Quenching thirst is probably the most primal human need. Initially it
is fulfilled at the mother's breast. When I was about five, my mother
began sending me to the corner to buy milk from a square machine painted
to resemble a giant milk carton. This is how I learned that machines could
substitute for mothers.
I got hooked on consumer electronics after I saved up my allowance to buy a miniature reel-to-reel tape recorder when I was eight years old. The first thing I taped was my mother's bridge group gossiping while they played. When my mother discovered the evidence of my surveillance, she got very angry and confiscated the tape. This occurred prior to the Watergate scandal.
My grandmother died suddenly of a cerebreal hemorrhage when I was eleven years old. I still hear her voice in my mind, but I wish I could listen to her saying something new and I miss sitting on her lap. Freud defined the blurry boundary between life and death as the realm of the uncanny. Dolls are uncanny; inanimate objects that seem to be alive. But computers are even more uncanny. These silicon beings entice us with visions of a new form of hybrid consciousness that is neither dead or alive.
Cyberspace was officially inaugurated when Alexander Graham Bell tested the new telephone he had just invented by calling his assistant Watson. This initial virtual encounter was a summons: "Come here." How many hours have women spent waiting by the phone for that special call? Although it may be different now, when I was in high school, it wasn't considered acceptable etiquette for girls to ask boys out for dates. Even now, I still jump to answer the phone, hoping to hear the voice of someone I love.
My high school boyfriend liked to alter the contents of automat-style food machines to give unsuspecting consumers a sadistic jolt. He'd pay for a salad that would come around to the machine door on a rotating carousel. Then he would add a specimen from the biology lab (a salamander leg, for example ) to the salad. The augmented dish would revolve around the carousel for conveyance to the next customer who deposited her coins.
The labor-saving appliances that supposedly free housewives from drudgery are actually just an invisible ball and chain designed to keep them imprisoned in the home. Cooking and cleaning are inherently entropic pursuits. Nothing ever remains spotless and nobody's hunger is ever sated for long. The fruits of domestic labor vanish like footprints in the sand. Although I was given a toy stove and carpet sweeper to play with as a child, this training didn't stick. Avoiding the path of career housewifery that had been mapped out for me, I enrolled in art school instead.
Studying film and video, I was tormented by the male techno-nerds with their obfuscating jargon and casual expertise. The moment I touched a piece of equipment, it immediately began to malfunction. I had trouble distinguishing one kind of cable from another; they all looked the same to me. My hands shook when I held a camera, my film splices often broke, and I never was able to fathom the relationship between f-stops and depth of field. Eventually, I learned to compensate by devising elaborate methods for bypassing technical skill. I used found images and added my live presence to artworks in order to mediate between the viewer and the clumsy object I had produced. By exploiting the charming potential of rawness, I managed to transform my liabilities into assets. Once, I made a videotape of myself viewing a prerecorded image of my lover on a monitor. I clawed at the surface of the screen, attempting to break through the glass barrier that separated us.
During the early 1970s, I read about vibrators in a sex manual and decided to purchase one at the adult bookstore in my neighborhood. The only model they carried was shaped like a giant bullet with a black leather shaft and a shiny metal tip. The idea of introducing this sinister looking object into my body did not appeal.
I often dream about garden mazes planted in patterns so intricate that once inside it is impossible to escape. The woman penetrated is a labyrinth. Both the brain and the intestines are likewise convoluted in labyrinthine folds. The labyrinth is a path to be negotiated to find the treasure at the Center. When following a winding path, the entrance can sometimes become confused with the exit, and pain with pleasure. If the brain is a meat machine, does its knowledge of the difference between good and evil banish it from the garden? Can computers simulate an Eden where information is the reward given for making any choice, whether right or wrong?
Creating artificial life is tantamount to usurping the function of God. If interpreted in Judeo-Christian terms, it entails a certain element of Satanic hubris. I initially started working in multimedia because recording and editing magnetic or chemical traces of light seemed to impart alchemical powers. On film and video I could enact the life of an alternative persona different than the "real" me.
Writing is always automatic writing when I do it. I always feel like I am channeling the voice of another. Who programs me? Where is the ghost in the machine? I named the hard drive on my computer "Exene;" Christine with the "Christ" replaced by an "X." I enjoy the notion of typing codes on its impressionable surface as much as Andy Warhol must have relished talking into his tape recorder.
Ever since I discovered electronic feedback while making video art, I have been fascinated by it as both a phenomenon and a metaphor. The more feasible it becomes for users to program their own computers, the more they will be communicating with themselves through a series of substitutions and displacements. Like feedback, self-reflexiveness focuses a work of art on itself and its own process of development, thereby capturing the abrupt associative leaps of the creative process. In the intervals and tensions between juxtaposed fragments, in mistranslations and lacunae, hallucinated meanings arise. The spectator gets fed back into the work.
My fantasies about the ideal art medium revolve around a technology that has not yet been invented. This hypothetical technology, which would function as a sort of time-delayed ESP, would enable me to record aspects of my daily experiences and then edit them into new combinations that other people would be able to perceive.
Marjorie and I went to a video game parlor to play the new virtual reality game. We donned the helmets and grasped the joysticks, but found ourselves utterly bored by the constraints of the game. The goal was to destroy as many of your opponents as possible, while simultaneously avoiding getting blown away yourself. To appeal to girls, computer games must be designed around the achievement of different goals.
I like the idea of a game that would be organized around the exploration of a fully articulated inner space - a miniature universe. When I was a child, my favorite book was about an imaginary world the heroine could access through a door in the back of her closet. On the other side of the door tiny kings and queens held endless tea parties and balls. The heroine could manipulate these tiny dolls; they were stand-ins facilitating imaginative role-playing. This scenario reminds me of what I have read about the potential for creating autonomous programming routines to serve as avatars that human game players would be able to manipulate in cyberspace.
Being a cyborg appeals to me much more than being a goddess. I've never felt particularly connected to either the earth or to my own body. Dreaming of the future also seems healthier to me than indulging in atavistic longing for the past.
Christine Tamblyn is currently exhibiting her multimedia installations at the International Center for Photography/Midtown in New York.