'Telepresence': The art installation where you lie in the dark and listen to someone else browse the Net

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A few weeks ago in the early afternoon I lay down on an air mattress in a refurbished factory in Queens, put on a pair of headphones, and closed my eyes. A couple of feet away a young woman looked at her computer for a moment and then clicked something.

I heard a recording of her:

"You're looking at a live feed of porn searches in real time," she whispered. She listed a few of the search terms—MILF, Kate Winslet, sensual breast massage—before they started to repeat. And then: "You go back to the news article 'Former NYPD cop says 9/11 debris is haunted by ghosts.' You decided to explore more aspects of the weird news section."


The recording continued for just shy of six minutes. At one point, underneath the voice, I heard Big Sean's "I Don't Fuck With You" as the voice on the recording described a video of a dog peeing. Later the voice became more self-reflective, explaining that I was in a public place with porn open, and should go elsewhere.

This is what it is like to browse the internet, according to a participatory artwork called "Telepresence" by new media artist Katy Dresner. "Telepresence" was originally part of Dresner's coursework at University of Michigan, where she graduated with a BFA earlier this year; a pared-down version of the piece was recently on display in Queens at the Internet Yama-Ichi, a kind of flea market for Web artists and creators  I attended earlier this month.


Now Dresner is living in Detroit. She told me that her work is about "bring[ing] the culture of the internet and the way that it affects us into life in ways that are outside of the traditional experience of the internet."

That is "Telepresence." The narration veered between description and wry commentary, skipping around from tab to tab in the narrator's browser. I had no control over what was happening in this browsing session, but it still felt oddly familiar, moreso than simply watching someone browse, or watching a video of someone browse.

This was the recording I heard that day:


The audio is fairly raw; it pops and you hear the mic rustle. The ideal listening space is separated from other exhibitions; at the Yama-Ichi, 'Telepresence' was staged in a tent. The full pieces are cut together from about 10 hours of recording that Dresner did over several months. They include music, Dresner's conversations with herself as she browses, what's going on around her and because of her, and snippets of what she hears.

For instance, this piece starts with her checking Twitter notifications, goes into an attempt to find a song from a YouTube video, and ends on an encounter with a MacKeeper popup ad:


Listening, especially in a darkened room, is an uncanny experience: browsing the web, devoid of the visual experience, and through someone else's ears. It got me fixated on how I browse the internet, and what I'm thinking as I browse.


Later, I got Dresden on the phone, and she told me about Telepresence's evolution, how she browses, and what it's like for her to listen to her own work.

Fusion: What was the idea behind Telepresence?

Katy Dresner: I wanted to create an experience of browsing the internet that is just as intimate as when you're browsing by yourself, like locked into your own device but in… a more removed situation from the actual space of your computer or phone. And so I was originally trying to draw this surreal connection of what it means to be using all the technology we have and all the interconnectedness that we have and how that affects us in a larger way than the moments that we are locked in and browsing.


So when did you first come up with this?

I guess it started early on last summer…I was doing a lot of introspective studies about the kinds of text messages and emails that I sent to people and the places that are led to you by those interactions of just making a connection with somebody. And I found it kind of magical the sort of leaps that I take from just telling someone that I have somewhere to be later in the day to whatever random website that I end up on.


I was trying to articulate that idea through video and I had been writing some programs that were generating a random sequence of events happening online. But the problem was that I tried at that for a few months and while it generated a video of a browsing experience, it didn't register anything more significant than just typing something in Google or watching something on YouTube. And so I was kind of stumped for a while and then one day I realized that I hadn't incorporated any audio in the piece at all, and I just gave it a shot. Just like logged on my computer and started from one place, like I think the first one I start on my Twitter feed and I held up a microphone and just went at it, and —

For how long?

The first one I think I talked to myself in front of the computer for two hours.

How did that feel, when you turned the recording off?

It was kind of crazy. It was weird, almost therapeutic. Because it felt like I wasn't doing something mindlessly even though what I was looking at when I was browsing was happenstance as to whatever links were on the page or whatever caught my attention.


How did people react to the first installation?

People had kind of a wide range of reactions. Most of them positive, a few people were kind of creeped out. Like they felt a little bit of a Big Brother vibe from it, but I think that had to do with the fact that it was a shut off space from the rest of the gallery that my work was in, so you had this feeling that you were inside and lying down and maybe vulnerable.


Do you know exactly how much time you spent recording yourself on the internet, in total?

Probably at least 10 hours. As I went further, I got better at talking about it in the way that I wanted to, in the right tone, because I was going for sort of ASMR-like whisper, ethereal recording, which I had to get some practice at.


Since you knew it was going to be in some way for public consumption, do you feel like it changed the way you browsed while you were doing it?

Yeah, I think so. I didn't do that much of my own personal browsing during that time, I felt removed a little bit. I fell off on the social media that I usually keep up with. I feel like I was so consumed, focusing on this train of thought for browsing that I checked out of my own for a little bit.


I never think of it as a waste of time when you're browsing the internet, like I think that it's important and a very valid creative outlet. So if anything I felt more purposeful in the time that I spent doing it, and it was more about what I was working on. And I was working on a goal that was larger than that activity, so I wasn't that upset or bummed that I wasn't keeping track of my Tumblr feed or whatever…I let the internet control a lot of the directions that I took.

Did you have certain cues for where it was time to take a break from this?

Oh, definitely. Like there's one of them that, shoot I can't remember exactly what I was doing but I ended up getting on something related to somebody that I wanted to look up on Facebook because I was looking at something, and I was like, "Oh my god, this person, I need to look them up and see what they're doing" because it just triggered something. And then I went to Facebook and the person had de-friended me!


Who was the person?

Ok, so the person was my first boyfriend. But it was when I was in elementary school and we only talked on AOL instant messenger.


What is it like for you to listen to the recordings now?

It's interesting because every time I listen to them I don't remember all of them, and it's kind of exciting because there are parts of it that I don't remember until I hear myself saying it and then I either chuckle or just feel satisfied that I'm still getting pieces from, there's still little details. I think that's also something that's pleasing to me about people listening to it, too, because people will say "I got the one where you were talking about like ;Myspace glitter'"and like, which one was that?


Are there moments that you're surprised you forgot?

There was one of them that I play a YouTube song in the background and I totally forgot that I had done that…until I heard that song on the radio the other day. It was really weird because I've never heard that song get radio play ever, it's this like really campy 80's song about computers.


What's the song?

It's called Computer Love by Zapp and Roger.


Yeah, I was just driving around the other day listening to the R&B station and that song came on and all of a sudden I remembered that that was in one of my projects. I took a photo of it, playing on the radio. I was like, this is SO random.


This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Ethan Chiel is a reporter for Fusion, writing mostly about the internet and technology. You can (and should) email him at ethan.chiel@fusion.net