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[Nettime-ro] FW: RHIZOME DIGEST: 9.1.01
Alexandru Patatics on Thu, 6 Sep 2001 12:07:56 +0200 (CEST)

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[Nettime-ro] FW: RHIZOME DIGEST: 9.1.01

Tilman Baumgaertel 
Subject: Interview with Julia Scher
Keywords: surveillance, social space, net.art, desire

?: Your web piece "Konsent Klinik" is one of the earliest pieces of
internet art. Please tell me how you got involved in this new medium.

Julia Scher: My first contact with the internet was through a Bulletin
Board called Echo in New York City. Echo was my first official foray
into this field, but in the seventies I was dating some of the people
who became big Machers in the computer industry. I hung out with
programmers, who worked on the IBM 360 back in 1973. They used to play
this computer game "Spacewar!", that ran on a real monitor and was
played over the terminal. That was unheard of. The rest of us would run
card feeders, but this small group of guys would talk directly into the
brain of the computer via their keyboards. Then as now my role was
strictly as a voyeur, though.

?: What got you interested in the net as a medium?

Scher: At that time in New York, there was a real and percieved need for
artists to create some sort of cultural content for this new net space.
I was at the early meetings of The Thing at Benjamin Weill's apartment
with Wolfgang Staehle, Peter Brandenburg, and a number of other people.
At the same time I knew people like Jeff Cooks, the encryption guru who
later invented the Cookie. Therefor I knew that there was a urgent need
of security in computing. These issues blended with my own interest in
real space, urban space and surveillance. That of course was a very good
lead-up to my work with ada:web.

?: Your first encounter with computer networks was even before the
WorldWideWeb. How did you percieve this computer network, which was text

Scher: To me it was primarily a space, where people's pipe dreams and
conspiracy theories would be admitted without the kind of scrutiny that
you would find in real space or books. To me this computing space was
driven by desire. And it was interesting as a new space to be

That's why I tried to mimic some of the ideological concerns of my
sculptural projects on the net. I wanted to highlight the issue of
social control over the net and in E-Mail. In the real world I am
interested in invisible threats, in the ways we enter into power
relationships that we have no control over. I am interested in the
cohersive aspects of surveillance and security systems. I am a paranoid
person, and that's what drives my work. I want to embody a collusion
between those powers that take our freedoms away and those forces which
would help us to escape from powers of control.

?: Wolfgang Staehle told me that you ran a space on The Thing that was
called Madame J's Dungeon, which was kind of an online-sex club. Can you
tell me what went on there?

Scher: The Dungeon was a multi-user environment. I was very involved
with S/M at this time, and it was great to have an online-environment
where all these issues around sexuality and dominance could be played
out in a virtual realm. It was a perfect way to design a sexy, emotional
space, where people would be motivated by desire, but also be prepared
to play roles. At that time I performed in sex clubs and also in a night
club called "Jackie 60ies", where dominatrixes in their full regalia
hung out. That created an atmosphere where people could shout about what
I would do to them and what they would have to do. What I did on The
Thing was seen as reproducing these kind of places, that actually
existed in the real world, on the net.

!: So what precisely was the attraction in taking this kind of sexual
interaction to the net?

Scher: What happened when you took these places online, was that people
started playing with this kind of language and with the codes of these
kinds of cultural practises meant. Wolfgang came up with the idea that
Madame J's Dungeons such be like the Mudd Club where there were
different levels of exclusivity on the first floor, the second floor
etc. People wrote lengthy tirades against that which I wish I had
printed out.

The idea for the Dungeon was not to jerk off or get off in front of
others, but to enhance the notion of sexuality transitioning from the
physical space into the net space. You are certainly bringing your own
physicality to the computer and into the interface, even if it is just
text as it was with The Thing in the early days. And even if you might
shorten the distance with the computer in the future, it is still a
fantasy space.

?: Did you see any kind of similarities between the computer and the S/M

Scher: Yes. As a user of a BBS like The Thing you had to behave
according to the structure that's inherent in computer-based
interaction, where you are depending on electricity, code, programming
etc. This is actually a very strict protocol. And the net space
duplicates some of the strict protocols and rules that take place in a
normal SM-dungeon, where consentual and ritualistic practises are the
code which you have to follow. And where you are usually kicked out if
you don't obey the rules set up by the dungeon master.

?: And the Dungeon thing went on night after night?

Scher: Yes. But then there was this "Cyberrape" that took place on the
Echo BBS. This incident, where a male user "raped" a female user with
words, made it clear, that the benefits of having this open space
without rules came at the price of people being harrassed and feeling
bad. That became a big question for us, and it was decided to keep the
space more managed.

?: Where you sexually turned by what went on in the Dungeon, or was it
just a mental experiment?

Scher: If I had been able to sustain it as a role, I assure you that I
would have done it, and I probably would be rich now (laughs). But I
totally saw it as an experiment, a temporary phenomenon.

?: Even before you were working with the net, you worked with media and
with networks, in particularly with Closed Circuit Television (CCTV).
Your works on the web, they are accessible to anybody. They are not in a
closed circuit, but out in the open.

Scher: Presenting information to a open audience is different from an
selected or self-selected audience. In a way you have to be more
coherent in your presentation, which I am pretty much against. I like
long, epic ambiguity.

?: If we take your web piece "Konsent Klinik" - was it percieved to be

!: I think that it must have been very confusing to the audience. The
language of "Konsent Klinik" was the most interesting aspect of the
piece; the idea, that you even consent to give up any information about
yourself, was the main point that I tried to make. You want help and go
to a clinic, but you giving your consent that your own private life is
all given up. You go to a clinic, but you end up giving up all this
information about your self. I hope that it had a self-limiting
character to it, but I don't think that it was easy to understand at
that time.

?: There was almost no web art at that time..

Scher: No, not at all. I remember trying to create a Photoshop-file for
the web, and that was the last time I ever touched programming. (laughs)
We already felt behind the moment we started to work with the net. If it
was out there easy enough to get for us, there were already next things.
This feeling is prevevalent with any kind of technology that artists
work with. I thought about learning programming myself, but I decided
that I would have more revelations by being a voyeur and a watcher.

?: Your first piece for ada:web was "Security Land", followed by
"Konsent Klinik". Were these pieces  comissioned by ada:web?

Scher: Yes. The idea was to create experiental spaces in the virtual
world. I had the idea for a clinic where all the anxieties about being
in virtual space could be adressed by Dr. Julia. I orginally saw my
space on Ada:web as a kind of surveillance Disneyland, where you could
spy, be paranoid and ask question. I wish we would have been able to do
more back-and-forth, like a radio show. The whole idea of getting sucked
into this space was very exciting to me.

?: You keep using the word "space" when you talk about your web pieces,
which also contain a lot of references to physical space. They have
names like "Security Land", "Konsent Klink", "Freak Lab", and contain
"corridors", "shafts", "galleries" etc. That's funny because
"cyberspace" is supposed to be immaterial, a nowhere land.

JS: Nowhere is a space before you make it a place. When you build,
arrange, fortify, and make a settlement, then you have a place. What you
are describing comes from my installations in real space that are
transposed onto the net. I have always found my best work to be
"encounter work" - looking at the phenomenological world one enters. It
continues in digital und programmable areas. In the past museums often
couldn't incorporate my physical works into their infrastructure - maybe
it was too threatening or too radical. But here on the Web, a museum can
be with no collection, no thereat.

I think that I have certainly not done enough work exploring new virtual
worlds. The main reason is the same reason why I didn't go into
psychoanalysis. I wanted to go into psychoanalyis for a long time, and I
went to a very famous psychoanalyst, and asked for treatment. After one
hour talking to me he said: "I wouldn't recommend it, because you
certainly would get lost there. You must be more comfortable with
yourself and your body. You can't even lie on the couch comfortably, you
are not ready for analysis."

So I still feel, that I have purposefully excluded myself from work
which was more about virtual space. I know that this a cop-out, but in
my past it was the real body that was hurt and at risk. In the end, I
work in the real world, even if that includes the virtual computer space
by now. But when you get shot in the head, you get shot in the head.

?: One the main issues in your work is control and surveillance, and you
once called yourself "Big Brothers little sister". Now, all of a sudden
there are all these webcams on the internet, where people show their
day-to-day-life with every intimate detail to a world-wide audience.
Nobody seems to bother anymore to give up personal information on forms
on the web. The internet providers can control how you move through the
net, and where you leave you data tracks, and nobody seems to care about
this constant violations of privacy anymore. How do you feel about this?

!: I agree with thinkers like Gary Marx, that it is the velvet glove
over the iron fist that wins every time. So if you slowly increase the
level of surveillance without letting people see that there are risks
involved, then they will blindly move into the wanted direction. It
shocks me, but it doesn't surprised me. The marketing strategy in
survaillance has been that it won't hurt you and you get something for
free - products, higher credit limits, whatever.

?: So people don't seem to be bothered by the fact that they are being
monitored all the time, when they are online. Does that make the
internet a less interesting medium for you?

Scher: Gee, I wish I could have conversations like that with somebody
here. At my school nobody speaks to me. You know, I am at MIT. Here they
did systematic and covert surveillance to overthrow governments, to take
over people, to cause slaughter and mayhem. There are many surveillance
masters at my school. But the real surveillance people don't talk to me,
because I am an artist, and my artist collegues don't talk to me,
because they are too invested in their own work.

Yes, you are right. If the taking unfair advantage of people is not
happening on the net, it is not as interesting to me. If people are
walking into a space that is dangerous, but not knowing it, that is
interesting to me. The net has been and is still a dangerous place, but
since there are so many other onlookers now and since I feel I have
already covered so much, the urge is to move on to other spaces, that
are less discovered. Other kinds of energies and information transport
systems are now more interesting to me, microwave for instance. My next
shows will be a venture into this invisible space.

?: So the surveillance of public space will not be a topic of your art

Scher: Surveillance networks used to be invisible, and that has changed.
Surveillance space to me was a metaphor for controlled space, controlled
life. To unmask and deconstruct surveillance technology was a way to
criticize and reveal. Now, it's part of an aesthetic of exposed
foundations. Architects have their fun with the deconstruction of
architecture. The apparatus has come out of its shell.

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