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Sculpting Time and Space is a self-review of the interactive video installations of artist Nina Sobell and her collaborations with Emily Hartzell. The particularly intriguing elements of this article were the elements of video, interactivity, performance and collaboration – all aspects I consider constitutive of my project. Questions of access, surveillance and participation are present here, too, and those interest me, as well.
Sobell’s work began in 1971 and, while this article was published in 2001, much of the work takes place in the 1970s and the 1990s. Thus, some of the specific methods Sobell (and Hartzell, but I’ll only mention Hartzell when the work is one of their collaborations) uses to achieve her desired (and what I read as potential) outcomes are outmoded in contemporary context. Her work from the 1970’s is more about interactivity than interactive. The Disintegration of Objects within a Sequential Time Period, for instance, was a video recording of people playing on Sobell’s physical sculptures. These videos, documenting the break down of the objects as they were used and explored by people in a “public” space (a campus), were played sequentially in a gallery, to which she invited those who she anonymously taped to visit the installation. A “couch” made of pieces of the disintegrated sculptures was placed in the middle to be sat upon. This work complicates my notion of “interactivity” in the sense that the totality of the installation is more of a representation of interactivity than interactive. That is not to say that I don’t appreciate the work; rather, I think that the interface limits the degree of interactivity. (I want to be clear that I am unsure to what extent “full” interactivity is possible, given that I do not have a settled definition of the term.) In this case, the limitation is found in the use of video technology to record people interacting with physical objects (more interactive than video-viewing) – this video becomes a record of the moment of interaction, rather than being itself interactive. The video projection is of interactivity, not interactive. The viewers in the gallery is more flâneur than participant, thought their relationship to themselves in the video is slightly more complex than a binary of active/passive, as they are both viewer and object. This is not to dismiss this work as simple or a failure in any way. Sobell, at the very least, accomplishes something similar to Duchamp, in that she recontextualizes the video in a “fine-art” setting of the gallery and thus raises questions about interactivity, as well as the degree to which public spaces and fine-art spaces are opened/closed. [More about Duchamp later, whether I want there to be or not…]
Sobell’s other work from this period begins to explore a more interactive arrangement, through the layering of the product of two brain wave patterns as Lissajous figures over live video of the two subjects hooked up to electrodes (Interactive Brainwave Drawing: EEG Telemetry Environment, 1975) and by placing herself behind a transparent partition with a phone, obstructing her gaze, and forcing the use of CC TV for the participant on the other end of the phone to use a split screen monitor to make eye contact with her, while viewers could privately watch from another, hidden spot inside the gallery (Videophone Voyeur, 1977). The former addresses a collaborative feedback loop of expressive visual imagery that is both eminently controllable (the face) and mostly uncontrollable (brainwaves), in that viewing themselves on the monitor changes a portion of their output. The latter force-mediates interpersonal interaction through video and audio interfaces; while this shows the boundaries of these technologies, it also allows for participation in the creation of an “artwork”. Videophone Voyeur, though, maintains the control of the author, in the sense that Sobell creates the environment and means of communication. The audience can participate within this framework, but does not create this framework. During the installation (or perhaps performance art is a better term for this as its more active than an installation, to me) in Manchester, one participant asked to take Sobell’s seat, which moved her to the rear of the studio – a more interactive and more “digital” (the latter according to Critical Art Ensemble) form of performance.
The other project I found particularly germane was Sobell/Hartzell’s work, VirtuAlice, a motorized cart with a telerobotic webcam attached. Internet participants could view Alice’s field of vision and click the direction they wished the cart to explore. The drive saw the directions on a monitor. Each made eye contact through a rear view mirror. Visitors to the gallery could also remotely control the camera to suggest the next direction. This is the most collaborative effort mentioned in the article: remote viewers on the internet, remote viewers in a different part of the gallery and a driver all contribute to Alice’s motion (and memory; it’s recorded). The limits here are that of the physical network (how fast data can be transmitted and decoded, viewed and retransmitted) and the willingness of the driver to obey the wishes of the remote directors.
Next, I will transit from video installation/performance art to theatre, which is allowable, since it’s collaborative theatre and Nina Sobell says ArTisTheatre.