Artistic Textual and Performative Paths in New Media Correlations:
An Interview with Annie Abrahams
by Evelin Stermitz, November 2009
Annie Abrahams is a net artist, interweaving net art with collective writing, performance, video, as well as installation. Annie Abrahams works are structured on both digitized hyper and on site realities. She constructs forms of collective writings on the net and reconstructs them into offline perceptions, which leads to creations of net-operas and other web based interventions. This interview offers insights in her artistic practice and in her being human behind a collective intelligence.
Annie Abrahams was born in Hilvarenbeek, the Netherlands, and since 1985 she lives in France. Annie Abrahams holds a doctorate in biology from the University of Utrecht and is a graduate in fine arts from the Academie voor Beeldende Kunsten, Arnhem. Her works are widely discussed and have been exhibited international at institutions such as the National Museum of Modern Art in Tokyo, Armenian Center for Contemporary Experimental Art, Espai d'Art Contemporani de Castelló Spain, and New Langton Arts in San Francisco. Annie Abrahams performed her net pieces at Skuc Gallery in Ljubljana, La Centrale Gallery in Montréal, Centre Pompidou, National Opera of Montpellier, Academy of Fine Arts in Helsinki and many other venues.
Evelin Stermitz:You were one of the early artists using the computer and the Internet in artistic means, how did it begin? How did you experience the Internet as a public space for artistic interrogations?
Annie Abrahams: I started using a computer around 1991 when my friend made me a program to organize the installations in space I made with my 133 chaos painting at the time. When in 1996 I was asked to do a show in a gallery in Nijmegen Holland I quite naturally used email exchange to be present at a distance in the meeting place I created in this gallery. It was at this point that I realized the potential of the Internet for an artist and that I started to create work only accessible / apprehensible via the Internet.
At the time I considered the Internet as a public space of solitude. A place where one isn't meeting the other person, but the image one makes of this other in one's imagination. One contemplates the other in one self. Most of my net art pieces center around computer mediated relations to this other. ?Understanding? http://www.bram.org/beinghuman/underst.htm and I only have my name http://www.bram.org/ident/irc.htm are among the most striking examples of this approach.
E.S.: As fields of thought spaces, you forged the collaboration on "collective writing" which turned to an immense outcome, how did you conceive this artistic textual relations and how did you transform the text material into a digitized hyperspace?
A.A.: My experimentations started in 1999 with Wishes / Voeux http://www.bram.org/wishes/ . This first collective writing project was just a collection of wishes, that I proposed to "stocker, déposer, entreposer, deposit, lodge, gardienage, mise en forme, entretien, surveillance, keeping, conservation, maintenance, caring, storage, stock, shaping". Some of these wishes were chosen to be html-ized either by me or by other volunteering net artists like [anachroma], Takuji Kogo, Tiia Johannson, Christophe Desgouttes, Elise Lefevre, Ted Warnel, Mildred Pierce or Tamara Lai. As html-izing at the time was writing code, this htm-lizing was the second writing layer of the project. A third existed in the possibility to write a personal email, unseen by the others, to an unknown wishing person. Later on, when I learned a bit of perl and php, I started to integrate different constraints in the writing process and to develop time based experiments that resulted not anymore only in collections, but were texts changing over time.
The collective texts, I noticed, are very present at the moment of the participation but become only data on a server or light on a screen afterwards. I wanted to reinvest them with affect and so I started to read them in front of the public, which immediately made evident for instance their oral quality.
E.S.: Since indefinable masses of textual material are existing on the net, do you think that we are able at the moment to cope with all these data and how do you view this mediated artistic work, also in relation to a virtual performative aspect, since your work is interwoven?
A.A.: People hardly ever read the collections. When I talk about them, most people don't even want to consider them as text, let alone literature or poetry. But I am convinced of their intrinsic quality. We just don't have the right tools to judge them by, but this doesn't mean they are not valuable. It is the same as with a lot of new behaviour that develops around computers, networks and virtual reality. We will have to develop new sensibilities and even a new vocabulary, not necessarily textual, to be able to understand these. My performances tend in this direction and try to act out these sensibilities. For instance The Big Kiss http://www.bram.org/toucher/TBK.html , done with Mark River at OTO in New York in 2008, highlights the fact that computer mediated kissing might also be exciting but is, as an experience, much closer to drawing than to actual kissing.
What interests me in my collective writing projects is to unveil the existence of a multiple voice: a voice made up by words of people of all classes and ages. I love watching this stammering beginning of the creation of a language of the multitude.
Reading a collectively written text aloud, passing this text through the body, triggers an increased sensibility for this multitude and is for me the best way to appreciate it.
E.S.: You performed at various festivals, institutions like the opera and also in public spaces, how would you describe the field of your performance pieces and in which aspects are they net performances?
A.A.: A few days ago I was thinking about my actual performance projects and I was struck by it's resemblance with my activities as a scout leader in the sixties. This might make you smile, but actually it makes sense. I was inventing situations where people could discover something new about themselves, for instance when I made a labyrinth for blindfolded scouts, or when I created games and plays I already used protocols to have people interact and pay attention to the other.
For some time I considered all my acts on the Internet as performances in public space. I considered the space as a field of research, as the best place to study human behaviour in its most intimate expressions available to me outside my personal life. Sometimes I got emotionally so involved that I had to find a twist to accept its failures. When the French group of net artists Lieudit (1997 - 1999) were unable to agree on their future for a second time I decided to rework the text of their email exchanges in to a piece of theatre called MailReality "Who's afraid of ? Life in a collective intelligence" http://www.bram.org/special/provitesti/indexang.htm . Of course then again there was no agreement on the rights to this text and I had to do the sole and only reading of this piece behind closed doors.
My performance pieces often have a personal experience that triggers them. Oppera Internettikka Protection et Sécurité http://www.intima.org/oppera/oips/ done with Igor Stromajer in 2006 started because I joked in a mail to Igor (who started the Oppera Internettikka series in 1998 as a way to present net art in public spaces) about wanting to hear him sing html code life and by the time we were preparing the performance for the opera in Montpellier there were violent outbreaks in the suburbs. The All Star Girls Band presenting Peurs / Fears http://www.bram.org/peur/girlsband/ was meant to impress the overall male participants of the E-poetry2007 festival in Paris.
L'un la poupée de l'autre http://www.bram.org/confront/sphere/indexeng.html with Nicolas Frespech can be seen as a gesture that unveils the play, and the perversities that result from it, between proximity and distance in Internet relations in a rather literal way. The performance was done in two tents on the scene of the Centre Pompidou in Paris. The tent and its form, spherical, were important to me because it symbolised my way to produce my way of being in the world. Its protection and its possibilities, but also its fragility and its instability determine my relation to the complex and uncertain world I live in.
E.S.: How do you view your own role as persona in net performances and how are your experiences in collaborations with other performers in one piece, also related to a coded structure?
A.A.: In my performances I have found a way to artistically explore my frustrations, to search my limits and possibilities and to share this with others. Nowadays we can act our fantasies on the Internet with the result that, because they are acted, they stop to be fantasies. We are changing. Our imagination isn't functioning the same now as it was a few years ago. How are these and other changes influencing our way of being?
There is a lot of utopic phrasing about enhanced collaboration via Internet. In my experience it's not that simple. I don't want to decide if it's true or not, I want to experiment its nature, because I am convinced that machine-mediated collaboration dynamics are different from regular ones. In Huis Clos / No Exit http://www.bram.org/huisclos/ , a networked performance project investigating collaboration, I see shifts, interruptions, cuts, flux variations, temporary vacuums and coding errors in and between the images, as the aesthetic materials that will translate the possibilities and the limits of our capacities to be together in a cyberized environment.
E.S.: Another aspect in computational art is the double bond disparity of human being and technical device, could you outline your project "Being Human" and interrelated behaviour of human - machine experiences in your own work?
A.A.: "Being Human" is no really a project. It's more a container word for my net art activities between 1997 and 2008. When I started working on the net, one of its most attractive features was the absence of a contextualising intermediate person between my art and its public. My work was addressing someone, not necessarily looking for art, in front of his or her own computer. This situation made it possible and necessary to ask myself questions as: What do I have in common with this unknown other? What are the common dividers of the human being? The theme stayed with me for some time, but the Internet changed and me too. I became more focussed on the limits and possibilities of especially machine-mediated communication and its consequences on our behaviour.
With hindsight I see that human behaviour was also at the centre of my net art pieces. Suzanne Langer in "Feeling and Form" (1977) wants the third dimension to be the object of the esthetical contemplation of paintings, and movement its object in sculpture. Arjen Mulder in "Understanding Media Theory. Language, Image, Sound, Behavior" made me think that behaviour could be the object of esthetical contemplation in pieces of Internet art. "Every art object contains a virtual feeling, a feeling given form, which through being given form is virtualised and can thereby be actualised again - if not as experience, then as something it is possible to experience", Mulder concludes (UMT, 2004, p. 191).
E.S.: Recently you created a piece about Madness / Folie http://bram.org/folie/index.php , how did you formulate this social issue and how did you merge it with a non-virtual and virtual space?
A.A.: In 2000 I spend 7 weeks in a psychiatric hospital and I was stunned about how one's attitude towards such an institution can change. The moment I crossed the doorstep the environment changed from a hostile into a securizing one. I made the video The Green Oaks http://www.vimeo.com/4724208 about this place that I characterized as one where there are no norms only rules.
When at the beginning of this year I was invited by the CNES La Chartreuse to participate in their lecture performance series during the Avignon theatre festival, and when, while visiting the place, I was proposed a cell where they formerly jailed "crazy" monks as the place for the performance I immediately jumped on the occasion to work again on madness. I started an Internet collection Madness / Folie ? that I used later in the performances If you not me http://aabrahams.wordpress.com/2009/07/03/if-you-not-me/ . In this performance I invited the visitors inside a cell to read aloud the text written by the webpage visitors. But as they were entering this space where there were no norms but only rules, I asked them to obey certain rules and to tend to certain activities as card playing, producing papier maché grips, watching a reassuring video or reading a journal "Tout va bien" (All goes well). Once inside I wasn't leading the game any more, so besides assisting in a reading of a text we also participated in an exercise of auto-organisation.
As to the question "Does madness exist on the internet?" I guess the answer is "no". Internet is a universe with a lot of rules, but no norms? To give a more subtle answer I would need to perform an English spoken version.
E.S.: Your work as a net artist unfortunately affected yourself in bodily diseases, how did it happen that online work and virtual collaboration caused serious health troubles?
A.A.: I don't think online work made me sick. It was more complex. But it is true that my urgent hospitalisation in a psychiatric department was the result of RSI problems, not recognized by the medical corpus. And it is also true that at least partly these Repetitive Strain Injury problems were due to excessive working in front of a computer. I think it had a lot to do with my natural inclination to forget my body. I panicked when someone told me I could forget about working on a computer in the future. The computer and the connexions it made possible were almost all my life and so I became seriously ill. Fortunately this person was wrong. It took a long to time to recover and to learn how to take care of myself, body included. Separation http://www.bram.org/separation/index.htm .
Evelin Stermitz graduated in media and new media art from the Academy of Fine Arts and Design, University of Ljubljana, Slovenia, and she is holding a master's degree in philosophy from media studies. Her works are in the field of media and new media art with the main emphasis on post-structuralist feminist art practices. Beside her artistic work, Evelin Stermitz's research work is focused on women artists in media and new media art. More about her work is published at her personal website http://evelinstermitz.net.