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Transforming Mirrors : The Invention of Media

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

It is often said that interactive artworks blur the line between the artist and the audience. The audience becomes creator in a medium invented by the artist. The artist enables the interactor to express themselves creatively.

Myron Krueger has developed a complex set of video-centered interactions which he calls Videoplace16. The Videoplace installation is made up of a video camera, a video projector, and a rack of specialized processors. The interactor's image, as seen by the camera, is interpreted as a silhouette. This silhouette is analysed in various ways and a response is generated and updated 30 times a second. Writing of a subset of these interactions called Individual Medley he has said:

Each is a restricted aesthetic medium that can be composed through body movements. In fact, your body becomes a means of creating art. The goal of these interactions is to communicate the pleasure of aesthetic creation. Since these media are unfamiliar, dwelling as they do on dynamic images controlled by movements of the viewers' bodies, artists trained in traditional static media have no automatic advantage in creating pleasing results.17
There is no question that people are given a tangible and 'empowering' experience of creativity from an interaction of this sort. This is precisely because the medium is 'restricted'. Presenting a limited range of possibilities reduces the likelihood that the interactor will run up against a creative block, and allows the medium to guide the inexperienced hand of the interactor, reducing the fear of incompetence. Such a creative experience is more powerful than traditional examples of 'guiding' media, such as paint by-numbers, because the interactor makes decisions throughout the creative process. The interactor is therefore, to some degree, genuinely reflected in the resulting creation.

In the hands of technologists, a medium evolves towards apparent transparency (i.e. the development of a complete range of pigments for oil paints, or the evolution from early low-resolution black-and-white television to natural colour high-definition TV). The message (as per McLuhan) that such a medium conveys may be powerful, but it is generally unintentional. On the other hand, interactive artists intentionally express themselves through the opacities and idiosyncrasies of the media that they create. These media reflect, but also guide and transform the gestures of the interactor.

The interactor becomes a creator. But, as the conceivers of the media, interactive artists reserve a privileged position for themselves. The product of the spectator's creative interaction is often 'pleasing', but would rarely qualify as 'serious' art. To quote Krueger: "It is the composition of the relationships between action and response that is important. The beauty of the visual and aural response is secondary."18

When the Apple Macintosh first came onto the market, the MacPaint program, which simulates, to a degree, the visual artist's basic tools, sent a shock-wave through the creative community. For the first year, MacPaint-produced posters were everywhere, an apparent explosion of the freedom of, and possibility for self-expression. But while the MacPaint medium reflected the user's expressive gestures, it also refracted them through its own idiosyncratic prism. After a while, the posters began to blend together into an urban wallpaper of MacPaint textures and MacPaint patterns. The similarities overpowered the differences. Since then, graphics programs for computers have become much more transparent, but that initial creative fervour that MacPaint ignited has abated. The restrictions that made MacPaint easy to use were also the characteristics that ultimately limited its usefulness as a medium for personal expression. One can look at the distribution of a creative medium in the form of a software package as a subtle form of broadcasting. (Next / Contents

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