Sheiva: Artist, Researcher, and Technologist

I’m lucky enough to know quite a few badass ladies — and I love when I get the chance to interview them for this series!

That’s the case with Sheiva Rezvani, who I worked with at NEW INC in New York. This inspiring and utterly unique woman is a hybrid arts and tech practitioner, as well as a design and technology professor. Having graduated from NYU Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) and Gallatin before her time at the New Museum, she is currently working from Brooklyn Research, a co-research space for technology in the former Pfizer Building—an eclectic multi-use space in Brooklyn. In addition to giving me insight into her hybrid process, Sheiva also took me on the tour of the strange and eerie facilities, pictured at the bottom of the interview.

Here a condensed view of our conversation on history, feminism, technology, (pop)culture, education, sex, trash, and ghosts:

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I like to fall down these rabbit holes of research, thinking about these histories that don’t make sense. Cracks in time where there is a cultural dissonance.

Can you talk a bit about your practice for context?
My work has to do with the way in which technology acts as a conduit for emotional or irrational behavior. Whether in researching the history, or in responding to my research by creating works of art or design. So with that, I like to say I’m a real life “Penny Gadget.”

It took me so long to figure out what you meant by that — it was a revelation!
It’s a thing I really need to rethink, bringing the character up. Because it turns out in looking at the history of this particular character, there’s a very tiny window of time where only specific age groups of people will actually know what I’m talking about. Because Inspector Gadget has come back and Penny Gadget is part of it, but it’s not the same character. The new version of Penny Gadget has a love-hate relationship, blah blah blah.

I don’t need romance in my Inspector Gadget.
Get out of here! She’s just saving the day, let her save the day!

Anyway, the topics of the last ten years of my work have been around sex, trash, and ghosts. And when I say ghosts I mean the ghostly traces of media. Dead media, nostalgic media, trying to understand what it means. The work I do is a combination of sociological research or cultural histories, and especially forgotten histories. I usually create works in response to that research or those histories. And I’ve been officially a photographer, graphic designer, coder, I’ve been a million things having to do with tech.

And then professionally speaking I have another, I was going to say leg, but that’s a weird analogy. An arm? A third area of focus I have is community development and organizing. And just being a part of things that are important to me. So being a hybrid practitioner is difficult because if someone knows what you’re talking about, then you don’t have to explain it—and if you have to explain it, then no one knows what you’re talking about.

What current projects are you excited about?
Data or it Didn’t Happen is about the history of photography as an emerging media, and how that is parallel to how we understand/misunderstand and define and use data today as an emergent media. I did the research for this particular project and my hope is to publish what I have done thus far. I tend to fall down the rabbit hole when I get into research projects. And in previous installments in the the sex, trash, and ghosts triad ended up in graduate thesis level research, and this one could potentially turn into a book, which would be really wonderful. 

When you say research for those projects, where do you source your insights?
My methodology is very interdisciplinary. Since I started in sociology and started to move into actual historical research in my graduate work, the methodology is a combination of primary and secondary resources. When it comes to the actual ideas and the inspiration coming for each one of these subjects, I think it’s by virtue of my life being very untraditional or non-linear. I’ve picked up a lot of insights along the way in my career, and so some of that tends to be also maybe a macro-level understanding of different cultural implications of everything from socio-linguistic relationships to how language and technology work.

So, pattern recognition…
Some of it will start with a question, like the research around sex started as an undergraduate when I ran into this really random source, which wouldn’t have been considered on its own a legitimate academic source. It was the Museum of Menstruation and this random guy in Maryland had been collecting catalogs that different menstrual product companies had created and put into school systems around the United States.

I was looking at this museum of menstruation website, and he had collected not just these catalogues, but also the products. One of thee pamphlets included how the different apparatus worked with underwear. In one part he said, “Victorian underwear was open crotch.” And I thought, “Wait, what? What was the cultural need for underwear if it was open crotch? What is underwear, then?” So I fell down a rabbit hole of finding all of these other sociological, anthropological, historical sources—actual legitimate ones, not some dude on the internet.

I didn’t just want to verify his statement was true, but to understand the moment of cultural dissonance. I like to fall down these rabbit holes of research, thinking about these histories that don’t make sense. Cracks in time where there is a cultural dissonance. Then, once I pull myself out of the rabbit hole, I by my very nature have to then use technology in some way, shape, or form, to make something as my own creative response to the absurd thing I’ve just fallen down. Hence for my first thesis, I recreated photos from a commercial catalogue for a vibrator from the 1920s, which I found at the Museum of Sex—due to the rabbit hole resulting from that first unexpected find.

It’s an interesting dichotomy, research and response...
I am sure the Data or it Didn’t Happen research I’ve been doing will come to fruition with some sort of response, but I do know I’m still in the research phase of that particular project. The research on these things warrant a book on their own, just because they’re so fascinating. I definitely have bibliographies…I have a picture somewhere of when I had to empty out my library locker at NYU, and it was like, oh, The History of the Orgasm and all these books about the history of sex. It’s pretty great being a weirdo.

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I’ve had a history of sex book in my closet for ages and still haven’t read it!
There’s sex the noun and sex the verb, and the intertwining of subjects means there’s actually a few books I came across when I was doing the research on the history of sexology. Just by itself, doing a sociological analysis of that history (which some books have done already) is so fascinating.

Your creative output could become Masters of Sex.
When I see that show, you know who I think of? Clelia Duel Mosher. She was the first and only person ever to ask Victorian women directly about their attitudes about sex. She was an Assistant Professor of Personal Hygiene at Stanford back in the early 1900s.

She made a life of advocating for women to focus on their abdominal strength after doing a ground-breaking study that disproved the common thought of the time that women and men breathed from different parts of the body. The (false) idea that women breathe differently was closely linked to a "natural" argument for corsets. Women were breathing differently because they were wearing corsets! She believed women's abdominals should be strong. So the idea of “doing your moshers” was physical exercise program she came up with. Which is funny because now, if you think about core and core exercises as such a cultural trend, it came out of a radical feminist moment. When I see Masters of Sex, I think of Clelia Duel Mosher. She’s not the sexier option because she’s not in a hot couple of sexologists…

I want to watch a show about Victorian Feminists!
Not that I have anything against the Masters' research, it’s actually super interesting stuff as well, and really important again in the history of sexology, but no one knows about Clelia, man!

We are in uncharted territory already as a generation, and then on top of that, as hybrid practitioners, we’re like ‘No—we have to be even more uncharted!’

But I feel like when they make art about historical women’s movements, it can skate under the popular radar.
There's a lot of history to base work on. As an example, another interesting thing I came across in my research is that women in the dress reform movement in the 1850s attempted to bring out the “bloomer” costume — a little skirt with pants underneath. They wanted mobility. But it was such a radical departure from what was normal, they were deemed “cross dressers.” It was such a hard backlash against it, that the bloomer costume and the dress reform movement ended up in a way going underground, in the sense that their tactics became about “the invisibles” — they were referring literally to underwear.

Eventually another 40-50 years later when things started to actually move, it was all about hygiene. That’s where the idea of hygienic corsets or underwear systems came from. They had to adopt language that was popular in other movements around the time. Which, side note: it’s very scary to see now. It’s real, looking at history and seeing something which could happen again. A feminist movement—radical or not—eventually adopting popular language in order to become mainstream and accepted. It’s a very interesting historical lesson. Right?

And stressful to think about!
It’s stressful, it’s emotional, it’s upsetting. It’s many things. But I think knowing history is very important. Understanding many of these histories are super complex, and again the lesson to be learned by looking at something like this, is that certain forms of language have certain kinds of power. And they also can be used in different ways. It’s a huge generalization I’m making right now, but it’s true. And scary.

Can you talk to me a bit about how you tackle hybrid practice?
What’s hard for hybrid practitioners, is it’s unlike a situation where you are in one area of focus or in one industry (even if it encompasses multiple disciplines,) where there is a very linear path. It’s not just that your unknowns are known. There are systems of support in place. You can find mentorship much more easily, or understand where you would find mentorship. It’s really also unique to our generation, but certainly that much more important for hybrid practitioners. We are in uncharted territory already as a generation, and then on top of that, as hybrid practitioners, we’re like “No—we have to be even more uncharted!”

My point is, I feel really good about finding a home base in teaching, and from there still remembering my roots and knowing whatever form my creative practice takes, being hybrid about it is really important to me. It’s not just part of who I am, part of my methodology. It’s an important point of view.

Find out more at sheiva.com