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This paper is an attempt to trace our development and some ideas that have inspired us and challenged us.
By Ian Pollock and
Radio, telephone and computers have been called "psychotechnologies," technological extensions of our mind, with global implications. We used this technology, the phone, as an extension of our body, our voice and our concerns and as a means to connect with the larger political body over space and time. Testimony and narrative over the phone create an intimate space in a public context. The computer that operates the voicemail system is an archive, a recording device, and a repository for shared testimony and witnessing. In contrast to broadcast medium (like radio and television) the voicemail and telephone are based on message exchange and conversation. Especially in the live exchanges in Local 411 1, the act of communication became the site of art, the process of interaction creating the meaning of the piece.2 In our past work the opportunity for interaction was an invitation for the audience to participate (as opposed to authoring). Except for Local 411, this meant delayed transmission and response. The computer acted as a collecting device and archive, an electronic beacon in the landscape activated by a listening audience. In the context of public works the computer functions as an externalized, shared memory and storage bank, filled with histories, stories and voices. We are interested how communications technologies shape our psychological relationship of space and time. We want to talk about histories that can exist in the present and the psychological dimensions of the (telephone) network, which speak of vanished spaces that still remain in memory.
Area Code is a self-guided, self-paced walking tour through San Francisco using the public telephone. Participants pick up maps indicating locations of specific phone booths, and then call from these booths into a voicemail system, to hear stories in the form of fictional letters. The letter form references "letter sheets," which were popular during the Gold Rush era in San Francisco. Typical letter sheets had current events depicted on a sheet of paper upon which the letter writer would add his or her own personal message, not unlike today's postcards. Similar to this early use of image and text, our aural "letter sheets" (in Area Code) evoke the historical significance of the place where the telephone booth is located. Each letter refers to contemporary social issues. For example, in "Anthem," the listener hears a letter from a 16-year-old woman who is on her way to the San Francisco Civic Center to protest the McCarthy Hearings. While standing at a phone booth located near City Hall, you hear her concerns and political commitment. By the end of the letter she is telling her Aunt that she is willing to give up her summer vacation in order to follow through with her involvement in the protest movement. "There're just some things worth fighting for," she idealistically exclaims. From this narrative you are able to connect with the ongoing concern for citizens to speak out against the government and the struggle for justice. Other messages are about racism, social justice, and the emergence of television, abortion rights and the labor movement.
Area Code explores the relationship of the body to its environment, its presence and absence, the body through time and in history. It shows the "residue" humans leave behind and the awareness of it in the present. Area Code makes the history (and in some cases future) of the site visible. By remembering history we are able to locate ourselves in time and in the landscape; as a critical method, we then see how certain issues still influence people's actions. Area Code reveals how class consciousness, women's rights, urban politics, death and technology have left their mark on the landscape and continue to effect the experience of men and women. The viewer's perception of the landscape changes as he/she listens to the recorded letters. Area Code connects the past with the present and the future by leading the participant through narratives significant to the site. It is a way to transmit an alternative history of San Francisco that is not readily available in its public monuments. We received favorable feedback from the Lighthouse for the Blind, because of the piece's accessibility.
Krzysztof Wodiczko writes, "the aim of critical public art is...an engagement in strategic challenges to the city structures and mediums that mediate our everyday perception of the world: an engagement through aesthetic-critical interruptions, infiltrations and appropriations that question the symbolic psychopolitical and economic operations of the city."3 We chose the public phone as a solution to a transmission problem. The problem being a political history that has been physically and psychologically erased from the city's memory. In "The Telephone Book,"4 Avital Ronell elucidates the telephone as the most appropriate metaphor for the transparency of technology. Using the slang of the telephone user, she says that we are always in a position of "answering the call" of technology. She links this call to a whole ideological state apparatus and our relationship to it as a technologized subject. "The phone is placed not so much at the origin of some reflection, but as a response, as that which is answering a call."5 With this in mind, we began to look at the phone and its potential to deliver alternative histories. If the person takes the call, engages with the phone as medium for public art, the relationship shifts. Discourse not usually available either in typical historical monuments or in conventional uses of the phone is made apparent. Thus both the infrastructure of public works and public utilities becomes more ideologically visible. By juxtaposing both these concerns, we critique the conventional practices that circumscribe both.
At the Gate
Across from San Francisco City Hall, a refugee camp is visible from behind a fence; the entry is barred. The viewer sees the physical reproduction of a refugee camp, its function as a temporary shelter and settlement. The number of refugees from each country is marked on the outside of tents like those used by the United Nations. Similar to a display in an anthropological exhibit, a sign is mounted on each of the two fences separating the lot from the street access. The sign explains the number of refugees worldwide to date as well as the number specifically displaced in Bosnia. It also comments on ethnic propaganda, humanitarian aid, cultural survival and other issues about war and displacement. A flyer is available for pedestrians viewing the installation, on the flyer is the same information as that on the signs installed at the site. Also included is a phone number that people are encouraged to call, where they can hear a series of interviews on a voicemail system with Bosnian refugees talking about their new life in the United States. This connects the abstract concepts of the map to individual voices on the phone. In addition to the interviews, the voicemail system lists resources for direct aid for those displaced by the war.
This project came about as a result of our involvement with a Bosnian relief organization that was working to resettle families in the Bay Area. During this time we were exposed to ideas recently developed concerning trauma as a cultural discourse.6 We applied certain propositions described in trauma theory to our approach for this project.
Viewing the site of public art as a public trial, the audience takes on the role of witness to a testimony. In a culture where truth is relative, the testimony is called for when there is a crisis of evidence. In this case the crisis is the visibility of refugees, due to their exile and physical displacement. In addition to including the statistical facts of worldwide displacement, and the visual representation of their encampment, it was important to hear the voices of real refugees, their hopes and aspirations. Life testimonies address the significance of the speaker, it was an affirmative act for us to collect their stories, when in fact the people we interviewed for the project had been sentenced to genocide. It was important also that the refugees not be represented simply as victims, that they were able to present their situation in philosophical terms that reflected the complexity of their situation.
When Amina, one of the interviewees asks, "What is Civilization?" to the listener, her statement resonates from her position of a person who has seen the limits of what civilization has to offer. The displacement of her (political) body and ethnic identification is a testimony to the limits of tolerance in the society she grew up in (Yugoslavia). She also testifies to the limited tolerance of her host country (the U.S.), when she describes some of the bureaucratic absurdities of her immigration. She asks the larger question of the territorializing of the globe and the consequent exodus of certain populations to the no man's land of refugee camps or death. As you listen to their statements and reflections on their situation, it becomes clear that in spite of attempts to dehumanize them by various political agencies, the Bosnians have carried their sense of cultural propriety with them. Civilization and being civilized, becomes a state of mind rather than a geographical location. At the Gate attempted to speak about the limits of national and international identity and related power struggles.
Dori Laub states, the importance of testimony as a declarative historical account: "The ultimate historical transmission of the testimonies beyond and through the historical gap, emphasizes the human will to live and the human will to know, even in the most radical circumstances designed for its obliteration and destruction."7 From this we began to reflect on memorial as a potential public work that would be able to address cultural accountability. Also, we began to research more into the Narrative Therapy work of Michael White and David Epston.8 They postulate the "storying of experience."9 "Meaning is derived through the structuring of experience into stories and that the performance of these stories is constitutive of lives and relationships."10 The telling of the story and the mechanics of narrative is the socializing of an event. The work of narrative therapy is to write alternative stories and culturally available discourses. This made sense in relationship to the historical narrative of most public works, which often tell the story of a dominant culture. It also implicated the eradication of certain histories, or voices, as described by Krzysztof Wodiczko, "...And yet this total vision omits the powerful symbolic articulation of two economically related but distinct zones in the contemporary city: state architecture and real estate architecture. The two work in tandem: state architecture appears solid, symbolically full, rooted in sacred historic ground, while real-estate architecture develops freely, appropriating, destroying, redeveloping, etc. A monstrous evicting agency, this architecture imposes the bodies of the homeless onto the "bodies"-the structures and sculptures-of state architecture, especially those ideological graveyards of heroic "history" usually located in downtown areas."11 In this context, it was interesting to trace the disappearance of Bosnians from Yugoslavia, only to have their voices literally emerging in the landscape of the downtown San Francisco Civic Center area, not unlike the path of their forced immigration- a testimony to their survival and existence. It is an uneasy existence in a climate of anti- immigration, which made it even more poignant that their voices were only temporarily heard in the landscape, it being a temporary public installation.
Museum of the Future
"What is this perpetually unknown, elusive territory called The Future? How does its long-range shadow of cultural anxiety impact on us? What will happen in the year 2000? Since the mid-nineteenth century, this quasi- apocalyptic date has retained a powerful symbolic value. Speculations, however, began in the times of Lascaux and will probably continue for times to come."12 Antiquarian exploration, colonization of the "New World," and scientific and technological innovations have influenced our notion of the future. Listeners are asked to explore these concepts of the future by means of a voicemail system entitled The Museum of the Future. Narratives, interviews, theories, information and sound bites related to the meaning of the future help the listener survey the conceptual shifts in the perception of the future.
In the Museum of the Future we use the spoken word to shape a virtual reality13, a virtual museum. You, the caller, listen, as we lead you into this museum through a grand entrance, through a corridor filled with sound, into the lobby of the first exhibition hall. Nine exhibits radiate from the lobby at their center, like spokes of a wheel. Each exhibit is a short audio vignette that is based on a desire and articulated through a dream of a future. You can listen to each exhibit by pressing the corresponding touch tone key on your telephone. These desires include love, immortality, sex, and power. The articulations include search for divine union, eugenics, and slavery. You exit the first exhibition hall via another sound-filled corridor. The second exhibition hall is a mirror of the first, with one exception. All the exhibits are contemporary versions of the futurist projections from the past. The desire for slavery has been updated to androids, humans without rights, true surplus labor. The desire for divine union or immortality has been replaced by cryonics- you'll be thawed out just as soon as we find a cure for life. And so on. Much of the language used in this piece reflects the economic investment our culture has in a positivist economic future. While some narratives are straight advertisements for the future or a product or service, other audio segments mirror the euphoric press coverage of new gadgets and discoveries. Museum of the Future questions these positivist utopias. You leave the second section to enter the third section. Logically this should be the future of the future, but since we cannot imagine beyond the imaginative capacity of our era, this section features the futurist visions of the callers. This is an important component of this project. The listener is able to project their vision of the future. First, as a participant in Museum of the Future, then as part of the public imagination and last, the listeners constitute a body of consumers whose desires drive the "technological" market. Ultimatelythis is where the locus of the listener's power is located.
Looking back on the project we find many of our concerns echoed in a piece by Alice Jardine "Of Bodies and Technologies" 14. In it, Jardine describes her current projects and concludes her piece with a number of questions. In particular questions of ethics, gender, nature, control and politics. To this Michel Fehler15 adds "The questions raised by Alice16 are great ones concerning the body today, but how we approach them is an important question in its own right. How can we arrive at what Foucault calls a thick perception of the present? I, too, am preparing an issue of a journal-in my case Zone-on the body, with special emphases on its historical regimes. ... a history of body building, of the different modes of construction of the human body. " The Museum of the Future proposes (ethical) dilemmas. The stories in the Museum of the Future try to point at what Jardine calls the new megamachines17 and what Louis Althusser has called ISA (Ideological State Apparatus)18. Perhaps another way of naming what we tried to address would be ISA (Ideological Software Apparatus)19or ITA (Ideological Technology Apparatus). Lev Manovich, an artist and art historian at University of California at San Diego, was referring to his own research when he said that he did not want to call it ideologies of technologies. He said his own research was in the basic assumptions behind software design; cultural biases which underlie the basic premise of the software as it is being conceived and which, like the cultural bias of the Hollywood studios, is exported to and consumed by a world economy. These assumptions make dominant paradigm. The Museum of the Future also indicates the possible motives of what is behind the conceptions of utopias that in turn are taken up by scientists and made reality. The Museum of the Future was based on the notion that imagination is at the root of technology, not functionality. And that by this token, that art, psychoanalysis and mythology might well be ideally suited for attempts at resistance.20
"The Museum of the Future serves as a time-machine to search the past, present and the future for visions of a future that inspire us with loathing or reverence. The Museum of the Future sets out to expose the disciplines and methods of understanding and predicting reality. It offers suggestions as to why this and other cultures have strived to learn what the future holds. The Museum of the Future will show predictions of the past, hopes of the present and why we can never know what tomorrow may be."21 We continue to be interested in the virtual space of the telephone, but we have begun to understand the difficulties in such a space. Much of the problem we face is finding ways to hold the listener long enough to engage with the length of the piece.
Local 411, Private Conversations in Public Space
Local 411 is a project for the Yerba Buena Redevelopment Zone. Here, 4000 former residents of residential hotels have been replaced to make room for what has been called the "jewel in the crown that is San Francisco."22 Groundskeepers perpetually clean the large, grassy area; daily waste is quickly swept up before it can settle. Surrounding this is the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts Galleries and Theater, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, the Mexican Museum, the George Moscone Convention Center and the Mariott Hotel. There are still more museums planned for the area. Many non-profit arts organizations have relocated to the area to take advantage of the consolidation. Gone are the Rock Hotel, the Rex and many others. All traces of the former use of the area have been erased. Escalating cost of housing in the city combined with the demographics of the (mostly retired) former inhabitants, have displaced those who witnessed these events, into adjoining counties of the Bay Area. Replacement housing, although promised, has never been built.
Local 411 is a temporary public monument that challenges the erasure of memory from the site and questioned the position of the arts in the process of gentrification. Using the public telephone, we used three strategies in multiple languages in an attempt to relocate memories of the Yerba Buena Redevelopment Zone:
1. Fictional memories were recorded and added to a message pool in a custom voicemail system. These could be accessed by telephone 24 hours a day and 7 days a week at the cost of a local telephone call. The stories were recorded in English, Spanish, Mandarin and Tagalog and presented in the linear playback of the voicemail. The order of the messages in the system changed every couple of days. This way you might start by hearing a story in English and then be exposed to another language, similar to an encounter with different languages while walking down a busy street in San Francisco. Users manipulated their touch tone keypad for simple navigation through the messages.
2. The voicemail system solicited memories and impressions from the listener/participant at the end of each memory that was played back. When a response was recorded, it was placed in the message pool and became available to the next listener. The message/story pool grew during the duration of the piece. The messages represented the great diversity of the audience and included personal reflections as well as reactions to the piece.
3. We collaborated with a group of performers and supplied them with selected research of the history of the area. Performers developed one or more characters from this research. The characters were old buddies looking for friends, "misdialing," or ghosts haunting the phones. Throughout the duration of the piece we called public telephones located in the area, outside in the park as well as in the lobbies of SFMoMA, Yerba Buena Center and the Mariott Hotel. The performers engaged with the passers-by in a one-on-one performance. During the conversation the history of the area was revealed and if the performance lasted long enough the performance was identified as a public artwork and a second level of conversation took place. Listeners were given the phone number to access the voicemail system as a way for them to respond or to leave impressions of the area. In this way the interactivity worked its way back into the memorial part of the piece.
In a gallery setting the audience has already agreed to a context for their experience, in Local 411 this was not the case. Calling unsuspecting passers-by and engaging them in a public monument that was non-traditional required that we create a frame of reference while people where engaging with the work. In this case, while they were talking to us on the telephone. The other difficulty we faced was trying to keep the listener on the line long enough and interested enough so that we could establish a conversation. Beginning our call with a fiction often provided enough confusion or interest to allow us to lead the listener into conversations about the area and the nature of our project. During our exchange we searched for holes, gaps in the conversation that would allow us to move into an area of discussion that would activate and remind the pedestrian of the political discourse of the area they were standing on.
We are interested in the connection between the personal and the social and how this connection has an impact on our life. We asked people if they thought the cultural centers (Yerba Buena Center for the Arts and the Museum of Modern Art) were worth the displacement of 4000 people. This raised the larger issue of how artists are often complicit with gentrification, and how an apparently benign cultural center portends doom for an entire class and culture of people who have been disenfranchised and declared public blight.
In our experience people were more generous than we expected, open, even vulnerable. We began to realize the intimate scope of the project. We did not broadcast to a large audience in the live performances; each performance was tailored to an individual audience member. Regardless of the experience we gained, the performances retained their personal nature. By the end of the installation we had spoken to downtown executives, conventioneers, se
curity guards, art students, delivery drivers and transients. There are a few social contexts in which people agree to participate; often these are ritual, liminal, transactional or conversational situations. In contrast to the more impersonal voicemail system, the audience in the live performances was far more willing to respond to the issues in depth and the conversation moved into these areas quickly. We wanted a memorial that would continue to resonate with the audience after having experienced it, so for us the meaning of the piece lay in the depth of the exchange and this could happen at any time during the experience of the piece. The piece was most successful when awareness of the history of the site shifted into an examination of the current issues of housing and gentrification in San Francisco.
Local 411 was different from Area Code, in which the audience moved around the city and used public telephones to retrieve site-specific stories about the area. While we continued working through the artifice of story telling, we expanded to include the defined social mores of phone interaction. The improvisational nature of the phone calls made it important to be clear of our intentions: to activate the site through memories of events and places and to confront the tendency of gentrification to erase history.
In Local 411, we continue to use the public phone to invigorate the (historical) landscape of the city in search of contemporary conceptions of temporary public art. The phone is so physical; it creates an intimate space that unites people over distance and across time. The casualness of the phone's power, its transparent movement through vast geographical locations, its ease at accessing people between different classes and cultures, it is an ideal form for the subject of public address.
The Garden of Eternal Time
We have just finished version1 of The Garden of Eternal Time. We will be starting on version2 soon. Visit the Garden of Eternal Time at
We have extended our questions about space versus place to the Internet, how do we lay claim to space and make it a place, an area or arena for memory and meaning? What opportunities lie in synthetic space and synthetic place? When does an interaction on the web become meaningful, beyond the pleasure of aesthetic fulfillment? At what point does the web become a tool for personal growth and thoughtful reflection? Drawing on personal experience, we looked at an old tradition, the contemplation of death. We use four strategies to examine death: storytelling, memorial, contemplative spiritual practices and economic planning. To encourage interaction with the audience, we offer a trade. We tell you something about us; our community and graveside story, but we want your memorial in return.
The Garden of Eternal Time comes out of the notion of the web as an archive, a morgue for ideas; an off-site storage of consciousness, redundant and static, yet at the same time volatile and changing. Personal homepages proliferate on the web, horizontally structured and temporal. Identities are held in state, archived, ready for retrieval by the web-surfing generations to come. It is an uneasy relationship because existence on the web is fleeting, sites disappear as fast as they come on-line.
The Garden also serves as a way to mourn privately, yet in the pubic sphere, in public view. It is an attempt at creating community that can exist beyond its physical limitations.
Through the work of the past 4 years we have become increasingly interested in new media in art. In many instances we had to examine our pieces and extrapolate why they seemed different from more conventional means of art production and consumption. Only this year did we come across some articles which referred to a field of art practice called Communication Art, also other articles fell in to place. In all of our undergraduate education we heard of only the Electronic Cafe and one performance23. It has been exciting to read Michele Feher, Krzysztof Wodiczko, Roy Ascott, Fred Forrest, Avital Ronell, Martha Rosler, Robert Jay Lifton and Pierre Levy. Perhaps the most resonant at this very moment Pierre Levy and a portion of a text he wrote titled "The Art of Cyberspace". In it he outlines a field of attraction, a character sketch of cyberspace, which we are interested and would like to explore further in our work. The most salient points as they relate to us would be:
1. Messages revolve around receptors, which make up the center not the surface
2. Work exists in a read-write continuum, blurring lines between producer and user.
3. As the author disappears "works" become environments that lack the hard edge, which separate them from everything else. A web project becomes an elaborate homepage, distinguished only by the quality of experience.
4. If we begin to speak of "open works" how do we as artists explore notions of the "open monument".
The last idea, that of the "open monument" is perhaps the most exciting. If we think of The Vietnam Veterans' Memorial in D.C. we think of the objects that have accumulated in front of it: Baseballs, teddy bears and photographs, collecting at such rate and quantity that a structure to house these objects is being built, or already has. This exchange seems very much in line with Roy Ascott's ideas of Communication Art24. If we look at this as an "open work" Levy's notions are no longer confined to cyberspace and speak more of the cultural reality at large. When this is used as an empowering public strategy, this becomes important in contemporary political discourse. There is more concern now, that the drive into cyberspace is a move by politicians, or the patriarchy, to exact greater level of control on the popular body. Many thinkers, such as Martha Rosler,25 have pointed at this political side of cyberspace. Dieter Besch,26 an architect, who questions much of the technological euphoria surrounding the future of architecture, says of the impending "virtual" reality: "When everything is done in virtual reality, and politicians have stolen our lives, we will still need architects to build the boxes. Those will be times when among all this extra space there will be an even greater need for places and personal environment."
We understand Roy Ascott's and Pierre Levy's desire for a communicative and open art practice, and Martha Rosler's and Dieter Besch's desire for a physical environment of resistance. It has allowed us to define our work of the past 4 years in terms of a desire to make places. Places in the way that Foucault has called for "thick perception" of the present. That is, perceptions that include the history of political struggles and discourse as a means to dislodge ossified presence.
1 Local 411, Private Conversations in Public Space, temporary public monument by Ian Pollock and Janet Silk, 1997
2 Art of the Electronic Age, Communication Art, by, Frank Popper, 1997. Thames and Hudson, Inc.
3 Strategies of Public Address: Which Media, Which Publics? By Krzysztof Wodiczko, pgs. 41-45
4 The Telephone Book: Technology, Schizophrenia, Electric Speech, by Avital Ronell, 1989. University of Nebraska Press
5 The Telephone Book, by Avital Ronell, 1989. University of Nebraska Press, page 3
6 Trauma: Explorations in Memory, edited by Cathy Caruth, 1995. John Hopkins University Press
7 Trauma: Explorations in Memory, Truth and Testimony: The Process and the Struggle, Dori Laub, 1995. John Hopkins University Press, page 69
8 Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends, by Michael White and David Epston, 1990. W.W. Norton and Company.
9 Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends, by Michael White and David Epston, page X.
10 Narrative Means to Therapeutic Ends, by Michael White and David Epston, page 12.
11 Strategies of Public Address: Which Media, Which Publics? By Krzysztof Wodiczko, pgs. 41-45
12 Introduction from the Museum of the Future, voicemail project.
13 Understanding Media, The Extensions of Man by Marshall McLuhan, pps.56, makes a case for voice as translator, as technology that is used to experience reality in a new way.
14 Discussions in Contemporary Culture, Number One, edited by Hal Foster "Of Bodies and Technologies" (pps.151-158), Dia Art Foundation
15 Discussions in Contemporary Culture, Number One, edited by Hal Foster "Of Bodies and Technologies" (pps.151-158), Dia Art Foundation.
16 Alice Jardine
17 After Lewis Mumford
18 Louis Althusser "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" (1970)
19 Ideological software/technology apparatus, the basic assumptions that underlie the development of software.
20 Alice Jardine at the end of her short paper also, picks up this point. McLuhan's ideas of media as translators (Understanding Media, The Extensions of Man by Marshall McLuhan) and active metaphors also suggest these possibilities
21 Introduction from the Museum of the Future, voicemail project
22 Mayor Willie Brown, opening ceremony speech for Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
23 "Hole in Space," 1980, project by Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz
24 Telenoia:Art in the Age of Artificial Life," by Roy Ascott, Leonardo 1993(vol.26, no.3)
25 "The Birth and Death of the Viewer: On the Public Function of Art, "Martha Rosler, Discussions in Contemporary Culture, Number One, edited by Hal Foster, Dia Art Foundation (pps. 9- 15),
26 Dieter Besch is an architect at the Technical University in Delft and has recently published a book entitled "Componenten," University of Delft Press. 1997.