For her project for Dia's site, Lucas created a series of waiting rooms for the internet. For anyone who has experienced chat, this "lullaby for the indiscriminate," as the artist calls it, will ring with familiarity, albeit it a strange one.
Funding for this project has been provided by the Lila Wallace-Reader's Digest Fund and the New York State Council on the Arts. Assistance for this project was provided by the Experimental Television Center and Harvestworks. Flash player required.
Parking lots, checkout lines, airports, shopping centers, and lobbies are among the backdrops Kristin Lucas employs in her project for Dia's web site,Between a Rock and A Hard Drive. The inanimate objects in these places of passage and waiting become the actors in Lucas's vignettes, reciting dialogue in speech bubbles and balloons culled by this young American artist from online chat transcripts. Surrounding each scene is a mutated keyboard which produces sound effects including audible fragments of chat and site-specific sounds. Unique audio compositions can be made with each move of the mouse. The only functions of the keyboard which remain constant from scene to scene are the escape key, which advances the viewer through each scene of a given waiting area (whether the Service Station, the Concourse, the Hospitality Suite) and the FAQ key. FAQ (Frequently Asked Questions) pages are a common practice on websites and in newsgroups where answers are provided to frequently asked questions. Lucas's FAQ, however, tends to raise more questions than it answers.
Like the adage her title plays off, Between A Rock and A Hard Drive sympathizes with those stuck with slow equipment, a slow network, or simply little patience. There are two equally unpleasant alternatives when dealing with the internet; waiting what seems like an eternity and then sifting through massive amounts of irrelevant junk, or going without the information required. By creating these 56 scenes, Lucas is offering, as she calls it, "temporary housing for the despondent virtual citizen," a place to bide time while waiting for what is really needed: a waiting room appropriate for the internet. But on another level it celebrates the very indiscriminate, unpredictable and tentative nature of the online experience by making something playful out of one of its most popular components: chat.
While chat rooms can be found virtually anywhere on the net, AOL is the king of chat. Logging onto their "People Connection" offers countless dozens of topics, with thousands of people divided among its chat rooms at any given time. This is an environment where redundancy, typos, incomplete sentences, and emoticons abound, and, as in classified ads, a language of shorthand is employed for common phrases. Trying to follow a single thread of discussion is a bit like watching for needles while the hay is bailed.
As in graphical chat environments like the Palace, Lucas takes this found dialogue and places it in balloons set on top of an image of a "real" environment. But unlike the Palace, where visitors assume avatars to represent themselves, Lucas gives voice directly to the objects in the scenes, anthropomorphizing everything from sinks to lines drawn on a parking lot. This isn't a wild leap. The dialogue in the chat rooms is not only disembodied, it is usually attributed to usernames that bear no resemblance to human names, often a combination of letters and numbers that were randomly generated to assure a unique name, like jazzo3923. There is no way to tell if a message was posted by a male or female, adult or child, human or bot: is anyone in the room what they appear to be? Each chat encounter is potentially a mini Turing test: even the word "be" infers a congnizance among the participants that can't always be assumed.
In her previous video and performance works, Lucas has addressed the anxiety, isolation and paranoia that has accompanied our shift to mediated communication, ubiquitous surveillance, video game culture, hallmarks of a society in which most of our vital information and systems are controlled by computers and networks vulnerable to viruses, hackers and internal flaws. But in this work, Lucas weaves together the conventions which have grown out of these systems to make something that takes them at their surface value, a value which Mark Taylor argues in his recent book "Hiding" is one which deserves a closer look.
Taylor writes about the creative possibilities inherent in the proliferation of superficiality, a condition we find ourselves in when reality and image can no longer be differentiated. At one point he writes "nothing stands under the play of surfaces and hence understanding is impossible not because there is no meaning but because meanings endlessly multiply." Between a Rock and a Hard Drive offers exactly this, shifty interfaces and surface value, combined to make an environment which playfully reflects our networked condition with a multitude of meanings.