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Interview with Auriea Harvey

Sylvie Parent, March 2000
Sylvie Parent: In its first phase, An Anatomy is a lot about being there and staying; it is about presence. It solicits a behavior from the viewer that differs from what she/he is used to, that is: clicking, leaving, going from one place to another on the Web, looking for satisfaction elsewhere. It questions our understanding of what interactivity has become.

Auriea Harvey: An Anatomy is an attempt to make the viewer complicit in making something together, to show how everyone being there in a single entity is as significant as clicking away, getting from one place to the next. Indeed one gets nowhere, here, but simply observes, sees what can be made from the presence of all in one place.

The act of clicking as an automatic response to seeing something online, hunting for something that looks--it must be--clickable. I am trying to find the opposite...perhaps making people spend time as an alternate response. The first question I had to ask was is clicking really interacting or just reacting to an online environment? By visualizing others in the space do you interact with them simply by being there? This creation is the antithesis of most web experiences because the "payoff," the "goal," is not one which is achieved through clicking.

SP: What is planned for the future phases of the project?

AH: As one will see in the second phase of the project, clicking in An Anatomy only takes one down a linear path from beginning to end, from life to death. But the true act of interaction occurs only through watching, waiting. Yes, this may require more time to receive rewarding experiences, but the experiment is to show that it is not just about your individual time but the shared time of everyone involved in being here. The effect can be quite beautiful.

SP: The single image at the core of the project possesses the same visual richness so often found in your digital work, a density that triggers an attentive behavior, which invites us to stop. How do you relate this work to previous projects?

AH: When I first started making sites, I wanted to give the pages an organic feel through texture and light, creating illusory spaces in the screen. I found this to be effective in bringing about emotionally charged reactions in viewers. The kind of life I hope this project evokes is one where that same tension of seeing and enjoying sights and sounds and textures makes the site live in one's imagination and memory.

SP: An Anatomy suggests that the network can be compared to a living organism, transformed by our presence and that of the others. The project alludes to our desire to make the machine alive, an extension of ourselves, but also, to show how technology may reveal itself closer to life than expected. This is particularly true in the case of the Web, because it involves human input, interaction, change, growth, etc.

AH: I make something that is about life, but a fantasy of a body, a fantasy of artificial life. I take what many people know about the genre of artificial life programming and turning it on its ear. The image created by the group becomes akin to a soul inside the machine and the visuals provided are there to enhance the feeling of transcendence. It is comforting to see those others inside the page with you and to realize that it is after all a shared experience.

SP: You also offer participants an opportunity to create a portal into the work. This action has the effect of bringing other people in, which again, contributes to changing the progress of the work, to transform the collective image. Is this idea new to your work?

AH: I wanted to allow others the ability to be a part of the overall structure of the work, and since it can also be a transitory portal and not just a solitary project unto itself, I feel that allowing these brief glimpses into the system can be quite meaningful. Ultimately these portals will link people into the main system, for now they are just viewers into it. If the portals are implemented by enough people on their websites, then the presences viewed on the main site and throughout the portal network are multiplied.

SP: With Michaël Samyn, you have experimented and explored new ways of expression and communication. How has this partnership been influential to the project?

AH: The idea of viewer presence is a new concept on this scale, but something I feel that Michaël and I have been dealing with at entropy8zuper.org with Wirefire, where we regularly offer a live show requiring that people visit the site at a specified time to see the event and give them ways to see that we are there live (through the use of video cameras and text chats) and that there are other viewers there as well. This type of online communication is very important to us.

SP: Before the weekly rendezvous of Wirefire, you and Michaël collaborated on skinonskinonskin, shown at hell.com in May 1999. What attracted you to Web performance?

AH: The entropy8zuper.org site is a personal one and it is very difficult to put into words where it all comes from. To us the private is public. We aren't making art, but making love in a way that speaks to us, and we show the artifacts--possibly to bring an epiphany to those who want to see it.

My connection with performance art came to me a long time ago out of frustration with creating static sculpture, and my desire to make something that could exist as a memory in the audience, more than as an object one could visit. I've always tended to put myself emotionally on the line in my work. The Web is live by nature, one just needs to make a forum for bringing these live qualities to the foreground.

skinonskinonskin is really a document of a relationship and what Michaël and I felt we could make together. Wirefire grew out of that conversation with one another, the movies supplementing what the text could not express. We really want to put others in there with us. We are at the same time developing an application adaptable to others' use. It is our view that the Wirefire engine can be useful in ways other than our public show.

SP: These performances, as well as many of your works, include very intimate, very personal content. How do you see this relationship between private and public in your work?

AH: We are makers and communicate not only to those who view the work but also to each other through Wirefire, through skinonskinonskin and the e8z! site itself--it is sensation we're after something we feel a lot of people overlook when designing for the Internet.

There is a freedom to this medium that is rather unique. Something I hope is not ruined as the net becomes more commercial and as museums and other institutions get involved with shaping public views of online artwork. It is a meeting of independent minds which has driven the Internet from the start and that is what has made it so appealing in my view. You're talking to someone who has always enjoyed people's personal sites over any organized, "finished" online presentation, so of course I believe in the power an individual has in here.

SP: Artists and institutions are increasingly concerned about finding the best context for creation and presentation of web art. What do you think the institution's role in connection with the web artist and web art should be? How can it be defined?

AH: I have mixed feelings about it. In many ways it feels like they are stealing something which artists have created and are using it to gain some sort of relevancy or insurance policy against extinction in a system which increasingly questions their usefulness. I wonder what is in it for the net artist? It seems like there is more to gain from the artists' involvement by the institution than there is for the artists at this point in time. I question the context placed on what we do by placing net artworks in these analog spaces.

One other problem is that the institutions need to trust net artists' autonomy even more than traditional media artists. Many net artists have given a lot of thought to the presentation of their work as it appears and is presented online. The switch from a large audience available online to the relatively tiny audience provided by these institutions allows for other opportunities for net creatives. Why not let this be a new challenge to those who are concerned with it?

I've always been of a mind to subvert from within. That is to say, rather than bitch about the unfairness of institutional gentrification of the net I prefer to do what I can, to prove (if only to myself) the strengths and faults of a system and stay true to what I believe. That is one of the reasons why, when asked to show skinonskinonskin in the Whitney Biennial, we decided against it. In commerce there is always compromise, and we would not subject our feelings in this particular work to compromise such as they were asking for. As creators of the piece we wanted to have a say in the presentation of the work, but in this instance it was impossible, not allowed. We felt it unreasonable that curators could take for granted their control of the circumstances under which any artist's work should be shown.

I am not patently against institutions collecting net artworks, though I believe strongly in net artworks having a life cycle. In a way their beauty lies in this transient nature, this mutability. So I play the game, but only up to a point. I've done just about every type of thing one can do online and I am not going to stop experimenting now. With so much still untested, still so much left unsettled. It's fun to keep it that way.

Sylvie Parent is curator at the Centre international d'art contemporain de Montréal. She is also the editor of the CIAC's Electronic Art Magazine, and this interview is co-published in CIAC #10, where a review of the entropy8zuper.org site also appears.

Sylvie Parent, 2000. First published by Gallery 9/Walker Art Center for An Anatomy by Auriea Harvey.