Josephine Bosma on 25 Jan 2001 12:38:27 -0000

[Date Prev] [Date Next] [Thread Prev] [Thread Next] [Date Index] [Thread Index]

[Nettime-bold] interview with Prema Murty

Prema Murty is one of the founders of the Brooklyn New York based
performance group Fakeshop. Fakeshop are well known for their
performances in which a poetic use of the CUseeme software and
environment is most striking. Other Fakeshop members have been fellow
founder Jeff Gompertz, Eugene Thacker and Ricardo Dominguez. The
interview concentrates first of all on the effects and experiences of
CUseeme performance. After that Prema Murty explains why she left
Fakeshop and why she has decided to make a video documentary about women
working in computer hardware factories in Asia. 


JB: What is your background, and how did you start working with the net?

Prema Murthy: I come from art history and women studies background in
college. I did not start making art work until I moved to New York from
Texas. I began working with an inventor. He developed algorhythms for
large format digital printing systems. At the same time I also started
to perform with an art group called Floating Point Unit, which consisted
of Jeff Gompertz, Vlasto Mikic and myself. That is pretty much when I
started making art and started using the computer to do it. With the
group we started to work with CUseeme as remote participation device.
This was back in '94. Especially in New York it was very unusual, people
did not understand what we were doing and why. We continued to work with
this video conferencing software as an aesthetic device as well as a way
to bring in audience members that were online. We would broadcast from
these installations we would do in abandoned sites. Meat lockers,
warehouses. My kind of area of speciality was performance and activating
these installations either through choreographed performance or through
prodding audience members to kind of join in chatting on CUseeme, or
working with the camera, creating different views of the body. From the
beginning I always felt comfortable using the computer for my artistic
expression. I am not exactly sure why. It always just felt more
comfortable to do that as opposed to holding a paintbrush in my hand or
drawing. I don't know if it is a by-product of my generation...

JB: Would you announce the performance, and then you would have a
gathering crowd in front of whom you would perform? Would you prepare it
beforehand with the people on CUseeme?

PM: We definitely would set up collaborators that were at different
locations around the world. We got them through word of mouth and just
posting on the website. Through press the url was kind of let out to the
public sphere, but it was definitely very underground i would say. Not a
lot of people would participate. It is very hard to make people
participate unknowingly in our installations.

JB: Unknowingly? Not knowing they were part of an art project you mean?
Was the idea behind it that people would come into it innocently,
without knowing they became part of an artproject?

PM: From the beginning we used CUseeme software, which is a very low
tech video conferencing software. It is used for pretty mondane
purposes. It is usually people in universities chatting about the
weather, their preferences and how to deal with the technology. For us
it was an interesting context to instigate an artistic element into this
mundane environment and get people to play along with what we were
doing. One of the devices that I really love and that has had a big
effect on participation is the chat with collaborators around the world
but also where the installation was built. We would ask people to chat
'stream of consciousness', 'exquisite corpse' style on topics that
ranged from bio piracy, genetic copyright to whatever the installation
happened to be about. It was interesting to see that as soon as we
instigated that kind of level of chatting into this mundane atmosphere,
people would stop doing what they were doing and start getting
interested in what we were chatting about. They would respond back and
they would create this very beautiful hypertextual naratives, almost
'exquisite corpse' style. The surrealist game where they would draw
something, fold the paper and someone would add to it unknowingly and it
would create this work of art. We are using chat in the same way. 
Floating Point Unit was a group that lasted for about two years. Jeff
Gompertz and I broke off from that and founded Fakeshop together. We got
a warehouse space in Brooklyn partly out of the reason that we were
tired to move our equipment from abandoned location to abandoned
location and deal with phonelines and setting up from scratch for a one
night or a one week thing... We decided to have this warehouse so we
could just house all our equipment there and have people come to us.
Over time Eugene Thacker, who is a Phd candidate right now (he is
writing a lot about bio genetics and science fiction theory) he
eventually joined the group. That was around 1996. Sice then we managed
to do some pretty large scale projects. One was the Multiple Dwelling
piece that we did at Ars Electronica last year, and this year we were
included in the Whitney Biennial. The website was in the Whitney
Biennial. In conjunction with that we again occupied a warehouse and
created an installation with all the same elements: performance, sound,
video conferencing..

JB: You are going a bit too fast now I think. Let me try to slow you
down. There are two questions that come into my mind now. The first one
has to do with these first two years, where you said that your work was
not really understood. Does that also include the (live) audience, did
they not understand? Do you have the feeling that the thrill that you,
as a performer, got being part of this, let's say, artwork that was not
just created by you but which was made in an interaction with others...
could I describe it like that?

PM: Definitely.

JB: Was your excitement shared by the audience? Was it shared in a
different way? Can you describe it?

PM: Definitely. Our work was not aways presented in the context of a
gallery. Already right there it sets the audience questioning: what
exactly are you doing, is it a party? Are you doing experiments in
public and we are just voyeurs? Are we part of the experiment? There
were a lot of interesting questions coming up. For the most part a lot
of the audience came because they knew that we threw a good party. There
was that interaction of a gathering. On the other hand people were very
interested in what we were doing with this technology. They would be
very curious and excited seing it used in an artistic way. And that this
technology is something they can easily have access because it is free
software. On that level people were very excited about us using these
tools for art. The more sort of established art people would walk into
the space and they would have no clue. Especially in America it is all
about marketing: How do you sell this? How does this work into the
gallery system? They were definitely the most confused people and they
still are, even to this day. Even at the Whitney Biennial. They decided
to include net art and it was a complete disaster. Their presentation
was completely wrong. They did not have an understanding. The curators
had no historical background on net art. It is really a shame that
America is so far behind to what is happening in Europe.

JB: Well, it is not that ideal here either. But to my second question,
or actually two other questions. Let us continue about the audience for
a while. Now that it has developed do you think the audience has changed
in the way it looks at you because the technology you use is much more
common or is it more or less the same?

PM: Judging by feed back that I have got from people who come up to us
after seeing something that we do.  They are beginning to understand it
now. They are beginning to see the links between what we are trying to
do and maybe how it could be based in, say, the Fluxus movement or
actions or happenings. They are beginning to see a context for it,
linked historically to other movements that have happened before. But I
think it has taken them a while to see pixels and even an interface as
art. I think definitaly now that people are much more exposed to digital
work and net art, there is Rhizome and there is discussions about it,
they are able to see it more as an artpiece instead of a party or an

JB: Do you have an online audience? Do you get feedback from there?

PM: The online audience has really developed for us. The last project we
did, it was called 'human use of human beings', based on a Norbert
Weiner book about cybernetics from around 1950, had an interesting by
product. After the last show was over the installation was torn down,
but we kept the computers running with CUseeme on it. We were using a
reflectorsite at the university of Japan so a lot of the participants
were asian (also from around the world of course). It was interesting
what happened. They would go back, they would refer to our website, the
url, they would take texts from it, texts Eugene Thacker had written,
copy them and go back to CUseeme and past it in. There were discussions,
people would respod to that... To me that level of participation, to
actually switch browsers, go to the website and then come back to
CUseeme and instigate their own conversations based on texts we had
written: I had never seen that before. It was going on for weeks after
our installation, in all languages. It was really exciting for me to see
the audience being international and being so motivated. 

JB: To go back to the early CUseeme environment that you kind of 
invaded in 1994: I am not sure if  I can maybe compare that to what
Scanner has been doing and still does when he plugs into the airwaves
and uses existing phonecalls from people in sound art pieces... You are
using peoples private, innocent moments (maybe not entirely, because
they are on CUseeme where basically anyone can plug in) , where they
don't know they are part of a audience exhibition. Did you get any
comments on that, or how do you feel about that? 

PM: Voyeurism and surveillance on the internet has been a concept we
like toying with. People who are on CUseeme know they are being watched.
They have placed the camera in front of their face or in front of
whatever, their room... in a sense they let you come into their space.
For us to use that in an aesthetic device to talk about surveilance and
also to talk about just how in this day and age we are all being watched
... I don't know how to describe it... I think nowadays people are much
more aware of the lens being on them at all times. It could be a
metaphor for just being constantly on all the time. Especially in
NewYork. Everybody is always trying to be in the public eye. For us it
is like: anybody can be in the public eye. Someone in Idaho can be part
of this New York scene. Their faces projected up in the space. They
become an artwork in itself. I don't know if that answers it. 

JB: In what sense were the Fakeshop projects different from the Floating
Point Unit projects, if they were different at all?

PM: Floating Point Unit was definitely a hybrid party art kind of thing,
much more casual and social. Not like a rave. With Fakeshop we really
wanted to raise the level, take all the elements we had been using and
really raise the artistic focus. We made an effort to present that work
within an art context. So there would not be so much confusion, and that
people would take it more seriously and come to it with a headspace of
trying to get something out of it. I don't know how succesful it is.
People still look at us like we still have that party past. 

JB: Was it also a way to get better funding?

PM: For the most part up until now we have self produced and self
funded. We have not gotten any grants for anything we have ever done.
Maybe we got travel fares to go to a festival or a small budget to
produce something at a festival. We put our own money into it. It is
frustrating. That kind of strategy for me is frustrating. 

JB: You have been doing your own projects next to Fakeshop. Why did you
start your own projects and what were they? Could you not do this work
in Fakeshop?

PM: One thing I have learned about collaborating is that it works when
there is not too much overlap in peoples duties and roles. Because in
that case you get a lot of struggles and a lot of ego battles. You are
sharing too much territory. For the most part in Fakeshop I was kind of
the person who took care of the performative element and the live sound.
Eugene Thacker is more of a writer. He was very good at adding a textual
element to it. Jeff Gompertz has been the person dealing with the
imagery, the video. For me a big part of why I have left is that I
consider myself a visual artist over a choreographer, over a sound
artist. There was too much tension with me trying to have my aesthetic
vision be part of Fakeshop. Up until now Jeff has been the one defining
the aesthetic of Fakeshop. On some levels I completely agree with this
aesthetic, but it is not my contribution in the group. I was a little
frustrated with that. Also conceptually I am really finding myself more
inspired to deal with ideas of technology and how it is effecting women
and especially women in the third world or south asian women. That is
too politicized for what Fakeshop has done so far. What Fakeshop is good
at is creating an environment, creating a mood, very cinematic, a
feeling. For me that is a little too vague. I want to do that, but also
speak about something that needs to be spoken about. I think it is
really important to have research being done and artwork being made
about different ideas as opposed to science fiction or films. 

JB: So what have you done?

PM: One project I did two years ago was called Bindi Gril. It was part
of an exhibition at the Walker Art Centre. It was a webbased project and
I was toying with the idea of south asians womens identity on the
internet. I was juxtaposing how asian women are presented in this very
two dimensial way through porn sites. I was juxtaposing ideas like that
with ideas of religion and especially eastern religion and how that also
has confined women. I wanted to show how rather then it being a tool for
liberation it is a way of keeping women in their place. I saw analogies
of the internet doing that same thing. When I first started on the
internet I was really excited about ideas of democracy and how identity
did not matter, gender was not an issue... but the more I saw the same
kind of disfunctionalities in society being played out in this virgin
territory I had to comment about it. this site was very tongue in
cheeck, in the form of an amateur porn site. I used myself as the
subject to articulate these ideas of identity and liberation and
questioning the tools like the internet or religious thought in a funny
I have also just completed a video installation. It is not web based at
all. I was working with a programmer developing an interactive
environment with video. 

JB: Your next project will be a video documentary about women in Bombay
working in factories that are making technological products?

PM: What sparked my interest is that I read maybe two years ago reports
coming out of Asia of women that were working in micro electronics
factories, who are piecing these motherboards together, who are at the
same time undergoing collective hallucinations and mass hysteria while
they are on the job. To me that was a really interesting starting point
to discuss how technology is effecting women in Asia. They are the ones
creating this technology for the west to use. I am wondering where our
interests and their experience are intersecting and why these women are
suffering, or if they are suffering at all. I am very interested in
finding out first hand, going to India, speaking with these women, what
is their viewpoint of technology and how it has become a part of their
lives. A lot of these women do not even have running water in their
homes, yet at night they piece together chips. Do they know what they
are used for? I am curious to find out how they are looking at these
objects that they are creating, if there are any taboos that are
attached to it...


Nettime-bold mailing list