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Woman, Art & Technology: Interview with Sue Gollifer

Rachel Beth Egenhoefer

This conversation follows in a series of interviews with women who work at the intersection of art and technology. As someone who works as an artist, curator, organizer, professor, researcher, and board member Sue Gollifer embodies this intersection across many venues.

Sue Gollifer has been a professional artist and printmaker for more than thirty years, Gollifer has exhibited her work worldwide and been collected by major international public institutions. A pioneer of early computer art, she has continuously explored the relationship between technology and the arts and has written extensively on this subject. Gollifer is a Principal Lecturer in Fine Arts and the University of Brighton where she is also the Course Leader of the MA Digital Arts Program.  She has been instrumental in shaping major international arts communities including: the Design and Artists Copyright Society (DACS), the Computer Arts Society (CAS), and the College Arts Association, (CAA), ISEA, SIGGRAPH, Lighthouse Brighton, and many others. Gollifer is currently also the Director of the ISEA International Headquarters.

Rachel Beth Egenhoefer:  Given the many hats you wear as an artist, curator, organizer, professor, many people describe you as many things… how do you describe yourself?

Sue Gollifer:  I am an artist.

RBE:  But you do other things too?

SG:  I know I do. At the moment I’m more of a curator and an organizer, but at the end of the day I am still an artist.

RBE:  How do you define your role as an artist in relation to being on the many board of directors you are on (such as ISEA, CAA, DACS, and others)?

SG: I’m not a theorist or in a senior management position but I think that these organizations need people who have a broad sense of the discipline to be on their boards to make sure that people like me and people like you have a voice.

RBE:  So you see yourself as representing artists?

SG:  Yeah, and I think the fact that I have a European background gives me a broader image as well. When I think about being on the board of some local organizations like Lighthouse or Phoenix in Brighton they value that I’m also part of an International network such as CAA and SIGGRAPH and ISEA. It’s quite reciprocal too. The bigger organizations value my spectrum.

RBE:   What do you learn as an artist from doing all these other organizational things?

SG:  I think what it does is it starts me making work. It’s like any of those things. But I think it started off when I was a consultant to Higher Education in the UK and I just got used to facilitating and networking and telling people about things. And I realized I was really quite good at that.

RBE:  Networking?

SG:  Yeah. But not just networking. I organize a lot of mailing lists, where I act as a kind of filter for people, letting them know about events and festivals, and ideas that are going on.

RBE:  So given that you work in all of these roles, as an artist, as an organizer, as a filter, what changes have you seen over the years of working in these fields?

SG:  Well, technologies have changed our lives with the Internet and mobile phones. You know I travel a lot, but half the time people don’t know that I’m not really there, because I still do what I’m doing somewhere else. Where you are doesn’t really matter. You still kind of function, which has its good points and its bad points really, cause you’re always on call.

RBE:  What about changes in content or questions that people are asking? Either in art practice or education or conferences and festivals, have there been any changes?

SG:  I think the reason why ISEA is successful is because, although we all have our distributed networks and we’re always in constant touch, I think the act of physically bringing people together is really important. But I do think also that a lot of the organizational things like content management systems and the ways that you hear about various festivals and things is made so much easier. At the same time there are so many of them. It’s really important with my ISEA hat on that I’m thinking about the “un-conference” and that you don’t get stuck in a rut. There is a changing landscape and environment and you need to keep up with that.

But with my educator’s hat on, thinking about PhDs and research papers, there’s a lot more to do with money and research and getting money from science backgrounds now. But the idea of research gets lost. What they value is that people are writing about stuff, they’re not actually doing it, but writing about it, using research as evidence.

RBE:  What is the role of research in art?

SG:  I don’t know. What do you think? Do you think it’s the work? Do you think it’s making the work?

RBE:  Well, I think research can inform the work, and work can inform research. But I think the point you brought up about research and the sciences and the value of it, it seems like it can become problematic when it is seen as a moneymaker. Or when the purpose of it is to get money and not the purpose being to inform the work.

SG:  Yeah, I was involved in a science project and there was a lot of money in it and they obviously valued the significance of the artists being in there but really you have to fit your research around the money rather than the other way around. It just got out of sink.

RBE:  Does that map at all on to how conferences and festivals are set up? Does the work dictate what will be at the event, or does the event dictate what will be made by artists?

SG:  Well, to get back to the research thing. Research as evidence of something, even if you are putting work in an exhibition or putting work in a paper or something, you still need evidence.

RBE:  But as far as themes or content, how is that dictated? For example the upcoming ISEA is all about “Machine Wilderness”. Was that a result of artists making a lot of work in that realm and we should have a festival about it, or do you think that it was a decision to have a festival about this and encourage artists to think and make work like this?

SG:  Well when people put in a bid to host ISEA, they put in what they think the nature of what ISEA will be about. Obviously when we look at proposals we look at not only the relevance but also the integrity of the people delivering it. “Machine Wilderness” in this case is very much around the themes that Andrea Poli is interested in. The theme of ISEA in Istanbul was “Contained/ Uncontained” which was similar but also a bit broader.

ISEA 2012 Website
ISEA 2012 Website

RBE:  How do you see the differences in cultures influencing different ISEA’s? ISEA purposely has the festival in different cities around the world, how does that influence the work or the field or what people are thinking and doing?

SG:  Well if you take the case of the ISEA in RUHR, Germany, it was to do with the Creative Industries, and creating awareness of new industries. You know we come in and inform people about new things. There’s the idea that we can change things. Or bring things to a city in a way of education and outreach. It shouldn’t be just us sitting in a dark room talking to each other.

RBE:  So you see it as a way to bring new media awareness to these different cities?

SG: Yeah.

RBE:  But then what do the artists and participants get in return? Or what does ISEA get in return?

SG:  You get to travel and meet people! I think you get a different perspective.

We did have two bids coming through for ISEA2014 from Zayed University, Dubai, UAE and Simon Fraser University, Vancouver, BC. Recently the ISEA Board agreed that the Dubai bid, with its focus on the burgeoning field of art and technology in the Arab World would provide a unique opportunity for ISEA to connect audiences and artists from the Middle East with the international electronic art community.

A strong aspect of the bid was the focus on women’s education and ensuring that young women have the potential to influence the future of the region and develop international contacts.

I hope that ISEA can leave a legacy somewhere. I mean otherwise we might as well just have it over Skype calls. The overarching theme of ISEA2014 ‘Location’ will explore strands such as Technology; Science & Art East Meets West; Emerging Economies/Emerging Identities; Nomadic Shifts and Digital Archaeology and Collaborative Spaces.

RBE: This interview is part of a series of interviews with women using art and technology. What do you think is important in having a female voice in today’s art world?

SG:  I talk to my students about my role and my job and things like that, and my female students think that it’s really great that I run a digital arts course. If I were a man it would be very very different. I think it’s equally important that students aren’t just taught by women, but women of all ages, those that are married, not married, children, no children. I think we do have to establish role models to a certain extent.

I was a feminist in the 60s and 70s but I never thought that we should be different. I just wanted to be accepted for who I was really. That might be a bit anti-feminist, but I always fought for women for education and opportunities. This goes back to the Dubai thing to a certain extent, the university there started off because one of the princesses wanted to learn about art but there was no place to do so. So it started and went on to have a validated degree. And maybe one day it will have a masters program and women can apply for scholarships and travel abroad?

RBE:  Do you think it’s important to have “Women Art & Technology” as a separate category? Or should it just be “Art & Technology”?

SG:  Art and Technology.

RBE:  Aside from being a female role model for your students and talking about the female voice, what else do you think is important for your students to know right now or learn right now?

SG:  Code! (laughs) But I don’t like to think we’re bringing them up differently?

RBE:  Or even taking gender out of it, what do young people need to know?

SG:  They need to be aware of things. But it depends on what they are trying to do and what direction they want to go in… A big thing is confidence. A lot of my women students do lack confidence.

RBE:  Why do you think that is?

SG:  I don’t know what it is.

RBE:  So what do you do to boost their confidence?

SG:  I give them a voice. I give them a space and an opportunity in the class.

When I used to do interviews for undergrad programs in Printmaking, it always started off that the women had better grades, better portfolios, better skills, but at some point it switches. And they loose that confidence and that voice. I don’t know what it is really.

Do you find that?

RBE:  The program I teach in has a majority female students. I think that it might be easier for them. I do wonder though sometimes if they are more confident when they are in a classroom with me verses one of my male colleagues or just a different background. But I think there’s also the other end of the spectrum where they are overly confident because they are growing up in this world where you have to be liked constantly on Facebook. You know, like me, like my image, like me, like me, like me… They need to be constantly validated and that spirals into “I’m amazing”. But those aren’t the ones who are asking the tougher questions; those are the ones who want to be liked.

SG:  There’s another aspect. Maybe not about confidence, but I think there’s a smoke and mirrors element. There are some men that seem to have all the jargon without actually any credibility. And the women I know with credibility don’t necessarily tell everyone that they do it.

RBE:  There are actually studies about that, and how male and female brains are wired differently to behave differently.

SG:  I think they address issues in a different way.

RBE:  What are you working on now?

SG: Alan Turing!

RBE:  What is your role in the Turing Project?

SG: I’m putting together with Anna Dumitriu the exhibition Intuition and Ingenuity’, a group exhibition that explores the enduring influence of Alan Turing – the father of modern computing – on art and contemporary culture. 2012 will be the 100th anniversary of the birth of Alan Turing, one of the greatest minds Britain has produced; the world today would have been a very different place without his ideas.

I’m also curating a projected drawing Exhibition for the Drawing Research Network (DRN) conference in Loughborough in September.

I have also just been part of selection partnership for two newly commissioned pieces of work for Brighton Festival, ‘Sea of Voices’, and ‘Voices of the SEA’. Plus reviewing work for SIGGRAPH art gallery 2012 and for ISEA2012, and papers for the journal ‘Digital Creativity’, of which I am assistant editor.

Sue Gollifer being interviewed by the BBC on the Alan Turing Exhibtiion
Sue Gollifer being interviewed by the BBC on the Alan Turing Exhibtiion

RBE:  What excites you about the future?

SG:  I don’t know really. I hate to get gloomy about the future, but I do think it’s going to get worse. I mean you live in San Francisco and I live in Brighton so I don’t think it’s hit us quite yet, but I am starting to notice a lot of shops closing. And I know that things I took for granted like buying a house, having children and having a job, I don’t think they have these choices anymore.

RBE:  How do you think this will impact the art community?

SG: There are surprisingly good opportunities for the use of vacant shops and offices for exhibition spaces and studios and surprisingly people buy art because they think it’s an investment for the future.

RBE:  Do you have anything else you want to tell the Furtherfield readers?

SG:  I think it’s going to be interesting and exciting in the future, despite all this, I think it’s going to be exciting to see what comes next.

Other interviews in this series:
Woman, Art & Technology: Interview with Lynn Hershman Leeson By Rachel Beth Egenhoefer
Women, Art & Technology: Interview with Sarah Cook