Contemporary Art @ Bo─čaziçi - Interview Project, 2010

Kathleen Ruiz (New York, 1962)

Ayda Tangüner,

Kathleen Ruiz is an internationally exhibiting media artist who creates simulations, games, installations, sculpture and photography. Her work explores issues about perception, behavior, interaction and the confluence of the imaginary and the real, inviting inquiry into how conceptual constructs are built and how they serve to shape ethics and power. (from

Ayda Tangüner: Could you please tell us a little about yourself?

Kathleen Ruiz: I am an artist of both Irish and American citizenship, born and raised in New York City from an immigrant, working class family. I attended public and parochial grammar schools, excelling in science and art. My family life is very influential on my artistic development as my elder brother is developmentally disabled, and also an epileptic. From him, and his seizure disorder, I developed a heightened awareness of the indistinct edge of actuality and the imaginary. Surprise and unpredictable frequencies, the suspension of the real - a departure from duration, were commonplace experiences for my family and I as my brother had his seizures. I was educated at a public university, State University of New York at New Paltz, where I graduated cum laude with an undergraduate degree in European history and a fine art minor. I then worked in New York City as an artist, photographer and designer while also studying at New York University earning a Master of Arts in studio fine art multimedia. I then taught part time at New York University from 1988 to 1996, helping to formulate the Art in Media program, while also developing my own artistic practice. Additionally, I also taught at the School of Visual Arts in New York City. I am currently an Associate Professor of Electronic Arts at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute where I develop and teach courses in simulation, experimental game design, digital imaging, cross-disciplinary integrated arts practice, and emerging genres. My artistic research is centered on simulation, perspective and perception. I create simulations which show elements of perception, behavior, and interaction. These works explore the confluence of the imaginary and the real. They invite inquiry into how conceptual constructs are built and how they serve to shape ethics and power. I pose questions about the oxymoron of virtual violence, catharsis, and desensitization in simulated space. My work portrays the promise of technology as well as its frightening, fascinating and humorous contradictions.

Ayda Tangüner: You are a well-rounded digital artist but I would first like to focus on your game art. What is your vision when it comes to juxtaposing art and video games?

Kathleen Ruiz: Especially remarkable to me are the ways in which our “inner space” (our minds) are colonized by various interests ranging from the military entertainment complex (from which most game experiences emanate) to political and corporate groups and institutions. I am interested in what Jenny Terry calls, “processed lives” and how we live in a terrain of hegemony while also being given the fantasy of individualism. Participation and play are deployed as mechanisms of social control. Rather than simply critiquing this situation, I seek to present simulations which open up interactive, multi-dimensional game space as a place for resonating ideas physically, intellectually, spiritually and emotionally. Can we use simulation technology to “see” “the other” in possibly new, non-confrontational ways? To enter a relationship of respect and responsibility for the other person rather than simply a relationship of mutuality and dialogue? Can we explore multiple viewpoints and expand our perceptions, not only through choice, but also through space itself as we simultaneously see the perspectives of observer, observed and process of observation. Art enables this multifaceted dialog to occur with the technology.

Ayda Tangüner: Speaking of video games, you are involved in a project called CapAbility Games Research which focuses on developing multimedia game simulation modules for people with various disabilities. This is not only a noble cause per se, but also a step towards altering the common prejudice of the societies towards games and gaming in general by disclosing the beneficial possibilities. What are some of the outcomes of this project?

Kathleen Ruiz: The CapAbility Games Research Project enables disabled people to “experience” the real world in a safe, virtual way in preparation for real world experiences. So many disabled people are afraid of going out into the “real world”. Through our work we see the disabled becoming more excited and empowered about social interaction and independence. The CapAbility Games Research Project is part of a larger plan of mine to explore the possibilities of gaming and simulation technology in more positive and constructive ways.

Ayda Tangüner: Do you play video games, yourself? Any personal favorites?

Kathleen Ruiz: Yes, I play many video games. My favorites are mostly indy and unusual games like Spectra, Rez, Katamari Damacy, Ryzom, Braid, Paper Moon, The Graveyard, Soda Constructor, N Game, Gonzalo Frasca’s Sept 12, some social action games, and many of my student’s games and some of the Wii games when played with my family members.

Ayda Tangüner: One of your video game installations, Stunt Dummies, includes numerous details that the players can linger on and muse upon. Personally it took me back to the days of Myst where player was not engulfed with thousands of images and sounds but the effect was created through the simple (yet haunting) music and environmental details. In Stunt Dummies, I found myself looking at the chocolate bar wrappings scattered around or taken by surprise by a sitting woman who collapses and ends up crumpled on the floor. Moreover, after 5 minutes, I was feeling a mild discomfort. Is this one of the interpretations of your game -- discomfort across being exposed to an interactive environment not easily decipherable?

Kathleen Ruiz: Stunt Dummies is an exploration game that comments on culture and the promises of technology, while also illustrating aspects of control and manipulation. Using videogame interfaces, iconography and conventions, Stunt Dummies poses the question, are we controlling technology or is technology controlling us? Do we humans ask too much from our technology? Or does our technology ask too much from us? Stunt Dummies proposes that surrounding every technology are institutions promoting world views which try to alter our sense of what is important in a culture: the natural order of things, our social relationships, what is reasonable, necessary, inevitable, and ultimately what is real. At times this is actually funny and at other times it is very discomforting. I want to play on this edge to viscerally communicate the duality of our own manipulation and raise the question of using technological tools more wisely to fully express the spectrum of human capability and existence.

Ayda Tangüner: In both Stunt Dummies and Balance, which is an interactive virtual environment you designed, there are words or numbers inscribed on the walls. What are some of the connotations you would like to convey to the "experiencer" through these texts and numbers?

Kathleen Ruiz: The texts and numbers are the actual programming which went into making the virtual world in the case of Stunt Dummies. I want the “expereincer” (I love your term Ayda, “expereincer”) to viscerally travel in and amongst the code in that particular part of the world which is a “networked” terrain until entering a mountain, which is actually a head, inscribed with the code from which the chamber is made. Inside this “mountain” one sees a number of different world views. To which does one subscribe to? In the virtual world Balance one travels through random numbers wrapped around the virtual objects which make up that world. This is a continuation of my work, The Enumerated Repositories which explores the idea of randomness in a conceptual space relating to the physical states of genetic causality (my brother mentally retarded and the cause is unknown), and the seeming randomness in accidental situations in life (the statistics of who is born when and where and for how long) are incomprehensible. What are the strange factors which determine these course of events? It is only by creating a visual discourse with these phenomena that I can begin to have the possibility of accepting them. I find through working with the computer that I have been able to traverse the border between physical, simulated, imaginary, and numerical space. This also reflects Paul Virilio’s sentiments, “Our society and culture have placed increased importance upon the value of numbers in everything from the requisite social security number (ensuring a reflection of our existence) to statistical phenomena in quantum physics.”

Ayda Tangüner: We are now on the verge of an era where the barriers between the player and the games are further brought down (through introduction of new technologies such as the Natal Project announced by the developers of XBox, for instance). Considering the next generations will be born into an age of virtual experience, how do you think this will affect digital art and artists such as yourself whose work has already been focused on the transparency between the real and the virtual?

Kathleen Ruiz: I look forward eagerly to the new kinds of interfaces to our digital worlds such as those developing in Project Natal. It is beyond time for us to liberate ourselves from the commonplace, sedentary, twitching types of interfaces. New more physically and naturally oriented interfaces will open up new territories for creativity and those marginalized by existing game controllers. In fact, we have done research regarding young female game players and the existing controllers were among the most off-putting factors to this very important group. For artists there will be endless possibilities of creating new works which tap into the potential of the new interfaces. Of course the line between “real” and virtual will become even more blurred. As in all technological inventions there will be many ranges of exciting potentials as well as dangers. I especially will enjoy the potentials of more physically active interfaces as the sedentary lifestyle of computing and gaming is a detriment to all of us.

Ayda Tangüner: The sculptures you created and present on your website look as if they've stepped out of a science fiction novel wherein these pieces with various symbols were left to mankind by extraterrestrial beings. What are some of the concepts you like to explore through your sculpture?

Kathleen Ruiz: I think of my sculptures as physical objects (and virtual objects) that are legacies of a past which will become unknown. This past is a past that all creatures, including extraterrestrial beings, could possibly fathom in some way. The symbols are at once ancient and futuristic. I am simply the scribe.

Ayda Tangüner: One of the concurrent themes that is visible in your work is time. Could you elaborate a little on this? How do you prefer to depict time as? What kind of questions you pose to your audience considering time?

Kathleen Ruiz: Time, sequence, past and future: We are timeless beings in an aging dimension. Perhaps I ask my audience to consider this.

Ayda Tangüner: You also reflect your art through paintings and drawings. Are they digital paintings and drawings? What kind of methods do you use if they are digital?

Kathleen Ruiz: Most all of my work is digital whether in conception or in execution. I use a variety of methods and approaches in materializing the work, if I choose to make it physical, such as conte, pigment, digital photography, combinations of these, etc.

Ayda Tangüner: Are there any artists that inspire you?

Kathleen Ruiz: Yes, so many. Here are just a few:
- Hieronymus Bosch: the 15th century Flemish artist who painted allegorical worlds envisioning the social and religious fears of his time.
- Wasily Kandinsky: (1866-1944), the Russian born father of abstract art and theorist who wrote “Concerning the Spiritual in Art”, has been very inspirational to me.
- Laszlo Moholy Nagy: Hungarian painter, photographer, sculptor, theorist 1895-1946. I admire his strength to be on the pioneering edge of creating art with machines and technology in the 1920’s & 30’s, also his writings and theories are quite interesting- the function of the artist- “Art is the senses’ grindstone, sharpening the eyes, the mind, and the feelings. Art has an educational and formative ideological function, since not only the conscious but also the subconscious mind absorbs the social atmosphere which can be translated into art.”
- Anna Mendieta: Cuban-born American Performance Artist, 1948-1985 powerful physical & spiritual works beautifully reminding us of our mortality. “Art is a material part of culture, but its greatest value is its spiritual role, and that influences society, because it’s the greatest contribution to the intellectual and moral development of humanity that can be made.”
- Eva Hess: wonderful sculptures which defy gravity and mass and resonated in deep feeling.
- Sol Lewitt: conceptual works and wall drawings
- James Casebere: contemporary American artist who takes photographs of table-top constructions that evoke a sense of emotional place rather than the physicality of a place’s forms.
- James Turell: born 1943, American artist, work involves explorations in light and space that speak to viewers without words evoking a spiritual awakening.
I am very influenced by my brother Eugene, as mentioned previously. Also very relevant are philosophers such as Paul Virilio, Jean Baudrillard, and Jean Luc Nancy who I have studied within Europe. As well, I am influenced by the phenomenologists Edith Stein, Edmund Husserl, and Maurice Merleau-Ponty. Also influential are the ancient philosophers Heraclitus, Aristotle and others.

Ayda Tangüner: What are some of your future projects?

Kathleen Ruiz: I am working on a project entitled “The Other”, which is an interactive simulation game world exploring the theme of multiple perspectives. Upon a virtual planet island, human, mammalian, and avian creatures live in harmony and disharmony. Each one depends upon the other in more ways than they can ever imagine. The Other uses first person pov (point of view), but what is unique is that one can instantly switch to another character’s standpoint and see their own actions interpreted from a different position. I am also working on Telomere, a multimedia dance project which deals with age and agelessness, the triumph of the human spirit while the inevitable collapse of the body occurs through time. Telomere is a multimedia ballet which uses the process of cell division as a metaphor for the life process of a prima ballerina.

Ayda Tangüner: Thank you very much for taking the time to answer my questions.