"The Interactive Art Gambit" ("Do not run!  We are your friends!")
Technology in the 90s presentation, The Museum of Modern Art, NY
Ken Feingold
April 7, 1997

The title of my presentation this evening evidences two of the main
threads. One, "The Interactive Art Gambit", reveals that I see this
approach as a kind of strategy, a move to be made in a game, the game of
art.  The other "Do not run!  We are your friends!" is taken from the
recent Tim Burton film "Mars Attacks!".  Those who have seen this film
will remember this gag well - a Martian, having captured the earthlings'
voice translating machine, roams through the streets speaking in Martian
and the machine faithfully translates and speaks this phrase aloud, while
he kills everyone in sight.  It is in the collision of game-play, art
strategy, technology, paradox, and the play of disguise and disclosure
that I find a place to approach the larger subject presented by this
symposium, "artists' applications of new interactive technologies", and
will present some questions I have posed in working through some of these
issues in my own artwork.

Emerging from a peculiar concatenation of sculpture, experimental cinema,
automata, arcade machines, shrines, and computer technology, the
interactive work of art holds an equally peculiar status in a nether-world
between art, what has come to be called media art, and electronic

I'll first discuss a few precedents in art which have interested me, and
trace a part of the past of the "interactive" art gambit. I will look
briefly at some works by Duchamp and Johns, a turn-of-the-century
scientific apparatus, and some Asian shrines, before discussing some of my
own work.

Video games, training hypermedia, and military simulators are often
invoked as the ancestors of interactive art, and are the reference points
for many people's first experiences of these works. These military and
commercial forms are very important in understanding the culture in which
these artworks have come into existence, as they are clearly an expression
of its imaginary, too; and the availability of these technologies to
artists, in time, is highly significant.  But they are, for me, a
reference only in deciphering the larger language of the culture drift.
Within a practice of making art, which is what these works intend to be,
the commercial and military forms should not be mistaken as the only, or
the primary, contextual landmarks.

But it is not simply a matter of taking a neo-Modernist stance by saying
"art is about art", or as Ad Reinhardt said, "Art is art and everything
else is everything else".  Our media culture has become too complex for
that, economics can only see the romantic as the x-ray of his skeleton.  
In a rush to derive relevance from connecting to more widespread cultural
forms of the imaginary, like entertainment, there is nothing to be gained
by reflexively taking an equally stale and ahistorical anti-art position
and declaring the means by which other artists have approached similar
questions to be irrelevant.  The accelerating fragmentation of everyday
life, with media itself as the propellant, makes focus difficult.  So,
once in a while, I think it is interesting to draw a line connecting some
of these dots, and regard the picture that emerges, rather than discussing
the endless number of possible ways the dots might be connected, or which
dots are to be connected, or if there ever were any dots... So the picture
I will trace out is not a linear historical timeline, not a
cause-and-effect chain, but a moving spotlight which illuminates some of
my own points of reference.

[slide - cover the catalog for Le Surrealisme, 1947 by Duchamp]

This work by Marcel Duchamp, the cover for the catalog of the 1947
exhibition titled Le Surrealisme, organized by Duchamp and Andre Breton,
has a reverse side.  The back of the catalog bears the inscription, in
French, "Please Touch".  I thought about this work almost instantaneously
when I first saw a computer touchscreen positioned over an image, wherein
one is coaxed to "touch" the image, touch the object of desire.  It seemed
to me that this link between looking, wanting, and touching, connected
quite directly to these very fundamental urges - to touch the breast, or,
more autonomously, to play with feces. To touch to acquire, to
investigate, to examine the results of ones production... to affirm ones
own existence in the world - the earliest and most durable forms of
agency. Freud writes in Three Contributions to the Theory of Sex ,
"At least a certain amount of touching is indispensable for a person in
order to attain the normal sexual aim.  It is also generally known that
touching of the skin of the sexual object causes much pleasure and
produces a supply of new excitement.  ... The same holds true in the end
with looking, which is analogous to touching."  This is clear and not at
all surprising- touching is analogous to looking.  And it is these two
senses which dominate the field of interactive art.

[Mikhail Kaufman slide]

The gesture of the hand as that which "opens-up" the work, so that we
might perceive and thereby decipher and interpret its inner
qualifications, can be connected to the fundamental technology of the
moving image itself. Cinema, from the beginnings, was involved with the
physical gesture - the hand-cranked camera, mutoscope, projector. .. - the
gestures which mark the moment of the exposure, the interruption of the
light by the shutter - the cutting of time by the clock crystal in the
circuit, that shift the flow in an interactive work.  And these are also
present in the basic reception and choosing of radio and tv - adjusting
the antenna, tuning the dial, the remote-control... This intervention of
the hand is reproduced again and again, marking our ever-ambivalent
relationship to time: we use it, it finishes us....


This is a painting by Jasper Johns, titled "Tango", from 1955. Note that
in the lower right there is a small key protruding from the painting - the
key of a music box.  Something to touch, to turn, to activate another
dimension of the work, hidden within.  Johns is quoted in Michael
Crichton's 1977 book (referring to `Target with Plaster Casts' and 'Tango)
:  "I wanted to suggest a physical relationship to the pictures that was
active.  In the targets, one could stand back or one might go very close
and lift the lids or shut them.  In Tango, to wind the key and hear the
sound, you had to stand relatively close to the painting, too close to see
the outside shape of the picture".

Crichton goes on to say: "In other words, Johns was already aware of
trying to influence the observer - in this case, to influence the
observers physical position in relation to the painted surface.  And he
did it by providing a temptation, a source of curiosity, a reason to move
closer and then to step back.  The painting provokes an interaction with
the viewer : it takes two to tango."

["Target" 1960]

Johns last work, to my knowledge, which overtly evokes physically
interaction was this 1960 Target, in which the painting itself is to be
physically completed by another, unknown to the artist. Here, the
interaction is conceptual, meta-interactive.  The physical interaction is
essentially irrelevant, as it is simply the idea of the action which is
enough to carry the meaning of the work - and it is, perhaps, in the fact
that probably no has ever taken up the job we can find other meanings
about the valuation of token and gesture in our culture.  Here it is
clearly the idea of a viewer participating in the work which is
significant, and this piece was often discussed in the early 70's as a
proto-Conceptual artwork.

[mouth machine image]

Turn of the century fantasies and experiments in ways to utilize machines
and, especially, electricity, to recreate a person, or a part of a person,
where widespread.  This device, shown in a 1908 publication, in which a
variety of vocal sounds could be produced via touching one of the
valve-buttons below the mouths, is a kind of proto-interactive work, if we
take interaction to mean that the work responds, in some way, in an overt
physical manner to a physical gesture by a person who participates in its
scheme.  This, of course, was not intended as an artwork.  But I think it
also is a predecessor of much of today's techno-art, largely preoccupied
with demonstrating a technology.  This sensibility is very familiar, of
course, in the contemporary science museum, which today is being
transformed from this earlier form of electro-mechanical interaction to
more contemporary forms of computer-driven interaction.  And much of what
is called "interactive art" or techno-art borrows or derives from this
science museum demo-aesthetic.  Push a button, something happens. Put in
the money, out comes the candy bar...

[2 shrine images]

Going back even farther in time, looking for cultural formations which are
now familiar aspects of interactive art, I was struck early on by the
essentially interactive nature of shrines, and other somehow consecrated
public places. What differs here from the contemporary interactive artwork
which relies on, as Crichton said, temptations and sources of curiosity -
here the encounter is ritualized and made into theater. It is
performative, highly prescribed and passed on from generation to
generation. In the ritualized encounter, there is quite often an actual
physical exchange which is also a symbolic exchange.  One leaves
something, in a certain way, and takes something away - usually as a mark
upon the body.  It is generally performed by simultaneous actions of
touching and looking, but here, very importantly, and in most cases
completely absent in interactive art, the voice of the participant plays
an important role.

[wishing-well shrine]

The orchestration of the body's movement through space plays an important
role, too, in the framing of the interactive encounter.  A path, such as
this one, not only makes one highly conscious of each footstep taken, but
also clearly has a destination, and unfolds in time, like cinematic works,
leading to a cathartic moment

[coins in the water]

which itself is located in another place of exchange, where the "real"
meets the magical, though "real" here, too, when speaking about money, is
several levels abstracted as well.  But the point is, reaching the
destination, one knows what to do - The wishing-well - marked by the trace
- clearly, "someone else has been here"... It is the prescribed, known
actions which carry ones gesture forward - and improvisation is at a
micro-level.  "Real" money is exchanged for the fulfillment of a wish - so
it is, in a way, a kind of time-extended vending machine.  Put in the
money, the wish comes true, in some other time and place.

Now, I would like to show a short videotape about the first
computer-controlled interactive artwork I made, a 1991 work titled "The
Surprising Spiral".  The narration on this tape, and the others you will
see tonight, are contemporaneous with the projects they document, and I
think it's interesting to listen, too, (at least for me) to how my sense
of discussing this work also changes over time.


[slide of Spiral interfaces]

Because it connects to known forms, such as the shrine or the
vending-machine, the circuit described between the desire to "get
something" from the work and the expectation of a "return" informs the
basic drive in the interactive encounter.  The Surprising Spiral
brought this to my attention quite clearly.  The structure of the work is
such that the viewer-participant cannot "know" what effects their actions
will produce.  What I learned was that many who encountered this work were
frustrated by their inability to "get what they wanted", to control the
work.  Interactivity is, in many ways, about affirmation of the human
action by a nonhuman object, a narcissistic "it sees me".  But beyond
that, there is the desire for "control", for "mastery" over the non-human
entity.  I also learned that it is a rare viewer who feels comfortable in
the role of public participant in an interactive work which has no
clear "goal".  People always seem to ask the same questions when the
"destination" of the interaction is unclear - "How is it structured?", "Is
it random?", "How can I get what I want (or see what I want to see)?", "Am
I doing it right?", "What will happen if I do 'this' or 'that'?"

But one of the things I was after in that work was to take away the
possibility of "control" so that people have to abandon the idea of having
a goal, a destination.  Why?  Well, for one thing, it is one of the
subject matters of the work, relating to this idea of travel as the
experience of the going-along itself.  But also, I wanted to be quite
clear that I was not offering people "choices", "menus", or any of the
other fare well known at that time from commercial kiosk applications and
training videodiscs.

["Which Way to Go?" slide]

But it pointed something out to me very clearly - that people expected
unambiguous interaction.  It actually disappointed me tremendously, as I
expect the audience, and audiences turned into participants, to bring to
interactive works the same capacity for abstraction, metaphor, and
ambiguity that are well deployed and comfortable when viewing painting, or
other artworks.

I had the good luck to hear Julia Kristeva speaking on the work of Antonin
Artaud that was shown here several months ago.  Among other things, she
pointed out that the annihilation of meaning which is a central factor in
the production of humor is essentially a negativity which is, itself, a

This negativity, this rebellion, was a primary ingredient of the
experimental cinema as practiced by artists such as Paul Sharits, Ken
Jacobs, George Landow, Hollis Frampton, Michael Snow, and others.  NOT
entertainment, NOT storytelling, NOT psychological identification, NOT
commercial, NOT meant to please the audience, NOT concerned about being
understood, NOT intended for good reviews by mainstream critics,

Early video art had an essential negativity at its core, too - NOT
television, NOT theater, NOT decoration, NOT entertainment.  And
Conceptual Art - NOT beautiful, NOT materialistic, NOT about technique...

Regina Cornwell wrote, in her Discourse magazine article of Spring 1992,
"Touching the Body in the Mind, "Efficiency, simplicity, logic, clarity
aimed at the end user rule the making of interactive systems in the
corporate, military, consumer, and pedagogical sectors.  Interactivity has
been heralded as the bearer of 'choice'.  Such 'choice' is made possible
through tailored menus listing sales options for the buyer or a selection
of maps for the visitor, or a chart of "how to" for a trainee, where
button-pushing is the norm, aiming toward the swiftest way to accomplish a
required goal.  But artists need not answer to these concerns in their
work.  And it is the hardware and software conceived with these
requirements in mind which can create stumbling blocks and limiting
factors, which artists seek to bypass."

The majority consensus would show that most media, if not all media,
except for some artists uses, are conceived of as within the affirmative
culture: as Cornwell says: "corporate, military, consumer, and pedagogical
sectors". And the mainstream audience, trained on cash-dispensing
computers and information kiosks, wishes to affirm the qualities Cornwell
says are valued in mass culture forms of interactive media: Efficiency,
simplicity, logic, clarity. That essential negativity, this rebellion or
break Kristeva discussed, is no longer at work in a world where we talk or
care about "users", where we measure "hits" on our websites, where we want
our so-called "interfaces" to be "friendly" or "intuitive", efficient,
simple, logical, clear.  When works strive to be completely
understandable, they cannot produce any sort of break, and cannot create
any new meanings.  And the effect - that it is easy to forget that even
those media forms which appear efficient, simple, logical, and clear are
expressions, constructions, ideologies which reinforce known structures of
economics, power, and agency.

This is a territory I have explored in my work for a long time - the area
where cultural fragments are redirected into collision courses in order to
precipitate new meanings, and a foregrounding of the process in which we
become aware that we are actively giving meaning to what we see and hear.  
Like subatomic particles thrown together in an accelerator, their
collisions bring new, multivalent meanings to light, only partially under
the control of the author.  This excerpt from my 1984 work titled "The
Double" shows this infra-interactive process in action.

 <"The Double" tape segment>

This work, and others I made, used linear editing to create complex
meanings across the point of the edit, multivalent possibilities riding
the edit as the line of the world inside the mind of the viewer.  I was
keenly aware of this as a kind of interaction As I became involved later
with computer-controlled image playback, allowing random-access to image
and sound fragments, another dimension could be added, as if a rectangle
expanded was into a cube, and the cube could move through space.  But what
I want to point out is that, though the technology is one of random-access
as a possibility for restructuring fixed relations into other
configurations, as long as the sequencing of images and sounds are not
random, which they are not in these interactive video works of mine, they
are still written.  And though the complexity is substantially increased,
the particular sequences and possibilities remain highly determined.  So
part of what became interesting for me in these technological
possibilities was a way to extend an investigation with which I had been
already involved for some time, in a significantly extended way.

I will show now another videotape document, a work which I completed in
1993, titled "Childhood / Hot & Cold Wars".  Again, it has narration which
more or less introduces the work .  But I want to emphasize the connection
in this work to earlier works like The Double, in order to emphasize that
it has, in essentially the same way as a linear videotape, been edited,
and all of the possibilities for the sequences in it are given by the
software I have written.

<"Childhood/ Hot & Cold Wars" video segment>

[slide of globe]

The point of temptation here is obviously the globe.  It is hard to resist
spinning any globe, an I relied on that impulse to create a way to
interact with this work.  But beyond that, I had to write a computer
program which would play certain images and sounds in certain ways,
depending upon how people turned the globe.  I was interested in a kind of
nervous interaction, one which had more of a response to the type of
gesture evidenced by the way a person turned the globe than the actual
position of the globe itself. Careful and rather slow forms of turning
allow people to dig around in the 200,000 fields of highly structured
image-sequences stored on the laserdiscs. But if someone begins to spin
the globe wildly, the images and sounds also reflect that, go out of their
control, become nearly delirious, so that there is a relationship of the
way in which someone interacts with the work to the facets of the work
which are revealed.

In each interactive work, one initially has to put oneself in the position
of the one who will encounter this work in a public place, if that is its
destination.  In the same way that a designer will anticipate and design
for the ways in which a person will interact with a functional object,
artists creating interactive works think about the ways in which people
will encounter and try to manipulate their work.  This aspect, of
imagining oneself as another, adds a layer to the creative process which
is highly problematic.  Can I imagine myself as another, or do I imagine
them as myself?  Is there a loss of integrity when the artist tries to
imagine his or her audience, as if targeting a product for a market? Is it
overly romantic and idealistic to hope that an audience can follow the
artist wherever he or she cares to go with their work?  Does one need to
know to whom one is speaking?  To paraphrase Paz, am I the same one as the
one who writes when I read what I have written?

I remember the hilarious moment when, in a very high-tech public toilet
somewhere in Europe, I first ran into a sink which had no handles to open
the flow of water.  With soap all over my hands, I first looked for foot
switches, then something on the walls.  Finally, I noticed a telltale
reddish-black plastic window just below the faucet, an infrared sensor
which recognized body heat.  Putting my hands under the tap caused the
water to flow.  So this also points out how we develop certain habits of
interacting with the world, and these can be powerful conditioning factors
for an audience in finding the way an artist intended for them to interact
with his or her work.

["Sexual Jokes" slide]

This is an installation I made in 1979, titled Sexual Jokes.  It is shown
during its exhibition at the Whitney Museum in that same year.  This work
was supposed to be only barely interactive, and it was not
computer-controlled - there was a microphone near one of the chairs, with
which one could throw ones voice across the room to a speaker near another
chair - a kind of projection that I would revisit in another work with
robot-puppets, which I'll talk about in a while.  The work was chaotically
organized - not only were the chairs and monitors at skewed and
disorienting angles to each other, but so were the images inside the
video.  The true interaction in this work was supposed to be at the
collision-point of the title and the complexity presented by the objects
and images in the room.  But what shocked me was that people moved the
chairs around as they pleased.  I was utterly at a loss for what to do to
stop it, short of fastening them to the floor, which was impossible.  The
positions of the chairs, making it difficult or impossible in many cases
to look at a video monitor, were very carefully structured, yet people did
not give a moment's thought to moving them about.  Chairs, in the context
of art museum, remained chairs, as long as one was allowed to sit on them,
and therefore, also could be moved to a spot where they were most useful
in the ordinary way - here, offering a good view of the television.

Duchamp's idea of the art coefficient says that every work of art can be
evaluated, in part, as ratio between that which is intended by the artist
and not expressed in the work, and that which is unintentionally expressed
by the work.  In other words, recognizing that each work finally escapes,
to some extent, from it makers intentions, and these are the two main
factors which come between the original intention of the artist and the
understanding of the work by the audience.

But in making interactive artworks, we have to add a corollary to
Duchamp's equation, and also say that we have to look at the ratio of what
unexpected things the audience does when they become participants, and
which expected things they do not do at all. This, added to the
uncertainty of miscommunicated expression, makes these works very
difficult to approach critically, and perhaps accounts, to some extent,
for the nearly total absence of analytical critical writing about specific
interactive artworks.  Our critical context, at the moment, remains
largely fixed on formal tendencies and technological developments, and I
would say that one of the obstacles preventing this work from being more
widely understood is the difficulty of critically approaching these works
which are not intended to offer up their meanings clearly and simply.

[Varlot's invention]

And I think that there is a reverse side, from the point of view of the
audience, which is how the work behaves in relation to their expectations,
and I think I have to say that our audiences are largely still in a period
of time analogous to that in which audiences expected pictures to be
clearly representational, poems to be nice stories couched in a rhyme.  I
expect an audience to bring to this work the same ability to handle
abstraction, paradox, and complexity as they have evolved for other forms
of art, and I think it is not interesting to make variants of these
familiar forms in order to take a supposedly higher moral ground by making
works that are "easy to understand".

Using computers to control works is not simply a more advanced form of
what has come before. The early experiments in interactive video were
essentially movies with a choice of different endings, and one could say
that these were possibly even less interesting than well edited cinematic

Don't forget that when we talk about computers controlling anything, they
do so only as a result of the hardware and software that a particular
author has put together for the work. They express, in one way or another,
their authors intentions, and may take a position within a spectrum of
possibilities as diverse as the imagination.  It is, after all, limits of
the imagination which are the horizon, not the technology. From the
chicken in Chinatown that plays tic-tac-toe we can see that even a chicken
can learn to defeat a human opponent if an electronic circuit is coaching
them, especially if it gets them fed. Certainly, we can imagine what are
now impossible technologies - for example, everyone has thought about
recording their dreams, or even, their complete subjective sensation -
movies have been made about it, etc. - and yet, there is not even a remote
glimpse of how this could be done with our current technologies. People
often speak of the need for true "artificial intelligence" before works
can be "truly" interactive.  Perhaps this is true if what we want is to
make an artwork that is like a person, to give someone interacting with
the work the sense that they are interacting with another person, another
intelligence.  But this is too obvious, too much a simple continuation of
the long-standing role of technology as a way of just reflecting

So these programs and hardware made by an artist are ways in which their
ideas and aesthetics cohere and can be carried out within a
computer-driven work.  They should not be measured against scientific
achievements or information systems, communication networks or educational
methodologies.  Without put it on a higher level, or valorizing it as in
any way more "advanced" than these other forms, it is still important to
understand that art has a role in the culture which is different from
those things that seek to accomplish some concrete aim.  It is speculative
and, if any traces of an avant-garde remain relevant at this point in
history, it is in its ability to experiment, to do things for no reason at
all, propelled by an interest in what is unknown, not already understood.

["Interior" slide]

This is an image of a work-in-progress, a new piece which will be shown
later this year at the NTT Project InterCommunication Center in Tokyo.

Complexity in my work is a key factor. What I find so extraordinarily
compelling about using computers to control interactive works is that it
is possible for me to write software which has the ultimate result of
creating works which behave complexly.  It is more than randomness or
other chance-operations - and yet, ultimately, less than open-ended.  But
it is because of this unpredictability and that the fact that the works
must have real limits that I find myself able to remain interested in my
own work after it is completed, and I assume that, for a critical
viewer-participant, extended or repeated encounters with the work will
also result in some further varieties of experience, and that new meanings
will continue to emerge from the work as a result.  Not because they are
endless, but the opposite - because they are finite, because they are

Interacting with an unpredictable artwork is something far more unknown
than interacting with a well-oiled functional machine.  While the
computer-driven work is not truly unpredictable, in fact, mathematically,
it the opposite - the subjective experience of it is that it is
unpredictable, complicated, mysterious.  As Edmund Jabes has written,
"Complexity is a game of the visible to attract the invisible", and here
we can get back to the real import of Duchamp's statement, "All in all,
the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator
brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and
interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to
the creative act."  The complexity in these works provides the path upon
which a participant can find these inner qualifications, in a dialog
between the work and their own subjectivity. Art is a social form of the
imagination.  Whether audiences can perceive value in works depends on the
extent to which their own imagination can intersect with the work, the way
in which their experience of the work is constructed in their own
subjectivity, and the ways in which the work moves toward and relates to
their prior experience. It is not enough for interactive works to simply
respond - vending machines can do that.  I try to think about and to write
computer programs as complexly determined traces of a self - obviously,
myself.  They have "behaviors" and respond as a traces a personality
might, oscillating between disguising their inner identity and revealing
glimpses of it, an erotics of meaning created through this play of
disguise and disclosure, interacting, more than anywhere else, in the mind
of the viewer This is still, for me, the primary site of interaction with
art.  The goal is to get beyond the vending-machine menu-driven forms of
interaction.  The efficient, simple, logical, clear work - "if viewer does
this then computer does that" - is too fixed, and as a result lacks
mystery, complexity, or paradox, which I consider to be essential
qualities of a good work of art. As John Baldessari has often said, "I
only like art that I don't understand".

[Landow slide]

(This is a frame from George Landow's 1971 film "Remedial Reading

But I have been disappointed to learn that, to a large extent, audiences
and critics expect to find the same formats in these artworks as they do
in popular culture.  For some reason, the "difficult" artwork is resisted
by many audiences, who prefer to be guided and rewarded as they are in
games of the common variety, with obvious metaphors and off-the-shelf
mysticism. This earnest spirit of so-called understandability and
functionality, in my opinion, the most limiting and conservative notion of
art that has emerged in recent times, because it does not raise questions.
Many artists, too, champion this kind of "user-friendly" work. This
frightening spirit of happy-happy good citizenship, of artist-as-designer
as techno-populist, of art having to have a moral code which equates
responsibility NOT with breaking from the constraints of commercially
driven forms, but rather, with a kind of new-age entrepreneurial
"Media-R-Us" sensibility, has no chance to offer any alternative to a
status quo increasingly dominated by a globalized consumer-fascination
with electronic technology and products.

["Jimmy Charlie Jimmy" slide]

I made this work, titled "Jimmy Charlie Jimmy", rather early on in my
experimentation with interactivity - around 1992.  Unfortunately, I
haven't gotten around to making a decent videotape of it, though I think
some of you may have seen it last Fall at Postmasters Gallery here in New
York.  Basically, it speaks all the time.  But it doesn't speak in a very
loud voice, and getting really close to it causes it to stop speaking,
because it has sensors which detect someone standing close to it, and
these trigger circuits and software I made to shift it from one state to
another.  As it also happens, if one speaks to it while it is silent, it
will repeat what you have said to it, in your own voice.  So it is pretty
obviously about the vain desire to have some electro-mechanical device,
whether computer driven or otherwise, become truly like a person.  He is
incapable of a real conversation, but what he has to say might be worth
listening to... so why interact?  Why force the issue?

A couple of years ago, I was invited by a German art publication called
artintact to make a work for their third CD-ROM publication. What really
was the critical problem here for me was that a CD-ROM presumes that
interaction will be via the familiar computer interfaces - mouse and
keyboard, which I had avoided in my other works altogether. I came back to
the Jimmy Charlie piece, but took it even farther.

<"JCJ-Junkman" tape segment>

I decided to make a play on the idea of the button-driven work, the
familiar computer icon which acts as a guide in interacting with the
software and hardware - the psychic point of focus. There is this
ever-changing whirlwind of buttons and icons, obviously compelling one to
try to click on one of them.  What happens is that the notion of the icon
or button as a sign representing a particular choice is destroyed - one
simply will go after anything at all, in a rush to succeed on the terms
set by the piece.  And what happens when one catches one of these buttons
- not an easy job - what results is that the puppet starts to speak a
phrase, and repeats it endlessly.  So, almost immediately, you realize
that, having gotten what you wanted, you don't really want it any more,
and in order to get rid of it, you have to catch another one.  So you're
pulled into a manic frenzy of undifferentiated button-grabbing. There are
no other levels, no score, no final outcome.  Actually, all of the buttons
and sounds in this piece were scavenged from the Internet, and this is why
the work is called "JCJ-Junkman".  It is a kind of network parasite.  I
put together some software which, each time you hit a button, would go to
websites and ftp servers, and download images and sounds, transform them
to a certain size, make button-like effects on them, and put them into the
game.  What I imagined originally was that the CD-ROM you owned would be
able to connect to the Internet, and that the person using it would
eventually fill up their computer with these buttons and sounds - the more
they used it, the more files accumulated - a computer tapeworm rather than
a virus.  But it was decided that the published version would be
self-contained - and what is in artintact 3, as it was published last
December, is a kind of politely fossilized version of the project.

[Acconci slide]

Anyway, when I made the first version of Jimmy Charlie Jimmy in 1992 I was
also beginning research for another project, one which went off in another
direction altogether.  When I thought about "interactivity", I also had to
think about earlier forms of interactive art, particularly as they
involved notions from theater and performance art of "audience
participation".  This is an image of the work titled "Claim" by Vito
Acconci, from 1971. He described it as follows (this is an excerpt from
his text in Avalanche Magazine, Fall 1972):

"A two-level loft - at street level, next to a stairway door, a TV monitor
records my activity and functions as a warning to viewers (a viewer
decides whether he wants to open the door and come down). I'm in the
basement, blindfolded, seated on a chair at the foot of the stairs - I
have at hand two metal pipes and a crowbar - I am talking aloud, to myself
- talking myself into a possession obsession."

In this kind of interactive work, which, for the artists, was clearly not
theater, there is obviously another dimension.  One is not interacting
with the traces of the artist's gesture as left in a mechanical device or
a computer program, but rather, with the artist, a person, directly, or,
unwilling to interact, observing at a distance, through the video, with
the clear awareness that what one sees in the video is happening at that
moment, in real time, elsewhere.  And because it is only one flight of
stairs away, this form of telepresence had yet another dimension to it
still, the possibility of moving from the virtual to the real and back, in
the traversal of that flight of stairs.  The interaction is open-ended,
though of course defined by the frame created by the artist. Action,
behavior, and language all create an atmosphere of a particular kind, and
these can be understood to have coherent meaning as signs, as an authored
work, not simply as "experience".

But the point, for me, was that computer-driven "interactive art" had to
stop short of being interactive in the way that conversation, playing
music, dancing, making love, or confronting a blindfolded artist swinging
a crowbar are interactive - and admit to computer-driven "interactivity"
as a figure of speech...  But this is not something to be disappointed
about! On the contrary - it is a relief!  It is just a critical step in
seeing that the writing of the work, what it is about, is of greater
significance than the technological or other formal innovation, or what
the technology might promise in the way of other developments.  If one
considers Acconci's work "Claim" to be a fairly early telepresence work,
it says nothing about the power of his actions, nor of the poetics of what
the work is about and how it addresses it subject.

But what I also wanted to explore was the idea that this real interaction,
whatever that might be, was still always within a specific frame of
experience, and that an artwork was, to some extent, about creating that
frame. So although the work I'll show next can be described as a
"telerobotic, telepresence, Internet-based interactive installation", this
description says nothing at all about the specific nature of the
experience created by the work, nor of its subject, and I'll return to
this subject after the tape segment.

<"where I can see my house from here so we are" video segment>

[robots in mirror slide].

The work creates an immediate sense of dislocation, a making-ambiguous of
the sense of "here" and "there", qualities which I value more in this work
than the more lovable aspects of "connecting over the Internet" or "taking
on new personalities".  It definitely a kind of hell in cyberspace, and
obviously, this work is no simple chat-room on America Online, no utopian
telematic embrace.  One sees, at very low resolution and with much
time-lag, into a life-size hall of mirrors, where it is nearly impossible
to distinguish between the puppet who is "you", its reflection, and the
other puppets and their many reflections. So in this state of mind,
conversations tend to expressions of "where am I?", "is that me or you?",
"which way am I going?", etc.  And I have to admit that, to a great
extent, I was aiming a critical jab at this notion of purely
open-interaction, at online sentimentality, and at the kind of
conversation that I was finding online up to those days when I began
working on it.  It also addresses, in a rather overtly dystopic way, the
new possibility at that time of sending realtime video over the Internet,
which was still dominated entirely by text.  And I was also thinking about
radio - ham radio and CB radio, and the experiments I had made with these.  
After all, what would three people who don't know each other and can't see
each other's faces have to say to each other?  If I gave people a means to
communicate, it was overwhelming mediated by the qualities of the work I
had devised and the technology was both medium and subject, in a way. What
I really have imagined for this work from the beginnings in 1993 is that
it needs to be a permanent installation somewhere, in order for a very
particular sub-subculture to develop around it .  I do imagine it as a
kind of public space, a kind of public hell.

I had an wonderful surprise in exhibiting the work for that very crowded
week in 1995 when, after thousands of people, in an unbelievable, intense
heat, which was magnified even more by the mirrors - the robots, really
still quite handmade and very much classifiable, by industrial norms, as
prototypes, began to become what I could only call "insane".  They would
break down, and at first, I would fix them again, every few hours.  But
after a while, I began to enjoy the personalities they developed when they
were "broken", not working as they were "supposed to".  One would only go
in circles.  Another would confuse left and right, front and back.
Gearboxes began to strip, making noises and making some movements
impossible.  Another, though it could move properly, had lost its voice,
but was instead, due to a crossing of wires, able to project its voice
into one of the other puppets, which then had a split personality when
occupied by two of the unwitting visitors.  As they devolved further and
further, their pathos was hilarious, perfect, like a Becket play.  It was
in the breakdown of the technology that these puppets began to
differentiate themselves, rebel against demands made on them, find a form
of irrationality and unpredictability, and resist attempts at interacting
with them - and it seems to me that in a really successful piece, whether
its working or not is not very important.

[Mt. Fuji slide]

This is a photograph I took from the window of my apartment in Tokyo, and
you can see Mt. Fuji off in the distance.  What it doesn't show is that
this was the only moment during the six months I lived there when I could
see Mt. Fuji in the distance.  It just happened that one day, after being
there for a month or two, I realized for the first time what was there,
and I photographed it. Every other day before and after, there was fog. It
irreversibly changed my way of looking out that window.  After that day,
the view before me was marked by a question - can I see Fuji today?  And
as time went on, and each day saw no Fuji, I realized that I could ever
see that view again without trying to see the mountain.  This is also the
problem of making interactive art.  Once one begins to make it, to find it
in exhibitions, each work in turn must also now answer the question - "Is
it interactive, or not?", until it doesn't matter anymore.

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