Nina Sobell is a contemporary sculptor, videographer, and performance artist who was among the first to use the internet as an artistic medium.
Early life and education
Nina Sobell was born in Patchogue, New York in 1947. She earned a B.F.A. at Tyler School of Art, Temple University in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, and an M.F.A. at Cornell University in Ithaca, New York. She served as a visiting lecturer at Goldsmiths College, University of London, in 2005-06.
As a digital artist focusing on experimental forms of interaction and performance, Sobell uses tools such as wireless EEG headbands, MIDI sound, webcasts, and closed-circuit video surveillance. She was part of the feminist video performance movement of the 1970s with works such as Chicken on Foot (1974) and Hey! Baby, Chicky!! (1978), but she is best known for her work with Emily Hartzell on ParkBench and ArTisTheater (1993). Her many other collaborators have included Billy Kluver, Anne Bean, Norman White, Sonya Allin, David Bacon, Per Biorn, John Dubberstein, RJ Fleck, Jesse Gilbert, Mimi Gross, Malcolm Jones, Marek Kulbacki, Julie Martin, Anders Mansson, Aaron Michaelson, Stacy Pershall, Sun Qing, Brian Schwartz, Anatole Shaw, Jeremy Slater, and Yuqing Sun. Her work is in the collections of the Museum of Modern Art, New York; the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York; the Banff Centre for the Arts, Canada; the Manchester Museum of Art, England; the Contemporary Arts Museum, Houston, Texas; the Zentrum fur Kunst und Medien Technologie, Karlsruhe; the Institute of Contemporary Art, London; the DIA Foundation; and other institutions and private collections.
In the early 1970s, Sobell worked with closed-circuit video to explore the relationship between artist and audience. Sobell was married to sound artist Brian Routh between 1975 and 1981, and the couple collaborated on many performance video pieces, including Interactive Electroencephalographic Video Drawings. In 1992, with the series Brainwave Drawing, Sobell set up a system in which two participants could see their brainwaves changing in real time as they simultaneously watched their images on closed-circuit video, creating an improvisational feedback loop as they silently attempted to communicate with each other.
In 1993, Nina Sobell and Emily Hartzell collaborated on the ParkBench Kiosk as artists-in-residence at New York University Center for Advanced Technology. The piece was a network of kiosks that used the internet to bring different communities and neighborhoods together, through methods such as videoconferencing and a collaborative drawing space. The locations of the kiosks were in art museums, restaurants, parks, shops, bars, subway stations, and clubs. The piece won Art & Science Collaborations' Digital99 Award and was a 1999 Webby Award Nominee and Yahoo's Pick of the Week for January 1999.
With the introduction that same year of Mosaic, the first graphical browser, Sobell and Hartzell created a "ParkBench" interface for the web and named this version of the project ArTisTheater. They turned their studio into a realtime public web installation by linking it to the web with a 24-hour webcam feed. Their goal was to explore the nature of video, performance, and surveillance on the internet, and they invited artists to use their setup on a weekly basis to create live webcast performances of various kinds. Sobell and Hartzell's first performance for ArTisTheater has been called "the first live performance in the history of the World Wide Web." Some 80 performances are now archived in the ArTisTheater Performance Archive, and the roster of those who participated includes Martha Wilson, Margot Lovejoy, Diane Ludin, Prema Murthy, and Adrianne Wortzel. .
VirtuAlice (1995) was an early mobile data collection and surveillance project. Its key component was a telerobotic camera mounted on a wireless rolling chair with attached cameras. Users could control its movement either by riding around in it or remotely, through a web interface. The video images captured were made available to web viewers in real time. There was also a rear-view mirror that reflected the face of anyone riding the chair to web viewers. Sobell and Hartzell described the piece as "a passage between physical and cyber space. We converge from web-side and street-side, explore parallel spaces separated by glass, and peer through the membrane at each other's representations."
Barterama (1995) was an early piece exploring the internet's many-to-many connectivity for its potential to enable a barter economy. It was essentially a proof-of-concept project, with a small website listing a dozen categories in which Sobell and Hartzell were willing to make trades, with details of specific offers and a form for facilitating actual trading. 
- Phillips, Glenn. "Nina Sobell", California Video: Artists and Histories, Getty Publications, 2008, p. 206.
- Nina Sobell's website, "Biography" page
- Nina Sobell's website, "Collaborators" page
- "ParkBench: A History of Firsts on the Web," New York University Center for Art and Technology website
- "Kiosks," New York University Center for Art and Technology website
- Lovejoy, Margot. Digital Currents: Art in the Electronic Age. New York: Routledge, 2004. p. 245.
- Carr, C. "A Brief History of Outrage: The 51 (or So) Greatest Avant-Garde Moments", Village Voice, Sept. 22, 1998.
- "ArTisTheater" webpage.
- "VirtuAlice" webpage