Theatre of the Invisible: Situating New Media Experience

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Presentation Title:

  • Theatre of the Invisible: Situating New Media Experience




  • When Brenda Laurel introduced her theoretical argument about computers as theatre in the late 1980s, it was a time when CD-ROM based multimedia was the center of attention in the contemporary field of new media. What makes her contribution remarkable in retrospect is that it is from that book, Computers as Theatre, onwards that interactivity is increasingly described as an experience, and not merely as a way to control a computer based system. Laurel put forward the notion of the computer screen being a representation and not a literal mimetic image of data objects, which in turn meant that since there are multiple interpretations involved, the computer medium is an expressive, artistic medium.

    Obviously many people had considered computers as creative media before, Jasia Reichardt wrote in the introduction to Cybernetic Serendipity, the computer and the arts (exhibition at ICA, London in 1968) how not only do computers and new media in general alter the shape of art, but involve into creative activity from fields where this was not common, like engineers, who “… have started to make drawings which bear no practical application, and for which the only real motives are the desire to explore, and the sheer pleasure of seeing a drawing materialize”. There are a number of developments that tangentially evolve from the above “beginnings” that inform the conceptual background of ISEA2004. Laurel’s position marks a radical shift in the cultural theorization of new media. Reichardt on the other hands pinpoints a tradition that is not developed through computers: that of practice based research, which requires exploration without a clear teleological reason. It is not surprising that artists who at the time of creation are least sure of the outcome of the process have turned out to be most successful. This has been pointed out by empirical studies on creativity (early work by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi).

    In the field of science and engineering tinkering and blue skies research is inseparable of innovations – we all know this – but it is mistakenly considered to be a privileged characteristic of artists. I will discuss here ISEA2004 themes via a less physical conceptual apparatus that I’d coin the Theatre of the Invisible. This apparatus would combine several aspects of ideas by researchers and artists to try to comprehend, both historically and in its contemporary sense, what constitutes the environment in which new media are experienced, and how this relates to the themes in ISEA2004.
    During history, physics and medicine have influenced the very perception of our bodies and the way that a primary physical experience is “made sensible”. For example, in the early industrial era the body was represented as both an engine and as a clockwork system (Descartes). In contemporary perception of the body, it is increasingly becoming quantified and traceable. The “bit body” goes back to theories of information, where the body is represented through neurons that communicated with one another, a system of information. Warren McCulloch and Ralph Pitts demonstrated with their theory of neurons how a neural net could calculate any number that a Turing machine can. This, according to Kathryn Hayles, -joined a model of human neural functioning with automata theory”. The cultural perception of digitality of today is comparable to the secrets of the early automata machines that excited many generations in the 17th and 18th centuries. As a technology, a digital computer and digital networks follow rather simple logics, but the Deus et machina nature of the invisibility of their action makes them into ideal contemporary mythic objects and machineries.

    Early automata were according to Jean-Claude Beaune regarded as timeless due to their hidden, mechanical myth. The machines were to imitate human actions or to reproduce the -course of the world’. The digital automatons, personal computers and the “drama of interactivity” are like a classical automata turned inward, and the World Wide Web is often talked about as an imitation of the course of the world. Erkki Huhtamo points out accurately, that automation is not the opposite of interactivity, but its precondition. If a doll pouring a cup of tea was automated with wooden clockworks, then binary processes and algorithms, boxed as computers, have automated the feedback that a user receives to the actions done by an input device such as a mouse. Norbert Wiener has been quoted saying that “to live effectively, is to live with adequate information.” And further. “In my thesis that the physical functioning of the living individual and the operation of some of the new communications machines are precisely parallel in their analogous attempts to control entropy through feedback.

    Wireless experience

    Wireless networks and the client devices form a combination of an imagined cybernetic entropy and a personalized automaton; in popular discourse it is common to say that one is either on or off the network and any disturbances in seamless networking are immediately reacted upon. Also on a daily basis this comment comes along: see how it works? The marvel of networked mobile telephony is not due to the fact that one can speak to one another or that one can send messages in text format. The marvel is constructed through the invisibility of transfer and the mobility of the point of transmission and reception. The massive electro-mechanical infrastructure that sustains the services goes unseen. Classical stage theatre has precisely this effect: the suspension of disbelief is broken immediately if a mechanical swan passing in mid-air across the stage gets stuck. The marvels of mobility are wearing thinner day from day; unless it becomes “new” again.
    The work that many creative and critical practitioners are doing in the contemporary wireless “field” is to make the physicality of the networks visible through hacking, transcoding data streams into sound, through mapping the positions and actions of individuals. These exercises also address issues of networks and power (not talking electricity here…). Furthermore, when taking as a starting point that mobile telephony, and more so also Wireless computing are becoming commonplace, a key issue is how can one enhance the social and cultural uses of them? What does your mobile enable you to do – and experience differently? One aspect that ISEA2004 artists and speakers remind us is that wireless networks are ultimately radio networks. The history of digital computing and telephony is very “connected”; Claude Shannon mimicked the basic principle of a telephone operator switchboard when he imagined a digital system with binary mathematics. How ironic is that? However, these digital underpinnings have very little to do with the actual experience of using any digital device. The issue is more about the socially, contextually aware and content wise relevant designs.

    On a more pragmatic level in relation to contemporary mobile research and practice, one of the goals of ISEA2004 is to introduce practice driven research with the theoretical and invite people from the technology and culture industries to consider how the user culture driven discourse could benefit what is being produced next. Here, if one is interested in the impact of mobile telephony regarding politics of the public space and access to information, one has to be able to create dialogue between the social and cultural innovators, the industry, and the policy makers. To this end, m-cult, the Arts Council of Finland and The International Federation of Arts Councils and Cultural Agencies organize an expert meeting towards the end of ISEA2004 attempting to develop policy. Issues around sustainable translocal and networked initiatives are central to the agenda.

    Critical Interaction Design

    As briefly demonstrated, the histories of interactivity and digital systems run parallel up till the 1990s. The engineering culture’s perception of the end user has slowly changed to understand the multi-layeredness of the position, but the user still, largely, remains without “a lived identity”. Critical interaction design addresses a cross roads of cultural and media studies meeting system design and computer science. One has to also take into account that humanities are not trained into complex systems, nor are engineers trained to research complex humans. On a fundamental level, understanding interactivity is an interdisciplinary task. In the 1990s interface design the use of metaphor occupied a central aspect of interaction design research. The challenge already laid out by Nicholas Negroponte’s MIT team when building one of the early desktop interfaces was that of “ars memorabilia” art of memory, connecting images, memories and locations. How to connect the currently visible with the invisible, and how to make the latter available, known?

    In his book, Where the Action Is, Paul Dourish (also part of ISEA2004 International Programme Committee) suggests that traditional Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) models are no longer capable of understanding interaction between humans and computers. Whereas the traditional models used to comprehend the world in terms of plans, procedures, tasks and goals, the contemporary HCI looks at interaction “not only as whatis being done, but also as howit is being done. Interaction is the means by which work is accomplished, dynamically and in context”. His point about “where the action is” refers firstly to the development of visual interfaces for information management, secondly to physical devices that penetrate our everyday lives and thirdly to the networked, social nature of computer interfaces. In other words, when designing soft and hard interfaces one should be addressing both social and tangible computing, and consider interaction as a situated action. The becoming invisible, ubiquitous in this context, is very central to the Wearable Experience.

    A good example of social computing is the ways in which the fastest growing new media industry, production of games, is changing its design processes. The game users are incorporated into the development of games in ways that go far beyond traditional software development models. Walt Scacchi from the University of Irvine has looked at Free/Open Source (F/OSS) development practices in relation to games production. Game users are increasingly becoming developers though F/OSS development, which “is inherently a complex web of socio-technical processes, development situations, and dynamically emerging development contexts”. The traditional software design life cycles and prescriptive standards are radically challenged. The users of software driven products (games) and their user culture (game playing) are at the heart of the design process.

    The iterations in this design process are based on user experiences in their every day life contexts rather than in the sterile environments of usability laboratories. In other words, the design practice is intimately tied with the process of user experience being mediated amongst the users and back to the design team that started the process. My own research over the Last years has focused on the theme situated user experience. In that work I am making further arguments that interactive media involve radically new aesthetic and embodied ways for constructing, networking, experiencing and living with new media objects; and that there cannot be a unified concept of interactivity and use.

    One of the arguments against a too visually oriented interaction design nowadays has to do with the fact that it is often the metadata structures that one needs to understand and envision, without actually seeing them. In some peculiar ways, the classic perspective drawing could be here understood as the user’s need to be able to imaginatively project into the semantic vector “space” to understand the complexity of the information and thus be able to be an empowered user. No wonder systems like Google are popular: most users are not keen to see beyond the visual interface. The other side of the coin, the database panopticon that I refer to in the introduction, is a key motivation why many artists and researchers invest their time to make these vectors of power visible.

    Cultural uses of interactive media have been very sensitive in trying not to oversimplify the “user politics”. The very word use is a problem here, as engagement, intervention, participation often describe better the ways in which individuals are positioned in front of a cultural interactive environment. The confusion is often precisely that; as most of us have been trained by either IBM, Apple or Nintendo where the command and retrieve, play and proceed are often the modes one is accustomed to, when encountering another type of interface, it takes time to feel one’s way around it. This is perhaps one of the aspects why Kiasma felt the need to translate Wireless experience into Coded experience in Finnish (plus wireless experience literally in Finnish means to experience without wires). Large software companies are also alien to ideas of designing media for particular user groups. Work by the group Mongrel and media centres deWaag and Sarai are good examples of the culturally and politically driven design so vital for the Information society to become a cultural and social one.

    Critical interaction design does not aim to kill a friendly interface, it may beat it up a little (deconstruction), but reassembled, the smiley takes on another meaning. Open Source and Software as Culture The technical discourse, gadget talk, is not only often limiting because of literacy but it also reflects gender politics of software production sociabilities. Linus Torvalds, for example, has expressed that unfortunately many hackers are men — and yes, he says, there are those computer users who prefer to look at the pretty pictures on the web. In as much as the open source software is a cultural and social phenomenon very much in need of analysis, it seems to have a somehow holy position in both new media cultural and technological scenes. What is particularly striking is how alike the person myths of software are to those of traditional arts; Leonardo complex revisited. In OS discourse the very visibility of the code and technical layers makes it less accessible to many. This is not to say that openness is not what should be done; but what is definitely needed are more public librarians to provide contextually meaningful access to the important and vast amount of work done as open source.

    At ISEA2004 it has been a point not to debate politics of different licenses, as so many events end up in debate loops around free software. We wanted to emphasize the “and software as culture” aspect: that both open source and proprietary software need to be looked at as cultural artifacts and as social, economical processes. In this attempt, making the materialities and different power structures visible in both areas is a promising start to overcome dichotomies.

    Another debate to take on is to look at the Software art movement, the next brand after Net art. To which degree have these debates and practices overcome the ivory towering effects of avant-garding? It namely seems that a majority of work in this area has returned to the techno formalist and perhaps fetishist, modernist avenues: code for code’s sake. Like the engine parts, the software bits and particles are another momentum of marginal micro wonder. Even with this sarcasm I find that within software art, there is an enormous potential for doing precisely what ISEA2004 aims for: addressing software as culture.

    Interfacing Sound

    Who do you hang out with? Where do you go in the evenings? Remember what we talked about at the bar … was it the SEA conference in Chicago in 1997? It is so often that the most constructive ideas arise in dialogue, and the very format of conferences and symposia go against that vitality. In the series of Polar Circuit workshops in the late 1990s I wanted to put aside the “representational” aspect of events, and create an environment where the new media circus can be more quiet, to have people work, dine, walk, and watch the midnight sun together. The less money for production, the less pressure to provide tangible results: nonteleologics result in new discoveries. With these ideas in mind, I wanted to create a floating platform to ISE42004, which would offer a primary space for such interaction. And a great party! Collaboration with Koneisto and MUTEA in particular, as well as partnership with FLOW04 festival are all attempts to bridge groups of practitioners and audiences who might not meet otherwise. And to enjoy the richest imaginable setting of electronic music and sound art ever before presented in the context of one event.

    The ISEA2004 CRUISE provides a further took into how sound is interfaced with various phenomena; the archipelago, peer to peer music sharing traffic, bottom of the sea, constellation of the stars, and the crackling sound .of Aurora Borealis. Many projects at ISEA2004 ask the question what is sound and how is it generated? This will feed into new types of expression within different music genres. How are the situations formed where individuals or groups encounter not only music, but also the sonic experience where sounds are in context?

    ISEA2004 CRUISE is a nomadic experience Laboratory, a site for networking and, welt, eating and drinking. This means making the invisible hidden moments of events more visible. Does it destroy the intimacy? Why do I get the feeling this should not be pronounced so loud? I want to insist however, never to underestimate the power of the symposium. The original story which inspired to build art of memory interfaces is where the poet Simonides tells about a party where he was, and which an earthquake destroyed. He survived and recognized the bodies because he remembered them in different contexts and as part of different conversations. How do you remember fifty out of thousand faces sitting down in a conference, a theatre, or walking on an itinerary of an exhibition? On the ISEA2004 CRUISE I have invited participating speakers and artists to join a dinner where their affinities through keywords are part of the menu, and the potential surprise of who you may be sitting next to may just lead to another idea or debate. Many artists do this in much more intricate ways during the event. I get the feeling that new media culture may be reaching a stage where it has the maturity to be both sensual, technically advanced and critically aware.