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Nell Tenhaaf


Nell Tenhaaf 


I started to integrate scientific and technological issues together into my work beginning in the mid 1980s. My interest in biology grew out of an already established interest in new technologies, which grew out of an earlier interest in how a machine could intervene in the artmaking process. I did “xerox art” in the mid- to late seventies. Because of that I was attracted to computer graphics when that field first started appearing in the early eighties. I won’t try to trace it all back further than that. But the key thing about the addition of genetics into the mix in the late 1980s was that I urgently felt a need for a conceptual lynchpin in my work, so that I wouldn’t continue experimenting with digital imaging technologies per se because that could go all over the map. I saw that the underlying language of code in computing could be linked to the element of coding in genetics, although I was very clear from the start that in genetics it is not a binary coding. And so the very convergence that I was drawn to would have to be, ironically, critiqued for its reductive tendency. That reduction of genetics to “unlocking the code” certainly did come about, what with the Human Genome Project and the link with biotechnologies of all kinds. Throughout the 1990s there was an alarming tendency in popular media to make them the same, so my perception held true.

I like that kind of irony, which is a way of making the statement boldly but at the same time undermining it with its opposite. In many of my works from the late 1980s and into the 90s irony appears in relation to gender issues as well, in that I propose an absolute binary split between the genders but in a very tongue in cheek way, for instance in Species Life (1989) and In Vitro (the perfect wound)(1991). The irony suggests doubling, for instance, the search for a visual language that both stays connected to and examines from a distance the visual tropes of science, e.g. how it portrays its notions of truth and objectivity and progress. My goal has been to strike a balance between the seductiveness of those ideas, all the beautiful imagery that accompanies them, and a kind of skeptical coolness about them.

Some of my earlier work such as Species Life , seems to make a direct political comment on the social implications of scientific or technological research, while more recent work such as Swell (2003) or Flo’nGlo (2005) seems to put that aside and concentrate on understanding the relationship we have with these new discoveries.

I think that how I use a “relational” approach (after the writings of Maturana/Varela) is both social and political. Those thinkers link biological and behavioural issues across levels of organization in the environment. It’s quite abstract in some ways; it has to do with mutual disturbances and ongoing dynamic change at all levels of order in the world. But it’s concrete from a certain point of view too, because the materiality of biology and cognition and ecologies is not presented as limiting but as the place from which all kinds of acts emerge and entities self-organize.


At a certain point in my source research I became very interested in an area of AI called “social intelligence”, which concerns modeling social interaction in artificial media (software or robots) as well as the interaction between artificial entities and us. I used the relational ideas described above as a bridge between a concept of emergent order that is biologically-based, on the one hand, and this curiosity I was developing about the actual point of contact between human and non-human, on the other. You could call it a study of “computer-human interface” in purely technical terms, but it really centres on the problem of representing the artificial as an interface. I don’t want to make technological creatures per se. You could say that I am making artificial entities that come into being through viewers’ interaction with them. Through an intuitive sense rather than consciously, viewers conjoin their own presence and actions with these recent works, and may think of them as “alive.” In using arrays of LEDs for low-resolution video, and electronic sound (by sound artist John Kamevaar, with whom I am now working collaboratively) I want to explore a continuum between familiar screen-based informational spaces and interactive contact points.


I tend to think in terms of subjectivity, and I do think that has been changing enormously through the mediating effects of science and technology. We have always more layers of knowledge and their associated tools that intervene in the relationships we have with ourselves, understanding ourselves, and with each other. As technologies take on more autonomy they become more active agents in all of those relationships. My belief is that these “tools” have and will have much more autonomy than we imagine, not in becoming like humans but in becoming more fully themselves. Without sounding too sci-fi, studying and building interfaces or contact points between biology and artificiality, between living and non-living, is located within this larger ongoing process of relational mediation.

As a Canadian artist I fell I have a strong legacy of exploring new technologies and their related theories and practices. I started out on digital systems in the early 1980s when the Canadian government’s Department of Communications launched research on an on-line graphics system called Telidon. Some artists in Toronto got accredited to be part of the field trials and although I lived in Montreal I got access to a big old clunky computer to make “pages” of graphics and text. Although there was no photo input into that system, I became gradually interested in the layering possibilities of computer work because I had been doing a lot of work in xerography in the 70s. You could layer and composite endlessly in that medium, so I was very receptive to the first computer systems that could capture images plus generate text and let you draw. That Telidon experimentation would certainly count as a canadianism since it was developed here and since they were open enough to let artists in on it.

Another canadianism is the fact that we had access centres for new technologies very early on, specifically, a group in Toronto that was first called Toronto Community Videotex because they grew out of the Telidon trials (the generic name for those kinds of graphics is videotex). They later became Interaccess and are still very active here to this day. I did my first compositing work at TCV in the late 1980s using a graphics board called Targa. I liked turning the video stream input into stills because I had done a certain amount of the opposite already, that is, shooting the progression of a staged action on still camera and turning it into xerox sequences. The first sequence I did on computer was of a cell splitting, and I found that stilling that turned the split into a very charged iconic image for me that I use to this day. It stands for both the pain of our mortality and acknowledgement of that which is not of the self. It is the contact point at which self and otherness is reconciled.

My inspiration has come for the past several decades from the influence of Canadian thinkers like Marshall McLuhan and George Grant, followed by people like Arthur Kroker – not so much the specifics of their theories but the fact that they have built a worldwide reputation for Canada in theorizing new technologies. My more specific inspiration comes from my own strong intuition since the mid-1980s that science and technology need to be explored in the arts for their mutual enrichment, which has since then been reinforced by a global network of artists and thinkers who explore representations and actualizations of the links between art, science and digital technologies.

Nell Tenhaaf

She is an electronic media artist and writer who has exhibited across Canada , in the U.S. and in Europe. A survey exhibition of fifteen years of her work entitled Fit/Unfit is being shown in several Canadian venues, 2003-06. She is an Associate Professor in the Visual Arts department of York University , and is represented in Toronto by Paul Petro Contemporary Art.

Exhibitions 2005 – Flo’nGlo , Paul Petro Contemporary Art in Images Festival Toronto 2004 – Fit/Unfit: A Survey Exhibition , The Canadian Museum Ottawa of Contemporary Photography Leonard and Bina Ellen Gallery , Concordia University Montreal 2003 – Fit/Unfit: A Survey Exhibition , The Robert McLaughlin Oshawa Gallery 2002 – dDNA (d is for dancing) , Paul Petro Contemporary Art Toronto in flow , Images Festival of Independent Film & Video 2000 – Paul Petro Contemporary Art, The Empathy Session Toron Western Front, Zero Degree Monstrosities Vancouver UCBM (You could be me) 1999 – MediaArts, storefront projection, dDNA (d is for dancing) St. Louis , MO – Paul Petro Contemporary Art, UCBM (You could be me) Toronto- Technoboro, Neonudism Montréal 1997 – InterAccess electronic media arts centre, Neonudism Toronto

Grants and awards 2005 – Ontario Arts Council, Integrated Arts – Research and Development, with John Kamevaar 2002 – Canada Council, Media Arts – Production Grant York University Fine Arts Merit Award York University Research Award for SSHRC reversion 2000 – Canada Council, Travel Grant York University Merit Award 1998 – Canada Council, Media Arts – Integrated Media York University Junior Research Fund Award 1995 – Conseil des arts et des lettres du Québec, arts médiatiques 1993 – Canada Council, Paris studio 1993 – Canada Council, Media Arts – Integrated Media 1992 – Corel Systems Award, for Bioapparatus project, with Catherine Richards and The Banff Centre for the Arts