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Michelle Glaser: writing digital art

Felena Alach

Michelle Glaser Michelle Glaser
photo Robert Frith
Juvenate (Michelle Glaser, Andrew Hutchinson) was 2002 co-winner of the Mayne Award, the Multimedia category of the SA Festival Awards for Literature, and was recently exhibited in the Perth International Arts Festival Celestial City Visual Arts Program. It has featured in several other showings internationally including the 2002 Ninth New York Digital Salon (touring internationally), and the European Media Art Festival 2001, Osnabruck, Germany. Felena Alach spoke with Michelle Glaser.

What was the genesis of Juvenate? How did your role as a writer sit within that process—especially given that it’s not a text-based work?

I was co-curating an exhibition called techne some years ago, and Juvenate was presented in an early form by Marie Louise Xavier and Andrew Hutchinson. It came out of an experience of serious illness, and provided a way of working through that experience. I became involved as a writer from there.

We were seeking to find a way to tell a story, without relying upon any spoken language and using minimal written text. The work is essentially about celebrating the ordinary, the extraordinary in the ordinary, so we wanted to keep it domestic, homey and familiar. As you move through the work you have that binary opposition of moving towards morning/summer/health/vitality or moving into evening/winter/sickness. We tried to recreate that fevered sense of reality that you have when you are ill, where memories and reality start intermingling, so you are not quite sure at what point in the experience you are. Also the images are very hyperreal, as if in response to certain drugs, or as a response to the feeling that life is finite and the most has to be extracted from each minute.

So in working with such polarities that guide the flow of the work, what are the bonuses and the difficult points? How do you find writing towards a less linear narrative within interactive screen-space?

Basically the writing is about the structuring of ideas and images and putting them into play, writing them into existence. You use language where it needs to be used, or images or sound or even an event (like the home delivery of art in Pizza Surprise)…I like working with interactivity, because the formula isn’t set the way it is within the existing forms of linear narrative, so you are really free to explore, and you feel like you are an adventurer in a new realm of storytelling. With each new project I feel like it’s a new game for all the collaborators to play. You have a project that everyone brings their ideas to and it becomes a much richer and better project for all those ideas. Whatever input you have is only ever a part of that final work.

What’s hard is that you actually don’t have a map yourself. So it’s trial and error. You are often a long way in before you can figure out whether it’s working or not. I found doing Juvenate that although it works in many ways, in terms of navigational paths it’s really hard to keep track of where the audience is, and whether you are delivering them a really satisfying experience in terms of continuity between scenes, or an experience that includes highs and lows…I like the sense of a structured experience with stages in the work that you pass through.

With interactive media, because you can’t tell the satisfying linear story that audiences are used to, you need the big narrative hooks that the user can fill in. You need a simple but strong story or premise where they can fill in the gaps themselves…learn to navigate the work, and relate the various elements to each other. And there’s the question of what your viewer might bring to the work, because the thing with interactive work is that it opens up many cracks…for as much story or information as it ever gives you, it opens up many more questions. If it’s an engaging work the user should be bringing a great deal to that work. The hard part of making interactive work is putting the lights along the landing path that create a strong sense of journey and outcome for the user, that they’re going to get something that’s not going to be a clickfest where they won’t know what they’re actually triggering, or like an IQ test that’s too hard to pass.

One of the hazards of much multimedia work is the loop, unintentionally getting stuck in the sense of ‘hang on…I’ve been here; hang on, I’m stuck; hang on, I’m sick of this…’ and you can lose your viewer.

Exactly. Unless you use really obvious menu systems to let them know where they are going and what they are doing, but you can’t weave that into a work usually, and it’s not a very satisfying answer. The idea of ‘intuitive navigation’ is not that satisfying as a solution either, because what you think is obvious is never obvious to someone else.

The new interactive project you’re involved with is Dr Pancoast’s Cabinet de Curiosites (developed with Nic Beames and produced with Mia Lalanne, Marie-Louise Xavier and Chris Wells). What are some of the interesting features of this 19th century phantasy?

The essence of Dr Pancoast is that it’s a work for the child in the adult, it appeals to that furtive sense of seeing-what-you-shouldn’t-see. It’s also picking up on the fun with images you had when you were a child, when things were just gorgeous and glorious for you to look at and play with and use to tell a story yourself. We’ve tried to make it really physical, so that everything you operate you drag and touch and do, rather than an abstracted intellectual process…it’s very tactile and highly textural rather than digital in feel. Something we’ve also had lots of fun with has been 19th century games like rebuses, labyrinths and all sorts of little gimmicks. It’s been good to revisit those technologies that started in the 19th century, like the early computer, photography etc. It features illustrations by Helen Smith, Gina Moore and Richard Giblett (see RT41). Also, the time machine featured in the work actually exists, and has been made by Philip Gamblen. So, for exhibition, the idea is that it’s not just a cold little work on a computer, but we can actually make much more of the space, where the time machine is a ‘working object’…

Another way of looking at the work is as an exploration of the colonising of sexuality: that process in the 19th century where sexuality became categorised. It’s also about the procreating couple, and where sexualities became defined in terms of acceptable and deviant sexualities. It’s quite text-heavy as a work, but while the text is intrinsic, it’s designed so that there are a lot of keywords, so that you don’t really have to read it all through. If you glance at it you’ll get a sense of what the text says. The expectation is that lots of people don’t like to read, but it’s a richer work if you do read the text.

Recently Perth saw the Pizza Surprise project, where you and fellow curator Katie Major (a delivery team known as Art To Go) were serving up pizza-box art-packages for a mere $19.95 (see RT46).

The idea of it was to do something that would take art out of the gallery and make it more accessible to a much wider audience than the usual arts public. Thanks to media coverage on Triple J and the like, it did reach a much wider audience who really hooked into the idea of art priced and sold like a pizza…We were in the front line delivering the work, so we saw how the work actually functioned as an object for people...What was funny was that a lot of people thought that $20 actually covered our costs. I couldn’t believe it…that it would cover the costs of paying an artist…Without grants to pay people we wouldn’t have been able to do it. But what’s great is that where there was nothing there’s suddenly all this work being made, and all these people, the audience, hooking into that idea...On the strength of the project we got an Asialink residency, so we’re going to be doing a joint project between Taiwan and Perth, which will develop the same ideas of commodification and taking art out of the gallery, direct to the audience.

How does the sense of work as a surprise sit in how you are delivering art to the people? How does this intersect with your interests in creative work?

That’s multimedia too isn’t it? You just can’t control what’s going to happen, you have to hand it over and let the chips fall where they may...I think essentially I’m interested in surface appearances, and the contrasting underside to those appearances, like with Pancoast where there is a polite surface and a filthy underbelly. Pizza Surprise is much the same thing: on the surface it’s a very simple gimmick about taking work to the public, and underneath it’s actually much more about how we view artists, the artists themselves being sold as a kind of brand, as well as the commodification of art, where structures in the art world decide how much a work is worth. The neat little surface and the seething mass underneath…I like projects that have an accessible face but have other levels to enjoy. Works that are accessible in a way that the general public can enjoy…but then maybe get hit in the face with another layer. I mean, that’s every storyteller’s dream isn’t it?…that they convey something that on the surface is very simple, but has levels of complexity that build toward something greater. That’s the hope.

The other joint winner of the Mayne Mutlimedia Award was Poems in a Flash on the Stalking Tongues website by Jayne Fenton-Keane,

RealTime issue #48 April-May 2002 pg. 21

© Felena Alach; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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