Scott Townsend is on faculty at NC State University. In 2002 he began working with site specific/online audiences in project spaces where broad globalization issues were having particular effects on communities, employing aspects of what would eventually be called “social media,” along with real-time visualization of data. Projects and exhibitions are often part of a greater program of local and regional engagement that also includes workshops, lectures, and other activities connected to the project space. He has exhibited or created projects in over 80 national and international group and solo exhibitions in the Czech Republic, Greece, Egypt, Cuba, Mexico, Canada, Germany, Japan, Iran, Italy, Serbia, Venezuela, Cuba, and the United States. His articles have appeared in Zed, Statements, Brujula, Art Papers, Visual Communication, Design and Culture, Design Philosophy Papers, and Design Issues. He has also presented on this work in international venues as featured presenter alongside John Maeda, Suguru Ishizaki, and Krystof Lenk, and was a Mitchell Lecture presenter at the School of the Art Institute Chicago in 2014. He is currently on the editorial board of Design and Culture.
World politics may have changed in the face of transnationalism and globalism, but beyond the headlines in our daily newspapers, it is all too easy to ignore the impact of border politics on our lives unless we are directly affected. Especially in the Western hemisphere, we are afforded great flexibility for travel and cultural exchange with other countries. The complexities of border politics fade away when the experience with borders primarily takes place at airports and our biggest worry is a thinly masked concern for travel comfort in the face of tightened security.
The artist Scott Townsend places not just himself, but also his audience, into the middle of border issues. His interactive installations, using projectors and computers, invite the audience to investigate general questions of border politics from a personal perspective.
Townsend's Borderline Series examines global migration, language barriers, and stereotypes regarding border issues.
The series currently consists of four separate projects, Borderline Stories, Borderline Statements, Borderline Translations, and Borderline Maps. The distinction between borders and borderlines indicates the intellectual dilemma within these issues. Whereas clear legal borders may exist between countries, borderlines are abstract and intangible, and the term suggests an interpretation of borders that may be both complex and subjective.
While Townsend's projects examine issues of borders, they also transcend them in medium and format. The projects exist in the defined space of the gallery, but for the duration of each exhibition they are also available on the border-defying World Wide Web. Townsend's work is interactive and decentralized. Using one or more data projectors, a computer mouse, and sometimes a keyboard, the installations invite audience participation. An audience accustomed to being viewers of artwork are thrust into their new role as participants. Questions and statements in the work provoke an emotional response from the audience. And since the work can only be explored by interaction, it is almost impossible for the audience to remain neutral. The participation includes moving the mouse over the projected symbols and graphics, clicking on links to proceed to the next viewing screen, or answering "yes" or "no" questions. Some areas invite written responses, allowing the audience to share their views or personal stories.
The symbols used in the work are universal, and where text messages prompt responses from the audience, an option for other languages is frequently offered. The first project Borderline Stories was originally designed for a Czech audience and posed questions in Czech and English. It was later adapted to include Spanish.
Responses from the audience are integrated into the work every few days, blurring the lines of authorship as the audience's feedback becomes part of the permanent installation. The Internet aspect of the installation allows people also to access the work from the safety of their home computers, where their responses will not be projected on gallery walls for everybody to see. Responses are collected only for the duration of the exhibition. Though Townsend's work exists beyond the geographical location of the gallery space, it is defined by its beginning and end in time. After the exhibition, the project may still be viewed online, but visitors to the Web site can no longer submit their own stories.
Projects in the Borderline Series approach issues around border politics from a range of angles, including points of entry of immigrants, language barriers, and border-crossing testimonials. The stories are kept approachable, making it harder for the viewer to set an emotional barrier between themselves and the people in the stories. The first-person testimonials humanize the issues and remove the sense of proverbial "other."
Using a similar approach in other projects, Townsend has expanded the theme of borders to foreign politics and war in the project Homeland: the U>S>A Piece, while the House Series narrows the theme to the intimate realm of home and safety.
Townsend asks more questions than he answers. In fact the entire experience of viewing the work encourages a private pondering of the issues at hand. Provided with a lot of food for thought, it remains the responsibility of the audience to define their own viewpoints.
Scott Townsend lives in Raleigh, North Carolina, and teaches at North Carolina State University. He participated in Light Work's Artist-in-Residence program in June 2004. His Web site can be found at www4.ncsu.edu/~sttwn/.