Here/There: Telepresence, Touch, and Art at the Interface
(MIT Press, 2017)
In the late 1970s, artists Kit Galloway and Sherrie Rabinowitz brought together dancers in Mountain View, California, and Greenbelt, Maryland, for a bicoastal performance via satellite uplink. The dancers in each city executed one half of a rehearsed routine, with live feedback monitors overlapping the two physical performances into a single virtual one. Watching these monitors, the performers could see the composite image and modify their movements in real time to match and accommodate those of their faraway partners. Discussing their work, titled Satellite Arts Project (1977), Galloway and Rabinowitz observed that they had created an “image as place”: The monitors displayed a dance that was physically impossible yet demanded of the performers a bodily awareness not only of the physical space they occupied but also of the screen space into which the video feed positioned them.
Kris Paulsen dedicates the fourth chapter of her timely, thoughtful book Here/There: Telepresence, Touch, and Art at the Interface to Satellite Arts Project. The piece, she argues, is of enduring worth for its blurring of telepresence—that is, the remote, disembodied presence of a TV show or Skype call—and virtual reality, the embodied presence possible within a videogame or Oculus Rift. In the former, we are shown “things that are real but that may not be ‘there’ with the viewer or user.” In the latter, it is possible to have tactilely grounded interactions—moving our bodies to signal our direction, reaching out toward other players—but only by proxy of nonphysical avatars, and only within a simulated environment.
Paulsen is convincing in her assessment of the piece as an important model for ethically navigating our increasingly screen-filled and mediated world. She reminds us that, although we have grown accustomed to encountering people “telepresently,” telecommunication’s foundational purpose is rooted in our sense of touch: calling, emailing, or IM’ing someone are all virtual means of what we call “getting in touch.” We dubbed the whine of a dial-up modem connection a “handshake,” and we “connect” to the internet, whose cables, Pausen adds, are frequently described as “hug[ging] the globe.” Even the word “digital,” which comes from the Latin for “finger” or “toe,” announces the importance of touch.
Yet despite this, both conventional mass media and telecommunications typically fail to deliver the kind of engaged experience this rhetoric implies, something Satellite Arts Project succeeded in doing four decades ago. When we “meet” people online, we face them in dematerialized form, as flat and purely visual phenomena; the news broadcaster speaks live to an imagined audience, imperceptible to her from behind her desk at the TV station. The interface of the screen in TV or online, Paulsen writes, serves to “spectacularize the world and distance users from the effects and causes of their actions.” This is a dangerous effect that, when taken to an extreme, enables what she diagnoses as “drone vision.” This mode of sight, named for remote warfare today, is addressed at the end of the book, in a chapter poignantly titled “The Trauma of (Not) Being Touched.”
Paulsen offers the work of Harun Farocki, Omer Fast, and Trevor Paglen (among others) in combination with a handful of projects from the mid- to late-20th century, as examples of how art can help restore a sense of physicality and immediacy to the televisual or online interface. She provides new, highly nuanced readings of videos and performances by Vito Acconci, Joan Jonas, and Chris Burden that critique the unidirectional nature of broadcast TV and its attendant modes of passive, lazy viewing, and in the later chapters discusses multimedia work that attempted to make videos and the early web quite literally “get in touch” with their users. Columbus, Ohio’s QUBE (1977 – 85) was an interactive TV station that recorded responses to on-air questions viewers keyed in via remote control. In Data Dentata (1993), Ken Goldberg and Richard Wallace rigged a console in New York City with sensors so that it would, when activated, give a “squeeze” to its twin console located in Anaheim, California.
The chapter on Burden, which lingers on a description of his performance Doomed (1975), is particularly memorable. For this action, Burden lay in the Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, behind a sheet of glass. Nearly two days elapsed before someone attempted to reach him. At forty-five hours and ten minutes, a museum guard named Dennis O’Shea discretely slipped a pitcher of water toward Burden’s head, at which point Burden immediately stood up and smashed a clock recording the piece’s duration. He then handed O’Shea a letter explaining that the piece would only end when someone intervened—in other words, when someone saw Burden’s humanity above his spectacle.
If the piece were restaged today, and Burden’s body viewed through the double prism of the plate glass and our phone screens, one wonders how many hours such a rescue would take. While the proliferation of screens would seem to put us at a greater collective risk of “drone vision,” Paulsen shows that this interface is not an inherently inactive or occularcentric one. It falls directly between our bodies and the world of images; between, the title suggests, the “here” of our immediate surroundings and the “there” of distant locales. How we choose to be present and react within the interface is critical, and so too, then, is Paulsen’s book.