Josephine Bosma on 25 Jan 2001 16:08:14 -0000

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<nettime> interview with Prema Murty

Prema Murty is one of the founders of the Brooklyn New York based
performance group Fakeshop. Fakeshop are well known for their performances
in which a poetic use of the CUseeme software and environment is most
striking. 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


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 art work until I moved to New York from
Texas. I began working with an inventor. He developed algorhythms 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 speciality 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 artproject?

PM: From the beginning we used CUseeme software, which is a very low tech
video conferencing software. It is used for pretty mondane 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 naratives, 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 phonelines 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, who is a Phd candidate right now (he is writing
a lot about bio genetics and science fiction theory) he eventually joined
the group. That was around 1996. Sice 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?

PM: Definitely.

JB: Was your excitement shared by the audience? Was it shared in a
different way? Can you describe it?

PM: Definitely. Our work was not aways 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 seing 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
definitaly 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 artpiece 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 reflectorsite 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 respod 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 phonecalls from people in sound art pieces... You are using
peoples 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 surveilance 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 NewYork. 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 succesful 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

PM: One thing I have learned about collaborating is that it works when
there is not too much overlap in peoples 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 Gril. It was part of
an exhibition at the Walker Art Centre. It was a webbased project and I
was toying with the idea of south asians womens identity on the internet.
I was juxtaposing how asian women are presented in this very two dimensial
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 cheeck, 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...


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