mostly about trees
and land. We must keep information free and available to anyone. It's stupid to
consider yourself the owner of an idea just because you think of something. I’s
also criminal: States use police to stop poor people from copying entertainment
products (such as Harry Potter in China), and they try to stop the poor from
using tools (such as Microsoft, in China again) without paying for them, so that
they stay poor forever. Piracy is good: let's copy as much as possible and
encourage others to copy our products.
How do you decide what is NEEN
and what is not NEEN?
The difference between a NEEN
work and a non-NEEN work is like the difference between the sympathy we feel
for a child as opposed to our irrational aversion to a midget.
Are you a NEENSTER yourself?
I hope, but maybe I'm just a
boring painter. At least I try to live in a NEEN way, having divided my
personality in different Websites. And my paintings are mostly sketches for
JPEG computer images. That's the way I enjoy them.
What is important for a NEENSTER?
To become a public persona not
only using the available media but transforming oneself into media, which is
more than being a popstar or a flaming sun. A NEENSTER is a pro
ducer, not a
product. NEENSTERS do things not as a job and not even for creativity or self-expression.
What is the difference between
a NEEN artwork and contemporary art?
Installations, photographs, and
art made with found objects are the stuff that today fills the empty spaces of
museums and illustrates the pages of magazines and catalogues. They are
conventional products for an old niche marker. Any art student knows how to
produce them nicely and pro
fessionally. The same happens co pop design and
blobby architecture. While the SodaConstructor animal by Soda, the Objok by
Golan Levin, the Vines by Deconcept, Experimental Jetset's designs, the Flash
animations by Mike Calvert and Joel Fox, and the square watermelons produced in
the Japanese town of Zentsuji are nothing like that. These works require the
creation of a new market, and a new type of person who will collect and maybe
Is NEEEN directly connected to
the idea of a screen?
That's what we say to the public
for promotional reasons, but even SCREEN is nor NEEN. If it was NEEN, it should
have no volume and no support, it should simply float around or be activated on
a regular wall for a while and then disappear. NEEN, for the moment, is more of
a state of mind or an undefined psychology than a piece of art, design, or
architecture. Building a movement around NEEN is like saving a bookmark for a
dream we had the night before.
What were the first notable
reactions, to NEEN?
We didn't try to push NEEN in the
magazines or in the media. It would have been too easy-immediately after we
introduced it-to fill every glossy magazine, and dangerous too, because NEEN
would have expired quickly. We preferred instead to present NEEN on the Net,
and to see how corporations, young people, scientists, etc., would react.
What happened on the Net?
l am receiving emails every week
from people who declare themselves to be NEEN. They send me samples of their
work. Most of it is terrible, bur a few works are very interesting. Some
Japanese companies, such as Toshiba and Shiseido have asked for details about
this new American trend. The most remarkable response was from a group of Greek
philosophers, who created the site, greekworks.com. They asked us if September
11 was NEEN!
So, was 9-11 NEEN?
Unfortunately, it was, at least
in terms of spectacle and tech
nology. The fact that they succeeded by only
using cheap technology-some box cutters and a few pilot-training lessons-to
wipe out two enormous towers, symbols of capitalism, of the capitalist empire
.... It was like an artist who, for example, takes the ".fla" of a
Flash animation and even though he doesn't know how to use Flash, he changes
the objects in its library and produces a great artwork.
NEEN is necessarily low tech?
It's more like easy tech-using
what's available and optimizing it with the least effort possible. Artists in
the nineties were producers. Think of Matthew Barney, etc. NEEN people are
editors and optimizers.
Who are NEENSTERS? Are they
coming out of art schools?
Some come from art schools, bur
they are nor the usual Artforum readers. They like Design's Republik, NewsToday.com
and Shift.org more than Paul McCarthy. Some are working scientists, computer
addicts, designers. Most don't have jobs, only computers and lot of free time.
In Los Angeles, you opened a
space called ElectronicOrphanage. Why did you choose Chung King Road, in
Chinatown, which is in East LA,
near downtown, is a very different place from the New York Chinatown. le was
built in the 50s as a simulation of a Chinese neighborhood-a stage more than a
real place, destined for tourists who never really came. Today, it’s a cheap
poetic area, completely alien co the Hollywood reality, but very suggestive for
artists and musicians, who of course took the opportunity to transform Chung
King Road into one of the hottest places in LA. Chung King Road is a pedestrian
road which hosts young vanguard galleries, such as China Art Objects, lnmo
gallery, and lately Aaron Rose's gallery, as well as fashion designers Loyd and
functions like a gallery?
It's more like a club for screen
safaris and for theories. didn't want to open a gallery myself, bur the public was
there anyway, and we could have visitors without sending invitations, because
of other openings. We open it whenever there are gallery openings around and we
project a NEEN piece which we either discover on the Internet or get from
artists we run across. The space is an empty storefront, basically a black cube
with a white wall that serves for the screen
ings. Visitors watch projections
from the street. The doors are open, but for the most part, the public is nor
allowed inside. There is a sofa in the street where they can sit to watch the
screening. Nobody explains anything to them. Visitors have to go on EO's
Website to obtain further information. Those visitors who are invited in become
"orphans" once they're inside. I arrange for some of them to go to other
countries on the Internet, and to be orphans there for a while. Some return for
or her visits. Some send other visitors. All activities can be seen on line at
ElectronicOrphanage.com. The rest of the time, the EO becomes a studio/office
for different NEENSTERS. I provide the computers etc., and they take Internet
safaris, play videogames, talk, build Websites, etc.
Who are some of the orphans?
They are a mix of different generations, from very young girls, who don't know about Karl Marx, to intellectuals like Norman Klein, who is one of the most astute California writers and the
author of The History of Forgetting, Lev Manovich, a pioneer of new media
theory, and Peter Lunenfeld, who wrote Digital Dialectics. They keep an eye on
us and sometimes curate events. There's Mai Ueda and her robotic sister
Juribot; Mike Calvert, Joel Fox, Tim Kho, and Steven Scholne, who are
constantly producing pieces and finding other people on the Web and in real
life. Collaborators include Rafael Rozendaal from WhiteTrash.nl, Amy
Franceschini from Future Farmers, who is one of the best animation designers on
the Web in the US as well as a very charismatic artist; architects like Andreas
Angelidakis and Francois Perrin, cofounders of World++, which is a virtual
world in Active Worlds-a sequence from the art and architecture, chelsea.com.
There are designers like Nicola Tosic (Nekada.com), and Angelo Plessas and
Jonathan Maghen from textfield.org; and composers such as Mark Tranmer from
Gnac and Ryan Francesconi, who wrote the software program, Spongefork, which is
a great software to use as an instrument. Everyone's works and ideas are
discussed and criticized and ultimately debugged and optimized. Everything is
welcome as long as it doesn't look like the stuff in the galleries next door.
What are other EO activities
besides the public projections?
We work on Websites like
iamgonnacopy.com and whomadewhat.com, which is a Web archive that documents
inventions in the arts, such as Andy Warhol’s Coca Cola paintings, circa 1967,
and Jeff Koons' Michael Jackson sculpture from 1988, etc. It's a fast,
self-generating art history, where the public is invited to contribute. Another
EO project was Biennale net, a Website that shows the best art now made for
screens. We did the first version of Biennale.net
as a commission for Flash Art magazine, which will be shown for the Tirana Biennale
in Albania. We're working on an anti-show for the Whitney Biennial: WHITNEYBIENNIAL.COM. And of course, we work on the World++ project, which is the ActiveWorlds'
Is the huge NEVER tattoo on your back the remit of a love story. Is it too personal to speak about?
Mike Calvert, my collaborator in
the EO, and Mai Ueda, my girlfriend, traveled together to Europe for the Biennale.net
at Tirana, in Amsterdam, where Mai created a performance and Mike Calvert made
a lecture. On September 11, on a train to Italy, they fell in love and Mike was
stupid enough to email me the news. He thought I would be cool enough to accept
a three-way situation. I am not. I somehow wished that this had never happened
and even that my love for Mai had never evolved. It was the days of the World
Trade Center attack, and I felt that "never" had suddenly become actual
and permanent. When Mai came back I asked her if I should write the word
"never" on my back. She felt very positive about it. l f she wouldn't
have liked it, I wouldn't have done it, therefore the tatto0 is her work
because she "animated" it.
Is the tattoo a NEEN act?
It's definitely NEEN. This tattoo
is a work by Mai Ueda, although she didn't think of it. She asked Mike Calvert
to design it. Some NEEN acts are very different from the usual contemporary art
projects. In contemporary art, artists prepare situations-performances, videos,
installations-in order to produce something, a product, that is more or less
predictable. NEEN people, by contrast, create without a scenario or standard
forms, such as my NEVER tattoo. The person whose style looks more closely like the
final form becomes the creator of the piece even if he or she did not think of
it. The different participants behave like interconnected periph
erals, but at
the end, all actions revert to one person. Think of the final artwork as a
disease, where the one who looks the sickest from it is its creator. Unlike
many collective works, this working method is multiprocessing but not
collaborative. It's the work of a single person, even if char person didn't
know that he or she wanted to create it.
Does Neen affect your art and
your vision of everyday life?
We are trying to define what could
be a NEEN lifestyle. To do that we've borrowed the theory or multiple universes
from quantum physics. For example, became or the 11 September incident in New
York, I am simultaneously alive and dead. I'm alive because the airplanes hit
the rowers while I was observing them from a friend's flat in Harlem. I'm dead
because in some other universe the planes missed the World Trade Center and
fell in Harlem instead, where I was killed.
Does that mean that ever since
9-11 you are a vampire half alive, half dead? This is the contemporary
condition, according to the French philosopher Mehdi Belhaj Kacem: a state in
which we are not able to die, nor able to live.
Correct. We must now determine the
vampire behavior, and how to applies to all the people who were in New York on the
11th of September. to would be an interesting exercise for Mehdi.
Do you mean that according to
NEEN, our life is made up of multiple universes that we activate? Are these
multiple experiences equally real and virtual?
More or less. All this is under construction.
But again, I'm nor a philosopher. Yet what we call virtual and real are no
longer different-it they ever were different, which I doubt. According to the
multiple universes theory, there is, for example, a Miltos Manetas who never
undertook as an occupation and is now teaching letters in Greece, as his
mother suggested. There is also a successful but frustrated installation artist
named Miltos, because I have had success in art since leaving art school in
1992, and had no reason to start painting but did. All these versions of myself
exist in a parallel universe to this one, from which I am now writing this
email to you. It would be NEEN to think that if not all universes are real then
at least the one closest to what you consider your reality is real.
How does Neen see the present
One NEEN idea is the hypothesis
that the past is not fixed, that it's a combination of features from the pool
or possibilities that your life has created. I am now a painter, even if I had
absolutely no talent until six years ago, because I decided to become a
painter. Therefore, I select from the past the version of myself where I had an
interest in painting.
How do you see the artworld
today in which you are a successful non-Neen artist?
I don't read any magazines and I
don't know who the famous artists of the moment are. I sometimes try to read
them, but I get bored so I give up. I also don't believe in exhibitions. I'm
sorry for all the curators around, but today most of them are less important
than cafeteria waiters. Eventually, as contemporary art becomes some
local pride, each curator will be a personal muse
um. What would be nice, would
be if we allowed them to pass their museums to their sons and daughters.
Do you still consider the work
of any artists of your generation?
I still think Vanessa Beecroft's
work is surprising and beautiful. And I have fun with Maurizio Cattelan's
pieces. The rest I find unremarkable.
Who are the worst artists
today from a NEEN perspective?
Most of the famous British
Does NEEN have a
political meaning which might be an extension of an empire?
I wish it did, because
that would be fun. We're looking for philosophers who can put together ideas
thing like that. I recently discovered Antonio Negri, but he's a bit
too Marxist for my taste, although I like his idea of a "multi rude"
in contrast to people. He inspired me to install a cordon at EO, to separate
VIPs from guests in our exhibitions. Democracy today involves ways to protect
yourself and your friends from the public.
visitors to your shows as VIP and visitors-by separating your public- are you
calling the public the enemy? Are you questioning not what is the next revolution,
but who has to be fought? If so, who is the enemy?
There's no enemy,
there's only the annoying and the beloved. You want to keep the two apart, just
like you would close the door of your room when you were fifteen when you and
your friends were smoking dope and you didn't want your parents co bother
you-even if it informed them 1ha1 something sinister was going on.
Do you thing that
promoting privacy is a way to fight capitalism, because they will make fewer
products and give away more information (as product)?
I think it's good when creative people lose money because then other people will be recycling their
ideas. Most of the interesting people I know, immediately after they started to earn serious money, they became monkeys, ready for the zoo. I think if we get
rid of intellectual property and copyright, the large companies will pay evenmore for ideas, because the payment will be the only way for them to
distinguish themselves from others who use the information or products for free. All jeans companies can put my picture in their campaign, but only Levis
has the power to pay me enough to endorse their campaign. There are, of course, people, including Noam Chomsky, who disagree (writing to us at iamgonnacopy.com)
with our anti-copyright agenda and who support the idea that creators who are not famous or connected will be left out and their works will be stolen. We believe that because of the Internet everybody is already famous and well-connected.
Does the NEEN project contradict your painting activity?
Nor really, because I paint like a cleaning lady. I take the dust away from my images and
prepare them to be used for the screen. An architect friend says my paintings
fit well inside his constructions, while paintings by, say John Currin, look like shit. That's a reason to continue, I suppose.
You mean that your paintings look better as JPEG pictures on the Net than they do in a living room
in Paris's 16th arrondissement?
In both places they look fine. I just consider their pres
ence in the computer screen more important, because that will be the living room of the future.
What are the countries
or places in the world that inspire you now?
Do you think that, as Sloterdijk said, alternative people are the children o[ catastrophe, in a
civilization of panic? Are you as cynical as some people think?
I'm not cynical at all.
My role model is Socrates and not Diogenes. Anyway, it would be impossible to
be cynical today because the establishment is so cynical already. I tend to see
the capitalist machine as an operating system that is more digital than analog
and therefore easy to hack. Hacking and piracy are our tools. It's more funny
than dramatic, or at least it seems that way from this side of the ocean. This
fact, or illusion, is the reason that I would never return to Europe. I was
thinking today that I can't think of one reason that would bring me back to
Europe, not for all the money, power, love, or success in the world. I'm better
off as a little stone near the Pacific than an institu
tion in the Euroworld.
Are NEEN artists conformist?
Yes, they are
conformist. Being conformist means to fake your concession to a system. When a
system becomes dangerous, to collaborate with it is the only way to continue
to realize your dreams. Thar's what Negri did when he escaped to France and
became an academic in the service of his enemies. Revolution is cooler, but
artists are usually too lazy for revolution. Remember that the main occupation
of an artist is to be close to the center of corruption so that it can be more
easily observed and represented. We always want to be like Goya in the company
of princes and kings.
Why do you often use
the word 'fun' to describe art?
Not 'fun'- that's more
for artists like Maurizio Cattelan but 'cute'. I want to see really
cute stuff -not like Mike Kelley's trash, but things that are cute like the
clean-shaven face of Jesus in Caravaggio's Supper at Emmaus, or cute like the
"Strawberries and Pizza" flash animation by Mike Calvert. Cute and
from Purple, no. 11,