Interview with Sher Doruff — a different view of new media fragmentation

8 Jul 2008 by Kim, No Comments »

Or discontinuities, or whatever term captures the idea that a field that previously seemed really fluid and border-less no longer is so. Coalescence? Coagulation? Choosing the right metaphor seems much more important these days.

I spoke to Sher Doruff a few days ago and really wish I’d by then acquired a recorder–still working on that in fact–because it was a brilliant interview. She has been working on new media for a long time, much longer than most of the others with whom I am speaking. In fact since the mid 70s, before any one was even talking about new media the way we do now, Sher was working with electronic music. She was part of a band in this genre before moving more into computer work and even more experimental audio stuff –we didn’t go too far into this part of her story though. I really started with the points at which she moved into new media, and at which she came to the Netherlands. It seems she feels she started with new media pretty early, as I said, and mainly because of the freedom she believed it would offer both because the technologies were so new, no one had any pre-conceived idea of technical limitations, they just tried anything and everything. Further, in those early days, there were no stereotypes about computers being only for men, or that men were more inclined or more skilled at them–no one really felt very skilled.

This was sort of a revelation to me because the other women I’ve spoken with are younger–between 25-45–so they entered the larger story much later. Most of the other women mention the lack of perceived limits when it comes to what the tech can do, or at least the feeling that it offered more freedom to them in some way, but most of them did not have such an experience of thinking they would be able to completely shed gender stereotypes related to careers or activities. –I can see this will be a point I need to look at in all the ineterviews since so many people have mentioned it.

Anyway, Sher had a pretty good career developing in New York but then her apartment burnt down and she decided to go to France, ended up doing a residency there, and they went up to Amsterdam where she started doing some stuff for Steim, and just stayed there for awhile. Most recently she was at De Waag, where I spoke to her last year, but now she is teaching at the Theater School (part of the Hogeschool in Amsterdam). She has had other more immediate reasons for leaving one path for another whenever she made a change, but she also seems to reach a point in any medium where she feels she has figured out what she wanted to know and then turns to something else. Sometimes she later goes back, and of course, she doesn’t abandon any of them really, but rather shifts the focus of her inquiry (from what I can tell).

Sher had a mixed view of the New Media scene in general. On the one hand, she feels that new media artists, especially people working online, are paralyzed precisely because the tools are now so easy to use. I know what she means; it’s similar to what happens with course management systems at the university. Those CMSs make it pretty easy to put stuff online for a class, but maybe not in exactly in the way you want to try. But it’s so much easier than doing it all from scratch, and seeing how it works in the CMS can make thinking of alternatives even harder.

But my own experience has been that while the majority of people don’t go beyond the limits built into most plug ‘n play type software, usually there are some number who hit the limits, get frustrated, and switch to learning how to really do it themselves. Maybe artists who can do that ought to rethink their whole practice (or even career choice) anyway. So that’s one of the more negative things she said. But she thinks there will eventually be a crisis, and then a renewal, or a new approach.

On the other hand, she was not so worried about the coagulation of the new media field. She feels that the separation into different subfields will create difference, which she generally regards as a good thing, and that these different groups will come up with different ideas, questions, and answers, and different ways of thinking about the shared ideas, questions, and answers. –And so these groups when they do interact, would have much more fruitful exchanges. I asked Sher if she thought the groups actually would interact and share, because so far I find that they don’t seem to communicate so much lately, and William felt this as well. But Sher thinks that they still cooperate far more than most other disciplines. I wonder though if it’s really that the new media organizations Sher works with are cooperative, but that other types, like universities, are not so much. I mean, maybe it’s over-generalized. Another point to compare across interviews.

We also talked about the creative industries, some of the specific Dutch institutions, and her current work with Brian Massumi, but I’ll put that in the next post.

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