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Interview with Alumni Jenna Altomonte: On Remote Technology and the Artist’s Response to War

Interview with Alumni Jenna Altomonte: On Remote Technology and the Artist’s Response to War
Jenna Altomonte in a sculpture garden outside the Giardini in Venice, during a visit in 2018.

 

On a recent trip to Venice, Jenna Altomonte presented a paper titled Remote Pleasure and Pain: Avataric Control in Digital Performance Art, at the Taboo and the Media sessions of the Taboo Conference Series in Bertinoro, Italy. 

Currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of Art in the College of Architecture, Art and Design at Mississippi State University, Altomonte (Ph.D. 2017) teaches courses in contemporary visual culture, digital performance art, and video game art. She is especially interested in how our collective responses to trauma can be viewed through the digital and virtual realms of game play and video game art.

Altomonte was recently awarded the Faculty Development Seminar Fellowship by the Palestinian American Research Center, which enabled her to visit Israel and Palestine for two weeks this past spring, thanks to sponsorship from the Council of American Overseas Research Centers. She traveled with a group of US-based faculty and independent researchers to universities, cultural institutions, and historic cities, and participated in roundtable discussions with Palestinian colleagues.

Look out for Altomonte’s contributing essays in the forthcoming books, Transcultural Identities in a Changing Arab World, from American University Cairo Press, and Gaming Beyond the Digital Divide: Video Games and Game Cultures of the Global South, with Carnegie Mellon University ETC Press.

In this interview, Altomonte talks about her dissertation, completed in 2017, and her continued research into technology’s impact on artists dealing with trauma firsthand and from a distance.

 

Tell me a little bit about your research interests, especially your Ph.D. dissertation subject and its development. 

I have always been fascinated by responses to pain and trauma. My undergraduate studies were framed by 9/11, the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and the subsequent war on terror, and since then I’ve been drawn to how artists, writers, musicians, and performers responded to these events.

When I was accepted to the Interdisciplinary Arts program, I began researching the impact of tele-present (remote) technology on artists affected by the Iraq War. My dissertation, Witnessing Violence, (Re)Living Trauma: Online Performance Interventions in the Digital Age, investigates digital-based performances influenced by the violence perpetuated during the Iraq War of the 2000s-2010s. Specifically, I was interested in how artists respond to tele-present technology, like remotely-guided devices such as unmanned aerial vehicles. To contextualize this material, I chose several works by the Iraqi-born artists, Wafaa Bilal and Adel Abidin, and one American artist, Joseph DeLappe.

Bilal, best known for his project Domestic Tension, a performance piece in which he lived in a gallery for a month and was shot by paintballs remotely by internet users watching from a webcam, also created a book titled Shoot an Iraqi: Art, Life and Resistance under the Gun, based on that performance, which details the horrors of living in a conflict zone and growing up under Saddam Hussein's regime.

DeLappe's work, Killbox, 2015-2016, is an interactive installation and downloadable computer game that critically explores the nature of drone warfare, revealing both its complexities and consequences. 

Screen shot from Killbox, by Joseph DeLappe, 2015-2016
Screenshot from Killbox, by Joseph DeLappe, 2015-2016. Computer Game, Interactive Installation.

 

In your research for Witnessing Violence, did you concern yourself with the way that war is experienced by some firsthand and by others from a distance? 

That’s an interesting question that is related to primary and secondary experience. My spouse has been in the Air Force for some time now, and I have family and friends from high school who have all served. My generation came of age during that wave of enlistments following 9/11, and many of my friends joined after high school, so I think that influences my perspective on this topic.

Most of us witnessed 9/11 and the Iraq War through a completely mediated experience, which is a secondary form of witnessing. In both Bilal and Abidin’s work, they both witnessed extremely traumatic events firsthand, whereas in DeLappe’s work it’s more about secondary experiences, experiencing trauma through the screen.

 

And what about video games? Do you play?

I’m a Mario Brothers player until the day I die—but my husband is crazy about all kinds of video games. Although I admit that when I was completing my Ph.D., sometimes seeking distraction from research, I learned that Grand Theft Auto is the best stress outlet known to man! That, of course, got me thinking about how performing acts of violence in constructed virtual spaces relates to violence performed in physical space. That definitely played into my research and thinking at the time. Also, I would say they really should develop gamer clubs for graduate students—I bet that would be helpful.

My current research projects continue to explore responses to war; however, my attention is now on the divisions created by post-occupation policies such as bordering, forced removals, and relocations.

 

With whom did you work most closely at OHIO?

I was fortunate to have several professors that had a positive impacted my experience at Ohio University, including Dr. Jennie Klein (Art History, School of Art + Design), who was pivotal in shaping both my undergraduate and graduate experience. She was such an amazing resource of encyclopedic knowledge in art history—so she was great for helping me decide what influences and references were relevant in my project.

During my doctoral studies, I worked closely with Dr. Charles Buchanan in Interdisciplinary Arts. He was my dissertation chair and worked to refine my writing and research skills. My writing truly matured over the time I was working with him. Dr. Marina Peterson (now at UT-Austin) also influenced my scholarly practices and served as one of my dissertation advisors.

 

Jenna Altomonte in Venice, 2018
Altomonte in the Pavilion of Saudi Arabia from the 2018 Architecture Biennale in Venice, 2018.

 

How are you adjusting to work and life at Mississippi State? What are some unique challenges?

This is my first tenure-track position, so finding a balance between teaching, conducting research, and fulfilling service obligations has been stressful, but I work in a fabulous department with faculty and administration who actively support my research, teaching methods, travel, and field trips!

I believe I am the first contemporary art historian at MSU, and I’ve found students hungry for this material. They seem very eager to discuss present day problems both in and out of the art world.

How did your recent visit to Italy transpire?

My visit to Italy was two-fold—I spent time conducting research at the 2018 Venice Architecture Biennale, to research and write about the concept of free space, which was the theme under which the Biennale was organized. I visited the national pavilions to explore how artists, designers, and architects respond to this, including notions of encounters, social space, and how spaces can be prejudicial to certain groups, classes, or economies. It was fascinating to see how different countries deal with the concept, although to be frank, it costs a bit of money to gain admission, and so the Biennale itself is not really very free.

I also gave a talk at the third conference iteration of Taboo and the Media, hosted by the University of Bologna in Bertinoro. I presented on Remote Pleasure and Pain: Avataric Control in Digital Performance Art. In keeping with the theme, I spoke about how online, anonymous users (re)act and respond when provided the opportunity to control human avatars using remote technology. 

What else do you have coming up in the near future?

Recently I hosted Bryan Lewis Saunders for a talk with students and I brought the Founder and Director of the Museum of Impact, Monica Montgomery, to host two workshops on artist-activist practices with students from MSU.

Last fall I presented at the Southeastern College Art Conference in Birmingham, AL, focusing on innovative approaches to teaching art history, and in March I presented Look to the Skies: Drone Art in the Age of Telepresence, a talk at the Midwestern Art History Society, Cincinnati Art Museum and the Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, Ohio. I also presented at Foundations in Flux, the Foundations in Art: Theory and Education Conference in Columbus, Ohio.

I look forward to sharing Digital Monuments, Virtual Commemoration, at the Third Annual Memory Studies Association Conference in Madrid, Spain in June this year. An example of a digital monument like the type I am interested in is Isaac Lipschits' Digital Monument to the Jewish Community an online, interactive database featuring the names and information of over 100,000 Jewish victims from the Netherlands killed during World War II. 

 

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Read more stories from Spring 2019 issue of the School of Interdisciplinary Arts Alumni News.