My Viral Lover

Mitchell Whitelaw talks to Sydney-based net.artist Melinda Rackham about her 1999 work Carrier.

originally published
Realtime 37, 2000, Australia

Can you explain how you came to make Carrier?

There are a few sources for Carrier: firstly I have hepatitis C virus, and I wanted to redress the social invisibility of this serious health issue. The work also grew out of my research interests over the last 10 years; notions of identity, sexuality, attraction and repulsion, beauty and ugliness and the messy body.

And the work has had a successful international life…

Web work is of necessity international, as it lives out there on the global matrix, but yes it has been shown in gallery-based shows around the world including Japan, north America and Europe, and soon in south Africa and south America. The Australia Council assisted me to promote the work overseas, which has been quite effective.

And it's recently won the Faulding Award for Multimedia, a prize for writing in digital media. While there's a lot of writing in the piece, it's certainly not a straightforward text, or even a conventional hypertext. How do you feel about the work being treated as "writing"?

For me the distinction between text and image is minimal. I see myself as a "net .artist" more akin to a film maker, but this also encompasses being a "writer". I construct a digital architecture which is in itself a text, whether the individual components contained within it are image, word, audio, quicktimes or VRML.

The work involves a quite unusual mixture of modes, or types of material: there are game-like elements with artificial agents and interactive dialogue, and this is combined with dense layers of visual material, but there's also a whole layer of straight "information" about hep C. Can you talk about this mixture and your reasons for pursuing it?

I work on the web because I'm interested in reaching the widest audience possible, and this requires that "information" is structured in differently accessible ways. Some users will want the scientific and medical information, while others want to play a Shockwave game, read the personal stories, or will be interested in the seductive textual elements, which all give "information" in a different way. I think the site is successful because there is a balance of navigation, viewing and content options; it simultaneously functions as an artistic work and a public resource.

Carrier also makes a detailed exploration of viral immunobiology – and it seems that new media artists are increasingly getting to grips with this kind of technoscientific conceptual material. What’s the attraction here? How is it rewarding?

I don't think one can work any more in cleanly divided disciplines, everything seems to be cross-pollinating everything else… Reading and researching texts from areas like immunobiology, or more recently quantum physics for my new multi-user VRML project Empyrean, is totally fascinating. It’s science, it’s science fiction, and it’s as theatrical as soap-opera television.

The work revolves around ideas of the virus -- and it's a virus which is both biological and digital. Of course digital media have been rife with viruses for some time; the computer virus is a familiar figure. How is the virus in Carrier different, or the same?

The carrier virus… sHe is of transient and multiple gender, and is posited as our lover rather than our enemy to be destroyed with antiviral software or medication. We willingly enter into the relationship with sHe, as an exploratory partner, rather than a toxic and scary alien.

And the work is very open in extending an erotic invitation; it wants to infect us, but not in a malicious way, more like a tight embrace. How do people respond to this invitation?

Some people find it totally spooky, however most respond positively – with a sense of intimacy and immersion. When you think about it, a virus penetrating your cellular core is probably the most intimate relationship you can have with another species.

In an essay on Carrier you question the romantic notion (from Roy Ascott) of the net's "telematic embrace". Does the work’s intimacy involve a struggle with the medium?

I work on the net and I love the net, however I am highly critical of the net as an artistic medium, and as a social mediator, and use Carrier's perceived intimacy as a vehicle to address what intimacy now means. Is intimacy a shared viral illness with a group of people you have never met? Is intimacy built because the site asks you personal questions to which you must respond to continue viewing? Are we more intimate with our computers than our partners?

Following that infection which the work invites; there’s a viral line here which leads towards a radically altered sense of the self – of where our borders are and what can cross them. This changes a lot of things, like ideas of "sick" and "well". Can you explain? Is there a kind of radical viral identity-politics lurking under here?

Binaries like "sick" and "well" are only useful to identify points in a spectrum of possibilities. The reality is that human bodies are composed of swarms of bacteria, viruses, and other organisms that we see as agents of illness, and don't acknowledge when we think of our bodies. Evolutionary biology posits that we only evolve with our illnesses, and that the difference and the diversity that comes from infection and contagion is what actually allows us to continue to proliferate and survive in a variety of environmental conditions on the planet. So we have to love our sicknesses, because in fact we are a conglomeration of diseases.


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