Speaking With The Other
by Simon Biggs, January 1994

Originally published 1994 in Ex Orient Lux (ed. Calin Dan), ArtA, Bucharest, Romania,
and 1994 in European Media Art Festival Catalogue, Osnabruck, Germany.

Significant material has been written over the past ten years about the emergence and impact of new interactive technologies such as virtual reality and hypermedia. However, surprisingly little has been written from the viewpoint of the artist, and why that artist may wish to work with interactive media. Much of what has been written tends to be uncritical, or when it has been critical has focused more on general cultural questions such as the morality of virtual sex or the impact on community of the personalising character of interactive media (computer games or me-TV).

Although these are important cultural issues, which are accepted as of concern to all those with an interest in the future directions of contemporary culture, the distinct intention here is to open up and discuss some of the specific issues raised by interactive media for the artist who has chosen to work in such an area or whom may be moving in that direction. Whilst some of the above and related issues will be touched upon, this will only be in passing, as the objective here is not to place technology and media relative to cultural formation, but to focus on the implications of these media for the working artist.

There are obvious and somewhat less obvious characteristics associated with interactive technologies and related media. Elsewhere some of these have been covered in depth, various others hyped and several virtually ignored. Beginning with the more obvious some of these will now be covered, not with the intention of moving towards or arriving at a theory of interactive media but in an attempt to open up what is a complex and largely unexplored territory so as to enhance further practice and establish some possible orientation.

Much has been said about how the development of interactive media has brought into question the relationships between the author and the reader, between production and consumption, and how this allows for a new approach to the art making and consuming process. Discussion here has on occasion been extrapolated to encompass far larger subjects such as primary political theory (for example, the impact of this technology, within post-Industrial patterns of production/consumption, on Marxist thought). Without wishing to pursue the subject so far it is important to establish something of a theoretical context for what will follow.

Significantly, much of the discussion on new technologies and their impact on cultural processes of production/consumption has largely derived its references from the work of certain post-Structuralist theoreticians (particularly that of Jacques Derrida). Due to the innate characteristics of interactive media its emergence has revived many of the issues that Derrida and others dealt with during the 1970s (Mark Posters The Mode of Information, Polity Press 1990 is a good introduction to the primary issues and personalities involved). Any discussion of the implications of interactive media needs to take these concerns into consideration, as many of the more subtle and obscure questions that can emerge take their initial impetus from them.

In that aspect of his work which is particularly relevant to interactive cultural artifacts Derridas basic argument proposes that the notion of the author has become deeply problematic (and perhaps has always been so). Derrida argues that the process of reading (consuming) a text (here anything can be regarded as a text) is just as creative an act and just as important in the formation of a text as the process of writing (producing) it. It is proposed that each of these roles of the Self relative to the text (reader/writer) are culturally proscribed and equally important to the cultural existence of a text, and thus the formation of its meaning.

The popular interpretation of this argument has been distilled into the declaration the author is dead!, which immediately conjures the rejoinder long live the author!. This new author was seen to have abandoned the Modernist ideology of individualism, as represented in the supremacy of an individual expression and vision of the world, and replaced it with a Self-definition that was far more ambivalent. This new author is seen to exist as an equation or set of propositions where the components of its formation are an amalgam of many parts; where the notion author subsumes other concepts (such as reader) which once stood in definitional opposition to it and where the two sides of the equation thus function to cancel one another out. As such, authorship becomes diffused around the text rather than embodied in the act of writing, such that anyone or anything that can be seen to have a relationship with the work is regarded as having some authorial position relative to it.

In reality the issues are less clear than as expressed in theory.

These questions around authorship were revived with the development of the new interactive technologies, in particular with the emergence of hypermedia, and their penetration of the cultural production industries (the arts). For want of a definition Hypermedia is a multi-dimensional environment (generally a dynamic software environment on top of a computer platform) where anyone can be explicitly either reader or writer. That is, when writing a hypertext the author is acutely aware that anyone else encountering it will be able to add to, delete or alter any part of the text; that the reader is therefore to a greater or lesser extent a co-author, and that the process of reading leaves a trace (resembling that of the wake of a large ship) upon an unfixed and open work. Similarly, the reader of a hypertext is also aware that its authorship is diffused and uncertain and that the authorial voice of the artifact is plural, communal and de-centred.

Whilst all this is expicitly true of hypermedia these basic issues echo through virtually all forms of interactive media, whether it is me-TV (interactive and user programmable television), Virtual Reality, interactive environments or on-line data systems. For the artist working in such areas these issues are paramount, and if they are to successfully employ such technologies in their work the artist needs to address them explicitly and consider their own position relative to notions of authorship. Whichever way the artist may choose to go, whether affirming or negating the value of the individual voice in this environment of many voices, perhaps the most valuable asset to be gained here is the manner in which traditional notions of authorship and production, reading and consumption are disrupted or suspended, allowing space for both the analysis and formation of new definitions and relationships. Ultimately this instability can potentially facilitate a more fundamentally creative approach to artifacture as a cultural process.

Aside from possiblities for new approaches arising from unclear authorial definition another is the manner in which unexpected and unforeseen conjunctions of material can occur through the active intervention of the viewer. In works where the various elements can be re-arranged or synthesized a-new by reader/writers there is enormous potential for the unexpected; where the ultimately limited imagination and foresight of the artist can be transcended through secondary authoring by the viewer. In such work the tapestry of possible meanings can be expanded, enriching the character of the artifact and demanding of the viewer an active role that will take them deeper within the work. Aside from theoretical questions about the value and place of authorship such strategies can simply function to heighten and enhance the experience of a work, enveloping the viewer in the hyper-reality of the imaginative space of a piece.

Virtual Reality depends for its impact on this and the fact that it is a total experience for the viewer. Total, as the viewer is completely sensorially imersed within a work where its component parts can respond to the viewers actions. This further enhances the sensation of (hyper)reality, leading to the probable collapse of distinctions between the experientially real and the representational.

This last characteristic has catalysed much of the debate around Virtual Reality and related media (in truth, Virtual Reality is less a medium and more a collection of media operating together) and closed arguments down to various moral questions regarding the technologically mediated. If such questions are left to one side it is apparent that an exciting possiblity exists for artists to produce works of great power that have the capacity to get inside the viewer as opposed to the obvious potential for placing the viewer inside the work.

It is with issues beyond this point, which deal with the psycho-socio-aesthetic implications of interactive or immersive media, that the more subtle issues and their potential for the artist come to light.

The creation of a certain relationship between viewer and subject is typically central to the artists strategies. That is, the artist is always seeking methods and means to establish a psychological relationship between the viewer and the work that can envelope the viewer in another way of seeing, another way of being. Both the artist and the viewer are seeking the transcendental, where they are transported to another condition. The viewer searches for this in the experience of the work, whilst the artist in turn seeks to go beyond themselves in considering the position of the Other (the imagined viewer or subject). The subject of the work is the nexus around which this process (and the viewer) revolve.

With interactivity the nature of the subjects fluidity is enhanced. To a significant extent the subject becomes the viewer, as the artist has to establish from the outset of a project how the viewer will be treated or dealt with as an active (and activating) component of the work. When initiating an interactive work one of the artists first thoughts is likely to be what will the viewer be likely to do?. This is not so dissimilar to the question faced by the artist using more traditional media, who is the viewer likely to be?, however the first question does not function to disqualify the latter but rather to subsume it. So, whilst for any artist the subject is more or less the viewer, for the artist using interactive media it is more explicitly the case, and therefore that much more evident to the viewers own conciousness. In interactive work there is a tendency for the viewer to consciously contemplate themselves as subject, for the universe they are experiencing is centred upon them as active individuals.

In a sense, and perhaps abusing carefully figured ideas, the notion of the active viewer/subject suggests the distinction between Descartes and Nietsches approaches to the definition or delimitation of Self. Descarte figured that the Self is because it can contemplate itself whilst Nietsche felt that self-awareness can only occur where that contemplation is oriented towards a subject more material than simple beingness. For Nietsche it is the action of Self upon not-Self that is the mirror in which Self can identify itself. As such, the Self can only exist in and of the world, and only discover itself in this dynamic relationship. This relationship appears to reflect that mentioned above. Similarly, this can be seen as related to Heideggers reflections upon the thinginess of things thinging, that a thing can only be said to come in to being when it acts upon things and is acted upon by things. It is the patterns of action, rather than those of pure thought or archetypes as some product of idealised passive contemplation, that define the relations between things, and therefore those things themselves.

The point here is not to undertake a discussion on the metaphysics of being, but rather to point out that interactive media can be used, in fact in their characteristics encourage, consideration of questions about identity and the relationships between individuals and that which is Other. It is the nature of this technology to affirm a world-view where things are seen as interdependent, interacting and taking their meaning from these relations. Although it is doubtful whether a particular technology can prove or disprove a particular philosophical conjecture about such nebulous issues as the nature of being, certainly it may suggest a focusing upon and opening up of such questions which can be of enormous interest and value to the artist who concerns themselves with the ontological.

Interactive immersive environments bring a number of primary components into play where the nature and identity of each is called into question. The viewer, the artist, the subject, the medium and the site are all actively engaged in an explicit interaction. The explicit character of this interaction makes the interplay of dynamics and shifting of definitions the work itself. Without the active participation of each of these players the theatre (without wishing to suggest the artform of theatre as a useful precedent in the analysis of interactive art) of the work never comes into existence. It remains as static and fixed as a sculpture or photograph. Only through interaction does the work come into being.

Such work begs as its subject the nature of identity as something addressed through the extrapolation of relationshps that are never quite as they seem. On the surface this may lead to results that appear surreal in the conjunctions arising from such discontinuity, however this is not the intention but rather the address of a discontinuous ontology. The impossible focus is that infinitely thin moment where we hope to find in the trace of our (inter)actions that which we are. Nevertheless, we are certainly more than that moment, and at least as much as the sum of all such moments that have been experienced. Therefore are we (as Nietsche would suggest) whom we think we are. Are we singular or plural, unitary or fragmentary. As we exist in time (in the action and the interaction of things) we form ourselves like beads on a string, a plurality of identities and selves, often in conflict and immersed in contradicitions.

These beads we regard as our memories and hope that they will bind us together as a mirror which can assure us of more than a momentary (memoryless) existence. However, our memories function to do the opposite, creating dynamics that move in numerous directions, forcing ourselves into strange shapes that cannot be sustained; which ultimately fragment as if quicksilver.

In an attempt to halt this process we invent fictions and myths around our identity which affirm its totality and wholeness (although it is interesting to note other cultures where the emphasis has been on the metamorphic Self, as in Greek, Roman and Indian mythology). We edit and form our memories and assign value to our relations with things such that these fictions are made to seem as fact. We idealise those that appear to have it all together; we invent demi-Gods, super-stars and ideologues whom we can model ourselves on in the hope that some of their internal unity will rub off on us, not realising that these figures are simplified fictions of what it is to be human. In a sense interactive media encourages the artist to celebrate the fragmentation of Self and its ultimate impossibility in the hope that here will be found the transcedence desired.

In talking of the fragmentation of the Self it is not clear here whether the subject under discussion is the artist (searching? expressing(sic)) or the viewer (doing whatever viewers do - probably the same as the artist). This is intentional. Furthermore, this fragmentation, which is as true for the artist as for the viewer, is also the case for the medium (functioning in part as mirror, the frame within which the fragmentation occurs) and for the site.

We expect architecture to be relatively fixed. Buildings are regarded as more or less permanent, especially when seen beside other cultural artifacts. We gain a sense of certainty from architecture, the older and more symbolic (for example, a Gothic Cathedral) the better. The fact that architecture is as fluid and fragmentary in its existence as a paper-back novel remains happily unobserved. The largest and most enduring signs of our action upon the world clothes us in a sense of security, speaking of our own permanence and monumentality, the city a web of certainty mapped onto a motile and chaotic landscape (nature).

When that architecture is subsumed into the interactive, the hallucinatory, the fragmentary then the Self that experiences it does so as more than simply an interaction between themselves and the projected virtual reality. It is also experienced as the disruption of many of the values we place upon the architectural site, that which we see as a primary sign of reality. The certainty we felt that something was always as we believed it to be is replaced by the vertiginuous sensation that in fact it may be another. The intention here is less to produce the fear or thrill of the Horror film (although Horror is interesting for many of the same reasons, as is any work that transgresses) but to again bring about a condition where the Self is immersed in its own uncertainty and impossibility.

The carefully manufactuered certainty of the city web is replaced by the temporally heterogeneous uncertainty of the World Wide Web.

Perhaps the long term goal or ultimate implication of such a project is to extrapolate the idea of the death of the author to that of the cessation of the reader - in a sense, the dissolution of the Self as a singular identity altogether. To suggest a Self that does not subsume previous notions of identity, but rather evades its own certainty and embraces its fluidity and lack of definition.

Evoking the (proto hypermedia) work of Alain Robbe-Grillet. In his autobiography Ghosts in the Mirror he states (and then rejects):

...the notion of the author belongs to a reactionary discourse...the work of the writer is, on the contrary, anonymous: merely a matter of combinations which could, at a pinch, be left to a machine..
Robbe-Grillet may be searching in his ambivalent fashion not only for a new definition of the author (for in the end this would a very limited and rather bourgoise ambition) but for a total re-invention of what it is to be human (a truly revolutionary objective).