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Networked Projects in the Formative Years of the Internet

Interview with Olivier Auber, January-February, 2018

Poietic Generator 2017 In 1987, when he was working with Tod Machover and Catherine Ikam in the staging of VALIS -- Machover's opera which premiered at the Pompidou Center in 1987 and was based on Philip K. Dick's work of the same name -- French Engineer Olivier Auber conceived and designed the Poietic Generator. First implemented on the Minitel, in Auber's words Poietic Generator (PG) is:

"...a social network game which may be envisioned as a 100% human « Game of Life« , that is to say a cellular automata where every single cell is manipulated by a single human being. It allows everybody (10, 100, and one day 1000 or more people), all together regardless of his/her language, culture and educational background, to participate in real time (with a PC or mobile device) in the process of self-organization at work in the continuous emergence of a global picture." [1]

Olivier Auber holds an engineering degree and a Master of Design from the Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Arts et Métiers, where his work centered on nonlinear optical elements (holograms) for avionics head-up display. As a research engineer, he worked initially in the avionics division of Thomson Csf (now Thales Group) and at CERN in Geneva. He has also worked as an independent consulting engineer, exhibit designer, and project manager for the Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie (Paris), and he has developed exhibition projects for other cultural institutions, including the Centre Georges Pompidou, the Institut du Monde Arabe, and the Palais de la Dcouverte. In 1997, he co-founded the A+H Culture Laboratory in order to develop interdisciplinary projects.

The Poietic Generator is a canonic work that is of both historic and contemporary interest. Following its debut on the Minitel, PG has been installed at venues that include the Centre Georges Pompidou; Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie; Ecole Nationale Supérieure des Télécommunications (now Télécom Paris Tech); a campground in the South of France during the summer of 1990; an urban display on the Rue du Chien Marin, Brussels, 2013; a large installation at Shanghai Institute of Visual Art (SIVA), 2015; and many other places.

Judy Malloy

In "Art and Minitel in France in the 1980s", her chapter in Social Media Archeology and Poetics, Annick Bureaud writes that:

"Olivier Auber's Poetic Generator is a fully immaterial work that exists in cyberspace during the time of the interaction among the connected audience members. Dealing with issues of self organization and crowd behavior, it is the collective creation of a global image for which each person has available a square of 20x20 pixels, the size of the drawing automatically adjusted itself to the number of participants. Created on the Minitel, and then upgraded and remediated from platforms to platforms and in this era to smart phones, it is one of the very few still existing works from the Minitel era." [2]

Since it appeared on the Minitel in 1987, your Poietic Generator (PG) has had a continuing place in networked communication and the media arts. In this conversation for Networked Projects in the Formative Years of the Internet, I'd like to focus on the initial Minitel implementation of PG.

In a recent interview with the 2017 Pixelache Festival, [3] you cite Philip K. Dick's VALIS? (Vast Active Living Intelligent System). Are there other philosophical, theoretical, research, or aesthetic ideas that influenced the creation of Poietic Generator?

Olivier Auber

VALIS is a kind of autobiography, orbited around a short moment of enlightenment that Philip K. Dick felt in his life. This experience gave him an accelerated overview on the global cycle of the Universe.

Philip K. Dick envisioned VALIS as the point where time ends and starts a new cycle. VALIS also has the power to enlighten some people at some points. By reading his book, I myself had the impression of being touched by VALIS. This is how I suddenly got the idea of the Poietic Generator, although Philip K. Dick didn't mention any game or work of art. I envisioned the PG as a small prototype of VALIS which would be able in its turn to touch other people; something like an automatic theophanic machine.

Compared to this feeling, all the influences I had prior to this experience were minor. Later other influences helped me refine the conceptualization of the PG, such as the work of many scientists (Varela, Conway, Turing, Von Neumann...), artists (Duchamp, Mondrian, Klee, Schöffer...), writers (Hesse, Borges, Eco...), many philosophers, and so on.

Above all, the main reference that came immediately after my "wow" event was Brunelleschi, the Italian artist, architect and polymath, who near the beginning of the Renaissance discovered the optical perspective. It seemed obvious to me that in networks there are some kinks of perspectives, which I later called "anoptical perspectives". More recently, I combined all this with Jean-Louis Dessalles' theory of language as a social signaling device, which I consider a true breakthrough. [4]


Thank you for your description of the reading-of-VALIS moment in time, when, in your words, you "envisioned the PG as a small prototype of VALIS which could be able in its turn to touch some other people; something like an automatic theophanic machine."

Its origins on the Minitel and its lasting role in Minitel cultural history situate Poietic Generator in an important place in telematic archeology. Before you created Poietic Generator, what was your initial experience with using the Minitel? Did Minitel culture influence the Minitel implementation of PG? Or vice versa? And what happened when the Poietic Generator first appeared on the Minitel?

Olivier Auber

To realize the PG in 1987, it would have been easier to use PCs or Macintoshes rather than Minitels. Nevertheless, I chose the Minitel, even though I had no experience with it, only because it was at the time available to all French users. It should be noted that for technical reasons the PG never went on the mainstream Minitel market. Indeed, the screen of the Minitel had too low a resolution to display the global image of the PG. The Minitel was primarily used as a user interface (a very inconvenient one, no mouse, keys only), and the global image needed an extra high resolution screen to be displayed.

My idea was to broadcast this image on a TV channel in order that people could interact with it at home with their Minitel. Unfortunately, no TV company agreed to broadcast this image. Hence PG experiments have been carried out only on local networks in the frame of exhibitions. In my opinion, there was very little place for works of art in the so-called Minitel culture. It was seen as a cash machine by the French Telcos and broadcasters. It's as if you were asking Facebook today to change its code just for a moment to do a little experiment that wouldn't pay anything and that would show everyone the ropes of its business.


Poietic Generator 2017 Particularly, because, as you note, the Minitel was available to all French users, works such as PG carry the Minitel's iconic status as a part of their history. However, I hear what you are saying about the Minitel's limitations. Indeed, as Annick Bureaud documents, some works that referenced Minitel culture were not actually implemented on the Minitel. For instance, Fred Forest's L'Espace Communicant did not take place on the Minitel itself, but rather was a museum-situated interactive installation. In such cases, Bureaud observes, "...the Minitel is a tool-medium for artworks that are realized in other spaces." [5]

In the years since you used the Minitel as a user interface, PG has been implemented/exhibited at Centre Georges Pompidou, Cité des Sciences et de l'Industrie, and ARSLAB, among many other places. What are some of the exhibitions that you think are particularly important? And how did they evolve from your original vision?

Olivier Auber

I particularly remember two contexts -- in addition to those you mentioned -- in which the early version of the PG was involved. The first was extraordinarily prestigious but led nowhere. The second was minimalist, but it was very instructive.

The first is as follows. From 1987 to 1989, I have been one of the laureates of an international art & architecture contest for the development of "Monument of Communication" in Japan under the patronage of the President of France François Mitterrand. The intention behind this contest was to do something like a new Statue of Liberty, but in Japan, which was seen at this time as a new Eldorado. The main concept of my project was the PG, which I envisioned as a global hub, but in a graphic and symbolic fashion. Unfortunately (or fortunately), the jury chose another project (a kind of classical arch), whose foundation was destroyed later during the 1995 Kobe earthquake.

The second context was a simple campground in the South of France during the summer of 1990. A group invited me for a poietic experience. It was wilderness, no building, hardly any electricity. The experiment took place at the top of a hill named "bald mount" (Le mont chauve). The Minitels were arranged in a circle around a screen, all laid on the ground with cables everywhere. People were sitting in the grass. They stayed playing and talking all night, as if in sort of a trance. It was the first time I felt how much of an impact the GP could have on other people. Later, I often found this same fervor in other experiences, but it was/is always very different.


Awesome campground experience!

In your Pixelache Festival interview you conclude that:

"...the PG is free and open source software. Everything is possible. What I would like is that it will one day become a common and shared game, like Go and chess, or even better, that the PG will to give some reality to Hermann Hesse's dream of a glass beads game." [6]

Do you have any further thoughts?

Olivier Auber

The glass beads game is an imaginary game inspired by the supposed tradition of popular education and the shamanic practices of some traditional societies. This is reminiscent of ritual drawings made with sand in India, Middle-East, or North America, and additionally of the grids and other geometric patterns found in some Paleolithic caves.

Closer to our time, the Tianxa philosophy, a kind of early game theory, has been practiced by various means in China for hundreds of years from around 1046 to 256 BC. In all cases, these initiatory games attempt to elevate the individuals to the most untraceable mysteries, in order that everyone -- human and non-human -- can find her/his/its place in the Universe. I always thought that the extreme complexity of our technological world will require such a means. To a certain extent, the Poietic Generator can be seen as a generalized Turing test that shows what is machine in the living as well as what is living in the machine, and further on how their entanglement produces our culture.

In my opinion, this capacity for spiritual and cultural edification is the most precious thing in the world. This was the meaning of the virtual reality installation "The Treasury of the Nibelungen"[7], derived from the PG, that I developed in 2001. More recently, I described the aim of the Poietic Generator as a "Search for Terrestrial Intelligence" in which everybody could take part from home (STI@home). [8]

1. Olivier Auber, POIETIC GENERATOR. Available at http://poietic-generator.net/?page_id=31
2. Annick Bureaud, "Art and Minitel in France in the '80S", in Judy Malloy, ed., Social Media Archeology and Poetics. Cambridge, MA, 2016. pp 139-146, 142.
3. "Interview with Olivier Auber", Pixelache festival, Suvilahti, Helsinki, Finland, September 22-24, 2017.
4. Jean-Louis Dessalles, "Language: the Missing Selection Pressure", 2017. Available at https://arxiv.org/ftp/arxiv/papers/1712/1712.05005.pdf
5. Bureaud (2016), 142.
6 "Interview> (2017)
7. "Nibelungenmuseum Worms", Wikipedia. Available at https://de.wikipedia.org/w/index.php?title=Nibelungenmuseum_Worms
8. Olivier Auber, "Search for Terrestrial Intelligence", Cornell University Library, Submitted 2017. Available at https://arxiv.org/abs/1708.06203
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