“I fell in love with this robot,” says media artist Leah Gilliam. The artist speaks matter-of-factly, explaining the genesis of her new project, Agenda for a Landscape. “She was named Sojourner and was sent to Mars in 1997 with the Pathfinder Mission as the machine responsible for imaging the surface of the planet.”
Gilliam, who currently teaches at Bard College in upstate New York, notes that the Sojourner Rover was equipped with three video cameras and roamed the planet shooting footage, which was beamed back to Earth as a series of grainy video transmissions. While the footage alone was intriguing, when Gilliam stumbled onto the bizarre fictional diaries created by NASA from the point of view of the various space robots, including Sojourner, she knew that she had to respond. “In their weird narrative, the reason that Sojourner stops communicating with Earth is so she can have more time to hang out with the Lander,” says Gilliam with disdain. “I knew I could do better than that.”
And indeed she has. The result of Gilliam’s robot infatuation is Agenda for a Landscape, which, in its final manifestation, will include a website, CD-ROM, and a series of continually evolving media installations that allow the artist the opportunity to recontextualize her materials over and over, which is precisely what Gilliam’s work is all about.
“I started working in 16mm, then video, then computers,” explains Gilliam, who studied Modern Culture and Media at Brown University before pursuing a graduate degree in film at the University of Wisconsin in Milwaukee in the early 1990s. “I work with found materials or real events that have happened in the world,” she says, “and re-orient those materials and occurrences through media of some kind, whether it’s processing new images so that they look old, or faking images so that they fit into a different context. And I’ve always been interested in forms of technology that have been discarded.”
Gilliam’s video Apeshit (1999) is a good example. Gilliam used old black-and-white Super 8 prints of trailers touting the original Planet of the Apes, which she digitized. “The trailers are pretty common in film schools, but I became fascinated with them,” says Gilliam, who added color and her own landscape footage to create a fascinating glimpse of our culture’s fear of The Other. The video earned a “Best of 1999” award from Film Comment and has screened extensively all over the world.
Gilliam’s CD-ROM project Split (1999) evinces the artist’s facile movement among media platforms and her ongoing interest in image environments, whether they’re located within the frame of a computer monitor or the walls of a gallery space. “The worlds that people create with CD-ROMs are so amazing and intricate,” says Gilliam, who goes on to explain that her first CD-ROM project was difficult because she felt that she was “trying to shove video into a desktop format.” That said, Gilliam is among a handful of artists who tackled the new format in the 1990s, pushing the possibilities of nonlinear storytelling beyond the simplistic gaming projects that dominated the format initially, and setting the stage for the more elaborate art-based web sites that followed.
With her upcoming installation — her most ambitious to date — Gilliam will set up the gallery space in Manhattan’s New Museum of Contemporary Art as an abandoned test room, where viewers will encounter the footage shot by the robot, as well as her secret transmissions. There will also be back stories for the robots and strange landscapes shot by Gilliam. The project will employ video playback and sound triggers, and taken together, the elements will reference not only NASA’s warped narrative, but questions about the use of technology and knowledge. “I’ve always been interested in machines and the way people can anthropomorphise anything,” says Gilliam. “And with this project, I saw the robot and immediately knew it was a great canvas to project on.” Download the Weekend Workshop Agenda (.pdf)