Interactive Strategies and Dialogical Allegories:
Encountering David Rokeby's
Through Marcel Duchamp's Open Windows and Closed Doors
(presented at: "Invencão:Thinking
the Next Millenium", São Paulo, Brazil)
I was eager to see the latest interactive system by the Canadian electronic media artist David Rokeby. It was called The Giver of Names (1998). Walking along the Montreal streets to the Oboro Gallery where his exhibition was held, I found myself thinking (as I had quite often recently) about interactivity as a dialogical process that blurs or confuses the gap traditionally perceived between the art object and the viewer.
Quite ostensibly, interactive strategies challenge modernist aesthetics and the Kantian notion of an a priori object of vision. Can a given object really emanate aesthetic pleasure or meaning prior to my perception and experience of it? How can one speak of a universal recognition of beauty when most evidently many sensibilities are totally oblivious or blind to what I personally consider aesthetically pleasing?
Walking up the flights of stairs towards the gallery, I mused about the manner in which Western culture reinforced our common conception of ourselves as unified, stable subjects encountering a given world of fixed objects existing, a priori, outside of ourselves. I pondered how Cartesian dualism provided us with the means to consider even our own body like a thing, like a neutral object outside of oneself. With my mind-eye, I became aware of my bodily movements climbing the steps, one by one, and was amused by the fact that I was perceiving myself perceiving. How much do our cultural constructs influence the way we experience things, the way we conceptualize them, I wondered? To what extent was I still grounded in the aesthetic ideals of Western tradition?
Reaching the landing of the Oboro Gallery where Rokeby's Giver of Names was exhibited, I heard the floorboards creak under my feet and became self-conscious of my gait, of my presence in this space. Almost on tiptoes so as not to call attention to myself, I walked toward the entrance of the gallery and peeked in.
At the far end of the large empty room, a cheerful array of colorful objects was set out, in disorder, upon the bare floor. It reminded me of the bright, cheerful room of a daycare center at the end of the day -- after all the children had gone. Probably, for this reason I was not immediately surprised by the sound of giggling, of childlike laughter.
I was startled, however, when a grown man walked into my sightline and began browsing around the colorful objects on the floor. His abrupt entrance into the space disrupted my object of vision in a disturbing way. Somewhat bewildered, I watched him pick up a yellow plastic duck off the floor, walk over to the pedestal in the center of the installation, remove a red teapot perched there, and replace it with his yellow plastic toy. My cool, contemplative spirit was, needless to say, eroding.
It completely disintegrated when the man proceeded to hop over the objects on the floor and dash, in giddy fashion, to the side of the room. There, he joined a young woman who was standing awestruck in front of a computer screen. I resigned myself to the fact that David Rokeby's exhibition, The Giver of Names, was not going to be a contemplative experience for me. I would not, as a distanced viewer, find pleasure by calmly pondering over an arrangement of beautiful objects.
So, I went to join the couple who were now watching the computer screen with transfixed eyes. Hardly noticing my presence, they reminded me of young parents standing alert so as to capture the first coherent words of their child -- except this couple was transfixed by a computer. Upon the screen, I noticed words and sentences appearing. "You were lecturing on changed eggs," I read. Though to me these words were just gibberish, the couple seemed pleased. They smiled happily at each other and read on.
The computer they were gazing at with such intent I later learned is intelligent. Like a young child, upon receiving certain stimuli, it responds by formulating words and then sentences. It was The Giver of Names -- at least that is what I originally thought.
David Rokeby has spent almost two decades developing the software and hardware for interactive systems like The Giver of Names. This particular artwork consists of a video camera that records the object that is placed on the pedestal and then relays this information to the computer. There, the image of the object is translated into a generalized abstract colored shape. A sophisticated database deciphers and translates the input into an array of words associated to the general shape and color of the object. It then proceeds to formulate grammatically correct sentences with these words. This is done by means of a complex knowledge base mostly designed by Rokeby himself, and that is as neutral, he says, as possible. It organizes the data according to linguistic formulations and hierarchies, such as synonyms, syntagms, family resemblances between words and so on.
As soon as the couple left, I quickly went to place my own object on the pedestal. I chose a toy car, a yellow Volkswagen. When I ran back to the computer, I noted that the video camera had indeed recorded my action since I was still able to see, in the frame of the image, my hand placing the yellow Volkswagen on the pedestal.
I watched as the shape of the yellow toy car was translated by the computer into a generalized yellow oval shape and then, to my amazement, I saw how this operation generated a flow of words: "yellow, lemon, sour, crabby, surly; oval, eye, beady, tear, drop, cry; beetle, bug, pest, bother, pardon." Then sentences began to appear. I smiled as I read the words: "Lemons, more eyeless than other beady sectors, would pardon no optical drops."
I became totally fascinated with this intelligent machine. Imagine, it was able to synthesize shapes and colors and to make word associations. Sure the sentences were arcane, cryptic, nonsensical. Reading them over again, however, I noted how much like short abstract poems they were.
I soon began to find meaning in these words. "Lemons, more eyeless than other beady sectors, would pardon no optical drops." Do these words not deal with the very issues I had been thinking about a few minutes earlier: about being eyeless, oblivious or blind to my perception of genuine beauty? Did these words not have some links to the issue of optics, of objects of vision? Pondering over the question of becoming as eyeless as an inanimate object, I remembered one of David Rokeby's remarks in the exhibition catalogue: "The computer," he noted, "is objective and disinterested" (Rokeby, 1998:30). Though objective and disinterested, The Giver of Names provides me with no fixed object of vision and certainly no experience of genuine beauty to contemplate.
In fact, one can no longer even speak of an art object and a viewer since every subsequent encounter with The Giver of Names (and I had a few) was different and unique. This was not because the computer screen continuously presented different arrangements of words and sentences but because, by deciphering them, I created new and different meanings each time.
By interacting with these technologies, I was not interpreting a pre-determined meaning. Rather I became the creator of the meaning. Meaning was contingent upon my current thought patterns, my personal frames of references, my own cultural baggage. This is when I realized that The Giver of Names was not, as I first believed, the objective, disinterested computer itself. It was me. I was The Giver of Names. So was the couple before me The Giver of Names. So could you become The Giver of Names.
In fact, prior to our respective interactions with the array of objects and technologies, there is no recognition of names and no creation of meaning. There is, in fact, no artwork. Each visitor that engages in the interactive system activates it and produces meaning that is singular and unique. One does not experience The Giver of Names as a disinterested viewer contemplating a fixed object that exists outside of oneself. Rather one becomes an interactor who is an integral part of the artwork and its meaning.
As an artist, David Rokeby does not pretend to provide a pre-determined meaning for his artwork. Rather as the artist, he sets out an array of objects and technologies that provide signs that have the power to produce meaning in the minds of the various interactors. This done, even Rokeby the artist, can assume the role of the interactor.
Leaving the Oboro Gallery, I thought about the significance of this artwork, The Giver of Names. Does it not, in fact, make visible or evident a process that occurs in the interpretation of all artworks? Is the viewer, in effect, not always really an interactor? Is the viewer not always inextricably linked to, and part of, the meaning of a work of art? Is the notion of an a priori meaning by an intentional artist not simply an illusion? Rokeby's Giver of Names makes explicit what many artworks obscure: that one always encounters an art object (any object for that matter) as a mediated subject. There can, therefore, be no universal viewing experience; there can be no recognition of an a priori meaning.
David Rokeby's earlier work of 1983-91 called Very Nervous System makes the interactor's place within an integrated system even more evident: more visible, more audible, and more physical. Very Nervous System links the interactor to a video camera, an image processor, a computer, a synthesizer and a sound system. The camera records the interactor's movement. Image processors then feed the message of this movement to computers, synthesizers and to a sound system.
By means of this closed system, the interactor is able to create musical sounds by the movement of the body. The sound produced by the movement of body and limbs can be programmed so as to approximate the music of a particular musician. Plugged into the Very Nervous System, one is no longer a disinterested viewer or a unified subject gazing at a fixed object outside of oneself; nor is one even a detached listener enraptured by the sound. Once integrated into the Very Nervous System, all notions of a fixed, a priori object outside of oneself dissolves, dissipates.
Plugged into the Very Nervous System, one is neither a neutral participant nor a virtuoso performer employing a musical instrument. One does not play a pre-conceived music score nor does one compose a new one. Rather integration into the Very Nervous System, says Rokeby, "transform[s] the interactor's awareness of his or her body" (Rokeby, 1995:146).
Indeed, as one moves and gestures, one sees how one's body makes the music at the same time as one hears and feels the music. Such an awareness of one's body, most evidently, is not that of a decarnalized eye that, in a detached way, observes a neutral body. In fact, as an integral part of the Very Nervous System, the distinction between mind and body blurs. Like a veritable cyborg, mind/body and technology merge, become one. Plugged into the Very Nervous System, one comes to recognize how the intentional mind together with the physical body connects with the technologies to produce the sound.
As an interactor/cyborg integrated into the Very Nervous System, one not only loses one's sense of oneself as a disembodied mind-eye, and as a neutral body. As a mediated subject, one becomes the music at the same time that one is transformed by it. One's interaction or integration with these technologies produces the artwork which, in turn, permits one to communicate with oneself. The meaning of the interactive work lies in the effects of one's interaction with it. Indeed, as David Rokeby says: "A technology is interactive to the degree that it reflects the consequences of our actions or decisions back to us" (Rokeby, 1995:133).
By assuming the role of The Giver of Names or by plugging into the Very Nervous System, one engages not only with the technologies but with oneself: not as a viewer of a fixed, pre-established object that lies outside of oneself; not as an interpreter of pre-determined meaning that precedes one's interaction. To use David Rokeby's words, "...an interactive technology is a medium through which we communicate with ourselves - a mirror [or, more precisely, a transforming] mirror" (Rokeby, 1995:133). The givens provided by the artist are, in effect, processed and mediated by each interactor, even subsequently by the artist. Each interaction is personal, subjective, unique. Although artists like Rokeby make use of the latest state of the art technologies, interactive art, per se, is not new: nor was it initiated by contemporary media artists. Rokeby acknowledges this in his own discussion of Marcel Duchamp as an "interactive artist" (Rokeby, 1995:134-135). In effect, Marcel Duchamp made a very strong argument for the role of the viewer or interactor in the creation of the artwork in his famous speech of 1957 called "The Creative Act." "All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone," Duchamp stated. "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" Duchamp, 1973:140). Duchamp does not here imply that, by deciphering and interpreting the inner qualifications of an artwork, the viewer retrieves a pre-determined, pre-given, readymade meaning. On the contrary. Any serious encounter with Duchamp's work inevitably results in the realization that meaning is always elusive and slippery.
My own interaction with Marcel Duchamp has prompted me to consider this artist as a writer or encoder of signs. More precisely, as a writer-artist, I contend that Duchamp encoded two distinct allegories. These allegories bare no affinity with the traditional allegorical mode where one set of signs denotes a second order of correlated meaning. In Duchamp's allegories, there is no fixed, pre-determined object to be deciphered and interpreted. Rather Duchamp's two allegories engage and implicate the reader in a dialogue. In such a dialogic process, the reader interacts with the signs, contextualizes them and, by so doing, constructs his/her own meaning. As a reader-interactor, in other words, one also becomes part of an integrated system that openly implicates us as mediated subjects.
The first allegory which I call an "open-ended" system of signs is made up of Duchamp's various works, words and gestures that span almost half a century and in which his famous transparent "open" window, The Large Glass of 1915-1923, features prominently. In this "open-ended" allegory, signs tend to continuously construct links, to dialogue and to argue with each other, in the mind of the reader-interactor. The second dialogical allegory of Marcel Duchamp I call a "closed" system. It consists of only one work, his last, secretly constructed installation, Etant donnés of 1946-66: here, it is the "closed" door of the facade that draws the viewer-interactor into the parameters of the artwork in a most provocative way, triggering the dialogical process.
I would briefly like to highlight certain moments in each of Duchamp's allegories so as to underscore how his dialogical strategies already question the notion of aesthetics, and most particularly the notion of a fixed object with a pre-determined meaning that precedes the interactor's intervention. In this regard, one can draw parallels between Duchamp's dialogical allegories and David Rokeby's interactive systems. Most interestingly, Rokeby's notion of the artwork as a "transforming mirror" is already made apparent in the so-called, "open windows and closed doors" of Marcel Duchamp.
Let us look at such a self-reflexive mirror by reading Duchamp's first "open-ended" allegory, in which The Large Glass plays a role. Though you may be quite familiar with this work, imagine looking at The Large Glass for the first time. It is, in effect, a monument to silence. The cryptic enigmatic signs displayed upon its transparent surface do not readily convey any pre-given meaning.
Moreover, the transparency of the glass makes the signs merge with the objects in the room. The viewer must, in fact, make a concerted effort to constrict the signs within the borders of the frame. Duchamp himself subtitled this work, The Delay in Glass, and stated that it "has neither front, nor back; neither top, nor / bottom" (Duchamp, 1983:67). The signs that inhabit The Delay in Glass are, to use Duchamp's own words, "moving inscriptions" (Duchamp, 1973:38). In effect, the signs shift beyond the boundaries of the frame and point to a multitude of other signs within the "open-ended" allegory. By so doing, they engage the interactor in a dialogic process, in a kind of semiotic game.
To begin to decipher the enigmatic signs in The Large Glass, Duchamp's notes assembled in The Green Box are crucial. An integral part of the work, these notes are not a narrative, not an explanation of the cryptic signs. Rather, these notes serve to convey the polysemic nature of each sign and to suggest or point to possible meanings without ever definitely defining them. One must, in effect, isolate the polysemic signs and construct links with other signs in order to construct meaning.
If one isolates a particular sign in The Large Glass, for example, The Oculist Witnesses, one can see how this occurs. The name, The Oculist Witnesses, is assigned to the circular shapes on the right hand side of the lower portion of The Large Glass which Duchamp calls, "The Bachelor Machine." By linking these circular shapes to the other circular signs, such as the Chocolate Grinder in the center, The Oculist Witnesses can readily relate to the wheels and gears which, as the notes tell us, rotate incessantly in the "Bachelor Machine."
Situating the Oculist Witnesses in this particular context readily prompts the reader-interactor to ponder about the Machine Age, about industrialization, about technological progress: and about the invention of the wheel which started the whole "Bachelor Machine" rolling in the first place. In this regard, Duchamp's famous, Bicycle Wheel of 1912 dialogues quite readily with the signs connected to the Oculist Witnesses, to the "Bachelor Machine" and to the invention and production of readymade objects like the bicycle during the second industrial revolution.
By selecting and isolating certain signs and linking them together, the interlocutor can, in this way, construct meaning. Meaning is never definitive, however. For example, if one isolates The Oculist Witnesses, as a sign again, and if one takes into account its reference to the "ocular," it can also point to other circular signs in the allegory that produce various kinds of optical effects: to, for example, The Rotary Glass Plates of 1920 where five horizontal and recessed glass plates, mechanically rotated, produce the illusion of continuous concentric circles. In this regard, the Oculist Witnesses also readily relate to the Rotary Demisphere (1925) or to the rotating discs with puns used in Duchamp's Anemic Cinema of 1925 which, when rotated, produce dizzying optical effects. If one links together this particular constellation of signs, one can speculate how The Oculist Witnesses relate to issues concerning vision, optics, modern ocularcentric epistemologies, including aesthetics.
The Oculist Witnesses can also point us in other directions as well. It can come to stand, for example, for the ocular desire of the Bachelors who, as the notes indicate, gaze at the female figure located in the upper portion of Large Glass, called "The Bride's Domain." If one follows this particular trajectory, one can see how it leads to the notion of voyeurism and to a whole array of signs in Duchamp's "open-ended" allegory. One example is his infamous rectified readymade of a reproduction of the Mona Lisa, entitled LHOOQ of 1919. Here, the bilingual (French and English) word play inscribed at the bottom addresses the voyeur. Read phonetically in English, the caption reads: "Look!" In French the individual letters articulate: "elle a chaud au cul," meaning "she has a hot ass." Such a tawdry reference to ocular desire can prompt one to link the Oculist Witnesses to a whole spectrum of signs in Duchamp's "open-ended" allegory: to signs that relate to the issue of scopophilic pleasure and the gendered gaze, and to the tradition of woman as an object of display in art and in popular culture.
With these brief glances at isolated and contextualized signs in Duchamp's "open-ended" allegory, I hope to have illustrated how this artist's works, words and gestures expand beyond The Large Glass and how they have the power to produce meaning in the mind of the reader-interactor. Only by engaging with the artwork, only by creating links within this complex network of interrelated signs can the interactor construct meaning. Like playing a semiotic game, the interactor brings together an arbitrary constellation of signs, and fixes or contains them within a frame.
This is a moveable frame, however, with which one can discover a myriad of possible and even conflicting meanings. By displacing the frame, one passes from one picture to another, one meaning to another. By moving the frame, one makes meanings appear and disappear. Meanings oscillate, fluctuate: one meaning appears, and at the next moment disappears, is forgotten, as another comes into being. Duchamp's allegory, like a virtual play of différance, continually delays a definitive, totalizing or unitary meaning. The moveable frame that the reader-interactor employs to create meaning is, in effect, a centering device that separates inside from outside and isolates one sign from another -- but only momentarily.
One can draw certain parallels between Duchamp's "open-ended" allegory and Rokeby's The Giver of Names. In their respective works, there is no fixed object of vision to contemplate and no universal experience. Neither is there any a priori meaning to interpret. Rather, both Rokeby's interactive system and Duchamp's "open-ended" allegory spawn an indeterminate, indefinable space that is neither presence nor absence, that posits neither a position nor a negation. This is a space where a myriad of inscriptions and erasures trace a field without origin and where there is a perpetual fluctuation between the "becoming" of meaning and the state of "forgetting," where there is a continual deferral of a teleological meaning. Never definitive, meaning is most ostensibly contingent upon each interactor's "creative act" as a mediated subject. Indeed, both Rokeby's interactive system and Duchamp's "open-ended" dialogical allegory become activated only by the interactor's engaged reading. If Duchamp's "open-ended" allegory consists of a complex network of interrelated signs that span time and place, Duchamp's other allegory is, as I see it, a "closed system" of signs incorporated into only one artwork. It is closed because it operates like Duchamp's own monologic statement: one in which he himself has framed a fixed, stable picture that implies a pre-given meaning. This is his Etant donnés (1946-66) which he himself dubbed an "allegorical appearance."
Secretly constructed during the last twenty years of his life, prior to his death, Duchamp left directives for what would be the posthumous reconstruction of Etant donnés in the Philadelphia Museum of Art in June, 1969. At the same time, he stipulated that this work receive no press and that no photograph be permitted of the interior of this installation for a period of fifteen years. This strange demand enveloped the work in an aura of invisibility and presented the viewer with the possibility of simply stumbling upon it - or, more precisely, becoming physically entrapped by it. Interestingly, like a contemporary interactive artwork, Duchamp designed this work to be experienced in situ. In fact, the viewer's physical experience of this work is crucial since this engagement triggers the dialogical process between the artist and the interactor.
The viewer's first encounter with Etant donnés is an old rustic door. It operates as the viewer's object of vision and, at the same time, as a distancing device. As a resolutely closed, sealed door, it provides no immediate access to what lies beyond it. Only two peepholes drilled into the door, at eye level, offer the viewer a distanced view of the other side.
Accustomed to looking at an object of vision as a distanced subject, the viewer, situated in the rather palatial Philadelphia Museum of Art, has no qualms about looking through the peepholes. These peepholes in the door function like a trap that ensnares the viewer within the closed boundaries of Etant donnés. One could say that looking through the peepholes is, in effect, like a kind of ambush by the artist -- as if Duchamp had intentionally made the disembodied viewer the butt of a joke.
This is not because the viewer, looking through the peepholes, is confronted with a contentious representation of a spread-eagled female nude exhibiting her genitalia. One can encounter such views in a common peep show, on the internet, in other traditional works of art, or, in the flesh, in the exhibitionist performances of Annie Sprinkle. Rather Duchamp's entrapment lies in the manner in which he sets up the inadvertent, contemplative and disembodied viewer as a voyeur.
Strategically set up and framed as a voyeur by the artist, the viewer is unable to retain a distanced, contemplative vantage point. Conscious of the compromising position in front of the peepholes, the viewer fears being watched by a putative second viewer standing behind. Rosalind Krauss has compared the viewer's self-consciousness in front of the peepholes to the experience of the voyeur in Jean-Paul Sartre's Being and Nothingness who, in the act of peeking through the keyhole, finds himself being looked at by a second viewer behind him. This self-conscious reaction is, she says, one of embodiment: "To be discovered at the keyhole is...to be discovered as a body" (Krauss, 1993:436).
In effect, Duchamp has transposed the traditionally disembodied and disengaged viewer into the embodied position of a voyeur. In no way a neutral body observed by the mind-eye, this is the embodied position of a mediated subject who must react, interact and negotiate the artist's provocation. The interaction that ensues entails a dialogic process. By constructing Etant donnés in such a provocative way, Duchamp has effectively created the conditions for a dialogue or interaction between himself and the viewer. This is not a dialogue in the narrative sense. Rather the dialogue that ensues from the encounter with Etant donnés is more like a collision between two subject positions, between Duchamp's "givens" (explicitly represented) and the viewer's. For each voyeur at the peepholes who becomes entrapped within this closed, integrated system, the dialogue that ensues is inevitably different, unique.
What I am suggesting here is that Duchamp, by so provoking the inadvertent, contemplative viewer, has positioned himself and the viewer within the frame of Etant donnés: and that it is precisely the confrontation between the artist and the viewer that constitutes the "meaning" of this work. Meaning does not lie, as a pre-given, in the seemingly coherent representation; rather meaning lies in the on-going dialogues that ensue within the "closed" space between the artist and the interactor.
By becoming so intimately implicated within the framework of this artwork, the interactor also inevitably recognizes an erosion of the traditional boundaries between subject and object, between the art object and the viewer, even between mind and body. It is precisely in this respect that one can draw parallels between this kind of "closed" interactive system and Rokeby's Very Nervous System. Although very different kinds of artworks, they both integrate the viewer-interactor within the parameters of the work as both body and mind. As a result, meaning is self-reflexive in that it is created by and for the interactor. In effect, there is a kind of specular relationship in which the interactor is both the subject and the object of the artwork. To cite David Rokeby again: "The interactive system is a means through which we communicate with ourselves - a mirror [or, more precisely, a transforming] mirror" (Rokeby, 1995:133).
By looking at Marcel Duchamp's open windows and closed door, at his dialogical allegories, one can understand how the artist aimed to integrate, activate or engage the viewer in diverse ways. Similarly, the interactive technologies of David Rokeby also integrate the interactor, as a mediated subject, within a particular system. Significantly, Rokeby's interactive strategies and Duchamp's dialogical allegories bring to the fore the self-reflexive mirror that was previously obscured by the traditional dichotomy between the art object and the viewer. Their respective artworks, thus, prompt the questions: Can one ever really be a distanced, disengaged and disembodied viewer? Is one's recognition of a universal, a priori object of vision an illusion? Does even a contemplative aesthetic experience imply an integrated system between myself as subject and my object of vision? Is interactive art significant in that it makes more evident or visible the fact that one is always part of an integrated system: even at this moment while I am writing and you are reading?
Duchamp, Marcel. 1973. "The Creative Act." In The Writings of Marcel Duchamp. ed. Michel Sanouillet and Elmer Peterson, 138-140. New York: Oxford University Press.
Duchamp, Marcel. 1983. Marcel Duchamp, Notes. Arrangement and Translation by Paul Matisse. Boston: G.K. Hall & Company.
Krauss, Rosalind. 1993. "Where's Poppa?" In The Definitively Unfinished Marcel Duchamp. ed. Thierry de Duve. 433-462. Cambridge: The MIT Press.
Rokeby, David. 1995. "Transforming Mirrors: Subjectivity and Control in Interactive Media" in Critical Issues in Electronic Media. ed. Simon Penny. 133-158. New York: State University of New York Press.
Rokeby, David. 1998. David Rokeby: The Giver of Names. Exhibition Catalogue. Guelph, Ontario: Macdonald Stewart Art Centre.
Ernestine Daubner teaches at Concordia University (Montréal) in the Art History Department.