Chris Marker’s Second Life

May 14, 2009

It doesn’t really come as a surprise that Chris Marker is a devoted inhabitant of the virtual world Second Life. After all, one could call the playful French filmmaker and multimedia artist’s kitty—and alter ego—Guillaume-en-Egypt a trailblazing avatar (when asked for pictures of himself, he offers images of the cat instead). Now Marker, who rarely interacts with the public, will give a live guided tour of his Second Life archipelago, Ouvroir, and museum, in a special event at the Harvard Film Archive this Saturday, May 16. Of course, Marker will appear only in the form of his Second Life avatar, who will meet and converse with moderating avatars Haden Guest, the director of the archives, and Naomi Yang, of Exact Change Press (publishers of Marker’s important CD-ROM Immemory). At the end of the tour, he will also take questions from an audience avatar. The interaction will be screened live at the archive’s theater, and the event also includes projections of other Marker video and film pieces.

You can get a taste of what’s in store with these clips from Ouvroir (parts one, two, and three) and the spectacular, spectral museum. And to understand (a little!) better what Marker’s motivations were in getting involved with Second Life, read this interview with him, which appeared in the April 22–28, 2008, issue of the French weekly Les inrockuptibles, here for the first time in English. At eighty-seven, the editors wrote in the introduction to the piece, Marker “agreed to the rare interview on the condition it be conducted on Second Life, a screen rendezvous, complete with pseudonyms and avatars, for a political and poetic discussion.” There, Marker calls himself Sergei Murasaki, and the interviewers—Julien Gester and Serge Kaganski—Iggy Atlas. The latter add: “Through the intermediary of keyboards and screens, our conversation required unusual agility. The pace might make some replies seem a little short, but the process also shed light on the quasi-instantaneous crystallizations of an infinitely nimble and mischievous mind.” Translated by Dorna Khazeni.

Iggy Atlas: Why is this conversation on SL [Second Life] rather than in RL [real life]?
Sergei Murasaki: I hope it’ll go faster.
IA: How did you come to have an exhibition on SL?
SM: Curiosity at first. Then it becomes addictive.
IA: How so?
SM: Have you read Adolfo Bioy Casares’s The Invention of Morel?
IA: No, neither of us have read it. Shame on us?
SM: Well, it’s nothing to be proud of. In any event, it’s exactly the world of that masterpiece that I came to find in SL.
IA: Can you describe it for us?
SM: A dream state. The sense of porousness between the real and the virtual.
IA: Actually, what has your experience been in this virtual world?
SM: An example: when Serge told me there’d be two of you, my REFLEX was, “We’ll need a third chair.” Which in reality would be stupid, but isn’t here.
IA: This island, the objects that are here, the Museum . . . Are you their creator and owner?
SM: No, I’ve never been the owner of anything. Some Viennese friends took care of putting it all together. They’re pretty neat folks.
IA: How much time do you spend on SL?
SM: Not an enormous amount, because I still have LOTS of work in RL. But if I could . . .
IA: If you could?
SM: I would retire here for good. Like Brando in Tahiti. There’d be fewer worries in terms of maintenance.
IA: How do you perceive the way in which this virtual space and its users have invented a life, an economy, a virtual commerce of things and monies?
SM: The whole commerce aspect of it I find just as boring as I do in real life. Besides, I don’t understand it at all. But then again, I don’t understand the economy of the real world to begin with . . .
IA: How does SL fit into the context of your artistic preoccupations?
SM: I don’t believe I’ve ever had “artistic preoccupations.” I’m a cobbler. This is supercobbling.
IA: What you’ve managed to cobble to date, when it was made, seems to have prophesized today’s technologies, almost as if it was conjuring them, don’t you think?
SM: You really ought to lighten up your vocabulary. “Artistic,” “prophesize.” None of this is like me in the least. I think I’ll stick to cobbling, with all that’s inherently honorable in artisanal undertakings.
IA: Doesn’t SL, and don’t all these new ways of communicating, let you indulge your proclivity for secrecy and mystery?
SM: It would seem if you’re not on TV all the time, then you have a proclivity for mystery. Let’s just leave it at that. Though I did like that a critic, who wrote about the Zurich exhibition, said I was “born to be an avatar.”
IA: Precisely. The choice of a pseudonym, your absence from the media, make so much sense in this enterprise, and the adopting of a new virtual avatar.
SM: Are there any real avatars?
IA: Masks?
SM: Ah, that’s something else altogether. Max Jacob used to tell the story of two Masks who made a rendezvous, having never seen each other, naturally. And when they removed their masks, surprise: “It was neither one nor the other.”
IA: Is an avatar or a pseudonym a mask for you? A way of creating a partition between your cobbling and what the rest of the world calls “a work,” “of art” . . . ?
SM: I’m much more pragmatic than that. I chose a pseudonym, Chris Marker, that is easy to pronounce in most languages because I intended to travel. You need search no further than that.
IA: But since then, you’ve created a character that’s universally considered to be an artist.
SM: I never much worried about how I was considered.
IA: The delocalized exhibition on SL is entitled “A Farewell to the Movies.” How should this farewell be interpreted?
SM: Please . . . It’s “A Farewell TO Movies.” An homage to Hemingway. A way of saying farewell to cinema, undoubtedly, but without exaggerating. The constitutional right to contradict oneself was inscribed in the charter Baudelaire drew up.
IA: From a farewell to arms to a farewell to films . . . Should we consider that film is an arm?
SM: Of course not. That’s simply a euphonic correspondance. You must never attribute so much intentionality to me.
IA: So . . . does cinema belong to the past?
SM: One can play with that idea. Godard does it very well. But he is a filmmaker.
IA: Have you never considered yourself a filmmaker?
SM: Ne-ver.
IA: What label would you prefer, then? Multimedia cobbler?
SM: Cobbler, definitely. Multimedia . . . well, that belongs to contemporary jargon.
IA: Will new technologies in some way modify your relationship to images, to sounds, and what you do with them?
SM: Of course. To be able to make a whole film, The Case of the Grinning Cat [2004], with my own ten fingers, without any external support or intervention . . . and to then go sell the DVDs I’d burned myself at the Saint-Blaise market . . . I confess, I felt triumphant. From producer to consumer, directly. No surplus value. Marx’s dream come true.
IA: Speaking of which, the exhibition mixes portraits of artists, images from older and more recent demonstrations, photos of political personalities. How would you define the relationship between your cobbling and what is commonly called ideology?
SM: I’m afraid what is commonly called ideology no longer has any relationship at all with its original defintion. To begin with, it was a ruse of war. Today, it’s merely a substitute for a war that doesn’t exist. But we could go on about this at length . . .
IA: Hasn’t your work always had a political dimension?
SM: It has been said to. Myself, to put it in a nutshell, I’ve always said that politics, which is the art of compromise—and thank goodness for that—in no way interests me. What does interest me is history. I would add: “Politics interests me to the extent it cuts a slice into history.” But I hate repeating myself.
IA: In films such as 2084, your work outlined a hypothetical future. Today, there’s talk of the end of ideologies, you’re saying farewell to films, Godard talks about the death of cinema, the real is no longer all there is . . . What has been eclipsed for you, even as other things have been born?
SM: Malraux had a wonderful formula, which curiously no one has taken up: “The thing that is born where values die, and that does not replace them.” The difficulty of these times is that before bringing in new ideas, we’d have to destroy all the simulacra that the century and its favorite instrument, television, have generated to replace everything that has disappeared. This is why I’m passionate about the new information grid, the Internet, blogs, etc. Inevitably, there’s some slag, but a new culture will be born of it.
IA: And what is the culture you see born of it?
SM: Our grandchildren will decide. All one can say is that “something” exists. And for now, that’s something. To say more would be fortune-telling, or politics.
IA: You were saying that SL recaptured the spirit of The Invention of Morel for you. What part of your films does SL recapture for you?
SM: The presence of Guillaume the cat, anyhow. Did you notice how he’s made himself entirely at home over here?
IA: Haven’t you played a part in that?
SM: That’s a common error. It’s difficult to explain it to anyone who hasn’t been a cat in a past life, as is my case. Guillaume’s personality imposed itself on my Viennese accomplices without my ever having to ask. You can ask them yourself. Cats, you know, have certain powers.
IA: The real occupies a preponderant place in some of your films, from Sans Soleil [1982] to Grin Without a Cat [1977]. When you’re here, don’t you miss it?
SM: I wouldn’t have described Sans Soleil as a film that was particularly subjugated to the real. But if you say so . . .
IA: We didn’t say “subjugated” . . .
SM: When the real is truly present, it has a tendency to subjugate everything else . . .
IA: What in the RL preoccupies you today?
SM: If you mean “truly today,” I find the adventures of the Olympic torch fascinating. The skit in San Francisco was the most magnificent piece of slapstick I’ve seen in a long, long time.
IA: And more generally?
SM: Well, when one hears that a fellow, John Paulson, made three billion dollars on the stock market, and that four hours away by plane, in Haiti, there are food riots, it yanks you back to harsh reality.
IA: How do you get your information these days?
SM: International press publications online, CNN and Al Jazeera in English, and my favorite channel, the Russian RTR Planeta. And I have my informants here and there. There’s also the twentieth arrondissement’s blackbird, who gives me updates on all the neighborhood gossip at five every morning.
IA: What is it that keeps you so interested in the world’s movements? So acutely alert to it all?
SM: Curiosity. That’s all. I’ve never felt much of anything else.
IA: What kind of film viewer are you today?
SM: Alas, alas, alas . . .
IA: Alas?
SM: I’d always professed that cinema was to be seen only in a movie theater, that television was to be used as a memory aid only. Shamefully, I have perjured myself, simply because I no longer have the time.
IA: What films do you watch?
SM: It’s pretty anarchic. I really like great American television series. You mentioned politics. Has there been anything as good as The West Wing?
IA: How about The Wire?
SM: I was going to mention it next. But there I’d say sociology rather than politics. Only, they should have English subtitles.
IA: What, apart from politics and sociology, fascinates you in the proliferation of these series today?
SM: First their actual cinematic quality. It’s where all the innovation and invention is taking place. On every level: the story, the editing, the casting, the sound . . . They’re ahead of Hollywood.
IA: It seems you share this passion for American TV series with one of your friends, Alain Resnais. Is it something you two have discussed?
SM: I suppose it goes back to our passion for comic strips.
IA: Do you continue to follow the work of your old acquaintances, such as Alain Resnais, Agnès Varda, Jean-Luc Godard . . .
SM: Of course. Agnès is in the process of recording an interview with Guillaume . . . See what I told you?
IA: How would you present your life’s work, the sum of your cobbling, to a young person who didn’t know Chris Marker?
SM: I’d tell them to read The Invention of Morel.