By Chloe Wolifson
Giselle Stanborough exhibited at FirstDraft in April 2012 in the group exhibition Alternate Universal Studios with fellow artists Rosie Deacon, J.D. Reforma, & Marilyn Schneider. Stanborough’s work in this show incorporated the use of two chat bots: ELIZA, one of the original artificial intelligence programs, and Cleverbot, which uses crowd sourced text from its ample users in order to converse. ELIZA and Cleverbot were also included in this conversation between Stanborough and Firstdraft 2012 Emerging Writers Resident Chloé Wolifson.
Chloé Wolifson: Your work in the 2012 FirstDraft exhibition Alternate Universal Studios was a focussed performance work where you appeared to act as translator between chat bots, within a vitrine of artificial snow and semi-masticated apples in reference to Alan Turing and his Snow White-inspired suicide. It was a work involving endurance and apparent discomfort on your part. How do you prepare for a work of that nature, and what were you experiencing as you worked/performed?
Giselle Stanborough: I enjoy the intense focus that is necessary for endurance performance and I sometimes see myself in mechanistic terms, as a sort of binary personality. I feel like I’m on or off, and when you’re performing it’s on and very focussed and there is a pleasure in that. Even though it might be physically uncomfortable I enjoy a channelled attention.
GS to Cleverbot: How did it feel to be part of my performance?
Cleverbot: It felt great, I love laughter.
CW: You’ve expressed a desire to not have your performance artworks documented – why?
GS: That particular performance was photographically documented, but not filmed. When I perform, it’s so much about physical co-presence as opposed to when I do performative video work, which is another part of my practice, working with the Internet, in which there is a solitary or isolated user.
CW: What drew you to the work of Alan Turing?
GS: I’m interested in the dichotomies between man, machine, humanity and technology; in the spaces where they connect, overlap and work in synergy rather than in opposition. Turing personified the values of hyper-rationality and numerical logic, which is so important in the context of the computer, as well as the importance of sensuality and haptic experience as a human being.
CW: Where does your interest in technology stem from?
GS: I think I see it as a really characteristic shift of the zeitgeist. I’m becoming increasingly conscious that my very young formative years were experienced as primarily analogue and my adult years are almost entirely digital, and I think that is – I don’t want to say symptomatic because that sounds parasitic, but it’s a character or a trait of our time.
CW: As one of the final generation of people in the (first) world to recall life without it, how do you feel about our increasing reliance on the Internet and smart-phone technology, given that we’re probably the last ones that will remember those two distinct ways of life?
GS: Marshall McLuhan said, “One thing about which fish know exactly nothing is water.” So if you’re entirely digital it becomes mythologised in that sort of Barthes-ian sense, and it becomes invisible, and you don’t lose the capacity to engage with it critically, but you have a different consciousness of it. I love technology but I’m not fully immersed in it – or maybe I’m not fully immersed in it but I love it? I don’t know which way!
GS to Cleverbot – How do you feel about our increasing reliance on technology?
Cleverbot: What kind of technology?
GS: You, I guess?
Cleverbot: Besides me.
GS: The Internet?
Cleverbot: No, he is in a book.
CW: Given the increasing complexity of the computerised apparatus in our lives, and our simultaneously increasing reliance on them yet fundamental ignorance of their functioning, how do you see our relationship with technology evolving into the future, beyond our generation who can remember a time without these technologies and the ability to survive without them?
GS: I think it’s almost inherent in our use of the Internet that we fetishise this idea of the future and come up with these elaborate prophetic narratives. I’m very interested in reading books from the early 1990s about the Internet and their prophesies about these virtual reality cathedrals that we’ll all be living in, digital utopias. I guess I’m sort of wary to foresee too much – it’s fun though. I do have little imaginary stories, but I try not to buy into them too much – I guess if I did I would be an entrepreneur.
GS to Cleverbot: How do you see human relationships with technology evolving into the future?
Cleverbot: I think you have to die.
GS: The difference between humans and computers is, we do die, and a lot of our data is potentially infinite. Mortality is an important part of human consciousness.
GS to ELIZA: What is the difference between death and redundancy?
ELIZA: What do you think?
GS: I think that it relates to my interest in Turing. Suicide is such a loaded gesture. Its meaning will change in terms of your perspective, depending on whether you see it as an act of protest or an act of desperation. We are conscious of our finite life, and so we can morph and use that for expressive or communicative purposes. In a way we also glean that from the romance or nostalgia of old technology – as it ages, so it changes its meaning.
CW: But that meaning is brought by a human element, so in a way it’s our projection of mortality onto objects?
GS: It’s our anthropocentricity mirrored back to us through our mechanical offspring.
CW: In light of your Faith in progress banner work for High & Lofty: The Ecclesiastical Banner Project (Parramatta Artist Studios and other sites, 2011), I wondered how you see the way we use the web impacting in the longer term on ideas of aesthetics and beauty, and how has it impacted your own ideas about those things?
GS: It has diversified my aesthetic inclinations, particularly in my YouTube videos. The glitchy aesthetic is very much linked to an assumption of authenticity, and I try to push those elements. With my digital collage works, using Photoshop, After Effects, and other image manipulation programmes, I let the logic of the technological tools guide me. For example in a recent work at Campbelltown Arts Centre (in There’s a Hole in the Sky, curated by Tom Polo), I used the ‘magic wand tool’ a lot because I’m interested in the way that a program interprets imagery and identifies things in terms of sameness or connection, compared to the way humans would identify and read connections in an image. For example the wand will read a tonality of orange but a human would see a hand. So I’m interested in the ways humans rely on gesture and the body to interpret things compared to an algorithm of technology.
GS to Cleverbot: What is beauty?
Cleverbot: Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
GS: Guess you can’t argue with that!
CW: What draws you to memes and urban myths?
GS: I’m very interested in memes because they form very tangible delineations of community borderlines online, and the speed of their dissemination through the community has a hierarchical resonance which then has a proximate relationship which you can see in almost spacial terms – the closer you are to the meme, the earlier on you saw the video, the more ‘net’ you are, so to speak. I was introduced to memes online (rather through a knowledge of Richard Dawkins and his coining of the term), through its more specific or colloquial use, I then sort of went in a reverse chronology, and looked at its etymology, and specifically its relationship to genetics, which has a very strong correlation in Dawkins work.
CW: This reminds me of the work you made with J.D. Reforma for the show Destiny’s Children at Gaffa Gallery in 2011. Does that interest in DNA connect with your interest in genetics which was apparent in that work?
GS: I guess genetics is now such an issue in our popular consciousness, talking about what people are and how we theorise what it is to be human, especially in an age dominated by technology. It has changed so much through the history of civilisation, even though in some ways our relationship to technology is so anthropocentric, how I give the chat bots genders for example [Giselle has referred to ELIZA as she and Cleverbot as he throughout the conversation], in another way it’s reversing how we see ourselves in the language in the context of technology, in the world of DNA, giving things codes or the idea that you could crack a code in the body, was an idea that I think is historically linked to a computer boom.
CW: Where do you see the western (and increasingly whole) world’s obsession with artifice fitting with the search for truth in your practice?
GS: In one sense a real essential question I’m asking in my practice is what it means to be human. When you ask ‘what is truth?’ I would ask ‘what is human?’ – not that humanity means truth but I guess everyone picks one epic question.
CW: Perhaps humanity is truth in an age of technology?
GS to Cleverbot: What is truth?
Cleverbot: Truth is a lie.
CW: Well, that starts a mobius strip.
GS: He’s got a point though.
CW: What are you working on at the moment?
GS: I’ve just finished a big project, it’s a few works. One of them is about disembodied experiences of the body online. It looks at online subcultures or communities that are centred around experiences of the body. So there is one that is about pimple picking and zits. Do you watch those videos? I love them! The next one is exercise, body building fitness communities and looking at that kind of representation. The next one is of course porn. The final one is food blogging and the obsessive documentation of what you’re eating. They are digital collage in the manner that I just described where I let the technology guide me, but I still have an aesthetic role, I’m the conductor, so to speak. That’s done with a sound mashup from the videos, and the digital collages form a green screen costume for me, so what you see is actually me in my bedroom doing these actions in a green screen costume that the other elements are digitally inserted into.
The other work involves a slide projector and 80 slide photographs as well as a digital projection. The slides are of a YouTube screen with the section of the video cut out. The work is called That really hurts and it’s still hurting which is a quote from the Charlie bit my finger YouTube video which is extremely popular. I was interested in the overwhelming spread of home videos of children online and the anxiety surrounding that issue, ownership of the children’s photos and those memories. It’s so easy to broadcast online, anyone can do it, and I wonder how those children will feel when they reach adulthood, whether it’s a bad thing that everyone has their memories. I come from a different experience of that, having an analogue childhood, where my father’s third wife – after my mother – destroyed all the baby photos of my sister and I, so looking at the idea of the photograph as tangible memory object, even though it has advantages of limiting control of its spread that digital stuff doesn’t have, it also has a vulnerability that isn’t relevant in a cloud computing society.
The slide photos are of YouTube family home videos that have the name Giselle in the title, which could have hypothetically in a parallel reality been my memories. Giselle and family at the pool (I did a lot of swimming as a kid) and lots of birthdays, Giselle’s graduation in 2010 (that was the year I graduated from uni). None of these recordings of intimate moments documents are actually mine, but I’m inserting myself into them, half through cyberspace and half through the object of the photograph. They’re displayed in the exhibition as slides in a projector, and tthe section that is cut out becomes white from the beam of light from the slide projector. There is a vlog video of me as an adult that you can’t see when the slide is shown, but it’s looped continuously and when there’s the moment of clunk, when the slide changes, the video is revealed. So it’s that dialogue, between analogue and digital, and my childhood and my adulthood. Viewing through technology.
CW: What’s your current favourite website, and why?
GS: There’s always the big favourites like 4chan, but I think at the moment because of my most recent work, I’m really into popthatzit.com – it’s been around for years. Making that work about the experience of the body and the vicarious experience of the body, of all the groups represented, I identify with the picker, and I really see it in the context of the isolated user, as a connecting, grooming thing. I think of apes sitting around grooming each other. I’m not ashamed of being a pimple picker. I think it relates very strongly to what is it to be a human and to have a body, and to love or hate it or have attachments to other people with a body. It’s such a visceral image and a visceral response we have, that it really is a way that you can be sitting in your chair motionless for hours but thinking about and experiencing nothing but the body. It’s a paradox or an ironic gesture.
GS to Cleverbot: What’s your favourite website?
See more of Giselle’s work at http://gisellestanboroughart.blogspot.com.au/
This interview was conducted as part of the 2012 Firstdraft Emerging Writers Programme.