Interview wit Ellen Pronk

By Goran Batic

Ellen PronkEllen Pronk is a Dutch artist who uses her website as a private creative diary. The site has been online since 1997, and it’s called LIEFS meaning WITH LOVE. It changes on the daily basis, and it consists of animated gifs, texts, flash applets, pictures and games. She defines it a place where to play, a diary made of images and sketch albums, showing it as a work in progress, an ever-changing and chaotic work.

Ellen Pronk posted a comment on the webdesign conference and the interview on her homepage.

Interview with Ellen Pronk, 19th of January, 2005.
by Goran Batic, Institute of Network Cultures

GB: The modern society nowadays is very often presented as a communication system, where new regime of time and presence takes place. As Max Bruinsma claims: “One great potential of the mediated society, with its open access to the infrastructures of mass communication, is that if you care enough, you can make a difference right in the centre of the discourse. Although you may not be in a position to forge radical change now, you could be part of the public debate and help change the perspective.” Is this what you had in mind when you decided to start the liefs project?

EP: There are several starting points for the lfs-project. The first public page is July 1 1997. At that time I was online for a year and a half. My online experience was role playing and some building in a text-based mud and a long and extensive e-mail conversation with a woman I got to know through her website on Scritti Politti. The reason to start a homepage was simply my own desire to get back to the work I used to do when I studied at art school. I was aware of certain utopian thoughts about the internet, I had read about computer-mediated communication (through which I discovered text-based muds). A book I read earlier in the 90’s, ‘Orality and literacy – The technologizing of the Word’ by Walter J. Ong, impressed me with its clarity.
But at that time I didn’t think far beyond my own personal situation. A later beginning was the start of presents, May 14 1999. The year before that I wasn’t updating the website regularly, I worked on the ‘Homebase’ project, which didn’t came out as I hoped, when I look back on it. Starting ‘presents’ ment the discovery of the power of a daily update. That works extremely well on the internet, giving people a reason to visit regularly and generate a far away, invisible audience.
The last beginning was very recent, January 2 2005. In the years before that presents slowly became more irregular, until I finally stopped for like 10 months. In that period I worked on a redesign of the entire website. I wanted to make the old material more accessible, so I started to design the site around a database. I also did some rethinking in that time and had to ask myself whether I wanted to continue with the site or not. I was relieved to find that I hadn’t lost all interest and energy to start working again. Sometimes these breaks do work out well it seems. This last time I started, I was definitely more ambitious in what I wanted to achieve. But, as a side note, it’s an ambition I don’t trust entirely; I wouldn’t want my work to be a means to an end. Looking back on what I’ve made so far, I like the simplest and happiest pages the best. It’s hard to make that happen consciously, I sometimes feel you have to fool it by going into a different direction than you actually plan to go, and make yourself believe that as well.

GB: Your first page appeared on the 1st of July,1997. Can you tell me what previous experience brought you to the idea of the site, and how your own practice has changed over the last decade?

EP: I already talked about this in the answer to question 1. To expand a little more on this, in the beginning my focus was mainly on the technology. HTML, JavaScript, gif-animations, flash later on. I was experimenting with all these techniques and looking where they might lead me. I’ve only been back doing presents for two weeks at the time of writing this answer, but it feels different now, more content-driven. I pick the technique best suited to an idea. Usually.
There will be some new stuff as well, later on. The latest techniques I learned, php and mysql, give me the opportunity to finally make flash-games with high scores, something I want to do for a long time.

GB: In 1999, a web theorists and critic Jeffrey Zeldman said: “No designer should consider HTML and Style Sheets second rate simply because they don’t do what Flash does.” Your site is structured in such a way that it almost represents a “web design museum”. You use techniques from HTML, JavaScript to Flash. What are advantages of this style and how did you manage to restrain yourself from blindly following the latest techniques as many designers do?

EP: Zeldman’s book ‘Designing with Web-standards’ was the main influence on the redesign of Structural mark-up, the separation of content and design are central in this approach. But I only redesigned the center hallway of lfs. The actual content I didn’t touch, so yeah, it’s almost a museum, from using Adobe Pagemill, to Cyberstudio (before Adobe bought it) to finally handcoding html and php in BBEdit. I’m a firm believer that at any level of experience you can say something of interest, becoming master of a single technique never interested me that much. Maybe that prevented me of going into one direction blindly.

GB: The last decade has been a ‘wild ride’ for the Internet and web design. We are all witnesses of the quick technological innovations pace, which results in a constant need of upgrading existing software in order to access certain sites. Are there tags, kinds of coding, or culture of software that have disappeared that shouldn’t have? What remained stable?

EP: I still miss the blink-tag! That was a fun tag to have and I used it a few times in the beginning. What I also regret is the transition to MacOSX and the quartz-rendering engine, which blurs gif-images when they are enlarged. I used that a lot in the early days, and when I go and visit these pages with Safari, the main browser I use nowadays, it’s just a blurry mess. It’s not like that on Windows (yet), so now I’m in the odd position I envy windows-users for that… I don’t mind it too much though, it shows how closely connected technology and its use is to time it’s conceived in.

GB: Since your site is pretty much updated on the daily basis, viewers are disappointed if they don’t find anything new. Has your work become an obligation towards the viewers, and has the style and length of your working day changed?

EP: Well, it did become an obligation. That was the reason I started working less and less over time. To make something daily is very demanding. Going back to making presents again is a bit frightening, I’m a lot more aware of the pitfalls and less naive than when I started the first time. One of the things to make it more doable is to put some more distance between myself and lfs. I really had to learn how to do that, and still am learning. Comparing the way I feel now with how I felt in 1999, it does feel remarkably similar in the fun and pleasure of making things. With a bit more control though, I hope.

GB: A rather developing Internet research field of critical cybercultural studies deals with the notion of virtual communities as actual social networks in which they both reflect society and use new ways of social interaction. By taking up your site as an example of this theory, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that your identity became digitalized, and anyone ending up there has a chance of interacting with you. Was this online persona your intention, or has it simply developed over time?

EP: A lot of the photos I put on the website in 1997 I actually made at art school in the period 1989-1990. Even earlier that that, in 1986 I got an assignment to make a self-portrait, and I ended up trying for months to make a portrait in which I could recognize myself. I never got that to that point then. When I picked up photography two years later I made some more self-portraits, thinking it would look much more like me. In the end, it didn’t, I could see it was me, of course, but it didn’t feel like me. It slowly developed into these almost glamorous pictures, me smiling to someone behind the camera. The reality of the photos was that there was nobody in the room with me.
This experience, where I project someone in a virtual space, works both ways. Visitors project someone, who probably looks and acts a lot like me, behind I guess everyone makes his or her own little Ellen, which has bits and pieces of me in it. It’s probably not unlike the whole fame-business, in which you get all sorts of details about the lives of famous people, ranging from very formal occasions to the paparazzi shots outside a supermarket. Even with the demystification of the ‘famous’ lifestyle which has been going on for some time, it has a very strong appeal to most people, an appeal I feel as well, even though I question the machinery behind it. As to whether it all was my intention, it probably is, in a roundabout way.

GB: The section of your site where visitors are supposed to answer the questions has been visited many times, and up-to-date there are 620 registered answers. In that way, you work became implemented with the notion of time and presence. However, if the idea was to collect a ‘database’ of visitors’ states of being, how can you be sure that the answers are honest, and does it matter at all?

EP: I can’t be sure the answers are honest. Most likely, most answers are not. But any answer tells something, even the silent, nothing ones.
Actually, the last three questions interest me most. The default is my own personal general state: a happy young girl. I’m pretty sure most, if not all, boys change the sex to ‘boy’. Very few change it to ‘not sure’. I once did a demographics page,, but there were only 55 answers in at the time. As there is no database behind it, it would be quite a lot of work to make a new demographics page.
Having said all this, I really do enjoy answers coming in. (I get an email when a new one is added.) It’s easy to spot the serious ones, and some were genuinely touching. I really do appreciate the effort some people put into it.

GB: The Internet gave a new notion of freedom of speech, and everyone is able to stay anonymous or to have multiple personalities. Do you find this aspect an advantage or disadvantage, since sometimes the source is more important than the info per se?

EP: There are two sides to this. It can be liberating getting away from old habits and develop other ways of communicating with people. It’s a relatively safe environment to experiment in, there are no immediate consequences. Then again, people can use this freedom any way they want. I don’t think it’s that much different from ‘real life’. People do a lot of pretence anywhere, and sometimes it’s hard to spot. In the end, I value freedom higher than safety, so I would say it’s an advantage.

GB: To follow up the previous question, could you please explain the importance of identity on the Internet? Do you expect the visitors of your site to take your identity for granted, or do you expect them to play with numerous pages of your site and draw a conclusion of their own?

EP: People do as they do, what I expect doesn’t really come into it. But from the emails I get I can deduce that most people see it as a fun place full of surprises. And that’s fine by me.

GB: Regarding the numerous pages of your site, it seems to me as if you constantly try to push the limits of web design and the IE window to the extreme. In the case of your work “All Set” (24th of August, 1997), you seemed to have worked on extending the page size so much to make the viewers aware of the possibility of an endless page. In the work “Check” you stepped out of the IE window and included it in the work by assigning a physical feature of shaking. Do you see this as a simple experimentation or do you have a specific goal you are trying to reach?

EP: I’m not sure it’s ‘simple’ experimentation. Even though I do like to analyze what I do, my work, I’m no good in working from a concept. I did have to learn this – homebase might be my, hopefully, last mistake in this. I always end up stale and tied up into too many strings when I try that. I’m much better with a light happy touch. But I can be very formal in my work, and I do like to explore and stretch boundaries.
These pages you mention were done in the early days, to me that’s exactly what they are, early days experiments.

GB: Concerning the themes of your works, I would dare to say that they are roughly summarized in the White Square movies. Human labels such as happy, sad, lonely, scared and especially single make the square humanized. Would you assign any autobiographical qualities to the White Square films you make, i.e. could they represent the status of your digitalized self? Also, could you tell us why did you stop making new episodes?
EP: Hmmm, well, yeah, the little square always did feel being me, an actor through which I can say things more easily. The idea of being a little white square rather appeals to me!
As to why I stopped, I ran out of things to say. Sometimes I think about making new stories, one day….

GB: Throughout your works, it is not hard to notice that you play with the notions such as order vs. chaos, physical vs. digital and real vs. imaginary. The quality of order vs. chaos seems to be perfect when describing your site. What future do you see for the Internet and especially web design in the next couple of years? Will it get into more order, or will simply follow the universal law of chaos and eventually cease?

EP: The universal law of chaos? That’s a bit pessimistic, don’t you think? The internet is a huge place with room for lots of different approaches. I do like the ‘web-standards’ way, the easy, almost not-designed way. Usability rules of course. But I’m happy to see there is a place for sites like mine, even though I strive for clarity and try to make my site more accessible, it’s the place where I rule and where I can change the rules whenever I want to.

GB: The fact that you use your images all over the place gives a very intimate quality to your works. Max Bruinsma claims that “when verbal languages fail us, we can always rely on images, al long as they are used in the ‘right way’.” However, can images on the web ever be non-ironic?

EP: Non-ironic… You mean honest, truthful, and sincere? It’s a very artificial gesture, putting images on the internet. At the same time, it can feel very close, usually you’re sitting at home. I’m thinking of webcam-girls, constantly streaming their life on the internet. I doubt they are being ironic intentionally, which doesn’t mean the gesture itself isn’t ironic of course. It could be the other way around for me, I’m usually ironic intentionally, but maybe unintentionally I might not be. Hmm, it’s kind of hard for me to answer this question.

GB: One quality of your work I highly value is the play with pixels.
Most of your pictures are highly ‘pixeled’ that it almost seems that you try to present your own digital analysis of images. Is that quality just a style or something more?

EP: Pixels are the building blocks, the base material. So yeah, there is a lot emphasis on them. The same goes for red, green and blue, the primary colours of the internet. Coming from a print background, where cyan, magenta, yellow and black are the base colours, it was an obvious choice for me to study these elements. RGB works very different from CMYK.

GB: How much do visitors’ answers and feedback influence your work, and do you have any regrets regarding your site?

EP: The usual feedback I get is emails from people saying they like my website and had a fun time exploring it. There are of course lots more people who don’t write, maybe because they don’t like what I do.
Another, more indirect kind of feedback is the number of visitors the site draws, or links other people make to my website, or the page rank in Google. I do watch my stats, and it is a nice feeling to get more visitors. I do wonder, suppose I would get a lot more visitors, what that would do to my work. The sense of being watched, people expecting something; that could generate other kinds of ‘presents’.
As for regrets, yeah, I do have some regrets. I went through the entire site when I built the database and also recently, when I picked my own favourites. There is a lot of doubt and confusion, and some embarrassing pages too. I’ll just have to do better from now on!