Intrepretations of the
Electronic Landscape: A Conversation...
Pam Jennings/Toni Dove
PAMELA JENNINGS: I have
found that there is very little talk about artists' work using advanced
technologies other than interfacing with the Internet, computer
bulletin board services or hypertext.
TONI DOVE: Yes, there seems to be the Internet and the whole explosion
in multimedia and CD ROM, which is probably a preparation for the
interactive television arena, which will probably eventually collapse
the Internet, television and computers together. It's an interesting
territory right now because it's not standardized yet, and so it
offers a window of opportunity for artists to perhaps have some
small impact on the developing vocabulary. The danger is it becoming
standardized, since much of the impetus behind it is direct delivery
of advertising. People tend to move towards the paths of least resistance.
This can shut down other more eclectic paths through technology,
because of a difficulty at securing funding and support.
PJ: The learning curve is so steep for anyone, independent or corporate,
wishing to create an interactive project. It takes much patience
and determination to see a project completed.
TD: Yes, it's really new and people are just beginning to experiment
with it. And the whole notion of interactivity and its potentials
is very complex. Yet currently, it's being produced as a very simple
concept where you navigate through a book. Some of the major CD
ROMs have quite simple interactivity at this point. The whole notion
of navigation and non linearity is a problem in terms of programming,
in terms of authoring tools and in terms of creative people's access
to developing tools. It's an interesting problem and it's in a state
of evolution. As an artist, you're sort of involved in a territory
where you're building a piano in order to compose the sonata. I
often find myself in this situation.
PJ: That's a great analogy. It's trailblazing.
TD: Yes, you have to build the instrument in order to make the piece.
Although I'm interested in the new technologies, I'm not a programmer.
I'm a techie to some degree, but I'm not somebody who can sit down
and play with chips and rewire circuits and stuff. Although I am
learning, I don't want to be exclusively involved with the programming
end of things. I've found that what happens is that all your energy
and focus goes into the technology. Then the work becomes about
the technology and not the content. One of the ways that I've discovered
to deal with that is to work with a programmer. It's been both very
interesting and frustrating. Sometimes it can be like eating with
a fourteen foot fork because you want to do things and you have
to do it through this conduit in order to make the behaviors happen.
It's a collaboration with another person's ideas and with a whole
set of possibilities inherent in a programming language. I'm interested
in developing some kind of an authoring system for interactivity
that can be a base that I then can work from. If I find that it's
an interesting place to work from then I'll be able to build on
it over a period of time, so that I don't end up with each project
starting almost completely from scratch, which happens to a certain
PJ: So you're developing specialized software that you can always
use as a foundation?
TD: Yes, I'm using some existing systems and then I'm developing
some new links between systems that work for what I want to do.
And I try to keep it simple. But it never is. I found when I was
working on the Virtual Reality Project at Banff, Archeology of a
Mother Tongue, that I had been used to working with technology that
I had never worked with before, but was not used to working with
technology that nobody had ever used before. So we were kind of
making up the vocabulary as we went along. It was quite fascinating,
but in that particular case we were working with very high end equipment.
It's problematic to some degree because you have a piece that becomes
vaporware because nobody has the equipment to run it on, nobody
has access to the equipment. It's fascinating and I would be interested
in doing it again, but it's not something I would want to make the
base of my practice because I want my work to be more accessible.
PJ: The Banff Centre for the Arts Virtual Reality project, Archeology
of a Mother Tongue, has basically been presented through video tape.
TD: Right, it's been shown a few times as a Virtual Reality installation,
and it will probably be shown again. As the equipment becomes more
accessible it will become an historic artifact. That's not uninteresting
to me, but it's not exactly the territory that I want to exist in.
PJ: How has the issue of access to high end versus low end effected
TD: It's definitely a real issue because this is a very technologized
society. The whole culture is very focused on new technology. But
access is very selective. I think there's a trickle down factor
with obsolete equipment that has tremendous acceleration because
technological developments are moving so fast. That sense of access
is constantly increasing, for example, DJ's doing hip hop scratching
with LPs. That's a really interesting manipulation and reuse of
information and data that's based on essentially an obsolete technology.
I think that's always been an extremely interesting territory for
artists. The artist's book movement escalated with lithography displacing
letterpress and letterpress becoming a cheap and accessible technology.
As artists we are also interested in getting our hands on the best
and newest stuff, to see what it can produce.
PJ: So then we try to get to Banff.
TD: Yes, you go and work in these places. But it's not necessarily
always the most interesting place to work from. I've used a lot
of slide technology in Mesmer-Secrets of the Human Frame and The
Blessed Abyss A Tale of Unmanageable Ecstasies. I'm using
less of that right now because I'm getting involved in desktop video,
but I've always been interested in mixing high tech and low tech
and being able to create some kind of collage where you can develop
an aesthetic out of a bunch of technologies. Most of these are developed
for corporate use in some way and have imbedded in them an aesthetic
and a way of working. I think that this is true across the board
with technology. There are never, obviously, neutral tools. Uses
of color and concepts of resolution start to become built in as
part of an aesthetic that isn't necessarily the best or most interesting
way to use equipment. Maybe the sharpest clearest image, or the
most colors may in fact make your work look more like a Mitsubishi
ad than what you were interested in. I think it's really interesting
for artists to work with a variety of tools and to keep questioning
commercial aesthetic standards.
PJ: There doesn't seem to be a concern or desire to bring independents
into or creating a space for independent's work within the proposed
five hundred channels and interactive television.
TD: No, I don't think they're even slightly interested. I don't
think that that's planned ever. I don't think there was a plan to
encourage independent production in film. But I think what they
discovered was that they could make money from independent film
projects, that there were smaller audiences perhaps, but also smaller
budgets for films that could actually make money. That's the bottom
line. If that works, then those things survive.
PJ: It's a passion.
TD: Yes, it's a cuckoo passion. And that's another reason why I
want to start to be able to standardize what I'm doing to some degree.
So that every time I do a project, I don't need a whole knew set
of equipment. Also as you're working closer to the bleeding edge,
the access to the equipment becomes trickier because some of it
isn't rentable, some of it's very expensive and there are less people
who know how to use it and work with it. It also brings with it
a certain kind of attention which I think is interesting and alarming
at the same time. I found for instance, when I did the VR piece,
that I got more press and more publicity around that piece even
though fewer people saw it and fewer people knew the content of
it. There would be a still image here or there. Or a tape that would
float around. And yet that piece got tremendous publicity. That's
very seductive. This happens if you're working in an area of technology
where there's a lot of publicity and interest. I kind of tripped
into it by accident. I wasn't particularly interested in virtual
reality or interactivity. As a result of working on that project,
I got fascinated with a couple of aspects of interactivity that
I didn't get a chance to work through in the context of that project,
which I'm working through now. One of them had to do with the idea
of immersion in a narrative space. The sensation of walking around
in a movie, of actually being inside of a narrative space. And the
other aspect, was a certain kind of virtual illusion that results
when a physical action produces a response in video and audio. And
that can be a powerful and actually sensual experience. That interested
me because it seemed to subvert or undercut some of the rhetoric
of dis-incarnation that surrounds a lot of new technology. So those
were a couple of things I wanted to explore a little bit more.
PJ: Can you further explain what you mean by dis-incarnation?
TD: Well I think that people tend to think of the relationship to
technology as being dis-embodied and non-physical, virtual. There's
an anxiety that surrounds that. People not being able to touch their
work, of it being immaterial in some way, and excluding the body.
I think in some ways that the explosion of interest around issues
of the body is related to that anxiety about the disappearance of
the body within the technical sphere, for instance, the Internet.
There's all sorts of discussion about developing communities and
gender confusions and realignments, and all kinds of things that
can happen in a virtual community because of their non physical
nature. I think that is part of what's made the whole contemporary
theoretical examination of the body an interesting frontier of discussion.
PJ: What do you think about the concept that there are opposing
philosophical camps happening in the discourse on new technology?
One in which the physical body is no longer deemed as having importance
in terms of communication and identification. Rather it is symbolized
by abstractions. And another discourse where technology is viewed
as a bridge to unite bodies and minds across gaps where the physicality
of individuals may prove to be a hinderance toward communication.
TD: I don't think that I would set it up as a polarity. I think
that it's more complex and fluid than that. The technologies themselves
are changing so rapidly, they're so new, our access to them is changing
so rapidly. You know, who has access, who doesn't have access. And
our familiarity with whole territories of technology is shifting
constantly. For instance, in the process of designing an interactive
piece or designing a CD ROM, you're dealing with a situation where
the recipes for production and reception are not yet standardized.
So there isn't anything given in terms of your user and their familiarity
with the system. There are certain kinds of things you have to be
self-conscious about, in that context, because you know you have
somebody coming in who won't know how to use it. There won't be
things that are familiar that will funnel them into some way of
doing things, so you really start from ground zero. You have to
think in terms of people's sense of agency. I think it's a very
interesting thing because it can cause you to think in critical
terms, in terms of the social ramifications, the behavioral ramifications,
the political ramifications, the economical ramifications, all the
ramifications of each move that you make in developing some kind
of syntax for use. The piece that you design now five years from
now, when there's a different level of familiarity with use, will
be used differently and seen differently. That's a very odd and
interesting situation to be in, to have that sense of instability
and transience in relationship to the work. It's so new. It's developing
so quickly that ideas around it, for instance, the idea of relationships
to technology that are technophilic, technophobic, that have to
do with dis incarnation, incarnation, all these kind of things are
complicated and integrated into this whole very rapidly evolving
set of issues which at this point is kind of primitive. So I don't
think you can codify it in a way where you'd say there's an approach
that would look at it one way or the other. I think that they're
all folding into each other and breaking up and reforming. It's
very quick right now. With my own ideas, I'll work with something
for a while and I'll start to have a critical take on it and that
will collapse and shift.
PJ: Creating new foundations for navigation through what can be
called interactive work is really pretty broad.
TD: Yes, it is pretty broad. Even the word interactive I think is
kind of weird and problematic, because I think in some ways it's
a false icon. It's produced by notions of advertising that deliver
a fraudulent sense of empowerment and agency. In other words, you
replace intellectual challenge with multiple choice. You give people
a sense of activity and empowerment that implies choices that aren't
really there. It's interesting the way a rhetoric develops around
things. If you look at the telephone, which is one of the first
interactive technologies, and the kind of rhetoric that has developed
around "being there." You know, "Reach out and touch someone." And
that's similar to a language that's developing around virtual reality.
This whole notion of being there, touching someone, of being connected
as some kind of community. That is, in fact, the opposite of what's
happening. You're not there at all. But then there's a whole new
technological sphere in which communications are made and increased,
so a completely different kind of community is evolving. And it
does exist as community. I don't know, it's interesting.
PJ: I think that doing work that's "interactive" is more manipulative.
Even though there's the rhetoric of choice, the choice is what the
maker or artists decides to give the user. In a way you're leading
a person down a pathway that says, "You , the user, can think you're
deciding the way you're going. But I, the maker, have already decided
TD: Also, as an artist I have to say that I'm not particularly interested
in creating tools for other people to be creative with. I'm not
interested in something that has a tool base, or something that
is a place for other people to make things. Because I have a vision
or a concept of something or an experience of something that I want
to deliver. And in some sense I guess you can say that that's always
been manipulative. I'm more interested in responsive environments.
In creating an environment that has a personality that reacts to
a user. I'd like to explore the cinematic environment into something
more immersing. It's interesting to me because it suits certain
concepts of narrative that I have. I think of narrative as a wandering
accretion in a three dimensional cube. And I've never been involved
in story or plot in a traditional sense. I tend to work with narrative
as an accretion and look for different kinds of engines that move
it through time. I think it's tricky. The problematic side is that
if you don't have a traditional engine, you have to be careful that
you do have some kind of engine or you end up with cinematic wall
paper, or a trance state that doesn't produce a trance. Already
within the interactive realm there's a number of cliches developing
to replace some of the traditional vocabulary of plot, like suspense
that is built up based on conflict. This has been replaced in the
game arena by dropping somebody in a pit and giving them 30 seconds
to get out. I think that there are more complex possibilities for
creating a dimensional narrative, and it may not be something that
is completely non-linear. It may not be non-linear in a looping
random access logic tree structure. It may be something that you
move through in some linear fashion but has a different sense of
PJ: Like depth, on the z plane.
TD: Or parallel realities, or just a more complex three dimensional
time space. It's like asking a set of questions, or opening up a
potential set of streams of thought, or giving people a place to
explore an idea, or setting up something that gives a person a place
to think from.
PJ: I find sometimes that I have a tug a war between my desire to
make a set of images designed for the user to sit back and watch,
and trying to figure out when and where to put some form of interactivity
TD: I think that we're so imbedded in the notion of linearity, that
when you first start thinking in terms of non-linear structure it's
a very self conscious procedure. I can plot out a video that's linear
or an installation. It may not be a traditional plot, but it has
a time base a beginning, middle and end. I can plot that.
But at this particular point for me to plot something that's interactive
is much more difficult to preconceive. I can preconceive chunks
of it and then I have to set it up and get in it and see how it
works and then do that again. Perhaps others, especially music people
who have been working with interactivity for longer and have a more
complex and deep concept of the possibilities of interactivity,
can think about that space in a very different way than I can at
this point. So I understand what you're saying. I find that as the
length of the projects I work on expands, because I'm interested
in work that I can develop in a more complex way, I'm getting more
involved in the notion of story. Not necessarily in a traditional
way. I have to figure out how to design that story so that something
happens, so it isn't like wallpaper, and I've been thinking a lot
about what kinds of narrative engines I use. I think that there
are two things that I tend to work with: one is a kind of escalation
of emotional environment that often happens through the use of sound,
and the other one is the developing of a philosophical concept that
is subliminal to the text. So that the text is being produced as
a fictional space or as a poetic space, but there's an idea driving
it underneath that has to do with the thing that you're trying to
say. That becomes a kind of hidden engine for how you go somewhere.
But then figuring out how to design that interactively so that there
is satisfaction that you get from things happening does it
need chronology or not? What moves people through a space so that
it doesn't feel like being caught in a revolving door? There's a
method used often now that involves a logic tree where people are
making these incredibly complex pieces that have very detailed programming
and branching. And it's like, I don't know, it's like serving peeled,
stuffed grapes to 40,000 or something or washing your kitchen floor
with a Q-Tip. There's a labor intensiveness to it that I find extremely
unappealing as a creative process. It has a level of tedium. I think
it's also a process that will be replaced as authoring tools become
more sophisticated. That's another aspect, how these tools are going
to develop. And how creative artists are going to have access to
these tools. And how the tools will be less about high level programming
languages and more about intuitive graphic interfaces.
PJ: It seems like that would be crucial in order to bring more artists
and independent producers into this field?
TD: Now it's very complicated and not standardized. Right now, every
CD ROM company is either licensing an authoring system or developing
their own authoring system that they can then expand and work on.
It's very complicated, it's very labor intensive, it's very time
consuming. And it's a kind of nightmare. Most of the multimedia
places that I've worked at are chaotic and crazy. There are endless
amounts of files in different places and people keep re-naming them
and they end up someplace else.
PJ: Well that's exciting. But it's also a bit harrying at times.
TD: It's a pain in the neck sometimes. I find that there are limits
to how much I want to be invested in dealing with that level of
technology in the pieces. Because there's a point where I'm spending
so much time doing that and writing grants, that I don't get any
time to work. So, I find that I'm starting to focus in on learning
certain sets of tools that I can work with directly. And then I
can hire out certain kinds of other things to people who have certain
kinds of expertise in certain other kinds of tools. For instance,
I'm working with MAX, an interactive programming language. I have
to know more about MAX than I know right now in order to be able
to understand the potential of the language, and to understand how
to think in that language, even if I'm not going to be able to do
very sophisticated things with it myself. If I don't understand
how it works, what's easy, what's difficult, what it does most effectively,
then I'm working in a dark room with the lights off. It can be very
difficult to do what you want to do. Because I would be making choices
that are not in step with the flow of possibilities in the technology.
PJ: MAX is actually on my reading list this summer. I have about
a ten inch pile of manuals that I hope to peruse.
TD: MAX is like the Manhattan telephone book. It's very daunting.
Especially I think if you're a non-musician.
PJ: It almost seems logical that music would be the perfect transitional
art form between spectator forms of art and interactive forms of
art. Music has always been poly-modal in the realm of composition,
counterpoint, harmony and dissonance, and a collaborative process
in terms of communication between the makers, performers and audience.
TD: There's an abstract quality to music. And a way in which music
is not text based that allows for certain kinds of non-linear development
that also makes it interesting as an interactive language. Also
because the technology for interactivity and the digital production
for sound has been in place a lot longer than it has for images.
There are a lot of people who have been working with that for a
while, and some of the interactive strategies that people have developed
are more sophisticated because they are often producing interactive
situations in which a performer is working with something that is
more like an instrument. Instead of being aimed at a "dumb" user
or someone you assume has no experience with a situation, they're
often designing something for someone to learn as if it were an
instrument. There is a level of craftsmanship and technical acuity
and sophistication in the kinds of interactivity that happens because
it's performance based.
I think I've learned the most about interactivity from music people.
George Lewis, who I met up at Banff, is one of the people who first
began to make me think in different terms about some of the possibilities.
He said that instead of setting up this predictable tree of already
mapped out solutions, what you do is build a kind of machine. And
then you would enter that machine and see how it behaves. If it
does things that you don't like you might be able to trace that
back into the program and change it, or you might not. So that you're
basically developing these interconnecting sets of responsive machines.
That was the beginning of an interesting way for me to think about
I found that when I was working with sound, I was used to being
able to work in a linear way where I usually develop a performed
text that has a sound environment of some kind or another. I'd get
sound sources, I'd create sound sources, I sampled and processed
things. I work with sound very similarly to the way I work with
images a processed collage aesthetic. I had a lot of control
over nuance and layers and connections and all different kinds of
things that I used to make these musical spaces. And when I started
working on the Virtual Reality project, everything had to be programmed.
And it had to be programmed in a way where someone walking through
the space would find that if they stopped and just started looking
around for five minutes the sound environment would continue to
be present, and it wouldn't sound like a needle stuck in a grove.
So we started making these drone machines that took several samples
and then re-sampled pieces of those samples and created different
kinds of processing and different sets of repeating random parameters
so that there was a sound atmosphere that had a continuing evolving
changing shape with enough different parameters so that it didn't
sound like it was repeating itself. Then within that you could bring
in local sounds and sound events that were more linear. At first
that seemed clumsy and difficult and problematic to me in comparison
to what I had been working with, because I didn't feel as though
I had as much control. And I didn't feel that I could get the kind
of nuance and delicacy that I could get with the other system. But
I also found that I had to just drop that way of thinking, and get
involved in these rooms, these little machines. I had to let go
of a whole way of thinking before I could begin to discover what
the potential nuances were of this other way of working. Because
I hadn't experienced it. And that to me was a breakthrough in terms
in being able to think about the possibilities of how to structure
concepts of interactivity.
PJ: There is a strong psychological undercurrent to your work.
TD: I'm interested in models of subjectivity. And creating characters
that are personal representatives of social constellations and issues.
And psychoanalysis has provided us with one of the few extant models
of subjectivity. It's often problematic, fluid, shifting, changing
and never ultimately satisfying or complete. But I've found that
it's been a very useful source of information for developing characters.
I do a lot of reading before I do a piece. I do a lot of theoretical
reading and it helps me create social and psychological and economic
armatures that I can use to build characters.
PJ: When you're initiating a new project, does the concept for the
work come first or the desire to work with a certain technology?
Or does this happen simultaneously?
TD: It's usually simultaneous. As a result of whatever previous
project I was working on, there's usually some sort of spill-over
of something that interested me that I didn't get a chance to follow
through. Or some new technology that I've come in contact with that
has certain things embedded in it which interests me certain
special effects, behaviors or possibilities. So I'll start with
those and at the same time I'm thinking about other kinds of metaphors.
So the two things develop simultaneously. So it's sort of a combination
of concepts and special effects.
And, of course, I've always been fond of magic. And technology produces
certain kinds of special effects, and certain kinds of things that
can be extremely powerful. I'm usually drawn to some aspect of technology
that has a certain magical component for me and that will give me
ideas that will generate other kinds of things. I usually work that
way special effects based. I get ideas from Hollywood movies.
I don't watch television that much, because I've become such a movie
freak. But I have been taking a look lately at advertising. And
a lot of the computer technology is starting to surface in advertising.
It's interesting, because a lot of that, if you have time, you can
reproduce that "relatively" inexpensively on the desktop. And that's
very interesting to me, that I have tools to make images plastic.
The whole notion of photography and film as a documentary medium
is toast, it's finished. It's become a completely plastic and manipulatable
arena. Which is what I always wanted to do with it anyway. So it
suits me quite nicely.
This last piece I did on 42nd street, Casual Workers, Hallucinations
and Appropriate Ghosts, is a seven minute video that loops. And
most of it was done on the computer, about three minutes of it was
done entirely on the computer and the rest was done as a rough cut
on the computer. It was really exciting to me as a way of working.
I'm interested in being able to do more work like this. I'm gradually
learning a certain set of tools and ways of working that I find
really interesting. It's definitely taking up my attention.
JULY 16, 1994