Networked Projects:
in the Formative Years of the Internet

N ina Sobell
Work, 1977-1997

Videophone Voyeur As a digital artist, who focuses on experimental forms of interaction and performance, in her words, Nina Sobell "investigates the extent to which video enables her to manipulate the relation between time and space, and to create a vortex for human experience, in which the mediated event coincides with public experience, memory and relationships."

Her pioneering work in publicly-situated interactive video began in 1969 when, while she was a student at Cornell, she used video to document interaction with her sculptures. Subsequently, in 1977, Sobell's performative communication-based installation, Videophone Voyeur, was installed in a storefront window at the Acme Gallery in London. Works such as In and Out the Window, which was installed in a store on Main Street in Ocean Park, California as part of a feminist performance event organized and curated by Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz in 1979 -- were situated not only in communications theory and community-based telematics but also in the 1970s feminist video performance movement. Collaborations with other artists -- including the Web-based ParkBench and ArTisTheater with Emily Hartzell -- have been important in her work.

In her words, she is "inspired by the collaborative process that evolves from crossing the lines of music, art and technology, and opening up these channels to the public, through interactive video and web based performance and installation."

Nina Sobell's work has been exhibited/performed extensively, including at the Getty Museum The Whitney Museum of American Art, the Hammer Museum, Franklin Furnace, Otis Art Institute Gallery, Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE), Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, and Kunstforum, Austria. Her awards include grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and The New York State Council on the Arts, and among other places she has taught at UCLA, School of Visual Arts (SVA), and Goldsmiths College, University of London. Visit her website at http://www.ninasobell.com for more information.

N ina Sobell: Work

My work over the past 40 years engages both the technology and sociology of surveillance.  I have used technology as a prop to give participants permission to overcome various types of boundaries --- physical and social -- to communicate with one another. I have deployed existing tools in unintended applications, as well as created purpose-built tools. The works Videophone Voyeur (1977), In and Out The Window (1979), Six Moving Cameras / Three Converging Views (1981-82), and Alice Sat Here (1995) are representative of a unitary exploration of altering perception, interaction, and agency that embraces my analog and digital/Web projects utilizing storefront windows. Much of my work is discussed in Emily Hartzell and Nina Sobell, "Sculpting in Time and Space" Leonardo 34:2 (2001), pp. 101-107, available at https://www.jstor.org/stable/1577010. Here, I will highlight specific concepts in my use of the street-level glass window as a medium and space for interaction that unifies these key early works.  


Videophone Voyeur, London and Manchester, 1977

In 1977, I installed Videophone Voyeur at the Acme Gallery, London. Having a large storefront window, it became a perfect open stage for engaging the public interactively.  The general public isn't always predisposed to entering an art gallery, and this was a way of engaging with the public. A meter maid passed by, stopped and looked in the window at the split-screen monitor;  on the left was the image of her, and on the right was the image of me. She picked up the handset to speak to me, and we conversed about the piece and her dreams of becoming a TV weather reporter.

This performative installation, consisted of two split-screen closed-circuit monitors, one facing the street and another adjacently placed at a forty-five degree angle inside the window. A telephone was placed on the sill for participants, and a speaker with a microphone was provided for me to converse. I sat facing the monitor just inside the window, not seeing participants peripherally. We spoke to each other through this videophone matrix. There was a partition separating the activity in the front window from the interior of the gallery, with another split-screen closed-circuit monitor on a stand at eye-level, displaying the image of me and whomever I was talking with. Visitors could enter the gallery, without being seen by me, observe the front window activity, and decide to engage with me or not. Videophone Voyeur formed a medium for interactions that would never have occurred otherwise. When the meter maid saw herself on the screen, she became part of the piece, and the interaction. Toward the end of the work's second installation in Manchester, I stepped out of the window, as the participants took over the piece. In a subsequent performance, I played back the video dialogues from both installations on two monitors. Participants seemed to be asking and answering each other's questions, while a camera was focused on cards as I played solitaire, seen on a third monitor. I was no longer needed as a catalyst. I ported the whole performative installation over to the public as a communicative tool.

Joseph Beuys appreciated the work, especially the meter maids, and invited me to talk about it as part of his Free International University, presented at Documenta 6, Kassel 1977.


In and Out the Window, Ocean Park, California, 1979


Sobell: In and Out the Window

In and Out the Window was installed in Colors of the Wind, a store on Main Street in Ocean Park, California as part of Making It Safe, a feminist performance event organized and curated by Suzanne Lacy and Leslie Labowitz in 1979.  In the performative installation, In and Out the Window, multiples pairs of artists interviewed one another through a closed-circuit video loop on either side of a storefront window, providing a matrix for building community through mediated communication. This work consisted of two parallel video cameras, microphones, and monitors on each side of the window. The participants switched roles between being inside and outside the storefront. Even though they could have talked to each other directly through the window, their inclination was to communicate through the media matrix. Although participants knew their interviews were not being broadcast, this knowledge was overwhelmed by their perception of the power of the technology. The presence of the cameras and monitors affected their behavior, causing participants to adopt the formality and seriousness of someone actually on the air. Later in the performance, I myself sat inside the installation while passersby interviewed me through media matrix. As in Videophone Voyeur in London and Manchester and in Alice Sat Here, the public interacted with the technology. The presence of 'tele-video', dictated a formal behavioral mode of communication between the participants, who imagined that the work might be broadcast.


Six Moving Cameras / Three Converging Views, New York and Los Angeles, 1981-83

Six Moving Cameras / Three Converging Views (1981-83) enfolds within the perception of time, space, and surveillance of our movement. The New York version of this video sculpture was installed for three weeks in the storefront window of Franklin Furnace as part of the exhibition "We’ll Think Of A Title When We Get There" (1981), organized by Suzanne Lacy from LA and Susan Hiller from London. I placed a three-tiered rack supporting three pairs of closed-circuit cameras, framing three large split-screen monitors stacked on top of each other. The six moving cameras captured street views in real time. The bottom pair of video cameras, fitted with wide angle lenses, were pointed in opposite directions and panned in synchronicity towards the center line at 90 degrees. If two people were walking towards each other on the sidewalk, their images merged into one on the monitor. Then the cameras panned back out to 180 degrees and repeated the panning motion, encompassing other passersby.  The middle tier of paired video cameras was focused across the street and panned simultaneously with the bottom cameras from 180 degrees back to 90 degrees. The middle split-screen monitor showed the live feeds from this middle pair of cameras, which panned from the opposite side of the street back to the storefront, flattening space. The top pair of cameras were mounted vertically, in contrast to the bottom two pairs. Each of the top cameras was positioned to move 180 degrees, one moving up as the other panned down, encompassing our view as we look up at the sky and back down to the ground, bending space and time. All the cameras moved at the same slow speed. All six images on the three monitors -- with their three converging views --- surveilled people walking down the street. In this work, I was exploring the perception of experience of time in the moment: passing another person, having ourselves merge, glancing across the street, bringing that view into focus and looking down at the sidewalk and up at the sky -- all at once.

Inside the gallery, an additional monitor displayed the feeds of all six cameras in a grid. This was accomplished by the building of a custom video mixer and a camera controller that adjusted their speed and position and was made by electronics engineer John Gord. (Slides of this hardware, used in a lecture by Barbara London, are in the collection of the Museum of Modern Art, New York).

Six Moving Cameras / Three Converging Views evokes my earlier work, Interactive Brain Wave Drawings (1974), made in collaboration with systems engineer Michael Trivich, where I made two people's brain waves visually merge into one, and similarly investigates the experience of nonverbal communication between people.  By bringing exterior activity to the interior space, this work recalled the concepts of Videophone Voyeur and In and Out the Window, the two prior performative installations. This time-based video sculpture also was a precursor to the tethered telerobotic drone Alice Sat Here (1995) and VirtuAlice (1997), which had the capacity of having its one camera positioned remotely.   

Videophone Voyeur Six Moving Cameras / Three Converging Views also was installed in Los Angeles at Otis Art Institute Gallery on the occasion of my lecture there (1982); and at Branda Miller's loft at Fifth and Wall Street (1983), where she used it to film footage for LA Nickel (1983). Additionally, Six Moving Cameras / Three Converging Views was set up again for the screening of Miller's LA Nickel at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions space (LACE), later the same year. Six Moving Cameras / Three Converging Views lives on a single channel video available from Nina Sobell. The project was recommended by Nam Jun Paik to the set director of Blade Runner (dir. Ridley Scott, 1982). I was interviewed in early 1982 regarding incorporating Six Moving Cameras / Three Converging Views into the movie; their intention was to put it into or make it into a moving vehicle within the set design.

Alice Sat Here, New York, 1995, and VirtuAlice, Atlanta, 1997

With the advent of the World Wide Web in the 1990s, I welcomed the new Web environment for its experimental, interactive, voyeuristic, and spatial characteristics. In 1992, as the first Artist in Residence at Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University, I created Windows on AIDS, the first 5-borough cable television show. It was a one time live broadcast, and I wanted to make it interactive; viewers could dial a telephone number at a later time and hear recorded responses from participants in the panel, such as people with HIV, mothers, and doctors.

I established the ParkBench digital artist collective with my principal collaborator Emily Hartzell in 1994, as artists in residence at the Center for Advanced Technology at NYU’s Courant Institute. Intel had developed the Intel ProShare 200 desktop video conferencing system on a LAN network around 1993, and we planned to use it in the ParkBench interface in the subways, along with the Bulletin Board system known as BBC. Right then, the Web and email broke out, we were on the cusp of the Internet, so we used the Web instead. On March 16, 1995, we created the first live interactive performance on the Web as part of ParkBench, as documented in the previously referenced Leonardo article.

 

Alice Sat Here (1995), an installation featuring an early tethered drone named Alice, after Alice in Wonderland, is an extension of my window works.  As part of the digital art group exhibition "Code," Alice Sat Here was sited in the window on the ground floor of the Ricco Maresca Gallery in New York and on the Web. My idea was a passage between physical and cyberspace; for those not able to be there physically and those not inclined to enter a gallery.  

Alice's eye -- a telerobotic wireless Web camera mounted on a tall pole on a three-wheeled motorized chair -- uploads video stills to the Web.

Both Web users and passersby could control the camera's movement; sometimes there was a clash, causing interference in the video feed. Passersby used eight MicroTouch-Pads -- attached to the storefront window surrounding a monitor -- as camera controllers; this monitor had a surveillance camera sewn into a Queen of Hearts playing card, which fed their image back to the participants, superimposing it on the image of the interior space. I wanted people outside to feel like they were part of the interior space without going inside. Thus, this work goes along with Six Moving Cameras, which had an interior monitor that displayed the three converging views from the exterior, and Videophone Voyeur (1977)..

Inside the gallery, people sat in the motorized vehicle and drove her around per a directed image pointed to on a handlebar-mounted small monitor and created by Web visitors and passersby of what they (tele-robotically) wanted to see in the rest of the "Code" exhibition. The vehicle's driver acted as a chauffeur for the Web visitor and front window participants. The people controlling the camera could point it down to see the driver in a rear-view mirror. A combined image of the passerby and the inside of the gallery was then uploaded to the Web; in this way, the passerby became 'virtually' inside the gallery.  A 1960s round white monitor was installed in the foyer, showing a smaller image of what was going-on on the outside, superimposed on what was going-on in the inside.

Alice is a mobile, content-collection vehicle for the Web. Alice's memories, the archive of what she's seen in a day, represent a subjectivity negotiated by participants in three spaces: interior, exterior, and Webterior.

This project reappeared as VIrtuAlice (1997) at the Computer Human Interaction (CHI) conference in Atlanta with a non-clashing cueing system software for physical and Web users. VirtuAlice is a vehicle for a shared experience, whereby participants collaborate in transferring that experience into meaning, into history. By appropriating surveillance technology and interweaving surveillance streams, she raises questions about subjectivity and control.  Documentation of the ParkBench and Alice projects is on the NYU CAT server at https://cat.nyu.edu/parkbench/

Documentation of the Alice projects is also on my website at http://colophon.com/ninasobell/parkbench_docs/alice/index.html  







The rich underlying environment of research and development in communications technologies from the late 1970's to the early 1990's not only produced ground breaking arts and humanities-focused virtual communities, such as the Electronic Cafe, ACEN, Arts Wire, and THE THING, but also was paralleled by a plethora of individual, pedagogical, and collaborative telematic projects.

With a focus on platforms and communities, in Social Media Archeology and Poetics (MIT Press, 2016), the words and work of creative computer scientists, writers, artists, musicians, historians, and digital humanists document how social media and related Internet platforms evolved.

Concentrating on vision and mission as expressed in individual and small collaborative projects, Networked Projects in the Formative Years of the Internet builds on and supplements Social Media Archeology and Poetics with a series of essays and papers that explore the theory and practice that was central to early telematic projects -- and in many cases also look to the future.

Editor:
Judy Malloy