ISEA2013: a history behind the symposium

Donna Franklin, Fibre Reactive, 2004. Image courtesy of Robert Firth

The International Symposium of Electronic Art (ISEA2013) will take over Sydney in June 2013.

According to this year’s organisers ‘Resistance is futile’Indeed. What started out as a conference to discuss the effects of technology on traditional art practise in the late 90s has become an international symposium for electronic art held every other year in a different city. The symposium often includes exhibitions, performances, and an extensive set of public programmes.

A selection of works was made from Adelaide-based ANAT (the symposium’s host in Australia) through their Synapse Residency Programs (SA); Experimenta’s 5th Media Arts Biennale Speak to Me (VIC), and Symbiotica’s Semipermeable(+)exhibition (WA). This survey of media arts activity across Australia, selected in collaboration with Directors Vicki Sowry, Jen Mizuik and Oron Catts, is meant to capture the technically savvy folks flocking to the city for ISEA2013 and the corresponding VIVID Sydney. Exhibition objects were also carefully selected with our members and their guests in mind.
Ken & Julia Yonetani, Stilllife 2010. Image © Sue Gollifer

Ken & Julia Yonetani, Stilllife 2010. Image courtesy of the artists

Many of the sub-themes of ISEA2013 focus on the ‘making’ of electronic art. Where this making part of the design process is a major theme of the PHM collection, we are also interested in the transfer, documentation, installation and archiving of digitally-based artefacts.  I recently had a chance to interview the Director of ISEA HQ in the UK, Sue Gollifer, as we attended the same workshop on Public Art, HCI and Evaluation just outside of Sydney.  One of the main topics discussed here was developing a language around digital art. One of the outcomes of the workshop was that through a more succinct language, we as art historians might begin to better track a history of electronic artefacts.

Many conservators, registrars and curators at the PowerhouseMuseum can relate the ISEA2013’s theme when it comes to digitising the collection: resistance is futile! Instead of frustrating us, could this practice actually assist us? Can it help administrators, as well as educators and emerging experience designers? Perhaps Sue Gollifer’s near 25-year history with electronic art can shed some light…

DT: Hi Sue, as you know I asked you here today to talk about digital archiving. I wanted to know about your experience with it as a practicing artist and as ‘the’ ISEA administrator. Could you tell us about yourself, your professional practice and your interests?

Sue Gollifer, Director of ISEA. Image courtesy of Sue Gollifer

Sue Gollifer, Director of ISEA. Image courtesy of Sue Gollifer

SG: Firstly I’m an artist, even though I forget that sometimes. I’m also an academic, I run a Masters Course [in Digital Media Arts at the University of Brighton]. I’m a researcher and I’m an early pioneer of digital art and how digital technologies affect art practice. That started in the early 90s, and I’ve moved on to working as a curator of digital art shows initially featuring 2D work and more recently interactive installations.

Image © Sue Gollifer

Sue Gollifer, Untitled M4, 1977. Image courtesy of the artist

DT: How did you come to be working specifically on ISEA?  A lot of people, not just in academia, but in other educational institutions like museums, like biennales…everyone’s interested in what’s happening with ISEA2013.  What is it about ISEA that actually appeals to you as an artist and by extension as a supporter of electronic art?

SG: The first [ISEA] I went to was in 1995 and I knew a lot of the people on the board at that time. In that period, during the 90s and [this goes back to one of the other questions you’re going to ask me about digital archiving] I was beginning to teach my students about different technologies and current practice and the only kinds of things I could show them was my ARCADE exhibition and SIGGRAPH and I knew ISEA happened because I went there; but there was no real evidence of any of it.

So I received a research award to put together all the conference proceedings towards the end of the 90s. I got in touch with all the hosts of the symposiums, got together their conference proceedings, and this was the start of getting involved outside of this in a more voluntary capacity for ISEA.

DT: You seem particularly interested in archiving, as you’ve already mentioned. When I think of archiving, I think about artists storing and reflecting on their work. How does it help you make sense of your own work and your own practice; and by extension, how does this work for/ with ISEA and other artists?

SG: I suppose the link to digital archiving exists in a lot of facets for me.  One of them was when I mentioned being a consultant. I was working outside the university at the time and my paid job then was from HEFCE [Higher Education Funding Council for England], which provided the extra layer or the infrastructure for Information Technology within UK universities.

DT: There’s this externality that you seem to have, you’re not just interested in helping yourself. You’re interested in supporting the field.  Archiving is a very specific process; there’s all this metadata there’s all these things that you collect around an object, so it’s actually a lot of work for you to go past your own work and help other people with theirs. Are you able to talk a little about why you do that and how it helps you?

There was an initiative which was called the Knowledge Gallery that I suddenly found interesting even though I knew that people using it found it was really ‘techie’ and not particularly artistic at the time. I went around to the Royal College of the Arts, say, and said, “Would you like £10,000 and we will digitise your printmaking collection?” There was a call out I suddenly realised that in a way I was the only one who could do it because I was not only an artist and a curator, but I was also involved in education and I could look at the work and see if it was relevant and whether or not anyone could use it.  I became very involved with this and there were three other collections apart from the RCA, one at Central St. Martin’s, one at the London College of Fashion and there were also the design archives at the University of Brighton.

These are collections that could be used for scholarly activity. I mentioned the basic design collection and so as an academic I thought maybe one could go in there and there would be all copywrite-free and downloadable. Another initiative came down through JISC (Joint Information Systems Committee) called the Arts & Humanities Data Service and part of that was a thing called DAM [Digital Art Museum]. They took the collection and they’re building on it so basically you can go into their collection and use their archive and their images.

Now I work for the JISC and act as a consultant in an advisory capacity on other collections like the Ghetty or BBC performance films. And so they’re building up this really large database of things that people can use.

DT: How do you think that archiving digital work will help artists and designers?

SG: Well I think we [people, artists] are very bad at recording things. Things are happening so fast, my students at the MA digital art, we talk about hardware/ software, but these materials don’t come with a history. Digital practice is not like painting where there are lots of books and they wouldn’t change from year to year; past techniques would still be considered relevant. By contrast, by the day I could update my reading least. And there’s not that much history of people having a critique of digital art…do you remember we mentioned that in the [PAW] workshop?

DT: That’s right…because of a lack of language, so digital practitioners don’t have much of a critical history, really.

SG: No we don’t and this is what I just sort of suddenly realised: I’m surrounded by all these pioneers [like Ernest Edmonds and Paul Brown] and  the idea struck me that we really need to recognise their work. I also worked in an advisory capacity for an initiative called CASH and it was linked with the V&A [Victoria & Albert Museum] who are building up their collection of digital prints. I also worked with the Daniel Langlois Foundation and had a conversation with Juliana and they are closing down soon. And where will their collection go? I think we mentioned clouds previous, and they’re great places to put ‘stuff’, but the physical stuff it has more significance because the technology is moving much more quickly, so what you did as a quicktime movie a few years ago might be very quick or very slow, but it’s certainly not going at the same speed as it did originally.

Ernest Edmonds, Light Logic, 2012. Image courtesy of Site Gallery.

Ernest Edmonds, Light Logic, 2012. Image courtesy of Site Gallery.

DT:  Am I correct in noting that you think that all of this archiving will provide artists with a history and help us develop a language for their curators? That this might aid their role in developing themes and setting up exhibitions? Do you think this will contribute?

SG: Yes, exactly. Years ago, I did a thing at a conference in Newcastle and one of topics was: if everybody could use computers to make art, who’s going to decide what’s good and what’s bad?  The other one I was really interested in was copywrite in the digital age because two things we’re bad at: one, remembering our histories; and two, giving things away for free. And at the end of the day your intellectual property for your work is important because that’s how you’re going to make your money or your estate. It’s the same with programming, you think of Processing and things like that…people are very generous with creative commons and open source and hackers, you name it.  But I think at the end of the day we should remember that we are artists and we do own the copywrite for our images [work].

DT: That’s interesting in terms of valuing your work, not evaluating, but valuing and actually thinking my time is worth this much. What does that mean in terms of the life of the project?  In any of these archives, have you been able to capture the audience’s response in any way? Like in terms of archiving digital work, have you ever been able to archive the audience’s response to digital work?

SG: I had an MA student and this is part of her dissertation. She was a librarian and what I wanted her to look at were the ISEA archives in relation to all the other archives; people really want this to happen.

DT: Well I don’t think having a lot of archives is a bad thing, having choice is great, but I was particularly interested in [audience response being recorded for archival purposes].  Ernest was also talking at the workshop about interactivity being an artistic attribute. So I wanted to really look at how you could store interactive art; how you could have the program there and have the machinery to play it, but how do you really know what it was like to engage with it?

SG:  I think it has to do with what people might deem public art and wonder whether it has to do with White Night or similar things that happen on the street like VIVID and whether people actually think of it as art or maybe whether we’re straddling too many –isms. To us it’s art.

DT: What sort of systems have you utilised to make these archives accessible?

SG: I think all the archives that I’m involved in seriously suffer from design and navigation issues really. I think they should be accessible, as you say, you just want the ‘stuff’ [the thing you’re looking for]…you don’t always want to play [be distracted]. A classic example is the Sandrone Project.  The trouble there was that the developers had a lot of fun making the archive fun to use, but there was some really good stuff in there. Alas, to find it, you’d need a pickaxe of data mining. So, I think what happens is the developers have fun because they think [the content] is art, and the artists allow them to do it and don’t have enough control over saying, no, we just want the stuff accessible.

DT:  Do you see a benefit of layering engagement with archives? It sounds like you’d rather get the information and then go off and be that creative force…

SG: I guess for me it also goes a bit back to teaching and learning and how you would do it, with communication and the stuff that you would need to give a lecture or your would want a student to go to have a look at.

I think there’s something to what you were saying about simplicity and calculation and navigation and what you want to look at. Have a look at the VAD [Visual Arts Database] site, you have a bit of a shopping trolley where you can grab things, so they are making an effort [to modernise]. They’ve been going on for quite a few years now since the 1990s, which is quite a significant amount of time to build up something that they feel is relevant. We were talking about Daniel Langlois and as being in the UK, and everywhere in Europe and I’m sure here in Australia, we’re suffering from cutbacks. And even in the centre for Design and Humanities that I was in, they no longer exist, and yet a lot of money was put into it and it would be a pity if someone comes along and turns off the server. But I think, back to what you were saying, being in Albuquerque, as you say, the engagement with some of the work, people being around actually add to the work.

DT:  Like you say it comes back to copywrite and people’s privacy and the ethics of engagement. You can’t video everybody unless you put a little sign up. I think that Dustin {Freeman} and his crew at OCAD University got around that really well by doing it [storing images] on Twitter so that all of those images become a part of the public domain. You have to let people know that you’re doing it for research and get them to sign and they say yes sure and sign the waiver; but that’s so much easier than getting 9,000 people to agree to an ethics…and what an amazing database they have now of all those human gestures. So I think that’s the way things will go. Find us on Facebook, for example, or flickr; and that’s one way to continue our research.

KatieTurnbull, ModernVanitas. Image © Sue Gollifer

Katie Turnbull, ModernVanitas, 2012. Image courtesy of RMIT Gallery

Then what about the specialists? What do we do about the title of the specialist? It’s difficult because I think that digital or electronic work can exist without an audience because it is a bit like a painting or a sculpture. But then significance comes into play where that object isn’t significant unless someone’s there to provide it with significance, so audience is actually in a lot of public art and work … For example, if nobody went to the art gallery, would it be so esteemed? If we didn’t have histories and specialists and practice built up around it, would it be as important? It’s the audience that brings all of that. So with interactive art, they don’t just bring the feedback or the criticism, but they’re actually activating the artwork and the artwork is responding to them and I think that that adds a layer of ability in creativity that the arts have been trying to figure it out, and perhaps they’re not there yet, but I wonder if its worth archiving?

SG: Certainly something that was triggered in RCA and ISEA is coders…’the art of coding’…a lot of those programmers and coders are artists in their own right and a lot of that stuff wouldn’t happen without them and their different languages, and we were talking about the native American coders (DT: and the magic…) yes. I mean there’s a lot of ‘stuff’ out there, it’s really very exciting, isn’t it?

They’ve got this amazing exhibition in Albuquerque that’s on at the museum until January and I went, just like I did here in Sydney, talking to people, and I went to the museum and he was choosing the work that he wanted to have and I didn’t want to put him off that he was going to have it on for 4 months. But in the back of my head, I was going, “ohhhh, is this [really new and experimental] stuff really going to work for 4 months?”

DT: Well, people want to see things, it’s all well and good to say if you click this, this will happen; but if give them the thing to click and it happens, it’s a much more meaningful engagement.

ISEA2013: Resistance is futile…will be exhibited at the Powerhouse Museum from 8 June – 21 August 2013. If you would like to participate, the museum is offering  volunteer opportunities. More information on the application process can be found here.

The long version of this article is published in Open House.