A Conversation with Abbe Don

on the Interactive Art Conference on Arts Wire
November 1995

Abbe Don has worked with interactive technologies since the late-80s, focusing on storytelling and character-based interface. Her art works draw from her Jewish heritage, and have been exhibited in art venues across the US. Abbe's ideas have also influenced industry approaches to interface design.

Abbe Don, president of Abbe Don Interactive, Inc. is an interactive multimedia artist and interface designer who specializes in integrating oral storytelling, narrative theory, and information retrieval for CD ROM titles, public art installations, interactive TV prototypes, and online services. Her innovative piece "We Make Memories" is an interactive family album that simulates the way her great-grandmother told stories. "Bubbe's Back Porch" (which will launch by November 15) provides a wide range of family storytelling examples and resources as well as enables users to share stories via the World Wide Web. From 1989 to 1991, Abbe pioneered the use of characters in the interface as a member of the Guides Team for Apple Computer's Advanced Technology Group. In 1992, she produced "Voices of the 30s" (distributed by Sunburst Communications) in collaboration with two high school teachers to integrate John Steinbeck's "Grapes of Wrath" with historical photographs, film clips, folksongs and classroom activities. Abbe holds a master's degree from the Interactive Telecommunications Program at New York University.

Anna Couey
Hi Abbe..really glad to have you join us! There is a lot to talk about I know, with your current work and ideas...but as a starting point, what led you from artists' books into computer-based art making and interface design?

Beth Kanter, Arts Wire
Hi there. I am looking forward to this conservation. And Anna, congratulations on your recent nuptials . . .

Judy Malloy
Hi Abbe! It's been a while since we talked and I'm looking forward to hearing about your new work.

Abbe Don
Glad to be here and thanks for the warm welcome.

I got involved with computers primarily because I was interested in "interactive narrative" or "interactive fiction." Those are loaded terms so let me back up a second and explain a bit about why those ideas interested me.

I have a background in photography and writing. I was interested in documentary photography and I used to go around and take people's pictures and talk to them and scribble down their stories. I also spent a lot of time with my great-grandmother, photographing her as she taught me to bake traditional Jewish foods such as challah (braided egg bread) and "kichel" (I'm not sure how you spell that) but they are triangle-shaped sweet cookie/crackers! Anyway, I was struggling with how to represent the experience of spending time with my great-grandmother as she told stories that weaved in and out of the past and present, Old Country and America, Yiddish and English. Her stories were nonlinear and somehow putting framed photos on the walls with little typeset text panels just seemed to be missing something.

I struggled with the "form" for awhile and focused on the very personal content. Meanwhile, I took a Contemporary Fiction course (I was in college at Pomona College) and began to be exposed to novelists who were experimenting with the form of the novel and the structure of novels. I was primarily into writers like Jorge Luis Borges and Julio Cortazar. The book that most changed my life, to this day, was Cortazar's novel "HOPSCOTCH", which is structured as a "game" of sorts. It opens with a table of instructions and a list of chapters, in seemingly random order, to follow. At the end of each chapter, he points the reader to the next chapter. So, if I remember correctly, you start at chapter 73, then go to chapter 1, etc. Throughout the book, there is a character named Morelli who is an author, and in my interpretation this character is Cortazar's alter ego. And Morelli "speaks"/"pontificates" about various notions of interactive fiction and different ways to think about the spatial/temporal relationship of images and words.

So, this is a long winded bit of background--I wanted to use Cortazar's theory as a framework for implementing my experience of how my great-grandmother told stories.

So...I created an "interactive artist's book" called "NO SOUP, JUST MATZO BALLS" in which pages folded and unfolded, covered and revealed images and text. The text was an oral history and the images were a mix of old and new, playing around with the spatial layout of text and the temporal use of images. Years later when I learned about interface design the use of "metaphors", I realized the experience of looking at the book was a lot like the experience of sitting with my grandmother looking through her scrapbook as she told stories!

So, I went off to CalArts and continued to struggle with formal issues and conceptual issues about how to integrate and represent stories using images and text. I got fed up with still images and learned video. Yet each approach still seemed to me missing something.

I left art school with my problem still unsolved. I worked with a nonprofit art collective caller Werkegruppe, then directed by Daniel Martinez and Emily Hicks. This group was interested in the relationship between art and technology, in particular in 3D representation and holography.

Ok--so stay with me here---

In the summer of 1984 we did a show called The Peoples of Los Angeles: Holographic Portraits. We used moving holograms (I'm embarrassed to admit that I've forgotten the technical name for this form of holography) but anyway, we had 9 stations, each representing someone from a different ethnic background. There's no synch sound with this form of holography so we had a tape loop of the person in English and the native language of the speaker. The show was held at the USC Atelier which was a really cool alternative space in the Santa Monica Place Mall. Summer of 84 also coincided with the summer Olympics. We got a lot of visits from unsuspecting tourists and west-siders! We also got a lot of visits from all the techno-hobbyists, 3D image makers, 3D audio folks, etc. I worked in the gallery full time for the duration of the show so I got to see all kinds of widgets and demos that people brought of the wood work.

I had some vague intuition that some how this computer technology would help me tell the kinds of stories I was interested in telling. Then the Macintosh came out. I got one right away and began playing with it. Then one day, I was at the Beverly Center, a huge mall in LA and I saw an AT&T, touch screen shopping kiosk. And I suddenly had this "aha" experience that with that technology I could recreate the experience of how my great-grandmother told stories!

Finally, after a very circuitous route, I landed in the master's program at the Interactive Telecommunications Program at NYU in the fall of '86 and began acquiring the skills I needed to build "We Make Memories"!

Beth Kanter, Arts Wire
I'm sure you remember some of the stories that your bubba told you (is that right world for great grandmother?) Did she come to America from Russia or Poland?

Abbe Don
I use the spelling "bubbe" which means grandmother in Yiddish.

My great-grandmother, Annie Shapiro, came from a small town outside of Vilna, Lithuania. She came to America in 1896 when she was about 5 or 6 years old.

I am very lucky to have a comprehensive oral history with her on audio tape that was conducted by my cousin Sherna Gluck who teaches in the Women's Studies program at Cal State Long Beach. Sherna managed to get my great- grandmother to tell her life story in chronological order! Usually when I spent time with my great-grandmother, her stories wandered all over the place.

Anyway, I have transcribed all the stories and many of them will serve as catalysts on the website "Bubbe's Back Porch".

Beth Kanter, Arts Wire
Interesting, my great-grandmother came from Vilna over to Brooklyn about the same time. I never knew her. Her name was Rosa Roggins (they took off the ski) at the end. We aren't as lucky as you are to have an audio tape, but we do have a written history from my grandmother and a collection of photographs. Yes, Bubba was a typo :-)

Abbe Don
Beth, do you do any autobiographical art work?

Have you thought about putting your family history and photos on the WEB?

"Bubbe's Back Porch" is going to include a "feature story" that will change regularly!

Beth Kanter, Arts Wire
I didn't think about it until I read about your work!! How would it work?

Judy Malloy
another question...

"We Make Memories" was installed at the Richmond Art Center Revealing Conversations show a few years ago with a desk and photos. And then I saw it at the Jewish Museum. There you could enter your own stories. Can you tell us a little about the original interface, how it evolved, how you integrated the new stories?

Anna Couey
Thanks for the congratulations, Beth :-)

Abbe, wow, very interesting to read about your quest for a medium to convey nonlinear storytelling - especially after sitting in the same Contemporary Fiction classroom, and being intrigued by the formal experimental of Cortazar and others too.

Your work with computer interfaces has not only dealt with nonlinearity, but with cultural identity - certainly in content and in form as well. I'm thinking of works like "We Make Memories" and the Apple Guides project, in which you developed characters, such as the pioneer woman and the Native American man (tribal chief?) as interface devices to provide point of view access to a database of American History. How do you approach ideas about cultural identity; what kind of role do they play in the design of your works?

No shortage of questions here :-)

Abbe Don
Sorry I've been offline so long.

I'll quickly answer Beth's question and compose answers to the others offline.

So Beth, first my question is have you surfed the Web much? If so, perhaps you at least have an idea of how you might organize your material. If not, check out something like Justin Hall's pages about his grandparents at http://www.links.net/vita/fam/grents.html. Justin also has a good online tutorial about publishing on the web that can be found at http://www.links.net/webpub/.

Another good source for learning about HTML and web publishing is the book by Laura Lemay called "Teach Yourself Web Publishing with HTML in a Week," published by SAMS.

You will also need someplace to "host" your pages--various online services and Internet providers now provide space on their web servers for members' home pages.

I would start with the content and perhaps just organize or tell one piece of the story. In my case, I had a great collection of pictures of my great-grandparents together so I began with the story of how they first met. Then things grew from there.

Hope this helps. Let me know if you have other questions!

Abbe Don
I will mention one part of the answer to Judy's question about the evolution of "We Make Memories" which is to just give a quick chronology of how the piece has changed over the years. This chronology along with screen shots will be up on my website, real soon now!

1987: First Prototype built in HyperCard based on a text story written after my great-grandmother died. I thought it was the perfect "launching" pad for a variety of other stories. Was very book like and did not seem to get at my original goal, mentioned above, to capture the experience of sitting with my great- grandmother and telling stories.

summer 1988: left the prototype in an unfinished and unsatisfied state. Was completely stuck and didn't know where to go with it. Went off to Apple Computer to do an internship in the Human Interface Group and worked on phase 2 of the Guides project which used characters in the in the interface to represent info from multiple points of view.

fall 1988: redesigned interface to "We Make Memories". Wrote thesis proposal. Wrote essay "Narrative in the Interface" which later appeared in "The Art of Human Computer Interface Design."

fall 88 to spring 89: worked on video component of "We Make Memories" convinced that video would seamlessly plug into the interface created in Hypercard.

May 89: got videodisc back 3 days before graduation. There was no clear connection between the videodisc and the interface prototype. Stayed up 3 nights until I came upon the timeline idea and figured out how to implement it. Graduated in the nick of time but the video look up system was way too slow. Nice prototype--still not ready for prime time.

August 89: moved to SF to work on Guides 3.0 at Apple Computer. Tim Oren teaches me about data structures and how to architect the story algorithm. Tim writes the story algorithm that models the way my great-grandmother tells stories.

Fall 89: Richmond show opens. First time piece shown in public and first time installation context is designed.

Spring 90 or 91 Judah Magnes Show Opens with "We Make Memories" and a companion piece called "Share With Me a Story" where people can add their own story. having show "WMM" in various trade show and art settings, I was struck by what a strong catalyst it was for people to tell their own stories. I had thought I created an "open" system but when I went to add the "share you own story component" I discovered that "WMM" was as "authored" as the next piece. I was a victim of my own rhetoric.

January 92: Begin first in a series of pieces in which I as artist act as a catalyst and audience "co creates" the piece by actually adding/contributing to it. This piece was called "TPTV" and was a collaboration with Mitch Yawitz, Mark Petrakis and Nick West.

Mitch and I did subsequent variations called "Designer Tales, Point Counter Point."

In winter 95 I finally redesigned "We Make Memories" to add a lot of new features such as being able to click on the photos in the timeline to hear audio captions. I updated the piece from black and white bitmap in HyperCard to 8 bit color in Director. Patrick Milligan did all the Lingo hacking for me.

Gee, I guess I answered most of the question. One point I want to make is that there was a lot of cross over between the ideas in the Guides project and the ideas in "We Make Memories." It was probably a very rare opportunity to work in a corporate research environment on issues that were also related to work that I was developing for a personal and art context. At that point, it was easy to keep the intellectual property issues clear. As my work has progressed, I've had to be much more diligent about maintaining strict and clear boundaries between what I viewed as "mine" and what I was willing to do as work for hire! Perhaps that's another story.

Anna Couey
Yeah - thorough answers alright! Interesting that you see your work subsequent to "WMM" as not only related, but part of the evolution of the "WMM" interface.

How and where you draw boundaries between intellectual property that's yours vs work for hire would be both fascinating to hear about, and useful, too. I'm curious about what's made those issues progressively more difficult for you. In my own experience intellectual property has become much more of an issue simply because of the way the Nets have grown and changed - because in the early years we worried less about laws that we might be accountable to, and focused more on common sense of what was equitable.

Judy Malloy
Thanks Abbe. It was good to see the details of the evolution of "We Make Memories" flashing by. And. I'm looking forward to reading them offline. Beth is our Web Manager, by the way and also hosts the SpiderSchool Conference.

Beth Kanter, Arts Wire

Thanks for the advice on getting started on the Web!! I actually recommend Laura LeMay's book all the time in SpiderSchool, our Web Conference. I hope you can get a chance to stop by.

Perhaps my question was not stated clearly. I know the mechanics of HTML and Web-Weaving. So my questions are about aesthetics of telling the story of your family on a Web page. Sounds like from what I've read about your background, you are an expert in doing this and have lots of experience.

So, some questions:

What is the best way to tell the story? Any feelings on structuring a storyboard?

Laura Lemay and other Web book authors talk about sequencing through pages. I think John December talks about the "bottle" structure (that is stepping someone through your site in a linear, controlled way) and the organic structure (have more flexible links so the viewer can navigate in any order they want).

Now, as far what I've read about structuring/design of a site has come from the "corporate" or "academic" or "technical literature" Most of the advice has a paint by the numbers feel to it. I'd love to learn more about this from an interactive artists view. (And, Judy, Anna, and others feel free to add your thoughts as well)

What works best for the telling the story of your Jewish ancestors? What do you prefer in your own work. I guess alot has to deal with the content itself, the actual stories.

When I think about doing a page that shares a personal story, I think about a movie. Do I want to have linear structure, perhaps chronicle the events in chrono order? Or present a family tree image map that clicks to the various stories in different branches of the family? Perhaps I want to weave together stories . . . Any thoughts, tips, advice, words of wisdom would be greatly appreciated.

How do you make a site that talks about your family interesting to other people than your immediate family?

Well, I babbled on here quite a bit. Excuse the typos

Abbe Don

I almost always start from the content and the kind of "user experience" I want to create. A less jargony way of saying that might be "what kind of experience and relationship do I want to create with the viewers of my work?

I also try to think a lot about the appropriateness of a particular medium. So, for me, the exciting thing about the WEB is the ability for other people to add their own stories, not just for me to "push" content at them. Instead, as has often been the case with "We Make Memories," my family stories can act as catalysts for others to tell their stories. Unfortunately, the "add your own story" component has gotten the least of my attention. I have a couple of super savvy Perl scripters who said they would help me if I mocked up the interaction design but alas, I still haven't gotten to it.

Of all the raw material that I have, I found myself going back to "No Soup, Just Matzo Balls".Maybe because it is so text heavy and the WEB seems to lend itself well to text. In fact, there is NO on screen text in "We Make Memories"--so I wonder how that experience will translate to the web. "WMM" is now in Director so if Shockwave delivers what it promises, that might be an option. Meanwhile, I have transcribed all of the 45 minutes of video from "WMM", including stories from me, my mom, my grandmother, and my great-grandmother...but haven't done anything with them yet.

Back to "No Soup"--the way the book is structured is there is a narrative thread that moves you through the book. However, there is all kinds of marginalia or what I think of as collage elements in the book. Everyone of these elements is referred to in the text of the narrative. So, it was a natural for the Web.

For example, my grandmother is lamenting about how many pills she needs to take. There is a hot link from the word "pills" to a list of all the medicine she had to take in the last years of her life. It's really quite amazing...but just by itself, it's pretty boring. So, a big part of making your family history and stories and artifacts interesting to others depends a lot on the context...in fact, I believe it depends more on the context you create as a storyteller and the emotional "oomph" of the content than it does on the particular medium.

It's funny when people ask me why family storytelling is interesting or whether or not I think it's possible for others to be interested in your own family history because in literature, there is a long history of the Family Epic and on television, there are sit coms, family dramas, and of course, Soap Operas! I'm particularly interested in the genre of family epic and subgenre of Yiddish Family epics such as the "The Family Mashber" or "The Brothers Askenazi" by Singer.

Also, autobiography is a very common way of working, especially since the Feminist Art Movement "came of age" in the late 60s and 70s. So, it never even occurs to me that my family history wouldn't be interesting! It seems a very natural way to work...and so I believe other people's family history can be equally compelling.

I'm talking in the most general terms because I think it's easy to get caught up in the nuances of interactive media, whether CD based or Web based and lose sight of the story or experience you are trying to create.

I find interactive media particularly good at representing stories with idiosyncratic structures--those that don't necessarily have a beginning, middle or end. I also find interactive media particularly good at representing stories from multiple points of view.

But alas, it's late, and i've babbled long enough.

I have not forgotten or ignored Anna's questions about cultural identity nor intellectual property. The issue of cultural identity is especially relevant as I am currently working on an "add your own story" kiosk for the National Museum of American Jewish History in Philly for their new permanent exhibit which will open in may '97. Anyway, the whole show is about how Jewish American identity has evolved and changed from 1700 to the present! Seems I have found a niche in dealing with issues of cultural identity in a multimedia context.

More later....


Judy Malloy
Thanks Abbe! I particularly like your approach of starting with the content and how the user will experience it. I work a little differently since I start with a fictional narrator (although I use first person) and then try to devise an interface that represents her (or him but it is usually a woman). For instance, in "Penelope" I used a clear straightforward interface - simple some would say - that worked well with the photographer narrator's vision, but in the "Yellow Bowl" the single-parent/highway engineer narrator is unclear herself about events in her life and the interface reflects that. Later, I see how readers react and sometimes have to change the interface because they are using it in a very different way then I envisioned.

Lucia Grossberger-Morales
Hi Abbe, Anna, Judy and Beth
It is good to read about your work. I look forward to seeing your new Web Site.

Beth Kanter, Arts Wire
Thanks Abbe and Judy for sharing your thoughts. Hello Lucia!

In thinking about the user experience or the type of user experience you want to create and Judy's comment about sometimes having to change things when you observe users experiencing your work -- have there been times when the user experience is quite difference from what you envisioned? How do you analyze why? Have you ever been pleasantly surprised by the reaction and decided not to change things? Can you share some specific anecdotes about this.

Sorry to ask so many questions, but curiosity is an important part of learning . . .

Abbe Don
Well, in "We Make Memories", a lot of viewers have trouble with the idea that the timeline suggests a linear approach to storytelling. They expect that when they are in the 1930s, they will hear stories about the 1930s. When they are in the 1950s, they will hear stories about the 50s, and so on.

But that's not how the piece works at all. There's an algorithm working "behind the scenes" that keeps track of "topic, time period, and speaker." Each story is indexed with a set of topics. Each 5 year increment on the timeline is also indexed with a topic based on what I thought was the "hot issue" for my family in that time period. So, in the 1890s, the topic is anti-semitism. If you click on my great-grandmother, you will get one of her stories about anti-semitism. Two of those stories happen to take place in the old country, so it might feel like a one to one co-ordination between time period and topic. But, if you click on my picture I will tell a story about anti-semitism that occurred when I was studying in Paris in 1982!

So, the piece is designed quite intentionally to suggest linearity and then play around with it. People who "get" the nature of the story experience I'm conveying, just roll with it. Other people have told me that my piece is 'broken.' I watched a friend of mine who is a prosecuting attorney for the Manhattan D.A. go through the piece in the following way:

She clicked on each of the four women at the beginning of the timeline. Then she jumped a 10 year increment using the timeline slider at the bottom. Then she clicked on each of the four women again. Jumped a 10 year increment and repeated until she had gotten through the entire timeline. She probably spent more time with the piece than most people. Afterwards she concluded, "this is very interesting. But it's broken. There was never a story about the time period that I was in. And often stories appeared in the wrong time period."

I should also mention that the system keeps track of the stories that you have heard. So, when you move through the timeline, it first looks at the "hot topic" for that time period. Then it looks for a story from the speaker you have chosen about that topic. Then it looks to see if you have heard the story yet. If you have heard it, it looks for another story from that speaker, about that topic. If it can't find a story about the current topic that you haven't heard yet, then it goes to the next most related topic!

So, that's a long winded way of saying that I have added a feature in the newest version to try to address those viewers who insist on linearity! In the new version, you can click on every photograph in the timeline. You will hear an "audio only" story that tries to give the "who, what, when, where" info for that picture and a little anecdote as well. So, I have tried to meet the audience half way.

Now, in the case of another project called "TPTV", there were a lot of things that we learned by watching users that helped us make the piece stronger and made it easier for people to use. These were less conceptual and more functional--like, people tend to double-click even though in HyperCard and Director you only need a single click. Anyway, there was a button that said "record". And then teh record button changed it's name and said "stop". So, when people double-clicked they would record and stop all in a nanosecond! When we built the piece, we knew how it worked so we never tried that particular interaction. The first time we installed the piece, we had to tell people to single click. But subsequently, we put in a "eat the second mouse click" routine to solve the problem!

"TPTV" had other conceptual problems in that it was a "response" system that used QuickTime movies--kind of like conferencing like Arts Wire but imagine people added video comments, instead of text. Well, like any conferencing system, people wanted to do "threaded" discussions in that they may have wanted to respond to something that some 4 or 5 responses before them had said There was no good way to "capture" that thread or to let subsequent viewers know that it existed. It turns out that threaded discussions are the way that people converse but I still haven't seen a good interface that captures the experience and makes it easy for people to follow. Anyway, in subsequent iterations of "TPTV" we changed the content and tried to do a visual representation of threaded discussions. We failed miserably. I've since been involved in designing the threaded discussion space on Hotwired and at C-net, consulting with Jonathan Steuer on both of those. It still doesn't work! Perhaps I will come up with something for "Bubbe's Back Porch" that works!

And speaking of threaded discussions, there are two threads that Anna raised that I haven't gotten back to--one on intellectually property and one on cultural identity!

Abbe Don

I have had an interesting career path in that I have simultaneously pursued my art career and a career within the interactive media/software industry.

At first, I was so excited by the intellectual and creative freedom that I experienced as an intern at Apple Computer that the issues didn't seem so important. Technically, they owned all the ideas in my head except those things I "claimed" as my intellectual property and invention prior to working there. So, I "claimed" "We Make Memories" and felt pretty clear about the distinctions.

There was a lot of conceptual exchange between the ideas in "WMM" and the ideas in the Guides Project. But Guides was research and wasn't really going anywhere and "WMM" was art and didn't have a lot of commercial value, so I didn't experience much tension or angst, nor did the people I worked with. It seemed like we all got "more bang for our buck" by seeing how similar ideas played themselves out in related "content" (oral history) but in very different user contexts. "WMM" was shown primarily in art settings and Guides was being user tested in a 5th grade classroom.

Then, I went on to do "Share With Me a Story" and began to get a lot of press and recognition. Apple was working on something that "felt" related and they wanted to use "Share with me a Story" to do some user studies and observations. But...they wanted to own "SWMAS" without much compensation. I knew I was on to something and that I wanted to pursue that thread. There's a somewhat "draconian" clause in a lot of consulting contracts that says corporations not only own the work product that you create for them as "work for hire" but they also own your "moral and related rights."

Now, I'm not an intellectual property lawyer but I have a good one that I trust. He was very uncomfortable with that clause and we tried to change it. Apple refused to negotiate and never thought I would walk about from a $30K contract. This was early in my career and $30K for a few months of work was a lot of money but it just didn't feel like enough money to compensate me for my idea and my time that went into the idea, not to mention the time I would spend running the user tests and writing it all up. Ultimately, it wasn't even about the money. It was about a very deep, intuitive, visceral sense that I was giving up something that belonged to me and that its value was more in what I would do with it on down the line than any present "market" value. It was also quite unlikely that anyone at Apple would have pursued my subsequent art projects as a violation of the IP agreement but that was a risk that I did not want to take. Many artists I know do work for hire in the valley and never even read those contracts. They just sign them. And most of the time, it works out ok.

But, ever since then, I've tried very hard to keep what I do as work for hire separate from what I am most passionate about. When people call me to do commercial CD ROMs about storytelling, I simply say "no thank you." I can't imagine having a conversation with a publisher about how I would design/treat their content without giving away too much of what I am trying to do. If they want to publish "WMM", then it's another story!

For me, the intellectual property issues is primarily a "comfort level" issue combined with the advice I've received from my lawyer.

Also, I don't want to misquote him but Dana Atchley, of "NEXT EXIT" fame, has an amazing story about his alterego character The Ace of Space. As I understand the story, back in the 70s, Dana went around dressed as The Ace of Space and did performance art. He also did some "film treatments" for the character and one of the Hollywood studios "optioned" them or "bought" them or something. He continued doing his performance art and also just running around dressed as Ace. Someone contacted him and said he couldn't do that anymore since he had "sold" the character to the studio. The studio never did anything with the material but he still was never again able to use that character.

So, that's the worst case scenario. And based on that and like I said, just my own comfort level, I've erred on the side of caution!

Abbe Don

Gee, Anna, you ask all the hard questions!

Just to keep the context--here's Anna's original questions:

Your work with computer interfaces has not only dealt with nonlinearity, but with cultural identity - certainly in content and in form as well. I'm thinking of works like "We Make Memories" and the Apple Guides project, in which you developed characters, such as the pioneer woman and the Native American man (tribal chief?) as interface devices to provide point of view access to a database of American History. How do you approach ideas about cultural identity; what kind of role do they play in the design of your works.

I feel like I could write a PhD dissertation on this or something!

The short answer is that I have been strongly influenced by ideas from anthropology, especially from Ethnographic Film, which is all about representation and cultural identity. Interface design is also all about issues of representation, as far as I'm concerned.

I supposed it's no accident that the content of almost everything I have worked on has involved storytelling and identity in one way or another. It almost seems so "natural" that I don't think about it consciously anymore.

But, I don't want to sound like a cop out because these are obviously important issues that I take seriously.

Perhaps the best way to frame the answer is to say that I believe we all carry around certain assumptions when we approach design. Things that I take for granted, like the idea that there is not one "canonical" representation for American History, was considered "radical" at places like Apple. Coming of intellectual age in the "heat" of PostModernism, I just took ideas about 'plurality' or 'multiple subjectivity' for granted and incorporated them into the design of what I did. Fortunately, I had a "partner in crime" so to speak, in the form of Tim Oren, who completely understood these ideas. He agreed that it wasn't sufficient to just put these ideas into the interface in the form of visual or narrative info, we needed to embed them even deeper in the way the whole database was structured and indexed.

These issues resurfaced when I did a consulting gig for the Mendocino County Library oral history project called Singing Feather. They had artifacts, photographs and oral histories of three different Round Valley (near Ukiah) Indian tribes. They wanted to create a multimedia database/kiosk for the library that addressed three very different communities: the Indians themselves, anthropologists, and general public! I don't think we ever arrived at a very implementable solution but as you can imagine, the task was to represent the information from multiple points of view. So, for example, a picture of a "round house" has certain meaning for the Indians, a different meaning for the anthropologists, and perhaps no meaning to the genera public. If we were doing just a "presentation" we could have shown the image and then had 3 different narrative threads to describe it. But...what happens when you want to enable people to search for things. The terms that the Indians would use to describe that picture are different from the anthropologist. Anyway, issues of cultural identity, in this case, were also tied into linguistics and semiotics.

Am I rambling....

Anna--let me know if you have other questions or comments, ok? I feel like I never quite got to the heart of your question but I'm not sure if I know how to exactly!

Beth Kanter, Arts Wire
Abbe: You've been busy!!! I'm off for a few days of being unplugged and away from the computer -- so I'll reflect on your response above

Judy Malloy
Yes, it was good to see this. I just signed another contract with PARC with some of the same language, so I was really interested in how you approached that.

Judy Malloy
Abbe, I'm also interested in your experiences working with the public in interactive art works that actually incorporate words and images from people you may never have met. Do you have any thoughts/stories about how this has worked for you?

Anna Couey
ooh..good question Judy!

Abbe, didn't mean to disappear on you...I guess hard questions don't lead to easy answers - and, at least in this case, my purpose in asking about cultural identity and interface was not easy for me to articulate either :-) But here goes...

Nope, I didn't think you were rambling!

I asked partly because these issues seem continuous threads through your work, and I was curious to know more about how you approach them.

I'm interested in how diverse cultural perceptual structures will map over to the Internet. I don't just mean content, tho that is obviously important, but how it is conveyed, and how the interface implies and perpetuates world view. So your stories about specific projects - what communication design issues you faced, and how you relate interface to both content and audience definitely responded to my question, and gave solid food for thought.

I have worked a lot less w/design structures; more with Internet access, dealing w/the technical infrastructure to convey meaning and connect different world views. But what's happening on the Net now, with the web, seems to be a shift from connectivity to interface as a means to convey content.

>Interface design is also all about issues of representation, as
>far as I'm concerned.

I think that is true...and that interface is also an active language for cultural transmission. Putting icons of buttons that users can press with their mice on a web page says something about one's perception of the world, regardless of content; it says something on a broader scale about our culture that the button is a sign that tells us what to do. And, if a user acts on that sign, it is perpetuated. What would an interface designed by someone from a culture that had not participated in industrialism or scientific inquiry look like? Are there examples?

Abbe Don
To respond to Judy's question about putting other people's words and images into a piece...

As I may have mentioned, I first tried to "open" "We Make Memories" by allowing people to add their stories within that context and extending the interface to both allow the "add" interface and the "browsing other people's content alongside mine" interface. But what I discovered is that first, the piece was "finished." And although it acted as a powerful catalyst for people to tell their stories, I just couldn't conceptually figure out a way for the "new" material to co-exist with "WMM". So, in that case, I created a "companion piece" where the "add your own story" component was on a different workstation altogether. I found that to be a really good combination. But it also means giving up a lot of control. People will inevitably add stories that aren't very interesting...there will be what I call "technoflubs" where people hit "ok" even though the response is something like 'oh, is it recording now...hey look, I'm recording now." There will be additions that are just fascinations with the technology. In "TPTV", for example, which uses a live video camera, people like to move in and out of focus. Or move in and out of the frame like a metronome.

I view my role in a "collaborative" piece as creating a strong framework that encourages a particular kind of participation but you can't try to control it or limit it. Also, people will inevitably use the piece in ways that are completely unpredictable and I think that is half the fun!

So, my rules of thumb are create a strong catalyst or set of catalysts that encourage participation.

Make the "add your own" component easy and straightforward. Reduce the complexity as much as possible.

Let go of your sense of "control" as an artist.

Abbe Don
On the difficult subject of cultural identity and interface design, I think Anna has raised a lot of interesting issues. I don't know of many examples of interfaces designed by people who have not participated in industrialism or scientific inquiry.

There has been a lot of interesting "indigenous media" produced by the Kayapo in Brazil and by various groups in the Australian outback. The Kayapo work is fascinating because they tend to create two "edits" for their footage: one for themselves, and one for the "bureaucrats" or general Brazilian audience. They have a very sophisticated sense of how to use media.

I haven't seen much of the Aboriginal stuff. Faye Ginsburg at NYU is the expert on all this for video. I wonder if these groups have begun to use the Internet and design things for the WWW.

I think the "tools" for web production and for web browsers are so biased towards using the web in a particular way that it will be hard to break that mode. Just as most HyperCard stacks all look alike! The tool is biases and "privileges" certain ways of thinking and producing. I think it's extremely hard to break out of that, even if you make a conscious effort.

I think it would be a great design challenge to create a website that didn't feel like a website, the same way that I really tried to make "We Make Memories" not feel like "HyperCard." However, I confess that I don't have any fresh ideas at the moment of how to do that. You will be able to create your own browser using things like Java but that means people will have to download your browser to view your site...and then you lose a lot of what makes the web so popular--the ability to be cross platform.

Those are my 2 cents for now.

So, as the month wraps up, I'm wondering if this has been useful. It seems like you have asked a lot of questions and I have answered them but hasn't felt much like a discussion. Is that typical?

Anna Couey
Your rules of thumb for works that involve open participation are good ones. I started out doing fully interactive projects in the hopes that method of working would eventually invoke consistently thoughtful responses - that just as artists today put a great deal of care into to work they produce, if we broke down the hierarchy of artist/viewer, and viewers acknowledged their contribution as art, they would interact with intent. I've wondered a lot about the impact of context. "TPTV" was exhibited, the time I saw it, at an Anon Salon....surrounded by lots of people. The most thoughtful responses I've seen in the works I've organized have generally come from people who are participating online - alone at their computers, I suspect.

Anna Couey
Back to cultural identity and interface design...it struck me that it'd be pretty unlikely someone could design a computer interface without some contact with technology & by implication scientific inquiry & post industrial culture! But, one could conceivably be designed by a person rooted in a non-industrial culture.

I've not seen Aboriginal produced video, but have heard that its structure draws from indigenous, rather than Euro-American communication patterns. Phil Bannigan and Sue Harris, who started ArtsNet in Australia, were beginning to work with Aboriginal people, as I understand it, to bring them online. I'm not sure what became of their efforts.

The band, Yothu Yindi has a good web site I've heard; I haven't seen it yet. The web sites I've seen that have indigenous content (*not* a thorough search, and a few months old now too!) don't seem to be exploring interface design - they appear to be vehicles for displaying cultural objects and art works produced in other media.

Hard to believe the month is over, Abbe! It's been great to have you here. I do think the conversation has been useful...and yes, it's been typical for these monthly conversations to be more q&a than back & forth discussion. Maybe because they are usually just for a month? - rather than an ongoing relationship that builds over time? I'm not sure... in any case...many thanks for sharing your time and insights with us!

Judy Malloy
Yes - it was wonderful having you with us! Thanks so much.

Abbe Don
My account is still active so I'll take this chance to say thanks for inviting me. Sorry for all the typos in my responses--I never quite mastered the nuances of this interface!

You all provided an excellent opportunity for me to "riff" on ideas and to contextualize my work. I really appreciate that.

As long as I have the chance, I'll respond to Anna's comments about the context in which people respond...the most thoughtful responses to "TPTV" were probably at the CHI 92 installation which was part of the Interactive Experience. There, we had an actual tent with more formal images projected onto it. What I liked about that context is that the tent provided some visual privacy (there was a ton of competing sound coming from the whole room) and people tended to hang out, watch each other interact and even discuss the issues as a group while others actually recorded a response. So, the piece acted as a catalyst for different kinds of discussion. There were still a lot of responses that were primarily about playing around with the technology.

I've been wanting to design an installation with a more playful, visceral set of catalysts where that sense of play would be part of the flow and not necessarily stand out as "not an appropriate response." In other words, in a public installation in which people can add their own response, a likely reaction is to play with the medium. Design a context that supports playing with the medium! I think Mitch Yawitz and Mark Petrakis pointed in that direction with the Spoonimation Stand and the Animation Sandbox!

It's been big fun! Thanks again.


Transcript of A Conversation with Abbe Don - Nov 1995, Item 71, Interactive Art Conference, Arts Wire.
Posted to the Web with participants' permission. For information about republishing, please contact Anna Couey and Judy Malloy.

Conversations with Artists