What I want to discuss this evening is art that uses a computer during the process of
viewing, and the relationship of this type of art to the structure of the computer.
Though understanding this structure is clearly not relevant to viewing art that incorporates a
computer, I believe that some understanding of the way that a computer functions might
help us to critically analyze the state of the art and examine why the art has so clearly not
reached the level of transcending the technology. I will also be showing some video
documentation of my own work from the past 8 years which certainly represents my own
struggles with this medium.
This slide is a simplified diagram of the structure of a computer.
A computer can be thought of as an empty structure into which a concept
This concept which must be represented in a mathematical way is the program... which is
made up of a series of algorithms that define the response of the system. Inputs happen,
the program reacts and produces an output selected from the vocabulary of that particular
system. That output could be an image, or a sound or a robot that jumps up and down or
it could be a change in room lighting. They are all ways of representing the internal
direction of the program.
I find it useful to put interactive work on a dynamic spectrum with controllable systems on
one end and responsive systems on the other.
In controllable systems the actions of the
viewer correlate in a 1 to 1 way with the reaction of the system. Interactive CD ROM's are
on this end of the spectrum and generally speaking so are games.
In responsive systems
the actions of the viewer are interpreted by the program to create the response of the
system. Artificial Life works fit at the extreme end of this side of the spectrum.
spectrum is fuzzy and often subjective and more importantly changes with a person's
technological proficiency. If a work is responding in a predictable way, and if the viewer
becomes aware of the correlation between their action and the works response to their
action then they will feel that they are in control and the possibility of dialogue is lost. The
first time I walked through an automatic door at the supermarket I thought the door was
smart and was responding to me. Now I step on the mat to open the door on purpose.
The point is that often the first time an interface is experienced it's perceived as being
responsive but if the interface is experienced again it becomes controllable. The second
time it's not a question but a command.
It's very hard to avoid the theme of control in computer art because computers are
fundamentally designed to be controlling devices.
The computer industry's goal of
making computers and programs smarter is simply to make computers more efficient at
being controlled by the user to get a job done. Why should they do anything else. It's
generally what we want computers for. We want them to be passive slaves. One can see
this in the software, hardware and interfaces that are currently being used. This model is
fine until it collides with art.
For example look at the concept of icons as an interface device. They are designed to be
precise and accurate and discrete, on or off. They are designed to present a closed set of
possibilities. They are not capable of subtlety, ambiguity or question. An interface of
choice and control makes sense for a word processor or an information retrieval system
or a game, but not as a metaphor for interactivity or dialogue.
I've often wondered why most interactive work feels contrived and designed for a
calculated response, like bad art school art.
I've seen so many cd roms and interactive
video discs that have felt like my interaction was completely scripted and predetermined
within the pretext of a few choices. A painter can create a painting without consciously
thinking about the future viewers. It's much harder but I think that a filmmaker can create
a film without being overly affected by what the audience's response will be. It's almost
impossible for an artist creating an interactive work to not try and second guess the
viewer. How else can an artist design the interface without seeing it from the other side?
One of the ways that I've seen artists avoid this problem is to not put themselves in the
viewer's shoes but instead to take the point of view of the work itself. Instead of saying as
viewer what can I trigger saying as program what can I measure. And then what can I
reflect and what can I express based on some interpretation of the viewers responses.
This way the work becomes a momentary, but dynamic reflection of a thinking process.
Because the artist doesn't write the viewer's side of the interaction the viewer can
respond in a more open way.
One of the consequences of this approach is that the work like a painting and like a film
exists on its own. There is no attract mode. The work is not waiting for a person to
complete it. In a way the work becomes interactive not with people but with its
environment. This is particularly important with work that exists in a public space.
The degree to which a work feels like a game instead of a dialogue or the degree to
which a work feels like an answer instead of a question is the choice of the artist and not a
limitation of the medium or the technology