Interview with Sonya Rapoport
About Sonya Rapoport
New Media artist Sonya Rapoport, who began her career as an abstract
expressionist painter, uses drawing, painting, text and cross-cultural
imagery to create audience participatory interactive installations
as well as web works and artists books.
Her works have included Shoe-Field, an interactive installation
that created computer plots of people's responses to their shoes;
Objects on My Dresser, an interactive installation in which she
worked with a psychiatric social worker to correlate the meaning of
personal objects, creating a "netweb" of responses; The Animated Soul,
an interactive computer-assisted installation based on The Egyptian Book
of the Dead; and Biorhythm, where artwork about biorhythm
was correlated with participant's responses about "how they were feeling".
Her interactive exhibitions been exhibited at Franklin Furnace, New
York City; 80 Langton Street, San Francisco; Heller Gallery, University
of California, Berkeley; Richmond Art Center, and WORKS/San Jose, among
many other places. She has also had work exhibited at Truman Gallery, New
York City, Peabody Museum, Harvard University, Ars Electronica, Linz Austria;
ISEA, the Art Biennial-Buenos Aires; the Mill Valley Film Festival,
Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, and the Worth Ryder Art
Gallery, University of California at Berkeley.
Sonya, It is a pleasure to talk with you about your pioneering work
in interactive art!
The idea of the audience contributing to the content of the work
has become a central strategy in the creation of net art and
participatory collaborative texts. You were one of the first people
to use participatory interaction in your work, and the ideas you used
are now pervasive in new media art practice. Communication
projects, such as the Electronic Cafe, the Send/Receive
project, Roy Ascott's work, Robert Adrian's The World in 24
Hours and Hank Bull's diffuse organic projects, were often based
on back and forth communication and/or collaboration/shared creation
by artists. These works are important.
But your work is different in that it presented the audience with
an individual artist-created work of art to respond to and then
creatively incorporated the audience responses into the work. Other
than projects, such as The Community Memory which was not
intended as an artwork, and perhaps some of Steve Wilson's early
work, to my knowledge your work is very seminal in this field. I
know we talked a little about this when Anna Couey and I
interviewed you on the Interactive Conference on Arts Wire in 1995,
but -- in the context of authoring strategies -- I would like
to return to your use of audience collaboration. Can you talk
about when you begin to incorporate participant responses in
your work and what led you to do this?
Judy, thank you for giving me the opportunity to review what you
refer to as my authoring strategies.
As I return to approximately thirty years ago when I started to
produce interactive work I am astounded by the consistent process
I applied in creating these works of art. Each piece seems to
have been framed by a system I was totally unaware of.
The dates are difficult to pin down because I was laying the
groundwork for one artwork while executing interactively another.
By groundwork I mean that I first described each piece in a
two-dimensional format that was quite a complete artwork in
itself. An example of such an artwork would be Shoe-Field
which I started in 1977. In this work about American Indian
designs and sandals, I superimposed drawings on the computer
forms that related to the anthropological research that was
encoded in computer printouts. For the first drawing overlay,
I decoded the printout with symbols, drawings and words and
then added imaginative relevant material as a second overlay
on the form's surface. I repeated this process with my own
collection of shoes. These continuous computer forms upon
which I delineated the drawings completed the two dimensional
artwork with which I anticipated an interactive happening --
in this case Shoe-In which took place in 1982.
Other two-dimensional artworks followed the same sequential
procedure: Biorhythm; (1983) Digital Mudra; (1984)
Objects on my Dresser. (1984) Each
participation/interactive performance was preceded by an
autobiographical experience that I had expressed two-dimensionally.
The participation performance followed, sometimes a few years later.
I have asked myself why was I propelled to invite an audience to
share my personal experience? I was interested early on in
quantifying qualitative information. What would the artistic
outcome be as a result of applying other people's numbers?
I didn't realize that a Kabbalistic concept was involved here
until many years later.
Although the main focus of this resource is authoring software,
how artists and writers begin a work, how to structure a work, ways
of approaching a new work are also important in authoring
strategies. Your visual artists approach is of interest in this
respect, and it is a pleasure to talk with you about how your
"Lastly, how did audience participation change and enrich the
artistic outcome?" you ask. The answer/question goes to the core of
the creation of your work where -- as opposed to works where other
artists and writers are invited to contribute to a whole -- the
work begins with the creation of a work of art in the artist's studio.
Audience input is gathered in a gallery, and/or invited situation.
The work then returns to the artist's studio where the input is
incorporated into the work (or in some cases this happens in the
gallery) and then in works such as Shoe-Field that was shown
in quite a few different situations, the process continues. In
the process you involve the audience in your work and at the same
time create a dynamic and organic work that incorporates multiple
responses. Can you choose one of your works and talk about how
the work progressed from the development of the concepts in your
studio to the interactive stage?
At this point I'll discuss Biorhythm because its generative
structure comprises many interactive links. As well, in this work,
I depict several complete two-dimensional art works from which I trigger
further interactive activity. In a non-interactive format, (the
groundwork as described in my last response) Biorhythm was
exhibited at the New York University Graduate School of Business
Administration in 1983. The focus of the exhibition illustrated the
comparison between a scientifically derived biorhythm assessment of
my biorhythm condition and my personal projection of my daily chartings
derived from the collaged images of my activities during the calendar
year 1980. I had purchased a large calendar (30"h x 40"w) and covered
it with vellum. Upon this transparent layer I collaged images of each
day's activity on its calendar day's square. Corresponding to the images
that represented my daily activities, on a separate vellum sheet, I
superimposed my numerical evaluation of my three states: emotional,
intellectual and physical over a chart of scientifically derived
biorhythm readings of the same information. Inadvertently, I
continued my interest in qualifying quantitative information.
The exhibition culminated in three large color coded snail plots
that depicted the comparisons.
Biorhythm is an excellent choice for a discussion of your work
and how it evolves. Can you explain a little more what you mean by
"biorhythm", how you chose this subject, and talk about how this work
evolved and incorporated interaction?
Thanks for reminding me to explain what Biorhythm is. Biorhythm,
a behavioral science, explains our life-energy rhythms according to
the day of our birth. Physical, emotional/sensitivity and intellectual
cycles comprise the three energy cycles that begin the day we are born.
Accordingly each of us experience different peaks of highs and lows of
these cycles at different times. With this information we can take
precautionary measures in our vulnerable/low periods and expand upon
our creativity in the positive/high periods.
I became involved with the subject of Biorhythm after I had completed
about a week's cutting and pasting images on the calendar. After a
while I found this process rather formulaic. It needed zip. It needed a
reason for doing, a challenge if I were going to continue collaging for
a whole year. I can't recall specifically how I connected with Biorhythm
or it connected with me, but I was challenged by the accuracy of my
assessments of how I was feeling. I had predicted only thirteen days
accurately in the whole year for the three metabolic cycles. I wondered
how accurately other people could predict their own high and low peaks
as compared to the scientific evaluations of the Biorhythm system.
I questioned its authenticity. Would a participation
performance/installation prove anything?
I modeled an interactive event incorporating the exhibition
elements in exaggerated and humorous form.
So the next step was an interactive event. How and where did this
work? Who were the participants? What happened?
The Biorhythm installation participation performance took place at
WORKS Gallery/San Jose in San Jose, California on Friday, May 13,
1983. (note: Friday the 13th). The installation included the same
material as displayed in the New York University Graduate School
of Business Administration Gallery but I also included an artists
book that I created with my experimental biorhythm material. One
day of each month is illustrated with a plot that indicated how
closely the scientifically derived assessments of my Biorhythm
Cycles correlated with my recorded impressions that I had
interpreted from the pictorial collages. The book extended 25
feet along one wall. Participants in the performance consisted
of artists from the Bay Area, students from the neighboring
State University and the San Jose Art Community. As the active
participation performers entered the space, a greeter asked them
how they had been feeling that day i.e. their emotional cycle.
According to the participants' response the greeter locked a
numbered hospital wristband around their wrist --- blue for bad,
pink for good, or white for intermediate. One participant returned
to change her mind. The participants then donned a dentist's bib
and sat in a dentist's chair. Here, they expressed an assessment
of their own condition by making animated gestures with their
hands with the bib as a backdrop. They declared both verbally
and in hand gestures how they felt. Their picture was taken at
the same moment that they verbalized their feelings. The tape
recordings of their words and the photographs of their
gestures allowed me insight into how their gestures
synchronized with their feeling-statements.
I provided a personal computer, a Biorhythm calculator,
and a Teletype to the participants with which they could
check the accuracy of their own assessment of their feelings.
Visitors could select any or all of the three devices and
compare the readings. If their self-assessed evaluation and
the computer analysis matched up, the participants were
declared "winners!" and received a medal on a blue ribbon.
A palm reader was on hand to provide a final reading.
Participants wrote their identity number, personal
assessment, scientific analysis, the comparative results
of the biorhythm data, and last, but not least, the palmist's
reading of their thumbs on a vellum chart which measured eight
feet high and thirty inches wide.
Thank you so much for the really informative discussion of how you
involved participants in the process. Part of what you did in this and
in other works -- I still remember answering questions about why I
wore the shoes I was wearing at your installation in a Berkeley
Computer store in the early 1980's -- was to make participation
inviting and interesting for the audience.
So what was the final form of Biorhythm? How did you incorporate
the responses into the work?
I produced two "hand" books, triggered by this event, one for each
artwork that I shall describe briefly. But let us now return to my
questions about audience participation that I introduced at the
beginning of this interview:
Why was I propelled to invite an audience to share my personal
I wondered about the validity of a self-evaluation of my emotional
condition. Could it be overridden by the computer's biorhythm analysis.
I wanted to test this on other people's experience. After the
participation only a few participants could guess their emotional
condition that matched the computer analysis. We had many blue
ribbons left over.
What would the artistic outcome be as a result of applying other
people's input into my scheme?
I was stimulated to create artwork from the results of the Biorhythm
production. The long vellum sheet became a work of art in itself after I
pasted the portrait photos on another vellum sheet beside the participants'
identity numbers. A stern "computer" voice over declared the correct
condition of the individual as judged by the computer. An accompanying
book in the form of a hand hung on the wall. The palm reader's remarks,
written on index cards, were included in the book. "The Computer says I
feel", was exhibited in the group show S/F San Francisco/Science
Fiction. It traveled from the San Francisco Art Commission Gallery
to the Clock Tower, New York City, and the Otis Art Institute in
In a future elaborate interactive installation, Digital Mudra,
I compared the photographs of the biorhythm gestures with their East
Indian counterparts in the Mudra Gesture language library and matched
their assigned meanings with the verbal expressions of the
Biorhythm participants. They correlated almost 100 per cent.
In preparation for the Digital Mudra installation I sent out a
list of these Mudra word meanings to artists. They were to compose
a poem using three of the listed Mudra Words. You were among
those who received the list. I recall that one word that you
selected was "rice" because you used it in a unique way.
I invited a Kathakali dancer to "dance" these poems for
a videotape as part of the installation. This aspect of the installation
was to illustrate the concept of going from images to words and
from words to back to images.
Lastly, how did audience participation change and enrich the artistic
There would have been no further artistic expression if the audience
participation didn't occur.
Thank you ao much Sonya! I would like to point interested readers
of this resource to the following sources for more information
Sonya Rapoport's web site
Sonya Rapoport's Blog
Sonya Rapoport's Wikipedia page
Anna Couey and Judy Malloy,
"A Conversation with Sonya Rapoport" on the
Interactive Art Conference on Arts Wire, June 1995
And in conclusion, is there anything you would like to discuss about
your current work and your future plans?
As I reread my description about the activity that occurred in the
Biorhythm Participation Performance, I realize that in this
narration I failed to convey the emotion (the biorhythm condition),
conviviality, and tension that prevailed. I saw only fun until I
read the palmist's readings on the index cards on which she
had printed their thumbs. Some of the participants were
intimidated by my insistence of invading the privacy of their
feelings. These opinions can be read in the "hand" books in
which I compiled the biorhythm material: palm readings,
"confessions", thumb prints, portrait photos and related Mudra
gestures. I later added topical personalities gesturing in
similar poses that I had seen in the newspapers.
I am now re-contextualizing early Internet works into current
event happenings. You'll find them on my artblog. I am also busy
organizing my archives.
Biorhythm was partially created with a pre-programmed hand Biorhythm
computer. Scott Morris from U.C. Berkeley was the
programmer who worked with the program and applications.
John Watkins was the software engineer for Digital
Mudra, which is discussed in detail in Sonya Rapoport,
"Process(ing) Interactive Art: Using People as
Paint, Computer as Brush", in Judy Malloy, ed,
Women, Art and Technology, MIT Press, 2003
Tom Bates was the photographer. He also played the computer "voice"
that overrides self assessments.
created via email in November 2009