Rokeby : Home / Installations / Current Shows / Texts / softVNS / Links / e-mail me

Transforming Mirrors : Interaction in the context of Art

Contents / Intro / Art Context / Models / Navigation / Media / Mirrors / Automata / Conclusion

Although the focus in interactive artwork is usually on work that incorporates technology, the implied transformation of the relationship between art and audience can be traced back to roots that predate the existence of interactive technologies.

Itsuo Sakane, the Japanese journalist and curator, suggests that interactive art is simply art that involves the participation of the viewer. But he goes on to remark "all arts can be called interactive in a deep sense if we consider viewing and interpreting a work of art as a kind of participation,"1 an echo of Marcel Duchamp's famous declaration, "The spectator makes the picture."2

While all artworks are to some degree open to multiple interpretations, some artists work to discourage subjective readings and others work to encourage them. An early example of work that encourages subjective readings is Laurence Sterne's novel, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, finished in 1766. Throughout the book, the reader's expectations and assumptions are variously addressed in a surprisingly post-modern manner. An example is found in Chapters 37 and 38 of Volume 6.

Let love therefore be what it will, ---- my uncle Toby fell into it.

---- And possible, gentle reader, with such a temptation ---- so wouldst thou: For never did thy eyes behold, or thy concupiscence covet any thing in this world, more concupiscible than widow Wadman.

To conceive this right, ---- call for pen and ink ---- here's paper ready to your hand. ---- Sit down, Sir, paint her to your own mind ---- as like your mistress as you can ---- as unlike your wife as your conscience will let you ---- 'tis all one to me ---- please but your own fancy in it.3

After leaving a blank page, he continues:
-------- Was ever any thing in Nature so sweet!-so exquisite!

---- Then, dear Sir, how could my uncle Toby resist it?

Thrice happy book! thou wilt have one page, at least, within thy covers, which Malice will not blacken and which Ignorance cannot misrepresent.4

Sterne may be accused of excessive cleverness, but he actively addresses issues that are central to interactive work. His novel is intended to be physically modified by the reader, making literal and visible the implicit inscription of the reader's subjectivity into the body of the book. In fact, there has always been a strong interactive character to the process of reading; the reader takes the role of universal renderer, using his or her imagination to construct a subjective world upon the skeleton of the text. For a brief moment, Sterne clarifies the mirror provided by the text, showing us ourselves staring into the page.

Marcel Duchamp expresses the idea of the artwork as a mirror in his work The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors, Even. In his discussion of this work, Octavio Paz notes:

Duchamp's painting is a transparent glass; as a genuine monument it is inseparable from the place it occupies and the space that surrounds it; it is an incomplete painting that is perpetually completing itself. Because it is an image that reflects the image of whoever contemplates it, we are never able to look at it without seeing ourselves. 5
The work is mirror, image and window combined. The spectator's reflection mingles with the images inscribed on the glass, and with the gallery space, the viewing context, seen through the glass.

A book or a painting appears capable only of passive response under the subjective gaze of the spectator. The artist may, however, have acted in anticipation of the spectator's interpretations by combining elements into the work so that their significance is transformed by the shifting perceptions of the viewer. Again commenting on Duchamp, Paz suggests "A work is a machine for producing meanings. In this sense Duchamp's idea is not entirely false: the picture depends on the spectator because only he can set in motion the apparatus of signs that comprises the whole work."6

An examination of how 'interactive' artists incorporate interaction into their work reveals a correspondence with Paz's view. The reactive behaviour of most interactive works is defined by a computer program which is written in advance by the artist, or by a programmer realizing the artist's wishes. This program is, in most cases, a static text which is read and interpreted by the computer. Each reading of the program by the computer depends on the activity of the spectator. Like the artist constructing an 'apparatus of signs' which anticipates and supports subjective readings, the interactive artist, according to pioneer interactive artist Myron Krueger, "anticipates the participant's possible reactions and composes different relationships for each alternative."7 Although, in both Duchamp's and Krueger's cases, the artist has made room for the spectator's subjective readings of the work, what this involves is a partial displacement of the machinery of interpretation from the mind of the spectator into the mechanism of the artwork, a fracturing of the spectator's subjectivity. The external machinery is partly, as McLuhan contends, an extension of the spectator, but the relationship between the spectator and this extension is externally defined.

As the role of the spectator is questioned and transformed, so is the role of the artist. Most artworks start as a set of possibilities: the blank canvas, the empty page, the block of marble, etc. The act of realizing a work is a process of progressively narrowing the range of possibilities by a series of creative choices until one of the possible has been manifested in the finished work. One might say that the interactive artist decides at some point in this process not to choose from among the remaining possibilities but to create some sort of audience-actuated choosing mechanism. The immediate precedent for this is found in John Cage's chance compositions. In each of these works, Cage defined a set of rules and then used the tossing of coins to choose a specific composition from the range of possibilities allowed by these rules. Cage's intent in reducing the control he had over the final result can be inferred from his suggestion that "the highest purpose is to have no purpose at all. This puts one in accord with nature in her manner of operations."8 However, as the composer Henry Cowell commented in a discussion of these compositions: is evident that much more remains to be done in this direction, for in spite of his best efforts to the contrary, Cage has not succeeded in eliminating his highly refined and individual taste from the music derived from the I Ching. Unfortunately, from the point of view of this group of composers, no order of tossings can give anything more than a variety of arrangements of the elements subjectively chosen to operate upon.9
In later works, Cage further removed himself from the compositional process through what he called 'indeterminacy'. In these works, the rules themselves were left intentionally ambiguous, leaving them open to subjective interpretation by the performers as well.

The structure of interactive artworks can be very similar to those used by Cage in his chance compositions. The primary difference is that the chance element is replaced by a complex, indeterminate yet sentient element, the spectator. Whereas Cage's intent is to mirror nature's manner of operation, the interactive artist holds up the mirror to the spectator. There is an additional and important difference that this creates. Unlike Cage's work, interactive work involves a dialogue between the interactor10 and the system making up the artwork. The interactive system responds to the interactor, who in turn responds to that response. A feedback system is created in which the implications of an action are multiplied, much as we are reflected into infinity by the two facing mirrors in a barber shop.

Whatever the differences, like Cage, interactive artists are looking for ways to give away some of the control over the final actualizations of their works. The extreme of this position, in some sense corresponding to Cage's notion of 'indeterminacy', is found in the creation of learning and evolving systems. One might take the extreme position that a significant interaction between an artwork and a spectator cannot be said to have taken place unless both the spectator and the artwork are in some way permanently changed or enriched by the exchange. A work that satisfied this requirement would have to include some sort of adaptive mechanism, an apparatus for accumulating and interpreting its experience. While few interactive works currently contain such mechanisms, many have exhibited a form of evolution, not through internal mechanisms, but through the refinements and adjustments made by their creators, responses to observations made of interactions between the work and the audience. The inclusion of learning mechanisms in interactive works will no doubt become increasingly common. (Next / Contents

Rokeby : Home / Installations / Current Shows / Texts / softVNS / Links / e-mail me

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