All about X, 0 and 1 – an interview with Erica Seccombe

22 09 2011

Mediakult is very pleased to be publishing the first of a series of interviews with women working in the digital media space. the project is titled All about X, 0 and 1 and will be featuring a broad range of women artists, thinkers and cultural workers who have had a long association with arts and technology.

The first guest is Erica Seccombe, a Canberra based artist, who coincidentally also spent many formative years in Darwin (Northern Australia), and who also did some of her visual arts training in Darwin. Ironically, although we have many mutual friends in Darwin our paths never crossed until I came to Canberra in 2001.

I trust you will enjoy this interview with Erica Seccombe.

Nanoplastica - installation view at CCAS

I am very interested in how your digital work has evolved over time and would love to know more about your early background as an artist and how you were led to working with digital media and new technologies. Could you give me a bit of background to your work?

After high school I started at the Darwin Institute of Art and became interested in photography. I became fascinated with pinhole photography and how to get special effects by using filters and other dark-room developing methods; influenced by Man Ray and surrealists etc. Printmaking satisfied my other need to draw and really liked the idea of multiples and using technology and chemical processes – as with photography. I like the combination of photography and print processes, so to me it was natural that they all work nicely together alongside computer graphic programs and digital mediums.

I started using computers as soon as they became available to me. I left Darwin in ’87 to complete my undergraduate degree at Sydney College of the Arts in Printmaking. At this time they had just introduced a few of the early Mac models into the library. I was determined to learn how to use them but also felt a little intimidated and was not convinced they were any good for art.  I have always typed so what won me over was the word processing functions which were so liberating. At the time photocopying also became more readily available so there were all these quick, new ways of making. Exciting times the 80s! Because I wanted to introduce text into my work, I started screenprinting and working out how to combine all these processes with colour – remembering that most of the outputs for technology back then were in black and white.

At the same time my best friends were researching AI and advanced computer programing at Sydney University. They would give me access to the labs overnight, so I could use more powerful computers with colour monitors and printers. They also took me to philosophy lectures at Sydney Uni. Hanging out with scientists and philosophers had a big influence on how my work developed. It started me thinking about the whole thing, the way we see and how technology was opening up new ways of seeing. I was only in my early twenties, and while I had a lot of ideas, I lacked confidence. I hadn’t yet realised I could link the science and philosophy knowledge to art theory and history and then to technology and my creative practice. But I began to educate myself and started asking questions through my practice and through research.

Up until I started a Diploma in Visual Art at SCA in ’96, my work had been mainly illustrative of things that happened to me, or people I knew, places I’d been, stories I’d heard, the emotions I felt etc. I really love the work of artists like Joy Hester and Barbara Hanrahan, and they had a big influence on me. I believe the need to reveal my life through images was a process I had go through as a young person. Sometimes people tell me that they preferred the work I used to do, and say the work I do now doesn’t embody a personal narrative and that only reflects the technology I use.  I disagree – my work is still autobiographical and my work plays with notions of our understanding of contemporary technology.

My introduction to and use of computer technology forced me to think more critically about the intersection between science, technology and art. So my work very much reflects the journey I’m on, that we are all on, in this high tech era. For example, alongside my art practice I also started working in graphic design and publishing and also experienced there the change in these industries as computers were introduced. It is my concern and fascination for how far technology can go that drives my practice. Emergent technologies have also has changed the way I make work, although I still draw and screenprint when I can.

Completing a Master of Philosophy at the ANU helped solidify many of my ideas and it gave me an opportunity to write about research. I started to look at performance art and sculpture in context of new technologies, rather than just print based mediums, and that’s informed my new work a lot. I wrote a thesis on Chris Burden’s When robots rule, the two minute airplane factory and explored the performative qualities of this work, as part of Burden’s oeuvre, and then looked at the expectations of the technology as a social enquiry. Burden’s work was an automated production line that was supposed to produce balsa wood airplanes every two minutes that would shoot out into the Duveen Galleries at the Tate. The work is interesting because it was installed in 1999 on the wave of the Y2K hysteria, and as it happens the technology of the airplane factory never worked. This research helped to think about my own work, not as prints or online, but how it could be something else. The result of my Masters was having the confidence to approach the Department of Applied Mathematics at the ANU in 2005 and ask if it would be OK to apply for an artistic residency in their labs.

Seven individual screenprints on Canson paper; image: 20.4hx 115.3w cm; paper: 28h x 19.5w cm; each editioned in eight; signed Erica 07

Seven individual screenprints on Canson paper; image: 20.4hx 115.3w cm; paper: 28h x 19.5w cm; each editioned in eight; signed Erica 07


Your recent series of work “Grow” is a result of a residency project, could you detail how it all came together?

My new project GROW ‘grew’ out of my Nanoplastica project which developed from my first residency with Professor Tim Senden at the Department of Applied Mathematics at the ANU. I started this work with a three month artist-in-residence in 2006 funded by artsACT. I had the opportunity to X-ray a selection of miniature plastic animals at the XCT facility. This is 3D Microcomputed Tomography X-ray technology which gives you full data-set of a static object. This means the data is in volumetric pixels with x,y & z coordinates. The plastic toys I used perfectly illustrated all the questions I have about our relationship with science, nature and technology. But to create Nanoplastica I had to go through a kind of baptism of fire – in that I had to learn how to use a scientific volume rendering program called Drishti in order to animate the data. It means I spend a lot of time in Vizlab at the ANU Super Computer Centre.

Drishti has been created by Dr Ajay Limaye and he named it so because ‘drishti’ means insight in Sanskrit. He built the program from scratch and has developed it as a much more user-friendly program from the one I started with in 2006, but I still have to keep using it to keep up. It gives you a completely different way of seeing or understanding an object – let alone trying to animate it for artistic purposes. The whole process really challenged me but I persevered. I really enjoy working with this research group, and they give me a lot of space to explore my ideas. I’m pleased that they have been happy for me to keep coming back. I am very lucky.

Since my first introduction to XCT in 2006, the technology has rapidly advanced and Prof Senden’s group have built some new XTC machines that scan faster and with larger objects. They have also been looking into 3D X-raying of dynamic systems such as water seeping through sand, or crushing of bone. This got me thinking about what kind of dynamic system I would be interested in. While creating Nanoplastica I had started to think really hard about the natural environment and how we define nature as either ‘artificial’ or ‘natural’ – particularly the debate about GM food crops and food security. I’m interested in understanding the GM food debate better. I’m not convinced that it is as bad as everyone makes it out to be – while mass production and monoculture crops for processed food is very concerning. I spent some time at the CSIRO where the research they are doing into crops is vital for biodiversity and resource management. Therefore I came to the idea to experiment with sprouting seeds and see if I could capture the germination process in 3D – hense the working title GROW. Hopefully I will be able to create work that allows and audience to experience the moment a seed begins to grow well beyond the scale of the original process.

Your project has been supported by a Synapse Residency. How did this work out for you?

I applied for so many grants and scholarships to keep going once my artsACT residency ended in 2006. I actually recorded in my 2008 and 2009 diary how much time it took to write applications and I spent a nearly third of the year applying for money. I worked full-time and look after my partner’s two children, so any time at the lab was always grabbed on days off or at night. I had dark moments hanging out washing where I wondered if I would have to give up thinking of getting back in the lab. I didn’t want to reapply for artsACT again but out of desperation I did and thankfully they funded my 2010 residency in Applied Maths as a Visiting Fellow. This has really opened a lot of doors for me. This is the only organisation at the time prepared to take the risk with my project. The down side was my employer at the time wouldn’t give me three months without pay, so I had to leave the security of a permanent position and find part time employment. That’s a scary decision when you contributing to the running of a family.

But this grant gave me the leverage to apply and be successful recipient of the 2010 Synapse Residency from ANAT, the Australian Network for Art and Technology. This residency has been very important to me. I was unsuccessful in my first application a few years earlier, but I hadn’t really considered what the collaborative process with my host organisation really meant. But as my relationship with the Department developed my project became more involved with their processes, rather than just being for the sake of an artistic outcome. This residency really forced me to think more about some of the ideas in my work and how they fit together, or not as the case may be. I kept a project blog as part of the residency agreement, and this helped to sort out my thoughts and ideas that inform this new work. My project blog can be accessed at http://seccombe2010.anat.org.au.

I’ve also had a paper I gave about my project at a conference last year published and this can be found at http://blogs.unsw.edu.au/tiic/files/2011/03/finalforwebsite.pdf
There are some really interesting projects in this publication.

Still image from "Grow"

Still image from "Grow"

Why do you think that securing a grant was difficult for your project? Do you think there is a divider between digital work that gets collected and work that is not supported by the establishment? Or do you think curators and galleries are applying old aesthetic sensibilities to digital work?

I suppose there are a lot of factors. Luck being the draw card and how much you get the work out there. But I think it is also who you know, and how close you get into the radar of collecting institutions or galleries. I had a look at the new John Kaldor Gallery at AGNSW, and there are some really beautiful digital works on display, none of whom are by women I might add. In fact there were only two women in the whole hang, Not that I went in counting, but it did occur to me when I left the room. But if you didn’t know, you would leave that exhibition thinking that women don’t make digital art worthy of collecting. But I did read a pretty interesting book recently by Stephen Jones called ‘Synthetics’, which looks at emergence of new technologies in art in Australia from the 1950s to the mid 70s, and he does point out that while major galleries were excepting experimental work overseas, Australia was very late to catch on. But when you look at what OzCo are doing with supporting grants etc, and ANAT, you can see how there are an increasing number of opportunities to develop projects. I think the universities need to realise that there could be big business in looking at collaborate projects without expecting a final result, or major outcome, that the collaboration itself will breed innovative ideas that can be assessed or valued differently. They need to work out a framework were they can justify experimental and interdisciplinary projects.


You are now a candidate for a PhD in Photography and Digital Media at the ANU School of Art, can you describe this research project?

Essentially I’ve rolled my project GROW into a PhD research project. Last year I was talking to Associate Professor Helen Ennis who suggested to me that this would be a good way to progress the work after the Synapse residency. I’m glad I took her advice. I’ve been awarded a APA scholarship which will help keep the project going for a few years. It means I only have to work part time to earn money. But since I started the PhD this year I’ve really enjoyed taking this project to another level. I’m still looking at dynamic systems in 3D X-ray but it has forced me to read and write more and I’m enjoying the challenge of linking contemporary ideas of nature to sprouting agricultural seeds. I’m also starting to contemplate how this work will eventually be shown and in what medium. Perhaps this time I should look at making it interactive. I am currently writing a paper for conference at the end of September for a symposium in NZ called Animating Space Time, so I’m having to consider this work a bit differently in the way the images come together, rather than explain the project as a whole, but its good to look at it from different angle.

I noticed on your website that you were recently involved in a discussion as part of http://www.genartsys.com/ titled “Conversations in Digital Strategies 1.0 | Convergence of Funding and Platforms”. Could you share with me some of the key issues raised?

I wasn’t part of the discussion, but part of the exhibition curated and exhibited at OzCo headquarters in Sydney by Kathryn Gray, Fee Plumley and Deborah Turnbull. The brief was to showcase projects specifically where artists incorporated digital media into their traditional practice in order to augment experience or accessibility. It included 19 artists who had been on Synapse residencies and received other project grants. I found out that this group was short listed from 931 other successful grant applicants. So it shows there is a lot of work happening out there. I was a bit worried as the work I exhibited there is very unresolved so I doubt anyone would have had any idea what they were looking at. I gave them a digital animation that shows a 3D mung bean rotating and that shows about four stages of germination. I don’t think the work really gives an idea of the experience I had making the work, or working with AppMaths. So I feel weird about having to show unfinished work, but it was really nice to be asked. I got to see the show and there were some very interesting interactive digital works with new media and portable technologies.

I did take part in an interesting discussion this year as part of the pubic program around an exhibition Natural Digression I was in at UTS Gallery. It was with UTS academics Katrina Schlunke & Lian Loke and we talked about ideas surrounding fact and fiction in art, and the role science, technology and art play in the discovery of truth, and how notions of fact and fiction come into being. Katrina and Lian were great and really interesting. It was an opportunity for me to describe what it is like working with science and technology and the challenges of not creating didactic work, and going beyond the ‘truth’ of the data.

The exhibition Natural Digression is a product of a really nice relationship I have with six other artists who use a whole range of mediums. Even though they don’t necessarily use technology to make work all the time, but they are very much influenced by science, technology and nature as a subject. We have great conversations about our work, so exhibiting with them I don’t feel like I have to be labeled solely as a digital artist. They are Penelope Cain, Waratah Lahy, Al Monro, Ellis Hutch and Rose Montebello. This iteration of the show was curated by Yolande Norris.

I’m also on a discussion panel as part of the 5th World summit of Art and Culture in Melbourne this October with Professor Tim Senden and Gavin Artz from ANAT.

Lastly, where do you think the future of digital arts is headed – what are the threats and opportunities?

As long as we still have access to computers and equipment there will be digital arts. The more accessible it is the more digital art we will see. It doesn’t mean it will be good, or original or groundbreaking, but that is the challenge for digital artists and audiences, to be critical and observant. I think its important for digital artists to look at all forms of art, and ideas, and not be limited to one style or method. Probably the creative process will become linked to program writing, and the innovation will surface with interactive and virtual systems. Anyway, I’m more interested in ideas. I think if an idea works better as a painting, print or sculpture, then why make it digital.

On a more practical level, I’ve come to realise that most galleries are only just catching up with equipment to display audio and visual digital art in interesting ways. While you might have the most original and ambitious ideas for installing digital work it still depends on your budget or accessibility. Exhibiting this medium as large-scale projections also requires new skills for designing spaces for installations. However, technology is changing so rapidly. Our kids now have interactive touch screens in all the classes at school and technology is definitely becoming more accessible and portable. There was some government survey released last month that predicted that most individuals will have their own electronic tablet in some short amount of time. Can’t recall the exact statistics.

However, it is trickier for any artist to establish an interdisciplinary project with science or industry. It takes a lot of time and work to learn and gain skills with new technologies. As an artist it is also hard to work out what the potential is for these new technologies within an art practice. I think it is important that our community recognizes the potential for inter-arts projects, or accepts that some projects might not have outcomes in the traditional artistic sense.

Thanks Erica for your thoughtful responses to my questions.  If you would like to find out more about Erica’s work go to her website at http://www.ericaseccombe.com.au/

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