Kathy Marmor

Birding, 2007

Jeffrey Bussmann interviews artist Kathy Marmor

Showing through December 3

Esther Klein Gallery



How many times and in how many ways can the question be asked: has the information age made us collectively smarter or dumber? One of the things that the peddlers of this technology have done so well is to conceal the infrastructure that supports these networks. Aside from IT professionals and programmers, most of us lack an understanding of how it all works. Our consumer-level portals of access are all about simplicity of design and use, at the expense of seeing where our information is stored and how it might be used without our knowledge. In Everyday Uncertainties at Breadboard’s Esther Klein Gallery, artist Kathy Marmor invites us to reflect on the electronically-supported methods we rely on for communication by concurrently revealing and stymieing how their output is based on our input. At issue is the question: do they accurately aid us in saying what we mean?


Jeffrey Bussmann: The group of homemade satellites in Birding (2007) brings visibility to the exponentially expanding scope of electronic surveillance and aggregation of personal data, perpetrated by governments and corporations, taking place every day. Your own satellites invite interaction: the viewer knows he or she is being tracked and has implicitly granted permission by entering the gallery environment. Do you wish to bring greater awareness to our gradual slide into a state of complacency with being watched at all times? Or are you more interested in experimenting with the technology and inviting others to build an amateur network where you can exercise control over how we are watched?


Kathy Marmor: Birding began as suspended cardboard boxes. At first they were stationary audio speakers that the viewer orbited around. I began thinking more about their form, and the boxes evolved into satellites. I also discovered that people who look for satellites refer to them as birds. Thus, the metaphor became complete, and I created custom cardboard boxes with wings that called to mind the satellite’s outstretched solar panels. The humble unadorned cardboard is homage to amateur inventors, specifically the Radio Amateur Satellite Corporation (AMSAT). This group builds low earth orbiting satellites for ham radio communications. The idea of making a satellite in one’s garage led me to consider how I could make my own remote sensing satellite system. I wanted the viewer and those who choose to interact with my satellites to think about space satellites and question their “invisibility,” as well as their clandestine activities. I wanted to interrupt our casual acceptance of science in the sky. My intention in Birding is to point out that although we benefit from this particular form of space technology, we as citizens have very little say about it.


JB: In spite of your work making a loss of personal privacy transparent, it seems to refrain from any shade of the moralistic outrage that often accompanies such discussions. Do you take a neutral stance on whether the supposed benefits of these technologies outweigh the drawbacks?


KM: My stance is neither neutral nor one of moral outrage. I prefer to think of my work as a form of social commentary. The form each piece takes, along with its humor and interactivity—as well as the digital technology I employ—serves as a comment on societal paradoxes or conundrums that interest me. I intentionally invite participation. It is my hope that when people interact with my work they see themselves as part of these situations. Interactivity is a methodology I use to emphasize personal agency.


JB: The Messengers (2011) invites viewers to send a text message to be displayed on its LED-lit fans, playing on the fact that electronic communications can often be misconstrued because they lack the inflection of spoken delivery and context of body language. It makes a game of this, and any participant knows that his or her message will not be received as intended. And yet, it feels so irresistible to put something out there and see how it comes back, like that anticipation we feel when we wait for a reply to a provocative email or Facebook status update. Are you trying to show that we have become conditioned to crave this kind of unexpected response?


KM: No, this work is primarily about our struggle to communicate and how electronic media has added to our burden. I want to focus on what it is like to make a public pronouncement within a specific social situation and then have it misconstrued. Yet, I want to make it entertaining and seduce the viewer into participating. I want to provide people with an opportunity to speak their minds and see what meme would return. It was important to me that the tweets were recombined into random sentences. Social media has its etiquette: never post when you are upset. So here’s your chance to publicly speak your mind and see what Twitter throws back.


JB: Your reference to memes makes me think about how something unexpected can “go viral.” For example, there is no proven formula to making a viral video; attempts at divining what pockets of the internet community will seize upon and re-share always seem forced. When something does go viral there is absolutely no way to control its spread. Though the result is random, does the software that runs The Messengers point to patterns that might be fertile grounds for tapping into meme-potential?


KM: Actually, it is your message that taps into the “meme-potential” of Twitter. Significant words from your message are sent to Twitter Search. Thus, you increase your chance of getting back more pertinent and entertaining tweets if your message is concerned with popular current events. Twitter Search holds tweets for seven days and they are sorted into trending topics.


JB: In the text for your Uncertain Machines (2011) digital collage series, you write that, “Today more and more technologies are being invented to serve needs we didn’t even know we had.” For example, one of your proposed machines predigests books, television, and other media, but the product it spits out is inconclusive rather than instructive. The Goldbergian quality of your contraptions gives them a disarmingly fantastical appearance. But are they in essence really that different from our existing laptops or mobile devices?


KM: Yes, my Uncertain Machines are different from our electronic gadgets but also symbolize them. The impetus for my machines is recent research on social networking and internet search engines as economic predictors. I was also thinking about the way advertising portrays consumer electronics as vanguards of a utopian future, with its promises of personal happiness and success. I believe it is more important what we do with the technology, how it is reverse-engineered, reinvented and re-envisioned to challenge the status quo and replace the prediction of a happy future with the urgency of today. Consequently my junk machines are idling, and offer nothing more than uncertainty.


Jeffrey Bussmann works at the Institute of Contemporary Art at the University of Pennsylvania.  He is currently researching Brazilian cultural organizations for his master’s thesis in Arts Administration at Drexel University.  He also writes for his blog Post-Nonprofalyptic.