In January 2014, I was thrilled to set up an online meeting—from our three homes in Germany and France—to discuss our practices, backgrounds, and what we’re trying to achieve with our various modes of networked performance.
Gretta Louw Tell me about the beginning of your art career. Annie, you had another life, studied biology; I read in an interview where you said that studying biology taught you about the world around you and your bodily functions but not how to live, so you switched to art, where you could experiment more easily. This really resonated with me because I studied psychology and felt the same—that art is a place to experiment and gain knowledge, to learn something. What do you think about the idea of the artist as researcher?
Annie Abrahams All three of us come from different backgrounds. Igor started in art but not as a net artist—he started in theatre. So we all have another background, another way of being. Art is about life, and science is about your environment and the way you look at it. Art is about the questions you have, and not the answers.
Igor Štromajer Perhaps this is one of the most important things, that we all come from somewhere else. I was studying art, but it had nothing to do with what we are doing now. Furthermore, it had nothing to do with anything contemporary. I was studying historical theatre and it does not help me at all in what I am doing now. I am sure that what you were studying—psychology, biology—is much more handy. You have a much better background for this kind of performance art.
AA No, I don’t agree. I’m made by my past. I am still, in a certain way, that biologist. But I’m not doing better performance because of it; it’s a completely different domain. I think Igor is still shaped by what he did in theatre. Maybe it’s not something you use consciously, but it’s there. As it probably is for you—Gretta—psychology?
GL I use it very consciously, actually. We studied experimental design and I think about that often in regard to my performance work. I’ve done pieces that relate to specific psychological models or theories, or particular psychologists’ work. At the moment I’m reading about neuropsychological research into prostheses and thinking about how avatars can be prostheses.
AA My point was just that anything that comes from a field outside of art helps you more than what you learn in art school. If you go to school to really learn something, as you both did, then you have some kind of a knowledge, or maybe methods, some strategies, ways to approach a problem. I was in an art school bubble where everything was, well, virtual.
GL When did you learn to code?
IS I didn’t leave my room between 1995 and ‘97 or ‘98. I sat in front of the computer for three years.
IS How do you think you entered this field of online performance art, livestreaming, broadcasts, and durational performances. Does your background help you, or do you just reject it and forget about it?
AA I think it’s more present when I think about my work. And maybe it’s also present when I prepare things. Then I have, indeed, a kind of methodology. There’s another thing: I not only have a biology background, I was also a teacher. That’s how I learned to speak in front of people, how not to be afraid. Both of those things are just part of me.
IS You often say, Gretta, that Annie is a pioneer in the field. But you are also not a beginner—you’re very involved in the scene and you do things quite intensely. Can you say that you have learned something from Annie, or that there’s an influence?
GL I didn’t know Annie’s work before I came into contact with you, Igor, throughControlling_Connectivity. But since then, yes, I would definitely say that she’s an influence. The way that she thinks about networked communication as communication mediated through machines is an approach that makes a lot of sense to me. There’s so much work that deals with the technology itself, or social media itself, but not the underlying, human element. I don’t want to make work about the Internet, I want to make work about how people relate to the Internet and how digital culture shapes culture more broadly.
AA For me the Internet was a way to look at people the same way I had to look at apes when I was a biologist. There is this screen between me and all the other people; they do things, try to interact, come into public space—and I can observe that. What I like about your work, Gretta, is how you try to relate it to what you know about psychology. You think about and look at this behavior: Why are they doing it, and what does it mean that they are doing it in a certain way, and not in another way?
GL It’s really interesting to hear you talk about this distance, because I feel like you’re so physically present in your performances.
IS Annie, what would you say was your first online performance?
AA My first online performance was my first HTML page. Even then I considered the Internet to be a public space, and everything that I did in that public space asked for a reaction. Was it the same for you, Igor?
IS It was exactly the opposite. I understood the Internet as the most intimate space ever. And actually the only intimate space that I knew at the time, in 1995, ‘96.
GL Do you feel like it’s changing now?
IS Oh, yes! But for me it’s interesting what Annie said that actually the Internet was a public space. For me, coming from theatre, I wanted to find a really intimate connection and that was not possible, because theatre is a spectacle. And then I discovered the Internet and thought, Ok, so now I can really have one-on-one connections. I was searching for a tool or channel that would allow me to have intimate communication with someone on the other side of the wire.
IS And you, Gretta, can you say which was your first online performance? Would you also go back to the very beginning? Because there are some pieces that you did before that are maybe borderline.
GL I think there are probably two answers. I came to the Internet after the anonymity and privacy you’re describing was already rapidly disappearing. I used the Internet for email because I travelled a lot in my twenties, but not much more than that. Then Facebook started, and I resisted it for a long time, but it just became a practical decision to join. From the beginning I was very skeptical about it and wary about what I posted and who was reading it. In that way I did feel like it was a sort of performance—not in an artistic way, but I never had that feeling of privacy and safety. I always felt that I had to be aware of the audience. The other answer is that some of the earlier media works that I did led naturally toControlling_Connectivity, which was the first major networked piece that I did. Since then, I basically only do net-based work.
IS And now I have a very important question to you both: Why don’t you use Facebook as an artistic platform? Yes, Gretta, I know in Controlling_Connectivity, it was part of your… [The screen freezes, we hear nothing.
GL Hello? Igor?]
[We wait. Igor calls on the mobile phone. The power went out in his neighborhood. We make a plan to conclude our conversation the following day. In the meantime, Annie and I continue for a few minutes.]
GL I wanted to ask you, Annie. The Angry Women series—the collaborative online performances in which you bring women together to interactively express anger—how does it fit into your views about gender politics, or feminism?
AA There was also an Angry Men performance. We did five performances with women, and we are still trying to find out how to do it—how to be together, and how to give everyone a place, and to find our own positions. The men, they got it on the first try. No one asked questions, they were all alone inside their own frame among the others’ images and every man did what he had planned to do anyway. They didn’t care what the others around them were doing.
GL When I participated in a performance of Angry Women I had a strange feeling. As women we are so often put in this box of being hysterical and ruled by our emotions. I think that was quite challenging for me, to be forcibly expressing these really big emotions while feeling that self-consciousness about appearing hysterical.
AA I know that this exists and that it can be powerful. It’s a stereotype, but in the performance we try to give place to other parts of that emotion I think. A few weeks ago, someone from a university department wrote to me because she wanted to use the two videos in her research into how people behave when they are angry. I told her, “Yes, but this is a performance!” And she said, “No, there is a lot of real anger in this performance, and I can see it.” So she’s going to dissect a few videos and see what she can find in it.
GL Interesting! I think that’s what I was trying to get at in the beginning, when I was asking you about art as research. I think it’s really exciting that you came from this scientific background but moved into art because you wanted to ask different questions—and then the work that you’re producing is used by or inspires people back in the sciences. That, to me, is really a validation of my approach to artmaking as a really valuable way of gaining knowledge.
AA It’s been some time since Controlling_Connectivity. Do you think that this experience changed you? Are you different now than you were at the time?
GL I think I definitely am. I actually got into a lot of those social networks specifically for theControlling_Connectivity performance. Through that performance I think I learned a lot about those networks, and the possibilities they offer. I’m still not euphoric about social media or the Internet, and I think a lot of commentary these days is very polarized. It either demonizes all of it—talking about Internet addiction and how we are losing any sort of authenticity—or describes it as a utopia, saying that it’s going to solve all these problems, make us so much more democractic, and so on. I don’t believe either.
AA No. What I find interesting is the kind of relationships you can have via this screen. What is different, and what is possible, and what is not possible? How do you feel about that, as you also try to make connections between two different cultures, which is always difficult.
GL There’s a lot of ambivalence in all of my pieces. I don’t like to make work where I know, clearly, what my opinion is and could state it in one sentence. I want to look at things that I feel more uncomfortable about. That piece with the Warlpiri indigenous community in Australia [Digital Desert] was really difficult for me because, as an Australian, I carry a lot of shame about how the country has treated, and continues to treat, its indigenous peoples. I really wanted to make sure that it was a communication that went in both directions—not about the Europeans and an exotic Other. I wanted to make something that was very open in its format; I think it was confusing for people on both sides of the connection, and in that way it was probably the one piece of mine that was most similar to your work—there was so much communication that couldn’t happen, awkwardness.
AA I always like to say we are all still adolescents when we communicate like that. It’s still so fascinating to us, to be so close to someone on the screen and yet so far away. I think it relates to something very profound in us. The first time that I was very thrilled by something online was in an interface where I could see some objects on a table (via webcam) and beside that was a text field to provide input. You could type “now I want the cup to move 10 cm right,” and then you saw someone—with his hand, it wasn’t anything technical—move the cup 10 cm further to the right. That was so amazing—the fact that you can have power somewhere else.
[At this point we decide to call it a night, and reconvene the next evening, once Igor’s electricity had been restored.]
IS So, let’s talk about this Facebook thing. Maybe I am wrong, but I’m under the impression that you have not used Facebook as a platform for your online performances. So, are you doing this or not, and why not?
AA Igor, you made me think about it. I didn’t really know why I didn’t want to do it, but I knew I didn’t want to. I know now. It’s because I have a hard time playing with my identity. I did a project, I think in 1997 or ‘98, called I Only Have My Name. I asked three people in a chatroom to be Annie Abrahams. I was Annie Abrahams, and there were three more as well, and the people who were watching had to guess which of us was the real Annie. They didn’t find out who I really was, but what was really shocking for me was several weeks later when I was reading the text from the chat. I was horrified because all four could have been me. I couldn’t even recognize myself in the four.
IS There’s a sub-question to this. Would you ever make a second Facebook or Twitter account that is just for a specific performance? You don’t have to be you, yourself, but someone else.
GL I’ve definitely thought about it, but not as myself. Making another account that’s going to be in opposition to my account, perhaps. I would use Twitter more, as an artistic platform, than I would use Facebook. I think on Facebook the walls are much higher, it’s attempting to be more private, it’s not as open. Also, I don’t like how many brand names have become verbs and inexchangeable parts of our vocabulary.
AA Igor, do you consider what you do on Facebook to be a performance?
IS Yes, a part of it is certainly a performance. I lie all the time; it’s hard to say how much, but really a lot. I invente stuff, locating photos in different places around the world. Not much of what I post is really true and really happened. This is a kind of performative act. But I am doing it in a naive way—what I write is what I would like to happen. I only post super, wonderful, beautiful things that are obviously fake—being on an island, in summer, with four beautiful girls, and all we did was make love for four weeks. Everyone knows that the reality is completely different.
GL It seems to be some sort of attempted online utopia, yet it’s really cynical.
IS Exactly. I am showing a person who cannot be real. People want to be beautiful and clever and be liked on Facebook. We all want to show the best part of ourselves online. You really go crazy if you believe what your Facebook feed tells you. There’s so much pressure. That’s why I started this project, Ego Massage because it demonstrates how we want to be represented on the Internet. It showed all these things that we are talking about in the most radical way. It was absolutely clear to all the people who saw it that it was not real, that it was a critique of how we present ourselves on Facebook. But then, of course, after more than two years, it became not only boring but also indigestible. Even I can’t look at these photos anymore.
GL Several months ago, you made a couple of Ego Massage photos with my profile photos and posted them on my wall. It was a strange experience: I knew that it was a joke, and I laughed, and then people started liking them and commenting and saying, “Wow, you’re on a billboard!” It got really embarrassing. I think that there’s a bit of a backlash against that sort of online vanity and self-promotion, self-idealization.
IS But I always do it in a controlled environment; I do it on purpose. Otherwise I don’t understand my behavior on Facebook as performance—these are perhaps little performative actions but not standalone performances or artworks. It’s more like a training center.
GL You’ve both used the term “lo-fi” to describe your work. I’d like to know why it’s important to you, specifically in the context of Web 2.0 and the disappearance of the technical in the face of the user-friendly graphic interface.
IS You can always talk about lo-fi but people hardly talk about hi-fi and hi-tech—you can never go high enough. If you say that you are using hi-tech, you’re basically lying, because there’s always someone who has better technology, and it never ends. I think you can focus on the content if you are in a lo-fi environment.
AA For me it’s more or less the same. I want to work with technology that anyone can use. Being at the same level as the people who might engage with what I am doing is important. To not go somewhere where technology is holy, but rather, stay on the level of the everyday.
GL Lately—even though I don’t want to go hi-tech, as Igor said, it’s not even possible to do that—I have been thinking more about aesthetics. Consider artworks made using Second Life, for example. That aesthetic is so recognizable and so late 90s or early 2000s that even if the content of the work is interesting, it’s immediately dismissed. For a contemporary audience it’s quite hard to relate to, just because of the aesthetics. Aesthetics have been a secondary consideration in some of the works that I’ve done. There’s also an anthropological aspect to using programs that everyone is using: in 10 or 15 years they will be ancient, so there’s some sort of historical value there. But I feel that I need to think about aesthetics because of the way that it can make your work inaccessible for a future audience.
IS There’s something that I’d like to add. Whenever I go to any of Annie’s projects, at the beginning I always need a lot of time to understand how to navigate it. Not only technically—where to click and so on—but to understand the system of the whole picture that’s on my screen. There’s always a lot of text and it’s underlined, or marked, and there are lots of links and columns. I learned how to approach your works: first I take a long look before I click on something. And with you, Gretta, when I come to your website, I can be active immediately. Visually and conceptually things are really different. I have the feeling that I instinctively know how to navigate, where to click. This is a difference that I’ve noticed, and this difference is definitely saying something about understanding hi-fi/lo-fi dynamics, how to think about the user, what you expect from the visitor.
AA You touch on something that I was thinking about a week ago, that my website is becoming very old fashioned, because you have to think about clicking in my work. And clicking is not something of this time.
IS Gretta, tell us something, what are you doing now?
GL The things that I am thinking about a lot at the moment…well, one may end up as another website piece, like the dailyGIF, but with videos. It’s using Twitter actually, Igor, and looking at issues like the hive mind and digital feminism. I’ve been thinking a lot about gender politics recently. I would also really like to look more into avatars, how they are used and how we relate to them in a physical way. It all goes back to Manuel DeLanda—not virtual reality, but real virtuality, the fact that the online, digital, virtual worlds are real. I want to make work that reminds people of the corporeal part of the Internet because I think that any discussion about digital culture can’t be of any significance until people forget this idea that it’s not “real,” that it’s abstract, until they stop demarcating that space, separating it so much from their own lives and trying to dissociate the real and the virtual.
AA Do you think younger people make this distinction? I don’t think they do so much anymore.
GL Even among people in my age group—so, around 30—there still is a big distinction. Look at women who use the Internet for their livelihood…there’s a lot of talk at the moment about how women are treated online, how they are bullied and threatened.
IS Yes, I read your tweets and the links that you’re posting are terrible.
GL I read an article by an online journalist, who was talking about these threats she received from online stalkers. At some points she got frightened and called the police. They would come to her house and ask what the problem was, and she would describe the online threats, and the police would just laugh, or say it’s a game. Or they would ask how the threats were being communicated and she would say via Twitter, and they would ask “what’s Twitter?” You see the same tendencies in marketing, these ideas about the cloud, we just swallow them. But it’s so strategic to call these technologies things like “cloud,” it makes it seem so magical. It’s not a cloud, it’s a huge conglomerate of people, machines, and real estate. It couldn’t be less cloud-like.
IS Yes. And Annie, what are you planning?
AA I will continue working on Reading Club, which is a collaborative writing project. We are going to try to make a version for the theatre. It’s collaborative writing but in fact it’s really a performance. I am also thinking about starting a new project, trying to find a follow-up for the Huis Clos / No Exit and the Angry Women project with a group of people who can get used to the interface. Igor is one of those people. It will be called We Wah Wah.
IS I would like to collaborate more, but I just don’t do it. I don’t know why. Maybe I am too lazy. When you work together, you talk, you really talk. It would be really nice to have more collaborative work. I just don’t know how to do it.
GL The talking is almost the most important thing. It’s so fun talking to you both—I would like to do it every week.
AA Yes, so thank you for inviting us!
GL Thanks for joining me!