The Power of Oz

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The Power of Oz

Interview with Digital Artist Adrianne Wortzel

Interviewed by Stephanie Owens

Stephanie Owens: Can you tell me a bit about what your background is. I know you are a painter, but you seem also to have a strong interest in metaphor and storytelling.

Adrianne Wortzel: When I was 15, I got working papers and started working at the main branch of the Brooklyn Public Library so that I could buy art lessons at the Brooklyn Museum right down the street. After that first year I always had fellowships and went there for years and this is where I did life drawing and painting, blah, blah, and sculpture and was pretty much immersed. When I went to college, I thought I don’t want to contaminate my art. I was really stubborn, so I went in as an English major. Then I went up once to see the art department and I saw that all the teachers were painters. I didn’t know who Ad Reinhardt was, I didn’t know who anybody was, but they were painters so I thought, this might not be so bad. So I switched majors and completed my degree in fine art.

SO: What did you do when you left school?

AW: When I got out of college I went completely back to figurative painting and started all over again. Feeling I had to shed any influences. I remember that Ad Reinhardt came over to see my work (work that was stacked all around the room where we sat). I was doing an Adam and Eve series, which were really kind of nice, and definitely the result of a broken relationship. Eve was in the foreground and Adam just couldn’t commit. (She says this with a roaring laugh). A

Any way, he (Reinhardt) came in and he made one of his wry comments about doing representational art. I was a protégé of his in painting so he was surprised I had gone back to figurative stuff. But I knew I wouldn’t stay there. I knew I had to go back to go forward. The paintings became abstract again and then toward the end of my painting in 1992, I had been doing all these other things like writing and participating in a writing workshop at Cooper Union run by Walter English. (CHECK NAME) People would say, why don’t you publish, but I wasn’t really a writer. Then a whole series of personal things happened and I decided to go back to school and get a degree that would be useful in earning a living. I got an MFA at the School of Visual Arts in Computer Arts.

SO: On the Data Dynamics panel, you said something that really intrigued me, having a background myself in painting. You said, I painted for forty years but took one look at the Web and it was all over, there was no going back. Can you describe what you meant by that?

AW: It (painting) may have been over (for me) anyway, because the same thing happened to Ad in a way. When I knew him, he felt he was painting his paintings over and over again and he had reached some sort of impasse. So when he got sick and died, I really thought it was about that and the same thing was happening to me. (At this Adrianne grabs a cigarette from its place next to her keyboard). In order to honor it, I had to leave it.

SO: Gerhard Richter has said something similar about his relationship to painting.

AW: Really? Well, I agree. I have always chosen art above life, but I was getting really depressed. So, I decided cynically to go to SVA to do desktop publishing so I’d have some money. But I was in school only 6 months when the non-image based Web came out and saw the connections and thought that it was going to be visual soon and going to be incredible.

SO: What year was this?

AW: I graduated in 1995 and did my thesis as a Web piece. I was very lucky at the time actually because no body knew anything about the Web yet, or if they knew it hadn’t happened yet. I did this piece called, “The Electronic Chronicles” and all my classmates were extremely contentious about it because they said it was low-tech. They were doing very complicated things that had to do with other technologies. I remember thinking that they were right, it was very low-tech. But in two years they would all be doing it.

SO: Do you mean low-tech because it was textual and not a mechanical or physical piece?

AW: Yes because I was using HTML, which was a scripting language and not a programming language.

SO: So they thought it was too “light”?

AW: Yes. But I did this piece that I loved and I thought it was exactly right for the time. That’s why I won’t upgrade it. The Electronic Chronicles were about an archeological dig and in itself it has become an artifact.

SO: Another aspect of your presentation and work at Data Dynamics that made you stand out from the other artists is that your piece is object oriented, while the other works are information based or exist only online. Did this have any meaning for you?

AW: That’s interesting because I think it goes back to representational art all over again. In a way, that was my intention because when everyone was talking about avatars and experiencing themselves in cyberspace disembodied, I thought it would be fun to make a clunky robot. I have made a number of robots before for earlier performances. People are so eager to project onto robots, –including me–, or any kind of machine. I was interested in that kind of avatar where there was a kind of projection involved.

SO: You mean a psychological projection.

AW: Yes, but also ironic. I see the robot at the Whitney as a physical bridge between the here and there because people can communicate through it and talk to each other. But the robot is really quite dumb. It has fifty or so wonderful speeches that are there so it has a philosophy, but it is nuts and bolts.

SO: And it is Camouflage Town where your robot, Kiru, lives. In the past, Kiru has made some other appearances in your work, can you talk about his evolution?

AW: There are several characters in The Electronic Chronicles. One was MusEleanor who has lived through all of time and who has coached all the great artists in history and has been generally a pain in the ass. But she complains that she doesn’t get any credit for anything. For instance, she got to the Arena Chapel before Giotto and she is very upset they didn’t let him build the Chapel. When he got there the first thing she said was “You have to paint the little panels” so she is somewhat of and irritant. She emerged out of that piece to be interviewed. People would call me to interview her.

SO: And you would take her role?

AW: Yes.

SO: Have you taken the role of other characters from other work and are you always your characters?

AW: Mostly I have actresses because I was a character in “Sayanora Diorama” which was a complete theatrical production with actors and robots. But in the end I just videotaped myself because I am really not a performer that I know of and didn’t want the stress of being on stage. I had produced it, written it and designed it and couldn’t do everything. Kiru was a character in Camouflage Town, which is the Whitney exhibit, as it began in The Electric Chronicles. He lived in a place that was a decoy town, a place that was an exact duplicate of the original town where he lived. The original town was where they conducted battle so it was damaged. Kiru is also the master of juxtapositions. All of the robot’s recorded speeches are his speeches collected from The Electronic Chronicles.

SO: Is Kiru based on some real historical figure or is he something you made up?

AW: He is something I made up. I found in a Rudyard Kipling book a character named Kiru but I haven’t researched it. He is something of a wise servant. But the name just came up for me and I just took it.

SO: You describe Kiru in the exhibition essays as something of a “cultural curmudgeon”. Webster says describes curmudgeon as a “crusty old man” which I found very curious. Here is this women digital artist who has made an avatar that she says is open to all to use as their virtual identity, but one that can primarily be described as a crusty old man.. anything going on here?

AW: It’ s all about giving the character liberty to comment not directly about the work in the show but very indirectly. Which is the only way Kiru could walk around and take pictures of the other works in the show and transmit them back to the Web, which they other artists loved. It is because I wanted the robot to have the freedom to be irritable. He says, “You carry nostalgia in front of you like a banner”. He just screams at whoever is around. Every time I do anything that involves commentary I make it very indirect. For instance, there is another character in The Electronic Chronicles named The Fox and she is bad, very bad. The Fox, Heroina, was absolutely based on a classmate who was the most vicious, horrible person I had ever met in my entire life. She says, “The meek will inherit the earth, but only after the rest of us”. She’s really bad.

SO: Although the robot, Kiru, is open he is a male. And he is not only male, but he is the representative of Camouflage Town – a decoy town for militaristic operations. As I read about your other work, there is a lot of battles, a lot of war, and a lot of power struggles. I am interested to know how important this is to your work. Is all that battle supposed to be a comment of being male? On being female? Particularly because you are a female, is this a commentary I should get from your work? Is it in there or am I making it up?

AW: Gosh. Well. I haven’t intended it but I think it is there. It is based in gender in the work but actually what it is is the powerlessness of methodical goodness. Goodness doesn’t get you anywhere. In a way, we all feel that the more immoral you are the richer you will get and the more powerful you will get. It has to do with my own conflicts. In some fantasy I think why could I have married him? I could have had this house, I wouldn’t have to work… I think I base conflicts in gender because it’s really a perfect way to do it. It’s out there.

SO: When I learned that Kiru was a male, I imagined that you put him out there in public to be significant, with all his philosophical spoutings and canned wisdom and that you as the artist acted like Oz controlling everything behind the scene. The world sees a steel, objectified front but you are the one making everything happen.

AW: That is absolutely true. It is Oz. That’s also why MusEleanor came into it. She’s the one who actually invented everything. She is viewed as a pain in the ass yet her observations are always right. She’s the guide, the facilitator, but she is smarter than all of them. A lot of women artists working digitally don’t use their first names, so in a way, it touches on the fact that it is better to appear as a male as long as you have the real power.

For more about Adrianne Wortzel, check out her online projects, The Electronic Chronicles, Sayanora Diorama, and Camouflage Town at: and

For more on the Whitney’s Data Dynamics and Bitstreams Exhibition go to:

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