Some say, "Better red than dead." Some say, "Better well read than well bred." Others couldn't care less and go to the pub. As for me, I'm reading between the lines, looking for the real story behind Online Newspapers.

An email interview with Olia Lialina by James Allan

Originally published in
The Thing Review, 03/02/2005

Olia, you studied journalism at Moscow State University and I wondered if Russian journalists drink a lot of coffee or do they prefer juice?
O: They prefer tea and 100gm vodka in the morning. At least those writing about films.

J: When they write do they sing a happy song or a sad one?
Russian journalists are not allowed to sing while writing. It's the Soviet heritage.

J: That sounds they couldn't even whistle a little Prokofiev?
O: To whistle Prokofiev one must be at least a music journalist!

J: So much for that myth. In North America the journalists have an old joke that goes like this, "What's black and white and red all over? And the answer is, "A newspaper." Is there a joke as funny as this in Russia?
O: Ya, a Soviet one. It's not really about newspapers but mass media. A guy buys a new refrigerator, he installs it, opens the door and sees caviar, champagne, fruit, beautiful meat, fish and other delicacies. "Idiot," says his wife, "you plugged the fridge into the radio socket!"

J: A copy of The Guardian measures 37 x 60 cm but the full size images in 'Online Newspapers' only measure 19.5 x 28 cm; 75.4% less. Are the online versions from Russia? If so, why are they so small when Russia is so big?
O: Russia is big, but my screen is quite small. I had to adjust the papers a little bit.

J: As the cursor moves across the page a window opens to reveal a bitonal version of the current page thereby making a comment on visual literacy, search methodologies and the Romantic obsession with transcendence, purity, clarity and self discovery. The piece reminds me of those Advent calendars where you open a window and find a little piece of chocolate that you can eat or give to a friend. Do you like chocolate?
O: I like chocolate and like every one who works with hypertext I'm fascinated by Advent calendars, they're so interactive!

J: What was your favorite Christmas present ever?
O: I like the one I got this year from my husband - a compass. Now I know that I lie to the south-east although you're in the north-west and we can still communicate. The internet is a great environment.

J: There's plenty of flooding but it never snows! It's pretty mild here in Oxford, is it cold in Stuttgart?
O: It is cold right now. But no snow. It's very bad for the winter crops.

J: I wonder if we could talk a bit more about chocolate and its relationship to Do you think chocolate affects creativity? For example: Jodi's work is rich and complex with a mysterious after taste just like Belgium chocolate ( While in the U.S. the work of MTAA, like American chocolate, looks like the real thing but when you taste it you see they're just kidding, what you've bought is something completely different ( Do you think I'm reading too much into this?
O: My favourite chocolate is it's bitter and light and is called Slava - Fame.

J: I thought fame would be sweet but heavy. Is it really "bitter and light"?
O: Yes. Bitter and light. Actually this type of chocolate has another strange definition in Russian - porous. So it is Porous Fame.

J: If you were a journalist what section of the newspaper would you like to write for?
O: I was a journalist and I wrote in the KINO sections. If _if_ it happens I would like to do the same, but I've already forgotten about film history and I have no idea about the new names.

J: The cinematic qualities of 'MBCBFTW' have been noted elsewhere and the use of gifs in 'Will-N-Testament' (particularly in the days of dial-up) added a profound emotive layer rarely seen in animation however it wasn't until you created a splash page for Rhizome in 1998 that you used an animated gif in a more Baudrillardian "America" sense. In your current piece animation, as pseudo-faux-simulacra, figures prominently. After looking at all this animation I have to assume you must really, really like cartoons. Do you like Bugs Bunny?
O: I don't know this cartoon. And I don't really like cartoons. But animated gifs, I really do love. I love them so much that I decided to change my profession again and become an animated gif model.

J: They didn't show Bugs Bunny in Russia? How did Russian children learn the value of sarcastic, self-centred individualism? Can you talk a bit more about becoming "an animated gif model"?
O: I mean that I've used so many gifs from free collections that I now want to contribute to them. A little bit late, I know. But maybe there's still time to appear on the pages next to Felix the cat.

J: This is a two part question. Do you read the gardening section? Have you ever seen any articles about potatoes?
O: Yes, I read the gardening sections. And I know that potatoes are not a subject. They're too easy. You know, you just put one in the earth in the spring and then in September you take out a lot of big ones. In July you can also take out a lot of small ones if you're hungry.

J: There is much prejudice against potato growers. Just the other day I showed my potatoes to a neighbour and he said, "Ha, my 10 year old could grow better potatoes than that!" But, trust me, it's harder than it looks. I assume that since you're Russian you like red potatoes. Is this correct? Do you prefer them boiled with butter and salt or baked with sour cream and chives?
O: Why do you ask? I'm sure nobody in this world is interested in how I like to eat my potatoes. You're just a crazy Oxford gardener, right? Or a Canadian spy? Who you are, James?

J: Well, those are all very good questions but enough about me. At this point I'd like to thank you for answering all the emails I've sent over the past few days. Would you like to add any final comments?
O: If you want to get a good potato crop you have to earth up the plants twice. The first time when they are about 20 cm high, and the second time when they blossom.

Olia Lialina is the Professor of New Media, Merz Academie, Stuttgart

James Allan is the Head of Imaging Services, Bodleian Library, University of Oxford