Transient Bodies

by by Natasha Pradhan

illustration by by Marney Hildesheim

Providence-based new media artist Emma Hogarth, originally from Australia, received an MFA from RISD in digital media in 2009. According to her website, “Through documentary-style and interactive video works, her projects attempt to reflect the impact of media technologies on performances and documentations of the Self.”

The Independent: What fascinates me about your work is the incorporation of the body and its corporality and position in what could otherwise be very alienating technology.
Emma Hogarth: Yeah, and that’s really important to me. I’m not a very tech-heavy person—I’m not a programmer, although I have created very simple programs to do very simple things. But the programming and the heightened technology is not as important to me as the kind of experience that I have while making it and the kind of experience I’m trying to create. For me, the art is more important than the technology, by far.
I: I struggle with the same thing. You have an idea that has to do with space and bodies, and then have to deal with wires and foreign machinery as the mediation to make it happen.
EH: You can get really frustrated and hit your head against a wall. For me, imagining that process, I’m already giving up on the project. But in some way, I feel like the really good ideas just have a better flow and are not as much trouble to get done.
I: The project lends itself perfectly to the medium.
EH: Yeah, exactly.
I: You were a dancer for many years. Was the transition from using bodies as your medium to being so invested in technology difficult?
EH: It wasn’t really difficult because I had done some performance pieces with projections, some that I had performed myself, or choreographed and worked with performers. So I had been behind and in front of the camera, and created installations involving performance. So it all was already kind of connected for me. And then I started thinking not just of the performer’s body, but also of the viewer’s body as the other side of the image.
I: Like in your piece YouViewer. Something really changes in your mind after feeling the space for a little while. You are no longer startled by your own image being so seamless in these images of crime scenes, and somehow become accustomed to your own presence on the screen.
EH: That’s interesting to hear you say that. In one way, it’s such a simple piece—just inserting the live image of the viewer into prerecorded footage. It’s too simple. But one of the challenges of doing interactive work is trying to direct the kind of interaction that you want the viewer to have. In that particular piece, it was about slowing down the fade-in of the viewer’s image so it wouldn’t be immediately obvious and then having that delay on when it moves, and somehow that slows down the viewer. One of the things that I don’t enjoy seeing is documentation of interactive work when people run up to the work and waive their arms—and then they’re done. In thirty seconds they’re done because they think they’ve figured it out.
I: Can you tell me about your process creating YouViewer and why you chose to work with surveillance footage?
EH: I was fascinated by the imagery and there was something aesthetically interesting about the low-res pixilated image. It felt very painterly, and the color range is also very small. Each video that I was looking at would be within a certain color range—it would be all kind of grayed out, or all kind of a blue pallor. So there were certain aesthetic things about the imagery that for me felt very painterly and very impressionistic. But I was also kind of appalled at the fascination that people have, including myself, in watching this kind of violent imagery. There was the content, but there was also the aesthetic of it. I did two short video pieces where I just edited and looped two different pieces of surveillance footage. I was trying to bring out the action and it turned into a sort of choreography—this guy was jumping up and kicking the door. It all became very dancerly.

I: There is an element of viewer complicity in what is a tragic and violent scene. Are there instances of tragedy that you are provoked by and use in your work?
EH: A lot of what I’m using right now is connected to surveillance footage in a way, but is more based on a broad interest in memory and images. Once I had done those pieces with surveillance footage, I connected it to my broader interest with images and memory, and time. For me, performance is very metaphoric of life because it’s transient or ephemeral. The image tries to capture something and then remain. So I had done some pieces with transient portraits, portraits that were disappearing or being discarded in some way.
When I started to think about specifically doing interactive portraits, I collaborated with Clement Valla and we did the Time Portraits pieces for which he basically did the programming, and we collaborated on the ideas. That was a painterly type image, so it’s kind of about the moment of creating the portrait image, and creating that image through a type of performance. People interacted with it in a very performative way. It was one of those pieces that people did try to run up and waive their arms to, though we slowed it down and tried to create a more contemplative experience. The second version of that piece used a programmed printer to print out stills, so it was kind of then about the moving image versus the still and that moment and transience versus documentation of the moment.
I: In the Time Portraits and also your other project Light Portraits, you are creating beings that only exist within a a specific space in these particular moments.
EH: Sometimes I regret that there is no physical product to the work. It doesn’t then have a commercial aspect, which is fine and I’m completely fine with. But it is interesting that at the end of the day you have a bunch of stuff on a hard drive.
I: Yes, the hard drive enables this space to be born but I think the work’s immateriality beyond these moments is its most redeeming quality. In that way it’s very much like dance—something of the moment that can never become a souvenir for someone to own or take home.
EH: Yeah, exactly. That’s another connection for me that I got interested in—documentation and photography. I think the connection between new media and digital media and photography gets taken for granted a little bit. There is an important historical connection in terms of ephemerality and memory that has been written about quite a bit. I feel like photography is a middle point, technologically speaking. Before that, we had drawing and sculptural casting methods that were also recording devices. I see the digital as happening along that whole continuum. I think that’s interesting to think about a longer history of the digital lens.
I: The Light Portraits and Time Portraits are almost a new-media daguerreotype of sorts since the viewer and subject is present and their image capture is contingent on time and incorporates an element of performance.
EH: Yeah, for it to be activated you have to be moving closer to the sensor. There’s a dance of appearing and disappearing.
I: With the daguerreotype, one has to instead constrict their movement for x amount of time.
EH: Yeah, and I find that very interesting—those performances of the portrait image. From the point of view of how we adapt bodies to the imaging technology, and then how those performances become so everyday so quickly. We adapt our ways of presenting ourselves and performing to technology.
I: I find that quite terrifying—that our performative selves are contingent on the direction taken by engineers.
EH: And we can’t escape it, at least not in this culture.

I: And across cultures for that matter. We are perpetually confronted with this idea of technologically reproducing the body. From painting portraits and daguerreotyping, there is always a dimension of us not simply existing as flesh because we find ways to use technology to remake our flesh.
EH: Yeah, to reconstitute ourselves. That’s the way I think of performance and documentation—performance gets reconstituted and has a different materiality, a solidity as an image or video or written description. It metamorphosizes. It’s not just obviously theatrical performance but everyday life—our obsession with photographing and documenting and sharing photographs.
I: That’s a curious desire to want to preserve something and construct something lasting when it’s not there.
EH: Which connects to the myth of the first image ever—the myth told by Pliny of the daughter of Butades tracing the shadow of her lover before he left. The origins of the image, if we take that myth to be true, are always connected to loss and documentation and ephemerality and time.
I: The most redeeming thing about a lot of new media works is that that they create an experience limited to a  certain space with nothing material to take away.
EH: Yeah, I think there is a beauty to that. There is a truth to it, that ephemerality and that moment. People say the same thing about dance. Some of the modern dance pioneers like Ruth St. Denis talk about spirituality and movement and the body. In order to get back to our true nature, we have to embrace the body and movement because that’s our natural state of being. We don’t exist somewhere else; we exist in the body. It’s a similar kind of idea. She was saying that dance is the ultimate, because it’s you just in your body. There’s nothing extraneous about it. I think that relates to the experience of an installation or a projected image, that it is immaterial. g