An extremely interesting conversation with Matteo Bitanti, a scholar artist, writer, curator and publisher. And a 666 minutes long Infinite Graveyard. Interview is a part of VRAL online exhibition.
Matteo Bittanti: In a previous work of yours, The Death of Father Men, you describe the brutal assassination of the ecumenic Russian Orthodox priest, scholar, and theologian Alexander Vladimirovich Men, aka Father Men, a controversial figure in Russia during the second half of the 20th century. Within Infinite Graveyard (ambient version), however, you chose a different medium: not video, but a computer simulation that runs endlessly on Windows. Why did you choose a generative art project over a linear, pre-scripted video, as in the aforementioned work? Can you discuss the genesis of Infinite Graveyard? Why did you use game engines, 3D graphics, and algorithms to create an experience that is both relaxing and unsettling?
Mikhail Maximov: To me, the generation process is really about dying, although it may seem strange. Cellular automata is a working scheme that explains the development of life, but not its origin. In general, life is the primary moment of generation. In Infinite Graveyard that moment is hidden, it is physically located somewhere behind the screen, and the observable generation outcome is located in the cemetery. Dead cemetery under the influence of entropy.
Matteo Bittanti: As the title suggests, death does not end. Death is the only constant. Your project is an oxymoron: generative art is usually associated with the creation and propagation of life, but in your case what’s endlessly being generated is cessation, the ending. Death continues in spite of life. Is Infinite Graveyard (ambient version) meant as a eulogy?
Mikhail Maximov: Yes, that’s absolutely right. Creating such an oxymoron was one of the goals. Infinite Graveyard is a critical look at the very concept of the generation of technology. It also challenges the idea that life can be understood as a fixed concept. What does life look like?
Matteo Bittanti: Does the death of Russian philosophers – the underlying theme of Infinite Graveyard – mean the end of philosophy in Russia? In the current regime of massive disinformation, post-truth, and media manipulation, are we witnessing the complete eradication of rationality and fact-based argumentation? If so, is Infinite Graveyard (ambient version) your way of mourning the death of logic? Did philosophers die in vain?
Mikhail Maximov: Cemeteries in Russia are often located near Orthodox churches. Also in the 21st century, the practice of orthodox liturgy through big loudspeakers near churches became popular in Russia. In Infinite Graveyard (ambient version) the voices of Russian philosophers are broadcast from these loudspeakers located on poles near the churches. I think that, traditionally, Russian philosophy is related to the search for a monotheistic god; on the other hand, Russian philosophy replaces religion with logic. Moreover, the belief in metaphysics is deeply rooted in Russian philosophy. One should not forget that there’s a rather comical aspect in all of this. To me it’s funny to represent philosophers sitting holding a microphones and having conversations with dead students in the cemetery.
Youth Festival in Artyushkino village (Russia) / http://meleparhia.ru/news/den-molodezhi-v-sartyushkino
Matteo Bittanti: One thing that really struck me when I was watching your video is the amount of space between the graves. In places like the Bay Area in California, perhaps the most gentrified place on earth, cemeteries are being “disrupted”. They are considered a complete waste of space in a context where real estate, i.e. money, is the only thing that matters. Every inch counts. Do you believe that in neoliberal countries like the United States and most of the West, cemeteries will soon be eradicated to make room for startups, worker-free supermarkets, and data farms? Will we have virtual mausoleums, instead? Or will we ship the dead into space in some billionaires’ spaceship? I can totally see Amazon introducing a service like Prime Death. That’s probably what Bezos’ rocket program is all about. This is not meant as a joke: in fact, yesterday’s satire inevitably becomes today’s reality. Tony Richardson’s The Loved One prefigures such a scenario. In this 1965 movie, one of the characters, Reverend Wilbur Glenworthy, the owner of a prestigious cemetery and mortuary called Whispering Glades sees little profit in the cemetery once the plots have been filled, and so he decides to convert it into a retirement home. And then Covid-19 turned retirement homes back into cemeteries as it eradicated the elderly population. If you consider that Americans elected a meme as a president, should anybody be surprised if we started shipping our loved ones into space? I mean, Trump is obsessed by colonizing space, thus bringing death to the stars. My question: is cyberspace the future of cemeteries, like Infinite Graveyard seems to suggest, or outer space? Or both?
Mikhail Maximov: Ahaha! Bravo! So many interesting ideas! Thank you,Matteo. Thank you for HYPERLINK “https://coub.com/view/2k2xf7″The Loved One, I had not seen this movie before. Of course, the American funeral business is a source of interesting innovations of the 20th century. The urgency of capital to turn any piece of land into profit for real estate purposes played a significant role in the development of the death business. The fact is that cremation requires large infrastructures and feeds on an industrial-like delivery of corpses, and embalming is too expensive. As a reminder, embalming as a scientific process was first introduced in the USSR for political purposes. The idea was to turn Lenin into a statue. He was a sacred symbol and his body could not rot. The beginning of the space age and human space flight is also Russian. In fact, it is associated with the name of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky, who was a disciple of Fyodorov, the founder of the Russian Сosmism. Tsiolkovsky designed huge cemetery spaceships for the future resurrection of humans. Now I have calculated that if we take all the land of the planet without Antarctica (134,740,000 square kilometers) and divide by the total number of dead people (100 billion), then each dead person will have 1, 34 square meters at their disposal. That’s the entire surface of Earth. This is barely enough for a small grave. And in general, we can just cover the whole planet with dead bodies. Earth is a giant graveyard.
Dead humanity on Earth/Mikhail Maksimov
Matteo Bittanti: This makes perfect sense to me. One character in George A. Romero’s Dawn of the Dead famously said: “When there won’t be any more room in Hell, the dead will walk on Earth”, which is used to explain why the corpses are leaving their graves en masse. With Infinite Graveyard, are you suggesting that we are reaching “peak dead”?
Mikhail Maximov: It seems the deads is a resource.. Dead can lay out all the planet. it’s good, but we have to think how we can use them smarter. Infinite Graveyard is an opportunity to bury the dead, the attempt to use dead source.
Matteo Bittanti: A decade ago, gamification guru Jane McGonigal organized a poker game in a Bay Area cemetery because visiting the dead was simply not enough: you must turn every activity into a profit-making practice otherwise you are just wasting your time and everybody else’s (including the dead). Time is money. Your approach to gamifying cemeteries is slightly different. For instance, you’re charging $666 for your game on itch.io. Don’t you think it’s a missed opportunity? With a different business model, you could monetize death in a much more efficient way: micro-transactions! A tiered subscription model! Pay-as-you-die! Perhaps, you should follow Jane McGonigal’s best practices and become a better entrepreneur. You, too, could educate the masses with a TED Talk. Have you contemplated such an option?
Mikhail Maximov: Ahaha, yes, Infinite Graveyard is similar to the ARG Tombstone Hold’em, with one key difference: in Infinite Graveyard you are the cemetery. Yes, the generation of graves is exponential. The deck of cards as a metaphor for growth: a small amount of raw data can kickstart an infinite process, like the rice grains on the chessboard. In Infinite Graveyard, each grave contains a tombstone, monument, fence, bench for family members. As for the lost financial opportunity, who knows how many times my account has increased by $666?!? I haven’t checked my account yet. 🙂
Matteo Bittanti: Where is your infinite cemetery located? The reason why I’m asking is because in the 19th century, cemeteries started to become potential public health hazard arising from the inhalation of gases generated from human putrefaction, thus the 1830s, the British Parliament finally acknowledged the need for the establishment of large municipal cemeteries and encouraged their construction outside main cities, and so the British started building “magnificent” cemeteries around London and the Cemetery Designer was introduced. John Claudius Loudon is considered the father of this new highly profitable profession and his 1843 book On the Laying Out, Planting and Managing of Cemeteries, became a bestseller. Your cemetery seems to follow the aesthetic style of the garden/rural cemetery, a style of burial ground that uses landscaping in a park-like setting, which contrasts to the urban, monumental, lawn and natural styles. Were you considering different designs and models when you were planning this project, or was this style always your primary choice? Did you look at “real” necropolises outside of Moscow or St. Petersburg as a reference, like the Novodevichy Cemetery at the New Maiden’s Convent, where Gogol and Checkov are buried, for instance? Or Tikhvin Cemetery where Fyodor Dostoevsky is interred?
Mikhail Maximov: In Russia there are official Construction Norms and Regulations for Cemeteries. As Laudon`s book prescribees, cemeteries must be built outside the city.
Figure: Scheme of location of the sites for burial (from the book “Construction Norms and Regulations for Cemeteries”)
The cemetery featured in Infinite Graveyard is located in a deep forest. To me, the forest is a heterotopic space, a place that is opposite to the concept of home/residence. The place where sacral adventures begin. The Russian cemeteries you mentioned are beautiful. Once I listened to the graves of Russian writers in the Necrophonia project, using a stethoscope, pc, and camera. But ordinary Russian cemeteries are not so beautiful as Novodevichy or Tikhvin Cemetery.
Matteo Bittanti: Infinite Graveyard depicts an endless Russian Orthodox cemetery, and according to the tradition, all graves and monuments are required to display a cross as the focal point and only persons of a Christian faith are permitted to be buried within the confines of this cemetery. Are there other unique features of Russian Orthodox cemeteries that you included in your project and that people outside of Russia might be unaware of?
Mikhail Maximov: Actually, no. Cemeteries in Russia are interconfessional. In Infinite Graveyard not all graves have crosses. They are not all Orthodox graves. In Russian cemeteries, unlike in the West, the gravestones are surrounded by fences, and there are benches next to the monument. Also, in Russian cemeteries people leave sweets and cookies onto the monument: such donation is meant as a sacrifice to the dead from their families and relatives.
Matteo Bittanti: The overhead view of Infinite Graveyard seems to suggest that either God, a bird or a drone is keeping a close eye on these tombstones. Who is the unseen spectator? (Even in the mobile version, somebody must be controlling those drones, right? So, who is the Player?) And why is the eye, in several of your projects, detached and disembodied? Is that because human-centric vision is obsolete, archaic, passé?
Mikhail Maximov: This is a difficult question. The games are beautiful because they allow us to finally stop thinking about operators, observers and bird’s eyes, about the eye of God, about subjectivity of the camera. In the game you can be certain that this particular situation has just been created and is unique. This is different from photography and cinematography, with the concept of the “frozen in time” moment, immortalized forever. It does not matter who the spectator is! A player is what he thinks he is at that very moment. Yes, I feel closer to the idea of the non-human gaze, but I am also sensitive to the idea of the archaic, especially when it comes to aesthetics.
Matteo Bittanti: In video games death is often a temporary failure state, a minor nuisance: you just press a button, and there you are, as nothing happened, you are up and running again. Video games are full of cemeteries, but they’re mostly a setting: since Ghosts’ n’ Goblins, a cemetery is where corpses abandon the graves and chase the main character. In your project, however, a graveyard is a graveyard is a graveyard. By focusing on architecture rather than mechanics, the setting is elevated to the role of protagonist. But the dead are somehow invisible because they are interred and generic because their identity is unknown or undeclared. Can a listener who is fluent in Russian infer the identity of the philosopher’s just by listening to the short excerpt that is part of the soundtrack?
Mikhail Maximov: The basic formula of action games is: “First you shoot, then you get shot, then they all die, and then you die.” It’s not just about an endless respawn, but also dozens of killed comrades. Mountains of corpses that need to be buried somewhere. Infinite Graveyard fixes this formal statistical difference. As for the identification of philosophers, I think yes, many of them are guessed by their voice and philosophical concepts. Aleksei Losev talks about God and Fate, Lev Gumilev talks about Scythians and Passionism, Yuri Mamleev talks about Eternal Russia. Listeners can figure it out if they are already familiar with the source.
Matteo Bittanti: In many cemeteries in the US, you can drive your car up to the grave, as Americans notoriously loathe walking. I find this very apropos, as cars are basically coffins on wheels: when they die, they simply switch carriage. In your cemetery, however, there are no roads. How does a visitor reach this place and how does he navigate it? The reason why I’m asking is because means of transportation are central in your oeuvre. I’m thinking for instance of the role of the railroad in artworks like The Death of Father Men or Replace Me or the performance Measuring Carriage Measuring Russia. In your previous mobile game Infinite Graveyard, the player controls a CoffinDrone and delivers “the magic cargo”, i.e. the dead. Are drones in the 21 century what trains were in the 18th century, i.e. the very epitome of modernity?
Mikhail Maximov: Oh, that’s very precise again. The drone is a symbol of transfer/transgression. Never before has aircraft technology been so readily available and so disposable. The old world of trains is in the past, the world described by Marshall McLuhan is the world of planes still relevant, but I think we are on our way to a world of drones. Moreover, in Russian literature trains are often symbols of death (think, for example, of Anna Karenina), because of the possibility of transfer/transgression.
Matteo Bittanti: After the sanatorium and the cemetery, what comes next? Have you considered a crematorium? Infinite Crematorium, perhaps? After all, modern cemeteries often include crematoria. Perhaps, it could be an expansion to Infinite Graveyard, like a DLC. Cremation is an efficient way of disposing bodies and I know that you are very interested in the concept (and practice) of preservation. In fact, you once told Vladimir Naiden that “I want to preserve those dead men. We are in charge of them. It’d be nice to preserve them and to restore them. It’s an important goal. Immortality isn’t here yet.” However, your graveyard is completely devoid of “living” beings. What’s the point of preserving those dead men if nobody is listening to them?
Mikhail Maximov: Recently I found an interesting scheme from the recommendations for the construction of cemeteries:
PRINCIPAL SCHEME OF FUNERAL SERVICE OF THE CITY POPULATION
PRINCIPAL SCHEME OF FUNERAL SERVICE OF THE CITY POPULATION/ http://www.norm-load.ru/SNiP/Data1/43/43232/index.htm
- The Pathological and Anatomical Department of the hospital.
- Apartment house
- House of Funeral ceremonies
- House of memorial meals
- Funeral Service Bureau
- Administrative and ceremonial buildings of the cemetery
- Company producing funeral accessories and monuments
- Central warehouse of funeral accessories and monuments
- City Special Base
The scheme looks like a ready-made guide to game creation. Maybe it is a prequel to Infinite Graveyard 😉
Matteo Bittanti: The cemetery returns in another project of yours, Auropa Graverunner, a game for smartphones, a third person running game in which you jog and jump freely while listening to in-game lectures of “Genius Russian Philosophers”, “Score points”, “Challenge and help the dead”. So is Auropa Graverunner just a Trojan Horse, a delivery system for Philosophy? While pretending to be ironic, are you actually making Serious Games? Is your ultimate goal the acculturation of the ignorant masses?
Mikhail Maximov: These projects are connected by one parafiction, part of which was the office of Auropa Inc. for The House of Dugin project at the Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art. You can see more here: https://riboca.digital/en/artworks/45
The House of Dugin at Riga International Biennial of Contemporary Art. Source: Mikhail Maximov
Matteo Bittanti: On March 19, the Italian government ordered the army to move bodies from a northern town at the centre of the coronavirus outbreak where funeral services have been overwhelmed as the government prepared to prolong emergency lockdown measures across the country. There’s a video showing a long column of military trucks driving through the streets overnight and removing coffins from the town’s cemetery and taking them to a cremation center. That image has been haunting Italians ever since, and it’s probably why they took the pandemic seriously unlike the Americans or the British. I thought about that video when I first encountered your project, Infinite Graveyard. Alongside hospitals and retirement homes, cemeteries have become the most visible architectural space of the early 2020s. Are we entering a new decade imbued with sickness, disease, and death? If so, is Infinite Graveyard a prefiguration of things to come?
Mikhail Maximov: What a shocking story. I hope humanity will learn lessons and change more quickly. After the first wave of coronavirus, we may get a second wave. Are we ready for it? But I believe that cemeteries will still serve their purpose, because in fact, cemeteries are a sign of peaceful and quiet times. For example, crematoriums provide a much faster and more convenient process, but the problem is that cremation is technologically more complicated and the ovens require constant multiple loading, industrial-like work.
Covid-procession to Bergamo cemetery
Matteo Bittanti: Is there anything you’d like to add?
Mikhail Maximov: Thank you very much for this conversation, I have found out a lot of new and important things. To be honest, this is one of the most useful and interesting discussions. Matteo, thank you!