The Incredible Lightness of Machines: An Interview with Reva Stone

We live in a post-human age. A recent cover article in Harper’s magazine predicts that the American military will soon be robotic. Much of what we invent in the fields of science and technology are prosthetic devices that extend human capabilities. Donna J. Haraway, a distinguished feminist and cultural historian, has argued that we are all cyborgs, “chimeras, theorized and fabricated hybrids of machine and organism.” The word “cyborg” itself is a linguistic hybridity, a slippage between cybernetic and organism, in which the thing made is neither one nor the other, but some new combination of the two.

Imaginal Expression 2004-2006, custom, real-time responsive three-dimensional environment, using two PC computers, two ATI Radion 9700 Pro cards, computer visioning system, four video projectors, router installation: The Winnipeg Art Gallery. Dimensions: 48 x 9”. Photos Ernest Mayer, Winnipeg Art Gallery.

Reva Stone, a Winnipeg artist, has been working in this interstitial zone for over a decade. Since 1992, she has used various interactive and electronic technologies to investigate what it means to be human, what vestiges of our previous being are maintained in our current selves and what nature of changes does the human organism undergo in this mutable territory.

Her most ambitious piece, called Imaginal Expression, was the centre of an exhibition shown at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in 2004, along with sentientBody, 1998, and Carnevale 3.0, 2000-02. Each of these works dealt with the presence and rhythms of the human body; sentientBody used electronic sensors, images of sand and water combined with the sound of a woman’s breathing, and a water-filled stainless steel container to both realize and dematerialize the existence of the body. Carnevale (the Latin name makes a direct reference to the falling away of flesh) was a life-sized aluminium figure placed on a robotic platform that used heat sensors to locate and photograph individuals in the gallery space. The captured images were either stored or replicated and then abandoned, functions that mimic the operation of human memory. In both these works, Stone was a distant presence in her disembodied breathing and in her outlined form as a robotic young girl.

In Imaginal Expression, 2004, the smallest parts of her are evident in the largest scale. She took scanned images of her own body–skin, hair, teeth–and, through a computer program, wrapped them around three-dimensional, simulated models of animated protein molecules, which were then projected onto a screen nine feet high and 48 feet long. The resulting installation was extraordinary. Your initial reaction was to think of the visual trippiness of space films like 2001: A Space Odyssey. But unlike a film, which is a fixed form, everyone’s encounter with Imaginal Expression was different because the projected images were in constant and unrepeatable flux. The piece is the realization of the Heraclitean notion that you can never step twice in the same visual river. The scale and the constant metamorphizing of the panorama in front of you made it difficult to focus on any one thing for any length of time. But there is an associative inventory of possible readings of the impossible objects you see when you enter Imaginal Expression’s perceptual world. It falls as freely from the imagination as her magnified proteins move through space.

Imaginal Expression 2004-2006, images: Reva Stone

Imaginal Expression 2004-2006, images: Reva Stone

Imaginal Expression 2004-2006, images: Reva Stone

These are the things I saw: thick twists of matter that look like flesh trees; muted party favours from the New Year’s Eve celebration of a giant; building-sized clusters of capillaries, or roots, or bean sprouts; huge, soft-skinned parsnips with veins glowing menacingly below the surface; limitless pieces of octopus curling away into a space so deep you imagine yourself in another universe; phallic shapes that make you realize size doesn’t just matter, it is matter; massive white pathways that shoot across the surface like the calcified traces of meteors; mobiles of the biological forms made by the artist/zoologist, Ernest Haeckel; huge lozenges that cross-hatch and skein and weave themselves into shamanic forms, and then dissolve into something else, as does everything you’ve set your eyes on. Imaginal Expression is a world of limitless measure; it is architectural and intimate, eerie and sexy. There is something about its scale and ineluctable mutation that puts you in mind of Walt Whitman’s “procreative urge,” the world of inner space turning itself inside out in a slow, seductive turn, as if a tectonic shift were a slow-motion striptease. Put another way, it is the body of the universe techno-eroticizing itself. Put another way, it is a recasting of Descartes’s definition of being, which now becomes, “I am, therefore I morph.” Put another way…

Robert Enright interviewed Reva Stone in Winnipeg on January 5, 2007.

Border Crossings: What got you interested in this kind of work in the first place?

Reva Stone: In 1989, I was working on a piece that was critiquing children’s toys and video games, and Richard Dyck, whom I hold responsible for this whole thing, said, “Have you thought about making what you’re doing interactive?” So I did and eventually got to the point where I started pricing out what it would take to make it interactive. Then, in 1990, I applied for an Explorations grant and a Manitoba Arts Council grant and got them both. I went into panic mode because I didn’t know what to do.

BC: Why would that suggestion from Richard have been so happily accepted in the first place?

RS: It was simply that it involved the viewer so much more. Also that I was working with something that was room scale. The scale of the body and the body’s interaction in a simulated world were especially interesting to me.

BC: In art school, didn’t you start out as a painter?

RS: Yes, but it didn’t last long. To be honest, art school wasn’t that helpful in figuring out what I was really looking at, which turned out to be social convention. Basically, I was asking the question, “How do we construct our world?” It was from that perspective that I got interested in the gender of toys and in how our bodies are being changed and constructed.

Imaginal Expression 2004-2006, images: Reva Stone

BC: What was it about toys that was initially so appealing?

RS: I was working with the Artist in the School Program at thte Manitoba Arts Council and seeing the influence toys had on what the kids were doing. We were filling gymnasiums with sculpture, actually building environments. So I started looking closely at toys. I went to The Bay and, at that time, all the girls’ toys were totally pink, as was the counter where you went up to pay for them. And, of course, the toy counter for the boys was blue. It was even more disturbing to read what it actually said about the toys on the packaging. All this led me into reading about gender stereotyping. My first interactive installation piece, which was actually a child’s bedroom, came out of this in 1992. It was called Legacy and on each wall there was something that related to a boy or a girl. There would be things like a map of the world and a giant image of Captain Culture on one wall and, on another, a portrait made of dolls that I had photographed and put together as a family. And there was a computer game that viewers could play, which allowed them to manipulate the entire installation.

BC: Was the fact that you did an installation an early indication of your interests?

RS: My first exhibition in 1987 at Plug In ICA was actually an installation of photo-based, life-size portraits of women. It was called “Constructed Images.”

BC: So the body has been an interest from the start?

RS: Yes, and it grew from a consideration of the external to the internal body. In my latest interactive piece, called Imaginal Expression, I’m talking about microscopic bits of body.

BC: I’m interested in the way Imaginal Expression negotiates the line between the micro and macro. You take the smallest protein particle and make it immense.

RS: The intent was to use the technology I had available to me to make the piece immersive, so that you almost felt like you were falling into it. When I was working on it, I was only seeing it on monitors, so when we connected it to video projectors for the first time, I was actually blown away. I couldn’t believe what I was seeing.

BC: Which is the viewer’s apprehension of the work, too. I’ve been trying to figure out what the piece does and all the images that come to mind are from the deep undersea world, or from something like 2001: A Space Odyssey. How do you read the piece now?

RS: My reads have changed. I was an artist-inresidence in Surrey, where I talked to school kids about it. Initially, they saw it as coming from outer space, and they also saw the pieces as forms. But they were stopped the minute they were told there was flesh on it. Even kindergarten kids recognized this was something about a body.

BC: How did you actually make Imaginal Expression?

RS: It was a long process. It started during a Banff residency in 2000. I’d done a previous residence in a hospital with a radiologist and I had all these images from different kinds of scanning machines. I found software that would convert them to Quicktime movies. I took this material to Banff, but the more I worked on it, the more frustrated I got, because if you see a heart start pumping, it’s so powerful in its own right that there’s no metaphor. I just couldn’t work with it. Then, one day, I was on the Internet and I saw protein molecules. I was struck by their simplicity. It was a scientific Web site where you could put in data that would actually form the three-dimensional molecule, and then you could download some software to play with it. The molecules were blue and green and orange and there was no reference at all—they were the most abstract corporeal forms I’d even seen—so I decided to put back the human body. I scanned parts of my own body, and a 3-D technician and I wrapped the textures around the molecules. A texture is the two-dimensional image you make that fits over a three-dimensional object. We produced a minute-long, animated movie, which thinking period. I promise myself before I start every piece that I’m going to keep it simple, and then the eight-month thing happens and it becomes a much more complex piece.

Imaginal Expression 2004-2006, images: Reva Stone

BC: Did you realize in looking at what you’d brought back that there was potential for something quite dramatic?

RS: Yes. The minute-long film was so incredible that I was able to use it to get funding.

BC: I’m interested in the aesthetics of the piece.

RS: There is a kind of push-pull. Sometimes it seems creepy, and people react the way they do when they look inside a body during surgery. But it also has a kind of gothic beauty. I recognized that in the short video, which had the same quality.

BC: Were you ever creeped-out by what you were finding while making it?

RS: Not seriously. There are prints derived from it and I look at them and, yes, they can be creepy.

BC: Do you know what everything is? Can you distinguish one molecular body part from another?

RS: Yes. But I don’t want viewers to be able to recognize the difference between hair or skin or teeth. When I was giving artist talks at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, I was very careful in how much I gave away. I know that when people look at this work, they’re aware it has something to do with the body. But I want it to stay at that level, and not say those are teeth, or papillae on the tongue.

Imaginal Expression 2004-2006, images: Reva Stone

BC: So you’d put your tongue on a scanner? It beats putting your butt on the same place.

RS: I did that too, which was really hard because the scanner can’t take much weight. But I like the scanner because it’s a very flattening kind of light, rather than what you get from a digital camera. I brought home to think about. It was just the molecules in solid form pushing through each other and when they came into contact, they would dissolve. I had a few ideas I wanted to try. I found a programmer in Winnipeg who was taking time off to develop a game

BC: The other thing about Imaginal Expression is that it’s interactive, so the viewer’s presence is causing it to constantly change. Was that interactivity important to you?

RS: It was important that it constantly changed. I was suggesting a connection with the idea of genetic modification and how the human body changes over time, even just in the process of aging.

BC: Was that notion of constant change a philosophical conviction or was it based on your understanding of how science, art and life are themselves always changing?

RS: It was more the latter, recognizing the pattern of dissolution and regeneration. Cultures do that, so do bodies.

BC: It also ties in with your notion of the gothic. At the same time there’s a recognition that the body is constantly remaking itself, there is also a recognition of dread and death in the piece.

RS: Yes. Some of my earlier work looked at the question of the denial of death and immortality.

Imaginal Expression 2004-2006, images: Reva Stone

BC: Was that a conscious invocation?

RS: Yes. To me, a lot of technology, medical and otherwise, was being driven by the desire to deny death, to prolong life at almost any cost. I’m talking about things like premature babies who are kept alive and sent home with parents who are terribly stressed having to look after them. I have a brother-in-law living in Toronto who is a medical ethicist. He considers himself a medical anthropologist and we had similar interests. I’d visit him and be strongly influenced by the things we had talked about.

BC: Are you interested in the concept of the posthuman? The argument has been put forward that we are all cyborgs now.

RS: I describe myself as post-human because I have an artificial lens in one eye. At the risk of being binary, I can say there are two sides to this, a positive and a negative one. It’s like when medical researchers do things for no reason other than that they can.

BC: Is there an ethics implicit in your work?

RS: Yes, it was there in the earlier work. Certainly in verticalBody, sentientBody and Interstitial Spaces. Those three are almost like a trilogy to me.

BC: So your work is a process of discovering what it is you want to say, rather than declaring what it is you already know?

RS: It’s more about the things I don’t understand. It’s been really critical for me to be way over my head, not knowing how to do what I want to do. I work differently from a lot of artists who make one 3-D world, then they make another one, and another one after that. I tend to get the idea and then I have to develop the technology to make the idea come to fruition. That process is really fundamental. For me, what is absolutely critical is that I’m continuously learning.

sentientBody, installation, The Winnipeg Art Gallery

BC: Are you interested in this Virtual Life movement for which people actually create characters?

RS: Well, it interested me enough that Vera Lemecha and I did a conference on it in 1989 and co-edited a book called The Multiple and the Mutable Subject, which was published in 2001. My personal take on it is that it’s imaginary. We’re centred in our bodies; we are who we are in our bodies. So what we do there is an imaginary take-off.

BC: So for you, it’s too much trope and not enough body. It’s not rooted?

RS: Not to me. I know people who meet someone and their little characters marry on-line. Years ago, the one time I went on-line, I guess my etiquette was inappropriate. This world was vaguely mediaeval. The worlds they create with these graphic interfaces and avatars are so corny to me that there was no way I was buying into that. So there I was with my little pointy mediaeval thing and I was trying to manoeuvre in the space and some guy came and piked me on the head. It was rude.

BC: Let’s shift to the real world. What’s your sense of the relationship between Imaginal Expression and the still images that you pull from it? Do you view the still images as residual, as artefacts?

RS: I do, actually. Although they stand on their own, they’re also a form of documentation. I did a lot of stills because the program allowed me to move things around in space and then take them as screen captures at a pretty high resolution. I narrowed it down to 12, then to the seven that I’ve made into prints. I started with 150. Making the choices basically boiled down to my own sense of aesthetics.

BC: How did Carnevale 3.0 take shape, both as an idea and an object?

RS: I was asked to do a residency in Saskatoon and, because I grew up in Saskatchewan, I wanted whatever I did there to make some reference to that. I started with an idea of a moving video projector, which, over time, became an image of myself as a young girl. It dealt with ideas of memory.

BC: But among many other things, the piece responds to whoever comes into the room.

RS: It has a sensor on its base that looks for heat, so when it senses the heat of a person, it will move in that direction. When the person is sensed, lights illuminate the person so they can be video-captured. Those captures are treated like memories. There’s long-term and short-term memory in the capture; some are sent wirelessly to the computer, where they’re stored on the hard drive, and some are played back—once, twice or three times—and then disappear forever.

sentientBody 1998, one computer-assisted interactive projection, one video projection, stainless steel container, audio, overall dimensions variable Photos: Ernest Mayer, The Winnipeg Art Gallery

BC: So what you’re doing is capturing the operations of the memory?

RS: Yes, metaphorically. I was making this piece at the same time my partner’s mother had Alzheimer’s.

BC: How much investment of the autobiographical is there in your work? Imaginal Expression uses your own body; Carnevale 3.0 starts out being connected to your childhood and then, because of family circumstances, becomes intertwined with your life at the time you’re making it.

RS: I think all artists make work that relates to the life they’re living. But in my work, the life is not easily recognizable. It’s something I’ve always considered very private. Even so, for the last 10 years, each piece I’ve made has been triggered by something that’s happened to me or to someone around me.

BC: What is it that distinguishes the human from the technological in this cyborgian world? Or does it matter that we can make those distinctions?

RS: This is something that may change over time, but the biggest difference now is that there’s no way a computer can touch the complexity of our brains and the multi-layered thinking that goes on inside them. No computer can match the processing power of our brains.

BC: So, at this stage, the biological always trumps the mechanical?

RS: Well, it depends on what you’re measuring. The way behaviour emerges from emotion is something that I don’t think you’ll ever replicate on a machine. My new piece, a work in progress called Exchange, is asking those kinds of questions. How do you have a deep and lasting relationship? This piece has been very slow in development, partly because I haven’t had funding to program it for about six or eight months. But that’s given me a lot of conceptual time.

Carnevale 3.0, 2000-2002, computer controlled video and audio projects, life-sized aluminum figure and robotic platform, video camera, video project. Camera, video projector. Height: 5’8” including base, Photos: Ernest Mayer, The Winnipeg Art Gallery

BC: You’re very resourceful. If you can’t make something, you just think about it.

RS: I think about it but I’m also preparing content.For this piece, I’m using voice- and face-recognition software to determine when there’s a viewer in the space with whom the computer will interact conversationally, appearing as if it’s sentient. Mostly it asks questions of the viewer, and it will also make statements about what it thinks about things. I’ve been recording conversational elements and gathering sounds and imagery that go together. At this point, I’m also thinking about how I want it to actually play out in an exhibition space. More and more I’m leaning towards having it appear as if you’ve entered its mind. I’m thinking of combining the architectural space with a mental space by developing a robotic device that can hold two video projectors, very like the two sides of our brain. You can show one thing on one screen, one thing on another, and sometimes one thing across two screens. It will move around the space of the viewer, so that you’re actually moving in a kind of mind space. It will definitely be negotiating the territory between what it is as a machine and what we are as humans. You have to build a database able to do that.

BC: The other question that comes up is, where will you be in the piece?

RS: My interest is in the architectural nature of the space. I’ve started reading more about how the body is embodied in architecture. I’ve also been thinking lately of using my own voice, which, when altered slightly, becomes an alter ego. I’ve recently read Wired for Speech, a book written by people who design commercial interface programs for speech. One of the interesting things they bring up is how a gendered voice affects the viewer. I’ve realized that many of the things I’ve already recorded follow the stereotype, so now I’m thinking of undercutting it in some way.

Carnevale 3.0, 2000-2002, computer controlled video and audio projects, life-sized aluminum figure and robotic platform, video camera, video project. Camera, video projector. Height: 5’8” including base, Photos: Ernest Mayer, The Winnipeg Art Gallery

BC: Is there no sense of anxiety in a world in a constant state of flux?

RS: Not for me, there isn’t. I find it fascinating. That’s what I meant earlier when I said I like being in over my head. But I did want Imaginal Expression to move slowly enough that it would become a space for contemplation. That was a very conscious decision. It was also a way of resisting the pace of 3-D video games. When I was working with the programmer, I kept saying, it needs to be slower. His tendency was to speed it up.

BC: It’s interesting that you’re finding points of resistance to the conventional reading of images that often appear on our computer screens.

RS: It was the same thing with my little girl robot. The fact that she is prepubescent worked against the ways that cyborgian women are portrayed.

BC: You mean the way that they are sexualized, even fetishized?

RS: Yes, it was important not only that it was an image of me, but that it was my earlier image.

BC: There are general differences in how machines are viewed, aren’t there? If I think about how we look at the robot—I’m talking here in popular culture—and compare it with the way the robot is used in Japan, a huge chasm opens up.

RS: My awareness of just how frightening robots were to small children happened when Displacement was on exhibition at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. There were children who did not want to go in the room with the girl robot. There were five- and seven-year-olds who were saying, “I don’t want to see the robot, the robot will get me.” In the West, from Frankenstein on, we have this view that the robot is something that might take over the world. In Japan, they’re friendly little things that serve tea. How cultures use them has really determined how they’re viewed. ■