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How I Became An Artist And A Technologist

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A number of years ago I lost all of the hearing in one of my ears overnight. At first, it seemed like it could be a minor problem, like a virus or inflammation. Two days later, I was supposed to perform at an event, and I sat waiting for my turn in the dark, washing down a round of steroids from my doctor with orange juice. The hearing didn’t return. Soon after, I was diagnosed with a brain tumor. The subsequent tests and surgeries left me exhausted and I was spending more time alone; but that left me with a lot more time for art.

I had spent most of my time in college studying art and wishing there was a way to incorporate technology into the work instead of just using computers as a tool. As a girl who had spent most of my childhood drawing, it had simply never occurred to me or anyone else that I could do technical work, much less be an artist AND a technologist. In the 90s, that didn’t even exist. But later, as part of the Design and Technology department at Parsons, I went through a crash course in hardware and software engineering and fell in love with manipulating circuits and code for the purpose of art. It didn’t happen overnight; my first semester I loaded up my schedule thinking, “If I fail out, this isn’t meant to be.” I had to quickly figure out a process for problem solving. I didn’t fail out. It was meant to be.

So as my body was adjusting to its new soundscape after the surgeries, I began doing small experiments at night: sketches, models, studying circuits. I was afraid that if anything happened to my other ear, I wouldn’t be able to communicate. As I focused on the reality of daily communication failure in my own life, I began to pay more attention to the physical objects that make up our telecommunications infrastructure: our phones, our Internet, our radios, and other devices. I began building objects to avert possible future disasters of communication in our society.

The projects are mainly built from obsolete consumer electronics, street wood, plastics, and other cast-off materials. They question our current methods of manufacturing and broadcasting, and examine how communities can stay informed and connected despite any rift in the functionality of our phone systems or Internet. A few examples are:

Weather Center for the Apocalypse: a news media center for a pre-apocalyptic world. A weather station made from trash informs a series of forecasts that take into account people’s fears and superstitions.

New American Sweatshop: a fictional electronics cooperative in a dystopian future. Citizens barter and use electronic waste to create simple circuits that will form new communication devices.

Signal Strength: a peer-to-peer phone system that uses obsolete phones. Miniature phone booths connect a local, urban community, bypassing any cell phone provider.

In addition, I am collaborating on a sound installation called Particulate Matter in which a series of small radio transmitters broadcast to a makeshift sound system of salvaged radios, boomboxes, and alarm clocks.

Over time, the challenges of making this work have had more to do with people’s perceptions of the work and of me than any technical challenges (those happen, but are usually short-lived). I once got feedback on a rejected proposal that they didn’t believe the project worked. Often people are incredulous that I made the projects myself. Telling the stories of the projects is an ongoing process; despite the fact that we are constantly using our phones and computers, many people don’t know the basics of how they work. Explaining the projects has an educational angle, to take away the mystery of how our devices work, and to examine our expectations for our technology.

I’ve organized several large events in order to bring people together to have these conversations, including Activist Technology Demo Day (with Eyebeam), Women in Art and Technology (with A.I.R. Gallery), and the Radical Networks conference (with Eyebeam).

The most important things I’ve learned are that we have to make our own opportunities. We have to make time for the work. We have to go with our gut… and we can’t give up.

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