Lucia Grossberger Morales is an interactive computer artist. Born in Bolivia, Lucia immigrated to the US as a young girl. Her works are visually rich, often reflecting her personal history, Bolivian politics, and Latino and indigenous cultures - particularly through shrines, ritual, fabric, and anthropology.
It's hard to describe the impact of Lucia's work: a Dia de los Muertos shrine installation with candles, marigolds, Bolivian fabric surrounding an almost psychedelic computer screen inviting you to interact. Scanned weavings depicting animals - you move the mouse over an animal, and it moves. An older work, Hypercard, in Spanish and English, about leaving the Bolivian mountains/coming to US cities with tall buildings. Powerful, playful, physical - not electronic art divorced from the body or the spirit.
I've been thinking about interactive art since 1982, when I accidentally found myself doing an interactive piece at the Long Beach Museum of Art. Since then I have created many interactive installations. Some of them have worked, some of them haven't. I would like to share my thoughts with you about those installations and get your feedback and insights. Interactive art using computers is very new. There are no rules and I believe that a dialog will go far in helping us all understand this new art form a little better.
(Lucia Grossberger Morales)
Hi Lucia, welcome! Really looking forward to this conversation.
So...just how did you come to accidently create an interactive work at Long Beach?!
Welcome Lucia! I very much enjoyed reading your words about Sangre Boliviana (that will appear in Leonardo 28:4) and seeing the work itself at PFA a few months ago. Yes, please tell us how you began with both interactivity and using computers in your work.
Glad you're here, Lucia--we met a year ago exactly in the Santa Cruz mountains--am eager to hear how you've progressed!
Beth Kanter ---- Arts Wire
Welcome Lucia! You mention that you got started in Interactive art in 1982. I am curious what changes have your observed in te art form over this time. I am particularly interested in what your (and Anna's & Judy's) observations or thoughts about how the "maintstreaming" of the computer and Internet have influenced or changed Interactive Art. Also, what will future bring?
I say I kind of stumbled into doing interactive art. That is true because I never thought that the art community would be interested in what I was doing. But I was certainly interested in interactivity. I had been teaching reading in High School and unless I was reading to them their attention span was about three minutes. One day I saw one of my worse students in front of an arcade. He was engaged. I came back a few minutes later, he was still engaged. That taught me something. That interactive arcade was way more interesting than me. A few more frustrations at the educational system and a dream and I quit teaching.
In the dream I was a black boy of about nine. I played next to a vast ocean, with a black box. The box was a magic box. I had no understanding of how it worked, but the light out of the box was amazing. It was a new light - a different type of light than I had ever seen. The light created complicated images in the sky that was rapidly turning dark in order to enhance the magic of the light box. In some ways the images looked like fireworks, but they were more structured, more precise. Instead of the diffuse, short lived light of fireworks, the light was coherent and persistent. I felt such an enormous sense of power and awe. When I woke up, I knew that dream was a gift and I knew that I had to head its advise and pursued the magic light box.
Dreams aren't created out of a vacuum. And my dream certainly had basis in the events of the previous day. That day, in November of 1979, for the very first time, I had seen an Apple II personal computer. This was not my first encounter with computers. In graduate school, they offered a course in computers. I saw the students with their massive printouts on large ugly light green and white paper. I even went so far as to accompany a student to the card room to take in their punch cards. At that point I was certain I would never work with computers. I could not imagine myself punching in the cards, taking the cards in, waiting for the results. It seemed unbelievable to me that one would go to such trouble. And the programs weren't that impressive either. One student, trying to interest me showed me a Snoppy dog created out of different letters. I was not impressed.
But seeing the Apple II computer on that Saturday was impressive. I will never forget that day. I went to a computer store, the very first computer store in the whole world, "The Computer Store". in Santa Monica. I told the salesman what I was interested in creating art games on a computer. He directed me to a salesman with wild red hair. The first thing that the salesman showed me was a program called ColorSoft Demo. It was amazing- a symmetrical pattern of bright constantly little blocks. The next program I saw was a demo called Apple Visions. The program began with a room being drawn in white on the black screen. In the room there was a plaque that read "Home, Sweet Home", as well as a television set. Then the music began - Turkey in the Straw - and a little man appeared in the television dancing. The song ended and the credits scrolled through the screen - created by Bob Bishop. By today's standards the demos were trivial and trite, but at that time, 1978, the demos were masterpieces of what could be done with a personal computer. Then the salesman and I talked about computers and their possibilities in the arts. We talked for hours. Believing that it would create another Renaissance. I was euphoric. I felt I had found my medium.
At that point I pretty much sold every I had, bought a computer and went to the desert where I could pursue this vision. It was frustrating because the software was so simplistic. I knew that I could design better software. Along with Harry Vertelney and David Rifkin we produced the Designer's Toolkit, which was published by Apple Computer. I created a tool because I wanted it, not as a piece of art. At that point I was thinking of how I could create better animations not about creating environments that were interactive.
In 1982 the Long Beach Museum asked me to show the Designer's Toolkit. They got an Apple computer and graphics tablet. It was set on a table to let people explore. The effect of letting people participate was profound. I was hooked on creating interactive, participatory art.
That is not to say that this exhibit was completely successful. On the graphics pad there was a heavy plastic menu. With the stylus someone had dug a design of a palm tree into the plastic. I am not sure if the computer was turned off?
In regards to how has interactive changed I will spend some time thinking about it and gather my thoughts in a more coherent fashion. Thanks for all your comments.
Beth Kanter ---- Arts Wire
What a wonderful way to come to computers and interactivity, Lucia. Full circle to go from your experience as reading teacher - to engaging people in using a tool you helped design!
wonderful story! It is interesting to me how your visual sense shaped your use of interactivity. I had a similar disenchanment with the punched card method of communicating with computers and a similar thrill when I first saw an Apple II working, but it was (for me) the capabilites of manipulating narrative information that I found exciting and that lead for me to the reduction of visual qualities in my work. Developing one's own personal vision is, I think, one of the things that makes good art. So, it is excellent to see the computer, like any other medium, being used in different ways by differnt artists.
So, you went to the desert with an Apple II! Where did that lead your work? (a fiction writers question that translates into What happened next?)
In regards to how interactive art has changed and where is it going, I really can only speak for my own art.
In thinking about the future of my work, I really don't know.- I feel I am at a crossroads. I have been creating installations for the past few years and I wonder if they are worth the tremendous effort. But unfortunately, so often I find people's only access to see this type of work is in galleries and museums. Additionally, galleries and musuems seem willing to show installations but not just CD-ROMs. They are very specific that they don't just want a "naked" computer.
On the other hand, I have great hope that CD-ROMs are going to be an extremely powerful medium for artists and their audiences. The price of producing a CD-ROM in quantities of five hundred is about two dollars a piece. If there were more computers and CD-ROM players out there this could really be a very viable, marketable medium for many artists. And powerful multimedia computers have the ability to integrate sound, video, images, text and the special mathematical capabilities of the computer. And it can be interactive. For me it is a "dream machine". The first machine that I feel I can really represent the surreal, layered imagery, thoughts and ideas I feel in dreams.
If the prices of computers would drop and everyone had access to CD-ROMs I know that I would rarely feel inspired to work with installations. I think that Nicolas Negroponte is right on when he says what we really need is a $200.00 computer.
Yeah, funny about that initial disenchantment with computers. My mom was a computer programmer, and I hated computers for years - thought they were anti-human, and became a fiber artist instead. What turned me around was getting online & realizing that computers could be a decentralized communications medium - and I got excited about the possibilities for communications weaving.
Interesting point about the role of the delivery medium in shaping the form of one's work. Some of the collaborative a projects that I organized online a few years ago - connecting disparate systems, is now more automated due to the growth of Internet connectivity. Having the Web has made it a lot easier to involve audiences who have never been online.
Lucia, when you wonder whether the installations are worth the tremendous effort - does that mean that you feel the work actually displayed & interacted with on the computer *is* worth the effort? and if so, why? - because it's more portable? or you can focus on the expression instead of how to design the installation so it's robust & can work in a public environment?
I too have encountered repeatedly the desire of curators to place computer works in an installation context. This can help to locate the viewer in the work and to draw in viewers who would normally not sit down at a computer. Certainly the alter context that I've seen Lucia use also enhances the work, but I feel the same way you do, Lucia about the value of the time spent on installation that is ephemeral and reaches a very small, elite audience as opposed to the spending my time writing/programming something that can be published and distributed widely and that won't just disappear (or cause a major storage problem) after the installation. I've also come to feel, although I enjoy going to installations, that they are a very elitist art form.
Thanks for your comments. To answer Judy's question about what happened in the desert - once Apple decided to publish the Designer's Toolkit, I moved to Mountain View in the Santa Clara Valley. Arizona was a great place to learn about the Apple II. I first learned to program there. It is interesting how different artists get inspiration from the same object (the Apple II), but the inspiration takes a very different form.
In regards to the conversation on installations, I think that you are right Judy, that they do focus the viewer on the art. In a sense, by hiding the computer, it transforms the computer. And there are some people who are receptive to the installation who would not have been interested if it were just a computer sitting there. I believe that this was very true in the piece that you saw at the Pacific Film Archive. When I exhibited that same piece at the Mexican Museum, there was a comment book and some of the comments really made me feel that it was worthwhile too have the piece in a shrine, even though it was a lot of extra work.
And, there are those pieces that I create that have to be installations. For example the pieces that I do with mirrors (kaleidoscopes), or with edge detection software. Those are pieces that really aren't intended for the home. I believe that right now my frustrations with installations is really being influenced by the problems that I am having with a current installation at the Works Gallery. When I step back from my current problems, I believe that each interactive piece, work of art, has a certain integrity and the place that it is shown should reflect its intent. Maybe what I am really saying is that art should be integrated with life. Art should be all over, and if it is going to really be effective in showing people alternatives and opening their imaginations than it should be in schools, libraries, churches, bus stops, etc. Our culture needs art, and not just in a few select places.
I agree with your points about art needing to be everywhere and access to it needs to go beyond the confines of traditional and non-traditional spaces. For a lot of artists the access to computers and the knowledge to design work that is computer based is an insurmountable obstacle which insulates some great talents from working in this medium. Computers are cheaper but it seems that the faster they get and the more things that can be created on them the more power, memory and storage you need to create is called for and this all translates into more dollars. Outside of academic settings what do you see as ways more artists are or could be working in this medium?
Judy, your comment that installation is elitist troubled me. Having made and exhibited installations I felt that this was a very accessible way to reach an audience. Granted the cost and storage problems of working on large installations are very real obstacles. Also the number of "art spaces" that show this sort of work seems to be shrinking. I know a group of artists in Boston that have been creating huge outdoor installations in areas accessible to a wide variety of the public. I guess to some degree all art could be considered elist depending on how and where an audience experiences it. It seems that computer based art tends to be elitist due to accesibility of both the audience and the artist that creates it. Having work on the internet seemed to me to be a great way to show some work and have a wide audience experience it but with the internet being comprised of 85% males that isn't true. Maybe I am taking your point out of context of installation/computer based work?
Oh installations are very wonderful and I usually do one or so a year myself. Have some more to say about this (as soon as I get caught up with work)
Rather than sidetrack our conversation about the development of Lucia's work, I set up a separate Item (65) to talk about installation art. Lucia, I hope if you have time you will contribute to this item also. I'm also interested in knowing more about how your work developed. When did you begin integrating your Bolivian heritage into the work?
To answer Judy's question, I began to integrate my Bolivian Roots into my art in 1986. I was really tired of working with computers. I felt they were fascinating but they weren't really saying things that interested me. I took some time out and worked with traditional media. I also saw a show at LA County Art Museum called Hispanic Art. Additionally, I started reading about artists such as Frieda Kalho, Wilfredo Lam, etc. And reading the work of Eduardo Galeano and Julio Cortazar. Their work really spoke to me. I felt moved in a way that computer work had never moved me. Especially, the work of Frieda Kalho. It took me several months to come to the realization that it did not make sense for me to try to work in mediums like acrylics, when interactive is really the form that I love and connect most deeply with and that there was no problem or conflict in creating work using interactive methods that would honestly represent my content. This train of thinking led me to design two installations in 1988. The first one incorporated a large five foot kaleidoscope. The second piece is called A Mi Abuelita. (It was a Dia de los Muertos Shrine dedicated to my Great Grand Mother. It is a difficult piece to set up because of the technology, but it is very gratifing. My Day of the Dead Shrines are installations that I really enjoy. Maybe because they are cultural as well as artistic.)
I feel at first I was clumsy integrating my cultural roots with the computer, but as the years have gone by, the two just exist together, very comfortably. I feel that it was fortunate that I kept with the computer. The computer is not inherent any culture and is an incrediable tool for allowing people to express their own cultures. I can't resist telling a story.
In Bolivia I was consulting at the Children's Museum. I had created some animations which incorporated some current weavings of the area and some of the animated some of the characters on those weavings. A group of about forty kids came to see the animation. Of course I didn't have to give them instructions, they were all pretty computer savy. Afterwards an eight year old girl said to me, "I didn't know that you could do that." I wasn't sure what she meant, but finally what came out was that she didn't know that it was possible to have her culture represented on the computer.
I am glad that there is another forum on installation and I will add to the discussion as soon as I can.
Nice story. Thanks!
In response to Joe's questions about access to computers, yes, it is expensive to stay state-of-the-art; and there are pressures on computer artists to produce works that utilize such tools, particularly in the venues that have traditionally supported computer-based art, such as SIGGRAPH and other industry shows. But, good art is not necessarily made by the most expensive tools; depending on the artist's vision, an inexpensive computer may be all that's needed. We don't *have* to buy into the industry's profit motive, especially if it's not furthering our vision :-) As for access and training...many, if not most computer artists I know develop relationships with industry - by working in it, at least part of the time, or trading services, to gain access to tools. In San Francisco, there are a number of low cost or free classes in how to use computers - some sponsored by local media and arts organizations. Many computer-based artists are self taught computer users.
Lucia, I love your story of the girl in Bolivia being blown away by seeing representations of her own culture on a computer! What a powerful affirmation of the work that you're doing. I also like your story of venturing into traditional art media in search of your own voice. Picking up on Joe's question again, how prevalent are computer savvy children in Bolivia? Or did you mean simply that children are more open than adults to exploring computers? Also...did your approach to interactivity or computers change as you began to work with your Bolivian roots?
Anna, I totally agree with what you are saying!!! I started on an Apple II computer with four colors and 140 pixels up and down and 140 across. But I learned much more on that computer than any Sun Computer, Macintosh, or Silicon Graphics. Computers may be faster, with more colors, and more resolution, but the simplicity of the Apple II, and the willingness of Apple Users to help one another really shaped me as an artist. If you want to create visuals on a computer I recommend that you get your hands on any computer that has some graphics capabilities and just use it.
Anna, your question of how my time in Bolivia has influenced my interactive art is interesting. While creating Sangre Boliviana, my inspiration was the stories the feelings I have about Bolivia. This inspiration led to many novel interactive interfaces.
An example of how I let the story dictate the interactive style is in Cholera 1992. In designing this piece, I was inspired by the horror that I felt at the existence of cholera in South America. When I was in Cochabamba Bolivia in February of 1992, five hundred people died of cholera. I couldn't believe it. I thought cholera had been eradicated. And of course it has been in first world counties. But there it was in Cochabamba. The piece that grew out of that horror, which became incorporated into a type of game using an arcade format. I felt that the only way I could address the topic and could express my horror was through the use of black humor. Black humor has historically been used as a way of psychologically dealing with horrific experiences. For example, Dia de los Muertos was originally a way of coping with the massive number of deaths in Mexico during the time of the conquistadors. Another example of using black humor as a way of coping with horror is the song, Ring around the Rosies, which was popular during the time of the Black Plague during the Middle Ages in Europe. In Cholera 1992, the arcade format, with all types of humorous, sick, scatacological references, and ironical, off hand, writings, was the only way I could think of to address the topic of cholera.
It is a strong subject and excellent to be able to deal with it with black humor, I think. Sometimes I have been criticized for using black humor. And/or my work has not been taken seriously because of the use of humor. Has this happened to you? Personally I feel humor is as valid way to approach a subject. (that can be as serious as any subject)
Judy, I often have problems with my use of humor in my art. I believe that it is cultural. A really good example is Dia de los Muertos (Day of the Dead), which is a very important celebration in many parts of Latin America. This is a celebration where people make shrines to the dead. They include things like candies and toys shaped as skulls and skeletons. The children eat and play with these things. I have heard many North Americans say that they thought this was sick and that why would anyone do that. Quite honestly there are a whole group of installation that I want to do, but can't because they aren't sanitized enough for North American sensibilities. I have to admit sometimes I get really frustrated with how ethnocentric, isolated and intolerant North Americans are.
I agree with you that humor is a very important part of art. I view art as something that is capable of transforming. There are few things that have as much power to transform as humor. Laughter is said to be good for physical as well as mental health. In Eastern traditions it is said to be an important part of the path to enlightenment. To me there are few things as powerful as a full belly laugh following a deep insight, which even though it may be sad, leads to a greater understanding of the human condition.
Well we semi-Irish NOrth Americans have been known to make bad jokes at wakes which is somewhat similar (and equally misunderstood in the suburbs of Boston where I grew up)
Lucia, it has been wonderful having you, and I am so happy that you will be staying on. I'd be interested in hearing about what you are working on now and how you see your work evolving in the coming years.
Beth Kanter, Arts Wire
That is great news Lucia that you will hanging around for a bit!
Lucia, I hope I haven't arrived too late to ask you a question. Thanks for this fascinating discussion!
I really liked your dream about the magic box. And I noted with interest your mention of Eduardo Galeano. I heard Galeano interviewed on the radio recently. I hadn't known about him before and was struck by the seamless way he combines magical, mythical elements with contemporary story. In fact, he makes no separation between the magical and the 'real'. I want very much to get his new book Walking Words.
I wonder if you think about this. So much of what you describe is fantastical magical: a moving light image within a shrine, creatures animated out of a weaving. I am delighted to know of computer tech used this way!
Your story of the girl in the computer museum brought tears to my eyes.
Many thanks for being a guest artist here, Lucia. I'm happy that you're staying on Arts Wire, and look forward to seeing this discussion continue.
Do you encounter the same kind of cultural intolerance in art contexts as in multimedia industrial contexts? I remember you describing the negative response to A Mi Abuelita when it was exhibited at SIGCHI a few years back. Do you find a difference in North American presentation venues that are culturally Latin American vs. Euro-American?
Like Valerie, I'm excited about your use of computers to bring magic and myth alive, & with a politcal context.
Glad you had a chance to hear Eduardo Galeano, Valerie. I discovered his work reading the Memory of Fire trilogy a few years ago and travelled to Mexico because of it. It's exquisitely beautiful, visual, poetic, romantic, brutal, nauseating, humorous - & makes it impossible to simply read, not act, and be satisfied.
Transcript of A
Conversation with Lucia Grossberger Morales, Item 64, Interactive Art Conference,
Posted to the Web with participants' permission.