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transmediale 2015: Erica Scourti, Banks of Body Parts and Body Scan

Since 1988 transmediale has been one of Europe’s premiere events for showcasing transmedia and technology for art and narrative and nonfiction storytelling. Director Kristoffer Gansing (who spoke with Filmmaker last year) and his team continue to assemble cutting-edge films, installations, performances, workshops, and other events, turning the House of World Cultures in Berlin into a hub for all things new media. I spoke with a number of artists who presented video-based pieces at the festival.

Erica Scourti (seen above in an image from another project) is an Athens-born, London-based artist focusing on video art and, increasingly, Internet-centered artwork; as she describes below, her work gradually transformed from traditional video works suitable for a gallery or film festival to more interactive and mediated pieces that have found not only their ideal distribution method but their very DNA online, mining the nature of the Internet and how it commodifies and mediates our lives. Her work has shown throughout the world, especially in Europe.

For her video piece Body Scan, she took photos of her body with her iPhone and ran them through various search engines and other processes to create a piece that is at once intimate and autobiographical and also indicative of much larger societal forces. An excerpt is available on Vimeo.

 

Filmmaker: For those who don’t know your work, can you tell me a bit about your background and art practice?

Scourti: I work across performance, writing, moving image and more, engaging with digital identity and the “emergent phenomena” (my dad’s expression, but very fitting) of mediated, always on(line) life; recurrent themes are the commodification of personal experience, the tension between public and private and the charting of lived experience through the diary form. To give you an idea what that looks like, recent projects included getting a ghostwriter to write my memoir based only on my digital footprint, and at the moment I’m trying to interact with fake Instagram accounts by buying comments for my pics.

After a brief, failed stint on a Chemistry BA I switched to fashion, then textiles, then fine art, and after a ten-year break (and kind of breakdown) completed a theoretical master’s in moving image art, with my thesis considering the idea of the female fool in mediated performance. My work now more or less reflects this mixed bag. Inspired by past and current feminist artists, it’s grounded in personal experience and uses autobiography as a starting point to explore the idea of a subject aware of herself as caught in a system of representations and network of values. My short-lived geeky background shows up in my fixation with seriality, pattern recognition, translation and quasi-scientific methodologies and in the use of controlled experiment as a strategy for open-ended projects.

I consider the “observer effect” — i.e., that doing an experiment means being part of it — crucial, which is partly why I use myself, and my life (and that of my friends and family) in my work, to make clear that by making things like art in the world means having some sort of agency and effect within it. But also that that there is no “neutral” vantage point from which to observe, or construct an image of reality: everything comes through your perception (and background, passed-on ideas, cultural stereotypes, etc.) and so in some way whatever you make is “about” you or “about” your worldview — it’s a sort of self-portrait.

At the same time I’m interested in making work that reflects both my personal experience and can resonate more widely with collective, or wider experience, asking how something can be both specific and generic, singular and multiple, individual and collective without getting all “we’re all one big happy human family.” Because, obviously, we’re not.

Whereas my earlier work was more clearly “artists’ moving image,” consisting of videos that could slot into a festival screening programme or be viewed in a monitor in an exhibition space, in more recent years I’ve been exploring the same themes but focusing on the networks through which images and video circulate and accrue value. In other words, I engage with the Internet, not so much as a source for material — the ethics of quotation and permission are another long-standing interest — but more as a platform and as a space for performance and distribution.

Also as you can probably tell from my ridiculously long-winded responses here, I write — a lot — even though I’m not actually a writer.

Filmmaker: No problems there. That actually really helps situate Body Scan. Where did the idea for it come from?

Scourti: Body Scan captures a process of photographing various parts of my body and parsing them through a visual search app which attempts to identify them and link to relevant online information. A documented gesture of mediated intimacy told through iPhone screenshots, it, along with the voice-over text, narrates an exchange between lovers, while making literal the objectification of female bodies on the Internet.

Like much of my work it came out of what was going on in my life at the time — falling in love but being abroad and not being able to spend a lot of time together. So it alludes to how technology enables a type of intimate connection and yet keeps physical touch at a frustrating distance. It draws on a lexicon of sexting, Skype sex, whatsapp and G-chat flirtations and so on that play an increasingly significant role in romantic liaisons, especially in the early stages when you (or I) think about sex all the time, or when there’s geographical distance separating you.

As it features both my body and fragments of my boyfriend’s it echoes work by female artists — like Joan Jonas, Carolee Schneeman, Frances Stark and many others — who imaged themselves, their lovers and their sexuality using the tech of their day. Questions of what can and should be shared, and how technology modulates the boundary between private and public also motivated the making of the work, so that the viewer may be unsure how much it was intended for their eyes at all. Like peeking into someone’s phone and realizing you weren’t supposed to see that pic or text message.

It also builds on my interest in visual search, where photos become packets of data to be read and linked to other networks of information: images are now both the search terms and the results. I’m interested in the wider implications of visual imaging technologies, which (like most tech) originated in the military, but are being deployed in things like affect recognition software which allows real-time monitoring of consumer response to products through fluctuations in facial expressions, and, obviously, in apps like I used for Body Scan.

Filmmaker: You touched on this, but can you talk a little more about how you put it together? Because all these abstract relations seem to have developed into something of a story, like you mentioned a romance. So how did you capture the images and then construct what I would call the narrative flow out of the material you found online, e.g. search engine keywords and other imagery?

Scourti: All the visual material is screen-grabbed off the phone and then put together in a video editor, so it’s very basic technically, though there is a real physicality involved in capturing the screenshots as the on-screen app text moves very quickly. I’m interested in the bodily affects of constant connection (to tech) and the screenshot both as a record and as the outcome of an embodied, felt gesture that requires physical, hand-eye coordination. The order of the images is determined chronologically, so it’s a sort of diary spanning a couple of months, though my voice ties everything together as one body of text.

The writing is generated partly from the search results and the (often faulty) identification guesses the algorithm makes, so it develops in tandem with the visuals. The voice-over begins by alluding to the meditation practice of body scanning, which also inspired the title, then moves from an almost mechanical listing of the search results to a more affectionate, first-person style of address interspersed with jumbled up facts and commodities. I wanted to suggest a subjective experience of physical intimacy being entangled with this outside, apparently objective information — like awaking dozy from a post-coital snooze and automatically checking Twitter — but also again, making this specific, personal experience into something generic (not “my breasts,” but just “breasts in general”).

Filmmaker: Since autobiography isn’t new territory for you, how does it relate to your earlier works (and research) featuring female figures or self-portraiture?

Scourti: Like much of my work it takes the form of a kind of diary mediated through everyday tech — for example, Life in AdWords, an almost year-long text and video project interpreting my daily diary into Googe adwords. As Donna Harraway says of the cyborg, “It is not clear who makes and who is made in the relation between human and machine,” and this interplay informs a lot of my work, including Body Scan, which records an attempt by a woman to make an image of herself despite knowing how existing discourses and histories position women as the gazed-upon, and how Web 2.0 frames “users” as banks of personal data (or even body parts) to exploit.

As I said before, I’m also interested in making explicit the way that whatever an artist makes is a reflection of themselves and their worldview and therefore a self-portrait of sorts. I like to use the interface — of Google, of Facebook, of text-spinning software — to create these self-images, because of how it links to value, and the Web 2.0 idea of the self as the commodity.

Also, as the media-infotainment roles available for women are still incredibly limited and limiting, it’s great to see female artists questioning these stereotypes, and perhaps more importantly, claiming the agency to represent themselves through their own eyes and offering new ways of occupying the culturally designated category of woman. I would hope that some of my work does this, though of course you could argue that a video featuring some “sexy” shots of a slim (well, I was at the time) fairly young white woman is not exactly challenging stereotypes. But open expressions of female desire are still difficult to make in a culture that frames women’s sexuality as less assertive, forthcoming and physically-instinctive than men’s.

Filmmaker: It seems to be as much about the relational nature of content on the Internet — one search term leading to the next, like a souped-up thesaurus — as it is about the commodification or objectification of the female body. What do you think it says about how the female body is perceived online, compared perhaps to other modes of representation?

Scourti: As I said before, it makes literal the way bodies, especially female ones, are categorized, classified and circulated online in ways that generate value (though not very often for them). Of course talking about female bodies online, particularly listed in categories like this app does, immediately suggests porn and the array of niche choices it offers to the watcher. In Body Scan, it’s mostly my pics and entirely my voice, but who wrote the algorithm? And how does this show up in the normativity and cultural beliefs coded, as for many other algorithmic processes, into visual search? For example breasts are “OK,” vagina is “offensive”; but also that certain body parts necessarily belong to a “woman” or “man” or the wider assumption that these are the only possible gender categories in the first place. Of course a large part of why a commercial app like Camfind uses these over-simplifed terms is because the market serves — and helps maintain — this binary of male and female commodities, lifestyle, movies, hairstyles etc., etc. Unsurprisingly, female body parts (especially bums and breasts) bring up a load of suggestions for how to enlarge/minimize/modify them, making visible how body insecurities generate commercial value across a spectrum of products and services.

Filmmaker: On a broader scale since this is showing at transmediale, what’s your take on the festival and on technology in general?

Scourti: I’m not interested in technology for the sake of it, but for how it affects communication, emotions, ideas about happiness, behaviors, memory — basically, life. In general I’m not sure how relevant genre-specific digital art exhibitions are, especially now that “the Internet” and mobile technology are such familiar, everyday aspects of almost everyone’s life in the (city-dwelling) West. However, while the digital is arguably everywhere, making a digital art festival technically redundant, for me festivals like transmediale get their purpose from their critical approach to tech, including work by activists, theorists and others whose research into the politics of everything from privacy to cloud storage goes way beyond the fetishisization of cool gadgets. I see my work as being in dialogue with these topics and attitudes.

I used to call myself a video artist but increasingly felt that what I was making wasn’t exactly video — and the fact that my work stopped being shown in festivals seemed to corroborate that. Following artists like Seth Price and Hito Steyerl, I became more interested in how video and images circulate, how they accrue cultural and economic value and how social media could be understood as a sort of “moving image” performance, with us, the users, supplying the footage for an indefinite duration and a partly known, partly unknown audience. In this sense I’ve often understood as my work vaguely in the tradition of documentary or more accurately, auto-ethnographic filmmaking (love George Kuchar’s funny/sad video diaries) that relates to reality TV and also comedy, and embraces human shortcomings by making them public in some way. A piece like Body Scan is about visual search and female bodies but it’s also a declaration of love, which means it carries a “real” risk for me — of rejection, misunderstanding, looking a bit desperate etc. — and also for him too, as whatever happens he’s kind of stuck with this video, just like I am.

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