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boing boing number 7

Interview by Mark Frauenfelder, editor


    The prefab lifestyle waits for all of us. It takes no effort to live it, you just graduate from school and then approach corporations and offer yurself as organ tissue. One of them will decide that you are hypo-allergenic enough to fit into their structure and graft you onto some part of their corporate body. Then you do your thing, usually collecting, processing, and transfering data (if you went to one kind of school), or collecting, processing, and transferring matter (if you went to the other kind). The data or material you handle every day will probably interest you only because by doing it well you will be fed, clothed and housed by the corporate body you serve. Janey Fritsche is one of those rare people who has pruned herself from maladaptive corporate bodies by designing a lifestyle that synergistically integrates playing, learning and creating. Through a combination of technical knowledge, artistic talent, and powerful spirituality, Janey has created a life for herself that's a lot of fun and Pro-Gaia. Her multimedia creations are rich databases that transmit highly creative visions of processes taking place throughout our galaxy, from the biological activities in the rainforests of Borneo to the eminent colonization of Mars. Besides developing her own software/art projects, Janey is working with Apple's Discovery project, and consulting for LucasArts. In October, she will travel to Japan for the Hightech Art Planning (HARP) symposium and make a presentation on her multimedia project about the Penan of Borneo called Blowpipes and Bulldozers. After the conference, she will head for Kathmandu to help out on a project that provides funding for Nepali women so that they can attend college. --

Mark: What is your background?

I have a B.S. in math, and I minored in art. I guess all through my grade school and high school years I enjoyed both of them and when the time came to make a decision about what I wanted to focus on I ended up studying math. My high school actually gave me a scholarship for art, but I ended up not accepting it. The practical side won out on that one. It was mainly because I was afraid of being a starving artist. But the whole time I've been working with computers, I've had an overriding desire to integrate computers, music and art. When Hypercard came out, that seemed to be a real turning point, an opening for me to start changing direction in what I was doing.

Is that when you started getting jazzed about the personal computer?

I had already bought a Mac SE, the year before. I mainly bought that to log onto the WELL (The WELL is a great bulletin board run by Whole Earth Review - ed.) I only used it for that and a little bit of word processing for a while. I co-host the spirituality conference and the muchomedia conference on the WELL, so I go in there every day. Through the WELL, I've met a bunch of interesting people and a lot of deadheads. I ended up working with Mickey Hart on his book, Drumming at the Edge of Magic, which was a lot of fun.

How did you contribute to his book?

This was when I had this meltdown as far as doing corporate gigs. I couldn't really justify it any more on a soulful level. I finished up a contract I had for a very large corporation, and I took about six months off. In that time I met Mickey Hart and Fred Lieberman (a professor of ethnomusicology at UC Santa Cruz). They were both working on the Drumming at the Edge of Magic book, and asked me if I wanted to help out. So, I worked with them for about three months, doing general organizing and research, and setting them up on the WELL so they could automatically upload and download the manuscript.

What is Drumming at the Edge of Magic about?

It was a huge book then, and it's actually been split off into two books. Drumming at the Edge focuses on Mickey's personal story of his journey into the spirit of percussion and what kind of magical things happen with the drummers and the listeners. It has a lot of wonderful storytelling by drummers around the world that Mickey has jammed with and befriended. The second book, Planet Drum, is loaded with images and is a bit more historical. He delves into myths and some very old traditional information about drumming and rituals.

So you can attribute the WELL as one thing that helped you get out of your corporate straightjacket. It's a good example of technology helping to elevate one's spiritual side. What aspects of spirituality are you most interested in?

I'm most interested in the kind of fringey things that have to do with ancient knowledge that I think we've denied for centuries, ever since the rise of scientific thought and Cartesian analysis, and the denial of the intuitive side of thinking. I guess it was around the 17th century when that started happening. With all the witches being burned at the stake, it became a very strident view to steer away from anything that couldn't be charted on an X-Y-Z graph. I'm interested in tapping into ancient knowledge, such as the I Ching. By the way, in the spring Whole Earth Review I reviewed a software package based on the I Ching called Synchronicity. It's a great use of the computer. The program is beautifully done. The graphics and music give you the feeling of being in a Japanese garden.

After you became involved in Mickey Hart's books, did you just walk away from your corporate existence, or gradually shift away?

I'm actually doing a lot of work for Apple, but it feels different than the other jobs I was doing, because for me it's not walking away from a corporate environment so much as finding an environment that supports my interests. I'm interested in the process of my work but also the content. I want to do things that have significance for me personally and contribute positively to the way the world is going, rather than just earning a lot of money for corporations that aren't necessarily very attuned to the environment or the implications of what their business is doing. Also, what I wanted to do was get away from strictly doing a lot of programming and analysis work for large mainframes and start getting involved artistically. So, what I did was learn Hypercard, and developed a graphic interactive Hypercard stack. Then I sent it to Apple's Multimedia Lab in San Francisco. I had met with those guys once before. I'd thought of doing a project with Joseph Campbell's archives, with text, interviews, video, slides, and animation. It would be focused on his teachings and his rich archives of about 13,000 slides. This was a project Mickey Hart had suggested to me, because he knew that there was a lot of interest in it. He was a friend of Campbell's, and he knew that the archives had ended up at the Jung Institute. So I hooked up with the folks at the Jung Institute and we all went to Apple to talk to them about it, but also to see what type of work they were doing there. As it turns out, the Campbell project didn't happen; the group at the Jungian Institute was absorbed in working on a book at that time, and they didn't feel they could tackle something else big then. However, it opened the door for me by meeting with those folks and by developing a demo. I was given a lot of responsibility at the Multimedia Lab pretty quickly and ended up being the production manager for "Life Story". It was a joint collaboration of Apple, Lucasfilm and the Smithsonian. It won the "CINDY Best of Show" award this year and the "Gold Award" at the International New York Film and Video Festival last year. It was a rather legendary place to be working at that time.

What kind of media do you use for your multimedia projects?

Mostly I've been working with a combination of videodisc and CD-ROM. You can put 52,000 slides or 30 minutes of animation on a videodisc. CD-ROM is the delivery platform, containing all the software and text information. Since CD-ROMs are so slow, it's best to move the information to a hard disk of some kind.

Tell me about the thing you're doing for the Smithsonian Institute.

It's called the Mars Explorer. Context Productions started working on it in January 1990. The idea was to develop a multimedia application that simulates a mission to Mars. NASA Ames has been the primary sponsor. Jack Sculley and I were the two that developed the prototype. Then we took it to the Smithsonian and when they saw it they really liked it, and indicated that they'd be interested in putting it in their Air and Space Museum in the Mars Gallery that they're opening up in the summer of '92. We are working on the design document to show the four interactive design phase we want to feature in the gallery.

So when somebody sits down in front of this thing, what's going to happen?

There are four different sections to it. They have to do with the process of getting to Mars, and look at the reasons why we want to go to Mars. What is it like being on Mars, how do you survive as a human being? In the gallery, some places you might be sitting, but others you may be standing. It will all be interactive. There will be a lot of video and animation.

Did you do all the research on Mars yourself?

Jack is really kind of a Mars wizard. He worked for NASA Ames for a year or two and his main focus was on Mars. The first couple of months that I worked on it I spent a lot of time researching Mars. Reading books about it and looking at videos. We were very lucky because we were doing a lot of work with Chris McKay and Carol Stoker at NASA. Those guys are their leading Martians (laughter). If you see anything about Mars on TV, you're going to see one or both of them interviewed. They're really great. They were a lot of fun and they were very, very helpful in providing information, giving us ideas, giving us good insight, and helping provide financial support for the project.

A few years ago I read bout some people who were proposing to cover the poles of Mars with black plastic, so the ice would melt and give Mars an atmosphere and warm up the planet. Have you heard about that?

I've heard of various plans for trying to build an atmosphere on Mars. They range from trying to melt the polar ice caps to bashing it with something like a meteor. One of the things about these plans is that they bring up a lot of ethical questions. Like do we have a right to even do that to a planet? It's interesting also to talk to the folks at NASA about the search for life on Mars. When they sent up those Mariner and Viking space shots, they were very intereseted in seeing if there were indications that there had ever been any life on Mars. Of course, they came up empty handed.

Maybe the Martians didn't like the radioactive chicken soup being used as bait.

They landed in places where it was unlikely that there was ever life. There's all sorts of outflow channels on Mars now that indicate that there was water at one point. But in selecting a sight, they were more interested in finding a flat area where they could land safely. From indications, it looks like Mars had an atmosphere very much like the Earth did four billion years ago. It looks like it was once a thriving planet.

What happened to all the water?

That's what everybody wants to know. And one of the reasons scientists want to go there is to find out what we can learn about the future of the Earth. The two scientists we were working with had two different reasons. Chris McKay wanted to go for the search for life. He's a big exobiologist. He still wants to look. If for nothing else, to see if there are fossils. Carol Stoker wants to go because she thinks it would be really cool to have a colony on Mars. Being the esoteric person that I am, I wonder if Mars has actually seeded the Earth. There's been some discussion that they've found meteorites on Earth from Mars. And there is speculation about Martians? Why aren't they there now, or are they there now? Are they living underground? And of course there's the face on Mars.

Yeah, that big rock face looking upwards toward space?

Yes. That's the real intriguing mystery because at this point, with the information we have, there's no way to know if it's just a coincidence that this jumble of rocks looks just like a face, or if it was carefully sculpted by some kind of intelligence. There are two images that came from the Viking landers. Unfortunately they're both at about the same time of day. And if one had been shot at a different angle or a different time of day, we'd have been able to see the other side of the face. And if the other side of the face is identical to the side we can see clearly, it would really raise a lot of interesting questions. Chris McKay gave me a huge portfolio of information on it. It contained all the correspondence that he's had about the face with all sorts of scientific organizations from around the world. Inquiries, speculations, scientific research. Some people get emotionally involved in the outcome. I think Chris is good at taking an unbiased look in this issue. Of course there's been a lot of really hokey information written about it, stuff that stands out like a sore thumb when you read it. But there's also been some good, intense scientific work that's not too anal either. A lot of scientific investigation goes to the other extreme. He thinks there's been a lot of interesting work done with image processing regarding the face. You know what his stance is about the possibility that it's been sculpted by intelligence? It's that you can't tell. It's a binary situation. Either it is or it isn't, and with the information given right now we don't know.

You completed a project about Borneo recently. What's going on with that?

Blowpipes and Bulldozers is a project I developed mostly in the fall and summer of last year. I had to wear an awful lot of hats in the process of building it. I was doing everything: producing, designing, programming, doing the graphic design and the sound design and all the digitizing. The inspiration for the project came from a video that John Werner produced and directed, which I saw at the Mill Valley Film Festival. It became the basis for the videodisc I had pressed and John was terrific in providing me with information and encouragement throughout building the prototype. The focus is on the Penan, an endangered tribe of hunters and gatherers in Borneo, and their rainforest homeland. They've been in the same rainforest for 30 to 40 thousand years, living the same lifestyle. In the last 20 or so years, the logging has gotten so intense, that there's a very small fraction left of Penan living as hunters and gatherers in the rainforest. It's cultural genocide. The culture and the people are dying off. They've been exposed to all sorts of diseases and they're no longer eating properly. They can't go out and gather vegetation and hunt the wild game they used to be able to hunt. Because so many trees have been felled, what happens is all the animals run deeper into the forest. Now they've had to stabilize their home life. Instead of being nomads, they're living in longhouses. Sometimes it takes a week's trek into the forest to get where the wild boar are, if they can find any at all. And that means they have to leave their women and children behind for a long time. It's gotten to be a really difficult situation. One of the things the project focused on was extrapolating the implications of what it means to cut down a rainforest. Taking it to a more global view. The levels of carbon dioxide are raised, and it changes our atmospheric conditions. The endangered peoples alone are a major issue, and the biological and botanical losses are huge as well.

What role is the Borneo government taking?

The project is focused on Sarawak, which is part of Malaysia, but it's on the island of Borneo. The government of Sarawak is very corrupt. In fact, one of the interviews on the videodisc is with James Wong, Minister of Environment for Sarawak, and he has one of the largest logging concessions in the country. NHK, Japan's largest television network, broadcast portions of Blowpipes and Bulldozers. They have high quality programs; it's similar to the BBC, has no commercials, and is a very popular network. I'll also be going to Japan in October for the HARP symposium and this project will be the focus of my presentation. It is yet another chance to get a critical environmental message delivered through the doors of high technology.

For information about assisting the Penan and other rainforest-dwellers, contact Rainforest Action Network, 301 Broadway, Suite A, San Francisco, CA 94133