OSWALD WIENER: “SCIENCE AND BARBARISM GO VERY WELL TOGETHER“
Interviewby Hans-Christian Dany
When the Vienna Actionists urinated, masturbated, and vomited at an event titled “Art and Revolution” in Vienna University’s Lecture Hall 1 in 1968, the proceedings were accompanied by a lecture on the relationship between speech and thought by the then thirty-two-year-old Oswald Wiener. One year later his literary montage die verbesserung von mitteleuropa, roman (the improvement of central europe, a novel) was published. With its excurses on linguistics and cybernetics, it now reads as an astonishing foreshadowing of the Internet and virtual reality. Later, Wiener turned to the figure of the dandy, who maintains his difference from machines by cultivating a practice of self-observation. Hans-Christian Dany visited him at his home in southeast Austria to talk about the peculiar standstill of art and science in the digital age.
The moment I get into the hire car, I know they’ve given me the right vehicle for my mission. A small screen shows what I could drive into should I choose to reverse. I hesitate briefly but resist the temptation. On the way there I don’t see anything but the road. The world has disappeared into fog, but a voice is guiding me. My destination is somewhere just before the border to Slovenia and Hungary. On a mountain there lives a who professes to have been cultivating idiocy for fifty years. Where I come from, he enjoys an almost magical reputation. When I told my friends I was going to meet him, they looked at me in disbelief. “I didn’t think he really existed”. And indeed, it isn’t easy to imagine the life of a person who described, fifty years before the fact, the peculiar irreality that would come to pass through the Internet. A person who seems to rise above the current of time, one whose life story reads like a novel. A person who today hopes that our attention might again shift to the self-observation of human thought as a form of artistic research.
“You have reached your destination”. I park the Nissan in front of an inconspicuous house. The name Wiener really does appear on the door. Ingrid Wiener, easily recognisable by the melody of her speech, opens it. Further back, in the darkness of the kitchen, I make out Oswald Wiener. The seventy-nine-year-old seems real enough, and bears no resemblance to a fictional character who can travel in time inside his own head. One wonders whether it was just such an interconnection of real and linguistic existence that enabled him to write one of the most shattering novels of the twentieth century. Or whether it was this way of thinking that enabled him to use the historical figure of the dandy to cast light on the problems of the artificial intelligences of the future. For this was the kinetic logic of a writer who it was impossible to pin down, who would disappear behind pseudonyms or among gold prospectors at the furthest ends of the world, only to return with recordings of the songs of wild Canadian dogs. This was the author of a work that for a long time appeared to be hopelessly fragmented, but which today has constituted itself as a compelling intellectual achievement. A blinding sun is shining through the window. I unwrap my recording device from a white silk cloth. The man opposite me picks up exactly the same device, and sets it up next to the first one like a reflection. At one and the same time, both of us say: a good machine.
You initially wanted to be a jazz musician, but then you switched from playing the trumpet to working for Olivetti.
Jazz was implanted in me at the age of twelve. There was a radio station run by the American Occupation, the Blue Danube Network, which was a kind of request programme for the soldiers. It was on seven days a week, and once a week it played a piece of jazz. This was in 1947/48. I was living in a reform school at the time, and all the boys had a germanium diode crystal receiver with a piece of wire that you could bend and adjust until you got the right frequency. For headphones we used earpieces stolen from phone box telephones. And with them we’d listen to the radio under the covers every evening.
Then, in the 1950s, my childhood friend Konrad Bayer inducted me into the circle of artists and poets. My interest in poetry grew with my realisation that my musical talent was not going to turn me into a world-famous jazz trumpeter. I liked the poems of Gerhard Rühm or H.C. Artmann as much as I liked music. Then I got sick of all that as well, I saw that my poetry was a kind of imitation of Rühm’s – at best, an imitation with different intentions to his own. That was the end of my foray into art, and now I wanted to do the exact opposite: marry, have children, take up a bourgeois profession. I very quickly had a successful career at Olivetti; they were waiting for a guy like me. That’s where I learned the principles of programming.
Was this applied programming, or was it linked to the debate over cybernetics that was going on at the time?
The term cybernetics had only just reached Central Europe. People didn’t exactly know what it meant. In 1959 I stole the first copy of Norbert Wiener’s Cybernetics from the lending library of the Vienna Information Center, a propaganda institute run by the American occupation forces. At the time I didn’t entirely understand it. I still don’t know whether I entirely understand it today.