A Conversation with Jeff Gates

on the Interactive Art Conference on Arts Wire
January 1997

Judy Malloy
Anna and I are pleased to welcome Jeff Gates to our Interactive Art Forum!

Jeff Gates is an artist and a teacher of computer graphics at the Maryland Institute, College of Art and the Minneapolis College of Art and Design, where he teaches a class in Web Design entirely over the Net.

He is also an web weaver, designing sites for numerous corporations and institutions in the Washington, DC area. His most recent work was for the National Museum of American Art's Helios: Photography Online. His web art project, In Our Path about the building of "the last freeway" in Los Angeles, was recently named a semi-finalist in the National Information Infrastructure Awards.

In his "spare time," he directs ArtFBI a non-profit organization which studies stereotypes of artists in the media. He believes artists have a unique opportunity in this new "Information Age" to reposition themselves from the stereotypical "fringe" to more central in society as information providers and interpreters and will talk your ear off when given a chance. Before hearing what he has to say, you might want to read an article he wrote on the subject for the New York Foundation for the Arts' FYI Magazine.

Judy Malloy
Hi Jeff. You've been involved with Arts Wire for many years and I've enjoyed following the development of your work on the Internet.

You wrote (about a year ago)

"The information revolution is more than just the Internet and its residual hyperbole. It is a cultural shift from political and social systems that controlled the flow and content of information to one that offers individuals more direct involvement in the development of the social structure. It presents some intriguing opportunities. But there are forces developing which would rather substitute one form of control for another. Artists need to be involved in development of this medium...."

I'm wondering how you think the amazingly rapid development, the influx of new "forces" have effected the internet climate for artists.

Anna Couey
Hi Jeff! Looking forward to this conversation...

and I have a question as well.

I first saw In Our Path last summer, when I browsed mainly through the photographs of the freeway construction. Today I made my way over to the conferencing component. I have to say, I'm very impressed by the project!

In Our Path is a work that evolved over many years, and involved many people's stories when you were first putting it together. The exhibited work, both on the website and at the gallery installations, continues to involve the stories of those who view it. Yet the exhibited work is primarily (all?) static; viewer input does not alter your production.

Why is viewer input important to you, and what role does it play in this work?

Jeff Gates, ArtFBI
Thanks Anna and Judy for inviting me here.

First, to Judy's question: While I wrote the above statement a year ago (7 years ago in computer years ), it still remains true today.

Rather than commenting on "how the influx of new "forces" have effected the internet climate for artists," I'd like to say it should be artists who ARE the new "forces."

The development of my ideas on all of this, like hypermedia itself, are not linear (which, in part, means that my comments might appear to skip all over the place!). In my efforts to understand all of this, I often get overwhelmed with possibilities of thought. Just this weekend I discovered that I probably should be investigating the nature of "fuzzy logic" in order to help me navigate and analyze these issues.

That being said, artists have the opportunity to help define this medium.

Access to our work has the potential to increase 100 fold or more. We can bypass the narrowly opened door of the art market (which offers a very small opportunity to succeed) and even the wider (but still small number) of opportunities offered by the alternative exhibition site world.

But this means we have to take a good look at the nature of our work and our roles in society. As society evolves, so too are artists' place in it evolving. I don't have an answer as to how this will end up, but I feel it's vital for artists to acknowledge the forces of change at work and to make best use of the opportunities that either become available or, more importantly, to develop new opportunities.

I'm not sure this answers your question directly, Judy. But maybe, within the discussion, we can get into this further.

Anna, on to your question: why is viewer input so important to me?

This has to do with what I see as the nature of my work and of artists' function in society. Put simply, I'm REALLY interested in interacting with my audience. In early cultures, this was vital to the relationship between artist and their community. The process of being an artist became separated from the products we produce when the Industrial Age developed the market system.

Not all artists are interested in connecting with their audience (although I acknowledge this, it will never cease to amaze me).

In March, 1995 I put on two simultaneous "real" exhibitions of In Our Path in Los Angeles at two sites on opposite ends of the Century Freeway. In putting together these shows, I wanted to "experiment" by trying to get the viewers to participate in the exhibitions. I tried this in a few ways.

I put together a community corner at each site. It had a real bulletin board with articles that were appearing in the LA Times and other newspapers on freeways in the area, it had a large push-pin map of the freeway corridor where I asked people to place a pin where they lived, where they entered the freeway and, if they worked on the construction, where that took place. I also had a paper questionnaire which I developed to allow people to tell their stories of how the freeway affected their lives. In addition to the hardcopy questionnaire, you could use a terminal to fill out a digital version which could be viewed by people at that site or by those at the other site.

I was very nervous about the possibility that this questionnaire and internet experiment would fail. And, for the most part, it did. When I watched people come into the exhibits I realized that their expectation was to be a passive "sponge" of this artist's "vision" --not an active participant. It's hard to buck a hundred years of this tradition. Interestingly, the most popular part of this corner was the push-pin map. Everyone liked to place themselves.

It occurred to me that as these new means of "transporting" our vision and information develop we, as artists will have to develop new methods of drawing the viewer in to interact with us. Just because the means become available doesn't mean that people will take to it with any ease.

I see this as a critical part of the larger cultural changes taking place. With the means to interact increasing at a huge rate, we can't forget the social ramifications of these new technologies. And, to a great extent, this is where artists can play a very important role in helping people to learn how to navigate in this new world, how to enlarge the possibilities of thought, and the responsibilities that go along with these new tools.

Fred Truck
What kind of new ways of involving the audience do you envision?

Jeff Gates, ArtFBI
Fred, that's a good question and one I've been asking myself. The short-range answer is, I don't know (there, I've said it! I don't know the half of it! And it's a relief to get that off my chest!).

The long-range answer is that my direction in this fast-paced info age, as a teacher and an artist, is to help direct the dialog in sorting all of this out. So, let's look at the intersection of many art forms which have been developing since the 60s (ok, since the 20s but who's counting), like installation and performance work, with new means of "transporting" this work (the Net) to our audiences.

Getting audiences to interact with our work is a sociological problem to be solved. It can't be solved overnight because we're dealing with ingrained attitudes about art and how people feel about it. We can look at work and artists who've succeeded in connecting with people that circumvents the high art ("artsy fartsy") attitude which so many people equate with our realm.

I can think of two off the top of my head. Neither have done this via the Net, though. The first is Mierle Ukeles who was an artist-in-residence for the NYC Dept. of Sanitation. In one of her first projects, "Touch Sanitation," she shook the hand of every sanitation work in the city of New York in order to celebrate their work and bridge the gap between the producers and the handlers of garbage.

The second was a project from Group Material. I can't remember the exact details of this piece, but when they were asked to put together an exhibition they decided to go around their neighborhood in NYC and ask their neighbors to contribute things for that show which had special meaning to them. In doing that, the exhibit involved the community as active participants rather than passive viewers.

Of course, there are other examples where artists have re-connected with their audience. One question for us is how can we inject that sensibility into the online world? The net is still a pretty exclusive place. But it won't be that way for very long. We're already seeing "trouble" develop in the freedoms that online interactions afford us (powers-that-be are getting pretty nervous about controlling this new world and some people feel that lack of f2f contact gives them license to throw out civility).

Will all of this develop into anarchy? How will our society modify our "rules of behavior" to allow these new types of interactions to flourish? AND who will have a say in what develops? Well, I'm saying that artists have an opportunity to play a large role in this --if they want to (which is another "hyperlink" to discussing how much do we artists have invested in being "outsiders"). I'm interested in being an insider.

I saw my In Our Path exhibits as a transition for me and perhaps for my audiences. When I gave gallery talks I asked those present if they had ever been on the Net and how uncomfortable the thought of communicating that way was to them. Many did express discomfort. I told them to simply explore, look, watch, and to familiarize themselves with what was sitting in front of them --even if they didn't get directly involved. The next time, it might be a little easier.

On my web site, I used a conferencing system to allow people to express themselves. I'd like to see more direct participation than I do, but then this is a transition stage, the Net's still exclusive, people may indeed enjoy simply looking and, the nature of the Web is such that I can't see all the connections people are making to my site (although I can get a hint by looking at the stats of hits as well as using search engines to see whose linked to my site --just found a course at the U of Oregon used my site as an example of interesting design).

Fred Truck
What is the purpose of interactivity in art?

Jeff Gates, ArtFBI
Well, I can only speak for myself, but I'd say one of the more important aspects of interactivity in art is to get people involved in the information you, as an artist, are trying to convey.

Judy Malloy
Jeff- lots to think about. Thanks! (and I'll be back soon with lots of questions!)

Fred Truck
How is this involvement through interactivity different than the involvement a viewer of a traditional painting, such as the Mona Lisa or something by Vermeer, experiences in a museum? I think in all cases, traditional or interactive, the viewer or user becomes involved in the information the artist presents, but how does the interactive method differ from the traditional method?

Jeff Gates, ArtFBI
In it's best sense, interactive work ACTIVELY engages the viewer --invites him/her to participate. Often something new comes out of that involvement.

The involvement a viewer has with more traditional work is more passive in nature and usually never leads to a synthesis.

Fred Truck
It may be more passive physically, (traditional work) but it can certainly be very satisfying.

2 things occur to me here. One is this: how does interactivity actively engage the viewer; and 2) what do you mean by synthesis?

Jeff Gates, ArtFBI
If it's more passive physically, wouldn't it stand to reason it would be less interactive mentally? By that I mean, the viewer may be interacting with the work but that activity is self-enclosed.

By synthesis I mean that out of the artist's interaction and the viewer's interaction comes a new piece or an extension of that piece.

In order to "interact" with you, Fred (grin), I'd be interested in your background as well as what leads you to ask these questions.

Fred Truck
I don't think so. I think the reason people enjoy seeing Old Master art is that it still gives them a bang, and sometimes a really sizeable one. I went to the Vermeer show a year ago, and saw lots of people very moved by what they saw and experienced.

I think that people can be incredibly mentally active and not move a muscle, and also emotionally active in the same way.

I do electronic, interactive art. I've been interviewed here in Arts Wire at some length, so I suggest you check out what I have said there. I have appeared in Word on Works in Leonardo, and was in SIGGRAPH '93, among other shows.

I am asking these questions because I found certain key words in your statements, such as "interactive" and "synthesis" appearing in such a way as to lack a clear definition, and I was hoping you would take my questions as an opportunity to relate your definitions to your work, in the context of art as you understand and practice it.

Jeff Gates, ArtFBI
I think we were at the Vermeer show on the same day! I saw many people moved by that work as well. I was too. However, I wouldn't call that "interactive." Interactive, as I said above, connotes an exchange of information in my mind. Sometimes that exchange can add or change the work.

In Our Path was first conceived at a time much earlier in my art life (back in 1982). My vision of art was more traditional then. Actually, "traditional" isn't exactly the right word here. The type of photography you see in In Our Path was really an anomaly. At the time, I was doing a lot of "non-silver" photography and other experimental process work --work in which I relied on "post-visualization" techniques to add and fine tune my voice. The documentary photographs of In Our Path were very different. Because there was very little post-visualization involved (other than minor darkroom stuff), my point had to be made at the time of exposure. Even now I often feel uncomfortable about that type of work. Yet, as I look at some of the images, I think they say quite a bit. This one, for instance, of a driveway leading to the freeway embankment is so simple, yet says so much.

I will admit that I'm often afraid people won't "get" these images. This really is my problem. And I'm succumbing to our contemporary culture's propensity to hit people over the head in order to make its point. But I try to compensate. But I digress...

The point I'm trying to get to here is that the web site of In Our Path is somewhat of a transition for me in conceptualizing "interaction." Because the work started out as not being interactive (hypermedia was just a twinkle in Vannevar Bush's eye), the only interactive portion of the site is the Feedback area.

In part, my use of the words "interactive" and "synthesis" lack a "clear definition" because the meanings of these ideas are in a state of transition for both me and others in the art world. I feel comfortable being in that state.

Jeff Gates, ArtFBI
Fred, I've had a chance to look over your item here on Interactive.

I think our notions of interactivity aren't too different. My sense of "synthesis" seems to be the same as what you've injected into Art Machine.

The other thing that caught my eye was the notion of artists directing choices in interactive work. I agree. Interactive work at its best limits the choices. Or, another way of putting it, helps direct the choices.

What I find so intriguing about interactive work is when the synthesis is something that I, as the artist/originator, think is something I would never have thought of!

Fred Truck
What kind of feedback do you receive from users in your Feedback area?

Chris Abraham
Hi Jeff!

Great to see you here! I am always amazed by your showings. Always like to watch what you are up to. I am a photographer and i am always amazed by how little i do with the rest of my stock, and I use your brilliant web design and implementation of images as a goal for my eventual development.

I look forward to reading onwards.

Jeff Gates, ArtFBI
Chris, good to see you here.

Fred, why don't you take a look at the Feedback area. You can find it at: http:www.tmn.com/iop/feedback.html. Then we can talk about it.

Judy Malloy
Meanwhile, Jeff, I'd like to go back to the artist as "outsider" or "insider" in this world where we are on the same platform with large corporate sites and where viewers may move from artists sites to Pathfinder (and hopefully back to artists sites) with just a click. I remember feeling as if I was an insider of sorts in the early days of the WELL when we were talking with all kinds of folks from "the industry" (Fred - did you feel this way?) and it was a good feeling. But that seemed slightly different from changing my work to integrate into what viewers may now expect from the web. Maybe this is easier for photographers. I don't know. What do you think?

Jeff Gates, ArtFBI
A key phrase in your statement above, Judy, is "...changing my work to integrate into what viewers may now expect from the web."

I'm not advocating changing one's work to fit the common denominator of public opinion. But I do think that in this potentially very accessible medium, building that acknowledgement (that many people will be able to view and interact with our work) into the piece from the beginning is something all of us should be thinking about.

For artists who have used the net for sometime, this may seem like second nature. However, as a teacher and as someone who talks with artists who are not "of our persuasion" , this is something which we must learn. Otherwise, the people will attempt to simply juxtapose work on top of this medium.

The other aspect I think is important revolves around the notion of relevancy. How relevant is our work to the people who will be viewing it? This is sort of a "which came first, the chicken or the egg..." situation. On this fulcrum I vote for working to change the way people perceive the function of art in our society, rather than changing our work to fit present notions of its function.

Timothy Collins
I'm reading all this after having just browsed through a Paul McCarthy catalog we bought yesterday. McCarthy utilizes a symbolic system that is incredibly accessible and direct...... as readable as a bad "B" movie. Yet at the same time the content and imagery is designed to shock/titillate and violate every taboo he can imagine. The narratives he creates are troublesome, complex, moving and at times incredibly entertaining in a sick twisted way..............

But i'd say the work in some way meets your qualifications Jeff. Do you think of McCarthy's work as within the realm of accessibility that you outline?

I'm wondering what other models exist in performance art that address accessible imagery some sense of narrative and interaction?

Jeff Gates, ArtFBI
Tim, as I was reading your post I was saying to myself: "I want to see what this catalog is about!" It's hard to talk about something in this (conferencing) medium when it's being "described." Too bad you couldn't post some of the images you are talking about. Won't that fall under fair use?

Judy Malloy
Jeff - Can we go back in time a little and talk about your artist roots? One of the things Anna and I are trying to do in this forum is document interactive art and artists. Can you tell us a little about your background? How you began, how your work evolved, what lead you to the world wide web?

Jeff Gates, ArtFBI
Ok. I come from a long line of artists on both sides of my family. But I knew none of this before I got interested in art. So maybe my interest is genetic. Maybe not...

I was a Political Science major in college and wanted to go into International Relations. But started taking design courses in my senior year and got hooked. I applied to one grad school, UCLA, and got in. This is not a sign of how good I was. That year UCLA was trying an "experiment" where they accepted a group of people who had little background or training in the arts to see what would happen. So I entered grad school with writers, school teachers, etc. I got interested in photography right away and spent most of my time trying to move beyond traditional photography as I experimented with many non-silver techniques.

As a sidebar, the early 70s was a time when the first video portapacs came out from Akai and I did a short piece on wrestling at El Monte Legion Stadium where I was almost thrown into the ring. I also took the first computer graphics class (which was taught by experimental film maker, John Whitney, Sr.) in 1972. The "lab" was in a basement and all the monitors were huge circular vector monitors which looked like giant radar screens. All we could do was make "mandalas" but we were young and easily excitable. Unfortunately, the machines broke down so much I lost interest for 12 years until the first Mac came out in 1984. More on that later...

As a budding artist I was as insecure about my work as the next person (of course, at the time I thought I was the ONLY insecure artist --I later found out I was very much mistaken in this assumption ).

As I began to question just why I had decided to become an artist, I also questioned why others became one. When I went to exhibits, I was more interested in why someone made a specific piece rather than the piece itself. This notion stuck with me and I feel was partially instrumental in my starting ArtFBI many years later.

When I got out of grad school, I began teaching photography and continued to do so, first at various colleges around LA (they use to call me the "tri-county photo teacher), then at universities and art colleges around the country (I lived in 4 cities from Seattle and LA to Minneapolis and Baltimore all in a period of a year and a half). I was the consummate itinerant teacher, living from one CAA conference to another...well, you know the story). But back to my art...

My early photography was based quite naturally on exploring myself. In the late 70s I did a series called Breast Plates, large solarized images of men, standing in front of a grid, at various stages of either taking off or ripping off their t-shirts, the metaphorical "breast plate" or protection of our senses of self. I was interested in how men related to men in this culture (and, of course, how I related to men in this culture).

The work got a lot of play and, while measuring success is always a difficult task, was pretty successful. I "almost" grabbed that golden ring on the merry-go-round of the "art world." Had a show in NYC, reviewed in Art Forum, etc. But I didn't become a darling of the art world as I'd hoped so I had to rethink my reasoning for becoming an artist. If riches and fame weren't in my cards, just what was important to me as an artist? This is something I've periodically thought about ever since.

BTW, as I look back on Breast Plates, it's wonderfully stood the test of time, both visually and content-wise. Innocently, I entered the world of "gender exploration" long before it became a popular path. Last year I walked into a presentation on gender-based art at a conference and, to my surprise, saw my work on the screen. Seen in the context of other work done since, it seemed to fit within a history. I mention this as my early notion of art history was that it was set in stone, immutable. But I have since embraced the idea, which to some here may seem a given, that, like hypermedia, the history of art, especially modern and contemporary art, has many interesting paths. Breast Plates is the one group of images, pre-In Our Path, I would feel good about putting up on the Net.

So, I was heavy into self-exploration. And it was with this motivation I came to the land that was to become the Century Freeway in the early 80s. I originally saw these abandoned post-WWII housing tracts as representative of my personal experiences growing up in suburbia. It was only after I got a chance, early in the work, to speak with Esther Keith, one of the home owners who filed an Injunction to stop the freeway, that things took an abrupt spur. Looking at one image, she mentioned that she knew the woman who owned that house and had committed suicide when the state forced her to move. I realized at that moment that this wasn't the story of my life but the story of those who had been directly affected by this public works project. And it was with that understanding that I continued my project.

As I look back now, this was a watershed experience for me and has led me in directions which are of prime importance to me now (socially relevant work, my interest in how artists function in this society, etc.). While the images which came after In Our Path, used stories of my life as a starting point, I began to search for the more universal human experience as an important reference. I've only put one of these images up on the Net at this point.

I could go on rambling about myself ad nauseum. So I stop for now. But I will add, to answer one of your questions, Judy, that "discovering" hypermedia and the Web was a natural coming together of many interests: as a child I had penpals all over the world, I'm a storyteller, albeit an unofficial one, and the idea of expanding my audience was just too good to pass up.

Kim Adams
Ah, non-silver photo techniques. An old "hobby" of mine. Your personal history makes me nostalgic. It's nice to read about your roots.

Judy Malloy
Yes, Thanks Jeff!

Fred Truck
How about some info on the ArtFBI? Jeff Gates, ArtFBI
I started ArtFBI in 1988. It was a natural outgrowth of my interest in the "process" of being an artist (as opposed to the "products" we made). For general details of ArtFBI, you can take a look at the web site.

By coincidence or by some sense of a larger design scheme, I happen to be focused on this issue when the controversy over Mapplethorpe erupted in Washington in 1989. While many were interested in particulars of the political machinations, including how best to organize the arts "communities" in the face of this seemingly "sudden" onslaught, I was more interested in the larger historical social atmosphere leading up to these events as well as how to change people's perception of artists in a long term effort to mitigate future attacks. To a large degree, this is what ArtFBI is about.

This is not to say that the efforts of organizations like NAAO, the American Arts Alliance, et. al. were off track. These activities were critical. (I was involved in a few of these activities myself, one being the organization of "The Ironic Curtain: A Wall of Conscience" in which a group of artists put up a symbolic "wall" around the Capitol (ironically, as the Berlin Wall had just come down). The photograph, as those of you viewing this on the web can see, was a beautiful image taken by Rick Reinhard and appeared in the Voice and other publications around the country.)

However, I was more concerned about what allowed us (artists) to be easy targets and how it got to be this way. In addition, as we saw, it was extremely difficult to organize us, let alone in a cohesive group which could affect change (I used the word "communities" as opposed to "community" above to describe our field as we found we were composed of many divergent, and often oppositional interests when it came to government support of the arts).

I see artists as a subculture, in many respects like other subcultures in our society. In other respects we're very different. Unlike ethnic or religious subcultures, information and history is not usually passed down from one generation to the next. So, I thought, how DO we get our information about what it means to be an artist? Naturally, being a child of T.V., I looked to how we are portrayed in popular culture, television and film. In my effort to look at how society saw us, I began to collect depictions of artists from T.V. shows and movies and I headed out to set up discussion groups with artists around the country to use these as a starting off point for some very serious reflections on who were are and how people see us.

As an interesting connection, my interests in how to connect with my audience through my work was also in play here. The examples I'd gathered were often very funny and provided some "light" entertainment to the people I spoke with. Yet, my job, once they were involved, was to focus the chats on the realities of where we were.

BTW, while I feel artists are part of a large subculture (the definition of which could be a topic in and of itself), I strongly believe that it is important to work to integrate ourselves with the rest of society. I totally reject the notion that the artist is "above it all." And, I must admit, I am shocked (although less intensely these days) when I encounter someone who feels this way. I can remember the first time, as the head of graduate photography at the Maryland Institute, back in the mid-80s, when I inherited a grad student, my first year there, who, when I questioned why he was making the images he was, stated he didn't have to tell me or discuss it because he was the artist. Audience to him meant nothing.

There were other ways I found to connect with my audience (which also included the general public). In 1988 I started producing a series of bumper stickers (a pretty "popular" medium I thought) which brought the dialog to a "new low" (depending on how low your car bumpers were -grin).

There are 8 in the series, which you can view by going to ArtFBI's web site. Just one appropriate story:

The first sticker I produced said: ASK ME ABOUT BEING AN ARTIST (I often "borrowed" and extended cultural phrases of the day, like "Ask me about Amway" or "Ask me about my grandchildren."). One day, I was driving from Baltimore to NYC on I-95. An 18 wheeler pulled up beside me and motioned for me to roll down my window. I thought there must be something wrong with my car. When I did, he yelled: "My son, he draws really well. What should he do?" I thought, do I get into a philosophical discussion with him about the role of the arts in culture at 60, well, ok, 80 mph? So I just told him to call the Maryland Institute. He gave me a thumbs up and passed me.

Ok, I know I said just one story, but here's another about the same sticker. A friend who had it on his car was involved in a minor fender bender. The other guy was pretty mad until he saw the sticker. His mood immediately changed and he said: "So what's it like being an artist?" My friend's answer is what good art is all about, creative and simple. His reply was simply: "Imagine."

One other "action" I did was to develop the Cultural Working Class list in 1992. This came out of my frustration over all the gibberish over the "cultural elite" during Quail's sub-reign, of which he was only the mouthpiece. When Newsweek came out with its cover story of the 100 Cultural Elitists, those people, the magazine said were the "movers and shakers of culture," I was surprised to see only one artist among them (I think it was Barbara Kruger). I was so incensed by the base level of the dialog I decided to put out a call for another list of those artists who were working at the foundation of our society, the community, to affect change. One could nominate themselves or be nominated by someone else. It was the first time I used technology to get the word out. I was leaving for a conference and had 24 hours to put together a press release and fax it to newspapers and other organizations around the country.

In part, because of my excitement at having used technology as a conduit to the outside world I decided that this was one direction that artists could explore for bypassing the narrow art market door and other paths to one's audience. I also realized that few artists at the time (92-93) had access to the information that I was privy to via online "nodes" like Arts Wire, let alone the technology to create it. So, in March of 93 I began ArtFax, a monthly newsletter of arts information that I sent out to organizations and artists in the Mid Atlantic area. Much of the info was taken from sources I found on AW. I felt it important that lack of resources, to say nothing of lack of good and timely reading material, should keep artists out of the loop.

I am still producing ArtFax (you can see past and present issues on the web site). It's sent out via fax, hardcopy, and as Adobe acrobat files via the net. More people now have online access, but not enough.

Anna Couey
This has been fascinating to read all in one big lump! Thanks for being such an active guest, Jeff.

I'd like to turn once again to the hoary interactive art thread. One of the things I'm curious about in In Your Path, is what role the interactive component of the project plays in its overall meaning. Is it mainly a technique of audience engagement, or do the audience contributions add content to the work? For instance, is the conferencing element of the web installation analogous to an artist lecture/presentation, that often accompanies an exhibit, or is the conferencing function as part of the work - & if so what does it signify?

Jeff Gates, ArtFBI
Anna, the conferencing function is both a method to engage the public but it's also possible that someone's comment becomes part of the work (as in the instances of the two artists, Andy Baugnet and Moira Hahn, who have, in part, documented their work there).

In addition, this part of In Our Path (along with email and other direct forms of interaction) can change the form this site takes. As an example, in one day I received two email messages, one from a photographer and one from a slide librarian at a university who independently said that as the photo area was then designed, they had no way of knowing just "where" in the exhibit they were --how many images were left to see for instance.

Taking a look at the design from their perspective, I redesigned that area to include thumbnail images in a frame, so that one could take their own "path" through my work, or, if they didn't have frame capability or didn't want to use frames, I put the number of the image and the total number of images in the title (as in 3/20, 4/20, etc) so they could position where they were.

Is the Feedback area just another "guest book?" I'd like to think not. In a traditional exhibit or even in an online guest book, people leave their comments but there is very little interaction, if any. While I'd like to see MORE interaction, students from a school where the physical photographs were shown had a chance to enter into a dialog with me about the work --asking questions and getting a response.

Moira Hahn's experience, working to save an ancient Native American site from development, is being documented in this area and that is continuing. I help by scanning images she wants to put up and encouraging her to post updates. But someone with more online experience than Moira would be able to do that on their own.

Judy Malloy
Jeff, I too want to thank you for your thoughtful and interesting answers. A couple of questions still on my mind as the month comes all too rapidly to a close...

It would be great to heart more about your initial involvement with the Mac and how that changed your way of looking at art making.

Also, Breast Plates sound like a great series of images. Are you planning to make them into a net work?

Jeff Gates, ArtFBI
I bought the first Mac when it came out in 1984. I was teaching at the U of Washington and was able to buy it through them. I first "consulted" with a friend of mine who owned a Lisa (a pre-Mac).

By the time the computer arrived I was teaching at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design. I remember, that October afternoon when the UPS man delivered "the package." I was so excited I stayed up practically all night playing on it.

Of course, while it was the "cutting edge" at the time, I didn't feel there was too much "art" I wanted to make with it. I just wasn't attracted to the output available. And, of course, the net wasn't available. So, I experimented with making it talk and word processing.

It wasn't until the early 90s that I began to experiment with making art. My early stuff is, well, early and not well-formed. I first saw the possibilities of the net when I was teaching at Carnegie Mellon during the summer of 91. I came in contact with a few people in their Studio for Creative Inquiry. I went home and got connected.

Jeff Gates, ArtFBI
As for Breast Plates... As an exclusive to Arts Wire, for the very first time on the Net, here are a few images.

The series was a sequence, beginning with images of men (like the one directly below) in what I would characterize as very "male" stances: frontal, denoting a sense of power. The t-shirt, in all of these images is the "breast plate," the armor which protects us.


) 1997 Jeff Gates


As the series drew to a conclusion, things started to get "out of hand" and the model started to get entrapped by that which, heretofore, had protected him:


1997 Jeff Gates


BTW, I figured if I was dealing with how men related to men in this culture, I should "investigate" (grin) my relationship with my father. This is the image which appropriately came out of that interesting encounter. He just doesn't want to give up that t-shirt, does he?


1997 Jeff Gates


Finally, in the "life imitating art" realm (or should I say "advertising copying artists' work realm"), this is an ad for Soloflex which appeared about 6 months after my images were published. It is, of course, impossible to conclusively say that the advertising agency "used" my images as an inspiration, but...




Here's a comparable image from Breast Plates:


1997 Jeff Gates


Anna Couey
Thanks, Jeff. It's great to actually see some of the Breast Plate images! Your notes leave me curious to know more about how you staged/produced the images - just what were those encounters? How did you work with the "models" (& choose them in the first place)?

(I know the month's over, but I couldn't resist....)

Jeff Gates, ArtFBI
Well, I started with friends who knew what I was doing. Although I once asked someone I met at a party. Luckily, I had a girlfriend along to confirm this wasn't a pickup line . Generally, I photographed people I knew, either friends, students, or friends of friends. I would explain what I was doing and why. If memory serves me, I would mention there was no nudity involved (I've always found the discrepancy in cultural mores between showing male and female nudity. A woman showing her torso can be arrested walking down the street, but not a man; a woman can be shown fully nude in a film but male frontal nudity is a "no-no").

I'm sure some wondered what these images said about my sexuality. One gay art critic told a friend that "no one but a gay guy could make images like these." This said a lot to me about stereotypes of both gay men and straight men. It also pinpointed for me one of the important issues of male socialization: that revealing our sensitive or fragile psyches exacts a high price in this culture.

The grid was a large piece of masonite I drew the lines on. I photographed everything in my living room. I was shooting with a 2 1/4 format camera I picked up in a pawn shop. I usually shot 3 rolls of film (total: 36 exposures). The first two rolls were usually a "warm up." Where the model and I got in sync. The shot I eventually used was usually on the last roll.

I had to ply my father with a little wine to get him to agree to do this. When we did make a date for the shoot, he came up and immediately asked how long this was going to take. When I finished the first roll of film in about 5 minutes, he was surprised at my quickness. He started to get comfortable near the end of the 3rd roll, so I decided to take two more rolls. The image you see here was the last picture I took.

I also took a series of polaroids during the shoot and made tryptichs out of them.

I solarized these images in the darkroom (pre, pre photoshop!). The real photos have a real silvery quality to them.

Judy Malloy
Hi Jeff. I'm logging on from the San Francisco Art Institute where I just demoed your conversation to the web class that Gail Wight and I are teaching. The breast plate images looked great on the overhead projector!

Jeff Gates, ArtFBI
Thanks Judy.

Transcript of A Conversation with JEFF GATES, Item 102, Interactive Art Conference, Arts Wire.
Posted to the Web with participants' permission.


Conversations with Artists