16A Postscript on the Emerging Aesthetics of Interactive Art
Interactive art represents a radical phase-shift in western aesthetics. Artists are confronting unexplored territory: the aesthetics of machine mediated interactivity. Designing the interactive experience adds an entire dimension to the aesthetic endeavor, one without precedent in the visual and plastic arts. In the west, the visual arts have no tradition of an esthetics of interactivity. Six hundred years of painting has resulted in a rich aesthetics of the still image, of color and line, shape and area, of representational geometry and perspective. The effect of six hundred years of enculturation is that we know how to read images (which observe the conventions of renaissance perspective) before we can read text. One hundred years of moving image has given us a culturally established set of cinematic conventions: we can read cinema. But as yet we have no culturally established aesthetic of real time interaction.
The implications of this observation are resounding. Jonathan Crary cogently argues that meaning in an artwork is constituted between the viewer and the work, that the 'techniques of the observer' are as important as the techniques of the artist. Artists are struggling to establish a new canon, a new genre, but not only are understandings about the dynamics of the interactive experience very limited among artists, but the 'techniques of the user' are non-existant. What results is a crisis of meaning: the work cannot 'mean' because the user doesn't speak the language.
In the past, some people have proposed to me that a photo or a painting is interactive, I find that infuriating. So I'd like to define 'interactive' for the purpose of this discussion: An interactive system is a machine system which reacts in the moment, by virtue of automated reasoning based on data from its sensory apparatus. An Interactive Artwork is such a system which addresses artistic issues. A painting is an instance of representation. A film is a sequence of representations. Interactive artworks are not instances of representation, they are virtual machines which themselves produces instances of representation based on real time inputs.
What I hope to do now is lay out some tentative definitions and categorisations in order to stimulate closer, more rigorous thought on the subject. There are two new esthetic tasks in interactive art. The first is to discover the nuances and modalities of the interactive dynamic, and to find out how to apply these to esthetic goals. The second is the integration of the esthetically manipulated interactive dynamic with the other components of the work, be they physical objects, images or sounds, into an integrated esthetic whole.
The advent of artworks which combine electronic image (and sound) technologies, digitally coordinated automation of parts; often with sculptural utilisation of space, electromechanical elements and recourse to data from sensors or other user input devices; presents us with a new esthetic complex, the conformations of which are only marginally amenable to the techniques of traditional artistic analysis. Therefore it seems necessary to attempt an evaluation of the esthetic modalities and formal qualities of various types of interactive work. Two preliminary distinctions must be made. In the first case : between screenal and spatial interactivity. It is seldom noted that the esthetic languages of screen based and spatial interactivity must be as different as the languages of painting and sculpture. The first extends the idea of the painting or the cinema/tv screen, the second engages the kinesthetic aspects of embodiment, the sensibilities of sculpture and dance.
Secondly, I would like to distinguish between older and more recent experiments in interactivity: the hypertextual vs ecological, the paradigm of he book vs the paradigm of the pet. Hypertextual works offers through the screenal window a navigable dataspace, a space which is experienced intellectually rather than physically: Henry See's 'A Memory Project' and Lynn Hershman's 'Deep Contact' were early examples of this paradigm which has become ubiquitous in what is now called 'interactive multimedia'. These works are usually built on or for desktop computers, and embrace the 'top-down', serial processing single cpu model. Ecological works are conceived not as a body of information to be explored but as a living system to be observed and/or interacted with. Such Alife inspired systems tend to be inspired by bottom up robotics theory, complexity theory and artificial life models. They often utilise discrete or networked multiple processors, and are often installations or performances with mobile components.
As cinema emerged as a technology and an esthetic, it also built its institution its cultural niche. Cinema did not find its home in the museum. It built another institution, where the notion of the 'original' was absurd. (No one asks if the particular print of the film you're watching is an 'original or a copy'.) In the same way, interactive art will forge its own cultural niche. Is the web the environment where Interactive art will settle? Only time will tell.
Simon Penny Pittsburgh 1996