Interview by Ryan Ruehlen
Ryan Ruehlen: Let’s just dive right in. Why don’t you tell me what your two labs are that you run in Vancouver, WA?
Dene Grigar: I have two labs, the Motion Tracking Virtual Environment lab (MOVE lab) and the ELL, which is the Electronic Literature Lab. MOVE lab I have had since 2004 and I brought that with me from Dallas, ELL is relatively new, that on I began building around 2008.
RR: How do those two branch off of each other, and distinguish from one another?
DG: Well if you think about it, if you’re making things that are motion tracked, that are virtual, the MOVE lab has been developed to do performances, installations, games using sensory based technologies and virtual reality and augmented realty, you’re making these things and then they die. They go away they become obsolete, and so the impetus and the connection of those two is that the ELL seeks to preserve those things. So you make this stuff over here, and as I’m making it I’m thinking about what do I need to do to preserve them, what I am going to have to do to keep them for all time? So ELL serves a purpose for all artists in general, or for any kind of making, so that you can keep things alive longer, right? That’s the idea. So the MOVE lab first and it really did spur the idea, “Hey were making this stuff and its incomplete” and so the example of that was when I was doing “When Ghosts will Die” with Steve Gibson. It’s a great piece, it’s an awarding winning piece—we have a nice video documentation of the piece, but the piece itself is gone. It was built on Macromedia Director, and then “8” came out; 2 wiped out Reason 1—all technologies orphan previous technologies. Reason 1 was totally wiped out by Reason 2. There was no back up compatibility whatsoever. We knew that but we really didn’t want to do any updating but you can’t update after a while because the computer gets old. We’re talking years past, right? Macromedia gets knocked out and the rest in general, they’re just gone. Nobody uses Macromedia Director anymore. So you’re making these things, as you’re making them, you’re thinking this is great, it’s going to be a great piece, win an award and then four years later it’s gone, and all you have left of it is the documentation. Thank god we documented it well.
But not everybody does that. I’m not just talking about artists. I’m talking about people who are producing VR for industry, you know, it’s all throw away. And that’s not a good thing. It becomes digital trash, and that’s not healthy.
RR: There are a lot of artists that in the last 10-20 years have been drawn to a more ephemeral way of working, you know? Sort of embracing it, and there is something that is interesting about that form of non-attachment, but I almost wonder if that’s a good thing or not, how do you feel about that?
DG: It’s deadly. So my background is Greek scholarship right? Homer was my thing. Then I studied Sappho, and Aristotle and Plato, all those folks; Euripides…when I was studying Greek language, literature and culture, they’d say, “This is all they have left of Euripides plays; we know he did this many.” And you only have this many to study, the rest of them are gone. It’s theater, it’s ephemeral. They’re not documented, ok great—you sit there and think, “Gee, I really love Medea, I would have liked to have had more experiences with stories like Medea.” And then there is conjecture about Aeschylus’ plays, that he was more conservative…what if we had more Aeschylus plays, would we have been wrong about that pronouncement? You know were missing works by Aristotle, we know he wrote something on comedy; we don’t have it. That whole Umberto Eco “Name of the Rose”, is based on that idea that the work has been preserved by the monks, and its a dangerous work and its going to upend society as we know it, and so they’re keeping it away from human beings in the middle ages.
I love ephemeral things. I started with the idea that ephemerality is interesting. And there is something beautiful about the death of a thing, but it’s not healthy for a culture to have no record of the thing. Someone like Sappho is really important; the bee in my bonnet when I was younger was taking World Literature at 12th grade and there were four women in the entire book, it was four inches thick. The guys in my class would say, “You know if women were smart they written more.” And one of the women in the book was Sappho. My teacher said it was the only one we had by Sappho. And the answer was that she wrote no more than that—but the answer is that she did right more than that. We know she had eight books of poetry. This young man’s argument was, “See women aren’t as smart as men because women don’t write.” Well that’s a stupid argument, and we know why they aren’t in that book, but I was in 12th grade and I didn’t have the language to articulate that argument back at him, I just stormed off furious and knew he was wrong.
If we had done a better job preserving the women writers of the period we’d have more. We knew there were more, there’s evidence of it. People were throwing things away—they burned Sappho twice. Books that we don’t have now were burnt twice, in 389 by Christians who didn’t want people reading Pagan female writers and in 1089 for the same reason. And were seeing the same kind of thing happening right now with the Taliban and now ISIS, where they have destroyed this city, which was the city of Zenobia, the warrior queen. It was also a city of great religious tolerance. Knocking out that city wipes out the memory of Zenobia. It wipes out the memory of religious tolerance.
What we have left is ISIS and their dogma. I like to think of human beings as making creatures. The whole point of us is that we make things, and we don’t just make one or two things, we make a lot of things. But we are also creatures of our unmaking and we make things and then we forget about them, we don’t value them, or we value these but not those. So as we make those things we aren’t thinking about what’s going to happen to them once they’re made. What is someone going to do with this once I make it? People makes games, mostly computer games where they go around and kill women or black people and they just put it out there to make a bunch of money not realizing that the thing that they made has a life beyond their hands, and there’s an ethical issue involved here in the production of the things we make. How we make them, and take care of them—how we husband them—how we disseminate that so people understand the point of them, and not making things are are pointless or that are hurtful.