Crossings and Currents: An Interview with Margot Lovejoy
by Evelin Stermitz, May 2009
Margot Lovejoy is a multi-disciplinary artist, born in Canada, studied in France and England, moved to New York with her husband and three children in the late sixties and completed her studies at the Pratt Institute. She is now Professor Emerita, Visual Arts at SUNY Purchase and author of “Digital Currents: Art in the Electronic Age” (Routledge 2004). She has received many grants over time including a Guggenheim Fellowship, the Gregory Millard Fellowship and an Arts International Grant as well as several NYSCA awards. Her work has been shown in New York at MoMA and the Whitney Biennial, as well as internationally at ZKM, Karlsruhe, Germany and the Reina Sofia Museum, Madrid, Spain, amongst others. The installation aspect of her new website and installation project CONFESS is currently exhibited at the Neuberger Museum of Art (Purchase, NY) until the end of July 2009.
Evelin Stermitz: In your recent web based installation you are inviting the audience to confess! Could you describe your project of secrets?
Margot Lovejoy: The CONFESS art project is a participatory on-line group therapy project as well as an archive of personal narratives. You submit your story anonymously either online or speaking by phone via a voice filtered system. You are able to hear confessions of others and explore them through different filters such as themes, age, gender, key words, and comments. The text based narratives are translated into sound using TTS software.
As an installation, it’s a dramatic circular whispering space of hanging audio sculptures. Participants pull down these confess shapes and listen to the narratives. They can then go to the confess kiosk to where they can submit their own confessions anonymously either by phone or online and explore a database of others’ confessions sorted by the seven themes: secrets, temptation, failures, betrayal, hate, violence, extremes. http://confess-it.com
E.S: Is there a personal inducement behind this work? What was your inspiration for CONFESS?
M.L: It’s the underside of my earlier 2002 web and installation project TURNS (http://myturningpoint.com) about submitting the narrative of a major turning point that changed your life. In relation to this work, I wanted to explore the part of your life you don’t tend to talk about.
On another level, I see the personal as political. As a result, much of my work has to do with using new communication potential as a means for reaching out to find ways of understanding the personal, through sharing, and tackling awareness of the major problems we all face. For example, domestic violence is a hidden world-wide human rights violation. We have laws to prevent it, but it is still perpetrated all the way from Afghanistan to families near you or even to local Catholic priests. After years of abuse, we have recently broken the silence in some regards. Some aspects of my work, whether it’s an installation, an interactive project, or an artist book, may touch on these kinds of issues in different ways. Examples are ANAMNESIA, the return of memory (1993); SALVAGE, seeking the lost (1998); and THE BOOK OF PLAGUES (1994), dealing with current panic, blame, indifference to each new pandemic such as AIDS.
E.S: Your interest in digital means for creating art works has been part of your practice for many years - since the early 1980’s. How did you become engaged in the use of Digital Media?
M.L.: I've always been interested in research and experimentation. My development as a digital artist grew out of conceptual mixed media work in printmaking, photography and artist’s books in the seventies. Printmaking attracted me more than other traditional media at the time because the process allowed me to think about different forms of representation from many points of view. I was also involved with the fluidity of photography. I began to project drawings and high contrast photographic imagery used in separating levels of color in my prints. This led to my first installation in 1985. From then on, I moved from the print medium to the challenging area of projection installations.
I bought my first computer in 1982. Soon after, I received my first grant from Siggraph for a project which included programmed slide projections and sound. In time, I became more and more involved with art and technology issues in my work and wrote my first book – "Postmodern Currents: Art and Artists in the Age of Electronic Media" (UMI Press, 1989). Over several years, the research and writing of this text about the impact of technology on art became a major influence on my own development as an artist.
E.S.: How do theory and technology come together in your works?
M.L.: I explored the major shift in representation which took place when photography’s tonal structure was superseded by digital means with its potential for total image manipulation and control. This shift opened up a vital new area of investigation that brought my work into connection with the visual language of film, and included sound, movement, multiple images, text and aspects of sculpture.
Influenced by film theory, I began to use montage as a major principle in my work. Film-maker Sergei Eisenstein had described montage as a theory of visual relationships wherein vital missing information (significance or meaning that could not be contained in an actual single picture) is hidden in the relational space between two or more contrasting images. Here I found a kind of structural tension which generates thinking and questioning, resulting in a dynamic form of communication because the spectator must participate in discovering meaning by lining up split screens to gauge the gap between the images. This fascination with audience interaction and communication has stayed with me since then and became fundamental to my contemporary work in digital media. Today, I see my work as a developmental continuum crossing over in using media as a medium to where I am now – creating digitally-based works which rely fundamentally on participation and communication. However, I also continue to use the digital as a tool to experiment in creating artists books and photographs.
E.S.: Socio-cultural aspects and feminist issues are formalized in your media installations and other digital works. Which of these are your main concerns and how do you approach their artistic articulation?
M.L.: The content of my work expanded dramatically from the mid eighties. This time period created an environment that allowed for sharing and researching and became a way of gaining insight about deeply felt social issues I wished to interpret and dramatize for others. These thematic issues now moved me from formal issues about representation which had defined my earlier work’s content and led me to influences from mythology, anthropology, history, feminist and postmodern theory.
An example from this period is my LABYRINTH project (1988), a multimedia projection in three rooms that explores the power of the media to create false consciousness by controlling cultural identity. As a gender related work, it asked questions about the roles of the observer and the observed and the power relations between them. It deals with the way we are perceived by others, and how cultural constructs and stereotypes control our feelings about ourselves. Surveillance cameras followed viewers through a labyrinthian structure to the main viewing area, which contained five contrasting screens with moving images and sound. This project also resulted in my artist’s book of the same title. Over time, I’ve created other projects based on issues such as STORM FROM PARADISE (1999), on the issue of the wounds of time, then BLACK BOX (1992), on the agenda of the environment, and PARTHENIA (1995), on the theme of domestic violence.
E.S.: Could you tell more about your work PARTHENIA. What impact did it have? What responses did you get on this critical theme?
M.L.: With the support of the Queens Museum, I received the 1994 Arts International grant to India. As part of the grant requirements, I worked with Sakhi, a domestic violence group established by the Indian diaspora operating in New York. We discussed issues and focussed on the requirements needed for the exhibition and workshops in the Queens Museum when I returned from Madras three months later. There I travelled and met with several active domestic violence groups in India, went to courts, studied the culture and gathered imagery and ideas. I worked with a dance group there, creating the choreography and directing the dancers. I videotaped the dance imagery needed to create the two channel video projections for the final project. I felt the work should be a memorial to the victims of domestic violence. I chose the title “Parthenia” which relates to “She who alone generates herself and the universe”.
On my return, I again met with Sakhi. We discussed workshops to be held during the exhibition and how we could find participants. The first idea we had was to draw slogans and images on walls within the city (as was being done in Bangalore, India). But this was too difficult to organize – so, with the museum’s help, I created a mail-in brochure with a space for participatory drawings and writings that were sent out around the country. More than a hundred arrived and were fastened to the walls of the memorial. The exhibition attracted a large audience. Workshops and lectures augmented interest as well as did many reviews in local newspapers.
Because I wanted very much to reach a wider audience and to bring the memorial to the attention of the UN Women’s Conference taking place in Bejing at that time, I began to create my first website with the simple HTML tools available. The website could not only help break the silence to a larger audience, but it could also provide statistics and resources for abuse victims – a means not available within the structure of the installation. The site continues to be in service. http://parthenia.com
E.S.: How did the internet shape your works and what are your main considerations using the web as an artistic media and as part of larger projects?
M.L: I was immediately interested in the community based potential of the web as a participatory medium rather than just a tool. I thought of a website as a means to connect with a wide audience and allow interaction of participants to share knowledge and ideas. Sharing something of themselves in the project, participants become collaborators. While I continued to create projection installations such as the complex interactive multi-user installation SALVAGE 1999 (which made use of new software and programming techniques), I was not satisfied with the level of participation, response, and meaningfulness to be derived from these works. It was not until I began to produce TURNS, beginning in 2001, when web technology had become far more advanced, that we were able to fully develop a comprehensive system for word filtering and for uploading images, a means of engaging contributors to more dynamically evolve and respond through submitting their own narratives or drawings. http://myturningpoint.com
E.S: How would you describe the involved influence or reciprocity in articulating and realizing your artistic interrogation?
M.L: Using digital media as a medium signals a willingness to relinquish the traditions of authorship. For example, when I started to design TURNS as a fully participatory experience - one that privileges the experience of the audience over the artist’s intentions, I was essentially becoming more of an ethnographer creating a “frame” of context. I realized this kind of community based system could utilize processes of exchange, learning, and adaptation. I understood they are built on the premise that meaning in a work of art is dependent on communication between individuals and groups. These systems provide a context for participants to reflect on their personal understandings about their own social and political contexts and to share these with others.
E.S.: Do you think of your work as public art? Do you regard art as part of life as did John Cage and the Fluxus Movement in the 70’s?
M.L.: Yes, I regard my media work as a form of public art because, on the whole, it has become not only participatory but accessible to a wide audience in powerful new ways. Whereas the only way participation takes place in experiencing traditional art objects such as a painting or sculpture has been simply to interpret the artwork on the level of an individual understanding.
The Fluxus movement in the seventies played with the social role of art and pulled people away from galleries and theatre environments to familiar alternative locations more related to their own lifestyles using simple found materials for creating artworks and events. John Cage also redirected audiences to be aware of participation in the creative process.
Today there is no doubt that technological advances are opening the potential for creative action to everyone with a computer. Access to creative tools for all users leads us to think of Joseph Beuys’ concept of “Social Sculpture” – that any person can become creatively active. By stating his provocative and often misunderstood statement that each person is an artist, he did not mean that everyone is a painter or a sculptor. Rather, he expressed the belief that every individual possesses a form of creative power.
E.S.: What do you think about New Media Art in a theoretical context and current frame?
M.L.: I have been very influenced by the essays of Water Benjamin regarding technological change. In his essay “The Author as Producer” (1934), he described the major recasting of artistic forms and authorial roles that were being challenged. He emphasized the social function of art. He urged artists to be aware of the potential of new technologies and to position themselves not only in terms of their responsibility to a wide public but also with regard to their power to create meaningful work that could reverberate within society. In this essay, he asked: What is the relation of a work to the modes of production of its time? What is its position in them? Does it merely supply a system that already exists without changing or transforming it? Benjamin asked those using new technologies to choose a production medium that could induce others to participate: “An apparatus is better the more consumers it is able to turn into producers, that is … spectators into collaborators”. Other theorists have made us think further. Bakhtin discusses the dialogic imagination; Bourriaud, relational aesthetics; Deleuz leads us to think of issues which are focused less on what art is and more on what it can do.
Within this very time frame, we are experiencing the community based net systems famously as Facebook, Twitter, and MySpace plus Blogs that are, in many ways, transforming social and cultural life with the current new means of communication.
There is a greater need for art than ever before. New forms of artwork such as environmental, biological, and community projects are being developed due to the continuing advances in technology. Art is taking on new forms and aesthetic characteristics as a result of database potential to make powerful new works such as those of Krzysztof Wodiczko, and Jenny Holzer.
E.S: What about the possibility of creating a new different hyper space on the net with its digital tools? Or has it already commonly failed, because of its origin?
M.L.: The internet has already become a parallel world to an amazing degree, with similar aspects of rights and wrongs we experience in the real world – It’s capable of both public manipulation as well as being a provider of public knowledge and development. We often hear mention that we are only in the earliest stages of its development. However, the incredible speed of development we are dealing with at the moment is overwhelming us - destroying such media as television, newspapers and magazine, and forcing the end of many traditional media. Yet it’s proof that we have entered territory of amazing potential and hope for global progress in the long run. Questions arise about censorship and commerce. So far, there has been resistance to censorship of the internet except for some countries such as China… It is, however, becoming ever more commercialized and there is pressure to pay for access to it.
Basically, we need to remember that only a fraction of the world population has access to computers. It is still difficult to predict how we will develop globally in terms of the existing political and economic conditions (and the endless threat of nuclear war). Due to the economic crisis of the moment, will we ever plan to travel again to the moon or go to Mars? Seen in this context, Hyper Space may loose some of its appeal for a time…
E.S.: More women are involved in Media and New Media Art nowadays, how do you view this gendered ratio?
M.L.: Within our context, at this time, research shows that many North American and European women have made enormous advances in society since the 1970’s, and have now challenged men’s abilities in gaining the highest degrees at universities. At the same time, digital use has helped to transform process in every discipline from science to the humanities. Of course, women have been extremely interested in the potential of new technologies such as the Internet. However, in general, their interest in developing technological art works tend to be different from wide-spread male fascination with gaming and the development of (sometimes) violent video projects. On the whole, women tend to be more interested in content such as environmental issues, community, identity and social issues. – They tend, like pioneer artist Lynn Hershman, to explore new technologies so as to imagine and create new data based original art works and films, while using the same new technological developments as their male counterparts.