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the artist as inventor : middlespace
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Adventures in Middlespace
by Erkki Huhtamo
David Rokeby isn't just an interactive artist, he's also a builder of tools
and systems that frequently escape the art world to be adapted and transformed
by society at large. Erkki Huhtamo traces the evolution of Rokeby's career from
musical interactives to talking computers, and asks: what happens when an artist
compelled by the human condition is also an inventor of useful machines?
In early 2000 the Canadian artist David Rokeby flew to Helsinki, Finland to
install his latest work, The Giver of Names, [http://www.interlog.com/~drokeby/gon.html]
at the Kiasma Museum of Contemporary Art [http://www.kiasma.fi]
as part of an exhibition named Alien Intelligence. The piece was a
sort of "creature", a "cybernetic" system that tries to make sense of the visible
world according to its own logic. A computer program, with a video camera as
its eye, perceives objects put on a pedestal by visitors. The program then analyses
what it sees, and formulates a linguistic statement. The sentences, both heard
and projected on a screen, are sometimes like surrealist automated poetry, with
little relation to the object. Sometimes they are a bit more literal in terms
of describing its physical appearance. In both cases they remain remarkably
During the hectic final days before the grand opening I persuaded Rokeby to
leave his computer and the other equipment in the gallery for a while, and to
sit down in front of a video camera in a small studio. In our interview Rokeby
talked about his creation, at times in an almost paradoxical manner -- at least
for someone who has spent a great part of his life exploring the creative potential
of the computer. "I am very interested in looking at the relationship between
the human mind and the computer-generated intelligence, perception, subjectivity
or whatever," he said, "partly because there is a lot we can learn about ourselves
by looking at how computers fail to do a good job being like us." He considered
the process of trying to match objects and concepts in the "mind" of the computer
"a mixture of frustration and excitement."
These statements caught my attention. What was he saying? Had he, after two decades of intensive experimentation with the computer, become a technosceptic? Did he, after spending years trying to teach the computer to be "intelligent", come to re-affirm the values of basic humanism? Or was he implying that the "mind" of the computer was something fundamentally different, something he could almost but not quite grasp, which caused him "frustration and excitement"? I also wondered how serious he was in his endeavor to teach the computer "subjectivity", a gargantuan task that the whole artificial intelligence movement had not been able to solve. Wasn't his work, after all, a metaphor, another re-enactment of the human race's quest to project one's intelligence outside of oneself, and to pretend that it isn't merely an echo?
Interacting with Rokeby's installation brought these questions back to my mind, but like any great artwork, it did not give me any final answers. Artworks are not oracles, they generate questions rather than answers. The same applies to Rokeby's career. Above all, Rokeby has always been an experimenter and an explorer. Unlike most artists, he has never shown much interest in using existing artistic tools -- from paintbrushes or chisels to off-the-shelf software packages -- to create "timeless masterpieces" (or, alternatively, calculated art-commodities) for the speculators and arbiters of the art market. Rokeby's installations are only one aspect, albeit the most visible, of his creative output. They are the signposts left behind along a trail leading toward unknown destinations. The journey itself, with unexpected discoveries and perhaps even occasional dead-ends, seems to be already a goal.
Rokeby's career has always had two facets, one visible and the other invisible.
Behind his public persona as an exhibiting artist looms the inventor, who spends
years painstakingly developing and perfecting his creations. Rokeby's first
major achievement in this role was the Very Nervous System [http://www.interlog.com/~drokeby/vns.html]
that brought him international recognition in the 1980s. VNS is a system
that enables humans to use their bodily movements to interact with a computerized
environment. No physical contact between the body and the computer interface
is required. A video camera serves as the eye that captures in real-time the
participant's movements, to which the computer program -- the real core of the
system -- reacts in various ways, depending on the application. Although Myron
Krueger, [http://prixars.aec.at/history/kunstler/Emkrueger.html (link no longer active)] another artist-inventor,
had used a similar arrangement even earlier in his Videoplace, [http://www.aec.at/en/archives/prix_archive/prix_projekt.asp?iProjectID=2473]
the distinctive features of VNS are the complexity and the fluidity
of the interactions it makes possible.
VNS is also highly adaptable, as Rokeby has demonstrated in a series
of performances and installations [http://www.interlog.com/~drokeby/installations.html]
that may look different, but are nevertheless all "powered" by the same "core".
Originally the system responded with sounds -- the user created musical forms
with it, or may even have garnered the impression of wading in a virtual sea.
The early installations were often quite minimalistic, the gallery space seeming
practically empty. The technical elements (often barely visible) included a
video camera, a monitor, a computer and perhaps a few other components. Beginning
to explore the environment, the visitor soon discovered that it was responsive.
Although the modes of interaction varied from version to version, a feedback
loop [http://www.interlog.com/~drokeby/harm.html] between the work and the visitor
was always created. The loop was not just physical, but cognitive as well: both
the participant's mind and his/her body were constantly engaged. Partly because
of its subtle nature, this interaction may sometimes have seemed simple. For
someone who really engaged in the situation, however, it proved to be rich and
complex, far from any mechanistic "cause and effect" exchange, as Rokeby explained
in his study Transforming Mirrors. [http://www.interlog.com/~drokeby/mirrors.html]
In the mid-1990's, starting with an installation named Watch, [http://www.interlog.com/~drokeby/watch.html]
the system began to respond with images, creating modified versions of the input
it received from the outside reality through its video eye. This opened a new
line of development, a series of works that Rokeby himself has characterized
as "perceptual prostheses". Works belonging to this strand, including Shock
Absorber [http://www.interlog.com/~drokeby/shockabsorber.html] and Watched and Measured, [http://www.interlog.com/~drokeby/wm.html] are based upon
situations associated with video surveillance. The video camera observes human
subjects who are unaware of its presence. The reality "seen" by the video camera
is then dissected and interpreted by the computer program and presented for
the audience in modified form. Whether we consider these works to be offspring
of VNS is a matter of definition. Rokeby sees them as something else.
Though they spring from his interest concerning the ways in which media technologies
perceive, filter and modify reality, there are significant differences. Aside
from changing the output from sound to images, Rokeby has also changed the role
of the participant. In the latter works s/he is given a more "passive" role
than before. Instead of bodily movements, the emphasis is on perception. The
"passivity" of this position may, however, be an illusion: the latter works
also trigger movements, but those of the mind, stimulating intellectual reflection
and showing a growing concern for ideological and social issues.
Warranting the title of inventor, Rokeby made Very Nervous System available
to others as well. Numerous artists, including the American video artist Paul
Garrin, [http://pg.mediafilter.org/bp/pgbio.html (link no longer active)] have used it as a tool to
realize their own ideas. VNS has also found applications outside art,
being used for example as a therapeutic tool for physically impaired children.
Currently marketed as softVNS, [http://www.interlog.com/~drokeby/softVNS.html]
it has not only provided Rokeby with a source of income, enabling him to pursue
his career as an independent artist/researcher; it has also contributed to the
emergence of a new kind of creative profile. An artist is no longer "merely"
an organizer of forms, colors, sounds and words, working with pre-existing tools.
S/he can also be a system builder, tool maker and context creator, whose works
find a way out from the art world and into society at large. According to Gene
Youngblood, [http://www.csf.edu/mov/faculty/youngblood.html (link no longer active)] the concept "meta-designer"
might characterize such a creative profile better than the ideologically and
culturally charged term "artist". A meta-designer does not respect existing
cultural and social categories. Instead of delivering pre-packaged products
with fixed forms and functions, s/he creates conditions for other people's experiences.
S/he enables rather than determines.
All forms of interactive art have at least an element of meta-design. However,
the interaction in art is never totally open-ended. The artist always includes
some constraints, including his/her own concerns and aesthetic ideas. Interacting
with an artwork is not, and should not be, the same thing as using an authoring
software tool or playing a video game. Even in the era of advanced interactive
media and postmodern blurring of boundaries, art still has a need to retain
a distinct identity, instead of merging totally with activities like entertainment
and commerce. Balancing between these worlds may, however, be problematic. In
a world where commercial success and money making reign as supreme values, it
can be difficult to maintain one's artistic integrity when an inviting door
opens. The field of media art offers numerous examples of brilliant talents
with an interesting idea who crossed the threshold and never came back. Another
system resembling Very Nervous System, The Mandala [http://www.vividgroup.com/products_main.html]
created by the Canadian artist and dancer Vincent John Vincent and The Vivid
Group, [http://www.vividgroup.com/] was turned into a commercial product many
years ago. Rokeby has never taken the same step, managing to retain a balance
between his own artistic career and the public commercial "career" of softVNS.
Aside from VNS, another system has occupied Rokeby during a lengthy
period of time: The Giver of Names, already mentioned at the beginning
of this essay. Initiated in the early 1990s, it reached a stage at which it
could be shown publicly toward the end of the decade. Rokeby has kept on improving
it, presenting versions with extended possibilities. Its most ambitious manifestation
to date, n-Cha(n)t, [http://www.interlog.com/~drokeby/nchant.html]
has been aptly characterized by the artist as "a community of `Givers of Names'
linked by a network." The work consists of several Giver of Names units
connected by audio links to form a system. The units both "negotiate" with one
another and take in verbal input from outside, from installation visitors. The
work was granted the prestigious Golden Nica prize for interactive art at the
Prix Ars Electronica [http://www.aec.at/festival2002/] competition in 2002
Although interactive, The Giver of Names differs in many respects
from Very Nervous System. As in the "perceptual prostheses" series,
the human participant's role is again more peripheral, reduced to giving occasional
input (by selecting objects to be analyzed by the camera or, in the case of
n-Cha(n)t, by speaking to a microphone) and observing what happens.
The linguistic performance of the software is the main focus.
Into Middle Space
Does Rokeby really believe that such a system could one day be intelligent, or develop true linguistic competence? Or is the whole project really only a huge metaphor, as I suggested earlier? The interesting thing is that there are no simple "yes or no" answers to these questions. While I consider Rokeby to be basically a critical and skeptical intellectual, it cannot be denied that he has spent nearly ten years of his life teaching a computer program to do something "intelligent" with language. That would be a long time to spend creating a metaphor. He must believe in his endeavor, in his own way. But whatever Rokeby has done, he has hardly done it in the manner of a typical practical-minded inventor, only looking for ideas to patent and to turn into marketable products. Even as an inventor, Rokeby is basically an artist. This is the key issue. These two roles are inseparable from each other. This explains why Rokeby spoke in my interview about his interest in "that middle space where there is no denying that there is a relationship between the object and the sentence, but the relationship is not completely obvious or arbitrary." An ability to operate in this "middle space" is exactly the quality that characterizes Rokeby's entire career and partly explains his success. The "middle space" is also the conceptual realm where all interactivity, both social and cybernetic, happens.
Erkki Huhtamo [http://eda.ucla.edu/archive/info/spring00/huhtamo/htm (link no longer active)]
is a media researcher, television director, curator and critic who originally
hails from Finland. His specialties include media archaeology and media art.
He is currently an Associate Professor at the University of California Los Angeles
(UCLA) Department of Design | Media Arts. [http://eda.ucla.edu/]