A Conversation with Sonya Rapoport

on the Interactive Art Conference on Arts Wire
June 1995

Anna Couey
Judy and I are excited to welcome Sonya Rapoport to the Interactive conference this month! Sonya is a seminal San Francisco Bay Area artist who has utilized computers in her work since the mid-70s, often in an interactive installation environment. Her works are complex, humorous and playful.

I first experienced Sonya's work in the mid-80s at Media, a now defunct artists space in San Francisco. Her installation "Shoe Field" involved the audience in taking off our shoes, entering shoe preferences criteria data into a computer, and receiving a beautiful abstract print out of our "shoe field" that included a personality analysis based on our input.

Her most recent work, Smell Your Destiny, is designed for the World Wide Web, and is located at: http://www.lanminds.com/local/sr/srapoport.html

Anna Couey
Sonya has contributed a wonderful bio that describes the evolution of her work:

During my computer assisted art-producing years dating back to the mid-70's, metaphors and word associations have been the framework within which cross-cultures, diverse time periods, and multi-disciplines have comprised the content.

Previously, I was rooted in contemporary visual arts having been trained in the Hans Hoffmann push-pull tradition at UC Berkeley, I was associated with the original John Bolles Art Gallery in San Francisco in the early 60's and my exhibition record included one-person museum exhibits at the California Palace of the Legion of Honor, the San Jose Museum of Art and the Crocker Art Museum.

In the early 70's grasping for modes of expression in the exciting electronic world, I started by decoding scientific research printouts and drawing directly on the output.

Since then, my work has employed digital tools with which I have addressed human concerns in an interactive installation environment. Current scientific issues of gene splicing and prescribed medication for personality change are subjects for my most recent art projects. THE TRANSGENIC BAGEL (with sound by Craig Harris) is a computer interactive work in which the participant gambles for a trait that is spliced from an animal. SMELL YOUR DESTINY, an interactive WEB project, answers our quest for success by prescribing aromatherapy. Both are humorous parodies, range in time from the Bible to the present and both reveal the desire for individual control over behavior. These works will be exhibited respectively this coming fall at ISEA95 in Montreal and DIGITAL SALON in New York.

Earlier works were triggered by my own personal experiences. These experiences were repeated by participants with the use of a computer in an expanded conceptual format. Content such as analyzing a collection of objects, keeping a daily calendar, and wearing shoes were associated variously with American Indian culture, palmistry, and Mudra gesture language. Franklin Furnace and the New School for Social Research in New York, 80 Langton Street in San Francisco and the Peabody Museum at Harvard during the late 70's through 1988 were venues for solo presentations for these works.

Personal experience subject matter later gave way to universal anxieties. COPING WITH SEXUAL JEALOUSY, an audience participation event, was performed at the Pauley Ballroom, U.C. Berkeley in 1984. Its interactive electronic adaptation, SEXUAL JEALOUSY: The Shadow of Love (with a musical score by Michael McNabb) was shown at FISEA93 in Minneapolis. THE ANIMATED SOUL, adapted from the Egyptian Book of the Dead, confronts the subject of everlasting life. The viewer chooses paths to follow both on the computer and in realtime amid an environment of caskets, pillows and balloons. A casket warehouse, a private gallery and the Kuopio Museum in Finland were sites for this installation in 1991-92.

Anna Couey
Welcome, Sonya! There are so many things to ask you about your work...but I'll try to restrain myself to start at more or less a beginning point - what was your first interactive work? How was it interactive, and how did interactivity relate to the content of the work? Did you know you wanted to produce an interactive piece when you started, or did the interactivity evolve from the making of the work?

Judy Malloy
Welcome Sonya! It is wonderful to see you here and to get a chance to explore your seminal work in interactive installation in detail.

Sonya Rapoport
Hi Anna and Judy:
Thanks for the great introductions. I'm glad to be here and will try to answer all questions. Let's get started.

Sonya Rapoport
OBJECTS ON MY DRESSER was my first interactive piece. After having made art about "other" cultures and "other" artifacts, I proceeded to evaluate the random set of objects that had accumulated on my dresser for about 20 years. Their color, shape, material, monetary value and source were the attributes that I first concentrated on. Then, In 1979, I conceived a psychological analysis that focused on image to image and image toward associations as an art process. Psychiatric social worker Winifred De Vos and myself shared aesthetic and emotional responses about the objects and my connective associations. We looked at this material as an artwork and at the artist as a person.

OBJECTS ON My Dresser was produced as an audio/visual installation at the Franklin Furnace later that year, in 1980 at 80 Langton Street and on KPFA's ART TALK produced by Don Joyce and Jane Hall. For the installations the themes that had been derived in the psychologically oriented dialogue became the headings for six axes that bisected a 14 foot NETWEB plot on the floor. My associative connections between objects and themes were demonstrated by images of the objects that had been xeroxed and glued on 4 x 6" cards with easels. These were placed along the theme axes.

A few months later in my studio, viewer/participants were invited to make their own projections by moving the cards from my original plot to another plot free of any image cards. This was the beginning of many different group viewer interactive participations.

Later on, Sonya

Judy Malloy
Fascinating.... So what led you to involve viewers as participants? It was certainly a radical idea for that time.

Sonya Rapoport
Judy: I'm trying to reconstruct what happened to trigger me into audience involvement. I think the answer is also pertinent to Anna's question of intent and awareness of making an interactive artwork. The dialogue between psychologist and myself contributed to the evolving form of the work; mainly, to its structure for interactivity. I originally had intended to enhance the art in some two-dimensional way through a deeper understanding of the objects; but the vitality in the exchange between us catalyzed further three dimensional expression. Having resolved the visual execution of the piece, which I can discuss more fully later, the unmistakable excitement of discovery through verbal interaction caused me to extend this method of self inquiry into use by others.

Just as many discoveries just happen by chance, a few months after the Langton Street installation, a group (about 40) of my husband's chemistry graduate students and post-docs were coming over for Thanksgiving dinner. For their entertainment, I drew on my studio floor two NETWEBS, mine with my own associative distribution of card images placed along related theme axes; and the empty plot for them to fill. Very amenable and bright and interested in my art work, the group viewed the configuration that reflected me, the artist, and were excited to reconstruct their own configuration. Winifred interviewed and taped each participant's response as to choice of image card and why the placement in the particular theme. The verbal inquiry heightened the sense of participation, intensified the vitality of the process and provided documentation. So I added another phase to OBJECTS ON MY DRESSER.

Judy Malloy
Nice story Sonya. Thanks. Can you tell us a little more about the objects that were on your dresser? What were they? (or a few of them) What kind of meanings did you and Winifred find that they revealed?

Anna Couey
Yes indeed - thanks Sonya! It's wonderful to learn more about how you approached interactivity originally...how it grew from the communications element of the work itself. Did you see group interaction as a way to provide discovery for your viewers? Or to extend the scope of your examination? The first incarnation of the work was a self portrait, right? - Did you still consider it portraiture once you began to work with groups?

Did chance determine the group interaction was with an identifiable group of scientists? Or did you choose this group to interact with the piece for a particular reason? Many questions, I know...and Judy's are good ones too. Feel free to answer at your own pace...

Sonya Rapoport
There is much to relate since we are scanning a project ongoing from 1979 through 1983. Before I get specific about the objects, Judy, I'd like to mention that I started creating the work while grieving for my Mother who had then recently died. Secondly, while enmeshed in experimenting with interaction to make the artwork, I was constantly concerned with how I would express visually each evolving stage . I never consciously thought I was doing interactivity per se, I just did it because the work called for it.

Yes, Anna, the NETWEB was THE 20th CENTURY PORTRAIT (Phase 6), advertised as a participation performance exhibition at Stephen Moore's Los Angeles LOCUS in 1982. We were hoping the viewing audience would commission a portraits of themselves but no one did.However, Phase 8, a project for HERESIES Magazine was more lucrative in that a resultant readjusted SONYA NETWEB depicted exclusively the objects and words revealing my relationship with my Mother. The grieving period terminated.

Now for the objects themselves The dresser was a Tansu, on top was a batik. These I counted among the 29 objects which appear to me now as a very eccentric collection of stuff: a toy auto, plastic furniture cups to protect rugs, a satin pocket from a jacket, two slices from a conch shell, belly dancers' cymbals, a kinetic spool thread holder, crystal knobs, a half inch round slice of wood, plastic foliage, tiny ceramic hearts, etc. After generating color coded bar graphs of their attributes, I wanted something more probing. I assigned correlated images to each object and then assigned words to each of these, now 58, objects. Winnie and I recognized the words as well as the images "as clues to pre-eminent concerns. We looked for inner logic of elements that were repetitious. We speculatively played idiosyncratic symbolism against universal symbolism and we considered what was missing in representations apropos to a normative framework "(W.D.).

SEE was the predominant reference among both the words and images. SEA related to the pattern on the batik and the shell slices; SEE- THROUGH, the response to the crystal knobs, the oval glass tray and the furniture cups and the correlative object, a doll's glass eye. SEEING also surfaced for a photograph of a woman looking through an eye mask, even if a symbol of obscuration. Although this material was illustrated by imaginative x,y coordinate graphs, the words were obviously a tool for further communication, another link with the viewer.

Judy, Some of the meanings that evolved from the "play" with the SEE variations were: observation as a need to search, or comprehend; a way of dealing with developmental frustrations; artist as subject and object of mastery; herself seen as reflected by mirrors or by insight; a flexible reordering and a form of manipulating. Eventually EYE became one of the axis themes for the soon to be created NETWEB.

Judy Malloy
Thanks Sonya. It is nice to be talking with you. I saw the installation with the netweb on the floor at the old Langton St. and it was quite wonderful. Can you talk a little about what the netweb is/looks like? It is quite interesting that you choose that term (in 1980 or 81 I think this was)

Valerie Gardiner
Hi Sonya, I just downloaded this discussion. Looking forward to reading

Anna Couey
Yes, a prescient term for sure! It'd be interesting to see the NETWEB designed for the World Wide Web - because of its sensitivity to correspondences.

Beth Kanter
Hi Sonya -- I've been looking forward to this discussion and like Valerie will be downloading and reading in the next few days . . .

Sonya Rapoport
Valerie and Beth, I appreciate your interest in what seems to me a long story. However, because of a relevance to the conceptual configuration of the INTERNETS' WEB, I'm hanging in there.

Anna, I'll think about it as a WEB project. Any suggestions out there about HOW?

Judy, here's a description of the installation you saw in 1980: Today's World Wide Web recalls the strategies of interconnections that I applied fifteen years ago when I created the NETWEB you saw at 80 Langton Street. Vance Martin was largely responsible for the dynamic presentation. It was a geometric configuration of a spiderweb about 14 feet in diameter, reflected onto the floor from a slide projector attached to the ceiling. Six bisecting axes, the tick marks on each axis and the linear connections from tick to tick were projected on a star-shaped area of white contact paper. The image cards, now reminding me of today's provocative Home Pages, were placed in their positions on numbered ticks along their selected theme axes: EYE, HAND, CHEST, MASKING, THREADING, and MOVING. I had made several duplicate cards because I wanted some associations to be in more than one theme. Everything was interconnected by lines crossing the axes and joining similar tick positions on other themes. The slide used in the projection was of the spiderweb graph that had been plotted on 30 inch wide vellum. To generate this plot, numbers of the selected objects and their theme placement positions were punched onto cards and put into a now antiquated computer system. The installation included my dresser with all its objects, except the antique inch round brass box that had been stolen from the Franklin Furnace exhibit; a plethora of xerox images of the objects documented with image-word vignettes; and graphs, data tools not used for fine art expression at that time. Audiotapes of the dialogue between Winnie and myself played on a loop. I remember that people walked around and around probably engaging in self projections, evaluating their own mementos and what could be done with them. "The work elicited a sense of partaking of an artist's private world and a sense of that world's having aesthetic and effective parallels with the viewer's private world." (W.D) I remember distinctly two comments: What is a nice Jewish girl doing with Jesus Christ on her dresser? The other, from a distant relative: It's shocking that you say those things about your Mother. Interactivity with the NETWEB was gaining momentum.

Anna Couey
Sonya, my first hazy thought about a Web iteration of this piece was to involve scripts so that viewers could make their own NETWEB and then read an analysis about it. Extending the social meaning that you brought to NETWEB, by asking particular groups to interact with the work, the Web version could perhaps include a survey that would map responses to categories.

You've continued to make computer-based interactive work...how have your conceptions about interactivity evolved or changed? What role does interactivity play in your work now - is it a more conscious element?

Sonya Rapoport
Anna: I do want to talk about the different group responses and the different ways I installed the set up. It's a great idea to add another format of interactivity by listing possibilities for choices on the WEB. Will think about it. Now, Anna, you have opened a can of worms regarding my current attitudes about interactivity which I could go into after my last (next) description of interaction with OBJECTS ON MY DRESSER.

Later on.

Judy Malloy
Hi Sonya. I loved the responses to Objects that you related and was interested in how the artists/lawyers/scientists differed in their responses (which sounds like what you might want to talk about at some point), but your current attitudes about interactivity that Anna asked about would also be very interesting.

and to add to the can of worms, I have come to feel that as interactive art comes of age as a medium, it is important, as in all art forms, that it be judged as art. (not on how interactive it is or what kind of interactivity it uses which is kind of like judging painting on how much paint is used) but rather on does it succeed as art.

I should add that I certainly think Sonya's work does succeed as art and that the interactgivity is very much a part of her work.

Timothy Collins
Hi Sonya....I remember your work at MEDIA and am very much enjoying this topic! Looking forward to more ideas about interartivity!

Judy Malloy
interactgivity interartivity :-)

Sonya Rapoport
Tim, it's so good to hear that someone else saw my SHOE-FIELD installation at MEDIA. One always wonders where our art ashes are scattered.

Before going on to INTERACTIVITY, I must get OBJECTS ON MY DRESSER off my chest. I did not set out to have specialized groups participate. However, we had captive science participants between my husband's chemists from Berkeley and our son Robert's pharmacologists from Stanford; invitations came from art sites, among which were Sarah Lawrence College, New School for Social Research, and Artists Space, in New York; and Heller Gallery at UC Berkeley. For the participants the interviews proved to be the most challenging aspect to the participation - a complex activity of converting projections to the articulation of reason . . . why and what do the stimuli elicit? When I analyzed the results by plotting the NETWEBS, I noticed that the same interest groups' NETWEBS appeared similar to each other.

To investigate further, I raided a neighbor's law firm party to persuade the hosts to allow their guests to come next door to my "laboratory" in order to participate in interactive art. They agreed. At first there was pushing and shoving among husbands and wives (both lawyers, I assumed) when placing the cards on the same theme axes. It was an intense, yet playful evening. I was a little disappointed that Winnie and I weren't invited for dessert when the attorneys were called back by their hosts.

But I was grateful and ready to combine the specialized group data into three different NETWEBS, Art, Science and Law. The Art and Science WEBS were more alike than the sparse Law WEB. This meant that the attorneys made similar selections in placing the image cards on the same theme axes so there was less spreading of connective lines within the configuration. Most diversity of interconnections was amongst the art interest group who generated an evenly distributed plot. The verbal responses were also distinctive. The science responded to placement on the EYE theme by being challenged to fill in what cannot be seen. For the art group the EYE or seeing process was a means to thinking - a magical psychic entry rather than surface observing. The law group conveyed a self-consciousness in looking. They indicated a heightened sense of visual process of carefulness and alertness. Thus the artwork had evolved into group characterization of commonality of interest class through graphic configuration.

Now, we are all eager to squirm with that can of worms (words) that Anna opened. Judy, we'll see if we are killing or nourishing the artamphibia when we cut them into interactgivity, interartivity and reactivity for bait.

Judy Malloy
Thanks Sonya! I was in the same show at Heller I think and I remember that you tape recorded some of the responses and then a little later the netweb showed up in that Gallery that Terry Ellis and David (can't remember his last name but he was such a nice guy and died of AIDS as did Terry) had. It was a window gallery and the web was in the window and I think from the street you could push a button and hear some of the previously recorded responses.

David Mott. (Is that right?)

Sonya Rapoport
Judy, thanks for boomeranging me to the NETWEB because I'd like to talk about a few site specific formats, especially Terry Ellis' WINDOW. Terry eventually moved to New York and made his mark as a promising artist before he died. In my Egyptian ritual ANIMATED SOUL installation at the TAKADA Gallery I hung Terry's portrait over a mummy's mask. This was my way of saying goodbye to him.

Among other NETWEB interactive formats was a presentation in the JOURNAL, The Los Angeles Institute of Contemporary Art magazine publication. .Readers were to check a list and mail it to me in return for a plot. The window of a Philadelphia store front, donated by a bank-neighbor, consisted of irregularly angled glass panes. WEBS from various interactions serpentined along the glass. But the setup on the floor was sparse because bank employees couldn't stand my pornographic and violent images and had them removed.

The installation at Terry Ellis' and David Mott's WINDOW was a different story. Its data had come from the from the Heller Gallery (U.C.) performance where your piece was near-bye, Judy. There I recorded the responses that eventually blasted on the street from a loud speaker that was installed outside. Pedestrians passing by could push a button to hear the "why" of OBJECT choice-placements such as: "I placed it (a sea creature) on HAND" because I wouldn't want to touch it."; "I placed the snake on EYE because I wouldn't want it to get near my hand"; "I placed an EYE (big bosoms) image in front of HAND. because you can't kiss and breathe at the same time"; "I put the screw on MOVING because you move when you screw". Illustrating the sound track, these images and their corresponding theme axes were glued to the large window (16 feet wide).

In the smaller window, a six foot photograph of the dresser hung as background for the object images stacked in rows on the floor. Cards and pencils were available for responses to be dropped into the mail slot. During the process of recycling the objects back to nature by associating them with visual information in James Randklev's Sierra Club photographs, Winnie and I had our last interactive OBJECTS ON MY DRESSER exchange. In 1983 Humboldt State University was last host for the audience participation installation.

Anna Couey
OBJECTS ON MY DRESSER certainly had many permutations, that seem opened up largely because of the interactivity you brought into the piece and then investigated. It is rich fabric you have woven there!

Judy...your statement that interactive art needs to be judged on how it succeeds as art is a provocative one. I can perhaps guess, but what do you mean? In conveying meaning rather than technique?

And Sonya, whenever you're ready to dive into that current views of interactivity question, please do! I've been fascinated by everything you posted so won't be distraught if there's another direction you'd like to head! Was interested to read about the installations...did you make installations prior to working with computer-assisted art?

Sonya Rapoport
Anna, I can't resist getting into the "interactive" discussion by evaluating interactivity as art in OBJECTS ON MY DRESSER. There is no doubt that interactivity motivated the excitement and interest in the piece. Here we go, Judy: would the discussions between Winnie and me or the participants' activity of making choices and placing their projections on the plot stand alone as art? The verbal interchange added another dimension for further aesthetic formats; and although some musical duets or literary exchanges in scripts can be considered art,
I think that the interaction between Winnie and myself is taking deconstructive theory a little too far. The application of the participants' contributions changed the graphic art configuration of the NETWEB. This influence upon the artwork itself is the highest form of interactive art. Whether the results are a high art is anotherstory. However, the interactivity did transcend into art concept and maybe that's what we are talking about..

Judy Malloy
Well it was that "highest" yardstick that I was questioning.
And actually I do think there is some validity to Steve Wilson's idea that work is most interactive that integrates the participant's responses into the work as you did. I think this is definitely something to strive for. But - yeah - you could have framed your conversations with Winnie in some other way and that could have been art also. But what I meant was forinstance in your web work the interaction is much "lower". Does that mean it has less validity as interactive art? Does that matter?

Sonya Rapoport
Yes, Judy, it was Steve Wilson who defined the three different levels of interactivity in art: 1. the viewer completes the work by perceiving it; 2. the viewer interacts with computer programs from a predetermined set of options; 3. the viewer's choices alter the final form of the artwork.

My web work, SMELL YOUR DESTINY, utilizes the above 2nd level of interactivity. Here, according to www protocol, the viewer clicks on a highlighted phrase or icon to access the next link. This is a newer feature in the 2nd level of interactivity. I do not think level 2 is less valid as interactive art. Although interactivity plays a major role in executing my piece, the implication of using both words (interactive and art) as a phrase can be that the art is on one level and the interactivity operates on another. I like to think of SMELL YOUR DESTINY as an integrated artwork and the interactivity is a device for supporting its ideas and for getting the viewer personally involved in them.

Interactivity has become a buzz word. Any excuse is used to get into the act. What is interactivity by itself? Is it interactivity or just reactivity when a response is generated by a sound, a movement, or a pressed button, and no further interchange results? Interactivity has come of age as a medium just as oil paint did. Innovation of the former depends on the technical sophistication of the creator just as skill depended on the technique of the latter. Currently, if the end product purports to be interactive art, development of the art is required as well. A combination of technical and art skills is necessary. We may anticipate that the results will be so innovative that at first we wont recognize it.

Two examples of innovative interactive interface are on exhibition in San Francisco this month of June. Jim Campbell and Marie Navarre's UNFORSEEABLE MEMORIES installation is at Capp Street where changes in the room occur from immediate viewer movement to more subtle activity over a two month period. For example projected images will dissolve and others will go from one location to another. The technology here is rather arcane and it is hard to tell what and how changes are triggered. Bruce Cannon's PORTRAIT at the Paule Anglim Gallery consists of two objects, a wooden box, the control unit, that will remain in the artist's studio; and a sculpture of a scale, which will reside with the owner. These two devices are linked by telephone. The artist recodes the control unit monthly. The balance beam at the owner's home moves one degree per year of the artist's life. Whether the art in the Campbell/Navarre installation is as highly developed as the technology is yet to be absorbed. Bruce Cannon's PORTRAIT has achieved an even balance.

Judy Malloy
Bruce Cannon's PORTRAIT sounds like a really interesting idea - a kind of connection which interests me since I like to think of interactivity as a way of connecting the artist and the viewer.

And, ideally the interactivity and the art are seamlessly integrated which is what I think you are saying.

This conversation has been stimulating and the many unfollowed threads we could still follow are indicative how much interactive art has developed in 15 years or so since you began to work on Objects on My Dresser. Thanks again for sharing your work and ideas with us!

Sonya Rapoport
It has been a great experience digging into my interactive roots

Anna Couey
Many thanks for your participation, Sonya! It's been wonderful to learn more about your work and how you've approached interactivity.

Transcript of A Conversation with Sonya Rapoport, Item 56, 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