Interview with Nina Sobell

Interview with Nina Sobell

Nina Sobell pioneered the use of video, computers, and interactivity in art; she also pioneered performance on the Web (in collaboration with Emily Hartzell as ParkBench). In 1975 she installed the "Interactive Encephalographic Brainwave Drawing Installation" at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston. Sobell presented "Brainwave Drawings" and "Videophone Voyeur" (1977) at Joseph Beuys' "Free International University" at Documenta 6. She has continued to develop the piece over the years, and is currently working on a piece in which participants will collaborate on Brainwave Drawings internationally, over the Web.

An interview about Nina Sobell's work in media and new media art
by Evelin Stermitz, August 2007, New York, NY.

ES: What was your first approach to media art?

NS: When I was at Cornell University going to graduate school in Sculpture (1969), I created objects that deconstructed from participants' interaction with them. Jud Fine said, why don't you talk to David Shearer, he has video equipment, you could borrow and document this interaction. David Shearer was the librarian for art, architecture and urban planning, he was very helpful giving me access to video equipment. So I worked with the early Sony portapacks and editing equipment. And then after simply documenting the interactions with the objects, I began to think in terms of the video in experience: time, space and memory. I began to think in terms of my works as constructed symbolic pieces, deconstructed through interaction with them. In another words video became an interstitial vehicle, it extended and expanded time and space, which was integral to the sculpture works: both became my first video installation. So I was really interested in creating huge sculptures, that were reduced into tapes. I took six weeks of time as a sculptural space and divided it up into spacial relationships, of people with the objects I made and the documentation of these objects, the recreation of those objects, within the sequencial time period as a video installation demarcating time and experience. So people entered the gallery and found themselves in an area with four monitors (N, S, E, W) and in the center of those four monitors was a physically symbolic representation of what they where seeing: N was the 1st week; E was the 2nd week; S the 3rd week; W the 4th week of the objects they saw. The symbolic representation in the center surrounded by the monitors was a rockable couch, made of different parts of the objects, they were seeing on those monitors. The first week, on the N monitor was the interaction with the Rockable, 12 ft high by 6 ft deep. It looked like an omega, with curves, it was weighted so that it gently rolled 180 degrees if a person was inside and rolled over. It was made of overlapped aluminum arches, lead weights, band iron and padding and was placed outside. I did not want anyone to know why it was there. I wanted it to be discovered, played and experimented with. I wanted the preciousness and purpose removed from the art object, no art objective in the art object. It was positioned behind the museum's open grassy area at the White Museum, Cornell. On the following Tuesday in the foyer of the museum, I installed the Movable Ceiling: a raised convex couch that people could climb on and a concave ceiling with foam rubber appendages and a remote control. The remote control had 35 ft of cable and two unlabled buttons. Participants experimented with its variable speed and reverse functions, having the ceiling come down into the convex couch. It was based on an elevator block and tackle system. Some people lay there with no expectations and maybe somebody remotely controlled it from another room and again there was no indentification with who made the art work. I documented this interaction until the next Tuesday. Again there was discovery and play in a non-expective situation. The following Tuesday I placed five 10 ft diameter wooden cones, four of them were faced inwards, one out to the sunset on the quad. Again there was no identification of the artist and in the papers they appeared as an architectural student's work. People climbed, stacked or rolled around in them. The following fourth Tuesday I released 500 white balloons on the same quad at 6 am and then at noon I released 500 more. It was the dematerialisation of the object transposed into video experience. The following week, the fifth Tuesday I edited the tapes for the monitors for the gallery space. The sixth Tuesday was the gallery opening and the re-creation of objects within a sequential time period. In the space people experienced the installation about the past with others or individual experiences, bringing the past to the present time. A six second time lapse monitor documented visitors coming from the four monitors to present time and at the exit a closed circuit monitor represented the immediate moment.

ES: How was the situation for a female student at your university and what were your first experiences as a woman in media art?

NS: I had not been directly admitted to the sculpture department. I received a call from the chairman of Cornell and was encouraged to accept an offer by Jason Seley the chairman of the art department to accept a third floor painting studio because the sculpture department did not want to have a woman in the sculpture department. As it happened, a visiting artist David Von Schlegell from Yale was very supportive of my work, Jud Fine had graduated and left me the key to his sculpture studio, and they all said just go in and ignore the head of the sculpture department and continue working. The sculpture department did not want to give me a teaching assistantship because I was a woman. I was encouraged by David Shearer, the librarian of Art, Architecture and Urban Planning, who instructed students how to use video equipment. My thesis was idiosyncratically video, in fact the first video thesis, but the sculpture professors at Cornell did not understand my concepts. Then I moved to Los Angeles and was part of the very new video art scene, worked on my own works and shared the equipment with another graduate from Cornell.

ES: What are the main themes in your video works, what did you like to explore?

NS: I made a transition from public installations, time, space, memory, deconstruction and a conceptualized approach to being alone in my studio; getting used to my private space, intimacy with my environment, interaction with objects, and then focusing the camera on myself. I did not know that this was performance art; I just let myself do spontaneous actions. Working through the drawing process, physicalizing it, documenting it, really getting inside to that time that video is capable of capturing - that immediate moment, breaking glass with no eye protection, all that could not be rehearsed, not to be re-recorded again, that was purely video performance, but I was not aware of it at that time.

ES: Could you tell more about your brain wave drawings project?

NS: A friend visited my studio with an audio-alpha wave monitor that made a sound when one emitted alpha waves. I realized that I as a human being am an electronic medium. Since the human being is an electronic medium, and since I was working with video as an electronic medium, I saw the possibility of visualizing communication. Most especially the singular existential moment of perception between two people. How could I express the communication of that thought process with another human being? By creating a physical and mental portrait of the non-verbal communication between people involves their ego and identity. That's the place where art is, in itself art is the drawing of communication processes. I was introduced to Michael Trivich by my Cornell engineer collaborators and we are still collaborating on this work more than 35 years later. He suggested using an oscilloscope to visualize the communication between two people. By simultaneously having one person's brain waves on the X axis and the other on the Y axis a lissajous pattern is formed. A lissajous pattern is an irregular circular configuaration; when both participants emit the same brain wave (amplitude and frequency), a circle is formed. If one person is more distracted than the other or emitting another brain wave, the circle will distort horizontally or vertically. Finally after working on it for thousands of thousands hours, and now with a patent pending, we were able to make a brain wave drawing over the web between Poland and Los Angeles on July 17, 2007. Although there is a nine hour time difference, we could see each others physical image, color-keyed brainwave output, and text message, all in web-time. My idea is creating a non-verbal intimacy in cyberspace, one world one time. In the past brain wave drawings one heard the song of two, and now joyously, listening to a universal song of our mind and heartbeat.

ES: How do you view your own body connected to the media?

NS: By capturing ones physical image in video, one is able to capture the essence of ones ego and observe the unmitigated relationship to ones physical behaviour and mental responses to it.

ES: In which context do you see your performance works?

NS: Psychosociological behavioural works.