Interview with Prema Murthy
Prema Murthy is an artist living and working in New York. She is one of the founders of the online performance group Fakeshop. Fakeshop is well known for their performances in which a poetic mix of both on and offline environments created a powerful immersive experience. Other Fakeshop members have been fellow founder Jeff Gompertz, Eugene Thacker and Ricardo Dominguez. The interview concentrates first of all on the effects and experiences of CUseeme performance. After that Prema Murty explains why she left Fakeshop and why she has decided to make a video documentary about women working in computer hardware factories in Asia.
JB: What is your background, and how did you start working with the net?
Prema Murthy: I come from art history and women studies background in college. I did not start making artwork until I moved to New York from Texas. I began working with an inventor. He developed algorithms for large format digital printing systems. At the same time I also started to perform with an art group called Floating Point Unit, which consisted of Jeff Gompertz, Vlasto Mikic and myself. That is pretty much when I started making art and started using the computer to do it. With the group we started to work with CUseeme as remote participation device. This was back in '94. Especially in New York it was very unusual, people did not understand what we were doing and why. We continued to work with this video conferencing software as an aesthetic device as well as a way to bring in audience members that were online. We would broadcast from these installations we would do in abandoned sites. Meat lockers, warehouses. My kind of area of specialty was performance and activating these installations either through choreographed performance or through prodding audience members to kind of join in chatting on CUseeme, or working with the camera, creating different views of the body. From the beginning I always felt comfortable using the computer for my artistic expression. I am not exactly sure why. It always just felt more comfortable to do that as opposed to holding a paintbrush in my hand or drawing. I don't know if it is a by-product of my generation...
JB: Would you announce the performance, and then you would have a gathering crowd in front of whom you would perform? Would you prepare it beforehand with the people on CUseeme?
PM: We definitely would set up collaborators that were at different locations around the world. We got them through word of mouth and just posting on the website. Through press the URL was kind of let out to the public sphere, but it was definitely very underground I would say. Not a lot of people would participate. It is very hard to make people participate unknowingly in our installations.
JB: Unknowingly? Not knowing they were part of an art project you mean? Was the idea behind it that people would come into it innocently, without knowing they became part of an art project?
PM: From the beginning we used CUseeme software, which is a very low-tech video conferencing software. It is used for pretty mundane purposes. It is usually people in universities chatting about the weather, their preferences and how to deal with the technology. For us it was an interesting context to instigate an artistic element into this mundane environment and get people to play along with what we were doing. One of the devices that I really love and that has had a big effect on participation is the chat with collaborators around the world but also where the installation was built. We would ask people to chat 'stream of consciousness', 'exquisite corpse' style on topics that ranged from bio piracy, genetic copyright to whatever the installation happened to be about. It was interesting to see that as soon as we instigated that kind of level of chatting into this mundane atmosphere, people would stop doing what they were doing and start getting interested in what we were chatting about. They would respond back and they would create this very beautiful hypertextual narratives, almost 'exquisite corpse' style. The surrealist game where they would draw something, fold the paper and someone would add to it unknowingly and it would create this work of art. We are using chat in the same way.
Floating Point Unit was a group that lasted for about two years. Jeff Gompertz and I broke off from that and founded Fakeshop together. We got a warehouse space in Brooklyn partly out of the reason that we were tired to move our equipment from abandoned location to abandoned location and deal with phone lines and setting up from scratch for a one night or a one week thing... We decided to have this warehouse so we could just house all our equipment there and have people come to us. Over time Eugene Thacker joined the group. That was around 1996. Since then we managed to do some pretty large-scale projects. One was the Multiple Dwelling piece that we did at Ars Electronica last year, and this year we were included in the Whitney Biennial. The website was in the Whitney Biennial. In conjunction with that we again occupied a warehouse and created an installation with all the same elements: performance, sound, video conferencing.
JB: You are going a bit too fast now I think. Let me try to slow you down. There are two questions that come into my mind now. The first one has to do with these first two years, where you said that your work was not really understood. Does that also include the (live) audience; did they not understand? Do you have the feeling that the thrill that you, as a performer, got being part of this, let's say, artwork that was not just created by you but which was made in an interaction with others... could I describe it like that?
JB: Did the audience share your excitement? Was it shared in a different way? Can you describe it?
PM: Definitely. Our work was not always presented in the context of a gallery. Already right there it sets the audience questioning: what exactly are you doing, is it a party? Are you doing experiments in public and we are just voyeurs? Are we part of the experiment? There were a lot of interesting questions coming up. For the most part a lot of the audience came because they knew that we threw a good party. There was that interaction of a gathering. On the other hand people were very interested in what we were doing with this technology. They would be very curious and excited seeing it used in an artistic way. And that this technology is something they can easily have access because it is free software. On that level people were very excited about us using these tools for art. The more sort of established art people would walk into the space and they would have no clue. Especially in America it is all about marketing: How do you sell this? How does this work into the gallery system? They were definitely the most confused people and they still are, even to this day. Even at the Whitney Biennial. They decided to include net art and it was a complete disaster. Their presentation was completely wrong. They did not have an understanding. The curators had no historical background on net art. It is really a shame that America is so far behind to what is happening in Europe.
JB: Well, it is not that ideal here either. But to my second question, or actually two other questions. Let us continue about the audience for a while. Now that it has developed do you think the audience has changed in the way it looks at you because the technology you use is much more common or is it more or less the same?
PM: Judging by feed back that I have got from people who come up to us after seeing something that we do. They are beginning to understand it now. They are beginning to see the links between what we are trying to do and maybe how it could be based in, say, the Fluxus movement or actions or happenings. They are beginning to see a context for it, linked historically to other movements that have happened before. But I think it has taken them a while to see pixels and even an interface as art. I think definitely now that people are much more exposed to digital work and net art, there is Rhizome and there is discussions about it, they are able to see it more as an art piece instead of a party or an experimentation.
JB: Do you have an online audience? Do you get feedback from there?
PM: The online audience has really developed for us. The last project we did, it was called 'human use of human beings', based on a Norbert Weiner book about cybernetics from around 1950, had an interesting by product. After the last show was over the installation was torn down, but we kept the computers running with CUseeme on it. We were using a reflector site at the university of Japan so a lot of the participants were Asian (also from around the world of course). It was interesting what happened. They would go back, they would refer to our website, the URL, they would take texts from it, texts Eugene Thacker had written, copy them and go back to CUseeme and past it in. There were discussions, people would respond to that... To me that level of participation, to actually switch browsers, go to the website and then come back to CUseeme and instigate their own conversations based on texts we had written: I had never seen that before. It was going on for weeks after our installation, in all languages. It was really exciting for me to see the audience being international and being so motivated.
JB: To go back to the early CUseeme environment that you kind of invaded in 1994: I am not sure if I can maybe compare that to what Scanner has been doing and still does when he plugs into the airwaves and uses existing phone calls from people in sound art pieces... You are using people’s private, innocent moments (maybe not entirely, because they are on CUseeme where basically anyone can plug in), where they don't know they are part of a audience exhibition. Did you get any comments on that, or how do you feel about that?
PM: Voyeurism and surveillance on the Internet has been a concept we like toying with. People who are on CUseeme know they are being watched. They have placed the camera in front of their face or in front of whatever, their room... in a sense they let you come into their space. For us to use that in an aesthetic device to talk about surveillance and also to talk about just how in this day and age we are all being watched ... I don't know how to describe it... I think nowadays people are much more aware of the lens being on them at all times. It could be a metaphor for just being constantly on all the time. Especially in New York. Everybody is always trying to be in the public eye. For us it is like: anybody can be in the public eye. Someone in Idaho can be part of this New York scene. Their faces projected up in the space. They become an artwork in itself. I don't know if that answers it.
JB: In what sense were the Fakeshop projects different from the Floating Point Unit projects, if they were different at all?
PM: Floating Point Unit was definitely a hybrid party art kind of thing, much more casual and social. Not like a rave. With Fakeshop we really wanted to raise the level, take all the elements we had been using and really raise the artistic focus. We made an effort to present that work within an art context. So there would not be so much confusion, and that people would take it more seriously and come to it with a headspace of trying to get something out of it. I don't know how successful it is. People still look at us like we still have that party past.
JB: Was it also a way to get better funding?
PM: For the most part up until now we have self-produced and self funded. We have not gotten any grants for anything we have ever done. Maybe we got travel fares to go to a festival or a small budget to produce something at a festival. We put our own money into it. It is frustrating. That kind of strategy for me is frustrating.
JB: You have been doing your own projects next to Fakeshop. Why did you start your own projects and what were they? Could you not do this work in Fakeshop?
PM: One thing I have learned about collaborating is that it works when there is not too much overlap in people’s duties and roles. Because in that case you get a lot of struggles and a lot of ego battles. You are sharing too much territory. For the most part in Fakeshop I was kind of the person who took care of the performative element and the live sound. Eugene Thacker is more of a writer. He was very good at adding a textual element to it. Jeff Gompertz has been the person dealing with the imagery, the video. For me a big part of why I have left is that I consider myself a visual artist over a choreographer, over a sound artist. There was too much tension with me trying to have my aesthetic vision be part of Fakeshop. Up until now Jeff has been the one defining the aesthetic of Fakeshop. On some levels I completely agree with this aesthetic, but it is not my contribution in the group. I was a little frustrated with that. Also conceptually I am really finding myself more inspired to deal with ideas of technology and how it is effecting women and especially women in the third world or south Asian women. That is too politicized for what Fakeshop has done so far. What Fakeshop is good at is creating an environment, creating a mood, very cinematic, a feeling. For me that is a little too vague. I want to do that, but also speak about something that needs to be spoken about. I think it is really important to have research being done and artwork being made about different ideas as opposed to science fiction or films.
JB: So what have you done?
PM: One project I did two years ago was called Bindi Girl. It was part of an exhibition at the Walker Art Centre. It was a web-based project and I was toying with the idea of south Asian women's identity on the Internet. I was juxtaposing how Asian women are presented in this very two-dimensional way through porn sites. I was juxtaposing ideas like that with ideas of religion and especially eastern religion and how that also has confined women. I wanted to show how rather then it being a tool for liberation it is a way of keeping women in their place. I saw analogies of the Internet doing that same thing. When I first started on the internet I was really excited about ideas of democracy and how identity did not matter, gender was not an issue... but the more I saw the same kind of disfunctionalities in society being played out in this virgin territory I had to comment about it. This site was very tongue in cheek, in the form of an amateur porn site. I used myself as the subject to articulate these ideas of identity and liberation and questioning the tools like the Internet or religious thought in a funny way.
I have also just completed a video installation. It is not web based at all. I was working with a programmer developing an interactive environment with video.
JB: Your next project will be a video documentary about women in Bombay working in factories that are making technological products?
PM: What sparked my interest is that I read maybe two years ago reports coming out of Asia of women that were working in micro electronics factories, who are piecing these motherboards together, who are at the same time undergoing collective hallucinations and mass hysteria while they are on the job. To me that was a really interesting starting point to discuss how technology is effecting women in Asia. They are the ones creating this technology for the west to use. I am wondering where our interests and their experience are intersecting and why these women are suffering, or if they are suffering at all. I am very interested in finding out first hand, going to India, speaking with these women, what is their viewpoint of technology and how it has become a part of their lives. A lot of these women do not even have running water in their homes, yet at night they piece together chips. Do they know what they are used for? I am curious to find out how they are looking at these objects that they are creating, if there are any taboos that are attached to it...