Plant a Comment – interview with Tal and Omer Golan
An interview with Omer and Tal Golan about their work Plant a Comment, which is exhibited at the permanent exhibition of the Jerusalem Science Museum.
OMTA are Tal and Omer Golan, an artistic couple, married to art and to each other, who have been creating together for the past decade. They are active in various disciplines in the art world and in their work, they mix art, science, technology along with examining human and social behavior.
In the artwork Plant a Comment, a net art piece that was adapted to Google Galaxy, the duo created a three-dimensional world in which thoughts grow into trees made from written expressions of thoughts that are semantically analyzed. The artwork invites visitors to the museum and people in general to plant comments and impressions and to participate in an alternative gallery discussion.
How does the work process between the artists and the programmers take place?
I guess that for us working with programmers is not too difficult, because we are not entirely unfamiliar with their world. We have taken the effort to teach ourselves a lot about the world of codes and we program most of our artwork ourselves, freestyle, without any formal knowledge in computer science. We consider codes as a medium. You need to talk their language when collaborating with professional programmers, even with the more creative ones. Programmers usually like to take the artist’s idea to a place where they feel comfortable building the artwork with regard to their knowledge and experience. We always try to push the boundaries—our own as well as those of people we work with. To challenge them and ourselves. This connection between us, the artists, and the programmers creates mutual inspiration that is very enjoyable for everyone. It sort of feels like a band that is writing music together. Everyone has his or her own ideas and ways of hearing the progress of the work of art and through informal negotiation over beer, everyone tries to pull towards his or her vision.
From Plant a Comment – net art piece by Omer and Tal Golan
Could you tell me more about your work with words as raw material and as a way of communicating messages?
Words are a fascinating material with multiple meanings. Their visual appearance elicits endless associations, memories and symbols in us, even before we actually perceive their content. In Plant a Comment the words have many purposes and the messages that passed through the artwork were also multiple. The audience’s opinion, as Plant a Comment represents it, is dynamic, one that doesn’t cease to change. The ‘sunset’ in the artwork occurs every x number of received text messages in order to sharpen the messages and re-categorize them so that a more precise image of reality is created. In Plant a Comment, the advantage that we found about using words, in terms of visualization, is that their shape is predictable, but their content isn’t. In terms of shape, it allowed us to design the virtual world and to determine rules for the words’ appearance, in various languages and despite the fact that we had no idea what people were writing us. In other works, we have used words strictly for visual purposes and we have even tried very hard to avoid any reading. That is how, for example, the short video work Religion was created, which was exhibited in tens of video art festivals around the world. The artwork Textura is a real time video installation that translates people into free text, flickering and unreadable.
From: Textura – real time video installation by Omer & Tal Golan
The meaning of the Hebrew name of the work in comparison to the English meaning is interesting. Could you elaborate on that? To me it seemed that the Hebrew name—Gallery Discussion1—reflects the discussion of and about art and as such emphasizes the inner discussion of and about art. On the other hand, the English name Plant a Comment emphasizes the interactive aspect, it is more open and inviting—sort of an invitation to participate in the exhibition.
Artist Talk is a tradition of the art world in which galleries organize meetings between the audiences and the artists, during which the artists explain their works to the audience. Therefore, as we see it, the Hebrew name of the artwork calls for action, to participate and start a discussion. Because in English this is called Artist Talk, we lose the play of words with the literal bushes and trees that grow in the artwork. However, it is easy to recognize the shape of the objects that create the trees, and because the artwork supports various languages we looked for a name that would encourage people to actively participate in it. After all, the forest that is a witness to the audience’s opinion is only created through the audience’s participation. In addition, many people who saw the artwork being created often considered it a sort of visual social network in which people leave comments, like a billboard on which you hang your comments without specifically referring to other comments. That is how we came up with the name Plant a Comment.
What was the response of people who were not present at the gallery to participate in the artwork? Did you notice a difference between comments that were sent from home or from the gallery?
We were surprised by the great response from people at home, and especially from the number of responses that arrived from abroad during the first week. After all, the artwork was first exhibited at the Fresh Paint Design Fair, a typical Israeli fair. During the first week, we had already received 300,000 messages. Most of them through the website of the artwork, through the number that Bezeq donated for receiving text messages and also through hashtag in Twitter. With regard to the texts that were sent, it seemed to us that people who actually stood in front of the artwork thought more about how the comment that they sent would look like visually because they wanted to detect it in the virtual space. In the physical space around them there were many people all the time and there was this feeling that you are in the public’s eye. In contrast, people who participated from home and did not see the other participants tended to be more spontaneous, but we did not check this in depth.
Did you edit or censor any of the comments that were sent?
No. We did not agree to edit or censor certain words or ideas. If this were a commercial work we would have considered it, but it did not seem right to us to censor art. If we remember correctly, Google mentioned it but it was forgotten, mostly because we ignored it. The Science Museum in Jerusalem, where the artwork is permanently exhibited (also a donation of Google), did not ask us to censor the participating audience.
Did you have any scientific inspirations? (For example, Chomsky’s sentence tree, binary trees)
The idea actually derived from the term Artist Talk (Gallery Discussion) itself. To us, this practice seemed a bit weird. At most of these type of events that we have attended or organized ourselves, the participation and involvement of the audience was much less significant than our tendency as artists to talk about our works. Of course, there were exceptions. At one Artist Talk that we organized at the artists workshops in Jerusalem there was someone who started crying because the topic was too sensitive for her and we had a heated argument that was quite interesting (as might happen in exhibitions that dare touch on political issues). In any case, here we wanted to increase the audience’s role in the artwork and in the discussion, on account of our own. The more you create an artwork that is interactive and in some ways, open ended, the more you lose control over the final outcome. It’s sort of a game of how much of yourself you are willing to give up as a creator in your own work. Often this is very moving, for us as well as for the audience that becomes our partners in creating the artwork, even if it is just for a brief time.
In reference to the body of your work, what is your impression of the visitors’ responses to textual actions compared to visual actions (such as in Between you and Me) or linguistic actions (such as in Talk To Me)?
We have noticed that when people deal with textual actions the messages that they share are usually much deeper, depending on the extent of their anonymity. We received messages about memories or bereavement as well as deep and philosophical thoughts about life in retrospect. With regard to vocal actions, people tend to be more easily embarrassed and they tend to have fun and entertain, as if they are stuck in a performance on stage and everyone is watching them. With visual actions, on the other hand, people tend to stay much longer. We have seen people stand for half an hour in front of artworks that are reflections of themselves in some way. Here you can also witness some sort of performance by an audience that becomes a participant—look at me! I am on the screen; I am on this huge projection, me and me. The audience is captivated by its own image and that is exactly what we are trying to criticize by means of such artworks. After saying all that, our most important impression is that people like to be part of an artwork, they enjoy any degree of influence that they are given, and the more influence the better. Many people who are incapable of expressing their opinion about traditional art express their impressions of new media artwork much more easily. The reason for this is that new media artwork usually enters their consciousness without any intellectual filters and at eye level. That is also why we are attracted to this medium.
How would you define your work: as action or as creating an artistic object?
Without a doubt, our work creates more objects than actions. We often create environments and conditions that encourage actions by the audience in order to turn them into participants—performers—and/or to create a certain social interaction between them. In our hearts, we are visual artists and visualization will always remain a major aspect of our work; also in social experimental works that deal with the relationship between the audience and not just in specific artistic objects.
Do you think that actions through artist social networks can be seen as a type of performance, as action in the public sphere?
We think so. It very much depends on the type of actions and the artists involved, but in principle, why not? There are no rules in art and if there are, then they should be broken.
From A Figment of the Imagination—an open ended experiment with visual and technological poetry.
Have you created or thought about creating artworks that are not exhibited in museums but only exist online?
Yes. We are very much influenced by Aaron Koblin, the amazing media artist who ‘belongs’ to Google. In addition to Plant a Comment, which also exists as online net art (plantacomment.com), we are momentarily working on our first two-person exhibition here in New York and we are also working on another media artwork which is sort of a crowd sourced a cappella machine. It will actually be one endless a cappella (meaning using singing and sound without music) created by the listeners. This machine, which will ‘live’ online, will have many more surprises that we are not going to reveal right now. There are a few other projects that we are working on that are meant for the online network. On the one hand, the space of the online network is a very convenient place to create and very easy media for inviting audiences—they don’t have to make too many efforts in order to consume and be part of the artwork—and you can express yourself without constraints. On the other hand, it is much harder to make a living from net art, unless it has a specific sponsor who finances it. So for us at least, these type of artworks are reserved for ‘special occasions’.
Plant a Comment
Artists: Omer & Tal Golan
Programmer: Yuval Adam
Semantic analysis: Nir Ofek
Music: Nir Danan
Bezeq donated their SMS service and Google Israel donated the Liquid Galaxy system on which the artwork is exhibited. This is the first artwork in the world to have been exhibited on this system.
1 The Hebrew name of the artwork is ‘Siah Galleria’, which literally means Gallery Discussion (equivalent to the English term Artist Talk). However, the Hebrew word ‘siah’ (discussion) also means ‘bush’.