in conversation with Rachel Rossin
Newest York recently sat down with Rachel Rossin, the multimedia artist whose work in the analog and digital realms engages with how the two increasingly overlap. Having taught herself to code as a child in West Palm Beach, FL, Rossin's sculptural and virtual reality pieces encourage us to wonder not just about what the facts of future human-computer interaction might be, but how it will feel. You may even want to explore it for yourself.
What brought you to computer programming so early on?
I was just interested in the way that things work. It’s a form of play that felt practical and was results-based, and didn’t cost any money because it was already there. It was something accessible and interesting that had a sense of immediacy and magic. I remember very distinctly the jump between what was a dot matrix printer to the emergence of the cursor, like a GUI [graphical user interface] system. It’s interesting to think about what the cursor was in that space, and how that was a representation of your body because it was your hand. The cursor was the first thing that was a representation of our hands in virtual space. It’s interesting to think about that in relation to what’s happening now and the way that we’re trying to figure out these almost bifurcated realities, digital and physical.
The difference though is that the analog world is curated, but not in this way that’s mirroring or pandering to your interests. The digital world for the most part is just an algorithm that’s reflecting what you are looking at, what you’re looking for. That will increase more and more.
What’s emerging now is what will be the digital landscape of the future. It’s going to be something that’s of ourselves, built by an algorithm that’s fed on data sets that we gave it. You constantly come across these articles that are like, “Surprise, computers are racist.” Well, yeah, it’s fed on human datasets; it’s a reflection of what humanity is. And I feel like that’s missing from the conversation so often: we think of digital worlds and screens and computers as a separate thing. We don’t think about it as reflections of us.
We do think of computers and screens as something almost something alien or not human, when they’re really an expression of our culture.
And the nasty parts of it too. Everyone knows the regret they feel when they were just sort of curious about Googling something, and then all of the sudden all that they’re getting is ads about it. That’s what I mean by the algorithm acting as a reflection of our worst selves a lot of the time.
It’s like a hyper-mirror, right? I don’t shop a lot in either the physical world or online, but when I’m feeling my oats and think, “Oh, maybe I will look on this store online and buy something,” I always forget that I’m going to be followed around the internet by whatever it was, forever.
Right, then you’re just haunted by your poor decisions. And those decisions happen so fast.
Yes! It’s like I’m haunted by my more assertive self.
That’s another thing that’s interesting – there’s something that happens where technology at this point serves our reptilian brain more than it serves our Übermensch or higher selves, and I think that has a lot to do with the fact that it does feel alien. But it’s also serving as a proxy, so empathy is decreased as a result. Just by observing the way that there’s so much fear and shame and sex [online], it’s kind of like Jung’s problem with the Übermensch. He says something funny like, “I can’t even be trusted to wake myself up in the morning?”
Like you must meet the day.
Yeah, and because it’s new, our subconscious or reptilian brains haven’t adjusted yet to that fact. I keep thinking about how if it continues on like this, we’re going to adapt. Our more primitive parts of ourselves are going to adapt to our more aspirational ones, if that makes sense. We’re talking about technology being this fast-twitch muscle response, like this reptilian brain. We’ve figured out how as human beings how to be kind to each other and aspirational because there’s enough time; there’s enough time for me to withhold all my bad influences, but there’s not enough time in technology because it moves faster.
So either we’ll adapt to that and our aspirational selves will move faster, or if it continues the way that’s going, the analog will become more rarefied. I certainly have [already] become tired of having an algorithm trying to find interesting images for me, or interesting ideas.
Not to force you into a VR conversation, but most of what I’ve experienced in VR feels a little more aspirational. It reminds me almost of the early internet, where instead of social media, you had people putting up websites that were just about their lives. Even more interesting were fan sites that were place-themed and had pages where you were in the “kitchen.” You could go to another part of the website to go to a different “room.” VR experiences today feel like that to me – is that just because it’s too early-stage to be as reptilian-friendly as the rest of the internet is?
We need to remember that the internet now is shaped by our devices, and that our devices and social media are designed to keep you engaged. The early internet and VR are different in that while the early internet was like a forum that had art on it, virtual reality is more of a medium that is learning to become a forum. What you’re talking about is early webrings, and that still exists. Those pages just haven’t gotten enough hits to get to the top of the Google algorithm. It’s still there, but you won’t see it unless you really dig. Like I found Barron Trump’s webpage – you just have to dig for a while. More likely it was a very young kid pretending to be Barron Trump.
You’re part of a generation of people who were old enough in the 90s to use the internet, but did so as children and had an experience of the internet that’s probably pretty unique and not replicable today. Can you talk a little bit about your early experience online?
I was just a kid making fan pages mostly: Harry Potter and rabbits. I liked rabbits, lots of animals. I was collecting GIFs: rabbit GIFs, horse GIFs. I was into swords, had a sword fan page. Just collections, I guess. Hopping from one free server provider to another. I used Homestead, which had a WYSIWYG which I thought was hilarious. That’s where the Harry Potter fan page was, and I acted as Hagrid in this webring with my internet friends. A lot of them were more like art pages too, like I put my drawings on webrings and made little web pages for my sketches. When I got older I started playing a lot of first person shooter games, which is why I made Man Mask. It started with Tribes and Call of Duty and Counter-Strike.
It feels like one thing VR doesn’t offer is any sort of screen to look at within it. You’re walking around, you’re having an experience, but there isn’t an option to look at your phone within VR. It’s almost a sanctuary from that.
Well, for now. There are social VR apps where you can have dialogue boxes to pull up your email and there are plenty of browser apps that do the same thing. In the next roll-out for new VR headsets, it’s going to be a lot easier to read text. The big leap and next big change is that computers are going to start becoming more physical. I’m talking about these interactive AR [Augmented Reality] devices that are coming out that have hand gesture recognition. I’ve demoed a lot of these this past week. The HoloLens does this where I’m actually able to move parts of my desktop, and it’s a lot more comfortable than sitting at a screen actually. You have different layers of screens, so the computer becomes actually volumetric, but it’s see-through so that I’m actually still in reality and not just wearing a screen that’s this close to my face. [raises hand directly in front of eyes] I mean, I am wearing a screen that’s close to my face, but I [can still] understand what reality is, like things can be occluded or not occluded. That’s where it becomes a lot more practical, because what it offers is an immediacy and a quickness to being able to operate in that space that does not come with using a device with your hands. Obviously your eyes are going to be a lot faster, and so there are also headsets that are using eye-tracking instead of a cursor. That’s what I mean by bringing your body into it, for better or worse. I did have the sense that it was more practical for sure.
In which cases, or which kinds of cases, does it feel like the immersive VR experience makes sense for a piece you’re working on?
Just think about the mediums. What’s the difference between a painting and a sculpture? I know materially what I need to do for both of those, and when I have an idea for one thing it’s usually because I can’t make it in any other way. It’s the same thing in the medium of virtual reality, which is very different from a practical use case of what it’s going to be like to use a computer. We’re making the distinction between what the medium is and what the technology is, and the future of technology is that it becomes this thing that sort of coats or covers the body. That’s what’s troubling and exciting about it. As an artist, I’m thinking about for instance of Man Mask, for which it was pretty simple: I couldn’t make a medium, a piece, in which I got to live inside the Call of Duty figure the way that I got to in that piece, and I wanted other people to have that experience. That’s a 360 VR piece, so a lot of what I’m doing in that piece is different from what I usually do. What I usually do is more logic-based, interactive, more alive.
I made a piece where based on where your eyes are, which is called gaze-based, you are eroding these photogrammetry models that were taken from my childhood home and my studio in New York and my apartment and different apartments from when I first moved here, almost like a portrait or a survey using photogrammetry of the span of my life. Those scans went all the way up to me working in the studio on all the paintings that were in the same show, [LOSSY at Zieher Smith & Horton in 2015]. In the VR piece accompanying those scans, you were looking at landscapes made from the photogrammetry scans and eroding them, like you were dissolving some of the structure of the polygons based on where you looked. It becomes a dialogue about the present and our agency, and the idea that after you take the headset off, you felt like you had some power looking at the painting. There was something about the impact of looking at the paintings. It’s a way of illustrating some way of taking information with you.
You mentioned earlier that you think the real world will start to feel more rarefied as we live more of our lives online. Can you elaborate on that a bit?
I get asked a lot about the future of museums and technology, how to increase engagement, that sort of thing. I think it’s important to remember that it’s a relief to not be engaging with a reality that isn’t pandering to me all the time. It’s like a breeze. It’s relieving to engage in a reality that wasn’t designed to keep me there. There’s a purity to the way that most people engage in art. In most mediums, you have the agency to just stop engaging, which is kind of a big deal.
The analog in that context becomes something that’s more precious, which has to do with physical reality [in a way that’s similar to] how you were talking about the early internet, how people had webrings. People didn’t just vote, which is how most search engines work: you’re basically voting by clicks, and the most popular things are floating to the surface. The analog is something more like a webring. Like I selected these GIFs, and I put them here for you.