Prof. Sally-Jane Norman is Professor of Performance Technologies and Director of the Attenborough Centre for the Creative Arts in the University of Sussex, having previously served as founding director of Culture Lab, Newcastle University. Her research into performing arts and technology has included collaborations with the International Institute of Puppetry (Charleville-Mézières), Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music (Amsterdam), and Zentrum für Kunst und Medientechnologie (Karlsruhe). Co-founder and regular jury member for the Vida Art and Artificial Life Awards, she is a member of the jury in VIDA 15.0.
You have a long experience as a member of the jury of the VIDA Awards. From your perspective, how has VIDA evolved over the last fifteen years?
I’ve been lucky because it was really exciting to be part of the founding team, and to have served on a number of juries since. One of the key features of this competition is the continuity that has marked Nell Tenhaaf’s sterling steer as Chair, as well as the changes it’s undergone since the first jury sessions coordinated by Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, then those coordinated by Daniel Canogar and finally our current groups with Mónica Bello. These changes, like those across the jury members’ different perspectives, have required steady re-thinking of the terrain we’re engaged on. As a privileged observer of this process, I’ve appreciated constant foregrounding of the key underpinning question: how do our definitions of life, therefore artificial life, mark the ways we engage with these concepts artistically and culturally? What is fascinating about the competition over all these years is that it is itself an evolving phenomenon, it’s growing steadily. One determinant measure in my opinion was the early introduction of production incentive awards.
Without the production incentive awards VIDA would probably have become just another relatively nondescript, more or less “new media” art event like so many that one encounters. But the jury and Telefónica quickly identified the fact that different types of actors wanting to contribute to this particular discussion weren’t at all resourced the same way as the others were. It was also clear that there was a distinctive voice potentially coming from Spanish and Portuguese speaking countries. Ultimately, contributions from these countries have made an incredible impact on the way that VIDA has evolved (and indeed, on wider arts communities). Production incentives have often been awarded with an appreciable degree of risk, as information sent by applicants not resourced to do any real prototyping are comparatively “light”. So we’ve gone with our hunches. Subsequently, on discovering the fleshed out projects, we’ve been flabbergasted and wondered what the field would be like without this work. So I think that these production incentive awards have been extremely important.
In parallel, Telefónica has been building up a program of workshops, opportunities for engagement and experimental arenas in countries where strongly emerging voices needed to be heard. That has been quite decisive. We’ve at times received production incentive applications from people of diverse nationalities, based for various reasons in Spanish and Portuguese related cultures; in such cases it’s intriguing to see how new ways of thinking perhaps emerge more freely in environments that are not already full of prefabricated discourse and work.
In relation to the production of the works, over the last decade all sorts of technology have become increasingly available to artists. Has this been reflected in the projects submitted to the VIDA Awards?
Yes, certainly, and I think that it’s an important question with one important caveat: VIDA, because its position has always been primarily artistic, has never wanted to award technology prowess per se, and I think that those of us who’ve been involved in the competition probably wouldn’t have been if that had been the case. There are already major international awards for sheer technological expertise. Still, the democratisation of many technologies underpinning the projects that we have awarded has been extremely important. Take a project like Gilberto Esparza’s Parásitos Urbanos (Urban Parasites, VIDA 9.0): it’s not high-tech in its components but visionary in its thinking and in the ways that it assembles these components.
One of the tasks of the Jury of the VIDA Awards is to write the descriptions of the awarded projects. Is it a challenge to communicate to a wider public the concept and significance of these artworks?
The word “challenge” sums it up. It’s also perhaps worth pointing out that the jury is not always unanimously positioned around individual attributions of awards. Of course, we reach a consensus and it is a collegial body which a jury has to be, but there can be very long and heated discussions around some of the works. Given the members’ different specialisms, it is normal for tasks describing and positioning the works to be allocated across the group. For instance if a submission is strongly anchored in a specific A-Life field –biology, robotics, computational processes etc – then we seek out within the group someone who has the expertise to come up with a good, accessible but scientifically robust description. Still, what we write up is read and agreed across the group; I’ve always felt confident knowing that if I have difficulties formulating something or describing a process that another jury member is well versed with, then I can get them to check my draft. Collaboration through the sharing of knowledge and interests is also an exciting learning process for the jury, as it should be in such an interdisciplinary, strongly evolving field.
I imagine that one of the questions to be considered in each artwork is how much does it contribute on the technological and scientific level or on the conceptual level…
It has to be both to a certain degree. The balance is extremely varied: some works awarded over the years have come more specifically from scientific players in the field, but we have never been seduced by the “home address”, the institutional pedigree. We’ve always been interested in what the work has to say, first and foremost. In fact, some prize-winning works do not necessarily embody strong scientific reasoning or processes within their fabrication, but develop productive reflection on such reasoning and processes at a metaphorical level. When we’ve felt that this has been effectively done in artistic terms, then we’ve had no qualms about awarding the work.
Have you noticed trends becoming predominant over the years and having influenced either the jury or the artists who have submitted their artworks?
Yes, absolutely. In a way it is inevitable because trends are shaped by wider social contexts. When you’re in an era dominated by discussion about cloning, for example, there’s going to be a tendency for people to engage with the problematics of that area. Social software developments have similarly lent themselves to interesting critical artistic perspectives (for example, as seen in Naked on Pluto), so to a certain extent, the competition reflects an atunedness to the wider world which is logical and desirable. But then again, we’ve been quite careful about not just recognising bandwagon themes: the fact that a work addresses a domain that seems incredibly topical does not necessarily make it a good piece of work from the VIDA perspective. At times it’s been exciting to see something surge up that seems to be completely detached from such trends; in a way it becomes a pillar in the fog, a positioning device which allows us to pull back and more deeply think about how we’re reading and defining the field.
You have directed numerous workshops about art and technology. From this perspective, how would you describe the role that labs and workshops play in the development of artistic research nowadays?
I think that hands-on, pragmatic engagement with materials and processes is a crucial mode for understanding, or at least learning to better frame one’s questions about what constitute vital processes and activities. It is essential to create opportunities for people to physically engage with stuff: across collaborative physical engagement with things we derive certain kinds of insights or learnings that cannot be gained any other way. There is no comparison between speculatively or theoretically talking about processes, and actually rolling up your sleeves and getting involved with them. On the other hand, these two modes of approach nurture each other. Workshops should not be seen as a substitute for critical conceptual thinking and theorising, but if people are only articulating ideas on a speculative, theoretical plane, there there is all the more need for “reality checks”. I’m a believer in epistemic action. According to the cognitive scientists who coined this term, led by David Kirsh, when we’re engaging corporeally with things in a real felt space our behavior and assimilation of key questions and positioning strategies is of a very different nature to that arising in strictly theory-driven exploratory processes, and is equally important for freely experimental thinking.
There are traps, of course: workshops that simply follow trends. How many Arduino, biotech, geo-tagging workshops does it take to have people deeply question artistic, social and scientific systems? Whatever the workshop, one has to be sure that it is always critically framing its own premises. There is no “given” that cannot be queried. Workshops have to leave room for challenging and thus carefully defining and redefining their own goals and starting points. Otherwise they are merely prescriptive formalities: you sign on, you tick a few boxes and then you sign off. Game over. For me, those aren’t real workshops, those are just superficial accreditation exercises.
The workshops that Telefónica has been running have been very important for allowing people to more freely and pragmatically engage with experimentation in areas that otherwise remain highly speculative. It’s like a University program: maybe a class of twenty Master students comes up with a couple of ideas that turn out to be absolutely brilliant and spawn really innovative projects, but without that larger collective, those brilliant ideas would have no substrate to emerge from (and indeed, they may emerge very tenuously and over a much longer time frame). The good thing about workshops is that they are collaborative and it is in the sociality of shared insights and methods that new ideas can emerge. A lot of VIDA awards have been collective submissions, and workshop environments seem to be incredibly productive for nurturing sorts of reflection that can get beyond disciplinary boundaries and standard academic skill sets.
In the intersection of art, science and technology, does art contribute to a better understanding of scientific research? Should it do so?
In my opinion, an artwork is not an explanatory device for science. An artwork formulates its questions openly, ambiguously and playfully, problematising issues in ways that are very different to the investigations of science, which builds up axioms to disambiguate and resolve specific questions (however tentatively), and so on… There’s a progressive or progressist dimension to science that I don’t think can be associated with the arts. The ways that an artwork can generate or grow people’s understanding of what’s going on in the science world are often quite tangential and hard to pin down. Maybe, through these enigmatic but freely discussable objects or artifacts that are artworks, people dare discuss things that they would feel intimidated to talk about otherwise: they’d be too inhibited in any other context, because they would feel incompetent and incapable of making sense. Whereas it’s up to individuals to make sense of their respective perceptions of an artwork. So it has a very important role to play socially. Today we’re facing major ethics questions – not to mention a certain degree of paranoia – as biotech tinkers with literally living structures, yet biotech is just one complex A-Life area amongst many others, like computational processing or robotics (in fact, behavioral developments in robotics make this an ethically challenging domain). Art can address such areas in its own ways, with poetic license and use of congenial energies like humor, which one doesn’t usually encounter in the sciences. There’s a whimsical dimension to art that is not an essential part of science. There is a distance and an agility within a work or an artistic process, allowing or obliging us to constantly change and re-position our vantage points. I don’t think that one regularly encounters this kind of behavior in science. Art in a way is a uniquely trickster domain. And this is what makes it effectively so compelling for a wider public.
In your experience as a reviewer for international institutions, what is your opinion about the current support for art and research projects in Europe?
Many people working in the cultural sphere today, for example in the UK as in many other countries where there have been big funding cuts, groan about these cutbacks. It’s true that arts education and interdisciplinary work are being increasingly pushed into the background as people are steered towards what are purportedly much more work market oriented skill sets. So we are in a grim phase compared to a few years ago. And at the same time, perhaps this period can be seen as one where imaginations and strengths have to pull together more than ever before. Because, perversely but predictably, abundant funding regimes sometimes lead to pockets of autarchy across self sufficient structures, and less need to engage with others. This can generate self perpetuating, self-referential systems. Whereas what appears interesting at the moment – certainly from my perspective, working across a number of European countries and organisations– is the urgency for people whose work requires strong interdisciplinary input to pool resources and energies. Some of the artists who are engaging with this changing landscape – and sometimes in guises that are very different to those associated with more traditional artist postures – are creating striking work. I don’t want this to sound like unbridled optimisim, as I realise that it boils down to a survival strategy, but in some instances people seem to be more openly engaged. For example, among my students at the University, I see a real commitment, considering that a lot of post-graduates are coming back to study after years outside the education system, or having never previously imagined themselves working within it. And so they are bringing a whole wealth of different kinds of experience, and are interestingly stirring up the status quo. They are coming into the academy and changing it from the inside. I am well aware of the problems they face, but at the same time it would be unfortunate if the new dynamics this situation is bringing about were overlooked.
VIDA awards artistic projects that explore the concept of artificial life. How would you define this concept?
That is a key question, to which answers will always be elusive. I think one of the reasons that we cannot definitively define artificial life is that we cannot definitively define life. Because it is a constantly evolving phenomenon, or energy or however you want to qualify it. So what is interesting about the field of artificial life is precisely the fact that it’s inevitably coupled with the ways you define life. So, of course, it’s constantly shifting. What interests me in artificial life is this relationship with a real life that we can’t pin down. I think I’ll leave it there.
Could you describe three projects from previous editions of the VIDA awards that have been, in your opinion, particularly interesting?
My answer may be a little bit biased because I tend to focus on work that I was closely witness to during the juries that I was lucky enough to have served on. For me a work like Novus Extinctus by Transnational Temps (VIDA 4.0) was amazing. I reference that work a lot because it is a concatenation of so many different crucial issues: the proliferation of domain names as a kind of counterpart to the extremely rapid and disturbing extinction of natural species. It is an astonishing piece of work.
In a similar vein, although its physical implementation is extremely different, Haruki Nishijima’s Remain in Light (VIDA 4.0), treats analogue signal as a sort of biological entity. If you went out with a “butterfly net” type recording apparatus in the streets of Tokyo, and captured analogue signals, then you could take them back to the gallery space and release them as “fireflies” – dancing spots of light and colour. There’s a poetics to that. It’s a kind of artwork that lets people freely ask “what does it mean?”, and it’s actually quite simple to explain the fact that these “fireflies” are in fact the analogue signals that are going to disappear from our technological horizon within the next few years. There’s a very simple story and a powerful message about our technological evolution, which Remain in Light puts across memorably and movingly.
There was an early video piece by Victor Liu called Turn All Things (VIDA 5.0) where he took a bunch of film footage and subjected it to automated editing processes and then presented the resultant films as artworks. Watching those works as a jury was very strange, because while we could intellectually grasp coherence in the pattern recognition processes employed –Liu worked with basic, bottom-up parameters– there was something unfathomable about the way these images were put together. They were uncannily non-human and disturbing, yet fascinating.
One of my favourites is Howse and Kemp’s AP0201 (VIDA 8.0), the three monoliths in the Mohave desert that generate their own code and probably didn’t live for very long. It is great that a company like Telefónica, one of the world’s communication leaders, awarded a major prize to these totally solipsist things in the desert, in the middle of nowhere, that don’t have any networkable coordinates but are creating their own communications world. This was oddly and agreeably redeeming.
I already mentioned Gilberto Esparza’s work, and his Plantas Nómadas (Nomadic Plants, VIDA 13.0), is another stunning project that addresses environmental questions. All these works I’m citing provide cognitive handles that allow people to engage with them, they offer simple yet deeply poetic reflection on subjects that people can confidently engage with and talk about. That’s their power. And then there’s the sheer craftmanship that we’ve seen… I’m not talking about technological virtuosity here, I’m talking about artistic craftmanship, as in Paula Gaetano Adi’s Alexitimia, (VIDA 9.0) which is a beautifully conceptualised and constructed project. Then there was a stunning robotic piece called Zoanthroid by Felix Hardmood Beck (VIDA 13.2) a few years ago. Perhaps it doesn’t say so much in terms of sophisticated A-Life theory but it certainly tells us a lot about the vain, naive, and/ or admirable pursuits of humans trying to craft something inspired by the unbelievably intricate and sophisticated natural processes that surround us and that we are a part of.
Do you foresee any emerging subjects or technology that may be present in VIDA 15.0?
I’ll leave that one for September… I’m sure we will have wonderful surprises. If we’re not surprised, there’s something wrong. Then again, that can happen in real life too…