The History of the Interface in Interactive Art
Söke Dinkla, 1994
At the moment the catch word "interactivity" is common talk. Most often it is mentioned in connection with a revolution in television. Techno-prophets anticipate more than 200 TV channels for the near future in each home. Thus, viewers will not only be able to choose from an almost unlimited offer, they will also be able to determine the course and outcome of individual programs. Proponents of these new opportunities are already praising interactivity as a means to change the passive reception of the viewer into an active one. Thus, it seems as if Bertolt Brecht's Radio Theory , which he developed in the late twenties, is now to become reality. Brecht envisioned the transformation of broadcasting from a distribution machine into a communication device that offers listeners the opportunity to help create its content. And actually this development has been actively persued for years by groups such as the Ponton Media Art Lab, by persons such as Myron Krueger, and by the communication structure of the internet.
This slightly anarchistic approach was notably absent from
this year's Siggraph computer trade show in Orlando, Florida. The trade show
showed that besides interactive TV games the US-American entertainment industry is concentrating on the employment of interactive
technologies in the scope of big theme parks. While the well-known Virtuality
games by W-lndustries individualize the player, the theme parks stress cooperation
and team spirit. The company Evans & Sutherland, for example, presented
at Siggraph the game Virtual Adventures, in which six players search together
for the eggs of the Loch Ness monster. The game appeals to typically athletic
characteristics such as ambition and team spirit. It offers alternative experiences
of pleasure and frustration, that is the classic features of a game.
Computer games like this have a more than 20 year old history of technologicaldevelopment, which remarkably took place at the same time in military research and in art. In these years Interactive Art
supplied many alternatives to theabove mentioned Loch Ness game and is essentially
characterized by the attempt to "humanize" the interface
between system and player. On top of this, the use of technologies that address
the viewer directly and involve her or him in adialogue, constitutes a decisive
change in the tradition of the image. Therefore my main attention focuses
in the following on the reciprocal dialogue between user and system and on
the design of the interface. In the following text I will distinguish six important implications of interactivity.
0. Historical Background and some Conflicts of Interactive Art
Its background in art consists of participational art
forms from the late sixties like for example Happenings and reactive kinetic
environments. Theoretical works like Umberto Ecos Opera aperta (1962) 
contributed to are interpretation of the part played by the spectator. In
German aesthetics this view was developed further especially by Wolfgang
Kemp in the middle ofthe eighties. His book Der Betrachter ist im Bild (The
Viewer is Inside the Picture) , in which he describes the method of receptional
aesthetics (Rezeption. . . sthetik), seems to anticipate the perception principle
we areexperiencing today in virtual reality. But this line of tradition is
not unbroken, as will be shown later on in this paper.
In a way Interactive Art builds on the traditions of participational art
formsby allowing the viewer to intervene in the action. However, in most
works, unlike in Happenings, this interaction is not meant as an attack against
the established art audience. Instead, it meets the needs of a media educated public. The implications of Interactive Art, though, go even further: this art also reflects the role played by computer technology . This may seem complicated, because Interactive uses the same technology it comments upon, meaning, there is a certain lack of distance. The situation of Interactive Art is therefore comparable with Video Art, which had to gain certain independence from the language of television. Both art
forms demonstrate that today the role of the artist is changing significantly.
Instead of being a commentator standing outside society, the artist nowdecides
to take part in the socio-technological change and judge from within.
1. Power and Play
With the American Myron Krueger the development of computer-controlled Interactive Art
started. He began as early as 1969 to conceive spaces in which actions of
visitors set off effects. In co-operation with Dan Sandin, Jerry Erdman and
Richard Veneszky he conceived the work Glowflow in 1969. Glowflow is a space
with pressure sensitive sensors on its floor, loudspeakers in thefour corners
of the room and tubes with coloured suspensions on the walls. Th evisitor
who steps on one of the sensors sets off either sound or light effects. In
the scope of the Art
& Technology movement in the late sixties artists like Robert Rauschenberg
and James Seawright created similar'responsive environments'. But at that
time no one in the 'art world' thoughtof creating a more complex computer-controlled dialogue and focussing the interaction itself.
In the computer sciences this situation was different. Almost
simultaneously with Glowflow Ivan Sutherland developed at the Universiy
of Utah the precursor of today's head-mounted-display (HMD). This display
was worn like apair of glasses and contained two small monitors, each of
which showed a stereoscopical sight to the eyes. Sensors registrate the head
movements and transmit the information to a computer which then calculates
the perspective and gives the viewer the impression to move within the image.
Thus, at the end of the sixties two trends emerged independently
of each other, which have significantly influenced the present situation
of Interactive Art and computer technology in general:
- the development of 'responsive environments' in the scope of the US-American Art & Technology movement and
- the development of the head-mounted-display
Krueger's work cannot be assigned to either of these trends. Neither did he participate in the projects of the Art & Technology movement, nor did he regard the head-mounted-display as a suitable interface. He thus used a different variant, which was also developed at the end of the sixties, but in the scope of Video Art:
it was the closed-circuit installation in which visitors are confronted by
their own camera image. Krueger now combined this principle with computer
In Videoplace, a work Krueger has been constantly developing
since 1974, the visitors find themselves faced with their own projected video
image that canbe changed by the computer program. In Videoplace there are
a number of different interactions, in which Krueger subverts the rules of
narcissistic self-reflection and self-control of the traditional video closed-circuit
and lets the user play with constantly changing versions of themselves. In
the most famous interaction called Critter a green figure appears on the
screenand tries to make contact with the visitor. It steers towards an exposed
partof the visitor's body and lands there. Then Critter begins to climb
up the arm, shoulder and neck until it reaches the highest point of the head.
Once there, it performs a joyful dance. Since Critter is programmed to reach
the highest point of the visitor's outline, the aim of the players is to
outwitCritter, that is, to subvert the program and develop their own rules.
Thus, the interactions of Videoplace are not only a joyful game but are
also concerned with the probing of power distribution between user and system.
Krueger's attitude towards the interface
shows that he is opposed to the isolation of the user caused by the head-mounted-display.
Instead, he creates an open space where it is the interaction and not the
instrument that causes the proximity to the system. This has important consequences
for the understanding of the interface. The technical interface - in this case the video camera - is, in a way, invisible and loses significance. It is substituted by the application itself.
In Europe the approach to Interactive Art and also the use of the interface
was quite different. The situation at the beginning of the 80's could be
characterized by the catch words "Participation versus Interaction".
2. Participation versus Interaction
In Amsterdam in 1983 the Australian Jeffrey Shaw produced his first interactive installation. He transferred his participational concept of art, which he developed during the sixties to computer installations. In his first interactive installation Points of View Shaw takes up the joystick, the interface
that is still customary for video games. Sitting on a chair the spectator
can move the projected video image of a stage with Egyptian Hieroglyphs.
With a second joystick she or he can steer sound traces. InPoints of View
the spectator turns into the director who individually selects the picture
and sound material. The intended reception of Points of View is described
by Shaw as following: "It is the particular audio visual journeymade by a
spectator who operates the joystick which constitutes a'performance' of this
work. For the other spectators that performance becomes'theater'. "
Although in Points of View Shaw dispenses with the physical
performance ofthe spectator, he still keeps his familiar terminology. The
term movement does not any longer signify the movement of the performer in
space, like in the former Happenings, but the movement of the image caused
by the joystick. The projected scene can be changed in its perspective with
only very small physical expenditure. Thus, the computer-controlled system
inverts the reception situation of the earlier Happenings. Formerly the spectator
had to change her or his position to perceive differently; now she or he
induces the computer image to change its perspectives. Thus, the movement
of the spectator is substituted by the movement of the image.
By means of the development in Shaw's oeuvre the above mentioned break in the tradition reaching from participational art forms to Interactive Art becomes clear. New points of view are not formed by physical experience but with the help of new interactive media strategies. As I presumed at the beginning, artists like Shaw adress in their Interactive Art
a media-educated audience, but nevertheless formulate an opposite position
to the passive reception of technically produced moving images. At the same
time Shaw is also criticizing certain potentials of interactive technology itself. He decides against the video camera as the interface
with the system, probably because he considers it too unvisible. Instead,
he uses a bicycle in his most famous work called The Legible City, begun
in 1988. With the familiar pedaling and steering movements the cyclist can
move through a projected city of letters. The choice of this specific interface on the one hand aims at providing the visitors withfamiliar patterns of behaviour, on the other hand the bicycle as interface constitutes a refusal to do without physical activity altogether.
3. Proximity and Manipulation
At the same time as Points of View - in 1983 - the Canadian David Rokeby began to develop his interactive
sound installation Very Nervous System, whichin the beginning he exhibited
with changing titles and changing technical equipment . After Rokeby had
experimented for a short time with light sensors as interface and with analogous electronics, he decided - without knowing the earlier works of Krueger - to use the video camera as interface.
Rokeby's Very Nervous System has a much more suggestive effect than the
worksof Krueger and Shaw because he works with nonvisual system effects as
well aswith an invisible interface. If one reacts intuitively to the sound, aclosed-circuit is created, in which music and movement are slowly becoming aunity.
There is, however, a basic restriction: Krueger's Videoplace
requires a contrasted background to absorb distinguishably the persons in
space; Rokebyon the other hand is working only with a strong spotlight to
achieve the same effect. Therefore, the causal relations between an actual
movement and the sound are ambiguous. Although Rokeby employs the same interface
as Krueger, their positions differ from each other. Krueger's dissatisfaction
with the'responsive environment' Glowflow was caused primarily by the fact
that the visitors interpreted chance events as the response to their actions.
While Krueger attempts a precise attribution of cause and effect to reveal
the reactions of the system, Rokeby is playing with the irritation of the
visitor. He hugely reduces the distance between visitor and system.
This is shown by his newest installation so far, titled
Silicon remembers Carbon from 1993. In this installation the visitor is
even allowed to enter the image that is projected on the floor and change
it with her or his movements. Infrared sensors and cameras are used as interface
With this concept of reducing the distance Rokeby attempts a tightrope walk:
on the one hand the visitor assumes that she or he can control the image
or the sound, on the other hand the visitor is manipulated by these effects.
This suggestive power of interactive
correlation is only disturbed by the fact that Rokeby, aswell as Shaw and
Krueger, creates environments which allow the presence ofmore than one visitor.
The works of Shaw, Rokeby and Krueger are conceived as
environments. This is not the case with the works which were created in the
United States at thesame time or a bit later. Most of them are conceived
as installations, thatis, the surrounding space is involved less strongly
and the user often hasdirect access to the input instruments. The most common
input instruments are the touchscreen and the mouse. As the works of Krueger,
Shaw and Rokeby have shown, the description of the interface is not restricted to its technology. The same holds true for videodisc installations.
4. Strategies of Seduction Nearly around the same time
as similar works by the group around Glorianna Davenport at the Media Lab
at MIT  Lynn Hershman from San Francisco developed her first interactive
installation Lorna , finished in 1984. Lorna as well as Hershman's second
installation Deep Contact (1990) both work withverbal requests like "Help
Lorna Leave Her Home!". The picture sequences and the texts depict women
in the world of media as passive objects of maledesire. In Deep Contact
changes in a projected video image are triggered by touching a screen. The
touching of body parts of the character Marion on the touch-screen sets off
different strands of narration and, according to Hershman 'entangles the
viewers into meeting their own voyeurism'[10. ]
Her newest work so far, A Room of One's Own (1992), also
attributes this part to the spectator: the visitor looks through a little
periscope into a small bedroom on whose back wall sequences of images are
projected. The interactionin Hershman's work is being sexualized by the tactility
of the touch screen (in Deep Contact ) as well as by the intimacy of the
observed situation (in A Room of One's Own ). At the same time a fatal situation
ensues. As soon as the spectator acts he or she is caught in his or her role
as voyeur. Hershman does not use interactivity to free the user from passivity,
but to expose him orher as a voyeur. Put differently, the desires of the
audience are the cause for the repressive depiction of women in media. Not
even interactive technology can change that fact.
5. Nonlinear Narration
The New Yorker Grahame Weinbren produced his first interactive
installation The Erlking in 1986. In this installation the interaction is
mainly initiated and born by mysterious, almost static images. Weinbren -
in co-operation with Roberta Friedman - works with distinctly cinematographic
The first picture shows the soprano Elisabeth Arnold who
sings Schubert's song Der Erlkönig. This picture functions as a leitmotif
and guideline assistance to which the user can return again and again. The
other pictures are partly based an Goethe's ballad, in which an old man narrates
the saga of the Erlking. Originating from the basic sequence the structure
of the narration branches out. It goes not only into detail but also into
additional aspects which are only loosely associated with the main plot or
the backup picture. In addition to this storyline Weinbren uses Freud's 1918
case study "From the History of an Infantile Neurosis" to try out a nonlinear access to the sequence of images.
Narration and song in The Erlking are being quoted as historical
examples of oral tradition and are confronted with the nonlinear interactive form of narration. As a result the interactive
system takes over the role of pictorial memory. The user occupies the role
of the director and cutter respectively, similar to Shaw's Points of View.
Weinbren hopes that interactive
technologies are a more appropriate means to tell these old stories .
This hope is problematic, since with originally linear storylines the fragmentation
of content doesn't necessarily lead to a better understanding. Only if the
stories were very well known today - that means if they had a kind of socialsignificance
- the interactive access could possibly add new points of view.
6. Remembering, Forgetting, Reconstructing - The 'Surrogate Travel'
The New Yorker Ken Feingold is the first who uses a touchscreen as interface without integrating a second monitor. In his first interactive
installation The Surprising Spiral from 1991 the surface susceptible to
touch is set in the cover of a book. Fingerprints and two open hands inside
the book indicatethat this object may be touched. Thus, the book functions
to the pictorial action of The Surprising Spiral. A second contact point,
depicting a mouth with a light source, makes sound manipulations possible.
On the videodisc of The Surprising Spiral pictures and
sound are stored that Feingold recorded in India, Japan, Argentina, Thailand,
Scotland and theUnited States over a period of 12 years. The documentary
pictures are contrasted with fast-moving Japanese TV advertisings and coloured
computer animations. Feingold makes a collage out of disparate film material
from different contexts, such as ethnographical, cultural, historical, religious,
aesthetic and medial contexts. Thus he combines nearly all the approaches
thatuntil now made the reconstruction of historical facts possible. It becomes
clear that despite the partly documentary film material and the mostly photorealistic
video pictures the aspect of documentary truth in the TheSurprising Spiral
is of no importance .
Because of the missing mise-en-scene it is
only the interaction, or to be more precise, the filling up of empty positions,
which creates a new context for the user. Thus, her or his part in the reconstruction
of reality seems to be autonomous to a large extent. Although Feingold - with
the book as interface
-is quoting the reading culture, his position differs fundamentally from
Shaw's, who in his Legible City tries to mediate between reading culture
andi nteractive perception. In Feingold's Surprising Spiral the book is a
relict of times past - auratically charged, but nevertheless hollow and robbed
of its original function. What today is preserved or forgotten as history,
does not follow the laws of written culture anymore, but is determined by
the technological memory media. The reconstruction of the stored material
is determined by the perception strategies of these new media.
The Surprising Spiral does not allow the purposeful approach of certain places,
which is still possible in Shaw's Legible City. Its place is taken by the
non directional, intuitive exploration of images and texts. This gliding
through the picture sequences is similar to the images of Feingold's travel
impressions - short moments which are unrepeatable, which are always remembered,
or reconstructed differently or sometimes even forgotten.
On the basis of this sketch showing the beginnings of Interactive Art
one cans ee that critical concepts about the role of interactivity in society
are not missing. By discussing the works of Myron Krueger, Jeffrey Shaw,
David Rokeby, Lynn Hershman, Grahame Weinbren and Ken Feingold I have distinguished
six important implications of interactivity:
- Power and Play
- Participation versus Interaction
- Proximity and Manipulation
- Strategies of Seduction
- Nonlinear Narration and
- Remembering, Forgetting, and Reconstructing
7. The Second Generation
In the past years the second generation of interactive
artists has emerged. Like with every second generation things are both easier
and more difficult for them. On the one hand the artists are able to build
on what has already been achieved, on the other hand they have to fulfill
expectations of new developments. This young generation shows a clear geographical
separation concerning the technologies used. While North-American and Canadian
artists like Bill Seaman and Luc Courchesne are working with interactive installations and are using a touchscreen as interface,
in Europe and especially in Germany the environment is asserting itself.
The group Supreme Particles from Germany, for example, is working with the
video camera as interface
like Krueger and Rokeby. In Architexture the recorded image of the visitor
is reproduced as a metallic-organic colour pattern on a moving projection
screen. The computer graphical alienation of the image is so pronounced that
a recognition is not easy. The fascination of the game is created primarily
by the inner life of the image that pulsates between its own morphology and
the representation of the visitor.
The sea animals in A-Volve by Christa Sommerer and Laurent
Mignonneau have anautonomous existence, too. In A-Volve the visitors create
little sea creatures with which they can then interact in a large water basin.
The individual virtual creatures react very differently to the hand movements
of the visitors. Some can be attracted, others try to flee from the hands.
As their modes of behaviour are very difficult to find out, they create free
play for the visitors who start to ascribe individual characteristics to
thevarious animals. The interface
Sommerer and Mignonneau worked with has completely lost its technoid character.
This idea was already employed by the artists in their 1992 work Interactive
Plant Growing. Here the reaching forreal plants causes the growth of computer-generated
plants on a projection screen. Sommerer and Mignonneau draw the consequences
from the increasing control computer technology has over our environment.
To them the so-called artificial and the natural world do not oppose each
other, but are closely interconnected areas. In dealing with these areas
a sensibility is required that has to be partly re-learned, partly found
Agnes Hegedfs' work Handsight requires a similar sensibility. The externalised eye - as the interface
with the system - gives the viewer access to the virtual world which in the
end is to be explored by using the sense oftouch. In Joachim Sauter's and
Dirk Lysebrink's "Zerseher", too, the eye acquires tactile qualities. Only
through the eye movements that are recorded by an eye tracker can a monitor
image be destroyed and newly generated.
These few examples already show that the concepts for designing the interface
and with it the design of the interaction are getting more and more subtle
and diverse. The feedback-loop, which was most conspicuous in David Rokeby's
Very Nervous System, is getting closer in the works of the young generation.
The group Otherspace - that by the way, like the Supreme Particles and Sommerer
& Mignonneau worked at the Institute for New Media in Frankfurt - uses
brainwaves' to set little beetle-like beings into motion. Only if the test
person manages to relax, do the solar-powered beetles start to move. Their
movement in turn soothes the visitor so much that the result is a very intimate
relationship. The debate on Artificial Life - or A-Life - that took place
at last year's Ars Electronica seems to have created a sort of 3. Frankfurt
School that is decisively influencing the development of Interactive Art. The question about the crucial differences between the first and the second generation of interactive artists makes clear various aspects:
- Through institutions such as the Institute for New Media in Frankfurt, theMedia Art Academy in Cologne and the Karlsruhe Centre of Art
and MediaTechnologies SGI workstations are available to young artists especially
in Germany. This is one reason for the fact that the second generation favours
interactive environments (and invisible or 'natural' interfaces) overinstallation work.
- While in the work of the first generation a story or metaphors often
influenced the content of the work, the content of the newer works is the
interaction itself, which works without any form of traditional narration.
Because of this new meaning of the interaction the design of the interface becomes increasingly important.
- At the same time the antagonism between computer system and human
being isovercome. It is not so much the antagonism but the forms of futureco-existence
that are being reflected. That is, to put it shortly, the affirmation of
technology prevails over a critical distance, butthis does not result in
an unreflected use of technology. Concerning thisgeneral affirmation of technology
the first generation does not differ greatlyfrom the second.
All in all the multi-layered, encoded levels of meaning in early
interactiveworks, which disclose their actual content only after a sort of
decoding, contributed to a certain acceptance of Interactive Art in the 'art
world'. However, this strategy had its price: the narrational contents often
do notcome from contemporary social contexts, but from the safe context of
With this, some artists of the first generation adressed the 'reading-habits'
of the artcritic's establishment. They negated the achievements of the avantgarde,
which clearly saw that art only has a chance when talking to the masses and not only to a small bourgeois elite.
This trend is starting to change with the new generation. If they will pursue this direction Interactive Art will fulfill its promise of being the beginning of a new dialogue between the two ideologically separated sections of art and technology.
-  Uwe Jean Heuser: Der Computer Sbernimmt (The Computer Takes Over), in:Die Zeit, 29. 10. 1993, pp. 41 -42
-  See for example Lynn Hershman: Art-ificial
Sub-versions, Inter-action, and the New Reality, in: Camerawork. A Journal
of Photographic Arts, Vol. 20, Nr. 1, 1993, pp. 20-25, p. 22
-  Bertolt Brecht, Radiotheorie (Radio Theory), in: Gesammelte Schriften, Vol. 18, Frankfurt/M. 1967, pp. 119-134
-  Umberto Eco, Das offene Kunstwerk (The Open Work, Opera apena), Frankfurt/M. . 21973
-  Wolfgang Kemp, Der Betrachter ist im Bild. Kunstwissenschaft
und Rezeptionsästhetik (The Viewer is Inside the Picture. Sciences of Art and Receptional Aesthetics), Köln 1985
See Erkki Huhtamo: Commentaries on Metacommentaries on Interactivity, in:
CAD Forum, 4th International Conference on Development and Use of ComputerSystems,
MediaScape, Zagreb 1993, pp 229-236
-  Jeffrey Shaw, information on Points of View 1, 2, 3, dated 1983, withletter to the author, 24. 6. 1991
-  For a detailed discussion of the development of Rokeby's oeuvre
and itsdating see Süke Dinkla: Interaktive computergestützte Installationen.
Eineexemplarische Analyse (Interactive
Computer-Controlled Installations. A Studyof Some Examples), unpublished
MA thesis, University of Hamburg, 1992, pp. 73-78. Here you will find a more
detailed discussion of Shaw's Legible City and Krueger's Videoplace, too.
A kind of summary of the MA thesis is published under the title 'Interactive Computer-Supported Installations. Examples of a New Art
Form', in: CAD Forum, 5th International Conference on Development and Use
of Computer Systems, MediaScape, Zagreb 1994, pp. 29-36 (originally published
in: Künstlerischer Austausch. Artistic Exchange. Conference Proceedings of
the XXVIII. International Congress for Art History, Berlin 1992, pp. 283-294, ill. , german)
-  The former Film/Video Group (now the Interactive
Cinema Group) produced the Videodisc Elastic Movies Disc with pieces by
Bill Seaman, Luc Courchesne, Russell Sasnett and Rosalyn Gerstein in 1984.
They worked at that time withBenjamin Bergery and Glorianna Davenport in
the work-shop in Elastic Movie Time. This information is based on interviews
with Bill Seaman in Karlsruhe(8. /9. 2. 1994) and with Glorianna Davenport
(11. 7. 1994) in Cambridge and on theviewing of the Elastic Movies Disc
at the Media Lab at MIT.
-  See Lynn Hershman: (note 2), pp. 23, 24 and Lynn Hershman: Some Thoughts on Deep Contact, unpublished statement, 1991
-  Interview with Grahame Weinbren, 18. 7. 1994, New York City
-  Timothy Druckrey made a similar observation concerning Feingold's work Childhood/Hot and Cold Wars/The Appearance of Nature in his article 'Revisioning Technology', in: Iterations. The New Image, ed. by Timothy Druckrey, International Center of Photography New York City, Cambridge/London 1993, pp. 17-38, p. 35