JEN HALL INTERVIEW
by Christine MacDonald
Photography copyright Jennifer Hall 1997
Cyber sculptor and performance artist Jennifer Hall works on an edge where technology, art and even occasionally the medical world fleetly converge. Her work frequently utilizes a technology culled from systems software, robotics and computerized medical tools. She is director of the Do While Studio in Boston and an associate professor at Massachusetts College of Art.
BostonCyberFest: Was there ever a time art and technology were separate things to you?
Jen Hall: I must say art technology has always been one and the same. If we look back into ancient times, the people who were making the artistic gestures in the culture were also doing things like making the state of the art casting, and building the technologies and templates of the times. Not until this sort of bizarre, post modern, industrial age, has it become two separate things.
The re-fusing of those two terms is actually a small arc we have to close. Anybody who has used shrink-wrapped (consumer computer) technology to try to make art, instantly comes upon the "what ifs." "What if I had the ability to alter and change these interfaces? I could be more successful in my endeavor."
"I was mimicking the electronic patterns of my own brain."
If you go into a sculptor's studio, it's filled with jigs and templates and all sorts of things that help the process. So, I don't see the two any differently. In my own work they have always been synonymous.
BCF: How did you learn to take your training as a sculpture into the computer realm?
JH: When I was very young I lived with my grandfather, who was a forger. And we traveled the world together, and he forged famous paintings. My job was to sit with my little French easel copying his copies.
I didn't go to traditional school. I learned what history was off the canvass, what mathematics were by learning where you would put a highlight on a portrait verses a landscape. I learned everything I needed to know about the world through the world of art. I got a really robust background in all we call the basics - reading, writing and arithmetic.
From that point on, it was a mesh for me.
I was also part of television production during live-TV days in the early 1950s. That was a remarkable time because it was as if the technology was evolving around the need. Once again, the templates were helping describe what this area was going to look like. A lot of the creative people came from live production - Broadway, and the movies, and all sorts of traditions.
We ended up with a product of the meshing of the traditions. If you didn't have vaudeville people involved in the first phase of television, would so much on the screen be about the theater? Maybe it would be more about documentation? It was about individual contributions. So is the place we are at right now with what we call art technology.
BCF: How has your work evolved to combine performance and other live forms with art technology?
JH: I think I have popped in and out of it.
I did performance work in the 1970s, then two more of my seminal pieces in the 1980s and one in the nineties. It's a resource for me. I don't see that I'm moving toward the area or away from the area.
BCF: Tell us about your art and epilepsy projects.
JH: When I learned about my own biochemistry through epilepsy, I learned Western medicine was perceiving what was going on in my epilepsy as outside the bell curve of normal.
That already started to interest me, that these activities I was having, these thoughts I was having, were abnormal. Western medicine describes what normal is by looking at abnormal and saying your not it. It's sort of this backwards-engineered definition. I've always found it sort of amusing.
There was all this other intellectual fodder about what consciousness is - what creativity is verses insanity. At the turn of the century, epilepsy was considered a point of genius, an entry gate to genius. Then, we pulled away from that and described it as a medical disorder that needed to be eliminated. So, history had ascribed it two distinct perceptions.
I was interested in electricity, because I was making digital art and electrical art.
I thought it was fascinating that I was mimicking the electronic patterns of my own brain. A blip could be defined as a seizure or an "aha" in a thought. Those are the things artists look for, those bridges. When you have electricity going across a dendrite at this surging rate, it seems like a useful process, if you can learn to manipulate and control it a little bit. That was the beginning, trying to figure out what to do with it.
I'm really interested in creating three-dimensional objects and forms from my thought processes and using a three-dimensional printer to actually build these processes.
JH: I'd love to exhibit them at the Cyber Arts Festival.
BCF: You seem to have a good track record with the corporate world, how do you convince business people to support your projects?
JH: I don't know if I have a good track record. It's always the dream. On the capillary level, we have actually been very successful. In other words, the CEOs haven't gotten the news as much as the employees.
The first generation of people, who had been working with technology in industry, were the kind of people that loved this new field. Now that it's all boxed in as a 9-to-5 business, these geniuses, who implemented the first stage of new media in our culture, feel a little displaced. After their 9-to-5, a lot of them come into Do While [Studio] because what they are really looking for is a creative conversation. We will match up those in industry with artists who have all sorts of ideas but don't know how to implement them. That may be one of our greatest successes. One by one we've been able to hook up people.
If I could get one fabulous "aha" in my class... that's good education for me.
BCF: What direction is technology art taking?
JH: Technology by design right now is temporal. It's time based. It comes in chunks and it's never the same from one month to the next.
It's even hard to see some of the art work that was made two years ago on other browsers for instance. It's hard to see art work made on a state of the art browser. It's a very modulated type of art making.
We get information now in little bits, little chunks. Artists that are annoyed by that are trying to take little chunks and clump them together to make something of more substance. So they end up making art that's about binders. These artists are creating things like interfaces for database art; Internet art, which collects data from other sites on the Web; and digital collages from many source media.
BCF: How much are you a technician and how much an artist?
JH: I refuse to believe there is any separation of church and state on that.
We just had a discussion at Mass Art on this ongoing issue. In our technology courses, for instance, should we have a competency requirement so we can get to the "content?" Or, should we not expect so much "content" if we show them how to use the tools during the course? There is a school of thought that thinks, well, you can kind of get under your belt all the how-tos and then you can talk about ideas. I think when you separate the two you perpetuate two different avenues in the culture.
If I could get one fabulous "aha" in my class of three months, where somebody sees the reasoning of the technology has everything to do with the concept, that's good education for me.
BCF: So, you decline to answer?
JH: OK. It's an interesting question to ask because maybe there is a third leg. It's not where you are on a liner continuum, but how you play within the two. Some people have concepts then they find the right tools. Some people play with the tools and come up with an idea.