Willoh S. Weiland has become something of a legend in Melbourne for her humanist’s approach to art, technology and the cosmos. Heading up Aphids - a collaboration between herself and innumerable Melbourne artists with the same hallmark irreverence - Weiland has churned out an impressive oeuvre that tackles the social role of art. Her trilogy confronting her lifelong fascination with the cosmos is currently in the form of Forever Now - taking on Voyager’s Golden Record for the 21st century whereas her 2008 work Yelling At Stars saw her standing starkly alone on the Sidney Myer Music Bowl stage delivering a monologue that was transmitted live into interstellar space.
We spoke to her about obsessions, creative roadblocks and what it feels like to live in the future. And drank a lot of coffee.
What were you obsessed with at ages 5, 15, and 30?
The thrill for me has always been writing stories - always been obsessed with that. At 5, it was about mermaids. 15, the hot sex I wanted to have. 30, outer space. All of these themes are still very relevant to my work.
I grew up on a boat in the Caribbean, and I was convinced for a really unreasonably long time that I could breathe underwater - way past the point it was reasonable.
Growing up in Central America I read a lot of Latin American magic realism - like Isabela Allende and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, so I was always obsessed with grand, romantic narratives. And when I came to Australia, I was obsessed with making out, so those two things really came together.
I do actually blame my growing up on a boat for my obsession with outer space. I was an only child and was terribly bored so there was nothing else to do except stare up at the horizon. The idea of the limitations of distance and how you can transcend that through human communication has become really interesting to me. I think it is something particular to the Australian landscape as well, the ability to be in contact with vastness, which is really unusual.
I’ve been making a trilogy of works about space (because you have to make a trilogy). My interest in space is not necessarily just in the mystery of it, but what the human relationship with it is and how we can communicate with that vastness. If that act of communication means that we’re just yelling, how long do we keep talking before we let the silence be an answer?
In your latest work in the trilogy, Forever Now you have been asking for submissions from artists around the world to send their responses into space. How have you felt about the response so far?
We’ve had a lot of submissions from India and Bangladesh, and there’s one in particular that is just so sublime and unexpected. We got this wonderful submission which is a series of camera flashes in different landscapes. It’s really simple, but also its coming from an unexpected context, which we dont often watch video art from. It’s satisfying that so far not just white people from Northcote are making videos and submitting them.
What has been the most personally satisfying moment you have been able to create for an audience?
For me the most personally satisfying thing is when I see that the actual make-up of the audience is diverse and bizarre. For example, at the performance of Yelling at Stars, there were a lot of scientists and a lot of young hipsters from the Next Wave Festival. Void Love for me was similar, because Kamahl was the narrator. About 40% of the audience was over 70. A recent project Aphids just did, the Drive-In Project was the same, there was this huge community group from Dromana, the town we made it in and then heaps of young video artists from Melbourne. It’s satisfying for me because all of their perspectives on what this work will always be so diverse.
In Yelling at Stars seeing the capacity ‘live-ness’, the real-time teamsmission of the content, to transform the audiences relationship with the content, was really important for me. That’s really influenced the direction I’ve gone in since.
In Yelling At Stars it seemed like low stakes content but high stakes context? Would you agree?
Yes, exactly. The text was deliberately really, really simple, almost naive in the hope that it would stand against the sort of vastness, the complexity of space. But really the conduit between those two things was the fact of the live-ness of the transmission. It wouldn’t have worked unless people had believed that. It was true, you know.
Was it really?
Yes! It was! I actually had to make the decision that if the transmission failed I would say, “Sorry its cancelled.” I mean, you can’t lie about having sent something into space, can you?
When is a computer a really useless tool?
The computer is not the idea. It’s never the idea. In my mind, the computer is always useless until the idea is good. I’m always trying to think about the way in which you work with technology and when it is necessary. What does it do to the idea that extends it? What does it do to the audience that they couldn’t have possibly understood if the computer wasn’t there? It’s always useless until you find the way in which it’s necessary to the idea. There’s often this obsession with the “interactivity”being the artwork itself - which I think comes out of 80’s, 90’s new media art, when“interactivity” first started - and I do think we’re past that now, that people are no longer interested in it. Because it’s not enough. Just because you can interact with it doesn’t mean that it’s an artwork. Just because you can write things down, it doesn’t mean you can write.
When in work or life do you say no?
In life I say no all the time. To everything. “Don’t tell me what to do.” I say no when I have any bad intuition about a collaboration. I try to foresee collaborative pathways, because often the projects I’m working on involves so many people. I have learnt a lot from things going really wrong. Usually at the very beginning if you have any glimmer, any intuition whatsoever about something that could possibly go wrong invariably that will grow. The gap opens up between what the original idea is and the way in which it’s being executed. Often as the leader you are the only person who understands the idea.
The essential question is how can you get everyone to understand the thing at the beginning? If there’s a problem, your ability to recognize it and stop it at the beginning of the process before it goes terribly wrong is incredibly important.
What technologies do you think will matter to us in 10 years’ time?
This is possibly just me being kind of idealistic, but I do feel like we’ve burst through the idea of being in awe of technology. We’re coming to another phase where we’re going to start being more thoughtful of choosing what in fact is necessary, as consumers or whatever artists are. I was watching people on the tram today, and thought, “We’re never going to get over it. We still think how cool it is that I can be here and you can be there and we can then talk to each other.” And that’s not just the telephone but anything that enables direct and fast communication without latency. I think that’s still the thing we’re actually striving for. Everyone’s still trying to make Skype work. The more instantaneous, the more direct, the more reliable communication is, we’re amazed. Because it’s still so magical.
Aphids is run over Skype. Whenever we have a meeting, everyone has to be there, and there’s this thing I’ve noticed that all of us have developed this sort of huge level of patience with Skype. The connection is always bad but we just suck it up and everyone is very quiet. It’s amazing. We are adapting our behaviour to how shit that fucking program is. Now that is worrying!
Have you ever worked with a technology that you realised just didn’t cut the mustard?
We made an app for a national park, it was like a digital artwork where as you move around the park, it triggered different video and soundtrack chapters. We still haven’t released it because I’m not happy with it, and that was two years ago.
Actually, it’s more that I feel really uncertain about it. I obviously don’t want to have anything out there that has our name on it that doesn’t work properly. That said, it’s working as well as it possibly can with the technology available at the moment, in that particular location. It was a really long, involved project involving multiple international collaborators and in the end I thought, “This essentially means that in this project the capacity of our imagination is so far beyond what’s actually possible.” That’s something we deal with all the time. For artists who work with technology it’s particularly relevant. You can always see potential and yet sometimes the technical limitations deny it.
It’s like the nerds of the world (who are the new lords of the universe as well, which I love) have flipped the idea of the alpha archetype. Now the person who understands the code or the way to operate these things we’ve invented actually have so much power in our world. That goes for artistic collaborations as well. I will always need programmers who know what they’re doing to realise these ideas we have. That’s the dynamic. We need the geniuses, but also often our imperatives of what we are trying to achieve is really artistic and abstract and bizarre, and there’s a massive translation issue.
What’s the technological trend you’ve observed that looks like trouble?
Salad spinners. You know those things that you dry the lettuce in? They’re really good, but I was using one the other day and was thinking that this whole thing that happened 50s, of the modern housewife and the idea of humans being subservient to the technology we created. The economic participation of women in the 50s with buying modern goods, like washing machines and salad spinners, all these things that were there to fill in needs that we didn’t necessarily have in the first place. We didn’t need to dry our lettuce, but we realised we did by buying the salad spinner we invented. This is what I worry about with technology, that we invent these multifarious devices to fulfill things that really we don’t need. They’re the needs that are being developed by big companies to sell us stuff.
I think it’s very confusing for people who are interacting with the market because there’s just so much you can buy. You can buy the interactive pen and blah, blah, blah, the tablet. There’s 60 types of tablet. I worry about the ability of the individual to navigate the world of technology and to be empowered.
What’s the most disappointing thing about living in the future?
That the internet doesn’t work. I just went to Japan and thought “It’s Blade Runner!” but also you expect that obviously there’s going to be the internet everywhere. Like you’ll be able to mainline it through your veins in the street. But it’s nowhere. And it’s expensive. And you have to buy these stupid little devices to get it. And everyone is hoarding it in this horrific way. It seems to me like until we have ubiquitous internet the future is sort of stuck. The future is the monorail, which is going all around us, but just in a circle.
In a parallel universe, what would you be doing with your life and why?
I would be the benevolent dictator of a Caribbean micro-nation that was slowly leading my people to revolt against capitalism and adopt socialist objectives. As well as fueling a dynamic international program for innovators from all different countries. Something simple like that.
What’s the dystopia?
It would be the same. Except my people would be revolting against me because all they want is white goods.
And salad spinners?
And salad spinners. And the monorail.
Willoh S. Weiland is an artist, writer, curator and the Artistic Director of Aphids - a Melbourne-based organisation that creates epic contemporary art projects using performance, music, site-specificity and new technologies.