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The Umbrage Project | ISEA2011 Istanbul

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THE UMBRAGE PROJECT

A RT G A L L E RY E V E N T G A L L E RY ISEA2011 PROGRAM FIND KEYNOTES

P R E S E N T E R S ' I N F O R M AT I O N

Umbrage responds to US media focus on cyberbullying. It is a creative application of frustration-aggression theory to interfaces intended as intermediary steps to live customer service in commercial interactions. The hypothesis is used to look at the recycling of aggression in the mundane activities of capitalist culture and at what individual experiences of frustration might say about where feeling lies within human-machine relationships.

EXHIBITIONS AND EVENTS PA N E L S PA P E R S E S S I O N S WORKSHOPS PRE-SYMPOSIUM EVENTS L O C AT I O N S

AT T E N D E E S ' T I C K E T

PRESENTERS A RT I S T S A N D C U R AT O R S P U B L I C AT I O N S O R G A N I Z AT I O N PRESS

AUTHOR(S) Heather Kapplow Frustration is one of a small collection of emotional states that is as easily accessible in interaction with technology as it is in interaction with humans. I am presenting work-in-progress audio and video documentation of several artistic experiments, collectively called "Umbrage", that are being produced and exhibited at vari-

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ous locations in Boston, Massachusetts (USA) between January 14 2011 and January 14, 2012. Each experiment-piece deals in a different way with the experience of frustration in the context of human-machine iteraction. “Umbrage” was conceived by four Massachusetts-based artist-curators (Jed David, The Novotny Collective, Jane Shapiro, and myself) in subtle response to the American media’s focus on cyberbullying after a teenager from our region committed suicide on January 14, 2010 [1]. Its aim is creative, critical exploration of frustration-aggression theory (Dollard, et al) focusing in particular on the type of digital interfaces that are intended as an intermediary step to live customer service in commercial interactions [2]. The frustration-aggression hypothesis’ main principal – that personal experiences of frustration are the direct cause of the kind of targeted aggressive behavior known as scapegoating – is creatively tested and observed within obviously constructed, but still familiar contexts. These works were commissioned out of a desire to talk about the displacement of collective frustration and the recycling of aggression in the mundane activities of capitalist culture, but have begun, halfway through their duration, to offer interesting commentary on what the individual experience of frustration might teach us about human-machine relationships, and where feeling lies within them. Of particular interest in each of the pieces that I will highlight here are expressions of the tension between dependency on technology and feeling threatened by it. A fundamental manifestation of this tension occurs in circumstances where a computerized interface must be used in order for one to be acknowledged, but must be transcended in order for one to be understood. That such a profoundly human liminal state – being caught between being acknowledged and feeling understood – can be drawn into such sharp focus in automated commercial interactions is at the core of what “Umbrage” addresses, and (I propose,) might be at the ‘heart’ or ‘root’ of an improved bond between humans and the technological interfaces that they interact with most commonly. In the works we are presenting through “Umbrage”, each moment of the time between the sensation of acknowledgement and that of feeling understood is broken down and examined as a potential stumbling block on the path to deeper machine-human connection. Each step of the process of automated acknowledgement brings the definition of acknowledgement into question and either lessens the likelihood of being understood by a machine or lessens the likelihood of being understood by another human. In these experiments, the premise is often that either the technology will reduce the human to one of these two states of isolation, or that the human will reduce the machine to a pile of rubble. In Matey Odonkor’s “NerveAna”, you interact with an automated system and there seems to be both acknowledgment and burgeoning understanding, but then acknowl-

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edgement breaks down for both the ‘customer’ and for the ‘automated system’ and your digits are regurgitated back out at you [3]. Some of the strongest works in this collection are aggressive efforts to break through the muti-layered language barrier and button-pushing of human-machine interaction, drawing out through pure force of will (or human-driven collaboration) something more humanistic in the machine than what it has been programmed for. In Jenny Asaranow’s “Julie The Amtrak God”, the automated voice of Amtrak is brought into service to resolve existential problems, and it very nearly works [4].

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£∞¢§£•™¶†´•™´•´•ø¶º•§™¡√∫ª•º∂¶œº∑¶ˆ¨©ˆß©•ß¶©•¶ƒƒ¶§ƒ•™™§∂ƒ¶¡§∂ƒ•™™§∂ƒ¶¡§∂ƒ•∂ƒ•ƒ∂•¶†∂¡¨∂–º¨∂º¨º¡¨–ª¨¡ºª∂º˙©∂¡©∂©¶¡•ƒ•ƒ§™¶†´•™´•´•ø¶º•§™¡√∫ª•º∂¶œº∑¶ˆ¨©ˆß©•ß¶©•¶ƒƒ¶§ What I’ve included above is the beginning of a paper about a fictional curatorial project that is not really being assembled by the fictional curators mentioned above – though I am beginning to consider actually curating something on this theme and the two artworks referenced are both real. The first draft of the paper that you are reading now went on for several more pages, continuing with the simulated technical difficulty until it hit the ISEA paper submission character limit [5]. This subterfuge was created to hide the fact that my presentation about “T he Umbrage Project” on the ISEA 2011 panel “Emotion Studies in a Contemporary Art Debate” was not actually going to be a presentation at all, but a performance by the same title. Here’s the truth. I’ll start at the real beginning: When I was a child, I was an actress. Not a professional actress, but a local, semi-professional one. I loved it. I was in a number of plays – mostly musical theater productions, but also some dramatic ones, and a television pilot. I did voiceover work, and even one opera. Then, when I was eight, I was in one play that I can’t even remember the name of, and it was my last play: two weeks before the production was to open, the director came to my house and told my mother and I that I was being let go because my personal life was interfering too much with my professional life. Though at the time I could not even quite grasp what that meant, it was the end of a career that I had imagined would carry me well into adulthood. Though I have no idea what my trajectory would have been, I saw many of my friends and peers from that time make it into national television series and movies. I was very serious about acting. My audition piece was a dramatic monologue (involving a dead cat) by the character Dagmar from the 1945 play “I Remember Mama” [6]. My competitors were usually auditioning with comic-book-like monologues from a Broadway hit at the time called “Annie” [7]. My greatest aspiration in those years was to play the part of deaf-blind activist and author Helen Keller in “The Miracle Worker” and in particular, I wanted to perform a tantrum that the blind-deaf-mute central character has while resisting efforts by her teacher to help her communicate with the outside world [8], [9]. Most heartbreaking about the end of my acting career was this: the girl who replaced me in the show that I was removed from was noticed by a talent scout during that production and cast in a touring production of “The Miracle Worker.” I believe she went on to play a supporting role in the film production of the musical “Annie” as well [10]… When I started doing performance art work as an adult, I didn’t see any connection between this work and my childhood acting. I was performing at first to aid visitors in in-

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teracting with installed works that I was creating, and then realized that this was also a good strategy for getting people to engage with video works rather than just absorbing them passively. Everything performative that I have been doing has been reactive and site- or context-specific. I did not think of making anything explicitly autobiographical until I got the call for works and papers for the panel at ISEA. Here is how I responded to it: “Subject: Emotion Studies in a contemporary art debate at ISEA 2011 in Istanbul Dear Ms. Rauch, I am an American performance artist who has been looking for many, many years for the perfect setting in which to throw an enormous, incoherent, uninhibited temper tantrum. I am wondering if doing so might make a perfect fifteen-minute position (one not likely to be taken by anyone else!) summary within your panel discussion – to be followed, obviously, by discussion with other panelists. What I think I could add to such a discussion is a visceral emotional experience in a context that is designated as intellectual (often read as non-emotional) space – for contrast and simple emphasis. Thanks for considering the notion...” And here is how Barbara Rauch, the panel’s chair, responded to my proposal: “Dear Heather, Wow, this sounds like a great idea to shake the panel and the audience. I love the idea that people will be empathetic, annoyed etc. Of course we will have to see who else we get and when the right moment for this intervention would be. I suggest I will be in touch by the end of the week to update you on the panel. Do you have a short bio and a brief statement that we could use? I will send you the format length and more details by the end of the day on Friday.” This began a series of exchanges between Ms. Rauch and myself about how to do the piece without giving away what I was doing while meeting ISEA’s requirements for bios and abstracts etc. Though I believe that the original tantrum that inspired my proposal raises profound questions about technology and addresses issues of mediation in an oblique way, since the performance was to be surprise, I developed a fictional set of ideas that could tie my behavior at the panel to technology more overtly, without being untrue to the themes of the tantrum in the play and its significance in my life. Here was my description of the connection between the performance and the fiction in a grant application that I submitted in an effort to get support for the development of the piece and travel to Istanbul: “I am seeking assistance in support of the development of a performance consisting of a fifteen-minute, double-time (in terms of speed) and double-length (in terms of time) solo re-enactment of a scene from William Gibson’s mid-20th century play “The Miracle Worker”. The famous scene, known as ‘the breakfast scene’, is the beginning stage of a process of breaking down the blind-deaf-mute central character’s disconnection from the world around her via the ‘technology’ of sign language. This scene was chosen, and is being altered or ‘remixed’ for the ISEA technology and emotion panel as a visceral means of demonstrating the tension between wanting to connect and the fear of connection – a tension always echoed in our reactions to frustrating interactions with technology. Because the main character in Gibson’s play is an isolated teenage girl, the piece is also meant to stand in symbolically as a venting of the frustration that bullied Massachusetts teenager Phoebe Prince – a victim of perpetual peer-harassment since immigrating to the US a year before – committed suicide over rather than express to those who might have protected her.” As the idea evolved, I moved away from trying to mimic the exact gestures from the fight scene in “The Miracle Worker” and began watching children’s tantrums as well as autistic ‘meltdowns’ on YouTube. I worked with vocal and performance coaches in an effort to approximate a tantrum like those on YouTube, without doing harm to my body or vocal cords, in a manner that was somehow more adult than infantile [11]. After months of practice, I came up with something partially improvised and partially structured, but it took a full fifteen minutes of buildup to get to the peak moments. Here are some of my progress notes from this point in the piece’s development:

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“Was planning on doing warm up exercises and then trying to choreograph or stage intro possibilities, but instead things devolved pretty quickly into something that could definitely qualify as a genuine tantrum. It was not loud or stormy – feeling too conscious of upsetting the neighbors upstairs so I didn’t want to stomp and holler. Instead, it became a kind of sweaty, heavy breathing, rolling around on the ground, squealing, limb shaking kind of thing. There were even a few tears. I don’t know what it looked like, but it felt like an adult (rather than a childish) version of tantruming – slower, quieter, but without any kind of reasonableness. Very sad-feeling, but also – maybe because of all of the breathing – very calming or releasing. I’m making a very big effort to keep my face relaxed, but it is hard – muscles for breathing and emotions tense up the face. I don’t know if I slipped into it so quickly because I’ve had an emotionally exhausting last day or so, or because I did something with my body. Didn’t feel connected to Miracle Worker or project narrative in any way. Felt more connected to the sights and sounds of my day than to the past...” And again on a different date: “Was able to get to the emotional part again pretty quickly this time. Some movement around the room, some rolling on the floor in slow motion, and then I flopped down on my back (getting low and flopping back seems to help) and was easily able to lie there crying and mumbling a bit. But I didn’t actually feel sad – just the physical part of sadness somehow. I was saying ‘what is wrong with me?’ out loud to myself in a way that felt both like part of a breakdown that someone might be trying to stop and like me saying to myself ‘what is wrong with me that I would think I should be doing what I’m doing right now in a public venue full of intelligent people who are working and thinking hard about serious things?’ Also, did think a little about Helen Keller and acting back then a bit this time. Trying to remember what I really wanted when I wanted to throw that tantrum…Starting to think about Barbara’s question about intervention and working some things out with her in advance. I think it might be okay to agree to have her come over to me and try to help if people seem to be getting concerned. I’ll just wave her away with ‘no!’ or ‘leave me alone!’ or whatever. Also, since I may have trouble keeping track of time, we might want a code for that. Maybe I can ask her to see if she can calm me down by offering me a glass of water when I’m getting close to the time limit or if she feels I need to end things more abruptly. Actually, accepting the water might be a nice natural route out of the situation as well.” Midway through plotting the choreography of the fifteen-minute piece, I heard that the timing of each slot on the panel was being reduced to under ten minutes. I was relieved at first, because less time flailing and fussing sounded easier, but in practice it was actually harder to get into things and gain momentum. I came up with some mechanisms but they did not feel natural and raised new questions. “Last night when I was practicing, I could not find any logical way to move from the slides to the motion/emotion. Even with motion, I couldn’t find any emotion. I couldn’t/can’t remember my motivations for wanting to do this, and I couldn’t/can’t find anything to get worked up about…I timed how long it took me to get from trying to launch the slides to a tantrum that felt like it couldn’t go any further and it was about 22 minutes. I am likely to have less than 1/2 that amount of time. How do I speed up and/or force the process? I realize also that I will need to be talking at first. So I am working on that. In last night’s version, I tried to talk about a first piece I was going to show and about other curators I was supposedly working with and realized I need to make up some fake names etc. I think (if I can feel) I can break down by trying to talk without working slides, but not if I don’t have any content for this prepared! ...I may need to watch tantrums again on line, and also to reread my earliest writing about this/Miracle Worker.” A few days before the paper deadline, I had another Skype call with Barbara, the panel’s chair. It began with her decision that it was unethical for me to do this piece without informing the panelists completely (and the audience to a lesser degree) about exactly what I was doing. I explained why I thought this would make things much harder for me, and then she suggested that I don’t do the performance at all (or maybe only do a sample snippet of it) but instead have a five to seven minute dialogue with her about the development of the idea and how she got nervous about it at the last minute. Her idea was that this discussion would inject emotion into the panel as much as a performance would without making people feel tricked or criticized in some way. Here are my notes from after that conversation:

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“I feel like crying. I just got off the Skype with Barbara, and it sounds now like she doesn’t want me to perform. No, that’s not it—she wants me to perform, but not to throw a tantrum. No, that’s not it. She wants me to talk in dialogue with her about not performing, and maybe to demonstrate a little bit of what I would have done if I had performed. She is frightened of distressing the other panelists/breaking the panel’s trust, and wanted to let them in on what I would be doing as well as to warn the audience. When I expressed my concern about how I was relying on the tension of their expectations of normalcy to create a breakdown in such a short amount of time, and explained how I was no longer planning on flailing/kicking/screaming but just to lose my emotional grip. I tried to talk her out of telling them, but her fear is losing the trust that needs to be built for a successful, open discussion. I actually am crying! It feels like the disappointment of my childhood all over again. Like being asked to leave the play again right before opening night. Why am I going so far if I’m not going to be performing? I don’t think I’ve ever spent so much time or energy or money on anything or taken as much risk in my life as I have in preparing for this and it was because I felt I was uncovering a path from my past which seemed like it could take me someplace far more interesting than I could have imagined it would back then. Now I have no idea what I am doing. But I do know I have to write a REAL paper for it by Saturday… Between now and the last time I wrote, I came up with a little bit of a setup, a prop that made more sense than a slide clicker, a dynamic (trying and failing to speak from memory rather than using slides) for breakdown that felt more naturalistic, and names/some simple dialogue to get started with. Maybe I can still do some of it in reaction to the dialogue with Barbara. I think she doesn’t want to take responsibility for my behavior, but maybe I can still do whatever I want as long as I am the scapegoat?”

References and Notes: 1. Susan James, "Immigrant Teen Taunted by Cyberbullies Hangs Herself," ABC News, January 26, 2010 http://abcnews.go.com/Health/cyber-bullying-factor-suicide-teenageirish-immigrant/story?id=9660938 (accessed September 6, 2011). 2. John Dollard, Leonard Doob, Neal Miller, O.H. Mowrer, Robert Sears, Frustration and Aggression (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1939). 3. Matey Odonkor, "Nerve*ana," http://www.mateyodonkor.com/Nerve_ana/Nirvana. swf (accessed August 12, 2011). 4. Jenny Asarnow, "Julie The Amtrak God", http://www.prx.org/pieces/3592-juliethe-amtrak-god (accessed September 4, 2011). 5. ISEA 2011, http://isea2011.sabanciuniv.edu/node/add/paper (accessed September 6, 2011). 6. John van Druten, I Remember Mama (London: Samuel French, 1945). 7. Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Annie_Musical_Poster.jpg (accessed September 7, 2011). 8. William Gibson, The Miracle Worker (New York: Knopf, 1957). 9. "Breakfast Scene, The Miracle Worker (1962)", http://www.youtube.com/watch? v=EHwoRFe70jk (accessed September 7, 2011). 10. Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Annie-film.jpg (accessed September 7, 2011). 11. http://youtu.be/jihNKsENULo, http://youtu.be/yTvKbb8I_O0, http://youtu.be/ c6isGCfKpoQ, http://www.youtube.com/user/wendymona1 (accessed September 9, 2011).

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Profile for Heather Kapplow

The Umbrage Project (Paper)  

Paper presented when I posed as an academic in a panel discussion at the 2011 International Symposium of Electronic Art in Istanbul, Turkey....

The Umbrage Project (Paper)  

Paper presented when I posed as an academic in a panel discussion at the 2011 International Symposium of Electronic Art in Istanbul, Turkey....