If we believe what Joël de Rosnay says in La révolte du pronétariat , or the revolt of the dictated-to, it is the actual process of creation that is being altered by new technologies and the intellectual behaviour they generate. He believes that collaborative or interactive creation relies on networks of collective intelligence, and no longer on pyramidal human organizations.
So is the Internet the medium of democracy? Is it the cultural tool that is vital to renewal of the relationship between the citizen, the city and society, a tool which allows us to break down solitudes? Perhaps . It is promising, and Utopia is working for the time being. However, we have to be careful. The Internet revolution and the digital revolution call into question our ways of producing, writing and disseminating. Globally, they challenge our relationship with the image, with images, with the imaginary, with what is true and what is false, with truth and lies. Where is reality? Where is illusion? Who takes the time to step back and analyze things? Who guarantees the truth of what we see? We see more, of course, but do we gain a better understanding? Are we moving towards a world in which the expansion of the virtual will lead us not to open up more to others and to the world, but to turn inward on ourselves, our fears and our spectres?
Do the democratization of meaning and enhanced ethics go hand in hand with universal access to the use of the images to express ourselves, to create, to communicate and to exchange ideas, as much as to challenge, question and denounce? It is definitely questions of meaning and ethics—rather than mere means—that will generate the social and cultural issues implicit in the new kinds of production that have been made possible by the combined impact of new technologies and new platforms.
In order to avoid the worst outcome—a turning inwards, isolation and virtual captivity—and make possible the best outcome—improved socialization, participation in democratic life and contribution to the humanization of humankind—we shall have to invent new ways of bringing together individuals and their energies and talents in new networks of meaning, based on new economic models of alternative funding, because it is essential to maintain the role of direct dialogue and debate, as much as room for critical thinking, since they are necessities as vital to the survival of democratic societies as oxygen is to ecosystems. It is from this point of view that my answer to the question “Can the artist still play a prominent role in a plugged-in world?” is “Yes.” I shall explain why.
From the appearance of the first cave paintings to today’s urban graffiti, I believe that the artist’s central mission has been to give meaning to the world that surrounds us. As the philosopher Castoriadis put it, art is a window on chaos, the chaos of the world, the chaos of meaning. Yet today, how can the artist still be a bestower of meaning, a sentinel, with a sentry’s eye to the future, serving as both a visionary and an eyewitness? The question is all the more topical when our hyperconnected societies, the Net, the Web, with its blogs, forums and seemingly infinite, omnipotent and omniscient networks, threaten artists as the builders of social relationships and disseminators of culture, explorers of learning and adventurers of the mind.
At a time when everything seems to have been said, or rather when everything seems capable of being said, it is in fact very difficult for an artist to appear as a discoverer of meaning, a necessary intermediary to illuminate the chaos of the world, strengthen social relationships, and ensure collective communication in a universe of multiple interconnections that provide every subject with a range of resources that make it both the vector of the problem and the repository of the solution. Underlying this proposition is the idea that new communication technologies can at a single stroke resolve both the problem of communication between oneself and others and that of the circulation of learning and knowledge: on the one hand by clarifying the misunderstanding inherent in social communication, and on the other by ensuring a democratic sharing of knowledge that is the corollary of universal access to culture.
This is what raises pointed questions about the place and function of visual and media arts, but let us not be concerned: there is doubtless a good measure of magical thinking there. Indeed, how can this exponential increase in technologies that connect us resolve the communication conundrum and spare us careful and critical thought about the production of meaning? Is hyperconnection the only possible way to uncover what things signify? Is there not a risk of replacing the chaos of the world with another chaos born of the multiplicity of networks and the loss of benchmarks? How can interconnection guarantee a better—in particular, a more accurate—grasp of reality? Rapid and easy access to the various fields of learning, and to all the rumours and rumblings in the world, cannot replace individual negotiation of the pathways of knowledge and discovery, and do not take away the necessity of learning. We would therefore do well to clear away some of the mist surrounding people’s ideas about the new networks of learning and communication spawned by new technologies. As the multimedia capacities of computers have expanded, they have opened the way to possibilities for new explorations and digital creations, but this does not make all of us potential creators, nor relegate artists to the archives of history.
In so doing, the artist reveals how technology can transform human minds and bodies into a colossal robotic machine. The artist’s critical attitude is essential in a society in danger of losing its way in the illusion of a technological hyperconnection through which we can magically transcend the boundaries between us, whether those of overpowering individualism, or prejudice. By rejecting a roseate view of new technologies, the artist thus responds to the urgency of destroying the illusion implying that new media, by their very nature, will bring us closer together as citizens.
We should never forget that the first traces of mankind’s humanity, the first step beyond barbarity, are works of art from the farthest reaches of our history: stony mountainsides, cave walls or the middle of an African desert. Today, art is still a powerful tool for communication, socialization and the intermingling of cultures. You can find China in Montreal, the Louvre in Quebec City, art Nègre in Vancouver, Haitian paintings in Calgary, a Palestinian artist in Toronto. It offers an antidote to stifling nationalism, and is in fact the most beautiful way of bridging our solitudes.
We must leave to the artist the job—and the duty—of exploring new territory, new avenues and different media, and make the artist our sentinel and our courier, using technological change to explore radical change. Personally, I can bear witness as a filmmaker. For the last 25 years, documentary filmmaking has enabled me to go where I would never have gone, if I had not had films to make that ask questions about identities, nationalisms, exile, revolutions, barbarity, the relationship between the artist and politics, freedom, tolerance and racism. Making films has enabled me to go out and discover other people, to follow the pathways of knowledge, and share things with my audience. In my films, I pursue an itinerary that is as much philosophical as cinematographic. I challenge the obvious “media truth” that relies on the illusion that everything can be said about an event, a person, a situation or a plight, because I know that it cannot. Instead, I try to say everything that can be known about the event, the person, the situation or the plight that will lead to a heightened awareness, impelling the spectator and society to do their duty as thinking beings. I know that when faced by the tragedy or the beauty of this world, our duty is not to laugh or weep: our duty is to understand. My filmmaking is based on this philosophical precondition. The spectators themselves are challenged by this relationship to the truth: they cannot sit idly by on the other side of the screen like attentive observers of the story, as it unfolds, passive witnesses of the unexpected outcomes of a clash of personalities; on the contrary, I do everything possible to compel them to abandon their exclusive role as witnesses or spectators. I make every effort to drive them into the arena of the film by provoking the controversy that is a precondition of awareness. The creative approach lies in a highly complex interpretation of reality: it is an attempt to reveal. Filmmaking is like painting, theatre or any other art that tries to represent, or rather to construct, the reality that lies behind the apparent reality.
I know that what I am saying about filmmaking, which is what I do and what I love, I can say about artistic creation in general. Creation is not a realm for the humanities or for cultural intervention, still less for social work; I believe that its role is the more basic one of resistance, founded on critical thinking. It is in this sense that art is a primary locus for lively thought within a culture and a society. It is a space for freedom and expression by the younger generations, often their only way of feeling included, just as it is the last resort of the outcasts of society. In this sense, the artist does not have a monopoly on critical thinking and resistance, and that is a good thing, but the artist does have a basic right to a fair share of respect and attention. The destiny of a people is not something that can be left to the experts alone. Culture and thought cannot be managed as you manage an organization chart. History is replete with unfortunate examples in which creative activity in a society perished at the very hands of its benefactors, whether well-meaning bureaucrats or short-sighted monarchs.
The country that no longer listens to its creative people is culturally doomed. Artists must be allowed to remain on the periphery of the present, sometimes indicating where what we think of as our ideal world has gone astray or failed to complete its journey. It is therefore important to make room for those whose task it is to explore the tragic vagaries of human existence, its beauty, sometimes, and its ugliness, and to find the sublime, the unexpected or the unpredictable obscured by the commonplace. It resembles the work of those who pan for gold: just as futile but just as essential, with its need to dream, its painstaking labour, and its sublime revelations.