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David Rokeby : Lecture for "Info Art", Kwangju Biennale

Interactive art is currently being crushed under the hype surrounding the terms "Interactivity" and "Virtual Reality". I want in this talk to discuss my interactive work in personal terms in an attempt to recover it from the generalizations and misunderstandings that I feel currently plague this field.

I am going to start with a short story which describes some of the background out of which my interactive installations emerged.

By the first year of university, I had largely succeeded in turning myself into a human simulation of a computer. I do not fully understand the motivations for this 'project'. I had a very strong believe in the value of logic, and used logic as my main tool in attempting to solve everything from electronic design, where logic was appropriate, to personal relationships, where it was decidedly inappropriate. As part of the process, I taught myself to remove myself from physical pain, and by extension to separate myself from my body. In a profound and personal way I had constructed a "virtual reality" for myself, in which my rational mind was free from the complications of the biological and emotional.

I felt that ambiguity and contradiction were my gravest enemies, to be resolved or destroyed at all costs.

This stance quickly proved to be untenable in real-life. Through a series of difficult, painful, exhilarating experiences, I came to have a strong appreciation for those things that are ambiguous, contradictory, irresolvable but at the same time undeniable.

This has lead me to explore computer technology from a very specific point of view. I explore the ways in which the ambiguous and irresolvable can exist in the absolutely arbitrary space of binary information that is the realm of the computer. Computers are about as patient with the ambiguous as I was at 18 years old. As computers reach further and further into the less logical parts of our lives, we need to make sure that the subtleties are not lost in the sieve of information processing.

A second thing that informs my work can best be summed up by a character in a Nicholas Mosely novel who says "I don't know how I feel about images, but I like the fact that we can see." Most of my work involves seeing systems, and it is the process of perception which is, in one way or another, at the heart of my works.

A third thread which runs through my work is my obsession with time. Time, in interactive art is more a material to be worked and formed than a given framework within which the work is constructed. The collisions and interferences between newtonian time, psychological time, biological time, reflex, consciousness and reflection are a natural area of exploration for interactive art.

The first major interactive work I created is called Very Nervous System and was started in 1982. In "Very Nervous System", I use video cameras, image processors, computers, synthesizers and a sound system to create a space in which the movements of one's body create sound and/or music. The computer as a medium is strongly biased and so my impulse while using the computer was to work solidly against these biases. Because the computer is purely logical, the language of interaction should strive to be intuitive. Because the computer removes you from your body, the body should be strongly engaged. Because the computer's activity takes place on the microscopic scale of silicon wafers, the encounter with the computer should take place in human-scaled physical space. And because the computer is objective and disinterested, the experience should be intimate.

The result is an interactive space in which the public uses their bodies as the active element of the interface. Body movement is rich, complex, and full of subtlety and ambiguity. Early computer art used random number generators to provide variety and complexity. I replaced the random number generator with the complexity of sentient human response.

It is important to understand that "Very Nervous System" is not a control system. It is an interactive system, by which I mean that neither partner in the system (installation and person) is in control. "Interactive" and "reactive" are not the same thing. The changing states of the installation are a result of the collaboration of these two elements. The work only exists in this state of mutual influence. This relationship is broken when the interactor attempts to take control, and the results are unsatisfying.

"Interactivity" is currently too much on the minds of those who visit my installation for my liking. On hearing or reading that an installation is interactive, the audience usually wants to verify this. The most satisfying form of verification is a sense that one has a predictable effect on the installation... that the installation will respond identically to identical actions on the part of the audience. Some works do not suffer under this sort of scrutiny because the mode of interaction is quite apart from the content of the work. In most of my works, the mode and texture of interaction is at the core of the work.

I have watched thousands of people interact with my installations. It sometimes seems to me that the most important part of these works has been the phenomena that they have made visible. Unfortunately, these phenomena have mostly been visible only to me because what has been most visible to the viewer is the excitement and novelty of the interaction itself. As a result it has been necessary for me to step away from what is currently conceived of as "interaction" in order to continue exploring the issues that lead me to create interactive installations.

In Silicon Remembers Carbon, I created a large shifting pool of video on a bed of sand. Images were selected and intermingled depending on the motions and positions of the people in and around this pool. Shadows or reflection would sometimes appear to follow people in a false-mirroring. The interaction was quite subtle, and probably invisible to many audience members. I had two reasons for down-playing the interaction: First, I wanted to increase the probability of certain conjunctions of events in relation to the audience's actions such as the apparent mirroring of live person by pre-recorded shadows in the image, but I didn't want the audience to start performing to the image. Second, I did not want to overwhelm the other, non-technical interactions in the space. The work is full of ambiguous propositions that must play out in the mind of the audience: Is that my shadow? Should I step into the image? Have I violated the artwork? Is this real? Did I help create this? In "Silicon Remembers Carbon", people interacted consciously with the sand, and the boundary around the outside of the image as much as they interacted with the "system".

In an on-going project entitled The Giver of Names I take the intense interactive feedback loop of "Very Nervous System" and stretch it out across time. Both installations involve a video camera, a computer and a sound source. In "The Giver of Names" the camera looks at objects presented to it by the audience, thinks about them, associates metaphorically, and then speaks aloud a sentence it formulates about its impressions of the object. Where "Very Nervous System" analyses and responds to what it sees in under 1/30th of a second, "The Giver of Names" will take up to a minute to respond. Whereas "Very Nervous System" effectively shuts out consciousness by creating a feedback loop tighter than the loop of self awareness,"The Giver of Names" is intended to trace a more complex feedback loop through the perception, consciousness and memory of the viewer. To be successful, its responses must be unpredictable, but must never appear to be random, creating a tension that draws the audience to reflect back through their own perceptual, verbal and imaginative processes.

In Watch, presented here at the Biennale, I once again use the video camera as the dominant feature of the work. In this work I ask the audience to return to the role of passive observer (which may seem to be a complete betrayal of the "interactive mandate"). The artwork itself remains active, a live perceptual filter through which the audience watches. As in "Silicon Remembers Carbon", some direct audience interaction is used in a supporting role to increase the probability of certain conjunctions of events in relation to the audience's actions. Here the system has embedded itself into the feedback-loop of perception, transforming the process of looking. What is most interesting to me about this transformation of looking is that it invariably also becomes a transformation of "meaning". This is of immediate significance because the processes involved in "Watch" are closely related to the processes involved in video and audio compression, processes that are fundamental to the ongoing multimedia revolution.

Interaction itself is banal. We talk to each other on the street. We breathe in air, modify it chemically, then breathe it back out to be breathed in by others. We drive cars. We make love. We walk through a forest and scare a squirrel. I am looking forward to a time when interaction in art becomes as banal and unremarkable... merely another tool in the artistic palette, to be used when appropriate. The idea that an artwork can interact with the audience is only interesting in the context of centuries of theory that celebrated 'inertness' as a desirable quality in 'Art'. For the next generation, interactive art will not be exciting and problematic, it will be necessary and obvious. Once the hype dies away, interaction in art can return to its natural role as a tool for exploring and critiquing relationship itself, an important role during a time when the nature of all our relationships... personal, economic, political, and with the media are in constant flux.

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Copyright 1996 David Rokeby / Very Nervous Systems / All rights reserved. 3/7/96