Interview: Michelle Teran

Michelle Teran: (abstract from the members area)

As an artist and researcher working within a networked live art practice, Michelle Teran explores the performative potential of objects and space. She examines the intertwining of social networks and everyday social spaces with their technological counterparts and creates connected performance, temporary lab spaces and live installations that are concerned with issues of communication, surveillance, psychogeography, presence, intimacy, social ritual, play, collaboration and public participation.

Ushi Reiter
interviewed Michelle Teran

ushi: Misha, I have met you in the context of various electronic art festivals which mostly take place in technologically highly developed countries. If I look at your website you seem to be permanently productive and on the road? Is it important for your work to travel so much? Why is this?

misha: Since 2001, my practice as a performance/live artist has becomes increasingly location-based. I am exploring the technological (communication) systems within urban environments and how they are embedded within the everyday. My creative output involves performative interventions using media spaces such as public webcams, WLAN hotspots and wireless CCTV. The creation and existence of these media spaces have social, cultural, geographical and political significances that I examine and expose. By moving from city to city, so far within North America, Australia and Europe, I am interested in exploring how these spaces are interconnected through common issues/concerns like privacy, borders and marginality or shared social rituals and codes, but are at the same time existing within local contexts, each with their uniqueness.

ushi: Most of the artists and cultural producers I know are living under "unstable" life conditions. What are your personal experiences with this lack of stability and does this fact go together with the theory of normadism within the context of art?

misha: Making art is generally an unstable business. One must deal with the instability of an idea, the sustainability of interest in the artist's vision, creating optimum conditions for producing a work, financial support, maintaining personal and professional relationships, the difficulty of collaborations, etc. I think that these challenges are always present if not an important part of what it means to be active within an artistic practice.

In terms of nomadism, I recently saw "The Gleaners and I", a documentary by Agnès Varda about urban and rural gleaning practices in France. 'To glean' means to gather after the harvest, to collect bit by bit. By asking people common questions about the practice of gleaning she also 'gleans' information about that person's life, making connections between the different stories, only made possible through the process of moving amongst people and spaces. At one point she refers to her own practice as a filmmaker, herself a gleaner through her digital camera, stating 'It's what I have gleaned that tells me where I've been', reflecting on the importance of travels between ideas, objects, places and experiences to developing her reality, but also opening herself up to change with the input of new things. This is the way many artists work. They glean information; make connections and conclusions, which also change through time and experience. This defines a nomadic state, which does not require a literal act of traveling.

ushi: Back to your work as performance/live artist. One of your continuing works is to intercept wireless observation cams in different cities and show the results in different setups on the street and also art spaces? Your are using the aesthetics of a traveler carrying a suitcase with a built in monitor or the aesthetics of a homeless.

What are the reactions of the passers-by? And could it be also be understood as a personal way of resistance against observation? What do you think about how privacy is vanishing?

misha: Discussions concerning surveillance very often turn to the Foucauldian model of the Panopticon and the loss of privacy of the individual. While I acknowledge this view, I am more interested in examining the situation of borders and the anxiety induced through fear of those thresholds being crossed, of which loss of privacy is an effect. On a wider level, one can observe a growing level of fear of the 'other', which can be evidenced in border and immigration issues, feelings of instability over homogenous national identity especially within Europe, gated communities with the United States, Homeland Security and terrorism. This feeling of insecurity trickles down to the private citizen. At the same time there is a surplus of inexpensive, easy-to-use surveillance technologies for the average consumer. My particular focus is on wireless surveillance cameras found in stores where you might also buy a DVD player. The cameras transmit on the 2.4 Ghz ISM band, a narrow part of the electromagnetic spectrum allocated for public use. This means you can legally operate one of these cameras without having to acquire a broadcasting license. So suddenly you have a number of individuals broadcasting and contributing to an invisible network of media within our urban environments.

People place cameras on what they feel need protection. The different views, an unmade bed, a baby's crib, a hallway, cash machine, restaurant kitchen, doorway, storage room, café table, gate or sidewalk, illustrate a diverse landscape of perceived insecure areas and reveal something about the camera's owner. The wireless transmitters are also used to distribute television to another room, so that you don't have to lay down cables. Because of this I can also pick up television signals, and observe what people are watching. The culmination of these acts creates for me an intriguing narrative space of the neighbourhood and of the city itself.

I can also talk about the qualities of the wireless signal and radio propagation in relation to urban environments. Wireless video transmissions extend past set boundaries of the rooms they are intended for and out onto the street. This makes a private encounter public, but also challenges conventions such as inside/outside or public/private. Am I entering the space or is the space entering me?

During the street performances, the audience is led on a journey through the city, guided through a series of hidden views by an urban and nomadic persona, who acts as a physical interface to the unseen. The female character is characterized by her mobility and embodies the qualities of the wireless signal. These personae allude to the metaphoric power of wandering and also people's puzzlement and even fear towards those that live beyond walls, through choice or circumstance. The audience, led on this nomadic journey, is drawn into a borderline action of observing a normally unseen and ephemeral view of public and private space. Staged as a silent 'mise-en-scène' which no offer of explanation, the audience participates in the production of meaning through their observation and interpretation. The result is a multi-layered reading of what is happening and what they are seeing, an experience that is, according to feedback from previous performances, disorienting, mesmerizing, humorous and even terrifying.

ushi: This year you got a honorary mention for "interactive art" at the ars electronica. What was your first reaction? What are your expectations?

misha: It took me long time to consider this project an artwork. I made my first discovery in 2002, explored it more in depth for a year understanding why it was so interesting for me, besides the novelty of being to do it at all. So my first reaction was that perhaps it was okay to meander a bit and let things evolve. This brings me back to Varda's statement about knowing where you are by retracing where you have been. Afterwards I was excited because I do consider it a privilege.

I try not to come in with too many expectations because I end up feeling disappointed. I expect to put every effort into making a good performance. I expect to be surprised. I expect to adjust accordingly. But apart from that I open myself up to the city of Linz and what it has to tell me.

ushi: Congratulations and thank you for the interview.