"VirtuAlice is a passage between physical and cyber space. We converge from Web-side and street-side, explore parallel spaces separated by glass, and peer through the membrane at each other's representations. We control aspects of each other's environments and perform a collaborative dance in between. We wonder with Alice at the keyhole to Webland, 'What good are our heads without our shoulders?'"
I met Nina in 1992, a few years after graduating from Harvard in Visual and Environmental Studies, where I focused in experimental photography and visual analysis. Working as an independent curator at Granary Books Gallery at the time, I was looking for artists for my second show. Nina was looking for a writer, and we have worked collaboratively since then. In 1994, we were invited to be Artists-in-Residence at New York University's Center for Advanced Technology to develop ParkBench, a public artwork which addressed the issue of access, and which used the internet to extend the theme of communication from Nina's earlier work. This essay tells the story of our ongoing work together, and also details its conceptual roots, in Nina's groundbreaking experiments, installations, and performances.
At the time that I met Nina, I was particularly receptive both to the way she used digital media to explore and catalyze human interaction, and to the warmth and emotive power of her sculpture, drawings, and video performances. The way in which tactile, sensual experience and innovative uses of technology embrace each other seamlessly in Nina's work is one of its consistent and particularly powerful characteristics.
The show was called Woman on Earth. I showed photographic sculptures--I'd turned my apartment into a camera (camera obscura) and photographed the skyline outside my window. Then I'd made structures from wood which formally referred to the objects in the photographs (water tower, wall), and reconstructed the photographs on these structures. Nina showed sculptures, a painting, and on twin monitors a pair of video tapes-Before and After-in honor of her daughter Cori. She lost Cori in 1987, at 4 years old, after Cori had tragically acquired HIV from a blood transfusion at birth. The sculptures, in pale pink clay, were parts of Cori's body which Nina had sculpted from memory. Many exploded in the kiln; she'd mended them, and they lay, cracked and disconnected from one another, in a brightly lit case looking much like an archaeological find. The videotapes, like quilts, were stitched-together excerpts from Nina's past work. Before included pieces of video performances which, though done long before Cori was born, bore an ironic prescience to their life together and to Cori's death. For example, in the Baby Chickey series Nina treated a chicken carcass like a baby, bouncing it on her knee, teaching it to walk and talk.  After included pieces she'd done in grief.
It was during the show's installation that we discovered how well we worked together. Immediately after Woman on Earth, Nina installed Interactive Brainwave Drawing, a piece she'd initiated in 1974, which interfaces the computer with participants' brainwaves--hard machine with "soft machine"--and which expresses the accessibility of technology, technology as part of us. This is a piece she's continued to update with evolving technologies since its inception; for this show, she used wireless transmitters to send participants' brainwaves to a Macintosh computer.  I helped her out by reupholstering the couch, part of the livingroom environment which framed the piece. In the next year, as I learned more about Brainwave Drawing and Nina's other interactive installations, I became convinced that a comprehensive documentary about the work needed to be made. By that time I was a first-year student in the Master of Fine Arts program in Computer Art at the School of Visual Arts, and I saw students approaching interactivity with very limited art-historical context, almost as though it was contingent upon the current tools of desktop multimedia and Macromedia Director. In 1993, I wrote and produced the 30-minute video documentary Nina Sobell: Pioneer in Interactivity.
In 1972 she turned the camera on herself in Los Angeles and began to experiment doing performances in private, with a video camera as her only audience. (This practice became the medium of Video Performance, of which Nina was a pioneer.) She was fascinated to observe the way in which the camera altered her behavior-things she would not do in public, she'd do for the camera and then be perfectly comfortable knowing the tape was being seen by thousands.
Through her intimacy with the video medium, she was convinced it could represent thought, communication, and experience. She wanted to close the loop between her experience and her ability to represent that experience using video. She recognized that while video was an electronic medium, so was her brain, in the sense that it emitted measurable electrical frequencies. Rather than just using video to record her (or another's) appearance, she wanted to record the output of their brains. In 1973 she contacted Dr. Barry Sturman, of the Neuropsychology Lab at Sepulveda Veterans' Administration Hospital, who invited her to conduct a series of quantitative tests in his laboratory. The results of these experiments, analyzed by the Hewlett-Packard PDP-11 computer, demonstrated that participants were able to influence one another's brainwave states non-verbally.
In 1975, she installed Interactive Brainwave Drawing: EEG Telemetry Environment at the Contemporary Arts Museum in Houston. The gallery was divided into public and private space: in the private space, a living room environment, pairs of participants sat together on a couch with electrodes attached to their scalps. Their brainwave output was combined and sent through a computer which transformed it into a circular Lissajous pattern which was displayed on the television set before them. This graphic was superimposed on a real-time closed circuit video portrait of the pair. By objectifying participants on the TV, she engaged their egos in the experience. In the public space, a monitor which displayed this internal/external portrait of participants in real time was flanked by four monitors which showed past participants.
She demystified the technology for all participants, in order that they feel they had control of the technology, rather than it controlling them. She described the data path from their brains to the monitor, and she taught them to operate the half-inch reel-to-reel video recorder, as they were unfamiliar with being able to control what they saw on the television screen. (It was 1975, and a video recorder was not the household item it is today.) She showed them that the pattern on the monitor reflected their correlated brainwave output (the circular pattern distorted when they diverged into separate brainwave states), and they could see whether or not they were influencing one another's brainwaves. It was participants' belief in the power of the technology which enabled them to access their innate ability to communicate non-verbally.
In the following decades, she has continued to update the piece as technology evolves.  At the time of this writing, she's using her brainwaves as midi input in a collaborative musical improvisation over the Web, in which she plays electric guitar. Her newly-designed graphics represent the musicians' brainwaves as converging orbs.  With the Brainwave Drawing piece she uncovered another facet of video--its capacity for monitoring and catalyzing human interaction--and in 1977 she created an installation called Videophone Voyeur which explored this further. She designed a flow of communications and surveillance through London's ACME Gallery, which gave passers-by the choice to engage in dialogue with her, or to observe this dialogue from the rear of the gallery. She sat at a 45-degree angle to the gallery window, such that participants standing outside the window could only make eye-contact and talk with her by looking into the split-screen monitor before them, and by speaking into a telephone on the window ledge. Here she used technology to sculpt space and thereby facilitate communication--to displace the perceived threat of face-to-face contact with a stranger.
A partition separated the window from the rest of the gallery, such that those who might want to watch the activity in the front window from a more private space within had to watch a split-screen monitor at the rear of the gallery, installed specifically for surveillance. When she repeated the installation at Manchester, a participant asked if he could sit in her seat. She agreed, and the public took over both sides of the installation. She sat at the rear of the gallery playing solitaire and observed as the video and phone became a prop which gave the public permission to communicate with one another. In 1977 Joseph Beuys invited her, as a behavioral artist, to present this piece and Interactive Brainwave Drawings at his Free International University at Documenta 6.
Videophone Voyeur evolved into In and Out the Window, in 1979, which consisted of a parallel configuration of video camera, microphone, and monitor on each side of a storefront window. Pairs of artists interviewed one another through the mediated loop of closed circuit video. Although participants knew their interviews were not being broadcast (and they could have simply spoken to one another through the window), this knowledge was overwhelmed by their perception of the power of technology. The very presence of the cameras and monitors affected their behavior, causing them unconsciously to adopt the formality and seriousness of someone actually on the air. In 1981, Nina created another store-front video installation, this time using custom-programmed pan and tilt heads to sculpt space more formally. Six Moving Cameras/Six Surveillance Views consisted of a tower of three split-screen monitors, flanked by three pairs of synchronously oscillating cameras, erected in the window of Franklin Furnace in New York. Each monitor showed the output of one pair of cameras. Two pairs panned horizontally (the pair closest to the street were equipped with wide-angle lenses), each converging on its center and then diverging, while the third pair panned vertically, diverging to capture street and sky and then converging. Inside the gallery, all six images were montaged onto a single monitor. As the cameras moved, they sculpted space, enfolding the street and passers-by, who became performers in their own video show inside the gallery.
Nina's daughter Cori was born in 1982, and though Nina kept working for a time--she taught electronic imaging in the art department at UCLA and installed Interactive Brainwave Drawing in The Artist and the Computer show at Long Beach Museum of Art in 1983--eventually she had to leave her life behind to try to save her daughter's. It was early in the epidemic, and doctors disagreed about what was wrong with Cori. Nina heard promising reports of a treatment center in New Jersey, and in 1986 she left Los Angeles for New York.
She produced and directed Window on AIDS, a live broadcast over Manhattan Cable TV in all five boroughs, in which a panel of medical professionals, social workers, and relatives of people with AIDS answered questions phoned in from the audience. After the broadcast, she transferred the tape to videodisk and designed an interface whereby the audience could use their telephone keypads to access the panelists' responses. They could also use the telephone to record their own questions, answers to which would later be added to the database. What began as a call-in show would become a growing, interactive resource on AIDS, which viewers could access at their convenience, and according to their need. She began research for two other interactive programs, Our Unpreparedness for Dying, Death, and Mourning and The Latch Key Kids' Show. In these cases, too, the programs' aim was to address the need for a public forum for information and discussion of experiences which too often isolate those they affect.
It was around this time that we met, and I was inspired by the social context she brought to her work with interactive telecommunications. I joined her in hiking around Central Park scouting for sites for her next project, which eventually evolved into ParkBench.
Having conceived of this virtual bridge across Central Park, we began to explore ways to expand the modalities of communication among its participants. While the initial idea had been to create a metaphor of communication with the skaters' dance, the internet was clearly conducive to the creation of an on-line forum much like Nina's interactive television programs. While the internet had its advantages over interactive TV for this purpose (more than one participant could engage the content simultaneously), it had a disadvantage as well: namely, computers and internet access were not nearly as ubiquitous as TV's. Our concern turned to the issue of access. Now we saw ParkBench as a network of kiosks, which through videoconferencing, internet access, and a collaborative drawing space, would enable people in diverse neighborhoods to access the internet, talk to and see one another, and communicate collaboratively and creatively. ParkBench posited Public Art as the public's art.
Next we imagined adding a ParkBench kiosk underground. We thought of the public who rarely partake of the city except to enter it by train each morning, work indoors all day, and retreat again each night. We spoke to the Metropolitan Transit Authority about our idea, and they proposed the Herald Square Station, just opposite the token booth by the PATH trains. ParkBench would bring the city's art, music, and light underground. A videophone at the MTA site would enable commuters to engage with those in the park. In a city where strangers rarely talk to one another on real parkbenches, ParkBench would be a safe place to congregate in cyberspace.
In our studio at CAT, we began to design the kiosk enclosure and the system interface, to experiment with desktop videoconferencing applications, and to scout for additional kiosk sites. It was critical for us that the kiosk accommodate several participants, in order that ParkBench be a gathering place in physical space as well as cyberspace; and that it be both child and wheelchair-accessible. In the summer of 1994, the Web was still nascent, and we explored various other options for networking the system and building its interface. In particular, we explored Pad, NYU Media Research Lab Director Ken Perlin's zooming interface, which seemed a perfect way to enable participants to explore the city. Meanwhile, we used Director to prototype an interface which integrated videoconferencing, collaborative drawing, and local neighborhood information services. We applied for funding from various sources. And then the Web took off, and Richard Wallace, a professor of robotics at CAT, put up one of the first Webcams.
For our first Web performance, in November, 1994--to the best of our knowledge the first performance art in the history of the Web--Nina built up a figure in clay, and at the end of the half hour she tore it from its armature.  I lit the scene and positioned the camera, and set up a directory in our UNIX account which automatically archived the images as they were served to Web clients (our audience). After the performance was over, I created a Web page which contained this archive. Gradually our studio filled up with sculptures, armatures, sculpting tools, fabric, paper, drawing materials, backdrops, cameras, and lighting equipment, along with the Sun workstation, framegrabber, telerobotic camera, Macintosh computers, and video mixer. The ParkBench philosophy, stressing community access, experimentation, and creativity on the net, found its home on the Web, and our Monday Night Performance Series evolved into ArTisTheater-live weekly performances, and a growing archive of past performances.
For the first year or so, viewers clicked on the current image in order to control the direction of the camera and to request the next frame. The images were black-and-white. Eventually, we adopted server-push technology (wherein images are pushed to the browser, at a rate of about one frame every four seconds), and acquired a color camera. Every ArTisTheater performance was a collaboration, in which only active participants were allowed in the studio-the audience could watch from the Web only. Performances were process-oriented and experimental, often involving the creation of sculptures and drawings which then existed only as artifacts of the performance. In the spirit of ParkBench, we often invited guest artists to perform. The archive, now with over 80 performances, includes the first performative Webcasts of guests including the Gertrude Stein Repertory Theater, students from the Lexington School for the Deaf, Annie Ballard, Bill Burns, Cathy Busby, Marta Chilindron, Alien Comic, Andy Davy, Fern Gnesin, Athomas Goldberg and Otto, Andruid Kerne and Melissa Lang, Margot Lovejoy, David Medalla, Prema Murthy, Cynthia Pannucci, Greta Peterman, Reverend Billy, Steven Schmerfeld, Eliza Schwarz, Martha Wilson, and Adrianne Wortzel.
VirtuAlice was first shown in CODE, at Ricco/Maresca Gallery, in 1995. The installation, called Alice Sat Here, consisted of Alice's wheeled throne, a monitor inside the gallery, and a monitor in the gallery's front window. Visitors drove around the gallery on Alice's wheeled throne, and the direction of a telerobotic video camera mounted on the throne was controlled by participants over the Web. Virtual and physical participants made eye contact through the rear-view mirror. A monitor on the throne's handlebars showed the driver the direction of the Web visitor's interest; the throne's driver acted as chauffeur for the Web visitor. VirtuAlice is an expression of the process which is the world we live in-physically out-of-control, yet remotely controlled.
Passers-by could control the camera with touchpads in the front window, which surrounded a monitor showing what Alice saw. Meanwhile, a tiny camera captured their image, mixed it with Alice's image, and displayed it on the monitor inside the gallery and also on the Web. VirtuAlice created an interface between participants on both sides of the glass: inside, outside, and in cyberspace. Alice's memories are stored on disk as digital archives.
VirtuAlice is the vehicle for a shared experience, whereby participants collaborate in transferring that experience into meaning, into history.
As pioneers of time-based Web art, we inspired the conception of PORT, a group show of time-based Web works organized by ArtNetWeb in 1997. At the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's List Gallery, four screens six feet wide hung from the ceiling, and onto each was projected a Web page. For two hours each Saturday afternoon for eight weeks we covered the screens with images from our studio. One image stream was live, and we projected archived performances from the series onto the other screens. As the weeks wore on, the projections became more densely layered, as we mixed past archives with live Webcasts. The images enhanced one another, since they all related to the theme of Touch. This was our artist statement for the piece:
"The camera moves from our eyes to our mouths to our hands to the work, as Nina sculpts Emily drawing Nina. The female gaze is perceived as observation in the artmaking process. The cameras establish a rhythm with their movement; they record the physical process of perception and representation. Eyes move to observe and record, mouths move involuntarily, hands move to coax form out of media, and the work records the materialization of the process. Through observing one another we discover ourselves, and as the piece progresses each artist appears on the opposite screen, in the hands of the other. The process is heightened by our awareness of unseen Web voyeurs, who observe us remotely."
In October 1998 we printed out a number of the images from these performances, and created a montage installation for New Image Art Gallery in LA. We transferred one of the performances to video, and it played in the gallery alongside the prints, showing the flow and playing the music as seen and heard on the Web.
Late in 1997 we were invited to attend the RAT (Reseaux Art Technologies) conference at CYPRES (Centre Interculturel de Pratiques Recherches et Echanges Transdisciplinaires), in Aix-en-Provence, whose theme was on-line collaboration. Jesse attended as a member of ParkBench, and orchestrated a live performance, Dance in a Moving Mirror. Nina and I performed from our studio in New York. Nina played synthesizer, improvising in collaboration with the sounds (found sounds, short-wave radio) which Jesse was mixing in, from Aix. I received video images (one every six seconds) through my browser from participants in Aix, and I mixed them with my own live improvised video.
I captured the reflection of the monitor, on which I was watching the image from Aix, on the surface of my eye by holding the camera very close. When I blinked, the camera lost focus and my eye became a dark orb which looked like a cell dividing. The images represented the interface of human eye and computer display, which was also the human interface of this transatlantic collaboration with artists we'd never met.  The uncontrolled element of network delay functioned as the acoustics of the Web space in which we performed: each performer saw and heard a slightly different version of the whole. The piece was an attempt to merge these multiple perceptions into a unified whole which existed both in Web-space and on the screens of its viewers. The archive was an artifact of this process, and exists as a work on its own.
As this book goes to press, Nina, Jesse, and I have been invited to be artists-in-residence at Banff Centre for the Arts in October 1998, where we will work on VirtuAlice. We plan to add a wireless microphone, which will transmit to a server so that Web participants can hear sound from the vehicle. We are also working to get the video digitization and camera control systems running on an on-board laptop. Then, using a wireless, digital communication system, Alice will be free to roam, reliant only on her batteries. At that point, VirtuAlice will truly be the mobile ParkBench kiosk.
Baby Chickey Live Performances:
Baby For You, Chickey: Exile Gallery, LA, 1982
Hobby Horses in Paradise, (performance/video installation), LACE (Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibition Space), 1982
Baby Chickey Rides Again, Metropolis Gallery, LA, 1982
3) Nina has used the IBVA (Interactive Brainwave Visual Analyzer) system, engineered by Masahiro Kahata, in her Brainwave Drawing installations since 1992.
4) Interactive Brainwave Drawing Exhibition History:
Ebb and Flow interactive Web performance, turbulence.org, 1998
Bronx River Arts Gallery, 1992
A Delicate Balance: Technics, Culture, and Consequences, California State University, Los Angeles, 1989
The Artist and The Computer, Long Beach Museum of Art, 1983
Gulf Coast, East Coast, West Coast, Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, 1975
5) In 1998 ParkBench received a commission from turbulence.org to do a series of Web performances, in which musicians' brainwaves are converted to graphics and to midi signals, which become part of the live improvised musical performance.
6) Exhumed was performed at DCTV (Downtown Community Television), NYC, 1990.
7) Writer Robert Atkins was present at our first Web performance (though he was not allowed in the studio--he watched it from a browser nearby), and he wrote about it in "Art On Line," Art in America, Vol. 83, No. 12, 64 (December, 1995).
8) The first time Franklin Furnace performances happened live on the Web was when we invited Martha Wilson to select a group of artists to do weekly performances on the Blast stage (Blast 5, Sandra Gering Gallery, NYC, 1996-7), which we streamed on the Web and archived. Martha's own first experience doing a live Web performance was also in ParkBench's ArTisTheater, in 1996.
9) Nina contributed improvised music (electric guitar, synthesizer), and I contributed live, improvised video to numerous performances of Adrift, a collaborative Web artwork which incorporated VRML, text, music, and video, all performed live from different locations. The piece, which premiered at Ars Electronica in 1997, was conceived and coordinated by Jesse, Helen Thorington, and Marek Walzcak.
10) I showed a grid of 30"x40" prints of the in-and-out-of-focus eyes from the Dance performance in a two-person show with Nina at David Medalla's DAAD studio in Berlin in 1998.