A Conversation with Sara Roberts

on the Interactive Art Conference on Arts Wire
June 1996

Judy Malloy

Sara Roberts - received an MFA from the California College of Arts and Crafts, Oakland in 1988. Her thesis project, the interactive video installation Early Programming was shown at the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery (1989) and the Long Beach Museum of Art (1990).

She collaborated with media artist Lynn Hershman on interactive installations, Deep Contact (1990) and A Room of One's Own (1992), shown internationally, including Ars Electronica '89, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Images du Futur'91 in Montreal, Carpenter Center at Harvard, Montage '93 in Rochester NY, International Center for Photography, Midtown, NY, and in Cologne, Munich, Bonn, and Karlsruhe, Germany. At that time she also worked extensively in feature film editing at Zoetrope Studios and at Lucasfilm's Skywalker Ranch.

In 1993 she was a resident at the Djerassi Foundation, and her interactive sculpture The Digital Museum was commissioned by Silicon Graphics for the Interactive Gallery, Moscone Center, San Francisco. In 1994 she received a WESTAF grant for New Genres and completed Elective Affinities , a large scale installation shown at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco and ArtCenter, Pasadena.

She is a founding member of Techne, a group of artists working with ubiquitous (off the screen) interactivity. A group show of works by Techne was chosen to be the opening show for the new San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery, for which she and Palle Henckel produced the piece Loser Dies..

She has taught at San Francisco State University, The San Francisco Art Institute, and the California College of Arts & Crafts and is currently Director of the newly forming Integrated Media Program at the Cal Arts, Los Angeles.

Judy Malloy

Welcome Sara! Anna and I are delighted to have to you here. I first saw your work at the Revealing Conversations show at the Richmond Art Center. (1989?) The work was Early Programming - a wonderful interactive video in which the computer was "Margo" an archetypical Mom whose programming was often somewhat negative. Can you talk a little about Early Programming? From what your influences were to how users interacted with the work. Or, whatever you want to say about it...

Anna Couey

Hi Sara! I'm so glad you are joining us! Early Programming was the first work of yours that I saw too - in San Jose in 89, during the CADRE National Computer Graphics Association Art Conference. I can still remember the Mom's nagging digital voice...

Beth Kanter

Hi Sara!!

A question, perhaps a really stupid one, what is "ubiquitous (off the screen) interactivity"?

Troika Ranch (Mark Coniglio, Dawn Stoppiello)

Hi Sara. I would like to hear a description of what you are working on now...

Mark Coniglio


Sara Roberts

Judy asked me to say something about Early Programming, a piece I did in 1988 that was my first interactive piece and was also my introduction to programming (though the title refers more to the subject matter than my struggle with Hypertalk ). In it the visitor sits down at a kitchen table with a computer "mom", (named MARGO), and is recruited, if not forced, into the role of a child. Scenes on a monitor, shot from a child's point of view, introduce topics of conversation like cleaning up your room, practicing the piano for half an hour, eating the rest of your dinner, etc. MARGO says the things mom say, like "Are those my good scissors?!" You have a menu of replies ranging from goody two-shoes obsequiousness to outright rebellion. Your reply effects her overall mood, and thus what she says back to you. Since the computer is supposedly a neutral presence I wondered what the effect would be if it said things that were less words than emotional tokens, as exchanges between parents and children often are...(Why do I have to? , Because I say you have to! ). MARGO has a machine voice with a distinct DECtalk accent, and, an on-screen rectangle as an emotional indicator, that gets smaller and darker as her mood gets worse, larger and lighter if she's in a good mood, which could be the result of a lot of sweet talking, or might just mysteriously be.

A major influence in making this somewhat redundant thing was the Artificial Intelligence of the 60's, back when PHds in computer science and behavioral psychology thought that modeling the human psyche wasn't going to be a lot harder than writing a chess playing program. There were some wonderfully over-reaching attempts: programs simulating a right -wing ideologue, a paranoid psychotic, a Rogerian therapist, and a neurotic who believes she is descended from royalty. Though they were not highly regarded as science, had the nature of their pretensions been different they might have made pretty good art. In a way these simulations actually told more about the notions and assumptions of their programmers than of the personalities they simulated. If you could say that portraiture is a matter of choosing and somehow recording the most salient features of a subject, and that in the process both subject and artist are captured, these programs were portraiture. I thought it might be nice to carry on in this vein without the onus of science.

So anyway, people were variously amused and disturbed by the piece. Lots of people mentioned that it might have therapeutic uses, a few people said that it was an unfair representation of motherhood - "not all mothers are like that. "I always hasten to say that MARGO is not a General Model of Motherhood, she came from my own experience, a pretty specific dynamic...nonetheless a great many people tell me she's familiar.

So, next, Beth Kanter asked what I mean by "ubiquitous (off the screen) interactivity"..and it does sort of beg the question. The word ubiquitous I borrow from Xerox PARCs Ubiquitous Computing Group, who define ubiquitous computing as an alternative to the desktop and virtual reality models of computing.."Instead of using computers to simulate or replace our common physical space, computers are imbedded invisibly and directly into the real world. Everyday objects and our normal activities become the I/O..."* rather than mice, keyboards and the isolation of staring into a box on your desk. The interactivity in my work takes place in the space of the installation through action on the part of the visitor, not on a computer screen with a mouse or a keyboard. (Actually the piece I described above does not fit that bill, but since then they've been pretty physical.)

*"Ubiquitous computing and Augmented Reality", Computer Graphics Proceedings, SIGGRAPH '93

And the great Mark Coniglio asks what I'm working on now....well, right now I'm looking for an Italian and a German translator to help me translate all the spoken material in an older piece that's going to be showing in Italy. It's a tricky process because its a piece (The Digital Museum) in which you can poke a finger through holes in glass cases that hold an array of items. Touching them triggers images and little spoken passages that are idiomatic uses of the object that you touched (in English)...so we've got to figure out idioms for these things in Italian and German and....makes one think twice about using so much damn language... I'm also writing a proposal for a new installation that juxtaposes three situations where the passage of time feels distinctly different. For this Palle, my husband and engineer, and I are trying to figure out logistics for a large-ish camera obscura, and I'm writing a modular script for some guy sitting in a hotel room waiting for Her to call.

Beth Kanter

Thanks for defining the concept. Another question . . .

You state:

"Instead of using computers to simulate or replace our common physical space, computers are imbedded invisibly and directly into the real world. Everyday objects and our normal activities become the I/O..."

There's been a lot of research in the HCI area -- the human to computer interaction with traditional I/O devices -- mouse, keyboard, etc. When you change the traditional I/O device as you describe in your work, what does this change about the nature of HCI?

Was at the Scuplture Conference in RI last month. Was struck by a comment made by one of speakers on a digital scuplture panel something like . . . "Interacting with a mouse is different than interacting with clay."

Judy Malloy

Thanks for the excellent description of MARGO! If you would be willing to describe LOSER DIES and/or other recent works, that might make what you mean by offscreen interactivity more concrete.

Troika Ranch (Mark Coniglio, Dawn Stoppiello)

I have not seen your work (a shame!) so I am writing this comment from a somewhat less than informed viewpoint. Still, from your descriptions above, I see an interest in human relationships to each other (Margo shows a relationship to Mother, in your new piece you have "him" waiting for "her".) It does not seem that you are speaking about our relationship to technology, or how technology is involved in these relationships, yet you use computers and interactivity in many (all?) of your installations.

My question becomes, why is are you drawn to use computers and interactivity in your work? What role, if any, does the technology play as an entity unto itself? -- Mark

Anna Couey Sara, this is partly along the same lines of Beth and Mark's questions... why are you focussing on physical rather than onscreen interactivity? can it be seen as a comment on the disappearance of the physical body in cyberspace? a preference for the physical world?! does it affect the quality or type of interaction?

i'm curious to know more about Techne. who are the other group members?

i like your thinking about the ai personalities as portraiture. do you consider your current works portraits as well? does interactivity ever take the work beyond representation?

Sara Roberts

In answer to Beth's question -

I'm quoting there from the above mentioned SIGRAPH proceedings, but to answer your question the ubiquitous philosophy would point toward the augmentation of already existing tools, pointing the study of HCI toward anthropology, perhaps, to study our existing tools and how they could be augmented by 'smart' technology. Its an interesting comparison, working with clay vs working with a mouse, not only because working with clay involves so many more points of control than a mouse, all that tactile stimulation, etc, but most essentially for me because clay exists, taking up physical space, changing in time, in the same set of dimensions that I do...call me dimensionist, but I don't like spending so much time with screens.

Sara Roberts

Judy asked me to describe the most recent piece...this one is back in the shop due to general complaints of obscurity, but I'll tell you what the current version does and if there are suggestions I'd welcome them. The title - Loser Dies, refers to the readings heard in the piece which are various excerpts of duels from different literary genres. All my work tends toward making reading physical...this piece most blatently. My intent with it was to make a very tangible, absurdist arena for the feel of narrative speed..how we feel time passing as we read, how elastic language makes time. I chose duels because they show up in literature high and low. Loser Dies takes the form of an arcade game, which is the contemporary form for dueling, it seems.

It is a minimalist version of an arcade game... the size and shape of a typical stand-up arcade game, but flat black, completely undecorated...behind the glass there is no video screen but a lighted dial against a background of draped velour. It has a slightly funerary look to it. On the front panel there is 5 speed stick shift, at the base are two pedals for acceleration and braking. The player will find the piece droning along in neutral, a voice reading from a story by Nabokov in which a man obsesses about the dual he is to fight in the morning . If the player shifts into first gear the reading shifts to a dual from a contemporary romance novel which is wringing the drama out of every step and squint of the two protagonists, second gear is the central dual of the Iliad, heroic language...third is a pistol duel from War &Peace which moves along briskly, fourth gear is a duel from a comic book, and fifth is a boxing duel from PEOPLE magazine between Mickey Roarke and an Italian count. Reverse plays whatever gear you were just in backwards, the accelerator speeds up the reading, the brake slows it down.....shifting from duel to duel the stories do not start over but go to the same part of the narrative that you were in in the last gear, for instance if they were loading their weapons in second gear when you shift to third it goes to the place where they're loading their weapons in the third gear dual. The dial acts like a tachometer.

The piece is just not coming across very well by itself....I want somehow to increase the amount of physical involvement with the piece, and I'm thinking of adding some sort of visual read-out of the text in the screen area...any other ideas?

And Mark's question - why am I drawn to use computers and in my work what role does technology play as an entity unto itself...

I'm drawn to use computers because the cogs have such small teeth...that is to say I'm drawn to mechanism, computers providing the cheapest and most advanced form of mechanism these days. My fascination with mechanism - that is not mechanism as a noun but as the practice of making things that go without our pushing them... relates to the way that throughout history people have used the technology of the time to interpret their own internal and psychological workings...early man tended to think of themselves as types of vessels, alchemical times saw psychology as the result of combinations of substances called humors, In Freud's time the general populace was coming in contact with hydraulic and steam engine technology - mental states were a matter of pressures released and supressed...now we are on autopilot, in default mode, computer culture provides us with all kinds of metaphors for what's going on inside..people have made mechanistic representations of living things for ages, and I see myself as carrying on in that tradition.

So I guess I don't think of technology as being its own entity, I tend to see it as symbiotic with human endeavor. As for interactivity...hmmm, not all of my work is interactive in the you-do-something, it-does-something sense...I tend to make something interactive if it will make it seem more present, if it will make the mechanism at work clearer. I don't have any philosophical commitment to interactivity per se, I think of it as a means, not an end.

Hopefuly I answered Anna's question about focussing on physical rather than onscreen interaction...The group Techne is primarily a critique group for a bunch of us who work with technology - at the moment it is Elliot Anderson, Jim Campbell, Ed Osborn, Marjorie Franklin, Hillary Kapan, Bruce Cannon, and myself. We have done a few group shows, but at this point we are sort of spread out across the country and mostly carry on by email.

Do I consider the current works as portraiture? Not the last couple, they are kind of off on a tangent about percieved time...but there's another group portrait that I'm revving up to do. Does interactivity ever take it beyond representation....umm, do you mean beyond representation into abstraction or do you mean beyond representation into into actual being, actual entity, actual tool ...?

Anna Couey

Mm, I think you answered my question about your choice of offscreen vs. onscreen, or rather, reading your response, I would assume that your choice has to do with what makes the mechanism more apparent, and that it's not a philosophical choice per se. I was curious as to what your answer would be, because it seems to me that physical vs. nonphysical location of work places it in very different communication systems - that onscreen, while not physically engaging in the same way your offscreen work is, speaks to the mechanisms of social communication, even while it is physically isolated. And so that's where I've chosen to locate my work. But the lack of physicality also seems to limit its effectiveness.

On the question of interactivity going beyond representation, yes, I meant, into actual being/entity/tool. Can interactivity bring art to life :-)

I like your idea to add on-screen text to Loser Dies - I think the visual image of the text moving will help focus attention on speed.

Judy Malloy

Hmm - I don't know about adding a screen to Loser Dies because the diffuse quality of the nonscreen based words, the production - the interactive production of audio seemed part of the work to me and I think a screen would focus the viewer in an entirely different way, but I'm not sure I would have gotten the depth of the work or understood the range of texts you were quoting if you hadn't told me these things before I experienced the work. Maybe this doesn't matter; maybe the exploration and some users only hearing small parts of the work is an essential component. It is certainly the way much electronic literature works.

Anna Couey

Good points, Judy. I haven't seen it, so my comments are based entirely on what I conjured in response to Sara's description...& perhaps require a few grains of loCAL art salt on them :-)

Transcript of A Conversation with Sara Roberts, Item 89, 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