Tiffany Holmes had never considered herself squeamish–she’d been a premed student at Williams College before switching her major to art history–but a few years ago she came face-to-face with a fat mouse that had been living it up behind her stove. “I immediately sprinted to a chair,” she says. “At that moment, I joined the ranks of hundreds of females who have been stereotyped by Western society as mice-o-phobic.”

The encounter inspired Holmes, who has earned an MFA in painting from the Maryland Institute, College of Art, and one in imaging and digital arts from the University of Maryland, to start thinking about the animal’s relationship to the computer mouse. For example, she says, both move quickly and can “navigate spaces impenetrable to human passage.”

She recalls trying to teach word processing to a group of middle school teachers. Several made excuses to get out of the class. They “were disoriented by the holy trinity of mouse, monitor, and keyboard,” she says. “Those who did manage to open the word processing application refused to touch the mouse after learning that the arrow keys would move the cursor in a more predictable manner.”

Last winter she decided to tackle her own mice-o-phobia head-on in one of her large-scale installations examining the relationship between digital technology and culture. She’d just moved from Ann Arbor, where she’d been a resident scholar and artist at the University of Michigan, to begin her job as assistant professor in the School of the Art Institute’s art and technology department.

“When I move, I sit down and start a new piece,” says Holmes. “When I got here it snowed like three feet and I went to a pet store and got a mouse.” Her 99-cent purchase, Zack, had been earmarked as snake food.

She began working on a computer program and installation that would make it possible for Zack to become an artist. The result is Follow the Mouse, a human-sized office cubicle complete with computer, monitor, printer, and hard drive. Instead of a computer mouse, though, there’s Zack, who lives on the desktop in his own glass cubicle, complete with bedding, food, and water. “It’s not hardware but liveware,” says Holmes. An overhead microcamera records Zack’s movements; they appear as black shapes on the computer screen. Holmes’s program adds vivid colors and other elements to the mouse-driven patterns. More often than not, the corners of the cage where Zack eats and drinks generate the most layered shapes and colors.

“I want to raise questions about the names and metaphors we invoke to describe the constructed environments that we inhabit,” says Holmes, who hopes to eventually create a larger installation with ten cubicles and ten mice “so there’s more of a sense of the office.”

When it debuted July 13 at the Jean Albano Gallery, the installation drew plenty of questions and reactions. “Some people were really scared of the mouse,” says Holmes. “Some kids and other people wanted to treat it as if it were a possession or a pet….Seventy-five percent of the questions I got had to do with who is doing the drawing, who made the marks, and how is the computer controlling it.”

Next to the installation there are several framed pictures beside a sign that says “Mouse Drawings by Zack” and a list of prices. The drawings are printed out at random and Zack will produce about 200 before the show ends; quite a few have sold for $35–less if the customer buys more than one–and there are “a bunch more” on hold. The gallery label below lists Holmes as the artist.

She’ll have more collaborators for her performance on August 9, when four mice in exercise balls will be tracked by a camera and the resulting footage will be projected onto the gallery wall. At the same time, the mice will create their own “analog collaborative piece” on a large piece of paper as they roll over small piles of printer ink powder.

The mice–and two understudies–have been in training since April. Holmes has been “placing them in balls and having them do laps in the kitchen” as she prepares dinner. They eat high-protein food, and she says they’ve doubled in size since starting their daily exercise regimen.

“I’ve become quite attached to all of the mice, Zack in particular,” says Holmes. She visits the gallery every other day to feed him and change his bedding and plans to keep all the animals as pets. For Zack, she’s put together “a brand-new cage replete with all sorts of gizmos for him to examine when he comes home and ‘goes on vacation’ at the end of the month.”

The free performance takes place at 6 PM Thursday, August 9, at Jean Albano Gallery, 215 W. Superior. Follow the Mouse, part of the “Art/Tech” show, will be up through August 25. Call 312-440-0770 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Dorothy Perry.