by Liz Georges

People have worried about the effect of technology on the human spirit for centuries. Michelle Lisa Herman’s Coup d’Espace installation, Inter-Net, takes on the topic with wit and compassion. The three pieces included in the installation, Social NetworkVirtual Window and Love Letters (Language is a Virus), each play with the juxtaposition of human and machine, offering a perspective that melds the sinister with the soulful.

Social Network, the centerpiece of the installation, provides the clearest example. The constellation of white orbs is suspended from the ceiling on wires that lead back to a nest of amplifiers and power cords on the wall. The orbs have the cute, vaguely anthropomorphic feel typically reserved for Japanese robotics and aliens on “Doctor Who” episodes. Each orb has, roughly where the ears ought to be, a pair of speakers that broadcast a voice recording.  Each orb has a little motion detector.  Whenever it is triggered, the orb says, “I’m here…are you there?”

Trigger a single orb and the question seems forlorn, lonely even.  Set off all the orbs together and the effect is a cacophony.  The whole pack of shiny white orbs asking all together, to everyone and to no one, “I’m here….are you there?”

The vision behind Social Network, though profoundly human at heart, found its genesis in bacteria. “It’s a process called quorum sensing,” Herman explains. “Bacteria send out a signal saying, ‘I’m here’ to announce themselves and to detect for that announcement from others. And so I was thinking about that idea and how a lot of things we do on social networks -- even just every time we post something, or ‘like’ something or blog something -- if you boil that down to its essence it’s sort of announcing to the world, ‘I am here.’ I had this idea to create an interactive audio installation composed of multiple orbs, and as people walk through these orbs that are hanging from the ceiling, a motion detector would be triggered, and audio would be played out of that orb and it would say, ‘I’m here, are you there?’”

The vision was clear. Bringing it to fruition wasn’t so easy. “In my day job I am a tech-savvy person. I’m the digital media manager at the Phillips Collection, and so I’ve always done html, websites and coding. But as far as audio and circuitry, I’m a little clueless,” Herman admits. Then, in February of this year, WPA hosted its No Artist Left Behind program,The DC Listening Lounge Audio Workshop, in partnership with the DC Listening Lounge. Herman saw an opportunity. “I was really interested because I had this idea of this piece in mind, but it hadn’t been completely developed yet.”

The workshop helped Herman to find a collaborator to help her finish Social Network. “I learned a lot about DC Listening Lounge and their group,” she says. “They meet every month and they’re a bunch of sound lovers and audio engineers… And so I went to the meeting that they had, and just asked everybody for a recommendation of how to do this audio installation I was making. And everybody pointed me to Sean Phillips. He’s an audio engineer at NPR as his day job, and he’s a sound artist at night.”

With Phillips on board, Herman was able to construct her vision almost exactly to her specifications. Add in a well-timed 2011 Young Artists Program Grant from the DC Commission on the Arts and Humanities and an application to WPA’s Coup d’Espace program, and what previously had been no more than an idea in Herman’s head had an opening date on November 4, 2011. “November just seemed like the perfect time and it just happened to completely coincide with DCWEEK,” says Herman.

In another stroke of impeccable timing and fortuitous connection, Digital Capital Week, or DCWEEK, a festival focusing on digital entrepreneurship organized by iStrategy Labs and Tech Cocktail, was looking for artists to submit projects to be included as part of the technology-oriented calendar of events. “My piece just happened to be perfect,” Herman smiles. As one of the first events on the DCWEEK calendar, the opening for Inter-Net drew many individuals from the technology community to see Herman’s work.

It is no small coincidence that networking has played such a pivotal role in realizing her vision, and Herman credits WPA with many of the opportunities she has had. “They have so many resources,” she says. “In my case I needed audio help and I was able to find it through the Listening Lounge workshop. WPA has the ability to connect you to people, to the tools you need to write grants, get into shows, promote yourself.”

Inter-Net will be at WPA’s Offices at 2023 Massachusetts Ave., NW through November 23, and is open to the public Monday through Friday, 10am to 6pm.

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November 17, 2011