"1994: Nina Sobell and Emily Hartzell do the first live performance in the history of the World Wide Web." --C. Carr
A Brief History of Outrage: The 51 (or So) Greatest Avant-Garde Moments, Village Voice, Sept. 22, 1998.

ParkBench: A History of Firsts on the Web | The Artists | Awards | Bibliography

Nina Sobell and Emily Hartzell: Collaborators in Art with Technology

Abstract from a chapter we wrote for the book on Women, Art, and Technology edited by Leonardo for MIT Press:

We have experimented with the Web to discover its potential for creative, collaborative expression, and to explore and sculpt the boundaries between physical space and cyberspace. Our work has grown directly out of Nina's interactive video installations of the early 1970's, in which she used the medium to sculpt space and time, and to create bridges for shared human experience. Our inspiration, in ParkBench, has been to address the physical disconnectedness of the information age by creating a safe place to congregate in cyberspace. Our work has inspired the development of new technologies, including a wireless telerobotic video camera for streaming video to the Web from remote locations.

Complete text

In 1993, Sobell conceived of ParkBench, a network of kiosks, which through videoconferencing, internet access, and a collaborative drawing space, would enable people in diverse neighborhoods to access the internet, talk to and see one another, and communicate collaboratively and creatively. Sobell and collaborator Emily Hartzell were invited to be artists in residence at New York University's Center for Advanced Technology in order to develop ParkBench. Since this was before the Web's emergence, we used Director to design the ParkBench interface, which was the first such graphical interface to New York. Later in 1994, after the Mosaic browser introduced a graphical interface for the internet, we adapted our interface, making it the first of its kind on the World Wide Web.

ArTisTheater Performance Archive

At NYU CAT, in 1994, we used one of the Web's first remotely-controlled cameras to transform our studio into a time-based public Web installation in order to research the nature of Web video as a medium. The Web gave visitors 24-hour real-time access, through the eye of the camera, to watch us work, so at times our actions were heightened by our awareness of unseen Web visitors. At other times we felt ourselves dissolved in the ubiquitous surveillance which now erases the boundaries between private and public. In 1994 we launched the Web's first live performance series, ArTisTheater, whose archive of non-narrative, improvisational, dadaesque works now contains over 80 performances (including works by guest artists.) The performances reflect the evolvement of technology from the first telerobotic B/W pinhole camera to experimental color, true color and sound as they move from the first performance, in the bottom right hand corner to the most recent, in the top row.


We created VirtuAlice in 1995, in collaboration with engineers at New York University Center for Advanced Technology, for the CODE exhibition at Ricco Maresca Gallery in New York. Alice is a wireless, mobile, content-collection vehicle for the Web. Alice's eye (a telerobotic camera), uploads video stills to the Web, where Web participants control the camera's direction.
VirtuAlice consists of Alice's wheeled throne, a monitor inside the gallery, and a monitor in the gallery's front window. Visitors drive around the gallery, and the direction of a telerobotic camera mounted on the throne is controlled by participants over the Web. A monitor on the throne's handlebars shows the driver the direction of the Web visitor's interest; the throne's driver acts as chauffeur for the Web visitor.
Her memories, the archive of what she's seen in a day, represent a subjectivity negotiated by participants in three spaces: interior, exterior, and Webspace.
VirtuAlice is a vehicle for a shared experience, whereby participants collaborate in transferring that experience into meaning, into history. By appropriating surveillance technology and interweaving surveillance streams, she raises questions about subjectivity and control. VirtuAlice is an expression of the process which is the world we live in--physically out-of-control, yet remotely controlled.

In February 1995, Hartzell conceived and designed Barterama, which was intended to take advantage of the Web's facilitation of many-to-many communications to enable people to connect with others whose needs were complementary with their own. Having studied successful barter networks, it was clear to her that the necessary conditions--a large, diverse population, and an efficient communication system--were met ideally by the Web. Barterama, too, was the first Website of its kind.

Anarchy, Art, and the Web

Writes L. Susan Brown, a contemporary anarchist, "Meaning must always be recreated by human individuals living in history. . . Human individuals create a world which simultaneously becomes a context for their own existence."

Access to a global, self-selecting Web audience, independent of the institutional mandates of galleries and museums, has enlarged our context-world. Unregulated and global, our Web studio is a hybrid public/private space where we define the nature of our work, in dialog with our audience. This dialog completes the meaning of the work.

We delivered a paper by this title at Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art in 1997. Complete text

The Artists

Nina Sobell is a pioneer video artist whose improvisational time-based sound and image Web performances are embedded with her drawing, sculpture and video background. She is inspired by the collaborative process that evolves from crossing the lines of music, art and technology, and opening up these channels interactively to the public, initially through interactive video installations, and more recently on the Web. Sobell is primarily interested in non-narrative work that leaves open the possibility for multiple interpretations. Her collaborations and installations as a core member of ParkBench stem from her efforts to demystify technology by assisting in the implementation of ParkBench Public Access Web kiosks run by inner city youth. Sobell envisions ParkBench as a way to promote multicultural, transmedia dialogue and as a safe place to congregate in cyberspace. She is the recipient of numerous awards, including grants from the NEA and NYSCA for her pioneering video performance art. She received a BFA sculpture and printmaking from Tyler School of Art, Temple University, and an MFA in sculpture from Cornell University. Her sculptures, installations, and video art have been shown throughout the World. [more. . .] [portfolio. . .]

Emily Hartzell is a multimedia artist, whose work includes photography, artists books, video, multimedia, and drawings. She was curator of the multimedia shows At the Intersection of Cinema and Books and Woman on Earth at Granary Books Gallery in 1992. In 1994 she began collaborating with Sobell on ParkBench. She works as media-artist-in-residence in a number of New York City schools, initiating projects in web design, multimedia animation, and video with elementary and middle school students. She graduated magna cum laude in Visual and Environmental Studies from Harvard University and received her MFA in Computer Art from the School of Visual Arts. Her work has been exhibited widely.

Sonya Allin is a student of Computer Science at Columbia University, a video afficionado, a techie for http://www.gURL.com/ and a dabbler. Study and research have touched on intelligent systems, specifically natural language processing techniques. Study and ongoing play pertains to animation, vision, the brain.

Jesse Gilbert is a composer, multi-instrumentalist, musicologist, and digital audio specialist. Gilbert's interests have carried him into various realms of the digital art/music world - from networking to improvisational saxophone performance, 3D modeling and animation to sound synthesis. He has performed in the New York City and San Francisco areas, and is currently at work on a series of site specific compositions and ongoing collaborative work with Parkbench at the NYU Center for Advanced Technology and Power and Light, NYC. Gilbert graduated with honors from Wesleyan University and received the Pokora prize in composition after studying with such luminaries as Alvin Lucier, Anthony Braxton, Ron Kuivila, and Abraham Adzenyah. He was awarded a Watson Fellowship for a yearlong independent study of the relationship of oral tradition to music pedagogy in a wide range of regions of Ghana, West Africa. Gilbert is a researcher at EDC/Center for Children and Technology, a non-profit research and development organization that addresses approaches to technology and educational reform. He oversaw the functioning of the sound component of PORT, and works with collaborators Helen Thorington and Marek Walczak on the ADRIFT project.


Winner of Art & Science Collaborations' Digital99 Award
1999 Webby Award Nominee

Pick of the Week Jan '99


Reena Jana, "Web Séance Summons Art," Wired Magazine, July 14, 1999.
Emily Hartzell and Nina Sobell, "Sculpting in Time and Space: The Interactive Work of Nina Sobell and Emily Hartzell," Leonardo, April 2001.
C. Carr, "A Brief History of Outrage: The 51 (or So) Greatest Avant-Garde Moments," Village Voice, (Sept. 22, 1998).
Hartzell/Sobell, "VirtuAlice", Telepresence, ed. Eduardo Kac, Ylem, Vol.17, No.9, p. 5 (Sept./Oct.97).
Eduardo Kac, "Foundation and Development of Robotic Art," Art Journal, College Art Association, Vol.56 No.3, pp. 60-67 (Fall 1997).
C. Carr, "On Edge: The Heart of the Web," Village Voice, Vol. 42, No. 25, p. 50, (June 24, 1997).
E. Hartzell and N. Sobell, "Anarchy, Art, and the Web," Artists' Talk, Uncommon Sense Exhibition, Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art,1997.
P. Green, "ParkBench," Interview on KXLU, Loyola Marymount University, (June 1997).
Betty Kevlis, Naked to the Bone: Medical Imaging in the 20th. Century (Rutgers University Press, 1997).
musEleanor, "BLAST5DRAMA: ART: IS IT STRANGER THAN DICTION?," Intelligent Agent, (Jan. 1997).
Doug Grunther, "ParkBench," interview on WDST Woodstock Radio, October 1996.
Margot Lovejoy, Postmodern Currents: Art and Artists in the Age of Electronic Media (Prentice Hall, 1996) second edition.
Kevin Smith, "ParkBench Sculpting Performances," The Acid-free Paper, Vol. 1, No. 4 (January, 1996).
Sobell and Hartzell, "ParkBench Public-Access Web Kiosks," Visual Proceedings, The Art and Interdisciplinary Programs of Siggraph 96, 135, (1996). Robert Atkins, "Art On Line," Art in America, Vol. 83, No. 12, 64 (December, 1995).
TalkBack! edited by Robert Atkins. Issue #1 (December, 1995).
Sobell and Hartzell, "The Buzz," Kimberly Neuhaus, "Technology: Do You Mind If I Sit Here?" I. D. Vol. 42, No. 2, 24 (March-April, 1995).
Sobell and Hartzell, "ParkBench," Felix: Landscape(s) Vol. 2, No. 1, 302-305 (1995).