Monday, January 7, 2008

Intersecting the Virtual and the Real: Space in Interactive Media Installations, George Legrady

"The production of space is a search for a reconciliation between mental space (the space of philosophers) and real space (the physical and social spheres in which we all live)"1

To experience space is to engage with it through ones presence, to possess it by being immersed in it, in the way one possesses space when inside a room, in a park or on the streets. Computer generated virtual, immersive environments create the illusion of space by simulating visual clues such as boundary delineations which allows us to perceive directionally and to circulate. Internet space is a metaphoric space accessed through a technological window, linking individuals in real-time across geographical territories. In the process of interacting with the digital world, we can consider real space as the site where our bodies come into contact with the technological devices by which we experience virtual space. Social space then, becomes the site where we gather to watch each other come into contact with the technological devices used to engage with virtual spaces.

Real-time data streams of digital images, texts and sounds make it currently possible to trespass geographical and cultural boundaries, exponentially increasing aspects of Walter Benjamin's analysis on the nature of art production and its reception within a technologically driven society. My sense of perspective requires an initial readjustment when I am confronted with a culture-specific experience that I know belongs to a specific geographical, cultural space but becomes accessible anywhere where I can log on into the internet. For instance, listening to NPR radio played through a RealAudio internet plug-in on my laptop computer in Budapest, broadcast from New York, and received through ethernet connection while working simultaneously on the same computer in some other application.

Artists who create in digital media can produce works that do not require embodiment in a physical object. These works are free from the constraints of materiality as they exist as numeric data in highly transportable storage devices such as hard drives, disks and CD-ROMs that can be materialized when needed. Digital works can be experienced in any given time and any given (institutional) space, or simultaneously in different geographical spaces through the web environment, making it possible for real-time interaction between multiple users or producers. These forms of distribution seem to imply experiences free from the constraints of the material world, but in fact, the experiences are highly shaped by the reception devices through which users comes in contact with the transmitted information. For artists and communicators who want to create a specific experience, conceptualizing the interface environments within which the digital based interactive artworks are to be experienced becomes as much an integral component in the design process as the design of the interaction and the visualization of its information data.

When digital based artworks enter real institutional spaces such as libraries or museums, a number of issues come to the foreground. If the work exists as a CD-ROM or on the internet, does it shift functions from being an artwork to being a reference if presented in the library section of a museum? What are reasonable contractual obligations when a work published as a CD-ROM but intended as an installation in a public context is presented within the museum exhibition space? What kinds of experiential differences can be generated through a work designed for both the public viewing of the exhibition and the more private home reception on the internet or CD-ROM?

Information as Production Material
Digital media works are by nature information based. The two forms of artistic production which seem prevalent parallel artworld strategies of either authorship or appropriation. Artists either invent perceptual or experiential simulations through computer programming code production, or produce by processing existing, digitized data, sorting and storing them in datastructures. The creative activity is a twofold process, one begins by collecting and organizing data which is then followed by the process of interface design a form of narrative construction resulting in indexes, links, sequences and interfaces by which to generate the information flow and give meaning to the content. These approaches are to some extent a consequence of the nature of the medium inasmuch as digital data consist of discreet units of information stored as digital numbers which can be transformed and regrouped easily according to algorithms designed by the authors.

In the second half of the nineteenth century, the growth in the visualization of information was enhanced by two discoveries, the photographic process followed by the half-tone printing technique. Scientific visualization such as Marey's and Muybridge's documentations of movement in time recorded photographically began to circulate first as both information and later as art. Many artists such as Duchamp, Leger, Picabia who were working in the age of mechanical production incorporated expressions of scientific data into their work. In the late sixties, the conceptual art movement and systems or process based artists such as Hans Haacke considered social information data as the material element for their projects. Digital media art practice has followed in the steps of these approaches but it can be argued that information management in itself does not necessarily result in art. There is the expectation that the artwork transcends its materiality to some extent, that it generates a synthesis on a higher level. Recontextualizing data may be thought of as a strategy of aesthetic practice, for instance relocating news information into the gallery space can add a second level reading to the presented material. This sort of a shift of non-art information into the gallery space signifies an aesthetic gesture as it is an action denoting intentionality. Recontextualization and presentation generate meaning by themselves resulting in an alteration in the way the information is perceived.

In the mid nineteen eighties I began to write software that would transform digitized video stills in various ways. A few years later, I completed my first work that was purely software based 2, and designed to be accessed interactively through a computer. Enthused by discussions generated between linguists and computer science professionals about the potentials of computer programming software production as an arena for metaphoric expressions, I explored digital information processing and computer programming as forms of creative practice. My aim was to create programs that would address logical propositions and inconsistencies in philosophical discourses emanating out of Claude Shannons Information Theory. I was interested in the relation between noise to signal as a way to define meaning in communication and what this approach would mean in the way we interfaced with technological hardware. My approach aimed to address the technological functioning and the design of interfaces rather than to generate a techno phenomenal event, or its aesthetic by-product. After having absorbed computer programmings logic, my work moved towards the production of databases, archives, methods of classification, information structures that dealt with historical inscription or reflected a cultural perspective whose data were accessed according to an organizing principle expressed through an interface metaphor.

Many of these software works were given expression on the computer monitor, generating data as visualized form. I was both concerned and satisfied that these time based, visualized events could exist without the necessity of producing a physical variant. My background in photographic practice was an important reference in the realization that the meaning of these works would be marked by the mode of their access and presentation. For data that exists in the virtual, technological hardware, interaction becomes the mode of retrieval and the means of experience.

Immateriality & Presence
Digital media software products sent into the world for distribution and consumption, have none of the physical properties normally associated with commodity objects for instance, weight, volume displacement or material presence. Their immateriality makes handling, storage and distribution relatively easy as they are brought to life within the virtual space of the computer, a hardware that can be thought of as the access interface into the virtual environment. Software by itself stored on a CD-ROM or other media is not useable until activated within the computer. This technological information storage and retrieval procedure does have analog, pre-digital Era corresponding precedents, film being the primary medium that comes to mind. The cinematic experience occurs when the films content, encoded in image and sound data stored on a cellular media, is brought to life and made visible through activation by a hardware, the projector.

The cinematic experience normally requires a public and social space in which it is to take place and therefore embodies a social experience. Viewers come together at a preset time to experience the event. They are physically present, orchestrated within a designated space in a determined format consisting of the arrangement of seats directing the audiences gaze towards a screen, a historical extension of the theatrical stage. The audience's communal presence within this institutionalized space becomes the occasion for the experiencing of the cinematic work. Radio, television and even telephone reception can also be understood as defined and ritualized reception spaces, most often private rather then public, but nonetheless situated within a social context. Telecommunications interactions involve the body's physical presence and participation in some socially defined manner, and even though these transmissions are ubiquitous, a kind of continual virtual presence, ritualized spaces with their own regulated conventions have evolved for their reception. Examples might include the radio industrys redirected focus from the home to the mobile automobile environment after being superseded by television viewing in the social spaces of the living room, or local communal meeting places.

We can briefly refer back to Walter Benjamin's discussion on the historical conditions of production in his Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction 3 to reflect on the digital artworks value within the current situation of technological production. Digital media works possess many of the attributes that release them from the conditions that Benjamin identified as giving rise to the phenomena of acquiring mythic, or cult value, which he defines as the aura surrounding the unique artwork object. Digital based works are immaterial, they can be everywhere, they have no originals. Authenticity is not a determining issue as all copies can potentially be seen to have equivalent value. This translates into greater handling flexibility for public institutions as acquisition, storage, transport, insurance, and installation costs are drastically reduced. But when digital interactive artworks are presented within the public institutional space of the museum, they are brought into dialogue with history and its ideological discourse.

In comparison to the unique artwork which has acquired aura and value as a result of provenance and other factors embedding it into the process of commodification, digital immaterial works also acquire value through representation within the framework of the museum institutional space. Works that exist in the virtual domain of the internet, storage media, or CD-ROM are given physical material expression through installations that are many times based on curatorial and technical decisions determined by budgetary and other administrative factors. For instance, availability of technological hardware media, the viewing space that they occupy, and visitors physical presence in relation to the scale of the work within the allotted architectural space become highly pertinent constituting properties that shape the reception and meaning of these immaterial, media works. It is conventionally suitable to present internet and CD-ROM projects on a computer monitor on a table, but given the spectacle aspect of museum spaces, can such a presentation formula normally associated with information access, sustain the work's value as artistic experience, or does such a presentation format invariably diminish it to the level of reference material?

Intersecting Public Spaces with the Virtual
In the introduction to her article on immersive technologies 4, Katherine Hayles comments that the promises of VR, (virtual reality) leading to an "out of body" experience have not fully taken into account the interface requirements of such interactions. She identifies the interface mechanisms as highly grounded in physical, bodily experiences. One has to connect and access data through keyboards, trackballs, gloves, monitors, visors, microphones, headphones, etc. all of which make us highly aware of our bodies' physical contact with the devices, in fact producing unintended bodily experiences, such as various forms of injury, if their usage is sustained over long periods. Once these devices enter circulation, they become part of the general common knowledge, conventionalized through familiarity. Over time they lose their strangeness, we forget the metaphorical discrepancies as we adapt our own bodies to accept their particular functional limitations. These delivery devices have entered the museum environment as the dominant means by which digital works are presented. The most common device used at this time is the desktop, electronic publishing computer with monitor and mouse, a standard, multi-purpose information processing device that can be easily recycled from the exhibition floor to the library or curatorial offices. During the past decade, these computers have become steadily conventionized to mean office work, information retrieval, or games playing. For some situations, these references may not pose a problem, but for others, this approach does not allow for a full experience of the digital work.

Audiences enter the museum environment in search of a public, artistic experience, rather than library-style research/information reception unless that is a contextualizing component determined by the artist. Participating in an interactive work within the context of a museum space implies engaging with spectacle and a form of audience performance. The experience is performative in the sense that the audience is engaged as both performer and spectator, performing through the interaction with the work, functioning as spectator through the observation of what occurs when the other audience members are in performance mode. Needless to say, the audiences engagement is a necessary component of the interactive work as it positions the viewer into creating presence and it is only through the audiences actions that the work can reveal its complex layering of choices and multiple events.
The interactive installation takes place in a spatially deliminated, architectural space. It and its surrounding space is a localized, socialized space, a site of discourse, and therefore an intrinsic, constituting element pertaining to the full meaning of the work. This surrounding space situating the work and its reception can be left to chance, or carefully planned. In either case, it functions as a key component of the work. My approach has been to extend the works meaning into its surrounding space, describing its architectural presence and boundaries through various aesthetic devices such as image projection, wall partitions, wall coloration, text quotes, printed images, sounds and sound isolation zones. In the recent installations, the technology has been extended to carefully record the audiences presence and movements and to meaningfully use that information as a way by which to direct the content flow in the work.

In the public context of the museum environment, the audience trades space in exchange for time. Public spaces do not offer the kinds of comfort private spaces are set up for. Private space such as the home or office imply self-determined time management to research, to examine in detail, to go into greater depth. Digital media works that can be accessed in such environments, for instance CD-ROMS, or web works, are experienced through the various standard computer hardware that viewers have at hand. An additional factor that recontextualizes any information passing through it involves the particular framing that a data provider might impose continuously reminding us of its existence. It may be a moot point, but in such situations, the artist cannot influence the physical and contextual frame through which the artwork is received, the focus shifts towards immediacy and issues of mass audience accessibility, or accessibility across geographical space and time. One has to recognize that within the framework of the digital information communication environment, an interactive artworks intrinsic value as art experience lies in a synthesis of two components the first consists of the content and information flow of the work, all aspects of which are normally determined by the artist, and the second consists of the conditions of its delivery, exhibition and reception, aspects of which are beyond the control of the works author.

presented at the art.image conference in Graz, Austria, November 1998

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1 comment:

Walter said...

Hello again, dear comrade,
I do hope you are visiting me early and often...
Often and early...