I’ll admit, I was intimidated by the idea of having my portrait done by someone 500 miles away – intimidated and, at the same time, kind of hoping that I’d muster the courage to participate. Now, I am by no means some Neo-Luddite. I have a cell phone, an ipod, and a digital camera and, though I hate to admit it, I do love my little gadgets.
I am, however, fairly skeptical of things like chat rooms and online dating and other digital intrusions into personal interactions.
Going to pick up a TBA t-shirt early on in the festival, I saw Edie Tsong, there in the corner of TBA Central, playing the accordian. Only, I didn’t see her. I only saw her image on a computer screen, passing her time in her Oakland, CA apartment, looking up in anticipation of someone coming to join her.
She saw me. I panicked and left.
I don’t know what it was about the brief interaction that startled me so much. Something about it seemed more like artificial intelligence, like a sassy computer side-kick in the movies, like Knight Rider, like HAL 9000, than an actual person. Maybe my problem wasn’t so much the distance of the human interaction as it was the whole artificial feeling of the project. It seemed more like talking to a machine than to a person. When I stopped to think about it, though, this was exactly what I did everytime I used a telephone; it was a digitized, simulated experience. I was talking to an object portraying some friend or family member.
I had to stop myself before I wound myself up tightly in this paranoid digression. Luckily, I returned to TBA central to pick up tickets for a friend, only to see a little boy sitting in front of the computer and giggling. He appeared to be having an interaction – an emotional and genuine one, at that. Perhaps this wasn’t so artificial after all.
It was with this in mind that I took a deep breath and went back to take part in Tsong’s project. While it was incredibly disorienting to get started (it felt like a combination of computer illiteracy and blind-date nervousness), one of her first comments after we began made me realize that she her feelings about this digitized interaction were similar to mine. She told me that on the previous day I had come in, a school group had come by and, because of the direction of the camera, she could only make out a swarm of bodies and arms. “I felt like I was in a crowd being crushed to death,” she said, ” I felt like I was watching an aquarium, but like I was the one in the aquarium.” That one experience, for her, seemed to encapsulate the surreality of the project – because of how close she had come to the computer through having so many social interactions through it, the experience of the crowd had felt so palpable as to become a physical sensation. Still, that sense of distance and voyeurism remained.
We talked about other shows I’d seen, things I’d written on the blog, where I’d gone to college and I found Edie to be a very smart and kind conversationalist. Quickly, the computer seemed to disappear and we were just two people talking about art. She told me how, when she had done this project in San Francisco, she actually ran into someone she had drawn. “It’s a real relief to meet the person and find that they are real and three dimensional,” she said. Despite how many times she’s done this project, her need for the physical reassurance remained. Over the course of the project, the distance of the video conferencing gave way to the intimacy of having your portrait done and I was reminded of another experience I’d had when a little boy named Herman had drawn my picture outside of Frock clothing on Alberta street on Last Thursday. Closely observing another, or being closely observed yourself, feels incredibly personal and my techno-phobia was replaced by intense focus on capturing Tsong’s likeness.
I was feeling glad that I’d helped Edie in her Telecommunity Portrait and relieved that it all had felt so comfortable to take part in. We finished and showed each other our drawings and I realized that the computer had been facing the other direction when I came in. I had turned it to take a seat at the desk.
“Shall I turn you back around?” I asked, “I mean, should I turn the computer around?”
And in that moment I remembered that I was talking to someone in California and not in the room with me. I had substituted her for the computer and I had addressed the machine as “you” or maybe I had just addressed her as the computer? It was surreal, but she obliged and I rotated the screen back towards the door as she said hello to someone else and asked if they’d like their portrait done.
Go say hello to Edie Tsong at TBA central from 12-6 today and tommorrow before the festival is over!
posted by patrick leonard