The Conceptual Space of Computers in Art Production:
Thoughts on Digital and Interactive Art

Introduction

Scott Bukatman writes that "...new technology always creates a crisis for society." The ground rules change. There are new winners and losers, and people see themselves in a different relationship to the world. Culture guards continuity and provides a buffer and context in which change can be evaluated. So there is a value in artists investigating new technologies and incorporating them into their cultural productions.

Digital technology has existed for decades and has many functions in our society, yet it has not been incorporated into what used to be termed high culture in any significant way. Is this a residual legacy of the European upper class values upon which our cultural institutions are still based? The legacy which says that in order to more perfectly express the wealth of its owner, art cannot be useful or be an outgrowth of useful things? Computers are in the news, not in novels or ballet companies or in art museums.

This situation is changing, albeit slowly. And because there now are some artists using digital technology as their medium, I propose to talk today about the experience of making digital art and about various issues that might be addressed when using the technology.

But first a quick word about my background. I started out in music, playing the cello in an orchestra, the timpani and glockenspiel in a band and the piano at home. My first job title was technical computer; I plotted graphs of the moon's position relative to the earth. My second job was programming models of engineering problems into a computer for the Apollo project. After discovering the visual world at a Matisse exhibit, I earned a Bachelor of Fine Arts in Filmmaking at the San Francisco Art Institute. In the mid nineteen eighties, I bought my first personal computer and began to produce interactive computer/video installations.

The focus of my work is digital technology, the culture of computing, the growing human/computer symbiosis in American society, and how gender issues are acted out on the technological stage.

Another way to introduce myself might be with a video. The first work I'm going to show today is called "...Her...Signal...". It is a single channel video, made in 1991. It is six minutes long.

show "...Her...Signal..."

This tape talks about my love of technologies, and desire to merge with some of them, from two viewpoints: the first is from my viewpoint - me seeing me. The second is from the computer's viewpoint. It doesn't have my optics and therefore doesn't see me as I see myself. And when I talk and try to introduce myself to it, it can't understand me. It just hears noise.

The tape also addresses one problem of desire. When a new technology appears, people want the power it promises without giving up anything of themselves. This, of course, won't happen. Do we, today, have the ability to remember that pre- literate people had? In "...Her...Signal..." my image is beginning to adapt to the new technologies I long for in strange ways.

Gender on the Technological Stage

I, a woman, love all sorts of technologies. But is it the woman in me that loves them? It's been widely written that technology has a culture and it is gendered male. Evelyn Fox Keller in "Reflections on Gender and Science" and Judy Wajcman in " Feminism Confronts Technology" are two excellent sources of ideas on this subject.

But certainly all technologies carry the imprint of the people who made them. Traditionally women have used and been used by technology. They have not, in a significant way, been creators of it. The next work I want to show you addresses this situation. It is a computer sculpture and is entitled "Miss Violate and Her Boundaries". It consists of a box six foot three inches tall. There is a monitor at eye level and a computer in its "belly." The front plane of the box is tilted a little toward the viewer to give a small sense of threat. It is covered in gray iridescent taffeta, such as my great aunt used to wear.

The monitor shows the graphic output of the computer. The computer is always playing three digitized video segments simultaneously: one in the background, one in the foreground, and one used as a traveling matte to create the shape of foreground. Most of these sequences are digitized, colonized video images of women using the technology they use in their job or their art work. Several sequences are of women using virtual reality equipment. Most of those VR segments are used as traveling mattes and are almost invisible, because virtual reality is hardly visible yet. This is what you might term the documentary aspect of the work. There are also several animal segments to provide a full continuum from mammal to human to machine. At any given moment, the choice of segment to play in the foreground, background and as the traveling matte is made by a genetic growth algorithm. This is a series of computer instructions that if shown graphically would draw a picture that looks like a plant - in the this case, a weed.

This computer sculpture was shown at the San Francisco Art Institute's Annual Exhibition in 1992. Let's look at the video documentation of it.

show "Miss Violate and Her Boundaries"

"Miss Violate and Her Boundaries" was inspired by the writings of Donna Haraway. I wanted to show a continually shifting world with blurred boundaries between technology and women and other life forms. I wished to suggest a new, expanded definition of femininity in which, for example, I would feel just as feminine when I solved a computer problem as I might when I put on lipstick or a silk dress. In this way, women would be more likely to achieve some power over technological and scientific innovation - a power at least as great as political strength.

The Culture of Technology

All tools have implications for the user. It might be handedness, a need for other tools, or cooperation with other people. Digital tools have many implications, in fact a culture, for their users and for the society that depends on them. They are the culmination of the work of thousands of people. The product of financial and social as well as technological innovation.

This digital culture is complicated and has many facets, but one of its main set of characteristics, encouraged by its corporate basis, is that of order, discipline, logic and morality. What should the artist do when faced with this? Should she try to impose a culture of abjection, sexuality, ambiguity and bad taste upon the computer? Should she concentrate on bad interface design?

The next work I want to show, some of you saw last week when Christine Tamblyn showed it at the Pacific Film Archives. This is an interactive CD-ROM entitled "She Loves It, She Loves It Not: Women and Technology". Christine, Paul Tompkins, and I collaborated in the making of it. I'm only going to show a small part of it, but I wanted to present it in the context of digital culture. We have tried to make a stream of consciousness computer piece. A CD-ROM without authority. Here's a video of part of it.

show "She Love It, She Loves It Not"

Unless an artist has the time and skill to write her own code, or the money to hire it done, she will be dependent on off the shelf software and the culture and implications that come with it. Companies sometimes entice artists to be beta testers of their software or hardware and use their work as publicity. Artists sometimes welcome this as a way to ease the financial burden of computer use. This is an example of the problem of conflict of interest digital artists can have. But even someone like me who is not dependent on any corporation for my computer tools is not disinterested. How free in my thinking and work can I be when I am committed to a medium supported by a social structure that will provide computing technology I can afford and an uninterrupted supply of electricity?

Metaphors

Computers have always been superb modeling tools. Since the introduction of the graphical user interface, they have also become swamps of metaphors (if I can use a metaphor to describe a metaphor). This is useful when selling computers to people who might be uncomfortable with abstraction, but for an artist, layers of obfuscation between herself and the reality of her medium can produce trivial, pitiful art.

If I use a so-called "paint" program, I am manipulating a bit stream in a certain way. If I use a "sound" program I am manipulating a bit stream in another way. Where is the program that will allow me to change and order a bit stream any way I choose and then allow me to try displaying it on the monitor or playing it through the speakers and decide whether I want the output visible or audible.

Jaron Lanier has pointed out that using a program on a computer to do artistic work will always eventually lead to a creative dead end. This is because any program will make some things much easier to do than others. And it will make some other things impossible to do. The longer the artist uses the program, for example to compose music or manipulate photographs, the more her sensibilities are subtly shaped and limited.

Jaron's solution to this problem was to call for intelligent, recursive programs whose capabilities could be changed on the fly by the user. Such programs would be delightful, but what shall we do in the near term? I have no really good solution. Changing programs might help a little, but that can get expensive. Maintaining a critical, questioning and above all skeptical attitude is perhaps the best defense.

Unacknowledged Collaboration

The artist using digital tools virtually never works alone. She stands at or near the top of a high tech feeding chain, working with computers, operating systems, and programs made by others. Is this collaboration - unacknowledged and unwitting on the part of the technology makers? Every since Marcel DuChamp hung his "ready made" on the wall of a gallery and called it art, artists have felt it a legitimate act to use the products of society in new configurations and attach their names as the creator or author of the new work.

Works based on digital technology are a little more complicated to judge in this regard. What do you see first, the content or the medium? I am going to use some of my own work as an example of this problem. In 1988 I started using an authoring program called Mandala to do interactive computer/video installations. An authoring program allows the user to "author", to create all the graphics and sounds, where and when any interaction will occur and what will happen when it does. However, the user does not have to write any of the low level code to enable these capabilities.

With Mandala, a video camera and a video digitizing board in my computer I can create an interactive installation in which the participants see themselves or silhouettes of themselves on a monitor with the graphics I have created. When their images touch icons I have made, different events that I have set up can occur, like sounds or changes in the graphics. To give you an example of this, let's look at some video documentation of a piece called the "Town of Doubt". This was shot at my installation at Images du Future in Montreal in 1992.

show "Town of Doubt"

I have liked working with Mandala for several reasons. Firstly, there is a real split presence for the participants. They are standing there in their bodies, but their images on the screen have the power to change things. You can't get it from the video, but there is a real hit, a real feedback when you move your arm in the air and your image causes something to change on the screen. It's like the satisfaction you get when you hit a tennis ball with your racquet.

Secondly, I feel that Mandala participants are experiencing in a physical way their situation in society. You can think of their images on the screen as their virtual bodies. And as Margaret Morse has said, today we all have a virtual body which exists in the computers of health insurance companies, the IRS, banks, credit rating services and other institutions. There are industries growing up to help us take care of our virtual bodies, the health of which can directly impact our physical body and health.

So I created "Town of Doubt" in 1990. A cartoon town, a simple town from the past that Reagan or Bush would approve of. But, because it was now in the modern world, not in the past, it could only exist in ambiguous terms and have place names like Ambivalence Parkway, the house of Qualms, Hesitation Pier, Ambiguity Avenue.

But it began to disturb me that people always used their bodies in the same ways, no matter what installation I was showing. And they seemed as interested in playing with their images on the screen as in exploring the content of the work. I'll show another example of this. Here is an installation called "World in Image", that was shown at the Bedford Gallery in Walnut Creek last November and December.

show "World in Image"

Notice the arm movements. Here's a variation.

So were these two pieces collaborations, unacknowledged by me, between the makers of Mandala and myself? After much thought, I think yes. The content I added did not overwhelm the technology. So, I've changed what I do. In a minute I'll show what, for me, is a much more exciting way to work with Mandala.

Interactivity

But first I want to talk briefly about interactivity. Do we know what interactivity is, or what we want from an interactive piece? What is the goal we're striving for in an interactive situation. Is human conversation the highest form of interactivity or is there something beyond even that?

I think most people working with interactivity today would agree that we don't have real interaction between a computer and a human yet. It's more truly just responsiveness or mutual reaction. You can give the computer orders, or pit your response time against a finite set of graphic events in a game. In the CD-ROM I showed earlier, you can set your own pace, choose which topics you want to look at and in what order. But there is a pre- determined, limited number of topics. You, or the computer and you together, cannot add to the list. This is completely true of Mandala installations as well.

What we want and are working for really is artificial life. We want the computer to pass the Turing Test. We want it to surprise us.

Currently, I am working on two projects. One is a CD-ROM science fiction narrative about artificial life. I am not going to have the interaction consist of choosing preset endings or paths through the narrative. Instead I have chosen the situation such that the participant can step into the role of one of the characters from time to time and do what they are doing directly on the computer instead of just being told about it.

My other project is an interactive sound installation using Mandala in a different way. I have taken away the visual component altogether. People can no longer see themselves. There is no more split presence. I did kind of a test installation at the Seybold Convention in the Moscone Center last fall. It's called "Seduction", named for the seduction of the computer. People enter an empty room. Their movements in space trigger sounds of supposedly the computer reacting to them. Here's a short tape of it.

show "Seduction" at Seybold

With this installation, for me, space becomes almost viscous. Here's another example of what I'm talking about with "Seduction." This is a test tape of the work in progress, but I think it will give you a good idea of the properties of space in this installation.

show test of "Seduction"

End of talk.

Marjorie
marjor@well.sf.ca.us

Impact Speakers Main Menu