Interview by Susanne Jaschko
Susanne Jaschko: I'm sitting here with Lilia Perez, who was artist in residence here last year from April to July 2008. We will talk about your residence here at the Netherlands Media Art Institute and go into detail about the production of the work that you developed in the residency. We speak about the production process and also about how the environment of the Netherlands Media Art Institute supported you producing your work.
Lilia Perez Romero: Ok.
SJ: So. Lilia. You are originally from Mexico....
SJ: Can you tell me a little bit about your artistic background, like, in which way were you trained as an artist and what is your predominant artistic practice now?
LPR: I am a graphic designer originally, that's what I first started doing. Then I did a Masters in Digital Art in Barcelona and I decided to devote my time more to digital art than to any other thing. After that I also studied a Masters in Philosophy to have a more solid theoretical background for my artistic production. Lately I have been doing mostly interactive installations, but at the beginning of my career I worked with net-art as well.
SJ: What motivated you to apply for the artist in residence program at this Institution? How did you come across the call for example? How did you get in contact with the Netherlands Media Institute and also what were your expectations basically regarding the residence?
LPR: Well Montevideo, Netherlands Media Art Institute, has a very good reputation and has got some presence in Mexico too. At least some people know the Netherlands Media Art Institute and the works that are being made here. Through what they told me about NIMk and through the website I found out that it was very much related to my work. I came here one summer before applying to see what the space was like, and what the situation was with the resources that I would be able to use here. I thought they were suitable for my project and I decided to apply and luckily I was chosen to come.
SJ: So, getting back to your project with which you applied here for the residency, that is called Fronteira Version 2. Could you give a brief description of the concept of the work? Maybe don't tell at this point too much about the outcome, but really; what was the idea? What did you want to do in your residency here?
LPR: Well, it's hard for me to know exactly how much I should say about the outcome.
SJ: We'll see. We can work around that, probably.
LPR: I had made a prototype before during an artistic residency at the Center for Multimedia in Mexico. It was an interactive portrait. Really, what I wanted to do here was a second part of the same project; a second component which would add on, and make it more interactive, and include people by allowing them to use a tool to create their own interactive portrait. The concept behind that is partly an exploration of the relationship that people have now to their own images. But it was also a way to isolate the gestures of people in a way that we normally can't do with our own human vision. The camera can capture those images and with the help of a program, an application, they are repeated and isolated. It helped me to explore that domain of the gesture, which is a kind of portrait. An interesting kind of portraiture, because it allows me to see more of people than just the(ir) surface. Their movements, their actions and later on I could also observe the relationship to their own image.
This is all about communication as well, because since the portraits are interactive, users can touch, interact and relate with other people's portraits. They interact through touching hands on glass. And this is also a gesture itself which talks about a kind of need for communication which is not really achieved because one of the persons is absent, only represented.
SJ: And could you give us a short description of the actual setup of the piece, like, how it was designed in the end, as an installation. The different pieces, on the one hand; the actual touchscreen, the output; and the booth, the input side of the work?
LPR: Yes, I made a new version of the playback screen that I have. It has a lighter feeling to it now. When you enter into the gallery space the user finds a glass screen whereon and then the picture of a person is projected. The person looks as if he or she is waiting for something to happen, just by breathing, sometimes blinking. If the user touches the glass with his or her hand the represented person touches the same place and follows the hand of the user. However he or she wants to move in this kind of choreography. And then if the person wants to become part of the project by being portrayed and leaving his/her own trace there, they go into the second component, which is a video booth. That was built here from scratch. They play a game -it lasts about three minutes- and while they play they are being recorded. Three minutes after they come out they can see their own image and interact as if it is a kind of strange mirror image, like a video mirror image. That's how it works.
SJ: During your residency -having in mind what you want to achieve- what would you describe as your main challenges? What had to be done, what did you spend the most time on in the development of the piece?
LPR: Ok. Some things I had figured out beforehand. They are complicated; like what should be the smallest unit that the camera is able to record, so that by playing back it was running as smooth as possible. The changes from one take to the other, when the video becomes interactive and non-linear, are being made almost impossible to notice. That part I had done beforehand. Here we had to work on turning everything into Open Source software, because it had been done with proprietary software before. That was a hard part, which was done by the people that I will mention later on.
LPR: I worked with a very good team. But also some of the hardware components were difficult to build and to figure out the best setup for. For example, how do you record someone that has to be looking at images and has to be playing with images. If you don't want those images to interfere with the recording, you have to create many tricks so they don't reflect in the glass interface I was using. So I was facing mainly interface problems.
SJ: So it was technological research basically, you were focusing on?
LPR: Yeah, I would say so. Being new, coming from outside of Amsterdam and the Netherlands it was hard. To find out exactly where to go to get everything I needed once I was really building. But I learned a lot.
SJ: You worked with three people. Robin Gareus and Arjan Scherpenisse for the software part and programming part, and Eelco Wagenaar for the design part. Could you describe shortly how you got in touch with them and what they in particular contributed to the final work. You partly spoke about it but it would be interesting to know what exactly they did on a technological level. Can you give us an idea?
LPR: Yeah. I found them through an open call. NIMk made an open call for programmers, describing the project and things that had to be done programming wise and we sent it to Nettime and the NIMk mailing list. They replied to the call and we had an interview. Of the people I interviewed two of them decided to work together and split work and income, so these were Robin and Arjan. What they did, was a very good custom made application in open source software. It was based on what I had used before, but they improved it, and also made this completely new part: the video booth. Robin and Arjan used 'open CV'. In terms of hardware, we worked with a certain camera which is open source hardware. They also made the application that would tell the camera when to record and how to process the recording, so that the images would go to another computer. We were working with two computers and it had to be shown in the playback booth.
SJ: And how would you describe the collaboration with them? Of course it's interesting for us to know, from the institutional side, how we can support these kind of collaborations between artists and for example programmers, or other creative people. What does it really take to set up these kinds of collaborations? And how does one really support them also while they are producing work? How did it feel to work with people you have never met before? Within this quite short period of three months of residency there's hardly any time to really get to know each other and you really have to quickly get into the project. How did this work? Was it easy? Was it difficult? Can you talk about this a little?
LPR: It was very nice. They became my friends. I really enjoyed the time that we worked together on the one hand. On the other hand it's problematic to deal with people who speak a totally different language in more than one way. None of us were native English speakers and Spanish for example is very different to German or Dutch people. Sometimes their accent was a little bit difficult, when they spoke very fast. But also on another level: I am used to this, but still it happens that engineers have a different kind of code [laughs] and a different way of communicating than people who work with art. This is sometimes problematic, especially when we have time pressure and those kind of things. But I think all that is normal. What I would basically say what I learned is that within the planning there should be time and money devoted to the persons who work with the software to develop a manual and enough documentation so the artist can be more or less self-sufficient after the period of the residency.
LPR: Or maybe, if it is necessary, the original team should be able to hand over the documentation to another engineer, who can take over when I would like to improve things in the future. That didn't happen and of course after the residency finished, my friends -the original team- weren't always available for technical things that could be improved. I also think maybe a little bit of budget should be reserved for possible future technical complications. Or else it should be written in the contract that they are really paid ahead or something, because that can be problematic sometimes.
SJ: I think your project, in some way, was quite big. It came with a physical installation, that had to be built also, you know. Money was dedicated or devoted to that specific part in the budget and you also worked with three people, so, in that sense, it was a rather big project for the Netherlands Media Art Institute. I think it's really important to keep that in mind. There is a time frame of these three months. To be able to design a project in these three months, a project of your size is, I think, quite difficult. The budget that we offer is pretty clear, so it has to happen within that.
What would you say is the biggest achievement that you made in the residency? Is this the physical installation itself? Is it something else you learned, maybe within the process of producing the work? What would you say is the main achievement?
LPR: Now for me, I would say, really, the main achievement is to have done the project. It was hard but we managed and it exists. Although it was very difficult, it was finished on time and it works. So I think in that sense I feel satisfied and that's the most important thing for me. Then of course I met mainly people who I consider interesting and good for future relations and I like Amsterdam a lot. I stayed in touch with the Netherlands Media Art Institute. You have been very important for me during the time I've been here. My goal was to get the project done and it was done, so that makes me very happy!
SJ: And what do you think about the final presentation of the work? The setup in the gallery and also the interaction with the audience? Were you satisfied with that and how did people respond to the work itself? And where are you taking this now? Is it going to be exhibited somewhere else in a different way? What are your plans in the future for that specific piece? Is it going to be developed further for example?
LPR: Well, I like the setup and we showed the project in the project space downstairs. I liked the way people reacted to it. It think it is one of the best things I can get from this experience, because the project is very easy to deal with and to interact with and it could be read in many ways, from simple to very complex. Because it has these simple layers, people can relate with it very naturally. It turned out to be a very social piece of work and people were really happy interacting with it. Some said they wanted to take it home, or take their portraits home and they told me many things about their experiences. I was here sometimes and spoke with people about what they thought. The feedback that I got from the public in general was very good. We have more than 150 portraits now, which I consider a good thing, because it was on for only ten days or so.
SJ: But you are showing this piece now also in Maastricht, is that right?
LPR: Yes, I set it up in the Jan van Eyck Academy. I showed it there informally during the opening week and now I will keep on working on that. On the one hand I am improving the quality of the pictures, the portraits themselves, and on the other hand I will try to work more with the touchscreen and multi touch screen. So this opened up my direction to go, in terms of my artwork.
SJ: Ok, thank you very much.
LPR: Thank you.
type out / editing: Merel Kamp, Anna Hoetjes & Petra Heck