Ritual of Abandonment:
Interview with Diane Fenster

by Diane Cassidy

Two years ago I fell in love.
Thats how this all began.
I fell in love with someone I had never seen, never touched.
Someone I only knew by communicating thru electronic email
and an occasional telephone call.
And when I fell in love, I opened myself to a vast journey
through an uncharted wilderness of emotions both light and dark.
Ritual of Abandonment is my attempt to create signposts or roadmaps
about my travels along the way.
I dont know how its going to end.

Introductory statement for Ritual of Abandonment


It was sometime in 1995, not long after I bought my first computer, that I happened upon Image Electronic, an exhibit at the Euphrat Museum of De Anza College in Cupertino. One segment of the exhibit featured a series titled Ritual of Abandonment, by Diane Fenster. It was comprised of seven 30 x 30 Fujichrome prints, originating from digital files. Each image also had a personal story of abandonment within it, written by people that Diane had invited to participate in the project. Throughout the series ran a train motif that intertwined railroad tracks with voluptuous nude bodies displayed in seductive saturated color. The act of viewing these images along with reading or hearing fragments of the stories read by the authors in video clips on the companion web installation was an overwhelming experience. So enamored of this work was I, that I returned again and again, trying (unsuccessfully) to absorb it all. Since that time I believe Diane Fenster has been the major influence on my ensuing digital photo collage.

Diane Fenster is originally from New Jersey with education both in biological science and graphic arts. She has been employed as a graphic artist by San Francisco State Universitys College of Science and Engineering since the 1979 and is also a freelance photoillustrator. Diane has also been deeply immersed in the local and national art community as one of the earlier explorers of the digital art scene.

In 1992 she was curating an art exhibit in San Francisco called Add Noise (from the Photoshop filter). The internet and email were just breaking upon the scene. She learned that one of the persons she invited to participate in the show just got on email, as did she. So, more as a way to capitalize on this new capability, they began emailing.

Thats how this all began....

Johnny Come Lately, Digital Photography, ©1993 Diane Fenster.

Id like you to tell me about your experience falling in love online.
It began with just communicating by email but moved into hours and hours on the telephone.
Emails were rather brief. They were like shorthand.

As you said, it began casually, but then it changed course. Did it advance very rapidly?
Yes.It was very fast.It was a specific telephone call that broke it wide open.

What circumstances caused it to veer off in another direction? Was there anything in your life that could have precipitated this event?
Yes,but I dont want to go into it.Too personal.

Could you tell me more about what you meant when you said, at our first meeting,
that your letters to him were more like talking to yourself?

I m going to partially answer the question before by answering this question. This episode came at a time when certain parts of myself had been walled off had been very protected and closed. Because of a lot of different reasons these walls were beginning to come down. There was a part of me that was very open and exposed. The time was right for something very powerful to strike
me. It took the form of falling in love with this person, but, on the other hand, I was really in some
sense falling in love with myself. I was connecting with parts of myself that had been alienated
for a very long time. So in writing to this other person I was in some sense writing to myself. It was like reconnecting with parts of myself that had not been nourished for a very very long time.
And thats part of why I think ittook on such an intensity,because I think that when a person falls in love, they re partially falling in love with what they see in themselves projected on another
person. Was what you were going through somewhat the same for him? I would assume yes because he was also at a very difficult point in his life. We both met at the crossroads (one of the clickable words in the web installation that leads to a mythological definition). Again, everything thats going on in Ritual of Abandonment was in some way referenced to conversations and emails that he and I had.

Do you believe that the fact that you were both undergoing some personal upheaval
and the fact that you somehow connected was a coincidence?
I dont think it was a coincidence. I think it was whats called synchronicity I really subscribe to Jungs notions of synchronicity. And that things occur for a reason as part of our journey as part of our evolution in understanding ourselves. So it was made to order. Did the relationship interfere with your normal everyday living? My world was turned upside down.

How long did the relationship continue?
About a year and a half. Did you ever meet? I did meet him, yes. I had to go to where he lived for an art opening I was in, and we made arrangements to meet.

Was that the beginning of the end?
In some respects it was, but in some respects, not. The communication really ended because my husband phoned him one day and told him to stop. So that s why it ended. My husband finally stepped in and said, This isnt working out. Either you stop communicating with him or Im out of here.

Was it difficult to stop the relationship?
It was like withdrawing from a drug, like kicking a habit, because it was a habit. It was an attention that I was hooked on. It was a psychodrama that I was dependent upon. But Id made a
promise to my husband.

How did your husband find out?
I told him.I dont keep anything from him.

You told him right from the very beginning?
Right. He wasn t thrilled with the whole thing,but.... Maybe he thought it would pass. I think he probably did. We love each other very much. Thats why weve stayed together. In spite of all this. Fortunately your marriage wasnt destroyed. It was shaken, but in a good way because there had been problems in the relationship that we were not facing. The kind of problems that would lead me to run off and have a fantasy life with someone else.

I was really impressed when I learned that he wrote Johnny Come Lately one of the stories from Ritual of Abandonment. He must be a true partner.
Oh yes,yes.He is indeed a true partner.

Im learning that its not uncommon for people to find relationships in this manner.
Yes, subsequently I ve had a number of friends have this same kind of email love affair and I told them for what it is worth: Heres my experience, but you know what? You re going to need to walk down the same primrose path because youre going to believe that this cant happen to you.

Sometimes, I think that the gods want to kick you in the pants. You walk along thinking that youre a rational being and that you know which foot is going first and which foot is going second and youve got this pretty good idea of who you are and whats happening to you and then the universe just says, Oh yeah,you think so? And then pulls the rug out from under you. And you find that you are at the mercy of feelings, emotions, drives and instincts. With this thin veneer of civilization, you have no idea of whats boiling up underneath.

I think its important for it to happen to somebody at least once in their life where they re made to realize that they re not in control. I think that was one of the most important things that this showed me that you re not in control. That there is a greater universe out there. And youre not safe from the wildness of your own emotions.

In Ritual of Abandonment right in the beginning I quote:

Enormous suffering is an intrinsic possibility of every bond; we cannot refuse a relationship because it might bring pain. To reveal ones feeling is to say yes to oneself. Our ingenuousness deludes us into believing we have found a path that excludes this fracture, but in reality, when we have said yes to someone, we have said yes to both life and death. Aldo Carotenuto, Eros and Pathos

You have to do it.In a way its the people who dont do it who are in trouble.


I Couldnt Stay in Miami, Digital Photography, ©1993, Diane Fenster.

I was thinking of how the methods of communication have evolved .... from face to face, to letter writing to telephoning to email. Email romances are a modern phenomenon. The exchanges are so rapid, they resemble one on one face to face, with the major difference being that theres no face to face.

What do you think about the new phenomenon that today, you can meet someone for the first time on line, get to know them, have a relationship with them, based solely on words? What do you think is unique about this kind of communication?

Email is a verbal shorthand. Its a way of cutting to the chase. You tend to go right to the heart of the matter. You dont circle, like when people first meet each other, and theyre trying to impress each other. Theres a whole social construct that you have to work through. And its not a new phenomenon. You mention letter writing. People used to do that without meeting each other. But
now through email this is becoming so much more universal. I think the scope has become so
much larger with so many people online now, with the chat rooms, etc. It just widens to X to the
100th power the occasions that you have for meeting someone. In the chat rooms you have no
idea what sex the person is. They could have green skin,or a third eye in the middle of their forehead. There are 15 year-old kids pretending to be 40 year-old adults and vice versa. In a real life relationship you have all the boring day to day routine minutiae to contend with. The things that are absent from an ephemeral relationship. Ive spent a lot of time thinking about what this was all about. And I ve done a lot of analyzing it to understand what was going on. I would like to extrapolate by saying that thats what I think is going on with all these people.

Our modern life does more and more to cut us off from our primal self. It asks more and more
for structured civilized behavior. But an email relationship is not based on this everyday reality and
it can be difficult to maintain a proper perspective on a relationship when its not based in this everyday reality. Its based on some unknown inner needs, forces, drives, that are allowed to
express themselves through the communication. But even in the cyber world, where we are
corporal entities without bodies, communicating with each other, even there, I think there is a
hunger for ones authentic self, which weve been cut off from. I think there are large portions of
a persons subconscious that, at any given time, partially because of a survival mechanism and
partially because of what society dictates, are cut off. Wilhelm Reich calls it the emotional plague the cutting off from ones own feelings. In the drive to become civilizedweve had to cut ourselves off from a lot of our primal drives, forces, instincts. I think that in and of itself this is
both a good thing and a bad thing. Good in that it allows us to function and get our work done.
But on the other hand there is a force in people, an electricity, a vitality, that comes from the
subconscious that I think is important to have access to in a way that doesnt overwhelm us. Thats what I think consciousness tries to do. It only allows you access to a bit at a time, like
when youre doing a body of art work, you access your subconscious, but it comes out in a way
where you can measure it and control the flow. But there are other times when its like a tidal
wave that in some people leads to madness insanity when you cant stem the flow from the
subconscious. I dont think most people are aware of whats happening to them. Thats part of the thrill of what this communication is about.

I find it something of a paradox that as modern society does more and more to cut us off from our primal self, this new technology seems to be making the opposite possible.
This is so important to us and our well-being as a species our access to our subconscious mindsthat no matter what new technology is developed and what new culture is developed as a
way to cut ourselves off, theres going to be the opposite and equal reaction of a way to find

Sort of like a survival mechanism.
It is a survival mechanism. I think that this mechanism is part of what should be the crux of this
article:that there is a hunger in people for communication, for genuine connection with each other and people are going to find ways to do this. And yet for all the analysis and all the psychological reasons at the bottom of it is this desperate need to communicate, with the other person and with yourself. Thats why its important.

How did this experience lead to being expressed as a work of art?
Back when this was occurring it was extremely tempestuous. I was having a difficult time emotionally, dealing with what was happening to me being in love with this person that Id never seen, and it seemed to me one of the only ways for me to keep my sanity was to make a work of art out of it. I thought that it would help me work through my feelings.

Did this body of work come easily, did it seem to take on a life of its own, or did it have to be forced out?
Oh no, it took on a life of its own absolutely once I got the form in which I wished to work
which was the feminine bodies being intersected by the railroad tracks. And once I also realized
that I was going to be approaching other people and getting them to write stories to integrate with
the images it did completely take on a life of its own.

How was it that you arrived at the train motif? And how did the train work in to all the stories?
The wail of a train late at night is to me the sound of someone leaving. But it was a lunch time conversation with Mark Toal, another digital photographer and writer of one of the series stories
I Couldn t Stay in Miami, that gave me the idea to include the stories. I was discussing with him
the motif of the women and the train tracks. He said,That reminds me of a time when I had to leave someone on a train. And he told me this story of an episode in his life that had been very painful. When he finished telling me his story it was so obvious to me what I had to do.And I said can I use this story in the image? Thats when I got the idea of going and asking other people to write their stories. The train motif was a device. I asked every author if at all possible, to work a train into their story.

Was the making of this series therapeutic, that is, did it help you understand what was happening to you?
Yes. It took me away from the personal relationship between myself and the other person and put me into the larger world of artistic endeavor and also into the world of other peoples stories of abandonment. And I realized that I was not alone. That abandonment was a common thread that most people in the world have experienced at onetime or another in their life; by a lover, a parent, a dog dying. That there are so many levels of the experience of abandonment. This helped me to understand that this was archetypal rather than personal.

So my work became a mirror for other people, which to me is the most effective means of artistic
endeavor, where its open ended so the viewer can project whatever it is they need to into the art.

Another quote at the beginning of Ritual of Abandonment best explains what I think this work is all about:

When a myth is enacted in a ritual performance or, in more general, simpler and profaner fashion, when a fairy tale is told, the healing factor within it acts on whoever has taken an interest in it and allowed himself to be moved by it in such a way that through this participation he will be brought into connection with an archetypal form of the situation and by this means enabled to put himself into order.
Emma Jung and M.L Von Franz, The Grail Legend

That quote is inviting an interactivity so that one may be healed from what one experiences.
Its been a great experience for me to have my work online and get communication from people
all over the world, wanting to talk to me about Ritual of Abandonment or my other bodies of work. I would like to conclude with this story: Back in 1995, when art on the web was in its infancy, there was a thing called cool site of the day.

Back then it was a big deal. On April 4th, my site, Ritual of Abandonment was chosen. I had
something like 10,000 people visit me that day, and I had all kinds of emails. One of them really stuck in my mind. It was from a father who wrote that he had gone to cool site of the day, not
knowing what to expect. But when he started going through it and he realized what is was, he called his son over. His son was going through the breakup of his first love and was very unhappy.
So father and son sat down and went through Ritual of Abandonment together. The father wrote me saying how meaningful it was for the two of them to be able to experience it together, and how it helped his son deal with what he was going through. These words were so gratifying. It could have just as easily been an angry father saying, What are you putting this nude art on the web for? Then the father went on and said how we all spend our lives going through these rituals of

I Dreamed of a Darkskinned Woman, Digital Photography, ©1993 Diane Fenster.


Experience Ritual of Abandonment at:
More of Diane Fensters work may be experienced at:

Diane Cassidy is a photographer who became digital and who is currently making artists books.

CyberIsms: Voice, Identity & Communication in the Virtual Realm

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