From Bodies to Networks to Nanosystems and Back: 1993-2003

My work is very much context driven and I could safely say that every location has had an affect on my career. For this essay I will map out my movements in relation to the work that was produced in the last decade 1993-2003. Below I describe the projects produced during this time briefly, in relation to the context in which they emerged. If you are interested to find out more, follow the project link that goes into more detail.

I moved from New York City to California in 1992. My family and I arrived to John Wayne airport in Orange County. I was immediately fascinated with the large bronze statue of John Wayne standing in the middle of the pristine white space, bathed in light. Not long after, I returned with a video camera to shoot this interesting cultural icon that was strangely reminiscent of the Cold War. As I was shooting the statue, I noticed the surrounding palm trees. They seemed real, but somehow not. I touching the trees and wondering about them when the guard came to me and told me that they were preserved with silicon! I looked up at the beautiful sunlight and was amazed that these trees were preserved in an environment where they could flourish. This led me to discover the company that produces them, Preserved Treescapes International. Eventually I managed to convince them to work with me to develop an interactive piece that consisted of three preserved trees, a video tree, a surveillance tree and an interactive tree. The work was called Another Day in Paradise.

My investigation of preserved nature led me to thinking deeper about silicon. I had a very long commute to the University (from Laguna Beach to UC Santa Barbara), and spent hours on the concrete freeway thinking about the debate of virtual vs. real worlds. It struck me that silicon was in the concrete I was driving on as well as in the chips that drive cyberspace. At this time, a severe earthquake hit Los Angeles, and I was struck by the magnitude of the huge pieces of concrete that fell so swiftly. I was equally struck by how we were communicating via cell phones and computers when the material world collapsed. Soon after, I was invited to participate in a gallery show entitled Veered Science. My work was the only one on the Internet and I realized that the assumption was that it was virtual, would not take space or much effort. This became an opportunity for me to engage the issues of the duality that were being debated. The work was called Virtual Concrete.

Judging by the response of the audiences in the gallery, I believe that I was successful in creating a piece that engaged people and provoked some interesting responses. But, I was not quite satisfied with the interactivity level on the Internet, which was pretty much reduced to voyeuristic viewing through the CU-See-Me camera. Last minute before the opening I decided to put up a questionnaire as an order form asking people what kind of body they would like to have. To my surprise, thousands of people responded and were actually awaiting their bodies! This led me to consider the meaning of our personification of the web, the resulting databases filled with our information and the need to visualize our virtual bodies. I was also questioning the rhetoric of the time promoting the Internet as the ultimate democratic space. The work that resulted from this inquiry was a web-based piece entitled Bodies INCorporated. I developed this work in collaboration with Robert Nideffer who created the interface, along with Ken Fields who developed the sound and Jason Schleifer who programmed the virtual bodies.

Working on Bodies INCorporated completely shifted my creative process. I stopped thinking of producing work that was complete or finished. Indeed, to this day, people are creating bodies and adding their data to the project, thus changing it. It is depended on the live network and could not possibly be collected in the usual sense of the word. During the active phase that lasted from 1996-1999, much of the project was developed in response to the audience demands, the last one being the need for community. I started researching online communities and wondered about the meaning of this. I realized that because of my own busy schedule, it was really difficult even for me to find the time to spend in these online spaces. All my colleagues and friends were equally busy and not able to participate, no matter how fascinated by the concept. This led me to think about time, or lack of, due to technology that was designed to save us time. I was also interested in exploring other ways to visualize the online body and started exploring ideas of networks beyond the Internet. At this time I became fascinated with tensegrity structures that were used by Kenneth Snelson in sculpture, Buckminster Fuller in architecture, and explored in relation to the human body by Donald Ingber.

I wondered if these same systems can be used in designing information spaces, and in my search on the Web discovered a programmer, Gerald de Jong, who was doing exactly that. When invited to do a site specific piece for an old mine in Germany, I decided to use this opportunity to explore some of these ideas together with Gerald. We started working remotely and met only once before the exhibition opening, which was an entirely new way of collaborating for me. In the process, we were joined by David Beaudry who created the sound and developed the interactivity for a piece I conceptualized in relation to the site -- Datamining Bodies.

Still thinking of networks, online communities and our relationship to time and technology, I worked on a concept that would actively engage the audience in a different time mode depending on whether they occupied the physical or information spaces. Although I firmly believe that there is no separation between the virtual and the physical, I also recognize that these spaces create a very different experience of time. I believe that there is no time. There is only constant change. The constructed time we live in is not working very well for us at this point, as is seen by the number of stressed out individuals that do not exclude you and me. We have moved away too far from any biological / analog measurements of change to nanoseconds, and are overwhelmed with information, processed much faster than we ever are built to absorb. As our bodies are reduced to large data-sets, we are entering into an entirely different age and need to start rebelling against the industrial / product(ive) time. Whether digital technologies can help us solve some of those mysteries is an open question. The project that explored these issues was called n0time (Building a Community of People with No Time). I developed this installation with Gerald de Jong and David Beaudry. Later, a n0time screensaver was added to the concept, with software created by Josh Nimoy.

While working on n0time I was working with a number of colleagues at the University of California which is spread across the state in nine campuses (San Diego, Irvine, Riverside, Los Angeles, Santa Cruz, Davis, Berkeley, Santa Barbara, and San Francisco). We established UC Digital Arts Research Network (UC DARnet) and began working on large collaborative projects. Our first creative project was a piece that brought networks directly into the physical space through performance using wireless technologies. We hired an actress, Karen Black, equipped her with a small lipstick camera and a equally small earphone piece. She was sent to a conference that was exploring issues of collaboration to represent our entire group and we followed and instructed her movement, action and behaviour. The project was called Secret Agent.

Exploring issues of time in relation to human networks and our bodies as elaborate networks has moved my attention to the molecular level. Working with tensegrity made me think more in terms of emerging patterns in nature. No matter how alienated we may become, we produce patterns that mirror the natural world. Consider the cell phones that are already being taken for granted. The technological infrastructure is designed to be most efficient by divding cities into hexagons. Hexagons are found in many structures in nature, including beehives that fascinated mankind for centuries and the recently discovered buckyballs and buckytubes, the primary molecules driving nano-technology. My goal is to make these far reaching connections between the social structures we unconsciously build and the ones that are inherently the building blocks of nature. Making the invisible traces of our connectivity and mirroring of nature visible is my long term goal. Issues raised by such work are deeply philosophical and challenging as they require us to reconsider our world and make significant shifts in our consciousness. I am in the midst of conceptualizing and developing this work. After experimenting with audiences at SIGGRAPH and the American Film Institute (AFI) this August, I created my first installation using some of the ideas as a response to September 11th. This work is called Cellular trans_actions: 091101

All along, in parallel to my artistic output during this decade, I engaged in direct dialogue with scientists. I always found science labs much more fascinating then artist studios. As a result, I was involved in a number of activities that involved collaboration with science. In the 80's, I conducted a number of interviews with scientists who received Nobel prizes about their creative process and later participated in a large interdisciplinary project sponsored by the UC Santa Barbara called Research Across Disciplines (RAD). In 1997, I was also honored to direct and produce a CD-ROM for Stephen Hawking -- Life in the Universe. Both RAD and Life in the Universe were done in collaboration with Robert Nideffer. Currently I am collaborating with a nano-scientist, James Gimzewski. Together we created a work entitled Zero @ Wavefunction that has evolved into a larger, more complex exhibition that we are now pursuing with Katherine Hayles and a large interdisciplinary group at UCLA -- NANO. We are developing a series of installations for that will attempt to balance poetic visions with cautionary moments while respecting the scientific process. This work will premiere at the Los Angeles County Museum Lab in November, 2003. As I consider some of the issues that this new science brings up, it is clear to me that this is the beginning of the next decade of my work. I believe that we live in an exciting time that is filled with danger and urgency. For artists working with emerging technologies, engaging social and cultural issues raised by the amazing innovations in science, this is a particularly exciting time to live in.