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You Too Can Be Part of the Emergency Crew - Michelle Teran's Art: Finding Connection in Disconnected Space
Mark Jones

There is no doubt at all that today we have all kinds of scientific applications which are causing us all kinds of trouble as well as giving us all kinds of advantages.
- Richard P. Feynman, physicist, 1963

What you are striving to become in actuality is what, by nature, you already are.
- The Book of Runes

One of the much touted truisms of the Internet is that through it we are enabled to become better connected to other people in distant places. A person in one country can talk to another far away about as easily as they could with a person next door. This, the theory goes, helps the human race to view itself as being part of a larger global community in which borders dissolve and people connect based on something closer to who they really are and what they really need. At a conference some years ago, I heard a very popular Internet guru (who will remain nameless) that in cyberspace no child would ever go hungry because the cry of that child would always be heard. In any case, it is apparent that the ease, convenience and speed of communication has been the driving force behind the net's rapid development over the last ten years.

Of course, many dispute this principle, stating that people don't experience real connection on the Internet; that in fact the face-to-face connection that humans have had for thousands of years is now being superseded through the Internet's demand for solitude with its host machines. In addition, they say, with the commercialization of the Internet now a foregone conclusion, one is not really connecting with other people as much as one is connecting with other companies and their ongoing demand for your cash.

Doubtless, each of these points of view have some elements of truth. And while that is the case, the issue of connection over networked spaces becomes potentially rich fodder for artists and others interested in exploring the relationships that exist within.

Enter Michelle Teran. As a media artist, she is one of a growing contingent of people exploring the relationships that exist within "absent" space. Born in 1966 in London, Ontario, and raised in Alberta, Teran's work has taken her to such places as Vienna, Prague, St. Petersburg, Amsterdam, San Miguel de Allende, Florence, Oslo and the list goes on. She describes her travels as "š a constant striving for a network [of artists] and immersing myself in different places and seeing how art is created in each environment."

On the day that we meet to chat, our meeting location, a caf» on Yonge Street, is closed, and we wander about for another place in which to hang out. My mind is crammed with other thoughts from the day - what did I have to finish from work that day, would my tape recorder work, would I catch tonight's episode of West Wing - and it takes some time before we are to find our (my) physical and mental space for our talk. Indeed, even without the Internet, connection can be a challenge even with someone you already know.

Having studied science at University of British Columbia, Teran went on to spend two years in Mexico studying theatre and visual art before going to Toronto to continue her studies in painting and drawing at The Ontario College of Art and Design. But it was during her travels to places outside Canada that led her to create performance work over the Internet and other networked environments.

"I started thinking about how we're all performers - even if it's just in our bathroom mirror - but that not everyone has a stage presence," she explains. "In 1998 I took a basement room, just a raw basement space and converted half of it into a living room. Then I put a camera against it so it captured someone in there. Then I would send a cable up to a TV in a large room upstairs and closed the door." The action performed by the person in the basement would consist simply of spending time in that space: being bored, watching TV, drinking wine and so on. Audience members watching this from the upstairs TV monitor would not know the physical location of the space he or she was watching, or for that matter whether it was live or taped. Space and time became ambiguous.

"That was exciting to me," she says, "these disconnected spaces, these spaces that have no real location, but would still have a character present."

Since then, having settled in Toronto, her attention has become focussed on similar "performances" over the Internet, particularly with her collaborator Amanda Steggell, whom she met in 1995 in Olomouc.

"During that time people were exploring the whole idea of cybertheatre. I was like, 'What is cybertheatre?' When I finally started working with the internet a few years later, it began with me having great fun with it, navigating and carving out my own terrain, basically figuring it out as I went along. I now am becoming more critical of the process."

A few years of "figuring it out later" has resulted in the creation or collaboration on many different Internet-based performances, among them Grrls Meet in Different Ways Now (chaos.wit.no/nelle/grrls), The Playgirls (www.ubermatic.org), (The Playgirls was also an onsite performance, very much about the local) Ménàge a Trois (www3.sympatico.ca/mteran/menage/) and Getting Ready (www.interlog.com/~mteran/ready).

Some performances involve an exploration of space in which, even if an audience has access to view it, they often aren't a factor in the thinking around it. Idoru is one such example, a performance piece done by Teran and Steggell in two different cities in which each person plays a specific character in an ongoing dialogue that is comprised of text and composition of still images via a webcam and uploaded to a common site. The characters are "digital personae" which exist purely as information, a la William Gibson's definition of the term "idoru" from his book of the same name. "These private performances," their website (www.interlog.com/~mteran/idoru) proclaims, "are carried out for an audience that [the performers] cannot see."

"Idoru started with this idea that Amanda and I were just going to converse with each other via these characters within this space through text and images that would be uploaded," she explains. "It was the most bizarre way of communicating. For me it involved a real shift in thinking about how we communicate and collaborate in cyberspace. It was only through Idoru that I began to see the potential for cybertheatre"

Teran goes on to explain the aesthetic considerations of then performing this piece in front of a live audience who is sharing the performer's space as the images are being composed and uploaded. "Because you're dealing with a webcam, a lot of it is about composition, and you only have about one minute to create it. You're not dealing with fluid motion or face to face communication. And I thought, 'Wouldn't it be interesting if that person were actually there for you to see, wearing this costume?' There's no real position for the audience, it's still very pedestrian. You can see the screen, or you can watch me but I'm not watching you. It's really your choice.

"I also had to create things which were identifiable: a scenery that was as compelling off camera as it was on camera. Before when I was doing it in the studio alone, it was about seeing how many interesting images I could pull off just from a swatch of fabric and a couple of really simple props. But I like both of those [scenarios]."

Ironically, one of the things that are often very identifiable in electronic-based art is the failure of the technology itself. Teran agrees that the aesthetics of technical difficulty need to play a larger role in the creation of such work, but how is another question. "I think we're still really clumsy and haven't developed a real epistemology about the art. Most of the solutions I see are really simple cause-and-effect things, and if it goes beyond that it becomes too vague or ill-defined. How can you involve people in an experience in which networks shut down and things crash? You can't say when things crash that I'm just going to keep doing what I'm supposed to do. I really think in these kind of environments, you have to bring that into account."

So it is the embracing and exploration of technological chaos, as opposed to industry's pursuit of the clean and organized, that marks one of the characteristics of artists like Teran. "High bandwidth can sometimes be too clean. You need some grain in there."

But as Momentum illustrated -- a collaborative performance co-ordinated by Teran, Motherboard, and The Society for Old and New Media and with support from Ryerson School of Image Arts that took place between Toronto and Oslo over a weekend in the summer of 2000 -- sometimes the combination of high bandwidth with chaos can result in its own interesting 'grain'. The event was largely a series of experiments, improvisations and exchanges between space, sound, image, live and tele-presence over a broadband Internet connection at Ryerson Polytechnique University. Performed by multiple teams of artists in each city taking turns like a tag-team wrestling event, Momentum was more ambient performance space that linear narrative. The presence of audience is almost incidental. When one walks into Momentum, there exists for an audience member a kind of struggle with a definition of what your role is in that space. There is a real sense of displacement, and you know that when you leave, it will continue without you.

Can the Internet itself be much different? Perhaps, within the tradition (if this can be called tradition) of Internet based artists who play with this notion of disconnection lie valuable clues as to the real nature of the net and our momentary experiences within it. Plug in and plug out, like you would in ambient performance that doesn't even know you're there. It was alive before you came in and will continue to be active after you leave. No, connection over the net as it has been preached to us may be an illusion. Perhaps it is within the chaos, struggle and ambiguity of our search for connection in real life that can better inform our connection in cyberspace, not the clean one shown to us by its sponsors. On the other hand, perhaps what we strive for is simply a search for information that happens to exist in another person that is plugged in at the same time we are. In any case, the conduit that carries us is flawed, breaks down, and even if it didn't, our place within it remains a struggle. Within the context of cyberspace, we become idorus.

And it is with that observation that leaves one with an interesting irony about Michelle Teran's work - that for an artist who explores so many themes of disconnection, she herself is likely one of the best connected artists around.

Michelle Teran can be reached at mteran@interlog.com.