A Hopeless Task?
Interactivity once was a useful term for distinguishing art that has been influenced and shaped by a media-saturated and computerized contemporary world from painting and sculpture. However, as Marjorie Franklin said in interview, now interactivity means too many things. It does not comprise a genre or even many genres of art. Rather, it identifies a mode of engagement between ourselves and machines--usually but not necessarily involving communicating with a computer--that finds expression over a wide range of forms and techniques. It is expressed not only in art, but ubiquitously in every sphere of contemporary life where chips reside, from automatic tellers and garage door openers to computers that access discs, CD-ROMs and the World Wide Web. Even traditional art forms are now displayed and presented "interactively" in ways that address the gallery visitor via audio or computer, offering information at the visitor's own pace at the click of a button. Adding further to the confusion, the critical discourse on "interactivity" is ideologically loaded, even schizophrenic in its tension between pejorative connotations and utopian values and expectations. Received notions extend polarized, normative criteria for evaluating interactive art to the critic even before we as a culture are quite sure what possibilities, functions and aesthetics could be or have been realized in such work--or, for that matter, not realized.
We have to go back in time to a fundamental break in culture that occurred in the late 1960's and the 1970's to see interactivity as a cultural novum. An egalitarian impetus opposed one-way and hierarchical relations in society at large. In the arts, the proscenium between performers and the public was lowered, sculptures descended to floor level and images exited the frame and entered into everyday life. In conceptual, pop, performance, body and video art, artists explored the ephemeral and shifting experience of the here-and-now. With the goal of vacating their privileged relation as authors and creators, artists invited spectators to become participants in art events, from happenings to closed-circuit and recorded video installations. The liberatory associations of interactivity with mutuality and reciprocity owe much to the presentational and participatory arts of this era. This was also a period of struggle by women and minorities for entry into and validation by the art world. …[section deleted]
Defining Interactivity Nevertheless
Reception theory tells us that the reader of a novel and the theater or film goer have always cognitively "interacted" with the text by filling in the gaps. Audience studies tell us how fans of mass culture print, sound recordings, television and radio have actively received, revised and extended texts, without, however, changing the text itself in real time. However, the interactive user/viewer corporeally influences the body of a digital text itself--that is, a database of information and its manifestation as display of symbols --in real time.
Inter - from the Latin for "among," suggests a linking or meshing function that connects separate entities. Unlike intra- , a prefix for connections or links within the same entity, inter- joins what is other or different together. That liaison between mind, body and machine, between the physical world and the other virtual scene requires a translator or interface, most often hardware that includes a keyboard (or, for instance, a motion-sensor or other tracking device), a monitor, and a controller such as a mouse, as well as software programming. One interacts by touching, moving, speaking, gesturing or another corporeal means of producing a sign that can be read and transformed into input by a computer.
The common graphical user-interface (GUI) or screen display of icons or graphical symbols and menus of commands, conventionally organized by the prosaic "desk-top" metaphor, is also, confusing enough, often known as the "interface." The communication links between hardware and software and between the user and the computer compose a layered, complex site of exchange that is virtual as well as physical in multiple dimensions. The symbols to be manipulated may be text and/or graphics, images and audio on a screen (aka "multi-media" on CD-ROM or DVD, i.e. digital video disk, or on the internet or World Wide Web), in an installation or in a fully-immersive virtual reality or, with distributed computing, may even consist of "wired" or computer-controlled objects in physical space. Thus, interaction occurs across an interface or cybernetic frontier between the physical and conceptual, between the human body and the machine, and between bio-technology and communications.
One vision of interactivity considers it largely as a tool for getting "into" the other scene presented on screen or projected elsewhere. Conceived in this way, the interface and interactivity itself may be seen as an obstacle or a barrier to "immersion," a concept that conveys the state of being totally inside a created world both virtually and emotionally, in a way comparable to a novelistic or cinematic fiction--but, by implication, to a far greater degree. The wish to design an interface that is transparent and an interaction that is "intuitive" or that demands little awareness of a user is often expressed in industrial quarters, as well as by makers of fictional texts and scenes, who aim at immersive involvement.
However, there is a problem in achieving such aims of immediacy, since interactivity is a level of expression that is not likely to be wished away from conscious awareness. Rather than presenting a story that seems to tell itself or a world that arises of itself, by definition interactivity involves decision-making or the active participation of a user. (Even the direct computer-brain thought connection of cyberpunk fantasy would need some way of translating choice-making activity.) However, awareness of mediation and its sensory material of expression does not necessarily preclude sinking into fantasy. As in the spheres of poetry and the day dream, there is a middle realm between the capacity for regression into a world of imagination and the waking capacity to select and create such a world out of metaphor.
Participation as an activity is not, however, dependent on technology; it is rather an historical elaboration and transmutation of dialogic modes of encounter, the archetype of which is face-to-face conversation. Now, however, one "interfaces" or communicates by means of a computer-mediated simulation. To inter- act is a kind of doing that entails purposiveness, conclusiveness and agency--qualities that, namely, point to a subject. One might assume that the humans involved in the roles as author/designer/programmer and user are the subjects of interactivity and the machine in its various technological configurations is their medium. Indeed, the capacity to involve the receiver/user in the process of, if not creation, at least second order selection and linking or assembling of elements displayed on-screen is precisely what differentiates interactive fiction and art from the passive readers and viewers of traditional cultural forms that espouse a one-sided notion of authorship. The capacity to accomodate multiple and non-linear links between elements in narration and the potentially more egalitarian or dialogic relation between artists and their audiences is what the utopian claims for interactivity as a liberatory and non- hierarchical praxis are based.
However, the computer cannot be reduced to a medium of communication between human subjects. Its very capacity to give feedback and the immediacy of its response lends what is a computational tool the quality of person. This responsiveness allows it and the virtual entities it displays to pose or function as subjects--however partial, quasi, imaginary and virtual--involved in the interactive exchange. The degree of influence and control of the interactor varies by design from an immediate one-to-one response to greater complexities, delays and permutations. Interactivity may even initiate a process that grows out of the user's control into the relative autonomy of "agents" and "artificial life." From the beeps and clicks that acknowledge our touch to its capacity to mirror the user like a second self, the computer can also function like an exteriorized mind. The "interface" is then a very special mirror that not only reflects but acts on and generates the symbols that we virtually encounter, enter and/or process.
In answer to my interview question, what is interactivity? Lynn Hershman alluded to the anthropomorphic connotations that surround the term as part of a larger sphere of biological metaphors that structure our relations with machines, especially the computer--however hard we may try to evade them. Qualities of "liveness" or instantaneous responsiveness and the appearance of autonomy and purposive motion support a biological interpretation of computer events, just as the language and symbol manipulating and generating capacities of the computer seem to offer the computer itself as a hazy subject and container for mind that is partly us, partly other people, partly alien machine. Thus, the interface is the consummate arena for exploration and play with the enigmas of persona--including gender--and the mysteries of life and death.
In the 1980's, a well-known model of degrees of interactivity (associated with the laser-disk player) identified three levels: minimal interaction comparable to that of a remote control for television; second, the user has a choice among a set of preestablished narrative outcomes; third, the user may alter the final form of the art work. This ability to change the subject or the alter the rules is a feature of intersubjectivity or a dialogic relation. Intuitively, we reserve this capacity for human to human interaction. Perhaps for this reason, a distinction between the "interactivity" of hypertext/hypermedia/multimedia, especially on the hard-disk, storage medium of CD-ROM and DVD, and the "connectivity" of the internet and the World Wide Web has arisen. In the first instance, our interactive partner/machine presents what is ultimately a closed body of information, albeit one that can be accessed in non-linear order; in the second instance, we tend to envision our partners as human parties who exchange e-mail, chat, MUD or MOO with us, design personal web-pages and the like in ways that are open-ended and subject to change. To paraphrase Julia Scher, the space of the web is enormous, beginning in the entrails or interiority of the computer user and extending out into a virtual universe that is expanding geometrically.
However, hard, binary distinctions between human/ non-human and open/closed do not bear close scrutiny. The anonymous relation between the user and machine enabled by an interface allows humans, agents, bots and simulations of humans to interact in computer-supported exchange with each other as virtual subjects, be it on the internet or web, or for that matter, via teleconferencing systems or satellite. Furthermore, blended forms such as the "interrom" (the Muntadas Media-architecture CD-ROM/web link produced by Anne-Marie Duguet ) or hybrid forms composed of interlocking media (e.g. Branda Miller's Witness to the Future: A Call For Environmental Action) are more and more common, suggesting that the boundaries between hard and soft are fluid. More fundamentally, one may question the "openness" of sites on the Web, when "visiting" means triggering an increment on the counter of visitors and possibly entering one's credit card number, but in any case, leaving a data trail of one's choices or "cookies" behind that can used as consumer research (i.e. "data mining"). As I stated elsewhere, "Ongoing surveillance by machines is then a corollary of the feedback of data from interaction with machines." (Virtualities , p.7)
What, indeed, does "openness" mean? Consider that while interactivity allows associative rather than linear and causal links to be made between heterogeneous elements, these associations are themselves part of a symbolic system that is not made up of endless possibilities but of historically and ideologically produced constraints. While I have distinguished intersubjectivity from interactivity, (Virtualities, p.22), in truth they are not so easily identified as a set of fixed oppositions nor are they that easily separated in the psyche. In any case, the relation between the machines/humans in question is virtual, as is the muddle of subjectivities involved.
The theorist Jeanne Randolph has proposed that the primary ideological assumption about technology is that it should work. No wonder the term "interactivity" presupposes a fait accompli--that links in network of connections have been successfully made. However, unintentional failures of interactive hardware and software and of the humans that design and employ them occur at every level of cybersociety from AT&T down to the artists who toil, often collaboratively, as pioneers in labor intensive new media. The term interactivity thus refers to a state that is after or incognizant of painful effort and myriad unsuccessful, broken and invalid connections and attempts to interact that simply don't work.
The result of an interaction is a change of state or condition, in this case, that of connecting--but up to what and to what end? The answer is not yet entirely in sight, since interactivity is a feature of a great societal and cultural transformation in progress, and, as Julia Scher said in interview, "the directory is not complete." …[end of introduction]