Sonia Cillari: Space Is Body Centered

Published on May 1st, 2007

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After obtaining her Bachelor in Architecture Sonia Cillari specialized in Theories of Architecture at La Sapienza University in Rome (associated with the School of Architecture Paris-Villemin in Paris). After her Masters Degree in Digital Arts at Pompeu Fabra University (IUA Audiovisual Institute) in Barcelona she became a researcher and assistant professor there. She was very interested in applying research characterized by the use of new technologies developed in constant contact with composers, programmers and engineers. That was an excellent starting point for heading towards a conception of architecture that expands and vibrates in the environment. At the Netherlands Media Art Institute and as Artist in Residence, Sonia further explored her research area 'body as interface', using Electric Field Sensing technology.

Interview with Sonia Cillari
by Annet Dekker

After obtaining her Bachelor in Architecture Sonia Cillari specialized in Theories of Architecture at La Sapienza University in Rome (associated with the School of Architecture Paris-Villemin in Paris). After her Masters Degree in Digital Arts at Pompeu Fabra University (IUA Audiovisual Institute) in Barcelona she became a researcher and assistant professor there. She was very interested in applying research characterized by the use of new technologies developed in constant contact with composers, programmers and engineers. That was an excellent starting point for heading towards a conception of architecture that expands and vibrates in the environment. At the Netherlands Media Art Institute and as Artist in Residence, Sonia further explored her research area ‘body as interface’, using Electric Field Sensing technology.

AD: You started off as an architect, and then moved to media art. What attracted you in media art that you couldn’t find in architecture?

SC: When I worked in digital architecture, the thing I really missed was the body. I worked a couple of years in navigating environments, so I was investigating the perception of the eyes in digital space, and because of that I didn’t concentrate on the body and the position of the body/participant in space. I used the elements of digital architecture as a mind journey through my digital spaces.

For me, the space of a body can be defined as an external/internal world. I always say that the body doesn’t end at the skin. It is completely extended and augmented.
If we should find its physical dimension: it is also the time I spent, to go from one point to another, and the time I am using words to communicate. I think it’s a multi-layered space. Then there is the body language that speaks by itself. We can filter verbal communication, but body language is more difficult to filter. I think the body is a beautiful space to investigate.

It also seems to me that space itself is not objective. It is completely generated by, and is completely dependent on us. I like to refer to this by saying ‘space is body centered’. In the moment I have my body and you have your body, so you have your space and I have my space. It is our spaces that interconnect. Actually, if we need to speak about physical space and architecture, then I have to say I hate screens. Of course you can create atmosphere, but you always have this bi-dimensional structure around you. I wanted to go a bit further. When I was in Barcelona a few years ago I met some people who were working with sensors. That was when I switched. I said ‘now I can use objects to manipulate and to navigate, to interact, to create’. That was my switch to media art. Overall, I would argue yet that technology still doesn’t help much, but it is a first step.

AD: Would you say that your ways of thinking and conceptual ideas relate much more to performance than media art or architecture?

SC: Yes, I must say I feel really comfortable with the conceptual performance ideas of the ’70s. And at times I ask myself: ‘why do I use technology all the time?’

I have to say I have a whole bunch of friends who are visual artists who don’t use technology. We discuss ideas, and most of the time the projects that come out of it are made without technology. But the ideas I really want to do are the ones involving technology.
My interest in technology is that I would like to make a contribution to technology that extends the body. What interests me in technology is that it can visualize the invisible. We are limited as human beings. We can see some things but not others. With technology we can augment our state, and that is nice. I think technology is a very generous tool. It gives us the possibility of experiencing different things simultaneously, of being together and sharing. It is one of the creative tools that are really generous and democratic. And since I live in this technocratic society, I should take advantage of it. That is my link with technology.

AD: We are certainly living in a society in which technologies have become ubiquitous and are influencing our daily life, our ways of communication, etc. Take this a step further and we are on the verge of artificial life. Is that something that you think would be interesting for you to work with?

SC: I have to say that I am very interested in this, but I have found that what has been discovered up to now is really primitive. What I’m thinking now is maybe the opposite. I want to perform by myself as someone who does not have any emotive forces, someone who is in a way ‘not human’. How I can delete my memory and build a new one, and in that way can react as an android, is much more interesting for me. This process in my mind, and how my emotions are generated in response to this process, is much more interesting than to participate in research about artificial intelligence. I really appreciate it, but it is not my first field of interest.

AD: Is this where your dislike for representation and simulation comes from?

SC: Well as I said before, I want to visualize the invisible, to give people a metaphysical experience. In order to do that I do not need to simulate a real space. I want to build a space that people are not used to seeing, and can be seduced by. When they close their eyes, they can dream it. That is why simulation is not my field.

And, indeed, I do not like to represent reality. We are so complex and we cannot define most of our feelings. We also do not have a hierarchy of emotions. What I felt two days ago is still in me, and is perhaps influencing what I say now. I think all these layers can maybe also be recognized in nature, but it is better being surprised by something that you have never seen. That way you are more free to explore. A memory sometimes reflects too much what we have felt.

AD: For your new project you talk about emptying your mind and the first thing I think of is Buddhism, meditation, etc. The way you describe it though, makes me think you are looking for something else?

SC: I’m looking for the way people will react. When we communicate I expect that you expect me to have a reaction. It is a loop. Let’s say the way we communicate is through attention, response and signals. If I were a human being who didn’t react with emotions, then it would be different. I still don’t know how, but let’s give a simple example: if you hit me I will have a human reaction, but if I didn’t know what pain is and had never experienced it before, then the response might be different. I’d like to map “something” that is not human. It will be a new map of behaviors, of a human being that is not influenced by anything. Moreover it will be a woman, because I think women have more behavioral expectations laid on them. I would like to investigate what a woman without such a history is like, how she reacts and responds. Every woman, in every country, has a history. An android does not.

AD: What inspires you to make such a performance?

SC: Daily life. Women and men, as “gender roles”, are very visible and prominent. Moreover their behavior influences each other. The image is there: the women flipping through their magazines and the men punching. They communicate almost like stereotypes and they influence each other. When watching such scenes an image comes up that contains everything I am thinking of at that moment. And I see that connecting to live performance, it seems to be the way to express my ideas. The storyboard of the performance comes later. What I have, usually, is what the image will look like. Then the storyboard is easy to realize.

AD: Going back to bodily communication, is the interaction in your work a necessity?

SC: There are people who say, ‘In your work, no people – no piece’. So this makes the interaction necessary. But there are two aspects. One came naturally into my path, the other is a point of critique to visual art.
Starting from the second point. I want to research a way of using interaction in visual art that makes interactive art part of that field, that is, gets accepted in contemporary art practice, if you like. At the moment these are two different worlds. Most people see the category of technology-based art as development of software, or an application. I use technology as a tool. I do not start from technology. That is the first point. I want to give other people an experience and show that their action has a result, makes a difference. If I want to show them that an action is important then I need embodied experience and I need active participation.
Most of my environments are simple. By making them simple and direct I want to seduce people in order to convince them to participate. By participating they create. In that moment you are part of the piece. In this case maybe we can say the interaction is necessary in order to give the participant the experience.

AD: You really want to show them that with their movement, they create something, and that it influences something. Like you said in the beginning, you want to visualize communication. Personally I think that comes across really well. But I can imagine there are also quite a few people hesitant about it, saying ‘what does this mean?’, and, ‘are interactive works really the best ways to get feeling across?’

SC: Of course there are also other ways, but I think it is also possible with technology, and I want to make it possible. For me, Marina Abramovic also creates interactive art. The space that she can create between us, when I see what she does, is completely immersive and augmented. We can use technological words if we want for her work. She knows how to communicate space. Everybody chooses their tool.

AD: When you present your work, you prefer to do that without any explanation. You really expect people to investigate themselves. Why do you do that?

SC: If I start to explain how to play, then it becomes a game, it becomes an application. I do not want that, because if I go to a museum of contemporary art I do not find any instructions on how to read and look at a painting either. It is the same for an interactive piece. In front of a painting, nobody will say ‘it doesn’t work.’
But in the case of technology there is a problem, because the viewer is no longer just a viewer, s/he is a participant. In order to participate, s/he also needs to know how – especially in my pieces. What you have to do is just to be there. You do not need much. I do not need to say to you step here or step there. I understand that there is the design of the interface, which has to be done well so that it is communicative for people to use it. But I want people to discover, so I just leave it and watch what happens. If I already tell you what it is about, you are not surprised any more. I can’t tell you all of this, because you have to live it. It is a little game without instructions. It is the same as every time when we meet somebody: an interaction without instructions occurs.
For example, with my installation Conscious Space 01 there were children who understood it very quickly, while other people do not reach the level of the piece. I do try to make interfaces that are very user friendly, because again it is about the concept and not the technology behind it.

AD: You said that you would like to bridge the gap between interactive art and visual art. How do you see your work in the context of contemporary art, or architecture?

SC: If you Google my name, you can see the architectural field has adopted me. New media art likes my work and they connect it more to research, like the electro-magnetic field investigations I have done.
I have been told I am on the border of contemporary art. I have always heard I had one foot in and one foot out, and I like it at the border. And because I have my architectural background, I feel as though I’m safe, there will always be a space where I can work.
My ideal situation is to research and work with people who are interested in the same thing. I think you always need a team to work with, to really try to make pieces that are connected with how we feel. This can be a group of people from any discipline.

AD: How does the group dynamic work? On the one hand you have the conceptual idea, but then there is the side of the technology that does not always play along. You are depending on programmers and technicians and whatever. How do you deal with that? How do you translate your idea to programmers?

SC: This is easy to answer because until now I was very lucky, or chose good people. I have worked with people who really know how to translate.
There are technicians, there are software engineers and there are people who are used to working with artists. The worst, I would say, are the ones who want to be artists and are not. But people who respect your idea and know how to translate it, that works the best.
I tend to have a problem about giving my piece away. I like to check. I am not the kind to say, ‘now you take it from here’. I like to keep the control. It is about trust, I suppose. And I am still learning.

AD: What about the control over the setting, the public and their reactions?

SC: I am not talking about the kind of control in which I want to predetermine everything. The control is more about having the possibility to give a selected audience an experience. That is what I want to control. I make a space that is defined and limited, so that I know what will happen, or at least I want to know the range of potentials that could happen. People’s reactions and experience is theirs. A performance in public space could be very interesting as long as I can keep control over it. The ‘android’ performance is also considered to be in a public space, where people can communicate with me through internet. In that case you don’t have control of what people will do.

AD: Do you also follow the technical side, the software and hardware, in a way that you also can improve your own concepts and ideas?

SC: Previously I worked a lot with Jitter, because I knew it could work well for my pieces. Usually I investigate and decide the software, and then I find a developer to give input. When I have an idea, and know a bit who the people are who could be involved, then I also chose the software – usually. For example, with our experience, I chose all of it because I saw its potential.

AD: Is working in the open source community helping in that respect, because ideally open source is based on sharing and connecting both expertise and people?

SC: Yes, that is something I like very much.
But I think we are still only at the beginning of open source ideals. Our generation is making a large contribution, but if one thinks about the open source on a world-scale there is still much to be done. Possibly, in fifty years, there will be a totally new way of working, and also the way we perceive and work with computers.

AD: In the meantime you are working a lot on the basis of residencies. What is your interest in them? Do you think they work well?

SC: In my case, yes. Until now, whatever residency I have done, I have produced. In a way I am a very nice machine. If you put me in a nice environment where I can work well and feel supported, my processor continues to execute.
But ideally a residency is not a one-way-street. It would be nice if the project you chose is one a lab is interested in. That way they contribute with their own ideas and solutions on how to develop it. This would of course be very interesting, but of course it also depends on the time you need and the state of your project. In our case my project was maybe too large for the available time, so it would have been very hard to integrate your lab into the existing research. But a project that is already six months in development is different. It is also about time and timing.

Se Mi Sei Vicino (If you are close to me)

During her artist in residence at the Netherlands Media Art Institute Sonia Cillari developed the interactive performance Se Mi Sei Vicino (If you are close to me), a further exploration of her installation Conscious Space 01.

The interactive performance Se Mi Sei Vicino (Italian for If you are close to me) is a practical research into Body-Environment interaction and the possibility of using the “Body as Interface”. The main point of departure was the idea of measuring human encounters, with the participants realizing that the boundaries of the self extend beyond their skins.

A core element of the work is a sensor floor on which a performer is standing, functioning as a human antenna; when coming close to or being touched by members of the audience, body movements are registered as electromagnetic activity. Surrounding the floor are large projections showing real-time algorithmic organisms connected to audio compositions, which change form according to fluctuations in the electromagnetic field. The relative distance between the bodies determines what is to be seen and heard.
Se Mi Sei Vicino has to be considered in relation with the tradition of performance and installation art, which problematizes the distinction between active performers and passive spectators. The fact that the audience is asked to give a full bodily commitment that includes movement, proximity and touch, along with sight and hearing, blurs the boundaries of passivity and activity; everybody becomes a potential performer.

Se Mi Sei Vicino was produced as artist in residence at Netherlands Media Art Institute and STEIM (Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music), Amsterdam 2006

environment programming: pix (aka Steven Pickles
sound design: Tobias Grewenig (
Produced by Netherlands Media Art Institute
Interface developed by STEIM (Studio for Electro-Instrumental Music): Jorgen Brinkman and René Wassenburg on schematics by Kees Reedijk
With the support of Rijksakademie van beeldende kunsten Amsterdam 2006

More information:

May 2007

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