An installation shot of Vibeke Sorensen's Sanctuary at Gallery One One One, courtesy the artist.
An Interview with Vibeke Sorensen
Vibeke Sorensen is an artist and professor of Film and Media Studies and Fellow in the Center for Film and Media Research at Arizona State University. She works in digital multimedia and animation, interactive architectural installation and networked visual-music performance. Her work in experimental new media spans three decades and has been published and exhibited worldwide, including in books, galleries, museums, conferences, performances, film festivals, on cable and broadcast television, and on the internet. The following interview was conducted over several months in 2005/06.
Cliff Eyland: What is "new media"?
Vibeke Sorensen: I think to most people it is synonymous with digital media, and to me this means communication through digital technology. It connects previously separate sense based media, and allows for transformation of data from one modality to another, potentially transcending barriers in time and space. With networking and shared databases, realtime sensing and communication, and the integration of digital components into physical systems (ie. embedded systems, ubiquitous computing, biotechnology, etc.) not only are the distinctions between disciplines breaking down, but there is a rapid growth of new forms developing at the intersection between nature, culture and technology. So it is a dynamic, complex or emergent system, a meta-medium connecting phenomena, fields and cultures world-wide.
Cliff Eyland: Would you describe your work as "new media art"?
Vibeke Sorensen: Yes, primarily because I am working with digital processes as a way to connect physical and digital phenomena.
Cliff Eyland: You are one of those rare artists who is not intimidated by digital technology - why?
Vibeke Sorensen: Why should I be intimidated? I think evil people are intimidating or frightening. And evil people developing and using technology to perpetrate more evil is the worst possible thing that exists. It makes me doubt human intelligence, and deeply question our human domination of nature and the planet. We have to be smarter than these people and it means actively redirecting the technology that has so often become an instrument of suffering and destruction. So I dont really think we have a choice. In my case, although I sometimes feel it is futile, perhaps even Quixotic, I cant be afraid. We need to develop real, functioning alternatives before it is too late, before we destroy ourselves and the planet. More than anything else, we need to work with and encourage good people who show positive examples and results, who support and celebrate cultural diversity and biodiversity. People need to see examples that are not only critical but life affirming, and catalyze healthy interaction with each other and nature. Everyone can do something, and no matter how small it might seem, it can have an effect. I myself try to reconsider our condition and context each day, and do something to change it, hopefully serving as a catalyst. Its not only about working with the technology, which I do, but also teaching about it. Demystifying it is important so artists, humanists and people with a conscience can work more independently and ethically with it. So its not passive but active.
Cliff Eyland: Some students enter New Media post-secondary programs to make art, others in order to devise military applications for digital technologies, and yet others to make video games (i.e. Grand Theft Auto). The New Media skill set can and does cross all the ideological boundaries, does it not?
Vibeke Sorensen: There is an enormous transfer of skills between cultures that digital technology facilitates because it is a common medium. This is the potential but also a problem. The use of sense based media in particular is ultimately the same across disciplines because the human body is more or less common to everyone. So solutions in one field or culture are useful to others. And this is extremely apparent when you consider military technology and war games. Why do some call it the art of war or the theatre of war? I think what is happening is that media in general and digital media in particular conflates ideas with sense impressions in totally artificial ways, presenting them reconstructed so that they can subvert normal human response to the world. It makes people doubt their senses and impressions on such an instinctive level that they cannot articulate what has happened to them. But they respond quickly: emotionally, intellectually, and behaviorally. Obviously, digital has enhanced capacity to manipulate because it is multi-sensory and interactive, so much so that it has become the most important instrument for shaping people and cultures. Ideologically motivated people know this and are using it with vigor. Media, especially interactive media, are being used for training including the rehearsal of behaviors normally considered unacceptable, such as the killing of other human beings in war games. There is a huge amount of money in this. Wouldnt it be better to use this money and technology to help people to live in peace rather than to fight, to solve rather than create problems? People can turn into sociopaths. As I already said, we need alternatives: the art of life the theatre of life etc.
One question is the way that ideologies are transferred to digital media. What are the assumptions that digital media employ, the basic decision making strategies behind the options available to people as they engage computers? They are the fundamental building blocks of digital media. (Here I am making a connection between how we think as human beings and how the computer thinks. This is because computers were created by people and so people decide how computers decide.) Everything we think about and create is based on assumptions about the world and ourselves, and patterns of thinking we have adopted, usually unconsciously from our culture. And this is active when we engage digital media. So when different cultures interact, including on the internet, the conflicts and agreements expose the differences and similarities in assumptions. These assumptions and relationships between them point to problems that we need to address, usually with some urgency. They also present solutions. How we structure our expressions we use when we create images, music, text or any other kind of artwork (including software and programming tools) using basic building blocks of time and space relationships reflects how we conceive ourselves, our identities, our relationships to each other and the world, and our conception of others. It needs to have flexibility, like open source. When we develop a programming language, tool or skill set, we are defining a way to think. The user is always trying to fit what is in their mind into the template of the available media. But the template needs to fit them, independent of media. It also needs a reference that is physical and alive so that it does not become irresponsible and isolated. That is why it is so important to be involved in technology development, to respect humanity and human rights, to make sure it remains ethical, open to new ideas and cultures beyond our own, especially those who have traditionally been excluded. We need to respect everyone if we want a tolerant and peaceful world. The question is, do we want a medium of intolerance or tolerance? Should digital media tools be instruments of war and destruction, or vehicles for achieving a more aware and compassionate world?
Another question is how technology separates people from each other and the world around them. Even though the internet connects people, cultures, creatures, and places they would not otherwise have contact with, a great achievement, digital communications media seems to be building on the Western concept of the idealized abstract space, based on the Platonic World of Forms. There is a prioritizing of the abstract and potentially perfect world over the immediate physical and imperfect world. Consider the number of people talking on cell phones in public spaces and their impaired ability to function in it. There are more and more people who spend most of their time in cyberspace, and less and less time engaging the natural world around them that actually sustains them. Without a positive engagement with the ecosystem they are engaging in real life, it is much more likely that it will be destroyed. So there is a need to bring people back to the real world. The problem with technology as interface is that the complex intelligence of a living person or creature is not there, and so a dissociation results. What is the skill set that will help people do this, and ultimately to survive in the new physical-digital world? Where will it come from? I know that AI, digital implants, and bio/nano technology are trying to address many of these issues. But according to what values and ideology?
Well, finally our media language is made up of all of the influences you mention, and they do indeed shape our collective imagination and abilities. It is an emergent system, and like the Butterfly Effect, we shape it with every gesture.
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