An Interview with Zina Kaye
By Geert Lovink
Sydney, January 9, 1998
Zina Kaye is a new media (sound) artist, based in Sydney, Australia. She is using the Net to 'muse on the nature of metaphysical boundaries and the secret life of the airwaves.' For her, the Internet is the 'new radio' and she has begun broadcasting surveillance exercises that use Cold War technologies. In this interview, conducted on her balcony, overlooking the beaches of Clovelly, she speaks about her interest in airports, surveillance technologies, the ins and outs of sound art and the latest development in net.radio.
(Every now and then a plane goes over and we have to stop talking.)
GL: Tell us about your fascination for airports.
ZK: Airports are places of departure and you can be seduced by the glamour of a new destination. You put all your emotional baggage on the plane and believe that it is going to be different when you get 'there'. But the moment of transformation actually happens when you enter the terminal. You become ghostly, maybe even psychic! The airport does not allow you to contemplate about your travel. You have to go shopping and browse some boring computer magazines. It has the same kind of lighting everywhere, with generic carpet, the security systems make it even more generic whilst also shielding you from what might happen. You are not supposed to contemplate about being in an aircraft. Martha Rosler spoke about this in her essay "Observations of a Traveler". So I guess it's this place, the airport/changing room that interests me, and I have the opportunity to insert art into the structure of the airport and make the whole process a momentous, and strange experience.
I made a work which was a homage to Sydney airport over the period of a year. It is called 'The Fantasy Lounges Online Catalogue or The Chronicles of Agent Green'. It is all about a company called Fantasy Lounges that "Represents the Lost Airport In The Parallel Universe." I went around opening gates as a kind of ritual, putting up signs saying 'Enter'. A colleague of mine, a performer, had a green dress and a big green bag, which he made from cloth, and I filmed him walking around the airport for a 24 hour period, visiting the business lounges, strange tunnels and so on. The security guards were acting very strangely and this was the only way we could get some kind of reaction. The performance ended at the edge of the airport, which faces onto a big rubbish dump, one of the biggest landfills in Sydney. Supposedly there is a curfew from 11 p.m. and airplanes are not allowed to take off. Every time they did we lit up a green firework.
I wrote texts based on my impressions and included an answering service within the work. Someone had given me a free electronic telephone mailbox,= and I would leave daily messages for people to respond to. I collected this material into a database and put it on the web, and parts of it are still there.
GL: Sydney airport is not a normal airport: it's so close to the city.=85.=
ZK: It is a big bone of contention and sits right in the middle so people have to move around this great big wasteland of prime real estate. It is just too close to residential areas. I have done some research about the history of the airport. Documents from the fifties and sixties do not talk about its location in any serious way. It just wasn't a consideration.
Interestingly it has been one the biggest sources of public activism: there are lots of demonstrations, arguments and bits of paper. People are constantly fighting to get the flight path moved away from their neighborhood. Part of the problem is fuel dumping before landing: _that_ seems to happen over residential areas. It really permeates cultural life and affects people's health. There is a game that kids play, especially in the Marrickville area: every time you see an airplane you clap your hands three times and make your fingers into a hash and look through them, to the airplane, whilst making a wish. One kid told me that he had made hundreds of wishes everyday day. And there is a theatre under the flight path called Sidetrack at least once a year they perform a show about the air traffic. But the irony is that the performance has to stop when the plane goes over because it's impossible to hear anything!
Possibly because I am a European citizen, I glamorize the fact that the airport is the place where I will go to so that I may return home and see my family. Flying really scares me. Having spent three years examining airplane rituals, I noticed that airplanes fall out of the sky about once a week. Now I've noticed that they are being hijacked again. It's all Johan Grimonprez's fault.
GL: What does 'sound art' mean, compared to music or making radio?
ZK: Well it's hard to define it, because sound art has been around for so long and mutated quite drastically in that time. That phrase "sound art" is a large set of parameters, but not a genre in itself. Unfortunately, many writers and theorists do not consider it like this, it is expedient for them to generalize. To me, sound art is everything, from experimental composition, dance music, radio, installation and voice work. There are not many formal opportunities to see the full range of it outside broadcast and performance. There are so few works presented in the gallery context because curators believe that it takes up a lot of room. That sound will pollute this painting. It is considered unstable. It doesn't last for ever nor archive like a Rembrandt: its market value may fluctuate. Everyone thinks they can make sound art because they have a computer...
GL: By what sound artists are you influenced, or inspired?
Bill Seaman's work "Passage Sets/One Pulls Pivots at the Tip of the Tongue", which came in a number of formats, but my favourite is the most formal: as spoken poem recorded at the ABC. I listen to it over and over because the textual rhythm is incredibly sexy...sort of undulating. Overall, the work goes through some distinct emotional changes and within the onomatopoeia and alliteration Seaman expresses the rhythm of life. I appreciate the style of language and Bill's beautiful voice.
Joyce Hinterding's poetic approach to electronic minimalism is inspiring because of her exploration of invisible sound. She spent a long time researching and building electro-static speakers that played very low frequencies..basically electrical disturbances in the upper atmosphere, and pre-recorded inputs. Before that came a giant work called 'Siphon', the sound of hundreds of beer glasses, filling up with electricity and unfilling. I appreciate that meditative space which such minimalist sound is generating: the space between what it is and what it sounds like. I think there is also a wonderful humour in her work.
DJ Gemma from the Sydney scene because she has a freedom and roughness, which is marginalised because we are too used to the process of production. I must say that I respect anyone with a good record collection: in a world of collage and cut-ups a resource like that is liberating.
Digital technology has allowed the rise of the home studio. So people make music at home, from start to finish at their computer, burning it straight to CD or to DAT or even to broadcast. It allows for an egalitarian evolution. I remember interviewing the head of Sony in London once, and he was concerned that people should keep paying big money for cds because of the apparent cost of the process. I thought, at the time, that he was pulling one big scam, and retrospectively Sony's actions reveal this to be a bit too true.
The jungle scene is a fantastic example of audio freedom. It started off very grass roots. There were limited editions of acetate recordings, going to a few DJ's, and playing on pirate stations. Now of course, everyone is compelled to throw out a compilation. Even though some DJ might toast over the top of it, it is still a more produced, more carefully articulated sound. It can become repetitive. The record labels are curating, deciding what the sound is going to be like: they tailor it to their environment and the impetus for experimentation is lost.
I love creative uses of home technology, like Aphex Twin and the Star Wars soundscape which is composed of samples that started off as Hoovers and blenders.
GL: Another part of your work is dealing with surveillance, not being seen...
ZK: You mean the Anti-Destination Society, which is in fact a construct my father invented. He says that the Anti-Destination Society changes all the traffic lights to red so that he can't get anywhere in a hurry. A few years ago I brought it back into being and made it into a proper organization. My ideal was that everyone can become a secret agent. You can do what you like with it, just use the name. I was looking at what happened when the Cold War was supposedly declared 'over'. MI5, MI6, the CIA etc had to reconstruct themselves. They had, and still have to, re-establish themselves economically and as a power, by creating new enemies. The enemy can be the people, activists, perceived communists, anarchists, anybody with chewing gum, etc.
I recently gave a talk at the Centre for Contemporary Art in Warsaw and there were big problems with talking about secret agents. People were defacing the posters advertising the event, and my text went through several re-writes, because first it was translating into something a bit unpleasant, and then I had to break the idea of 'secret agent' into some Lego-like components, such as virtual community avatar, non-binary coexistence and the concept of maintaining face.
We are now stuck in a surveillance culture because the perceived spectre of crime means we set up cameras everywhere, and create large databases of tracking statistics. As a result we become more interested in surveying each other. We introduce cameras to cafes so that we can ring somebody and say 'look at me, I am in this cafe, look at the Internet.' It is strange breakdown of the division of private and public spaces.
Surveillance art deals with public spaces more than private spaces but there might not necessarily be any viewer. It might be narcissism which perpetuates some form of surveillance, normalizing it, like that young woman with a web-cam permanently switched on in her bedroom. She writes rubbish to go with it, but there is a certain kind of audience that can't seem to pull away.
My favourite example of this genre is a recent work by Dennis Beaubois. It was a three week performance which he began by standing in front of surveillance cameras around the city of Sydney. Just standing there. The next day he would come with some signs, saying 'you are being photographed while reading this sign'. He himself would be documented by a still photographer and also on video camera. The video shows how the surveillance "business" deals with "suspect" people and artists. The next thing he did was to hold a camera behind his back whilst facing a wall, the same sign pinned on his back. Being a trained butoh performer, he was standing stock still, secretly smiling at the simple fact that the spectator was becoming the spectacle.
At some point I began collecting the technologies that surveillance organizations use. It is often quite highly sophisticated, not readily available. At the moment I specialize in listening to spaces, listening to the vibration of buildings, using Cold War technology, a microphone that CIA-agents used to stick to windows. I started building my own version of the microphone, listening to what was going in Backspace, a cyber-gallery-collective in London. Then I found a device called an acceleromater, used by acoustic engineers. You can highlight various frequency bandwidths and magnify them, like you would do in Photoshop, and listen to the pixels of sound. I want to do that in airports. I want to reveal the shape of the noise you feel if you put your hand against the window. It is vibrating in an extreme way. I think it is part of the travelling, it hits you in your core. I have tried out this installation in the Code Red show, which took place in Performance Space in Sydney (November 1997). I broadcast that sound via the Internet so that people could maintain surveillance of that space, a sort of abstract, instant atmosphere. It is about hot pixels of sound, an underlying smear of rumble, it is beautiful, but I discovered that listening to low sounds for too long can make you sick.
GL: You have been using computer networks for quite a while.
ZK: My father had one of those handset modems and I used to play around with it because I heard about hacking, I wasn't very successful at all. Then I started experimenting with telnet and MOOing communities like LambdaMOO which are quite special because they are built around skill sharing and the space is documented so it is always there and anything you build has a kind of ghostly permanence. A lot of social friendships arose from there. I did a performance called 'MOO', inviting people to a "Performace Space" which I built in Lambda but also projected out into the real Performance Space. At that point I do not think that the audience was particularly prepared to participate in the MOO. It was too far removed from the average frame of reference and people tended to shout vehemently at the screen, wanting us to type in obscenities. These textual environments are spaces where delightful poetic combinations happen, and terrible misunderstandings. Big assumptions are made on very few words.
Then came Mosaic, and playing with that code, the error messages, fooling people that they were being watched and so on. Eventually I got a grant to do a CU See Me performance, called Lift_World, together with a group of performance artists in Sydney. It was a research project based on an idea to make an international lift, an elevator that mysteriously joins Sydney and Warsaw together, in association with Martha van der Haagen from the Centre of Contemporary Art in Warsaw. It was hard because there was an invisible proxy-server so that we could never communicate directly live.
It taught me a lot about how you we could fool an Internet audience into thinking we were filming from a number of remote spaces, when we were in fact in a small studio. There are strategies to maximize the medium, and it's curious that although digital broadcasting is considered to be a big thing, not many people are really exploring the technique.
Most recently I have been experimenting with Real Audio. There are big broadcast communities now, whether it be Chinese nationals in South America watching the Hong Kong handover, David Bowie's exclusive internet album launch, or radio pirates in Europe. Free audio for the cost of your Internet connection! But I cannot say what will happen next. People of Progressive Networks (who own the Real Audio software) are talking about Real Audio Walkmans, plugging into mobile phone networks. There will be associated commerical tie-ins, but honestly one of the greatest things in= the world would be a portable computer that works on voice commands, like a car computer. Imagine being a blind person with that kind of technology! Free from the tyranny of that ridiculous seeing-person-creature..the mouse.
firstname.lastname@example.org Anti-Destination Society PO Box 950, Darlinghurst NSW 2010, Australia. irational.org/zina/ (wip)