Con Edison Immigrant Artist Program Newsletter, Issue No. 60
Featured Interview with artist Denise Iris
Revisiting: “digital immigrant: being a foreigner all over again”
Denise Iris is a digital media artist and filmmaker whose videos, installations and photographs celebrate the blur between ordinary life and the world of the imagination. A three-time NYFA Fellow, two-time NYSCA grantee, and MacDowell Fellow, her work has been screened at MoMA, in NY galleries, at international festivals, and on PBS. She has taught at Columbia, Swarthmore, and Parsons. Raised in Romania, she lives in New York. Denise is now a second-time mentor in the Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program. IAP invited Denise to revisit and comment on her blog posting that illuminates the thoughts of many immigrant artists.
Two years ago I wrote a blog post about being a “digital immigrant,” someone who came of age before the internet existed. I compared my reactions as I navigated Internet 2.0 with my real-life immigration experience, which I described in a 1996 short documentary called Round Trip Ticket, a chronicle of my first journey back to my native Romania after the fall of communism. Both contexts brought out an excitement mixed with reticence, the desire to join in tempered by a critical distance. Today, as a mentor in NYFA’s Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program, I was asked to reflect on these issues from my current vantage point.
Upon rereading my own blog post, I notice how concerned I was at the time with “getting it right.” Back then, I was deeply ambivalent about social media: I didn’t take to it naturally, but I also wanted to keep up with the times. When I watch Round Trip Ticket now, almost twenty years later, I am struck by the same question of belonging, but on a greater scale. I see someone grappling with her identity in an acute, painful way. That struggle was caused in large part by the huge gap between the world I had come from (Ceausescu’s Romania) and the one I ended up in (New York City). In the 1980s, that gap was tremendous.
Today, the world has shrunk, and one result is that we are all more fluid in our identities. Working with more recent immigrants at NYFA, I see complex, layered self-definitions that balance global awareness with fiercely distinctive local flavors. I find this mix thrilling because it reflects my own view: nowadays I’m okay with being both American and Romanian, both an adopter of Web 2.0 and a skeptic. Most of all, being simultaneously insider and outsider feels right, just as it does to find myself in a room with other immigrant artists from all over the world.
This raises the question: As these issues have lost their emotional charge for me, has the immigrant perspective vanished from my work? I believe it has only taken new forms. In my recent photographs, I seem to be drawn toward a liminal terrain between the familiar and the unknown, between the natural and the artificial. Although less explicit, this is still about the intersection of two ways of seeing. I notice the same thing with other IAP artists: Even when it does not address immigration specifically, their work is often informed by a double perspective, the search a metaphorical home, or a desire to reconcile past and present. Call it a greater sensitivity to paradox—to me, that’s a fine place to call home.
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