by C. Alex Clark
Are we disappearing into the digital? How do we act when we leave our bodies behind? What new ways of interaction can be experienced in the space between the digital and the real?
These are some of the questions which Avital Meshi addresses in her work. Along with the experience of juggling motherhood, art-making, and the academic, Meshi also has had a strong presence in online virtual worlds (such as Second Life) for several years. This has directed her investigations towards the performative aspect of interacting within the virtual, as well as the space for interpretation, learning, invention and imagination that spans the uncharted terrain between the virtual and the real.
While we can easily accept that all interaction between two or more people within the ‘real’ world is mediated, from the simplest fact of our body language to the complex systemic control factors which direct current society, when a digital-virtual mediator is inserted into human interaction there is an increased ability to generate new modes of connection. Not only is the user able to generate a virtual ‘body’ which might more closely reflect their internal image of themselves potentially increasing an individual’s effectiveness, but the virtual world – through the advancement of Artificially Intelligent digital systems – also has agency . AIs are now guiding the way in which two ‘real’ humans might come to meet, interact, and participate in both real and virtual worlds.
Through these five questions – presented to Meshi over email correspondence – we tap into the insight she has gained through stepping into these virtual worlds, bringing back her experiences, and inviting us to join her in the as-yet undefined realm which connects the real and the virtual.
C Alex: What is New Media to you? How does the combination of art and technology lend to the opening of conversations around our relationships to art, each other, and the world?
Avital: ‘New Media’ as I see it, includes all communication technologies which are outside of mainstream use. Starting from technologies which are in early stages of development, the ones you read about in scientific papers, and all the way to technologies which have already been introduced to the public but which people are still not thoroughly familiar with yet. Knowing the power of communication technologies to change the face of our society and culture, I find it fascinating to see how these technologies are being approached with both excitement and fear. People are curious about them but are also worried. Since these technologies are still developing, often times they are glitchy and incomplete – an aspect which spices up the conversation with some more insecurities, but also with humor and originality which I find to be extremely creative. I find that many of these technologies invite interesting questions which may reveal some understandings regarding our social structures. It seems to me that no matter how new the medium is, structured knowledge and predispositions quickly form around it, so that even before we even fully understand it we already set ourselves with some rules regarding when, how, where and who should use it. But eventually, the new technology brings with it a need to change habits, behaviors and ways of thinking. When these clash with some more traditional elements of our culture we can expose and examine pre-existing patterns and structures of knowledge. I find it fascinating to explore which of these new behaviors we adopt and which we reject and how these eventually shape our identity and our culture.
C: How has New Media shaped your practice? Are your projects generally responses to technology and the way it is affecting the world, or do you find that the consideration of technology comes after the instigation of a concept which you are exploring?
A: In my practice I experiment with new technologies and I explore the way they intersect with my own identity and influence my own life. For instance, for the last few years I immersed myself in an online social VR platform where I conversed with hundreds of virtual friends. Unlike most of these friends who keep their ‘virtual life’ as a secret I do share stories about my virtual identity with my friends and family. Having conversations about both my real and virtual identities inspire my work in so many ways. For example, in some of those conversations I was asked if I wait for my kids to go to sleep before I go on my virtual adventures or do I let them see my virtual world. Such questions intrigued my curiosity regarding the mother role in relation to VR. My performance at Currents 2019 was directly examining the relationship of the two as I am performing as a mother who is holding a baby in her hands while being fully immersed in a virtual world. My tendency is to use the technology to instigate conversations and whenever I find a question which makes me rethink my behavior or my identity it becomes my inspiration for art.
C: Can you elaborate on the importance of performance and performativity in the realm of New Media and technology? How does your practice bring this importance into relief against our general acceptance of technology in daily life?
A: Behavior is in the core of my interest and I truly believe that new technologies have the power to modify it. Therefore I think that New Media goes hand in hand with performance and performativity. I guess it would be a lazy argument to claim that all of us become performers with the use of new technologies because it is true anyhow – we perform our identity even without the use of technology. However, while engaging with a new technology there is a new space which opens up in which it is not yet clear how to behave. In this new space there is an opportunity – an invitation to experiment, examine and reinvent our behavior. In my practice, I try to find these new spaces and examine my own behavior inside them. I take myself outside of my comfort zone, I try to do things that I would never do otherwise. This experimentation can get into places of great emotional toll and actual risks. I find myself break rules, I cross limits and sometimes I dare to lose things or shake values that I care about. I build my performances according to these experiences. In some of my performances I present my own modified or invented behavior and in others I invite people to participate and perform on their own. When we get the opportunity to behave in a different way inside a new space, we get a chance to rethink our systems of beliefs.
C: Can you relate some exceptional moments of your experience at Currents 2019 with the staff, interns, other artists, or the public? Were there any specific interactions with the public that were particularly relevant?
A: My experience at Currents 2019 was an amazing one. First, it was wonderful to be part of a great community of artists who are asking fascinating New Media questions and dealing with similar challenges. Working with the staff and interns was smooth and easy, everyone was absolutely professional and helpful and welcoming. My experience with the public was beyond my imagination! During my performance I was sitting in a rocking chair with a VR headset covering my eyes. I was rocking my chair quietly and could hear people standing and talking by me while they were watching the performance, but I could not see them. It was interesting to hear that many of the people who stood in front of me were not even sure if I was a real person or not. Many of them came closer to me and then said: “oh wow, she is real, but the baby is fake” and then they also realized that I could hear them. Other people were simply sure that I am one of the other visitors who was just experiencing a VR piece at the show. These people waited for me to get up and leave so that they can have their turn. Some of them were annoyed that it takes me so long, others actually touched me and asked if I can let them try it too. When I did not respond to them some of them just got upset and went away but others suddenly realized that it was a performance. It was so interesting for me to listen to them while they were realizing that they are seeing something they did not expect to see. People who spoke with me after the performance told me that the image that I have created is a ‘haunting’ one and that it made them think about motherhood in the age of VR. I was very VERY happy with the way people responded to my piece and it made it worthwhile to keep on sitting there and performing it. Lastly, it was also fun to meet Stanley the robot which was strolling around and keeping me company while I was performing 🙂
This was my first visit at the Currents New Media festival. Before I left, I thanked Mariannah and Frank for the amazing opportunity and that I hope to make it a habit to come to Santa Fe as either a participant or a viewer of this amazing festival.
C: Who are some of your contemporaries which you draw inspiration from or share an affinity with? And what is next for you?
A: I draw a lot of inspiration from the work of Hito Steyerl. I mostly relate to the way she points out to this significant transition between human life and digital culture. In one of her videos she claims that real people disappear and re-emerge as pixels. When I look at all of these heavily manipulated selfies on Instagram or beautifully designed avatars in video games and VR platforms it does seem that we are truly becoming pixels. I am also a big fan of James Bridle’s ideas of The New Aesthetics. The whole notion of waving at the machine and waiting for it to wave back at us is an appealing idea that I enjoy experimenting with. I also draw inspiration from other new media and performance artists such as Rafael Lozano-Hemmer, Trevor Paglen, Micha Cárdenas, Jon Rafman and La Turbo Avedon.
As far as my upcoming work, I have recently started to experiment more with AI systems. I am fascinated by the overwhelming news regarding Facial Recognition systems and other machine-learning classification methods. I specifically think of these systems in relation to performance and I find that there is a whole new space which opens up there. In my most recent project, titled “Classification Cube”, I created a space which is designed as a glowing white cube. People who enter the space are invited to perform their identity to a classification system which estimates their age, gender, emotion and action. It is beautiful to see how people become intrigued by this system. They start interacting with it and see if it can make it see them in different ways. As they spend more time inside the cube they start realizing that they have the power to make the system see them as they wish to be seen. The opportunity to explore new behaviors and new identities inside this space is immense.
Avital Meshi is a New Media Artist. She recently graduated her MFA from The Digital Art and New Media program at UC Santa Cruz. She holds a BFA from the School of The Art Institute of Chicago and a BSc and an MSc in behavioral biology from The Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel
Meshi’s practice focuses on the way people connect with one another through new media and technologies such as video games, virtual worlds and artificial intelligence. In her work, she creates large scale, immersive installations where she implements elements of these new media and invites viewers to interact with them in an unusual way. Inspired by ideas of relational aesthetics, she utilizes tools of participatory performance which allow participants to become engaged and see themselves and others through the lens of these technologies. Meshi’s goal is to create a space where questions can be asked and conversions can take place. Her installations usually provoke conversations regarding ideas of identity and social roles, role-playing, identity tourism, cultural appropriation, virtual communities and machine based surveillance, recognition and classification.
Previous exhibitions include a solo show at the ‘Digital Art Demo Space’ in Chicago and group exhibitions in ‘Currents New Media’ festival in Santa Fe, Root Division Gallery in San-Francisco, ACM SIGGRAPH, Woman Made Gallery in Chicago and more. Meshi is also an active artist and curator at the Wrong Biennale 2019-20.
Avital Meshi was born and raised in Israel. She currently lives and works in the San-Francisco bay area.