Josephine Bosma on Tue, 5 May 1998 23:33:53 +0200 (MET DST)

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<nettime> interview: Julia Scher

We met at the notorious conference "objects versus pixels" in Amsterdam
a long long time ago, and somehow I just felt like sharing it with you


JB: What kind of artist are you?

Julia Scher (tone of voice of an airport announcement):
I work in the multiple forms of photography, video, film, stillframe
computer grabs, computertexts, audio, cd's, mix down, child supervision,
sculpture and interactive multimedia installation.

JB: You were in the panel of the section 'technolust and morals' here.
Why were you in that particular one?

Julia Scher:
I imagine because of the extensive work I have done on the web, that is
using mediamaterials to express sadomasochistic messages, including
sm desires and lust over the internet, using transmission systems as
a vehicle to help get involved with my own feelings and desires.

JB: Can you translate that? Does that mean you were playing sm games on
the net?

Julia Scher:
Yes. I work with some websites in which the covert or underneath subject
matter is the push and pull between participants. That is: individuals
who act as followers or submissives having conversations with and sharing
emotions with people who are playing out as tops or dominants or people
seeking to take control. I am interested, not only in those powergames,
but in the kind of invisible ways we enter into powerrelationships that
we really have no control over. I am interested in questions around
power and control, about the unintended consequences of someone leading
and somebody following, of the dictates of power. I am interested in the
cohersive aspects of surveillance or the provocation of surveillance of
guarding, of securitysystems. I am interested in highlighting the aspects
of social control in the limited way that I have been able to do so over
the web and over the net and in email. I try to mimic some of the
ideological concerns of my sculptural projects on the net this way.

JB: So as a real good artist there is no real distinction to be made
between your personal desires and your work?

Julia Scher:
Well... unfortunetaly that is the case. I mean I am sad to say. It is
an expression of my sense of loss, of despair, of my insecurity in the
real world. But also my nag for being hooked on aestheticizing some of
the consumerproducts that have emerged as a result of people having their
own crisis of intimacy in the real world. I think the crisis of intimacy
between people, between individuals, lovers, families, social groups and
communities is one of the largest crisis now facing Americans. In Europe
I am sure it is a different crisis.

JB: But you have investigated this by interacting personally in sexual
games on the net, right? Thats one of the things you have done.

Julia Scher:
Yes, that is one of the practices I have been developing. I have several
different personas too, in which I pursue these online activities. One
of them is a person named Bill. Another one is Julia, for 'Security by
Julia' and then there is 'Insecurity by Julia', there is 'Safe and
Secure Productions' and further in the past, we had one of the first
cyber rapes on the Thing in 1992, where inside Madame J's Dungeon a
cyber rape occurred. I don't know if this is the first one, you should
ask Julian Debell (?) in NewYork, I think he knows the date of the first
known and publicized cyber rape. Cyber rape that being an online event
in which a "character or individual shakes up or disturbs another online
persona by saying nasty icky things that feel extremely intrusive and
rapelike". So there is no actual physical rape, but a psychological one
using words. This happened and then the group of us closed the dungeon
because some members weren't so keen on that kind of action.

JB: How long have you been doing this?

Julia Scher: I started in 1991 going online and it has been a growing

JB: Have you come to certain conclusions yet?

Julia scher:
I am more full of darkness and doom then ever before. At the same time
I continue to propose more utopian type projects, for example security
and safety gear for children. Online. So I embody both extremes. I
continue to embody a collusion between powers that take our freedoms
away and those forces which would help us escape from powers of
cohersion and economic doom.

JB: But that you are working on these protection devices, security
and insecurity devices for children, does that mean that you have
seen a potential danger somewhere for these children?

Julia Scher:
I am very interested in issues around childprotection and child abuse,
especially sexual abuse. I just closed a show in Switserland in which
there was a surveillance bed for children in which children were shown
how to tie up people who come and might hurt them. A little cage under
the bed in which they could hide in case of a bad person was coming in
the house and a button they could press, so that they could call a
community network online. That buttonpressing would not activate a
policestation, but would activate a local network that would be connected
with the childrens home.

In general I am interested in creating an atmosfere in which children,
those people who are the least likely to have any data defiancy, any
data damage, any hightech embedded in them, like technovirgins, people
who are naive and should not be suspect and should not be under the gun
of electronic control are actually using some of the availability of
those devices to ensure their own safety, or try and take control of
their own safety. However I realise that children in reality cannot
do that. It is a utopian prospect that they could actually protect
themselves. I understand that the reality of that is not the same as my
envisioning a safe haven for children, that those two are distinct and

JB: Could you give some concrete examples of dangers or very sensitive
spots in lets say social encounters on the net, on the web, that are
specific for there, that do not occur anywhere else? Also for grown ups.

Julia Scher :
In my experience right wing or "moralistic individuals" will have
nothing to do with the display of sexual activity or longing on the web,
they will not go into those areas. However unsuspecting individuals
may by chance enter into one. For example: there is a very interesting
site called the Santa Barbara Paddle Company. I think it is a cool site.
It looks like a place where fratboys, that is fraternity boys, in America
would go and buy equipment for their fraternity. Well, after you see a
few couple of layers, you see that they are selling paddles. You go a
further level deeper you see that they are selling paddles for stripping
people and beating them. You go a couple more layers into the site and
'lo and behold' its a whole porno-ring of young boys being taken advantage
off, abused and disciplined by the likes of priests and teachers and other
individuals. It turns out to be a men site, a site for men looking at
young boys.
These kinds of sites sometimes are happened upon by unweary individuals
who might accidentally come upon the site, see that they are benign
looking, venturing further might find themselves in territory that they
don't wish to explore. Sexsites, or -moos for example, are very popular
for people interested in looking at sexual material. The moos and
newsgroups in the United States are very popular. You can have
anything. There is anything from horses and small children to you name
it, its there. What is recently illegal in the United States is the
depiction of sex acts, not in the moos or newsgroups, that are somehow
restricted in some countries in Europe by there servers knocking them off
for their written pornographic material... in the United States, if you
collage together bodyparts from different people, small children and
boys, and have them having sex with eachother, eventhough these are not
real individuals or depictions of whole selves, it is now, currently,
illegal to show that. That would be pornography eventhough it is not a
real person.

JB: What do you think of that?

Julia Scher:
My own personal feeling is that that is silly. Hopefully the engagement
of our psychic, social and sexual selves will be more integrated with
the prosteses of computers and networks. Even in spite of the fact that
these systems are failible. Along the way a finding new bigger open
spaces in which we can encourage our own libidos and desires and work
out things and have fun and have entertainment and read cool things..
along the way we will be encountering many who are resistent to opening
up these kinds of cool spaces for the perceived threads that they

For example there were many individuals carrying out selling kids images
over the web in the US. This is of course now found to be illegal. Under
age depiction of sex is for one thing illegal, the second thing is the
sale of that material to people under age, which varies from state to
state. I think the 'smoking' age here is sixteen, in the United States
its higher. You have a threefold stage of illegality right now in the
United States: the illegality of using under age children for sex, there
are certain sexual depictions which are illegal in some states
(for example sodomy), and then you have the distribution of pornography
across statelines, which is a felony, and next you have the viewing of
that material by underaged individuals. You are not allowed to show this
material to minors. The multiplicity of infractions of current law are
wide. However, laws can not keep up with community values, community
definitions of decency or defiancy or statutes (?) about pornography in
general, as the state or the federal governement deems to dictate those
things at a particular moment. For example, if you see Karen Finley's
new book, it looks like a very soft, totally unthreatening compared to
her earlier work. She's certainly been through the mill, but she was on
the front battle lines of censorship only a few short years ago. If
anyone remembers: the NEA four, she was one of them.

It's just that this new book reminds me of Martha Stuart, who I get a
big kick out off. The paradigm in America, the thrust toward pornography
(I am not saying there is a large one) and let me qualify my statement
about SM earlier, certainly the community for SM worldwide is very small does not seem to be growing by leaps and bouce just because the
material is available in an electronic soupe, certainly not, I wouldn't
say that at all. I would just say it helps a current community. The scale
of the community, like the scale of homosexuals worldwide, percentage and
numbers, my feeling is that it is not like a growing industry. It is
proliferating, but in terms of numbers I'm not so sure that availability
is turning defiance... defiancy could be word, its certainly not a word I
use: I don't think there are any perversions. I think there might be acts
that take away... I think there is evil, an evil person being one who
has no empathy for the consciousness of another human being. I would not
necesarely call that a perversion. If you hurt someone and disregard
their feelings and act with them in a way which is not consentual I
would not call that perverted but evil.

JB: We got to this because you were trying to name examples of potential
dangers in the specific kinds of social interactions that happen in the
net and on the web. You were talking about childpornography, the dungeon
for little boys: do you know other examples, or can you give examples
for the way people communicate in email or in chat? Are there any
specific sensitive areas there? Is there anything specific about the
medium, the computermedium, the net, email, texts, or in
CUseeme, that is different from other media and should be discussed?

Julia Scher:
There are a couple of things. In hypermedia you recapture memories from
a past action or a past thought that you had and recombine it to help
you go through the articulation of images and texts on the web. There
is one site which is two nude women on a beach. They are blond, their
crotches are open and their beavers are showing. You can take your mouse
and if your pointer on your mouse rubs across them, you certainly don't
feel their crotch, but you have a memory perhaps of a feeling of it or
a sensation that may have been provoked in you doing that in real. If
you can imagine rubbing your mouse back and forth on your mousepad and
watching the cursor slide up, back and forth across these womens
crotches, you are recovering in a way, you are remembering chunks,
details, fragments from a moment past.

JB: Yes, but I suppose you also have that when you rub your finger over
a magazine, over a centerfold, right?

Julia Scher:
The net works in the same way. The amount of distance travelled might be
a little bit further, but you certainly are in that instance bringing
your own physicality to the computer and into the interface. I don't
think there is anything in particular to the computers right now that
make it more juicy or hot to go online other then one doesn't need to be
intimate, one can be a hermit, alone, solitary, in ones appartment.
However new interfaces will make it possible, like women, to see smells
or women to smell sounds. This will all be possible. The problem of the
interface, that it is so bulky, that you are sticking this penislike
microphone in my mouth right now is cool and exiting, but it is a bulky
thing that probably won't need to be used very much longer. Perhaps
this will disappear, and as the interface shrinks, our proximity to our
target area will shrink and this will change and highlight newer ways
of acting on our body juices. I don't find it anymore stimulating or
exiting to have an orgasm over the net then I do in live, in a real
playroom or relationship. However, the kind of activity that it is can
proliferate and happen at a rate which I can control. Very much like
reading a magazine. I see great dangers in this, but I also see its
expansive possibilities.

JB: This is still not going into the more textlike communication.

Julia Scher:
Ok, like There is a chatroom where the discussion
centers around having intercourse with people with amputated legs, double
amputees, triple amputees... and women and men which have no limbs, but
they have a trunk. Their torso still contains their sexual organs.
Sometimes in a mangled or mutated form. By mutated I mean someone took
great pains to alter their genitalia's appearance. These sites are very
hot to some people. You can imagine the performance of the sexual act,
moving the one existing leg for example, feeling the end of the stump
while inserting your penis into the mouth or other opening of the
individual. Stroking a penis while limbs are flapping, holding them
down, maybe tieing up all the stumps and then having intercourse. Or
having the amputee, the reduced, changed or altered individual riding
up on top of you and squirming around on you and then entering you. This
is the type of chat that would go on in

There are some servers in which you can go immediately into chat after
reading a couple of the last postings on the newsgroup. For example,
you read a story or two about could on some bulletin
boards press ch or o and enter a chatroom, maybe number one or two if
there are not many people in chat and you will enter a blank hole if
you have never been into a chatroom before. It will seem like a big
blank void...and then all of a sudden you will be staring at your blank
computer and a voice will come say, in text: "Hi there! Who are you?"
Maybe you are to scared to type in anything. It will say: "Are you an
amputee? What part are you missing?" And you might answer back: "I was
just here to watch..." Another voice might come in and say: "I have no
scrotum and left arm and I am paralysed. My name is Jim. What is your
name?" And you might reply and engage in a conversation. Jim might tell
you what turns him on. You might reply back that you came in because you
were curious. In the meantime maybe you are getting hot or not. A third
voice might appear, Jim might go away and Emily might come on, saying:
"I am a homebound woman with diabetes and I have my feet removed due to
diabetes. Tell me your fantasies, I'ld like to hear them." And then you
might converse with them. Line by line, one line at a time, waiting,
hoping for the next line to encourage you on further. If it gets too
disruptive or scary (its your first time on) you might just click and
go out or quit. You might leave the chatroom. You might enter another
one later.

Sometimes if you go back to the same chatroom people will welcome you
back. "O hi there, this is Emily! Remember me? I am the double amputee.
I am laying in bed right now. What are you doing?"

JB: You have a really juicy way of telling these things. Is this because
you enjoy it, or is this because you like it as a kind of obscure

Julia Scher: Both. The point I did not say, or did not choose to babble
in my last rendition of the amputee chat is that someone might come in
very violently and cut off the last remaining legs of Emily, saying:
"I am cutting off both your legs. You are ugly and you don't deserve to
live." Meanwhile a twelve year old boy could be in on that chatroom
accidentally, seeing this. Or portraying an older adult him or herself.
Here is where it gets extremely dangerous and hurtful. Once an incident
happens and you are a child, it imprints on you. You may not have much
memory of it later.

JB: So these media get closer to you, that is the thing. You would never
find such rough amputee sex so close to your home as with computers and
a modem.

Julia Scher: Correct. It is that change in distance. You might recouperate
some of the distance, shorten the distance with the computer, seemingly
reduce the distance, yet it is a fantasy space. You are, not yet,
physically there. That people might wish it, that people might
futuristically desire hurtful and not helpful spaces concerns me a lot.

Julia Scher will present a work at Ars Electronica this year.
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