1Embodied Agents, Reflexive Engineering and Culture as a Domain by Simon Penny
This paper was presented MoMA New York, on the evening of May 20, 1996, and was illustrated with slides and videos of three of my works. Images of these works can be found at
Much of the text is new, but parts are taken from previously published or presented works, including: From A to D and Back Again: the emerging esthetics of Interactive Art, (NextWave Festival catalog, Melbourne Australia, May 1996) (simultaneously published in Leonardo Electronic Almanac); Autonomous Agents in the Cultural Domain, presented at Telepolis Symposium, Luxembourg, Nov 1995; Body Knowledge, Digital Prostheses and Cognitive Diversity, keynote address for Remote Sensing (Southern Graphics Graphics Conference, Morgantown WV, march 1996)
For more than 10 years my artistic practice has been focused on electronically controlled installations and sculptures, usually interactive. My practice is based in the following ideas:
1. that art practice should be relevant to contemporary social and cultural issues.
2. that technological change has been the major force for cultural and social change since the industrial revolution.
These ideas have led me to pursue a practice which I call 'reflexive engineering': I take a particular technology as both my subject matter and my medium and make a work which uses that technology and simultaneously engages in a discourse with it.
In parallel with my artistic practice I have kept and equally active critical writing practice, these activities feed each other. In contexts such as this, I speak about either my artistic practice or my theoretical practice, tonight I want to try to indicate the way these practices inform each other. I will show three works (in chronological order) and explore the theoretical issues inherent within them. It is important to me that my critique is always anchored in dirty, hands on practice. My work has evolved technically as the technology has evolved, and my critique has evolved as a result of engaging that technology and the ideas around it. Having worked with the products of engineering for many years, my concerns have become more abstract and more historical. I have come to focus on issues surrounding the discourse of Engineering itself.
I believe this is a critical study for those of us who engage technological tools for artistic purposes. As Electronic media artists we depend upon the products of the discipline of engineering in order to make our work. Every day we come to new reconciliations between our artistic goals and methods, and the requirements and restrictions of the machines we work with. With a little critical distance, we can see that we are re-shaping artistic practice to suit a new set of tools which create a very different working environment from traditional practice.
One of the new realms of practice and exploration offered by these tools is interactivity. We are beginning to shape a new esthetic language : the esthetic manipulation of automated action and response. It is only relatively recently that the machine found a place in artistic practice, even more recently, electronics found a place. Now we are working with a machine which talks back!
While my work has focused on spatial interactivity: the combination of installation, performance and sculptural sensibilities with the intangible domain of electronically automated interactive process, others concentrate on the interactive coordination of screenal space and telematic 'spaces'. Each of these present complex new esthetic issues, which I refer to as the 'emerging esthetics of interactivity'.
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