In the 2010 Orange County Biennial we gladly testified the selection that Sarah Bancroft curator of the OCMA (Orange County Museum of Art) did of some artists identified with Souther California art scene linked to the U.C.S.D. (University of California San Diego) Visual Arts program alumni and faculty.
This interwiew is devoted to Nina Waisman, member of this San Diego contingent, who had develop her work under various media but most recently interactive and sound installations. Her project Between Bodies presented at the OCMA had previous incarnations at Centro Cultural Tijuana, in Baja California for the inaugural show of the new exhibition space El Cubo in 2009, and also was successfully presented at Electronic Language International Festival (FILE) Brazil, in the city of São Paulo same year.
Nina Waisman works with technologically driven forms of control and communication, exploring their impact on a body’s space, time and logic. Her interactive installations pose questions about “embodied thinking”, while focusing on related issues, such as the US/Mexican border, surveillance, nanotechnology, etc. As a former dancer turned new media artist, Waisman is particularly interested in the critical role that movement-based modes of thinking play in forming our thoughts – neurologists and cognitive scientists call such “physical thinking” the pre-conscious scaffolding for all human logic. Waisman’s work asks experientially: how might our new tech-inflected gestures be shaping our relationships with the bodies and systems we connect to when we move with technology?
As you will discover soon in the interview, Nina Waisman has an unique approach merging together the arts and science creating an interdisciplinary framework that allowed her in the recent years to produce solo or collective projects that engage the audience in innovative ways.
Waisman’s production ranges from interactive sound-and-sculpture installations to object-making and performance. She makes solo projects and has collaborated as part of the Particle Group and CUBO collectives, among others. Her interactive installations are often sited in public spaces and transitional passageways, where everyday activities at the site become key mediums for the works venues include the lobby of the House of World Cultures in Berlin, the entrance to the CECUT in Tijuana, the entrance to the Museum of Image and Sound in São Paulo, Brazil, the Grand Hall of Science lobby at UCLA, and the CALIT2 lobby at UCSD.
She has also made works for more typical art venues such as the California Biennial at the Orange County Museum of Art whose we spoke about yet, the San Diego Museum of Art, Stephan Stoyanov Gallery in NYC, the FIESP/SESI gallery in São Paulo, and the LACE, Telic and g727 gallery in Los Angeles. Upcoming exhibitions include Stephan Stoyanov Gallery and online projects for Triple Canopy and Version.
Nina Waisman holds a BA, magna cum laude from Harvard University, a BFA in Fine Art from Art Center College of Design, and an MFA in Visual Arts from UCSD; her training as a classical dancer also informs her ongoing investigation of embodied technology. She currently lives and works in San Diego but is moving to Los Angeles summer of 2011.
Between Bodies, her last artwork we’re talking about in the following interview, is an interactive sound installation that links the visitors’ gestures to a wide range of bodily and sonic energies circulating throughout Tijuana city, making visceral the connections visitors have to the diverse networks of human agency at work in this city. An elaborate sensor-arrangement encountered encourages visitors to move off to the side of the space, diverging from the building’s architecturally implied choreography. One person can “play” the different sections and enclosures.If multiple visitors engage with the piece at the same time, they create networked re-compositions of the city’s sonic rhythms.
For a more precise idea about how Between Bodies works, we suggest you the following videos: the installation in Tijuana (http://www.ninawaisman.net/cecut/index.html), the one in Sao Paolo (http://www.ninawaisman.net/file/index.html) and the one at ‘Orange County (http://www.ninawaisman.net/californiaBiennial/index.html) whose we’re going to talk about in the interview.
Felipe Zuniga: How would you describe your practice and artistic research?
Nina Waisman: The past few years I’ve been making mostly interactive sound installations. But I also make video, 2d and 3d works, and do some performance. Across these disciplines, my practice follows my interest in exploring how we think with our bodies. I’m fascinated by how ideas and logic are shaped by the body’s structure and limitations, and how cultural logics feed back onto that, training us so we perceive in ways that are in sync with our cultures’ desires.
As a former dancer, I became excited about “gesture-sensors” during my undergrad study at Art Center. The data captured by such sensors can be easily info-morphed – the gestural information can be used to alter sound, video, or any other data stream. Underlying this work is my interest in the cross-modal production of thought – how the shuttling of a perception across branches of the sensory system (the proprioceptive and the auditory, for example) might affect logics built upon this cerebral info-morphing. In this light, might performing a new gesture generate new flavors of thought in the mind? What kinds of physical and social negotiations are built into mundane (and not-so mundane) tech-gestures? Some of my work explores these questions as they play out in politicized constructions of say, the nanotechnology industries, institutionalized surveillance, etc. Other pieces zero in more on the phenomenological impacts of media and technology on constructions of self, place, time and logic.
As for research, philosophers such as John Dewey, Bergson, Deleuze, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson have done amazing work unpacking the ways physiological bodies and cultures feedback onto each other, as have cultural theorists Brian Massumi, Chris Schilling and Marcel Mauss, to name a few. So I read these writers, along with neurological and cognitive scientists’ studies on bodily thinking there’s a lot of work being done in this area!
Felipe Zuniga: How would you describe Between Bodies?
Nina Waisman: The original installation at the CECUT museum in Tijuana was sited in the building’s funnel-like entrance. Leaving behind a fabulous view of the color-and-sound-rich city, one descends into the building through a long, narrow, low lit concrete and marble hall with a ceiling that becomes impossibly high. 20 meters later you reach the daylight-filled main lobby. It’s a bit like descending into an imposing tomb whose lower chambers can only be reached after one has been properly purged through time, darkness, and silence, of the effects of the city.
Between Bodies sought to bring this architecturally exclusinary logic front and center by offering some of what it concealed the guts of the infrastructure connecting it to the city (dangling wire), the chaotic, sonic pleasures of Tijuana, a potential dérive, available to those who veered off the straight-line conduit implied by the funnel. Many of the sounds triggered in the entrance of Between Bodies are seemingly iconic hammering, raking, filing. On the other hand, abstracted sound can be hard to pinpoint in the mind; the quality of a particular sound may evoke a range of activities.
I’m interested in this blurred state of recognition, in which the body perceives a stimulus, triggering multiple responses (and perhaps multiple neural mirrorings), while the mind attempts to fix an understanding to locate the sound, to label it but can’t exactly. There is an anomic quality to this kind of perception, that defies the desire to categorize an amorphic connectedness that precedes the individuation implicit in naming.
I wanted these seemingly site-less sounds to open the piece, to create a common-denominator of bodily and sonic experiences that would have been heard throughout Tijuana but also most anywhere in the world, sounds of bodily-gestures possibly engaged in by many visitors. The idea was to create a bodily dialog between visitors and the residents of Tijuana, a dialog not dependent on knowledge of the city, thus one that might open the city and its common experiences to visitors who had not ventured beyond the taxi-ride between the border and the museum.
But there are subtle localizing effects in the first sonic section that Tijuana residents notice. Additional field recordings of local sound are triggered at some sensors local birds, particular taxi drivers, music, etc. Such geographically tagged sounds increase in number as one advances through the piece. Many residents described to me an immediate recognition of their city for them, the piece became an experience of moving inside the museum while connecting to sonic bodies encountered throughout their city, and to a personal history with many of those bodies.
To move through the piece, for them, was to gain agency over their sonic experience of the city they could choose if and when they heard a sound, the speed or pitch at which they heard it, and its conjunction with other sounds of their own choosing (from the available curation of urban sounds). The (natural) role of the sensing body as Theremin, tuning a city, was technologically enhanced, expanding a visitor’s ability to construct a concretely lived re-mapping of the city.
Felipe Zuniga: Would you define Between Bodies as site-specific work? If so what happens each time the installation was relocated?
Nina Waisman: efinitely, the site, both architecturally and culturally, changes the actual installation and the reading each time. You can see images of each on my site (http://www.ninawaisman.net)
I mentioned already how, in Tijuana, the piece was meant to counter the architecture’s removal of the city. That first installation in Tijuana also took place early on in the drug wars, when the Tijuana and US media were mono-maniacally glutting their viewers/readers with blood-soaked coverage of drug-related crimes. Consequently, tourism dropped to 10% of its usual rate, and some residents of Tijuana similarly retreated in fear, circulating less, scanning the streets and each other with a guarded suspicion. Some people spoke of a fading sense of community. But the violence and fear were nowhere near what the media misled one to believe.
As I recorded sound around Tijuana, I was struck by the endless numbers of people at work (and play) on the still very active streets of the city. The piece gathered key sounds from the 99% of daily life that wasn’t being portrayed by the media (sounds of labor, play, activism, community service). My desire was to re-emphasize the hybrid energies of everyday life, in the face of the media’s fixation on crime. (see list of sounds here: http://www.ninawaisman.net/californiaBiennal/betweenBodiesPartialSoundList.pdf and video of the piece here:http://vimeo.com/17721107).
In Brasil, I was offered a quite different space, a long, thin, glass-walled gallery that ran along the outside of a very popular building. The glass emphasized the performative aspects of the piece everyone moving through it was on clear display for the 3-300 people that might be standing below them. Those watching below could not hear the sound, but only see some strange dance between people and sensors.
Peter Dalsgaard and Lone Koefoed Hansen have nicely described such layered, performative interactions: “you are both operating an interactive system, performing for other people while operating, and, most importantly-because you are both operating and performing-you are also an implicit spectator of your own actions since your own actions will be the ones that other people are experiencing.” The layering of the operator-performer-voyeur roles were quite apparent at this site, kind of like they are in everyday social interactions, if you start looking.
The piece in Brasil was re-titled Between Bodies/Tijuana, so those who read the wall sign understood where the sound came from. But since the huge majority had never been to this city, the sense of place was not overlaid with memories of Tijuana rather I heard people comparing the sounds of Sao Paula to Tijuana and finding them similar, leading them to explore the piece and explain that they intuitively understood life in Tijuana in some way.
Felipe Zuniga: Could you tell us what happened with the piece when presented at the Orange county Biennial?
Nina Waisman: NW: Orange county includes some of the wealthiest, most conservative, anti-immigrant communities in the US. At the same time, over 30% of Orange County residents are Latino. Mass media’s portrayal of Tijuana would suggest OC’s only connections to the Tijuanenses should be made through fear. Yet some OC residents grew up visiting Tijuana as bargain-hunters, tourists or on alcohol-fueled adventures. Many OC residents and/or their employees, have family living in Tijuana.
Many low-priced electronics enjoyed in Orange County are made by people earning $10/day in Tijuana’s maquiladoras; families working in these maquiladoras cannot afford to eat properly or rent a home with a roof. Some US and internationally-owned companies making these electronics in Tijuana, dump toxic by-products there, poisoning the water, land and residents. Technologies enabling keyboard-punched orders for Tijuana-produced goods, further obscure the links between people in Orange County and the Tijuana residents fulfilling their desires.
So in Orange County I included a wall sign that listed the source of the sounds, many directly connected to the complex nature of US-Mexican relationships. I also added a bit of “connecting” sound towards the end sounds of flows across the border the I-5 freeway, wind, birds, footsteps, sirens, helicopters things connecting both sides.
Felipe Zuniga: Could you describe for us the formal variation of the piece at the Orange County Museum.
Nina Waisman: While there had always been clusters of sensors making related sounds I call these “drawings” the fact that it had earlier been installed in long hall-like spaces made these drawings into stops along a linear path. In the California Biennial (currently at the Orange County Museum of Art) I was offered instead a large gallery space, a classic room of 19′ x 38′, in which to condense the piece. I made the sensor drawings in this space a bit more like typical artworks – they resembled mobiles, or mini-architectural spaces. These drawings were placed to create a meandering flow, different than the counter-clockwise movement along gallery walls that is typically followed. So visitors move between the mini-architectrual sections of the piece “labor”, “attention”, “children”, “the porous border” as the choose. They are perhaps freer in this non-linear space to create their own narratives, sonic-mappings and understandings of the sounds and the piece.
Felipe Zuniga: What is the role (or roles) played by the audience in the piece and the different levels of engagement and the implications of the cross interaction between the psychological, physical, social.?
Nina Waisman: In general, the piece plays with technology’s potential to, as Mark Hansen writes, “[give] us a chance to live the ‘indivision’ of the body”. The encounter, in “Between Bodies”, is one in which visitors’ bodily gestures meet those of Tijuana residents, linking the gestural, lived time of a body in the museum to that of bodies outside, in Tijuana. I also see the piece as a kind of experiment or exploration with the neurological impact of gesture and sound effects at these levels, if they occur, would likely happen below conscious radar.
For example, neurologists have found that hearing the sound of another body performing an action can lead us to experience this same action in the brain and muscles. We don’t enact the gesture but nerve-clusters for producing the action fire, and muscles are primed to act. Neurologists link this mirroring system to a survival-driven need for empathic skills when I hear you do something, I experience your state, and can sense viscerally how we might next interact.
And Rodolfo Llinas (NYU Neurosciences Chair) explains that our learned gestural skills – walking, typing, etc – play in our brains, even when we don’t move. Not all play at once, but a few play together at a time, randomly. Llinas’ research finds that the overlaying of these gestural tapes is the source of creative thought! New logics arise from interference between re-played memories of our motor-based actions. A new tech-gesture, then, is not a small thing.
So to put this together, hearing sounds of recorded bodies performing actions can lead listeners to “mirror” the heard gestures. These mirrored gestures, overlaid with whatever gestural tapes are already playing in a listener’s brain, can lead to new, affiliated logics. Adding to this common, gestural pile-up, visitors to my installations employ new tech-controlling gestures to manipulate gestural sounds heard in the space.
This logic-forming, gesturally mashed-up medium is worth considering, given our increasing use of physical computing devices, surveillance systems, and mediated sound. My work often asks experientially: how might tech-inflected gestures shape the logic of our relationships with bodies and systems we connect to when we move with technology?
Some people have told me they left the piece thinking differently about their or the US relationship to Tijuana that’s exciting. On a more obvious level, I have seen gestural conventions up-ended in the space. Some adults weave and run around like children, some hyper kids become very still and attentive. Of course there are some people who just cruise through without much interest not everyone goes for this kind of work.
Felipe Zuniga: What are you working on now?
Nina Waisman: I’ve just finished a new work with the CUBO collective, that was shown for the first time at the Collective Show (http://www.ninawaisman.net/impediment/impedimentPierreHiResEmbed.html) in Los Angeles last January 20. Jennifer Donovan, Gabriela Torres Olivares and Flora Wiegmann and I are collaborating we are exploring relationships between bodily logics and cultural/political logics generated by the US/Mexican border. We are wondering – how do these logics play out bodily, for those who cross the border, and for those who do not or can not cross?