Interview with Sonya Rapoport
New Media artist Sonya Rapoport (1923-2015), who began her career as an abstract expressionist painter, uses drawing, painting, text and cross-cultural imagery to create audience participatory interactive installations as well as web works and artists books.
Her works have included Shoe-Field, an interactive installation that created computer plots of people's responses to their shoes; Objects on My Dresser, an interactive installation in which she worked with a psychiatric social worker to correlate the meaning of personal objects, creating a "netweb" of responses; The Animated Soul, an interactive computer-assisted installation based on The Egyptian Book of the Dead; and Biorhythm, where artwork about biorhythm was correlated with participant's responses about "how they were feeling".
Her interactive exhibitions been exhibited at Franklin Furnace, New York City; 80 Langton Street, San Francisco; Heller Gallery, University of California, Berkeley; Richmond Art Center, and WORKS/San Jose, among many other places. She has also had work exhibited at Truman Gallery, New York City, Peabody Museum, Harvard University, Ars Electronica, Linz Austria; ISEA, the Art Biennial-Buenos Aires; the Mill Valley Film Festival, Tisch School of the Arts, New York University, and the Worth Ryder Art Gallery, University of California at Berkeley.
Sonya, It is a pleasure to talk with you about your pioneering work in interactive art!
The idea of the audience contributing to the content of the work has become a central strategy in the creation of net art and participatory collaborative texts. You were one of the first people to use participatory interaction in your work, and the ideas you used are now pervasive in new media art practice. Communication projects, such as the Electronic Cafe, the Send/Receive project, Roy Ascott's work, Robert Adrian's The World in 24 Hours and Hank Bull's diffuse organic projects, were often based on back and forth communication and/or collaboration/shared creation by artists. These works are important.
But your work is different in that it presented the audience with an individual artist-created work of art to respond to and then creatively incorporated the audience responses into the work. Other than projects, such as The Community Memory which was not intended as an artwork, and perhaps some of Steve Wilson's early work, to my knowledge your work is very seminal in this field. I know we talked a little about this when Anna Couey and I interviewed you on the Interactive Conference on Arts Wire in 1995, but -- in the context of authoring strategies -- I would like to return to your use of audience collaboration. Can you talk about when you begin to incorporate participant responses in your work and what led you to do this?
Judy, thank you for giving me the opportunity to review what you refer to as my authoring strategies.
As I return to approximately thirty years ago when I started to produce interactive work. I am astounded by the consistent process I applied in creating these works of art. Each piece seems to have been framed by a system I was totally unaware of.
The dates are difficult to pin down because I was laying the groundwork for one artwork while executing interactively another. By groundwork I mean that I first described each piece in a two-dimensional format that was quite a complete artwork in itself. An example of such an artwork would be Shoe-Field which I started in 1977. In this work about American Indian designs and sandals, I superimposed drawings on the computer forms that related to the anthropological research that was encoded in computer printouts. For the first drawing overlay, I decoded the printout with symbols, drawings and words and then added imaginative relevant material as a second overlay on the form's surface. I repeated this process with my own collection of shoes. These continuous computer forms upon which I delineated the drawings completed the two dimensional artwork with which I anticipated an interactive happening -- in this case Shoe-In which took place in 1982.
Other two-dimensional artworks followed the same sequential procedure: Biorhythm; (1983) Digital Mudra; (1984) Objects on my Dresser. (1984) Each participation/interactive performance was preceded by an autobiographical experience that I had expressed two-dimensionally. The participation performance followed, sometimes a few years later.
I have asked myself why was I propelled to invite an audience to share my personal experience? I was interested early on in quantifying qualitative information. What would the artistic outcome be as a result of applying other people's numbers? I didn't realize that a Kabbalistic concept was involved here until many years later.
Ways of approaching a new work in the digital arts -- how artists and writers begin a work, how they structure their work, how they work collaboratively with audiences -- are important components of new media authoring strategies. Your visual artist's approach is of interest in this respect. It is a pleasure to talk with you about how your work evolves.
The role of audience participation in enriching the artistic outcome is at the core of the creation of your work, where -- as opposed to works where other artists and writers are initially invited to contribute to a whole -- the process begins with the creation of a work of art in the artist's studio. Next, audience input is gathered in a gallery, and/or invited situation. The work then returns to your artist's studio where the input is incorporated into the work (or in some cases this happens in the gallery) and then in works such as Shoe-Field that was shown in quite a few different situations, the process continues. In the process. you involve the audience in your work and at the same time create a dynamic and organic work that incorporates multiple responses.
Can you choose one of your works and talk about how the work progressed from the development of the concepts in your studio to the interactive stage?
At this point I'll discuss Biorhythm because its generative structure comprises many interactive links.  As well, in this work, I depict several complete two-dimensional art works from which I trigger further interactive activity. In a non-interactive format, (the groundwork as described in my last response) Biorhythm was exhibited at the New York University Graduate School of Business Administration in 1983. The focus of the exhibition illustrated the comparison between a scientifically derived biorhythm assessment of my biorhythm condition and my personal projection of my daily chartings derived from the collaged images of my activities during the calendar year 1980. I had purchased a large calendar (30"h x 40"w) and covered it with vellum. Upon this transparent layer I collaged images of each day's activity on its calendar day's square. Corresponding to the images that represented my daily activities, on a separate vellum sheet, I superimposed my numerical evaluation of my three states: emotional, intellectual and physical over a chart of scientifically derived biorhythm readings of the same information. Inadvertently, I continued my interest in qualifying quantitative information. The exhibition culminated in three large color coded snail plots that depicted the comparisons.
Biorhythm is an excellent choice for a discussion of your work and how it evolves. Can you explain a little more what you mean by "biorhythm", how you chose this subject, and talk about how this work evolved and incorporated interaction?
Thanks for reminding me to explain what Biorhythm is. Biorhythm, a behavioral science, explains our life-energy rhythms according to the day of our birth. Physical, emotional/sensitivity and intellectual cycles comprise the three energy cycles that begin the day we are born. Accordingly each of us experience different peaks of highs and lows of these cycles at different times. With this information we can take precautionary measures in our vulnerable/low periods and expand upon our creativity in the positive/high periods.
I became involved with the subject of Biorhythm after I had completed about a week's cutting and pasting images on the calendar. After a while I found this process rather formulaic. It needed zip. It needed a reason for doing, a challenge if I were going to continue collaging for a whole year. I can't recall specifically how I connected with Biorhythm or it connected with me, but I was challenged by the accuracy of my assessments of how I was feeling. I had predicted only thirteen days accurately in the whole year for the three metabolic cycles. I wondered how accurately other people could predict their own high and low peaks as compared to the scientific evaluations of the Biorhythm system. I questioned its authenticity. Would a participation performance/installation prove anything?
I modeled an interactive event incorporating the exhibition elements in exaggerated and humorous form.
So the next step was an interactive event. How and where did this work? Who were the participants? What happened?
The Biorhythm installation participation performance took place at WORKS Gallery/San Jose in San Jose, California on Friday, May 13, 1983. (note: Friday the 13th). The installation included the same material as displayed in the New York University Graduate School of Business Administration Gallery but I also included an artists book that I created with my experimental biorhythm material. One day of each month is illustrated with a plot that indicated how closely the scientifically derived assessments of my Biorhythm Cycles correlated with my recorded impressions that I had interpreted from the pictorial collages. The book extended 25 feet along one wall. Participants in the performance consisted of artists from the Bay Area, students from the neighboring State University and the San Jose Art Community. As the active participation performers entered the space, a greeter asked them how they had been feeling that day i.e. their emotional cycle. According to the participants' response the greeter locked a numbered hospital wristband around their wrist --- blue for bad, pink for good, or white for intermediate. One participant returned to change her mind.
The participants then donned a dentist's bib and sat in a dentist's chair. Here, they expressed an assessment of their own condition by making animated gestures with their hands with the bib as a backdrop. They declared both verbally and in hand gestures how they felt. Their picture was taken at the same moment that they verbalized their feelings. The tape recordings of their words and the photographs of their gestures allowed me insight into how their gestures synchronized with their feeling-statements.
I provided a personal computer, a Biorhythm calculator, and a Teletype to the participants with which they could check the accuracy of their own assessment of their feelings. Visitors could select any or all of the three devices and compare the readings. If their self-assessed evaluation and the computer analysis matched up, the participants were declared "winners!" and received a medal on a blue ribbon. A palm reader was on hand to provide a final reading. Participants wrote their identity number, personal assessment, scientific analysis, the comparative results of the biorhythm data, and last, but not least, the palmist's reading of their thumbs on a vellum chart which measured eight feet high and thirty inches wide.
Thank you so much for the informative discussion of how you involved participants in the process. Part of what you did in this and in other works -- I still remember answering questions about why I wore the shoes I was wearing at your installation in a Berkeley Computer store in the early 1980's -- was to make participation inviting and interesting for the audience.
So what was the final form of Biorhythm? How did you incorporate the responses into the work?
I produced two "hand" books, triggered by this event, one for each artwork. But let us now return to my questions about audience participation that I introduced at the beginning of this interview:
Why was I propelled to invite an audience to share my personal experience?
I wondered about the validity of a self-evaluation of my emotional condition. Could it be overridden by the computer's biorhythm analysis. I wanted to test this on other people's experience. After the participation only a few participants could guess their emotional condition that matched the computer analysis. We had many blue ribbons left over.
What would the artistic outcome be as a result of applying other people's input into my scheme?
I was stimulated to create artwork from the results of the Biorhythm production. The long vellum sheet became a work of art in itself after I pasted the portrait photos on another vellum sheet beside the participants' identity numbers. A stern "computer" voice over declared the correct condition of the individual as judged by the computer. An accompanying book in the form of a hand hung on the wall. The palm reader's remarks, written on index cards, were included in the book. "The Computer says I feel", was exhibited in the group show S/F San Francisco/Science Fiction. It traveled from the San Francisco Art Commission Gallery to the Clock Tower, New York City, and the Otis Art Institute in Los Angeles.
In a future elaborate interactive installation, Digital Mudra, I compared the photographs of the biorhythm gestures with their East Indian counterparts in the Mudra Gesture language library and matched their assigned meanings with the verbal expressions of the Biorhythm participants. They correlated almost 100 per cent.
In preparation for the Digital Mudra installation I sent out a list of these Mudra word meanings to artists. They were to compose a poem using three of the listed Mudra Words. You were among those who received the list. I recall that one word that you selected was "rice" because you used it in a unique way. I invited a Kathakali dancer to "dance" these poems for a videotape as part of the installation. This aspect of the installation was to illustrate the concept of going from images to words and from words to back to images.
Lastly, how did audience participation change and enrich the artistic outcome?
There would have been no further artistic expression if the audience participation didn't occur.
Thank you so much Sonya! And in conclusion, is there anything you would like to discuss about your current work and your future plans?
As I reread my description about the activity that occurred in the Biorhythm Participation Performance, I realize that in this narration I failed to convey the emotion (the biorhythm condition), conviviality, and tension that prevailed. I saw only fun until I read the palmist's readings on the index cards on which she had printed their thumbs. Some of the participants were intimidated by my insistence of invading the privacy of their feelings. These opinions can be read in the "hand" books in which I compiled the biorhythm material: palm readings, "confessions", thumb prints, portrait photos and related Mudra gestures. I later added topical personalities gesturing in similar poses that I had seen in the newspapers.
I am now re-contextualizing early Internet works into current event happenings. I am also busy organizing my archives.
Editor's note: It is with much sadness that I write that Sonya Rapaport died in June 2015. The primary source for information on her work is now The Sonya Rapoport Legacy Trust
1. Anna Couey and Judy Malloy, "A Conversation with Sonya Rapoport" on the Interactive Art Conference on Arts Wire, June 1995
2. Biorhythm was partially created with a pre-programmed hand Biorhythm computer. Scott Morris from U.C. Berkeley was the programmer who worked with the program and applications. Tom Bates was the photographer. He also played the computer "voice" that overrode self assessments.
3. John Watkins was the software engineer for Digital Mudra, which is discussed in detail in Sonya Rapoport, "Process(ing) Interactive Art: Using People as Paint, Computer as Brush", in Judy Malloy, ed, Women, Art and Technology, MIT Press, 2003
This interview was created via email and first posted in November, 2009. This update, posted in March, 2017, recodes the text and updates the design to the current content | code | process template.
content | code | process Home
Silvia Stoyanova and Ben Johnston