July 06, 2020 • The artist talks about his pandemic miniseries and the liberating potential of the early internet
As virtual art showrooms proliferated after cities locked down to curb the spread of Covid-19, Neïl Beloufa worked with web designers, developers, and painters to produce Screen-Talk.com. The java site, its blinking interface a throwback to the ’90s, features pop-up videos, a live chat, and a series of games that allow browsers to choose an avatar and progress toward the prize of an artist’s edition also available in an online shop. The URL launched in early May, days before the end of France’s confinement, but its clips belong to a lo-fi miniseries that Beloufa made in 2014 titled Home Is Whenever I’m With You. The light, satirical approach of Beloufa’s serial—rife with interpersonal melodrama that plays out in video chats as a mysterious respiratory virus spreads across the globe—appears unsettlingly prescient now. When Beloufa decided to revise the work, he retitled it Screen-Talk, a verb that names the relentless, unbroken, exhausting experience of today’s online interaction.
THE WAY WE EXHIBITED ART WAS DYSFUNCTIONAL long before Covid. In making Screen-Talk.com, I was thinking about how we can tweak the old structures of producing and displaying to create a new relationship with an audience that is funnier, more horizontal, more flattened. The film was cowritten with artists Leon Maret and Jory Rabinovitz in 2014; the games were developed by Jory Rabinovitz, and the avatars were made by painters Hyppolithe Hentgen and Ludovic Boulard-Lefur during confinement in April. The budget was made possible through microfunding by several institutions including Fondation d’Entreprise Ricard, in Paris, and Pejman Fondation, in Teheran. M Woods in Beijing and Bidoun in the US, along with many others, helped with distribution.
When the pandemic hit, the few people who had seen Home Is Whenever I’m With You (2014) were asking me to display it. And I was like, why add flux to the flux? I wanted to exist outside the huge platforms, to escape from those monsters and get in touch with the public outside social media, where I can’t compete with a yoga influencer. I chose to target a smaller audience, but an audience that would stay and really look at the work.
I was never satisfied with this film I had made six years ago. It was never really finished. We didn’t find a distribution format, but also, at that time, it didn’t mean anything to anyone to see people just living through Skype during a global pandemic. When I looked at it again this spring, I had to wonder what the fuck was in our brain when we did it. What I remember is that the initial desire was to make something about everyone living through computers. And then we tried to find a narrative solution to talk about that relationship, the way people were locked to a screen. And Ebola was happening at this moment, so we wrote a satire, a soap opera of elite lust. When we did it, we were talking about how we believe in numbers that we don’t understand, numbers that are pure abstractions but become proof of what we believe in. We were also talking about pharmaceutical labs and the business behind them. We wanted to address the self-interest of people like the main character, who asks her husband if she’s going to die, and if so, shouldn’t she might as well go outside? We wanted to talk about all of that, and then it actually became real. Still from Neïl Beloufa’s Home Is Whenever I’m With You, 2014, video, color, sound, 60 minutes.
I like this expression Screen-Talk—and it’s actually our life now. When Zoom starts, the talking starts and never stops. When FaceTime starts, the talking starts and never stops. If we were having a coffee, we would stop, I would go grab another coffee, go out for a cigarette, we would ask another question, we would look at the sky. Here, it’s just like blah blah blah blah blah.
Screen-Talk is a game that describes the world, that describes politics, quarantine, and video’s domination of our relationships through social media. The idea was to propose a hypothetical model of display that would work with that world. For the last few months, the privately-owned public space of the internet has been ruled by politicized American laws. To be forced to work with that world was super scary. So that’s why I wanted to make my own website. The world can be something else, and online, that world is actually still possible. It may be nostalgic, but I liked the early internet. I liked it when you were going on a shitty website made by someone who didn’t know how to make a website. When there was room for mistakes and experimentation.
We will modify the website several times, add episodes and games to it, and try different narrative structures. It’s going to evolve through the end of the summer. I want to see what we can do with media, the internet, and art; how we can generate or diffuse an economy; how we can create problems, and how we can interact with a viewership. I want to see where it can be pushed.
On top of the necessary public health response to the pandemic, there are political and economic aspects to it that are mostly driven by technology and ideological interests. I’ve been trying to create some critical distance around these. Making games at this time of uncertainty feels liberating. It’s important to step back at a time like this and ask, “What do we build now?” Instead of, “How do we get destroyed?”
— As told to Lillian Davies