ACTLab Director and Visionary Sandy Stone

No Stone Untenured

by Jon Lebkowsky

   

"Deep in the heart of technolopolis Austin, Sandy Stone is the vibrant theoretical force of UT's ACTlab, where technicians, scholars, and artists shape globally recognized projects as expanding interconnectivity forces new configurations of creativity, futurity, and power."

- artist Honoria, one of Sandy's students

Allucquere Rosanne Stone (aka Sandy) is to academia as Jimi Hendrix was to the blues... Hendrix could play blues riffs better than anybody, but when Hendrix played Hendrix, there was no blues, there was no music, there was just Hendrix. Says her former student Rich MacKinnon, an accomplished writer on virtual community and online governance, "I used to wonder why she never lectured much on her theories until I realized that after all these years I had been missing the point - she is her theory. Every day she shows her students what it means to be liquid, performative, and interfaced. The practical act of becoming and being the cyborg we know as Sandy infects us all with a similar, viral, and likely dangerous courage to be whoever we want, should, or must be. Personally, I'm a very different creature since falling under Dr. Stone's transformative knife of agency." The Hendrix reference is apropos... in a past life, Sandy worked as Hendrix's sound engineer. Now she's director of the Advanced Communications Technology Laboratory at the University of Texas at Austin Department of Radio-Television-Film. Her bio notes that "she studies issues related to interface, interaction, and desire." She's infamously transgendered, totally wired, and never saw an envelope she wouldn't push. When you talk to Sandy you realize that gender is really so much cultural nonsense... are you talking to a woman or a man? Makes no difference... when Sandy plays Sandy, there is no gender, there is no theory, there is just Sandy.

We met to discuss her recent battle for tenure at UT Austin, her role as teacher, and her planned remake of Bergman's The Seventh Seal.

Austin Chronicle: What happened with your tenure? It was denied... then it was approved?

Sandy Stone: First of all, let me explain the tenure procedure at the University of Texas. The department's budget council or executive council makes the initial recommendation for tenure, then it goes to the dean, and to a campus-wide committee, then finally to the provost and the president. The actual decision is not made by anyone except the president, so all the other things are recommendations. If the department says we think this person should or should not have tenure, 90 percent of the time the administration will rubber-stamp the recommendation, because they feel the department knows best about what's going on. In this case, no matter what my department's intentions were... and they brought me on with the idea that I was going to put the department in the 21st century, and do new and innovative and different things... the truth of the matter is, they don't really have a clue. I think that, to their credit, they were taking a jump into the unknown in hiring someone to do things that they didn't understand. But ultimately the fact that they didn't understand caught up with them. They didn't know what it was that I was doing, and the fact that it was getting a lot of attention internationally, and at other universities, doesn't really have much of an effect on a provincial department...

AC: Can you summarize in a sentence or two what you were doing?

SS: When people ask me what I do, I say I don't know. As soon as you understand what it is, it's old media. I'm trying to push the envelope continually, and I'm trying to get all of my students to push the envelope. And what pushing the envelope means is that you're always working in uncharted territory. My basic feeling is that new media is always something you can't explain. That's why my graduate seminar is called Theory and Methods of an Unnameable Discourse. Because you can't name what it is that you're doing. A lot of your effort is to try to find a language, meaning a set of theories and practices, to deal with what it is that you're doing. What we do in the graduate seminar is talk about issues of language as being related to new concepts, and the new concept is something for which you don't have a word. Normally, what we do when a new concept comes up is that we adapt an existing word, or we coin a word which is a combination of other words for it. That process of naming determines how we think about the thing.

AC: Buddhist academics.

SS: [Laughs] Yep, I'm afraid so! That's what it is. So I want to call attention to the act of naming. We're cyber-buddhists in that sense. I also consider my main job to present a moving target, which is to say I want to be the interface between what my students are doing and administrative expectations. Not in a deceptive sense, but in the sense of an interpretation, explaining what the students are doing in language that people in the department and the faculty and the administration can understand. And in that way we can have completely original, unintelligible work out of the bleeding edge, and still be able to talk about it within the department. This is an old specialty of mine. Donna Haraway calls it code switching. It's just talking to multiple audiences in multiple languages.

AC: It's a form of translation but more conceptual than linguistic.

SS: Yes. And that's the whole answer to the question of what I do.

AC: And how did they see what you were doing?

SS: It wasn't clear. I kept getting asked to do dog-and-pony shows. Sometimes department people came to those, sometimes they didn't. Whatever I did, it didn't seem to make a lot of difference. Some people got it, some people didn't. There wasn't very much serious communication. That wasn't strange. Usually in an academic environment everybody's busy with their own turf... but I expected that, at least, people would notice that the ACTLab had an international reputation. Well, maybe they did, and maybe they didn't but they didn't much care.

Actually, some people cared. Some people cared deeply. Some realized what was going on and were very much in favor of it. But there's a power structure at the university that by and large is controlled by people who have been there forever. They've never been outside the Academy; they've no idea what the real world is like. Very much oriented toward turf, and a very conventional idea of what academia is about.

AC: One difference I've seen between you and other academics is that you've always seemed to be steeped in real world experience. You don't talk the language of academics when we're sitting together talking.

SS: No, I don't, but I can when I have to: That's code switching. And code switching for my students is about providing a protected environment in which they can do the most incredible thing that they can turn out. They can just do insane things with technology, and with theory, at the same time, in the same bed, and do stuff that nobody has seen before. Maybe it's good for something, maybe it isn't. But it makes us think. And out of that thinking typically comes some terrific insight about some aspect of the theory or practice of what we call new media.

AC: Don't you have a tendency to switch theory and performance a bit?

SS: Yeah.

AC: Was that disconcerting for some of your colleagues?

SS: Yeah, it was, because I didn't do it when I arrived. But my theories and practices are never steady. They don't continue for more than two or three years. Then I exhaust the possibilities, and I have to change and have to go out and find something else. So when I came I was doing what they thought was technology and policy, and I got here and I did that for maybe a year, and I saw that this was a dying art. I moved on to doing things that would now be called performance. Then I moved directly into performance art, and now I'm coming out the other side.

I'm going to shoot a film this summer, a feature-length remake of Ingmar Bergman's The Seventh Seal, set in a mythical period at the end of the Vietnam War, and during the AIDS plague. It involves a returning vet who stumbles across a touring rock & roll band... The Banff Center for the Arts in Alberta, Canada has taken a large equity interest in the film.



(Clockwise from left): Sandy Stone, Vernon Reed, Joseph Rowe, and Howard Rheingold.

photograph by John Lebkowsky

AC: Back to our original discussion... how did you finally get tenure? Was that just the president's decision to overrule the committee?

SS: Not really. Once it got out of the department, it was like the university rising up, almost with one voice, and saying "How the hell can you think you can get away with this?" There didn't seem to be much doubt once it got out of the department that it was going to be reversed. But it still made for high adventure, because you never know how those things are going to go, really, when the chips are down. So there were some scary months there, when it felt like thin ice. The decision was overturned because the university was interested in putting their money where their mouth is. They wanted to foster excellence among their faculty. They wanted to make room for faculty who do, not so much nontraditional work, as faculty who... how can I put this? I'm trying to remember the exact wording ... it said something like `we need room for faculty who work unconventionally, who attract bright students....'

AC: Your students are pretty devoted to the work you're doing with them, and they seem quite stimulated.

SS: Yeah. They come alive, and it's the light in their eyes that drives me. That keeps relighting my fire over and over and over again.

AC: Your students don't work in isolation... there are no academic borders. Projects like the cyberopera Honoria in Ciberspazio have participants from inside and outside academia.

SS: This is something I deliberately set out to foster that has worked out even better than I expected: the concept of the greater ACTLab community, where the ACTLab doesn't exist only as a physical location in a building. Rather, it exists in a diffuse way, and in a connected way, outside the university, all around the world, wherever people log in and feel the connection with the ACTLab and want to participate in the projects. They can do that. We have a tremendous number of people involved in ACTLab projects through the Net, who have never been there (physically), who are doing research at other universities on their own, cooperatively with us. I think in that sense my biggest failure was not to publicize it enough. I didn't feel that we had to... it was happening, and I told people about it, but again, the concept of this sort of abstract connectedness, that you're working with people in cyberspace and it's real committed work, is something that the department doesn't really get. They don't intuit it, they don't understand it. They will 10 years from now, when it won't matter. But right now we're pushing the envelope.

AC: When we met several years ago, we talked a lot about virtual community. I know a lot has happened since then. Today people are trying to decide whether virtual community has commercial viability. What do you think about that evolution of community, so that it becomes a buzzword?

SS: I think it's fascinating. First of all, because it is just a buzzword right now. Nobody's made a successful virtual community, although things like Ding, the Activerse product, which are designed to foster group work online, are a very interesting move in that direction. But the companies that have so far been the ones that have started virtual environments with the idea of creating online community for corporate work have fallen on their asses. We've had fallout from that. The ACTLab is running Utopia, the first speaking VRML community - people can actually talk to each other in realtime. The reason we were able to get Utopia is that it flopped in the commercial world.

One or two other companies in Austin that have tried to make commercial online virtual communities that were avatar-based have flopped, and hackers who want to play with virtual community have been able to get access to really good, well worked-out, inexpensive software for that reason. However, I still think that there is long-term commercial viability in virtual community.

AC: Amitai Etzioni said recently that he thought it was essential, to have true virtual community, that it have an off-line, face-to-face aspect. And I know we've heard that over the years. Do you agree with that?

SS: I agree with that to a limited extent. I feel the kind of virtual community that you get when you have the possibility of off-line interaction has a completely different texture from the kind you get when you don't have off-line interaction. I've observed this many times. I think there's a place for both. I would like to see more of the kinds of communities that start online, but then wind up with an off-line component. I think they have the potential for a good deal more depth and texture in interpersonal relationships. But there are people who don't like that. There are people who prefer the complete roleplay aspect of the virtual community in which you never physically meet, so they never have to give up their online identities. They never have to worry about having their personal envelope compromised by meeting.

AC: One mistake, I think, that Etzioni made was in his feeling that you couldn't have community with anonymity. How do you feel about that?

SS: I feel that you have a different kind of community when you have anonymity. You definitely get community, but you need to loosen up your definition and understand how community with anonymity works. It's not necessarily the best kind of community, because with the abandonment of anonymity and the assumption of specific identities comes responsibility. But a particular kind of responsibility. That doesn't mean that you can't have responsibility within community. Here, by the way, there is a whole world view of issues about what constitutes authentic identity, about what constitutes anonymity, about what constitutes the pure self, about exposure and concealment. We could talk for hours about that, and each thread we pulled out would nuance the thing a little more.

AC: If you take your online identity and sustain it through time, it may not match your off-line identity. It may, however, be more revealing of who you truly are.

SS: Absolutely! And people frequently use online identities to be more of who they are, more of who they'd like to be than they would ever dare to be in face-to-face communication. I find that a positive thing. On the other hand, this business of authentic personal identity is a very suspicious concept, in that we're all changing all the time, we all put on and take off masks, and our identities undergo continual evolution, hopefully toward some kind of perfection but usually just through change.

AC: What attracted you to The Seventh Seal?

SS: I first saw The Seventh Seal when it first came out, in New York. When it first came out, I walked into the film and was just absolutely stunned. I sat there with my mouth hanging open and my eyes popping out. Holy shit! The style of the photography, the style of the lighting, the intensity of the narrative... on and on and on. Goddamn, my teenage brain in its fevered way said, "This is not a story about a knight coming back from the Crusades in Sweden! This is a story that has great eternal resonance and on and on and on..." and if you print that, please be sure that you have my voice tone in there, so that people know that I'm ironic. [Laughs.] Anyway, it really got me. I was at Banff for the summer summit, which is a time that we all get to go there and talk about the future of art and technology, and there were people there from Viacom and MSN and MSNBC. I was a senior artist. I wasn't there to pitch, I was a resource. But I was sitting in a circle with them, and as they went around doing the pitch, it came around to me, and this was not premeditated on my part. I said I didn't come here to pitch, and I want you to understand that. But if I were to pitch, here's what I would pitch. I would do a remake of The Seventh Seal, set in such and such a time, here's what the characters would look like... Death would look like Milt Kamen's character, etc. And I looked around, and everybody's mouths had turned into these round O's, and all the eyes were like little saucers, and it was all like the roller coaster from there. I was off into an adventure that I would probably have contemplated more carefully a year hence, but that came upon me a little sooner than I expected.

AC: As the Vietnam War ended and as the vets were coming back, did that make an impression on you? Or is that something you thought about later? How old is your thinking about that, as an analog to The Seventh Seal?

SS: I owe this all to Maya Lin, who designed the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington, DC. And in particular, a number of the paintings and the photographs that have been made around that memorial. There's one photograph or painting in particular showing a veteran, years later, leaning against the memorial. He's got one hand against the polished slab, and touching his hand from inside the slab, apparently, is one of his dead buddies, in battle dress, looking out at him with an expression I leave to your imagination. And he's crying, the man on the flesh side of this interface is crying. That picture moved me very deeply... it moves me now in telling you about it. And it was that moment more than anything else, I think, that changed my mind about the Vietnam War. Up until that point, I had thought that the war was an utterly senseless waste of time and destructive power on the part of various factions within the United States government. But at that point I began to see it from the point of view of the people who had been there. I knew plenty, and I had their versions, but this was different. This was the experience that I had not gotten from talking to them directly.

AC: Vietnam seemed like a scam, a manufactured conflict without political relevance for most people in this country. In fact I'm not sure what it meant.

SS: The original abstraction may have been a good idea, but Wallace Shawn said it better than anybody, in The Princess Bride... "Never get involved in a land war in Asia." The ground rules are different. The cultural imperatives are different. The terrain is different. The circumstances are different.

AC: I think human dysfunction comes from cultural misunderstandings, no? We have global online connections but we don't have the attendant global cultural connections. There's a profound inability to sit still for another person's culture.

SS: I think "sit still for another person's culture" is a really good way to put that. We were talking about this today in Gender and Sexuality. I'm teaching a course called Gender and Sexuality at the Millennium: The Future of Desire. It seems that just about any course I teach eventually comes around to discussing that thing, along with a set of issues of how you get power by controlling meaning, and certain other issues that I think are about interface and interaction. It's a perennial question, and it's a question that has to be asked over and over again. We have to keep trying to find an answer and the answers keep changing! Because the situation in which those answers are enmeshed and embedded keeps changing.

AC: We talked about this a little bit in the Mondo interview. I asked about going into a virtual reality and trying to adopt a sexual persona different from you physical sexuality, and you were telling me that you can't become another sex that readily because there's all the social and cultural baggage that just ain't there for you. And I was thinking about that the other night, while interviewing Amy Jo Kim about Ultima Online. She was saying how gender, in Brittania, is irrelevant. It didn't matter which gender you choose.

SS: When you try to separate gender from any other context, you're discounting the idea that gender evolves only in a context of power relationships. And if gender doesn't matter, you're fooling yourself. Because power relationships always matter. All power relationships sooner or later involve gender, and that means that in our society, with the mindset that we have, you can't construct a society without consciously or unconsciously taking gender into consideration.

AC: The ability to conceal gender is not the same as the ability to change gender.

SS: Yes! Yes, by god!