Nell Tenhaaf is among the pioneering artists whose work has explored, since the late 1980s, the cultural implications of biotechnologies and of Artificial Life. She has exhibited her work across Canada, the United States and Europe. Professor in the Visual Arts department of York University in Toronto, Canada, she combines her artistic projects with her work as a researcher and academic. Co-founder and jury Chair for the VIDA Art and Artificial Life International Awards since their inception, Tenhaaf was interviewed last year on the occasion of the VIDA 15.0 Awards. Coinciding with her involvement in VIDA 16.0, we now focus on her privileged perspective of the development of art, science and technology over the last two decades.
Since the mid-1990s you have developed a body of work that focuses on our interaction with digital media and the relations that stem from it. Given that technology has changed so drastically during the last two and a half decades, in which ways have these changes impacted in your work?
My overall answer is that the strong driver in my work has not been the adoption of new technologies themselves, although I was an early adopter at the outset of my practice. Rather, I have searched out a conceptual space that allows for several threads to be interwoven, e.g. subjective/objective knowledge, art as critique of dominant structures, feminism, and particular pockets of science/technology research that interest me. There were two significant turning points in my work heading out of the mid-1980s. First, I had been exploring various kinds of technological media since the beginning of that decade, such as the Telidon videotex system that we could get access to in Canada. With that system I made some proto-WWW works, and it developed my thinking about interactive structures at a very early point in time. I also worked at that time with a rather breakthrough 3D animation system in Montréal, on a huge mainframe computer at the Université de Montréal – just using wireframe, which I found really beautiful (one of the people using the same system at that time for animated film went on to found Softimage, Daniel Langlois).
By the late 1980s I was tired of being driven by these technological explorations, I wanted to be driven thematically. That’s when I turned to genetics and biotechnology as the binding force in my work, topics that in their mainstream form, presented almost as panaceas to the public, I perceived art as more or less up against. Subsequently, by the mid-1990s I decided to no longer aim for a critique of science in any way. Rather, I had discovered ALife by then and felt I could embrace much of what it was doing and stood for: a whole-systems approach; what seemed potentially like a reconciliation of nature and technology; the topic you mention, i.e., relations between humans and our technological artifacts; and at first, the possibility to translate concepts from that area using relatively simple means, e.g. light as a dynamic material. So I was deliberately a bit oblivious to technology changes throughout the 1990s. For example, VR was a huge thing in art in the first half of that decade, and I ended up participating in that on a very conceptual and even organizational level, because I was recognized as someone conversant with art and technology. Yet my work remained pretty low-end technologically until the millennial turnover. Why was that? Resistance to the speed of change probably. For someone deeply interested in new technologies I’m usually slow to adopt, I think because of a strong tendency to contemplation and because I am always interested in instability, incompleteness, failure. It was really an attraction to the “social intelligence” side of ALife and AI research in the mid-1990s that generated a strong desire to address those topics in my work, for which I needed to get back into interactive methods so as to set up exchanges between human and machine. Interactivity opens a huge door in a practice, I think, at least it did in mine. It pushed me to become much more adept both computationally and with electronics. When I really embraced that path around 2000 it was still quite specialized and unusual in art, whereas now it has blossomed into a familiar form not just in museums and galleries, but in public space.
You have stated that A-life art calls into question the boundary between the living and the non-living, and leads us into thinking about our relationships with the objects that surround us. Would you say that we are increasingly accepting the possibility of establishing an emotional relationship with these artificial agents? Are we living in the “robotic moment”, as Sherry Turkle states?
There are some interesting paradoxes related to this zone of questioning. A key one is that the more we aim for transparency of mediation, i.e., to no longer sense the technology that enables a direct online contact or an immersive experience or empathy for a digital agent, the more we are actually mediating. For example, for a truly immersive experience a person has to be literally enveloped in some kind of suit that gathers body data. So I have come to think that yes, we have emotional relationships with artificial things, but no, we don’t become totally susceptible to roboticized realtionships. Of course there is a lot of important critique about online vulnerability for kids and others, I don’t underplay that. But overall humans adapt – so if there are more social relations with computational things, then our brains develop the capacity to understand those relationships for what they are.
Meanwhile in the research world core concepts such as anthropomorphism and entrainment are studied, and give us always more subtle language to talk about mediation when there appears to be little mediation, or when it appears to be applicable universally but is different for every person. This reminds me that I didn’t at all embrace what I and others called ALife “critters,” back in the 1990s, the cute digital instantiations of agents that looked creature-like. Although I still use only very abstract kinds of representations of agents in my own work, I’ve since changed my thinking because in the intervening time the cute ones have become a powerful socially complex language that conjoins people in play and imagination. I think they invoke very strong emotional relationships, but no one mistakes them for the family cat.
Lo-fi is a collaborative research project developed over a period of five years (2005 to 2010) in which you worked with a team in developing several A-life interactive artworks. How would you describe the goals and the process of creating these art works, considering the relatively long time span and the conditions of a jointly funded, multidisciplinary project? Are these art works, as the outcome of a research project, different from any other interactive art work that may be seen in a museum or art gallery?
My main collaborator and I wrote a whole article about that a few years ago, since the project was just as complex as you describe. I’ll try to summarize here. The two artworks were very different from each other. The first work, Push/Pull, conveys the feel of a long process with several prototype stages and a collaborative emergent goal. The sculpture itself has always felt like a research object, both during the building and in exhibition. When people ask what it’s about, since it appears to have no core concept that comes forward as its premise, I usually say that it is about the experience that it invokes for the participant. It’s very self-reflexive, and ultimately seems to be a kind of “pure” interface that mediates between kinetic input and abstract output. I hope that doesn’t sound too evasive as a description. My main collaborator, computer science researcher Melanie Baljko, and I were deeply invested in the idea of co-construction of the artwork’s meaning with the interactant. And we were also very allergic to the sense of a conventional, functional interface in the HCI sense. There is a wonderful article on the Lo-fi project called “Matrices of Embodiment: Rethinking Binary and the Politics of Digital Representation” by Cadence Kinsey, that says “the new metaphorical space that [this] work enables the digital to inhabit is … the space of failure, misinterpretation, and potentiality.”
At the same time, perhaps because it was such a long process, Push/Pull feels like it isn’t “finished” yet, and I plan to re-program it one day soon. I actually hope to make it even more self-reflexive, so that there is even less impetus for the participant to think about the creators’ goal, but instead feel more immersed in their own process. The second work, WinWin is a much more gallery-ready work. We definitely took everything we’d learned and pumped it into the second piece, and I began this piece with the more usual conceptual approach of identifying a core theme, which is that the viewer is both controller and controlled.
For more than two decades, you have worked on interactive art works which, besides communicating a specific idea, invite the viewer to adopt an active role by touching, speaking or moving, and therefore establish a dialogue with the artwork. In your experience, have viewers’ reactions changed over the years? Is the viewer more used to adopt the role of an interactor nowadays?
I think that the answer here is definitely yes, although a lot of subtleties about how that works for people I think are addressed in the question above. For WinWin, I post a short statement in the gallery saying that the work will likely thwart viewers’ expectations about interactivity. I want to help them out a bit, have them know to expect that their first impulse (which is usually to treat the handheld interface as a game controller and move it rapidly) is something they should reconsider. But I’m generally a big fan of inviting viewers to plunge in and figure it out for themselves, which these days many people really enjoy. They’re used to it from the Kinect and the rest of the gaming sphere.
Based on your experience, which are the main advantages and disadvantages of developing an artistic project in the context of a scientific research lab? What advice would you give to an artist who starts a residency in a lab?
There are many kinds of research lab, and there are many levels of familiarity that artists would go in with. There always has to be a bridge across the disciplines that is built and nurtured. I recently spoke with a colleague at another university in Ontario, my province, who admits that she would have had a very difficult time establishing her wet lab without a university scientist on her team.
For a residency, all of the protocols needed would be set up already but I think that the core requirement remains of really knowing a lot about the area, no matter what it is! The artist needs to be a very strong amateur in whatever domain they’re interested in, to be able to build the bridge through reading science articles, going to conferences, meeting scientists and other artists working in the area.
Artists working with science and technology have more often found their work ascribed to the context of digital art festivals or science and technology museums than art museums and galleries. Why do you think that there is a separation between new media art and contemporary art? Is this gap being bridged?
The separation that you describe is a circumstance that I think bothers many new media artists. There are practical issues that are part of the answer, i.e., the difficulty for galleries and museums to keep technically complex works operating. But it’s more than that. I find myself quoting people here, because I’ve written (although not published) about this issue. For example, American art critic Claire Bishop has rather notoriously said that the digital is code and inherently alien to human perception. Much discussed online, and with all due respect to Bishop as an important theorist, that comment just freaks me out. It’s like saying that math or physics, or medicine for that matter, are inherently alien. I know that people struggle with the STEM world (science, technology, engineering, math) but you would think that any public commentator would think twice before branding and refusing it, exposing their own fears really.
Another interesting comment is by UK theorists Beryl Graham and Sarah Cook, who say that “new media starts from the problematic taxonomic starting point of being labeled ‘not art’ because it is identified as popular culture or activism or science or design or technology.” That seems very true to me, and accounts for an originating point of the “separate world” syndrome that we now seem to be stuck with. The 2012 Artforum special anniversary issue “Art’s New Media” that Bishop published her remarks in also revisits Jack Burnham’s famous 1970 exhibition “Software: information technology: its new meaning for art” at the Jewish Musuem in New York. The impression is that the artworld never got over the fact that the technology in that show was big and kind of threatening, and moreover, much of it didn’t work.
Recent awards such as the Ars Electronica Visionary Pioneers of Media Art and the Prix Net Art, which recognize the work of groundbreaking artists, have faced some criticism due to the fact that younger artists were nominated alongside pioneers with a long career. Do you think that these awards should be focused on those artists whose work has been overlooked during the last decades, or should younger, emerging artists also compete?
I am personally fine with any artist being recognized for significant work in these areas. But hopefully all worthy artists get recognition of one kind or another, in the whole big range that is available from such public prizes to academic articles that arise from the work of young researchers. It seems obvious that with the numbers of practicing artists today there has to be some filtering out, some triaging, along the way that brings different kinds of recognition to different kinds of artists.
Have you considered the preservation of your artworks? Which are the main challenges in preserving interactive artworks? Is technology more “stable” now than in the 1990s, in terms of preservation? Should we assume that some digital art works have a limited life span and, as performance art, will be either remembered as documentation or reenacted in the future?
To me you have captured the answer here, to the last part of the questions. There will definitely be many interactive media works that are preserved only in some form of documentation. And then the format of that documentation has to be kept up to date itself, it’s a kind of mise-en-abyme. I like to keep computers and electronics that run a particular work packed up with that work, I think that is about the best one can do in terms of future display or preservation. I know artists who already can’t find electronic replacement parts for older electronic media works that are already in collections, they simply don’t exist anymore, and I haven’t heard solutions for that other than rebuilding. It’s very very challenging.