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wayne dunkley : resonating pool
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The Resonating Pool
Community and the online experience
by Margot Lovejoy and Wayne Dunkley

On March 1, 2003, Wayne Dunkley visited fellow Internet artist Margot Lovejoy at her studio in New York City to talk about their mutual interest in online storytelling and community building. It was a rare chance for Dunkley, an artist/photographer who has been working with new media since he developed the award winning Sharemyworld.net (2001), to trade insights with Lovejoy, an expatriate New Brunswicker whose innovative story sharing projects have explored themes of domestic violence (Parthenia.com, 1996) and lifetime "turning points" (TURNS, 2001).

Margot Lovejoy: Wayne, it's so great to have you here in Queens, sitting beside our microphone. I'm really keen on hearing a lot more about your work than I know. Can you tell me a bit about yourself and your work?

Wayne Dunkley: Sure. I'm glad to be here as well, talking about ideas around collaborative spaces online and community ideas on the Web. I'm also quite interested in the work that you've been doing. And one of the reasons I was interested in having a conversation with you, Margot, was that I think there are many points of resonance in the things that we're interested in exploring online.

I started my work originally as a still photographer, looking at commercial work, but moving pretty quickly into ideas around the land, and landscape work. In many ways, that's really the start of my process and ideas around community. Because I've always been interested in making a deeper connection with the land, and a deeper connection with things that I feel are bigger than myself. And I think that that has really informed much of my online inquiry - ideas around making connections with people, and a sense of community that's larger than just myself.

M: What was the first time that you started using the Web?

W: The first time would have been when I created my project, sharemyworld.net. I was interested in making it as accessible as possible, and finding a way to solicit as much input from other people as I could. And I know that your work as well is based around soliciting other's stories. So you've found that working online is the best way for you to do that?

M: Definitely. You know, my work has gone through many phases: I've done printmaking, artist's books. I've done a lot of installation work. And I've always been interested in using technology to extend my ideas. So, in 1995 I received an Arts International grant for a project about domestic violence. Part of the grant meant that I made connections with people in my local community. I began to work with an Indian group who were very deeply involved in questions of domestic violence. I really enjoyed working with this group - their name was SAKHI. And the grant was for me to go to India to collect information, to do research there. And when I came back I was to work with the group again to retranslate the material that I got, and to create an exhibition at the Queens Museum.

Just at that time (that was 1995) it was possible to actually create a Web site. So I thought, this has got to go online. It has to have links to all the domestic violence groups. It has to have the statistics that I thought up, that I was able to research. And it should have places on it for people to leave there stories. So that is the way I began with the Web. And of course I've always been interested in these kinds of stories - but also how stories can help to heal, and that they are a way of transforming people's difficulties in life. The more they speak of them, the more they pass them on to others as a form of healing. So that's still a very important thing for me to go on, in terms of wanting to create communities online.

W: Yes, that aspect of creating a space where the possibility of healing is there - I think that in many ways with my first work, and with the work that I've just completed with HorizonZero on FEEL: the longing for home - it is creating a space for the possibility of healing to happen. There are so many contexts where peoples' stories are shoved aside, or they're subsumed underneath so many other agendas. I've spoken to so many people who have encountered the sort of spaces that I create on line who say, "You know, its so amazing to have a space where my story is respected for what it is." And the power in simply being able to tell your story - I think it's such a simple thing, and we maybe take it for granted, because a lot of people don't really have that space.

M: I think a lot of people are worried about telling their story publicly, however. And I've noticed from those who do really want to do it, that they feel compelled to share it, feeling that it has a lot of meaning - not only to themselves but it could be meaningful to other people. So I think that's a really driving thing about people wanting to tell their stories.

W: I really operate with a sense of almost a collective story that we share...

M: As humans?

W: As humans. And so I create these contexts in which basically people are telling the same story - with different vocabulary and slightly different experiences. But the learning is so similar, the lessons that are there are so similar. And I know that it's sort of this cumulative effect as you spend more time reading more stories - I'm always getting the sense of, "Man, your life ain't that different from mine!" And there are points at which, yes, the particularity of the experience might be different, but the net effect emotionally causes a lot of us to move in very similar ways.

One of the things I'm really interested in is the perception of a space that's created online. It's this strange combination of visual elements, typographical elements, textual elements, and the personal space that a person brings to the experience of all of those things online. I'm always fascinated when I hear back from people about how they project themselves into this space that's created from these elements that we've put together.

M: That really brings us into the territory of how we think about creating our sites: How much effort we put into trying to attract people to the site. How easy we make it for them to come. How we try to attract attention. Because having a Web site out in that commercial space - it's like trying to put a painting by Rembrandt in the middle of a bunch of dog food ads. It's really severe what the Web has become. So my first feeling about doing it for TURNS was that I should try to create a meditational space. It had to be something that looked different. It had to be something where one could stop, something one would be attracted to. But in the end it also had to be a space where you would really feel like sharing your story. And I had a lot of difficulty with this. I had to throw out all of my previous images. I had to really decide that this was not a work of mine, but that it was a work for everyone. And that I was simply creating the possibility for everyone to be there. That was a very big realization.

W: Yes, I'm very interested in the notion of almost creating a space online that runs at a different time in a different space. I remember doing some studies with people on my first piece, and when people stayed at my site they were staying for an average of twenty minutes. Which is ridiculous for a Web site - nobody stays on Web sites for 20 minutes. So I said to myself, there's something going on here, and there's some aspect that people are really resonating with. How, then, do I go and use that in a creative way, to create at least a perception of safety. Because I think that there's a perception of safety online, so that people will feel that they're able to share meaningful things.

I like the way you talk about it in terms of being a meditational space. Because the project FEEL: the longing for home at HorizonZero.ca is really about creating a space for reflection and meditation. And it's a place for people to not only reflect, but to get those reflections out and share them with other people. And to continue creating that cycle

M: Is it going to be text-based?

W: Yes, it's text-based. And when we were building the site, I would talk a lot about the notion that what we're doing is, we're not actually building a site. But we're saying, "this is the playing field, and this is the grass. And yes there's a fence way over there, but this is where we play. This is where we play with the idea of "home"; this is where we play with our "longings". Your longings could be about a physical place. Your longings could be about the home of a particular relationship. And I like the idea of saying, "Okay, it's out there - now go make it what you will from your own story."

Part of what I'm trying to do is create a space that says to people, "Your story is valid. Your story is necessary. And your story needs to be shared - in and of itself, it's good. For me it has been about creating a non-judgmental space in that respect, to try to really expand the notion of safety. And I know its a perception, I know we could unpack that for an hour. But I'm really interested in enhancing that feeling of anonymity and safety, so that people will feel that they can share a very personal narrative, and that that's okay, and nobody is going to judge them for it. Because so often, in so many people's lives, they don't have a chance to just say, "Look, this happened to me, and it made me feel like crap", or "It made me feel like it was the best moment of my life."

M: I wanted to ask you what you feel, as an artist, about creating this kind of a site.

W: In what respect in particular?

M: In terms of your role.

W: Well, I tend to start with my own narrative. With FEEL I started with a poem, which is in many ways a poem of my own experience, but also of a larger sort of human experience. And that's the kind of thing I'm really interested in: the way that one's personal narrative can reflect the larger human experience. That's what creates access points for people to resonate, and to feel that they're being heard when they tell their story, or to see themselves in another story. That's what excites me as an artist, and motivates me.

M: That's not really what I meant. What I meant was, what does it do to you to put yourself in the position where you're creating a framework for other people to leave their stories, to submit their experiences. I mean, you were a photographer, and you had total control over your photographs - what you wanted them to look like, where you wanted them to be. But now you're creating works online, you're creating something that is not really imagery that you have control over. You're creating a space that you really don't have that much control over. You've decided to do this, and I'm not sure which part of you is doing it, but that's really what I wanted you to comment on.

W: For me it comes out of my understanding of story and narrative, and also ideas around ownership. I think there is a pool of stories that we all own. And I think that is what I'm trying to access. So, when I create this space, I don't necessarily own it anyway. And in fact this space is going to be shaped by everybody who participates and shares from themselves. I see myself very much as a person who just starts the top spinning, and then the top moves around the table and other people keep it spinning.

M: Yes, you're creating a self-generating site. But I do think this has a lot of implications, because we're using interactive media, and we are really not in control when we're creating public community-based sites that are self-generating. We are giving the right to people to actually tell stories about their lives that are meant to have not only meaning for them, but for other people. So we're sort of disappearing into the background. And usually an artist who's creating a painting or a sculpture or whatever has total authorial control. What I'm trying to say is that the role of the artist as an author, or as a person who has control of the entire work, has been changed through this process

W: Absolutely. For me it comes back to my self-understanding in terms of community. I do my art not just for myself, it is about community...

M: About communicating?

W: Well, it's about communicating ideas. But my role as an artist is also a mirror - it's the mirror I reflect myself in; it's the mirror that reflects other people back to themselves; it's the mirror that we see all of ourselves in at the same time. And I don't see myself as separate from the community necessarily. My experience is the experience of the community. So I feel like I have a responsibility to be part of that process. I don't often see myself in terms of being really separate from that. Even as an artist-photographer, the issues that I was looking at photographically were about a sense of wonder and a sense of awe that we share from an experience of a place. So it isn't just about my experience.

The issue of memory I think was quite present when I felt motivated to move onto the Internet. There was a photographer who I quite respected by the name of Susan Meiselas, and she did a Web site called AKA Kurdistan, which was a space that was created online for the Kurdish people to share their history, because they have no homeland.

M: They need it now more than ever...

W: Oh yes. So for me it became this wonderful, incredible space of memory. And as I started to read the stories that the Kurdish people were submitting, I started to realize how healing being able to share your history, and the history of a people, really could be. And in terms of influences, I think that was one of my primary influences for moving onto the Internet.

M: Interesting - how long ago was that?

W: I probably saw her lecture on it about four or five years ago.

M: Of course there are other artists who have dealt with memory. It's really something that is very striking, to see it coming up over and over again in different ways. I think it's certainly part of your work as well as it is part of mine.

W: I think I start with some very basic relational elements. Everything for me comes down to the notion of, when the power goes off, has what we've done online changed or enhanced how you and I relate? Early on in the [history of the] Internet, there were a lot of people who had really big ideas about connecting on all sorts of levels, and doing collaborative work, and creating things together online. I mean, the whole open source movement is all about that. And I think that the spaces that you and I are creating are really another step along the way in realizing a lot of those things. I personally haven't given up on the Internet. It is full of a lot of crap, but there are a lot of people who really can see the possibilities in terms of relationship. And the possibility that together we can create something bigger and better and richer than we could ever do by ourselves off in our little corner.

M: I really agree with you about that. I'm especially struck by the major things that have been going on online having to do with anti-war activities, here in the US, and in Canada and around the world. Organizations have been in touch, creating marches and rallies against the war. We saw this incredible outpouring where there were war demonstrations in 600 cities in one weekend.

W: It was fantastic.

M: And it couldn't have happened but for the Internet. So I do think that there is power in this communication, and we still don't understand the whole range of it, and how it's going to progress. But I think that if we have a positive attitude - I like to think positively - I do see that it's very different from television, it's very different from other forms of communication. I think that the Internet allows a different form of communication between people. And, apart from artworks, there are also these other realms.

W: Yeah, it's strange, because the Internet can be multi-sensorial. It can have audio, it can have visuals, it can have all these elements operating. But, as you say, it seems to access this other part of us. I keep coming back to relationships - it accesses this part of us that says, "Wait a minute, I'm emailing somebody who lives in Germany, and I'm sitting here in City X." That realization just opens up a whole raft of possibilities.

M: Of course one of the difficulties is that you stop phoning them...

W: Right, you stop writing real letters...

M: Yes, but I do think that you're in touch with a much wider group of people than you could have possibly been by phoning. And that you can share with them your ideas about a lot of things, by simply sitting down for less than two minutes and sending a whole raft of people something you've been thinking about. It's pretty amazing.

W: Well, thank you so much for your time Margot, this has been terrific.

M: This has really been wonderful to share with you. You're sharing my world and I'm sharing yours.

W: Terrific.

Links:
Margot Lovejoy
[http://www.margotlovejoy.com]

TURNS
[http://www.myturningpoint.com]

Parthenia
[http://www.parthenia.com]

Wayne Dunkley
[http://www.sharemyworld.net]

AKA Kurdistan
[http://www.akakurdistan.com]

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