Eye To Eyebeam: A Conversation With Alan Sondheim

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Eye to Eyebeam is a series on Eyebeam's artists in residence and fellows that includes interviews, photos, and other information on Eyebeam’s artists and creative technologists. It is authored by Eyebeam intern Katherine DiPierro.

Alan Sondheim is a transmedia artist, a musician, a theorist, and a writer. In past interviews, he has described himself as falling “between” literature and the arts; similarly, his projects fall between real and virtual bodies and worlds. For nearly forty years, Alan has employed his talents in writing and art-making to produce books, videos, performances, and net art. Through prolific writing and art-making, Alan has worked on many projects that link philosophy, psychology, language, body, sexuality, and virtuality. Eyebeam intern Katherine DiPierro (virtually) sat down with Alan Sondheim to find out more about his past and current work.

Katherine DiPierro: What are you planning to do during your residency?

Alan Sondheim: Already this is complicated; my artistic practice has always been to make one piece or moment of a conversation, daily. So that continues. I'm working in several directions: involvements/collaborations with the performance, installation, and choreographic work of Monika Weiss and Foofwa d'Imobilite, as well as ongoing work later in the fall with Leslie Thornton; working on the phenomenology of pain, dis/comfort, sexuality, and rupture in virtual worlds and theorizing the phenomenology of the virtual in this regard; and examining the 'atmospherics' of Eyebeam - the very low frequency radio signals from the ionosphere and beyond that might be received on the premises, signals from the equipment itself, and very low frequency audio signals, almost seismographic, from the building and its vibrations. All of these areas feed into each other. In addition, I'm using the blog heavily, and putting up work daily, including music/sound improvisation, either electronic from the environment, or from playing various instruments, somethings I've always done.

KD: You've had an extensive career in creating virtual and internet-based art; a visitor to your personal website can track the digital evolution through sprawling texts and graphics. What do you think are important elements to growing and sustaining virtual worlds?

AS: Are they necessary to either grow or sustain? I'm not sure; my own interest is in seeing and using them as an incredibly supple environment for phenomenological or structure experimentation, experimentation that can be carried on world-wide through logins and projections. There are also performative/choreographic possibilities that don't exist elsewhere, and there's a fuzzy and uneasy line between real and virtual in this regard; I've participated in a number of mixed-reality performances where imitations or 'anti-imitations' serve to unite or disunite different modes of being. But your question seems to ask about the sociological, even corporate aspects of these worlds, and that's something I don't address in general, at least not within my work itself.

KD: You mentioned an interest in bringing mortality to virtual reality games such as Second Life. What would you say are the biggest challenges of creating chronic illness or death in a virtual environment, particularly when default forms appear healthy and able?

AS: Well, default forms can also be disabled/disabling; our own default forms in the 'real' world include the disasterous pull of gravity. The older MUDs all had wounding, hunger, thirst, and death as part of their characterologies. By the way, I don't see Second Life as a game - it's not; there's no teleology, nothing to be lost or gained. You socialize, you build if you want, you have virtual sex or conversations if you want, you experiment. But there's no winners or losers and no rules except those of the virtual world physics which can be violated for that matter. That's an important distinction; this isn't a form of WOW or anything like that.

It's easy to represent chronic illness, etc. in SL; the difficulty is creating an uncomfortable rupture with the virtual, where the viewer is brought up short, just as s/he might have been with the early Jodi work. We slid almost flawlessly 'around' the web, links, clever/meme videos, and so forth; it's more difficult to get caught or snared in sorrow or wounding - to realize there are humans behind even the bots. As usual, people working sexually in SL know all of this already, know what's at stake, because they're potentially directly aroused and/or emotionally involved in what they do; that's an odd kind of honesty that slithers away elsewhere, I think. My own thinking wants to constantly bring the virtual up short - and bring the 'real' up short as well, since these are deeply entangled, inseparable; the body is always already an inscriptive and abject body, the body always hurtles towards death, Wired magazine notwithstanding.

KD: Part of your work involves the use of 'altered' motion capture technology. How do you do this, and how do digital forms coincide with real bodies?

AS: They don't coincide; the mapping can be 1/1 or many/1 or many/many etc. So there's a looseness involved; what occurs is a dialog among performers, software, hardware, and avatar representations. A single avatar on screen may already be 'inhabited' or 'produced' by more than one performer - four seems the maximum that makes any sense. So mocap nodes are reassigned, usually through some variant topological mapping, for example, dividing the body map into maps, inverting maps, separating the fundamental node, the base from the rest, creating torsion by rotations that in real life would tear a body apart, and so forth. If possible, the software might also be set differently, for example to allow enormous elasticity of the avatar body, so the whole mapping doesn't blow apart, collapse. In addition to all of this, it was possible at the Virtual Environments Lab at West Virginia University, to rewrite the software itself, creating 'behavioral' or dynamic filters that were employed between the real movements of the performers, and their data-base representations; these filters acted like graphics filters, changing the mapping on the fly. The result was a series of amazing movement-files - avatars could move through themselves, partly invert, move at inordinately high speed, and so forth - things 'real' bodies can't do. So all of this was then fed into Blender, for abstract avatar mapping; into Poser for representational mapping; and into Second Life, for live performance with one or more avatars. And then there might be performance or dance-work utilizing the results as a springboard for real-life, real- time choreography; I've worked with Foofwa d'Imobilite and Azure Carter, my partner, for a long time on this. The final results might be anything from video to stills to live performance, to mixed-reality performance, just about anything. Recently, with Mark Skwarek, some of this as been brought into augmented reality as well.

Thanks so much for the interview, Alan! For the latest information on Alan Sondheim’s projects, be sure to visit his Eyebeam page and personal website.