Experimental Media and Performing Arts Center,
Troy NY


Interviewed by Emily Berçir Zimmerman

Zimmerman: Could we begin by describing the installation as it will exist at EMPAC?

Sester: The installation FEAR is part of a series called Emotion, which will express the basic human emotions. The installation in Uncertain Spectator is about fear. It's an interactive art installation that uses a commodity that you can find in most spaces. For EMPAC, it will be a sitting area with five chairs with a coffee table. The coffee table will emit light pulses from inside, while the chairs will be emitting audio.

The Emotion series covers the basic emotions felt by human beings—well, there is no such thing; nobody will ever come up with the same list of emotions. But we know that we all can easily recognize certain emotions as pure subjects: fear, anger, greed, happiness, disgust, depression, embarrassment, frustration, guilt, hope, hostility, interest, jealousy, rage, shame, shyness, wonder, worry, etc. I am not going to do a didactic covering of the emotions, as there is no such thing, only a few, basic emotions. These are also felt by animals and by some plants, so it's not just about human beings.

In my interactive work, I don't want the visitors to wear any gear or to input their breath or to touch something to get a measurement. I've always avoided that. Which makes a difference with many interactive works—it just happens by surprise. It's important to me. And for that reason I use commodities that are banal, that are everywhere, so that you will not know. My Emotion series aims to be one big takeover of a public place, which could be a mall or an airport or where there are information desks, sitting areas, benches, cafes with tables, mugs. I could cover such an area with things you interact with, but you would not know which ones. For example, you want to get a ticket and the ticket machine starts doing something that is unexpected. After you have the ticket, you want to sit somewhere and "uh oh."

Zimmerman: You hear howls of pain before you sit down?

Sester: So then you want to find another place to sit, but suddenly everything becomes suspicious.

Zimmerman: There was an interesting reference in Andrea Mubi Brighenti's "Artveillance" article to James Elkins' The Object Stares Back and I thought of that book in relation to this piece, because it's so unexpected that an object responds to our presence. So this idea that these objects would respond emotionally to our presence—it creates an inner subjective experience with something inanimate.

Sester: Yes it is inanimate. I don't think an object has emotions; I mentioned plants, I mentioned animals, but I've no thoughts such as this chair having an emotion. However, it's a form and it's of now, and it will go away, so it has a kind of a life, but I'm not an animist.

Zimmerman: Elkins talking about regimes of seeing, of visuality, and how looking is an intensely psychological experience and how we bring certain objects into our field of vision in order to tell ourselves a story about ourselves. So it's really about the construction of seeing, and the fallibility of seeing.

Sester: It comes from surveillance, celebrity, and visibility—basically, seeing and being seen, to go back to your subject. Where are the thresholds of visibility, when does it happen, and to whom and how. In that we don't know what is retrieving information from us, but it doesn't matter at the end. This is why I use these commodities. I call them commodities; I'm not sure if it's the right vocabulary.

Zimmerman: Yes, a consumerist product.

Sester: Right, consumerist products that are around us. Because they look banal. I just wanted to make this happen in some things that we would not suspect at all, like the vanity mirror that follows you, keeping your face in the center of it. It's just to reveal what we don't see.

In my table and in my chairs, there is nothing that retrieves any data from you. We place a camera up there, but that camera is not broadcasting anything; I am not collecting anything. I could, but it's not my purpose. It's just to reveal the way we are heading forward with technology. Do we really feel that it's the best we can do with technology? It's just a way of asking a question and not letting things be taken as a given or closing our eyes to it because not it's not so nice.

So I'm not in a state of anxiety regarding this. It's just to give a possibility for those who are ready to think a little bit about our commitment every day to what we do with ourselves, with where we put our money, our attention, and responsibility. That's all.

This is why I want to keep it looking as simple as possible. But weirdly enough, although it looks very simple, behind the simple appearance is the most difficult, complex project. From the outset it needs to be defined very clearly. It is a question of do you want to recognize something in yourself or not, because that's not a good feeling. [laughter]

This new series is about the currency of emotions that are used to sustain profitable businesses. It's always been used—it's unavoidable. Two people meet and there is an exchange of emotions going on. We can play with them in order to get what we want or to avoid some things that we don't want.

Zimmerman: Yes, the oversaturation of media with advertising and the constant pull on emotional states.

Sester: Yes, exactly. Using emotion is nothing new, but today emotion is used everywhere—the movies, the news, the papers, the TV, and all forms of entertainment. The way entertainment like music or performance is preferred over, say, other kinds of arts, such as poetry for example.

Zimmerman: We're living in a highly melodramatic time.

Sester: Yes. Creating a lot of anxiety. The climate is scary at the moment, on many levels.

Zimmerman: Can we talk a little bit about the emotional trope of the installation—the sense of anxiety that this installation is evoking?

Sester: My intent is not to have people become anxious by approaching the installation. It's not to distribute anxiety. As I said earlier, if I would put something out there, I would put out peace and quietness, silence, and joy. The goal here is just to give expression to the emotions that we have. We cannot avoid them, and the more we see them the better it is for us, because we are given distance from them once we recognize them. In translating them into the space of everyday experience, we can see what this feeling might look like. This is what I wish, so that in going out or approaching another person, we can perhaps recognize "Oh! That's fear. I'm feeling fear right now." Most of the time, we don't know what we feel. We even try not to feel. If it's not a good feeling, we try to move it back down and hide it in our body, and then we can make ourselves sick.

Zimmerman: To exteriorize emotion and make it almost safe to deal with.

Sester: Right. This is why when approaching this piece it expresses fear more and more, but when we back away, we can see and feel that it gets peaceful again. So we can measure a difference. If I approach, it gets scared again, and I instead decide to leave it in peace and I retreat. Or, I decide to go and sit and see what happens!

Zimmerman: This installation will be set in EMPAC's lobby. Several of your installations are set in public spaces, so I was curious about how the context is engaging for your practice. What is it about public space that interests you?

Sester: It is the person within the space. It is the passerby; it is everybody, without exception. It's about the people. And this is why I don't want them to wear any gear or provide input in my installations; it happens, it's part of life.

My goal is that the person is the center of my attention, and of the attention of the work. Without the person, there is no such work. The person is the artwork. That's my interest in putting things in public spaces. Unfortunately, it's difficult because there are not many real public spaces that allow this to happen. But in a context like a museum or a gallery, you expect something—whatever happens, it's art. So I'm glad that I usually can occupy the lobbies, because it's before people buy their tickets, or it's before they are really in the show, so it's still what one would call public space, where they don't get to expect art.

Zimmerman: Yes, exactly.

Sester: So that's my strategy.

Zimmerman: To present the experience before the individual has crossed a threshold and expects it.

Sester: Yes, yes. And then if they look closely enough, they might see some kind of a beauty in it. It also allows me to be closer to what I think art has as part of art—questioning our life, that it's politically related. It can be an eye opener or a heart opener, something that opens a new perspective, or a new way of thinking about things. This is what art should be doing, and then beauty can arise from that. It's such a great gift, but we have no time, our minds are taken over by "oh, umm, my plans for tomorrow, or my troubled business, or what will I cook tonight, etc." And we don't think. So, art probably has to do its job better on this level.

Zimmerman: It's interesting that when you're dealing with public space, because you're dealing with a collective space, there's always an element of the political involved, because it's the space of the many.

Sester: Yes. It's also making somebody go back into a private place. In public spaces, we behave completely differently. We feel like it's a banal experience to walk through a space every day for 20 years; we don't even see it anymore. And suddenly something is different... it's a kind of shock because our private bodies, our own body, our own being there is changed.

Zimmerman: Speaking of the political and public space—the issue of surveillance comes up quite often in your work; to what extent does it inform? Surveillance seems to inform this installation less, and yet it's still very present, because it makes use of a surveillance camera.

Sester: Yes. It still needs computer vision; otherwise I wouldn't be able to detect a presence.

Zimmerman: But the work itself is not related to the anxiety of surveillance?

Sester: No. However, your question is very good because it will probably be in the mind of the passerby as a visitor—how does that work? Why? How does it know that I am approaching, how does it know that I am going away... So, surveillance is there. It cannot be avoided. It's funny, because people don't see the cameras. But they are there; they're totally visible. In commercial spaces, or any other space, you will see them.

Zimmerman: I have one last question about the relationship of trust with the viewer. What role does it play in your work, and how do you envision that relationship?

Sester: That's such an interesting question. My work doesn't want to impose itself. I mentioned earlier if the viewer doesn't want to see it, then that's it... I can see some people who really don't see the light. They don't see it; they even don't notice it.

Zimmerman: Wow, amazing.

Sester: I was mesmerized recently at SFMOMA when doing a test with the installation—this was one of the most amazing experiences I've had. A mentally disabled man was interacting with Access and he became the light. It also emits audio via a directional audio beam in the ears of that person. Only that person can hear it, ideally. He was caught by the light. And he was just taken over. He was happy; he was feeling. When the light went out he would look for it all around him, and when it came back, he was overjoyed. It was just amazing, and it went on and on, and each time it disappeared he searched for it and then when he saw the light he ran into it. It was like a love story. It was fantastic.

Zimmerman: That's beautiful. So how did it end?

Sester: We were in testing mode, and we had to stop. I also did not want to watch too much, because it was so intimate. I'm not much of a voyeur; when I feel it's intense, I go away. I try to leave the experience light enough so that if people don't want to get involved, they can just pass by. But it's offered, and they are free to decide how they feel about it.