Interview with Paul Virilio

Paul Virilio: If you like, before you put your questions to me I should just like to give a brief introduction to set out my positions. Europe relied on the nuclear determent, the cold war, which was the sole legacy of the balance of terror.

With the power-block system having collapsed along with the Berlin Wall, Europe is no more than an endangered hope, endangered on the one hand by its excessive enlargement, twenty or thirty nations, and on the other by the return of an aggravated nationalism, as we see in the eastern countries, Yugoslavia and others. Itís too late, we ought to have built a solid Europe before the Berlin Wall collapsed, before the Wall came down. The risk today is that the Berlin Wall has fallen, collapsed, we shall se the collapse of Europe. So those were the preliminaries, now Iíll answer your questions.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: I recently talked with Bruce Sterling. He is currently writing a new book set in Europe, above all in Prague, and he says in the book that Europe is a dynamic field because of two things. Firstly, there is a lot of migration in Europe. The second thing is that for him there is the generation of very young adolescents or students who are migrating with their rucksacks throughout Europe.

Paul Virilio: I think when weíre talking about migration we should talk about international or - to use a barbaric word - foreign migration, and international migration. I think that just as much as external migration is positive, internal migration is negative. Let me explain. As Ferdinand Braudel said, immigration has never been a problem for Europe, it even enriches it. Take me, Virilio, as an example: my father was a clandestine Italian immigrant and my mother a Frenchwoman. On the other hand, internal mobility imposed by the law of work, the law of stability, is a disruptive element, destroying the richness of Europe. Europe, unlike America and other countries, has always been, like China, the country of sedentarisation of the peasant and urban sedentarisation.

The cultural richness of Europe, like Chinaís in fact, arose from sedentariness, in other words its cities and the fact that people lived and worked in the same place. There was a continuity, persistent ties that gave the opportunity to become socialised by interchange.

Once we have multimedia, teleworking, delocalisation on a large scale, mass unemployment because of computerisation and new technologiesÖ Once we abandon permanent employment contracts for fixed-length, six-month contracts we are causing a break between the needs of habitat and the needs of jobs.

We shall no longer have a contrast between town and country, as we had in the nineteenth century when the peasant population became the proletariat, we shall no longer have a contrast between town centres and suburbs as we have now, we shall have a traditional-style contrast, between the nomadic and the sedentary.

Iím talking here about external migration but internal movement, forced migration working in one place then moving on to the next, and so on and so on. We already have this phenomenon in Britain: not the Ďhomelessí but the Ďtravellersí, who are obliged to move to get a job for six month, then one month in the next place, then two months in the next.

This is the development that is destroying Europe. This is my answer: I conclude that international or foreign migration is extremely enriching, under certain conditions of course, and internal migration is dangerous and harmful to peopleís stability and their socialisation. Let me give you another example:

town planner as I am, I realise that the threat to a neighbourhood comes from comes from turnover rate, in other words the period of time between on house move and the next. When employment contracts were permanent, people stayed in the same house for five to ten years. Now, with fixed-length contracts - the average is six months - the turnover is falling to below one year. This is just as bad as what happens in a hotel. People come to a hotel to sleep and then go away again When cities act as overnight hotels, places of passage, there is no socialisation, only fears and anxieties for the future, everyone is a stranger to everyone else.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: Jonas Mekas, the film-maker, talks in his notes about voluntary and involuntary migrations. Does that tie in with what you were just saying?

Paul Virilio: Absolutely! As soon as we raise the issue throughout Europe of unemployment that is structural rather than cyclical, i.e. due to a crisis, mobility becomes forced, in other words forced migration. Iíll give you an example: an individual in Europe - it could be France, Germany, anywhere - who only has contracts for six month or a year is forcedÖfinally, to break with his family.

Why? Because the wife is also working, so every time they move, they have to find two jobs - not one but two! This means that every six months or year, at best every two years, they have to find two jobs.

One of them finds a job, the husband for instance; the working wife doesnít find one, fifty percent of the time she doesnít find one. The effect is deconstruction of the family - the unit of population - and society alike. Itís a dangerous development.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: But the family isnít the solution.

Paul Virilio: No, Iím talking about the family in the middle-class sense, Iím talking about the couples. Iím talking about what we call the units of population, the ones that give rise to democracy.

Iím talking in the Ďfamily-orientedí sense, or the middle-class sense, Iím talking demographically about the unit of population, which is the foundation of this society, whether it is the tribal form or whatever that is endangered. Endangered by forced mobility.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: Involuntary.

Paul Virilio: InvoluntaryÖ Iím talking about gypsies or populations who have always had a nomadic culture, thatís their nature; Iím talking about people who are forced to migrate to find temporary jobs, and because of that find it very difficult to create social ties and even to preserve the ties they have between women and men. The problem of children is related, of course.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: This leads us to the question of cities. At a recent conference in Hamburg, Saskia Sassen said it was impossible to overestimate the importance of cities.

Paul Virilio:The city is becoming the last outpost. Faced with the crisis in the nation state, the crisis in real space, in other words in the amount of space that benefits the centre, cities are becoming the real place, the last outpost.

If we take present-day America, we could even say that there is a risk of returning to the city state at some time in the future. A transitional city state which would be a new form of state, not like the city state of Greek or Latin origin, but one that would be a whole new way of looking at the world. This is what is nowadays called Ďmetropolitanisationí. The small towns nowadays are losing population to the large metropolises, what Saskia calls Ďglobal citiesí and I call Ďworld citiesí. We are moving towards a kind of reorganisation, recomposition of urbanism, to the detriment of national space. We are going to have archipelagos of cities in Europe - it could be Hamburg, Milan, Rome, Barcelona, London, whateverÖ Or Berlin or Vienna, which will be the real political centres, with the rural areas losing their importance. I would remind you that nowadays the real-time, immediate, ubiquitous, instantaneous nature of telecommunications is prevailing over real space, over the amount. In the past the strong ones were those who had lots of space, an empire, and the ones who had lots of soldiers won all the wars. Nowadays those who dominate are the ones who have absolute speed of communication or arms. We saw that in the Gulf war. The soldiers are demobilised, I would say they are useless. Soldiers survive only as policemen, they are no longer really soldiers defending a territory, but policemen defending a city.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: Surveillance.

Paul Virilio: Precisely, we are going towards a society where real time will prevail over real space.

This exacerbates urban polarisation, as we can see in the countries of the third world, where itís already the case. Metropolitanisation is a phenomenon that began in the third world countries, and now itís starting in Europe. We are witnessing a decline in the medium-sized cities, which are trying to resist the attraction of the big cities. In France, according to the latest report by the I.N.S.E.E., there are three or four cities that have resisted Paris: Touluse, NiceÖ

Lyon is starting to give way to Paris because of the TGV. Paris is a hypercentre, is not even a capital any longer, itís a world city.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: Itís funny about New York too: if you count Internet connections in the United States, an enormous percentage are in New York. E-mail from one person in New York to another person in New York.

Paul Virilio: The city was constituted by the place of communication.

The city really starts with ramparts, you canít separate the city from the field of battle organised by it, so there are ramparts. Now the place that makes a city is the gate. The gate of a city is where messages are exchanged, where merchandise is received, where the prostitutes pay their customs dutiesÖ And itís the best defended part, where they open and close most effectively. There are books on the defence of gates that go back to Greek antiquity.

After the gate, what moulded (the city) is the port, Venice, Genoa, the maritime republics, Rotterdam, Hamburg, LondonÖ The gate, the port, then railway station which, in the nineteenth century, becomes the new city gate. External migration accelerates throughout Europe, and the peasant population becomes the proletariat, arriving at the railway station of the big industrial cities of Europe. The fourth development is the airport, Dallas, Orly, London and Rotterdam, AtlantaÖ

And the latest development thatís starting now, the latest port after the airport, is the telephone, the place where you and disseminate information arriving by satellite, a gateway for information. So we have the gate, the port, the railway station, the airport, the teleport.

Nowadays the teleport, i.e. communications, is what federates cities. You could say that there is on the one hand in Europe, as in the world, a kind of real-time urban hypercentre which is the city of cities, the capital of capitals, a virtual city, you could say the city of the information superhighways, the city of internet, to which all real cities are suburbs.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: Pierre Levy, in his book on virtual reality, says that this contrast between virtual and real is false, he talks about the actualisation of virtual programs.

Paul Virilio:Virtual is not the opposite of real, itís the opposite of actual. Itís classic tenet of philosophy, reality has two faces, one actual, proceeding to the act, and one virtual, that which is potential. Virtual is the opposite of actual, not real.

This is basic, thereís no need to have a philosophical culture to make virtual the opposite of real. That said, the virtual /actual antithesis raises the question of what is real. Hans-Ulrich Obrist: By mutating it.

Paul Virilio: Precisely. Itís the problem of perspective. The world view of the Renaissance is a virtualisation, a reorganisation of the act of seeing, a geometrification of sight. It goes without saying that nowadays with the new technology there is a reactualisation of reality coming from virtual technologies. Thatís what I was trying to say when I was talking about a perspective of real time that was going to replace the perspective of real space.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: If we look at how the Internet is perceived in the press and in the mass-circulation dailies, this is where the big misunderstanding lies, there is always this antithesis between virtual and real.

Paul Virilio: What has misled them is the idea of simulation. This word, which was brought up by my friend Baudrillard, is what I would say has caused the confusion. Virtual reality is not simulation - though it can be - itís potential reality.

Virtual reality has the potential of being, so it is not necessarily simulation. But virtual reality has been identified with simulation and this has masked the relationship between virtual and actual.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: At the same time Mike Davis warns us of the ever increasing black (w)holes of the non-wired population.

Paul Virilio: Here again we should drop the phrase Ďblack holesí , it smacks too much of Baudrillard.

Speaking as a town planner, I would say that we are going to organise cities so as to leave room for virtual spaces. A virtual space is a space that is transitional, between one act and another. There are transitional spaces in architecture: the vestibule is the airlock between the private and the public sphere. If we take a telephone box, itís sound vestibule. This space is a calling space for another personís voice, itís space that is at once virtual and real, itís very interesting.

What we are seeing the beginnings of today, with virtual reality, is virtual spaces which will be inside real space, bedrooms, living rooms, kitchensÖ which can be used to call the spectres of your visitors, your televisitors. So we could say that to the real vestibule where I receive the postman who brings me letters will be added a virtual vestibule to which, when the bell rings, will come the visit of my clone, the visit of my virtual visitor, and I shall go in with sensors and be able to receive the other person, feel his body, shake his hand, talk to him, see him. The problem of architecture and the city of tomorrow is how to house these virtual spaces in real spaces.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: Itís like Russian matriuschka..

Paul Virilio: Precisely, and I could give you some ancient examples.

The alcove is a virtual room, itís not a room; if we take the Breton cupboard- bed - I am breton on my motherís side - there used to be cupboards that were used as bedrooms, you lit the heating stove underneath. It was a piece of furniture in a room that was a room in its own right. Itís just like the Russian dolls.

We are going to have to invent spaces of the same kind to house these calling rooms for other peopleís bodies. With teletechnologies itís no longer a question of calling up the voice, as with the telephone, or calling up a visual image as with television, but of calling up the other personís body to meet him. Hence the threat of telesexuality, in other words the invention of a universal contraceptive.

I would remind you today that the protective against AIDS is at one and the same time necessity and a considerable threat, namely the separation of bodies that virtuality is going to bring. Appalling prospect!

Hans-Ulrich Obrist: This brings ups back to the discussion of the most basic house there is, the cell of a single Absalon.

Paul Virilio: Personally I became interested in those kind of spaces when I worked in bunkers. A bunker is a confined space, a survival space, where I had to isolate to survive. Itís like a submarine.

Hans-Ulrich Obrist