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Transforming Mirrors : Navigable Structures

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

The navigable structure can be thought of as an articulation of a space, either real, virtual or conceptual. The artist structures this space with a sort of architecture, and provides a method of navigation. Each position within the conceptual space provides a point-of view, defined and limited by the surrounding architectural structure. Exploring this structure presents the spectator with a series of views of the space and its contents. The sequence in which the spectator experiences these vistas forms a unique reading of that space. In Virtual Reality systems, the architectural metaphor can be taken literally. In other works, the architecture is more like a conceptual paradigm, a method of organization of intellectual perspectives, opinions or emotions.

The architecture can be regular and highly formalized. On the other hand, it can be highly idiosyncratic. The possible structures range from the lattice-work of a regular and highly-interconnected network, to the single serial path of a narrative. Navigable structures present the audience with a series of options, and the consequences for each possible decision, but there are several distinct models defining how these paths diverge and recombine.

Some works utilize an open plan resembling a city map, a structure which tends to invite wandering. In Jeffrey Shaw's work, The Legible City, this metaphor is presented literally. The spectator uses a stationary bicycle to navigate through the computer-generated, three-dimensionally rendered representation of a city projected on a large video-screen. Instead of buildings, the streets are lined with letters of the alphabet, transforming the street facades into texts:

Bicycling through this city of words is consequently a journey of reading. Choosing direction, choosing where to turn, is a choice of texts and their juxtaposition, and the identity of this city emerges in the conjunction of meanings these words generate as they emerge along the bicyclist's path.11

Hypermedia-based works use a tree-like branching structure in which one moves from a fairly general starting point into greater and greater specificity, encouraging a more focussed and structured exploration in which each choice carries with it a responsibility. In Paul Sermon's work, Think about the People Now, the interactor makes a series of decisions that increasingly define their place in time and space, relative to a single event, that of a protester burning himself to death during the two minutes silence on Remembrance Day in Whitehall, London. Navigating through the structure, one may miss the event altogether, hear an ambulance go past, or overhear someone's horrified words. On the other hand, one's decisions may lead to the time and place of the protest and the choice to watch or look away. One may even find oneself in the role of the protester, covered in gasoline, faced with the decision of whether or not to light the match. Through a series of decisions, the interactor moves into a highly specific position for which he or she is, in a sense, accountable. Alternatively, the interactor can adopt different roles in what Sermon calls the 'social construction'12 experiencing a variety of conflicting perspectives on the event, the meta-experience that the work as a whole represents.

Navigable structures have some of the characteristics of a maze or labyrinth, except that the interactive work does not usually have a goal or exit, a reward in the conventional sense. Discussing another of Jeffrey Shaw's works, Point of View in which the structure of a labyrinth is intentionally invoked, Erik Colpaert comments that "The correct route is unimportant - It doesn't even exist."13 The reward, if one insists on using such a term, is the unfolding experience of exploration and discovery, the collection of points of view resulting in a personal reading of the work.

The metaphor of the labyrinth has some disturbing implications. Is the interactive artist sending the audience, like rats, through a laboratory maze? Indeed, people sometimes feel irritation when faced with an interactive artwork, because they feel that their 'behaviour' is being judged. There is some justification for this feeling, as the interactor does reveal something in the process of interacting. One solution to this problem is to make the method of interaction as familiar or banal as the action of pedalling the bicycle used in The Legible City. In addition, in Shaw's work, the letters that wall the streets are permeable so that one can bicycle right through them. The street layout exists as a suggestion which the spectator can choose to ignore, rather than an imposition.

In these examples, the artists are clearly addressing the issue of subjective interpretation. Indeed, to some degree, the subjectivity of interpretation is the topic of these works. The artists allow the interactor to establish a personal identity in the context of the work; this identity is a reflection of the decisions that the interactor makes on their path through the possibilities presented. It is possible, and generally intended, that the interactor try out other possible identities, to explore alternate readings of the same structure.

It is a mistake to conclude that by presenting a variety of perspectives, the artist is being objective and disinterested. Through selection of the specific points of views offered, how they are linked together, and the design of the method of navigation, the artist holds significant expressive power which is enhanced by this apparent objectivity. This is analogous to the situation encountered in hypertext databases which presume to completely cross-reference the information that they contain. The system of cross referencing used remains a powerful expression of the ideas of the creator, emphasizing certain kinds of relationships while effectively discouraging others. Creating such structures is similar to designing the infra-structure of a community or society; it charges the space politically. At the same time, such a structure is comforting because in limiting the options available at any one time, it assists the interactor in deciding how to proceed. It gives one a coherent structure within which and against which one may establish an identity.

It is ironic that wide-open interaction within a system that does not impose significant constraints is usually unsatisfying to the interactor. It is difficult to sense interaction in situations where one is simultaneously affecting all of the parameters. It has been my experience that the interactor's sense of personal impact on an interactive system grows, up to a point, as their freedom to affect the system is increasingly limited. The constraints provide a frame of reference, a context, within which interaction can be perceived.

While the constraining structure subtly expresses itself, the interactors' ability to navigate the system gives them a sense of freedom. This freedom exists only in relation to the established structure; it is a representation of freedom, a symbolic freedom. By relinquishing a relatively small amount of control, an interactive artist can give interactors the impression that they have much more freedom than they actually do. The clearest example of this can be found in videodisk-based video games where the system gives the user the impression that they are moving at great speed through, or just above a terrain. The videodisk is made up of short clips which link together in a branching and merging structure. In the most effective cases, the image presented on the screen is only the central section of a larger image. If the user tries to turn to the left while the system is in the middle of a linear segment, the section of the frame that the user sees is immediately shifted in that direction giving an immediate sense of responsiveness, but the interactor is, in fact, still travelling along the same restricted path. The illusion that the user has the freedom to roam the entire terrain is maintained for a surprisingly long time, especially if the user is moving at a high 'virtual' speed (i.e. without time to reflect on the degree to which their actions are being reflected). The navigable structure and its system of navigation together make up a guidance system through which the trajectory of the user through the work may be subtly controlled.

The static artwork can be looked at in two opposing ways. It can be seen as authoritarian in its refusal to reflect the presence and actions of the spectator, or, it can be seen as giving the spectator complete freedom of reflection and interpretation by not intervening in this process. An interactive artwork can likewise be seen as loosening the authority of the traditional work, or as interfering in the interactor's subjective process of interpretation.

This irony gets increasingly pronounced as the technology of interaction becomes more and more sophisticated. In the introduction to his book, Artificial Reality II, Myron Krueger invites us to "Imagine that the computer could completely control your perception and monitor your response to that perception. Then it could make any possible experience available to you."14 Florian Rötzer responds to this scenario by saying "The freedom in virtual space is sacrificed in the final control over the environment, over every thought, when and if it becomes possible to successfully couple our neurons directly with the computer."15 When a system monitors interactors to this extent, it has effectively taken control of the interactors' subjectivity, depriving them of their idiosyncratic identity, and replacing it with a highly focussed perspective that is entirely mediated by the system. Subjectivity has been replaced by a representation of subjectivity. The fact that the system responds to the interactor does not guarantee in any way that the system is responsible to the user; the interactor can fairly easily be pushed beyond reflection to the edge of instinct, capable only of visceral response to the system's stimuli, mirroring the system rather than the reverse.

A variation of the navigable structure is found in the work of communications artists who design interactive communications systems and networks. Instead of creating subjective points-of-view and offering a method of navigation through or between them, communications artists create systems interconnecting individuals, offering methods of communication. These artists are inventing alternate communities. An example is Habitat, an artificial on-line community, developed for Lucasfilm by Randy Farmer and Chip Morningstar. Using simple Commodore 64 computers connected by phone-lines, they have created a complex world in which thousands of participants adopt identities, participate in a simulated economy, and exercise democratic control over the course and structure of their community.

In France, a few years ago, I encountered an intriguing device called Le Flashing. It was a tiny radio transceiver in the shape of a wearable pin that had a light emitting diode on the front. The device could be set to transmit and receive on a variety of wavelengths. The wearer selected personal wavelengths from a range representing a variety of sexual preferences. When two people with corresponding frequencies came within a few feet of each other, the diodes on each device would begin to flash. Whereas Habitat creates an environment distinctly separate from ou

In Habitat, no attempt is made to accurately represent the individuals participating. They are allowed to design identities for themselves. The carrier of communications between participants is therefore not transparent; this is part of the pleasure of participating. The transformations of the communicating medium are quite obvious, especially due to the low-resolution, cartoon-like representations of the participants. Where the transformations of the medium are not made visible, however, the possibility for powerful manipulation occurs. As we become less and less connected in local communities and increasingly involved in virtual communities we stretch the intimacy of personal communications over longer and ever more complex pathways, making ourselves increasingly vulnerable. Communications systems are inherently vulnerable to surveillance. For example, a device like Le Flashing, in another set of hands, could be used to track down 'sexual deviants'.

Traditionally, so-called 'common carriers' like the phone system have been restricted from introducing information into their own networks; they are allowed only to transmit information from source to destination. We trust that the telephone represents us accurately, transmitting our voice, and therefore, our intentions and meanings without distortion. But the native intelligent of communications networks is rapidly increasing. Already our voices are echo-cancelled, digitized and multiplexed as they speed from phone to phone. Video-phones and teleconferencing rely on significant amounts of data-compression to achieve usable transmission speeds. Images are reconstituted at the receiving end with varying degrees of faithfulness to the original. It is a small step from this type of processing to interpretation. Already someone has decided what information is worth preserving in an image, and what is not. The neutrality of communications networks will become an increasingly significant, and at the same time, slippery issue. (Next / Contents)

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