Wednesday, November 26, 2008

The Construction of Experience : Interface as Content, David Rokeby

This article appears in the book:
"Digital Illusion: Entertaining the Future with High Technology," Clark Dodsworth, Jr., Contributing Editor
© 1998 by the ACM Press, a division of the Association for Computing Machinery, Inc. (ACM) published by Addison-Wesley Publishing Company.

I’m an interactive artist; I construct experiences. Since the early 80’s I’ve been exhibiting my installations in galleries, trade shows, science museums, and public and private spaces. These exhibitions serve as a public research laboratory where my ideas about interaction and experience are tested, affirmed, or shot down. This is a condensation of the results of my free-form research.

Entertainment has traditionally involved heavily coded communication. It has predominantly been delivered through words, sounds, symbols and gestures which stimulate the imagination to render an experience. The visual arts and theatre at various times in history, and film and television in the past century use the direct visual experience of images as a way to make the experience more immediate… to make the audience feel more “there.” But these experiences remain things that happen to you. Interactivity’s promise is that the experience of culture can be something you do rather than something you are given. This complicates our conventional ideas about “content” in the context of this new medium.

Everyone is talking about content in interactive media these days. Independent artists and the entertainment industry alike now see that these new technologies are relatively flat without significant content. But the rush to stuff content into interactive media has drawn our attention away from the profound and subtle ways that the interface itself, by defining how we perceive and navigate content, shapes our experience of that content. If culture, in the context of interactive media, becomes something we “do,” it’s the interface that defines how we do it and how the “doing” feels. Word processors change the experience of writing, regardless of the content; they affect the manner in which that content is expressed. Hypermedia provide multiple trajectories through content, but the nature of the links, branches and interconnections influences our path, and inevitably changes our sense of the content. Active agents, either in our software or on the net, guide us through the information jungle; they’re sorting demons, deciding what’s relevant and irrelevant, providing us with interpretation and point-of-view. Marshall McLuhan’s phrase “the medium is the message” became a tired cliché long before our media became flexible and intelligent enough to live up to the epithet. Like most cliches, it carries plenty of truth, and needs a full re-examination in the context of emerging active and interactive technologies.

The creation of interactive interfaces carries a social responsibility. I’ve come to this conclusion from my experience creating and exhibiting interactive systems. At first glance, it may seem that I’m stretching the point here. It’s really just entertainment, right? Indeed, as an artist, it’s my traditional right to use every trick in the book to create a magical experience. Fantasy and illusion are key elements of most effective culture, from high-brow theatre to video games. Hollywood has always relied on sets, stunt people, and special effects to get its stories across. Computer game developers are the newest masters of illusion.

One of the clearest examples I can recall is an early videodisc-based video game in which users got the impression that they were flying at great speed over a terrain. The videodisc was made up of video clips which linked together in a branching and merging structure. The image I saw on the screen was the middle portion of the full video frame. If I turned to the left during a linear video segment, the section of the frame that I saw instantly panned in that direction, giving an immediate sense of responsiveness, but I was, in fact, still travelling along the same restricted path. The illusion that I had the freedom to roam the entire terrain was maintained for a surprisingly long time, partly because I was moving at a high ‘virtual’ speed without time to reflect on the degree to which my actions were being reflected. That technique was a brilliant and effective way to get around the inherent limitations of videodisc as a real-time interactive medium. Whether you really had freedom to wander the terrain was beside the point, because the game was engaging and exciting.

The line between entertainment and everything else is getting very vague these days (infotainment, edutainment). The Web represents a convergence of the video game industry and commercial transaction systems, and this leads to a potential problem; illusion translated into the commercial world becomes deception. The tricks of today’s artists and hackers are the commercial tools of tomorrow. Perhaps more significantly, with the explosive growth of the internet, these sleights-of-hand are becoming incorporated into communications systems, and by implication, into our social fabric. Whether we intend it or not, we’re redesigning the ways that we experience the world and each other.

There are two levels of leakage here. On one level, there is the effortless migration of code and hardware from the entertainment world to the “serious” worlds of commerce, justice, and communication. At the second level, artificial experiences subtly change the way we feel, perceive, interpret, and even describe our “real” experiences.

The most graphic and extreme example of virtual spill into the real is probably VR-sickness, an after-effect of Virtual Reality. My experience was that I would suddenly lose my orientation in space at apparently random moments for about 24 hours after my virtual immersion. I felt as though I were off the floor, and at an unexpected angle. As far as I can tell, the explanation was that, when I was immersed, I’d desensitized my response to the balancing mechanisms in my inner ears in order to sustain the illusion of motion in a purely visually defined 3D space. Once I was desensitized, I was free to accept the illusion of space that the VR system provided. But on returning to “real” space, my inner ears didn’t immediately resume their job. I was taking my sense of orientation in space entirely from visual cues. One attack may have been stimulated by a design of sharply angled lines painted on a wall. My visual system seems to have interpreted this cue as vertical, and abruptly changed its mind about my body’s orientation, while my ears were certain that I was standing quite straight, bringing on a wave of nausea.

I’ve also experienced after-effects from spending extended periods interacting with my most- exhibited interactive installation, Very Nervous System. In this work, I use video cameras, an artificial perception system, computer, and synthesizer to create a space in which body movements are translated into sound or music in real-time. An hour of the continuous, direct feedback in this system strongly reinforces a sense of connection with the surrounding environment. Walking down the street afterwards, I feel connected to all things. The sound of a passing car splashing through a puddle seems to be directly related to my movements. I feel implicated in every action around me. On the other hand, if I put on a CD, I quickly feel cheated that the music does not change with my actions.

When I first got a Macintosh computer and spent endless days and nights playing with MacPaint, one of the things that amazed me most was the lasso tool, which allows you to select a part of the image and drag it across the screen to another location. The most intriguing thing was the automatic clipping of the background behind the dragged selection. Walking down the street after an extended MacPaint session, I would find myself marvelling as backgrounds disappeared behind trees, acutely aware of what was momentarily hidden from view.

Interfaces leave imprints on our perceptual systems which we carry out into the world. The more time we spend using an interface, the stronger this effect gets. These effects can be beneficial or detrimental. Dr. Isaac Szpindel at the Jewish General Hospital in Montréal is experimenting with the use of “Very Nervous System” as a therapy for Parkinson’s disease. People suffering from this disease tend to lose their ability to will their own movement, but remain capable of responding quickly in emergencies. While the results are still preliminary, it appears that regular interactions with Very Nervous System can help to re-engage Parkinson’s suffers’ ability to motivate their own movement in their normal day-to-day lives.

Exposure to technologies also change the ways that we think and talk about our experiences. We use terms borrowed from computers when describing our own mental and social processes. We “access” our memories, we “interface” with each other, we “erase” thoughts, we “input” and “output.” In a chillingly insightful comment on the way technologies and ideas interact, Alan Turing, one of the great computer pioneers wrote: “I believe that at the end of the [twentieth] century, the use of words and general educated opinion will be altered so much that one will be able to speak of machines thinking without expecting to be contradicted.”1

This statement is often taken to mean that Turing believed that machines would be able to think by the turn of the century. In fact, he is saying that our ideas of what thinking is and what computers can do will converge to the point that we cannot express or grasp the difference. This sort of convergence may also soon take place in the realm of experience; we may lose our ability to differentiate between raw and simulated experience.

In 1983 I was invited at the last minute to exhibit my interactive sound installation in an exhibition called “Digicon ‘83” in Vancouver. This was to be my first public show, and I was very excited, but there was a tremendous amount of work to be done. I worked between 18 and 20 hours a day refining an interactive interface from a barely implemented concept to an actual experiential installation. I spent no time with friends and didn’t get out at all. I got the piece done and was extremely pleased with the results. After setting up my installation in Vancouver, I was astonished by the fact that it did not seem to respond properly to other people, and sometimes didn’t notice people at all. I didn’t really understand the problem until I saw videotape of myself moving in the installation. I was moving in a completely unusual and unnatural way, full of jerky tense motions which I found both humorous and distressing. In my isolation, rather than developing an interface that understood movement, I’d evolved with the interface, developing a way of moving that the interface understood as I developed the interface itself. I’d experienced a physiological version of the very convergence that Turing described.

While we may lose our ability to understand and articulate the differences, we will still have some intuitive sense of them. But many of the differences between virtuality and reality will be subtle and easy to discount, and intuition often loses in the face of hard logic; we may find it as easy to ignore our intuitions as to ignore our inner-ears while immersed in VR. I believe there are important reasons, beyond simply romantic nostalgia, to nurture awareness of the distinctions between the real and the virtual.

By defining a way of sensing and a way of acting in an interactive system, the interface defines the “experience of being” for that system. Through their design of the interface, the creators have in large part defined the user’s “quality of life” while they are interacting with the system. Unfortunately, the design parameters for quality of life are pretty undefined. There seems to be no agreement on what makes for a high “quality of life.” I suspect it’s dependent on a whole range of parameters that we rarely pay attention to.

In order to better understand what those parameters are, we need to look at how our experience of the real world is constructed. In other words, what is our user interface for reality? or: What is the nature of our relationship with the world? I don’t intend?nor am I qualified?to plumb the depths of philosophical thinking on this subject. There is a branch of philosophy dedicated to these questions called “phenomenology” for those who want to explore this in greater depth.

Our “organic” interface is extraordinarily complex and massively parallel. Our sensing system involves an enormous number of simultaneously active sensors, and we act on the world through an even larger number of individual points of physical contact. In contrast, our artificial interfaces are remarkably narrow and serial even in the multimedia density of sound and moving image. These interfaces are also unbalanced in terms of input and output. At the computer screen, we receive many thousands of pixels at least 60 times a second from our monitors, while sending a few bytes of mouse position or keyboard activity back to the system. We appear to most of our interactive systems as a meagre dribble of extremely restricted data. Even in immersive VR systems, we’re commonly represented as a head orientation and a simple hand shape. We may imagine ourselves immersed in the Virtual Reality, but the Virtual Reality is not, from its point-of-view, enveloping us.

It’s not simply a question of lack of senses such as touch and smell. It’s also a question of the actual number of contact points through which an interaction passes. Our nervous system, senses and perceptual systems integrate an enormous number of separate inputs in order to construct our sense of being. The “bandwidth” of real experience is almost unimaginable. In order to fit interaction into the available bandwidth of our computers and communications systems, we must decide what narrow aspects of the user’s presence and actions will be involved. It’s an extreme form of compression, and it’s “lossy.”

Through our human interface, we access a pool of content of unimaginable complexity. This content exists at many levels. There is raw sensual content. There are people and things and their complex behaviours and interactions. There are conjunctions of actors and actions that play out in an apparent causality. There are stories, symbols, words and ideas. While our attention is often focussed at one or another of these levels, our sense of being is constructed by input at all of these levels simultaneously.

The whole system is built from the ground up. Subatomic particles interact to produce atoms and molecules. Atoms and molecules interact to produce organic and inorganic matter. Matter gathers into things with higher order behaviours like mountains, rivers, plants and humans. These things interact in the whole complex process of life. Ideas, words and concepts are things that we use to describe these processes. They’re inexact generalizations and simplifications that are necessary for our sanity.

Artificial interfaces may access a pool of information as large as the internet, but the internet is tiny compared to reality. And that pool of content generally starts at the level of words and ideas. A digital image is similarly abstracted. It’s not self-generated from the interactions among its constituent pixels.

Artificial experiences are built up as a sort of collage of representations of things torn out of context. In the virtual realm, context is purely a matter of the taste of the creator. One decides arbitrarily to put these things together. In “reality,” the context is not just the ground against which you see something; it represents the set of conditions which makes the presence of the thing possible. The difference is immense, and the more interactive, immersive, or convincing an artificial environment is, the more careful we must be.
Real experience has a fundamental integrity that virtual experience does not. This aspect of virtuality can be a great advantage because it allows you to break the “rules” of reality. Escaping reality is liberating when one spends the greater part of one’s time in reality. But this lack of fundamental integrity is potentially quite unsettling to anyone spending most of their time in virtual spaces.

The input from our senses generally reaches our awareness only after passing through the powerful filters of our perceptual systems, but we can also open ourselves to raw sensuality. There is something profoundly important about the fact that the base of our human/reality interface is raw and uncoded. We can, to some degree, bypass our own perceptual filtering.

I had an experience in art school that brought this home in a very direct way. One of my professors told us one day that we would be looking out a window for the whole three-hour class. I was incensed. I’d been willing to go along with most of the unusual activities these classes had entailed, but I felt this was going too far. I stood at my assigned window and glared out through the pane. I saw cars, two buildings, a person on the street. Another person, another car. This was stupid! For fifteen minutes I fumed, and muttered to myself. Then I started to notice things. The flow of traffic down the street was like a river, each car seemingly drawn along by the next, connected. The blinds in each of the windows of the facing building were each a slightly different colour. The shadow of a maple tree in the wind shifted shape like some giant amoeba. For the remaining hours of the class I was electrified by the scene outside. After fifteen minutes, the “names” had started separating from the objects.

It seems that we stop seeing, hearing, smelling as soon as we have positively identified something. At that point, we may as well replace the word for the object. Since identification usually happens quickly, we spent most of our time not really sensing our environment, living in a world of pre-digested and abstracted memories.

This explains our attraction to optical illusions and mind-altering experiences (chemically-induced or not). Those moments of confusion, where identification and resolution aren’t immediate, give us a flash of the raw experience of being. These moments of confusion are also the fulcra of paradigm shifts. It’s only when our conventional way of dealing with things breaks down that we can adopt another model, another way of imagining and experiencing a scenario.

The adrenaline rush of a high-speed video game has something in common with this experience of filter-breakdown; the barrage of images and the need to act quickly test the limits of our perceptual and responsive systems. But these systems have then added themselves to our internal filters and they aren’t subject to this same sort of breakdown. Paradigm shifts in the interface can only happen through the software and hardware development cycle, which is burdened with economic considerations and intense industry competition. The interface becomes a hardened and brittle perceptual exoskeleton which we can’t easily question or redefine. This becomes increasingly problematic as the interface becomes more “transparent” and “intuitive.” At those difficult and confusing moments when our way of viewing the world needs to change, we may not know to examine the interface as a potential contributor to the problem. For this reason, I believe we need to develop an interactive literacy. We need to learn, then teach others to critique and understand the influences of our interfaces as we use them.

Our interface with reality is not only multi-sensory or multimedia but also “multi-modal.” We can talk, scream, gesture or punch. We can interpret, analyze or simply enjoy the raw sensation. It’s only a multi-modal approach with multiple simultaneous levels of meaning and communication that can properly express that complex experience of reality.

In 1988, I was invited to exhibit “Very Nervous System” at the Siggraph Art Show. “Interactivity” was just emerging as a buzzword and there was a lot of scepticism on the floor. Many attendees entered my installation to “test” it using what I’ve come to call the “First Test of Interactivity.” The test involves determining whether the system will consistently respond identically to identical movements. (Note that an intelligent agent will probably fail this test.) They would enter the space, let the sounds created by their entrance fade to silence, and then make a gesture. The gesture was an experiment, a question to the space; “What sound will you make?”. The resulting sound was noted. Second and third gestures were made with the same motivation, and the same sound was produced. After the third repetition, the interactor decided that the system was indeed interactive, at which point they changed the way they held their body and made a gesture to the space, a sort of command: “Make that sound.” The command gesture was significantly different from the early “questioning” gestures particularly in terms of dynamics, and so the system responded with a different sound. I observed a couple of people going through this cycle several times before leaving in confusion. Their body had betrayed their motivation.

Body movement can be read on two different levels. There is the semantic content of the gesture, in which the movement is interpreted symbolically (the “OK” sign or the raised middle finger), and there is the raw visual experience of the gesture, to which my system was responding. The questioning and commanding gestures were semantically similar but quite different in terms of physical dynamics. More practical interactive interfaces might filter out the involuntary dynamics of the gesture, treating them as unwanted noise, and focus on the semantic content. In interpersonal communications, we’re always simultaneously interpreting gestures on many levels. This combination is the basis for richer communication. For this breadth and quality of communication to be carried through interfaces, the designers must be aware of the importance of these multiple modes, and then must be able to actually create the code and hardware to support them.

A multi-modal interface would be particularly important in engendering trust and intimacy through communications systems. Sweat, smell, nervous gestures, cold or warm hands, tone of voice, exact direction of gaze are all elements by which we gauge subtle interpersonal conditions like honesty, nervousness. I’m not advocating interfaces involving every possible sense; the literal replication of the whole nervous and sensing systems would be cumbersome and overly literal. I’m just pointing out the many complex levels that exist in real flesh-to-flesh communication. We need effective ways to accommodate simultaneous layers of communication if our telecommunication is to be satisfying and richly successful.

So there are very large differences between the human and artificial interfaces. Quite often, the simplified, symbolic nature of the artificial experience is a useful characteristic. This is particularly true for situations that involve abstractions like numbers, words or ideas. The interface in this case clearly suits the material and can make those abstractions more accessible through simulation and visualization.

But we’re spending more and more time amongst our simulations, and we’re in danger of losing sight of the fact that our models and ideas of “reality” are drastically simplified representations. If we do lose this awareness, then our experience of being will be significantly diminished. Simulations offer us formerly unimaginable experiences, but the foundations of these simulations are built up from a relatively narrow set of assumptions about the structure and parameters of experience. And the built-in exigencies of product development mean that this narrow set of assumptions and ideas quickly becomes a standard, and soon after, crystallizes into silicon for performance gains. Once there is an inexpensive chip available, these assumptions have become practically unassailable for a considerable length of time.

In an odd way, this parallels medieval Christianity. During the middle ages, the church sanctioned a certain set of ideas about the world. This system of beliefs became the standard “browser” for viewing reality. Many of the assumptions built into that system were clearly absurd from our contemporary point of view, but they had a grip on the imagination of the whole Christian world, to the point that brilliant philosophers went through ridiculous contortions to justify officially-sanctioned ideas that seem to us ridiculous. The interface designers of this era were the monks, bishops and popes.

Our user interfaces are also a kind of belief system, carrying and reinforcing our assumptions about the way things are. It’s for this reason that we must increase our awareness of the ways that the interface carries these beliefs as hidden content. It may be hard to conceive of the standard GUI as a belief system, but the “holy wars” between Macintosh and Windows users on the internet indicates an almost religious passion about interface. It’s also useful to realize that effective interfaces are usually intuitive precisely because they tap into existing stereotypes for their metaphors. An interface designed for racists might tap into racist stereotypes as a source for icons and metaphors that would be immediately understood across the user-base. A metaphoric interface borrows cliches from the culture but then reflects them back and reinforces them.


I’ve argued that virtual experiences don’t do justice to the richness of the human experience. I’m not suggesting that the richness of experience cannot be increased through interactive technologies or that the best interface would be one that exactly replicated the full experience of reality. In fact, designers of virtual experiences are often so literal in their attempts to simulate reality that they stifle some of the most exciting potentials that these new media offer.

There is an artist named Tamas Waliczky who has been working with the idea of alternate systems of 3-D representation. The conventional binocular, perspectival model that is currently being standardized in software and hardware is useful for normal representations of 3-D objects and space. The fact that it has reached the level of silicon represents the kind of crystallization I mentioned above. Waliczky sees much broader possibilities for the representation of space than this limited Renaissance model. He has been creating alternate perspectival systems, writing code to render other experiences of space. In one of his works, he renders a world from the self-centred point-of-view of a young child. For another, he has created a program that renders inverted perspective, in which things get larger as they get further away from you, and vice versa. This is a real mind-bender to see, a rich exploration of the potentials of virtual media to go beyond the restrictions of reality, and indeed of our own imaginations.

I’m suggesting that there is a sort of middle-of-the-road virtuality, that does justice to neither our rich experience of reality, nor the richness of possible virtual experience. This ‘MOR’ virtuality diminishes experience in several dimensions without enhancing it in others. If virtual experiences are to add to the dimensions of experience we must avoid this mushy middle ground when imagining and designing them.

How does an interface form the experience of being? How do the decisions of the designer and programmer shape the experience of the user? I’ll try to examine these by looking at several general characteristics or “qualities” of the interface.

An interface inherently constructs a representation of the user. To a computer with a simple graphic user interface, the user is a stream of mouse clicks and key taps. Advanced interfaces involving intelligent agents compile much more detailed representations of the user by interpreting this stream of input and attempting to determine the intentions of these activities so that the interface can help the user be more efficient. How the user is represented internally by the system defines what the user can be and do within the system. Does the system allow the user to be ambiguous? Can they express or act upon several things at once?

Interactive systems invariably involve feedback loops. The limited representation of the user is inevitably reflected back to the user, modifying their own sense of self within the simulation. The interface becomes a distorting mirror, like those fun-house mirrors which make you look fat, skinny or a bizarre combination of the two. A standard GUI interface is a mirror that reflects back a severely misshapen human being with large hands, huge forefinger, one immense eye and moderate sized ears. The rest of the body is simply the location of backaches, neck strain, and repetitive stress injuries. It’s generally agreed that the representation of women or visible minorities in magazine and television advertisements affects their self-image. If we accept this, then we must also accept that interface-brokered representations can exert a similar, though more intimate, effect on the reflected computer user.

We are who we are, with a unique character and personal idiosyncracies, largely because of our individual subjective viewpoint. That viewpoint is formed by our windows out into the world (our senses), in conjunction with our memories and experiences. An interactive interface is a standardized extension that shapes and modifies the user’s subjective point of view. By presenting information in a specific manner or medium, the interface designer defines the way this interface shapes this point-of-view.

There is a paradox in the manner that interactive systems affect our subjectivity. The non-interactive system can be seen as stubborn in refusing to reflect the presence and actions of the spectator, or, it can be seen as giving the spectator complete freedom of reflection and interpretation by not intervening in the process. An interactive system can be seen as giving the user the power to affect the course of the system, or as interfering in the interactor’s subjective process of exploration. An extreme example would be an interactive system which detected whether the user was male or female and presented different content or choices to members of each sex. The system would be closing off parts of the system to each person due to their gender. Such an interactive system displaces some of the user’s freedom to explore the content. Any interactive interface implicitly defines the “permissible” paths of exploration for each user.

This irony gets increasingly pronounced as the technology of interaction becomes more sophisticated. In the introduction to his book, Artificial Reality II, Myron Krueger invites us to “Imagine that the computer could completely control your perception and monitor your response to that perception. Then it could make any possible experience available to you.” 2 Florian Roetzer responds that a system that gives you this “freedom” of experience must necessarily be a system of infinite surveillance.3 When a system monitors its users to this extent, it has effectively taken control of their subjectivity, depriving them of their idiosyncratic identity and replacing it with a highly focussed perspective that is entirely mediated by the system. Subjectivity has been replaced by a synthetic subjective viewpoint. The fact that the system responds to the interactor does not guarantee in any way that the system is responsible to the user; the interactor can fairly easily be pushed beyond reflection to the edge of instinct, capable only of visceral response to the system’s stimuli, mirroring the systems actions rather than being mirrored by the system.

Interactive interfaces can explicitly define “permissible” paths of exploration for each user, but in most cases, it’s more subtle than that. It’s usually not so much a matter of permission as of paths of least resistance. An interface makes certain actions or operations easier, more intuitive, or more accessible. By privileging some activities, it makes the unassisted operations more difficult and therefore less likely to be used. A feature that requires seven layers of dialogue boxes is less likely to be used than one which requires a single keystroke. The interface defines a sort of landscape, creating valleys into which users tend to gather, like rainwater falling on a watershed. Other areas are separated by forbidding mountain ranges, and are much less travelled. A good interface designer optimizes the operations that will be most often used. This practise carries the hidden assumption that the designer knows how the interface will actually be used. It also tends to encourage operational cliches; things that are neat, easy to do, and thus get overused. Software assistants add another layer to this landscape. Like a Tibetan sherpa guiding you up Mount Everest, intelligent assistants make it easier to traverse the more forbidding parts of the landscape, but they themselves create a second landscape. A guide selects and interprets, and may just as easily hide possibilities from you as present them.

My early interactive sound installations were programmed in 6502 assembly language (the 6502 was the processor in the Apple ][). I developed interactions in those days by setting up a simple interactive algorithm, testing the experience for a while, then modifying the code to implement the resulting new ideas. After the programming I’d have to do some debugging. Finally, after up to several hours of work, I could actually step in and experience the alteration. As a feedback loop this process was severely flawed. By the time I’d implemented the idea, I’d often lost track of the idea that sparked the modification. I decided to make the development process as interactive as the experience itself, so I wrote a simple language with which I could modify the behaviours in real-time. I took the basic structures and processes that I’d been coding in assembly language and turned them into standard objects and instructions. This language allowed me to create works in hours that would have taken months to realize in assembly code. It also allowed me to build more complex interactions from these standard building blocks, like any higher-level language. However, it took me a few months to realize that the language was having another effect on my installations. They were becoming less interesting; the building blocks of interaction that made up the language had become cliches.

Assembly code itself contains very little in the way of abstraction. I would take my idea and build it, as it were, atom by atom. It presents a relatively level playing field. My higher-level language was more of a terrain, with peaks and valleys. Once I was placed somewhere on that landscape, there were pathways that were easy and pathways that were difficult. My decisions about how and what to implement were inevitably influenced by this terrain. A landscape gives you a fine view in some directions and obscures others.

Everything that builds on abstractions (languages, perception, and user-interfaces) creates a biased terrain, even as it makes certain previously impossible things possible. Structural differences between languages like Chinese and English subtly cause native speakers to view the world differently. But whereas a spoken language has evolved over centuries and has had millions of unique co-designers from all walks of life, a user-interface or computer language has usually been designed by a small team of people with a lot in common. And they were probably in a big hurry.

When the Apple Macintosh first came onto the market, MacPaint™ sent a shock-wave through the creative community. For the first year, MacPaint-produced posters were everywhere, an explosion of the possibility for self-expression. But while the MacPaint medium reflected the user’s expressive gestures, it also refracted them through its own idiosyncratic prism. After a while, posters began to blend into an urban wallpaper of MacPaint textures and MacPaint patterns. The similarities overpowered the differences. Since then, graphics programs for computers have become more transparent, flexible, and commonplace, but the initial creative fervour that MacPaint ignited has abated. The restrictions that made MacPaint easy to use were also the characteristics that ultimately limited its usefulness as a medium for personal expression.

Television, radio and print broadcasting are portrayed as the bad boys from which interactivity rescues us. Interaction allows us to access a wider range of information, not just what the networks choose to broadcast. However, interactive systems do their own kinds of broadcasting; transmitting processes, modes of perception, action, and being. When you define how people access and experience content, you have a more abstract form of control over their information intake. It doesn’t matter that every piece of information in the world is on the internet, if the browsers and search engines, through biases in their design, make it unlikely that certain information will be found. It is not difficult to imagine an internet search engine provider selling search priority points; You pay your money, and your company’s web pages would automatically get an extra 10% rating on each query in which they come up, putting them closer to the top of the list of results, and so more likely to be accessed.

I’ve no desire to demonize interactive technologies. But we need to remind ourselves of the ways they subtly shape our experience, particularly in the face of the wild utopian rhetoric that currently surrounds interactiivity. Yes, interactive media can empower and enfranchise. But they simultaneously create new kinds of constraints on abstract and psychological levels, constraints that are more difficult to understand and critique than the familiar biases of the press and broadcast media. Information itself does not create meaning; meaning is created by context and flow, selection and grouping. By guiding us through jungles of content, interfaces are partially responsible for the meanings we discover through them.

In the early days of “Very Nervous System” I tried to reflect the actions of the user in as many parameters of the system’s behaviour as possible. I worked out ways to map velocity, gestural quality, acceleration, dynamics, and direction onto as many parameters of sound synthesis as I could. What I found was that people simply got lost. Every movement they made affected several aspects of the sound simultaneously, in different ways. Ironically, the system was interactive on so many levels that the interaction became indigestible. People’s most common response was to decide that the sounds from the system were not interactive at all, but were being played back on a cassette deck.

I found that as I reduced the number of dimensions of interaction, the user’s sense of empowerment grew. This struck me as problematic. I had, at the time, very idealistic notions about what interaction meant (and how it would change the world). In retrospect, the problem seems to have been a linguistic one: people were unfamiliar with the language of interaction that I gave them. Simplifying the language of interaction by reducing its variables let people recognize their impact on the system immediately. With repeated exposure, the user could handle and appreciate more nuanced levels of interaction. In time they could appreciate the flexible, expressive power I’d been trying to offer in the first place.

This is a comforting notion, but it only works if the interactive system stays the same long enough for users to become expert. At the current rate of technology development, such familiarity may never have a chance to develop. As perpetual new users, we may be drawn inexorably toward simplistic systems, trading real power for an ever-evolving glimpse of some never-to-be-achieved potential.

Interactive systems inherently involve feedback. The system responds to your actions, and you respond based on its responses and your desires. In “Very Nervous System,” I constructed tight real-time feedback loops with complex behaviours which illustrated several interesting characteristics of interactive feedback. The responsive character of “Very Nervous System” is built up of little virtual instrumentalists, each of which improvises according to its personal style based on what it “sees” through the camera. Some of those virtual players are drummers, who respond to movement with rhythmic patterns. A rhythmic pattern doesn’t necessarily have anything to do with an on-camera person’s rhythmic motion, it’s merely that virtual player’s way of responding. People often involuntarily fall into sync with one of those rhythms, then exclaim that the system is so “intelligent” that it synchronized to their movement!

This illustrates an interesting side effect of real-time interactive feedback loops. An action provokes a response which immediately provokes a shift in action which likewise immediately changes the system’s response, ad infinitum. The issue of who is controlling whom becomes blurred. The intelligence of the human interactors spreads around the whole loop, often coming back in ways they don’t recognize, causing them to attribute intelligence to the system.

Another reason for the confusion between what we as interactors do and what the system does, is that our consciousness seems to trail our actions by up to one tenth of a second. It takes that long for us to be fully aware of what we’re doing. I once programmed “Very Nervous System” to respond very clearly as soon as it saw the slightest movement. In every instance, the system responded before I realized that I’d started moving. In fact, the system seemed to respond at the moment that I decided I would move. This delay in consciousness makes it possible for systems with high sampling rates and response speeds to slip under the user’s consciousness. At this point, the system and its responses are experienced in the same way that we experience our own body. The interactive system becomes integrated into our proprioceptive system?the same internal sensing system that defines our sense of being in our body, and establishes the relative position of our arms and legs to our “point of consciousness.”

This phenomenon, like all the others I describe in this text, cuts both ways. Part of the desire that drove me to produce “Very Nervous System” was a desire to slip out of my own self-consciousness into direct, open experience of the world. In the right circumstances, the feedback loop of “Very Nervous System” effectively neutralizes consciousness, and can occasionally lead to states that could best be described as shamanistic. It can be intoxicating and addictive. I made a real breakthrough in the responsive quality of the system in 1987. I’d written a program where powerful drum sounds were produced by very aggressive movements. The result was extremely satisfying. After a week of developing and experiencing this new version, I found that I’d seriously damaged my back. I’d been throwing my body in the air with abandon, crashing myself against the virtual in search of those most satisfying sounds. This was a classic case of positive feedback.

Most natural and stable feedback systems are negative feedback systems, intended to keep a system in balance. If things get into any extreme state, the feedback mechanisms work against that state to restore balance and maintain the sustainability of the situation. This particular tuning of the “Very Nervous System” worked in reverse, egging me on to greater feats of physical movement until I wore myself out.

Pushing ourselves out of equilibrium is a way of opening us to change, but it can also lead to self-destruction or external manipulation. The mechanism that governs the evolution of life involves enormous test periods during which impossible or unsustainable life-forms are weeded out. Humans have evolved over a very long time to be well adapted to the stresses of everyday physical reality, and our species has evolved ways of balancing new pressures. But we now invent new pressures and stresses at an extraordinary rate. While technologies can be developed to counterbalance some of these stresses, the stability of this balance is not guaranteed. I’m not advocating a return to Darwinian rule, just pointing out the seriousness of the task of “engineering” this balance.

The recent explosion of interest in interactivity surprises me. Interaction is so much a part of our daily life as to be virtually banal. Breathing is a profoundly intimate social and physical interaction: we breathe air into our lungs, extract oxygen, and expel carbon dioxide into the air, to be breathed in by others or transformed by plants back into oxygen. Talking, crossing the street, and driving a car are all interactions significantly more complex than those supported by most interactive computer systems.

The world with which we interact has becoming increasingly abrasive. We breathe in exhaust fumes. A growing list of foods interact with our bodies to cause cancer. Infectious diseases like AIDS make us squeamish about physical contact (whether justified or not). Under this bombardment, we’re turning to ways of reducing our interaction with the world. The condom is, for example, a device intended to prevent interaction (either between sperm and ovum, or sperm and blood).

So perhaps the explosion of interest in interactivity is part of a search for havens of safe interaction: clean, sterile, non-physical spaces where we can satisfy our natural human desire to engage in things outside of ourselves.

While the physical sterility of virtual experiences may be the easiest to grasp, the key type of sterility in artificial experience, for me, is that the ideas themselves are hermetically sealed. In “reality” our concepts, models and abstractions are always projections onto a complicated reality that never fully yields to our logic. Simulated experiences are built up from models that we have ourselves defined or already understand. In a contained interactive system, we enter into our own models, into a space of no true ambiguity or contradiction. There is no “unfathomable,” which is a way of saying that there is no “God” in this virtual space.

In a similar vein, it’s important to understand the difference between “fractal” complexity and the complexity of life experience. Fractals are fascinating because a rich variety of forms are generated by a single, often simple algorithm. The endless and endlessly different structures of the Mandelbrot set are generated by a single equation addressed in an unusual way. This relationship between the infinite detail of the fractal and its terse mathematical representation is an extreme example of compression. The compression of images, sound and video into much smaller encoded representations is one of the keys of the current multimedia explosion.

Opposed to the incredibly compressible “complexity” of fractals is the complexity of true randomness. Something can be said to be random if it cannot be expressed by anything less than itself... that is to say, it’s incompressible. This rather philosophical notion can be observed in our everyday on-line communication. To move data around quickly and efficiently, we compress it, then send it through a modem that compresses it further. What is left is the incompressible core of the information. As you can hear through your modem when you dial up your internet service provider, the result sounds close to random noise.

Randomness and noise are usually things we avoid, but in the purely logical space of the computer, randomness and noise have proven to be welcome and necessary to break the deadly predictability. But random number generators, used so often to add “human” spice to computer games and computer-generated graphics are not “random” at all. They merely repeats over a fairly long period?a sterile simulation of the real thing.

The classic story of the power of randomness is the story of the many monkeys at typewriters typing away for many years. The Laws of Probability suggest that one of these monkeys will at some point accidentally type the entire works of William Shakespeare. And if you accept evolution, then you could say that this has already occurred. Many sub-atomic particles working over a long but not infinite amount of time have managed to generate the works of William Shakespeare, by gathering quite arbitrarily into molecules, proteins, life-forms, social structures and ultimately into Shakespeare himself.

On the other hand, neither a fractal nor a pseudo-random number generator is capable of this feat. Those systems are “closed.” No matter how far you expand them, Shakespeare’s work will not be generated. Shakespeare is actually beside the point here. Replace the work of Shakespeare in the above discussion with any extremely unlikely but theoretically possible occurrence (the origin of life, the birth of the first consciousness or meeting the love of your life). These occurrences are statistically unlikely, but they can have a profound effect on the life of those who run into them. When you think back over your life, which were the really pivotal events: the predictable ones or the ones that seemed the most improbable?

In designing environments for experience, we must remain humble in the face of the power of irresolvable, non-fractal complexity. The computer is an almost pure vacuum, devoid of unpredictability. Computer bugs, while annoying, are never actually unpredictable unless this “vacuum” fails, as when the hardware itself overheats or is otherwise physically damaged. This vacuum is extremely useful, but it’s no place to live.

When I started working with interactive systems I saw the “vacuum” of the computer as the biggest challenge. I developed “Very Nervous System” as an attempt to draw as much of the universe’s complexity into the computer as possible. The result is not very useful in the classical sense, but it creates the possibility of experiences which in themselves are useful and thought-provoking, particularly by making directly tangible that what is lost in over-simplification.

One of the initial motivations behind interactive interfaces was that they would allow users to apply their accumulated common sense and knowledge of the world to their navigation of the abstract realm of information. Abstract things become sensual and experiential. The use of familiar metaphors to approximate simulations of the real world enables users to make decisions and handle data in familiar, intuitive ways. This has been the reason for the dramatic success of the graphical user interface. In retrospect, however, this may have been merely a transitional strategy. Children now spend enough time interacting through synthetic interfaces that their common sense and knowledge of the “world” will have been formed partly by the interfaces and abstract simulations themselves. The shifting of the experiential base from “reality” to the video game’s or educational software’s virtual reality has far reaching implications. Interaction is not a novelty to today’s children; it’s an integral part of the only reality they have known.

From a purely practical point of view this is a useful situation. (Imagine a touch of sarcasm here) Children are adapting from birth to the language of synthetic interfaces. We will no longer have to worry about the real-world behaviours and expectations of our users that make designing intuitive interfaces so difficult. Common virtual sense will be widespread.

In the process however, those of us who design interactions inadvertently step into the realm of theologians and philosophers, perhaps even gods. We’re laying the foundations for new ways of seeing and experiencing the world. And through communications interfaces we’re building new social and political infrastructures. Economic pressure, intense competition, and shrinking product development cycles make it difficult to accept and do justice to this responsibility.

But accepting responsibility is at the heart of interactivity. Responsibility means, literally, the ability to respond. An interaction is only possible when two or more people or systems agree to be sensitive and responsive to each other. The process of designing an interaction should also itself be interactive. We design interfaces, pay close attention to the user’s responses and make modifications as a result of our observations. But we need to expand the terms of this interactive feedback loop from simply measuring functionality and effectiveness, to include an awareness of the impressions an interaction leaves on the user and the ways these impressions change the user’s experience of the world.

We’re always looking for better input devices and better sensors to improve the interactive experience. But we also need to improve our own sensors, perceptions and conceptual models so we can be responsive to the broader implications of our work.


1 quoted by O. B. Hardison, Jr., Disappearing Through the Skylight (New York: Viking Penguin), 319
2 Myron W. Krueger, Artificial Reality II (Reading: Addison-Wesley, 1991), xvi.
3 Florian Rötzer, “On Fascination, Reaction, Virtual Worlds and Others”, Virtual Seminar on the BioApparatus (Banff: The Banff Centre, 1991), 102.

Above copied from:

Monday, November 24, 2008

The Emancipated Spectator, Jacques Rancière

talk by Jacques Rancière in 2004

I gave to this talk the title: « the emancipated spectator » . As I understand it, a title is always a challenge. It sets forth the presupposition that an expression makes sense, that there is a link between separate terms, which also means between concepts , problems and theories which seem at first sight to bear no direct relation on each other. In a sense, this title expresses the perplexity that was mine when Marten Spangberg invited me to deliver what is supposed to be the “keynote” lecture of this academy. He told me that he wanted me to introduce this collective reflection on “spectatorship”, because he had been impressed by my book The Ignorant Schoolmaster. I first wondered what kind of relationship there could be between the cause and the effect ? This an academy bringing together artists and people involved in the world of art , theatre and performance on the issue of spectatorship to-day. The Ignorant Schoolmaster was a meditation on the eccentric theory and the strange destiny of Joseph Jacotot, a French professor, who, at the beginning of the 19th century, made a mess in the academic world by asserting that an ignorant could teach another ignorant what he did not know himself , proclaiming the equality of intelligences and calling for intellectual emancipation against the standard idea of the instruction of the people. His theory sank in oblivion in the middle of the 19th century. I thought it necessary to revive it in the 1980’s in order to put a new kind of mess in the debate about Education and its political stakes. But what use can be made, in the contemporary artistic debate, of a man whose artistic universe could be epitomized by names such as Demosthenes, Racine and Poussin?

On second thoughts, I thought that the very distance, the lack of any obvious relationship between Jacotot’s theory and the issue of spectatorship to-day could be a chance. It could provide the opportunity of taking a radical distance from the theoretical and political presuppositions which still shore up, even in postmodern disguise , most of the debate on theatre , performance and spectatorship . I got the impression that it was possible to make sense of the relationship , on condition that we try to piece together the network of presuppositions that put the issue of spectatorship at a strategic cross point in the discussion of the relationship between art and politics and draw the global pattern of rationality on the background of which we have been addressing for a long time the political issues of theatre and spectacle . I am using here those terms in a very general sense , including dance , performance and all the kinds of spectacle performed by acting bodies in front of a collective audience.

The numerous debates and polemics that had called the theatre into question all along our history can be traced back to a very simple contradiction. Let us call it the paradox of the spectator, a paradox which may prove more crucial than the well-known paradox of the actor. This paradox can be summed up in very simple terms. There is no theatre without spectators ( were it only a single and hidden one , as in Diderot’s fictional representation of Le Fils naturel) . But spectatorship is a bad thing . Being a spectator means looking at a spectacle. And looking is a bad thing , for two reasons . Firstly looking is put as the opposite of knowing. It means being in front of an appearance without knowing the conditions of production of that appearance or the reality which is behind it. Secondly, looking is put as the opposite of acting. He or she who looks at the spectacle remains motionless on his or her seat, without any power of intervention. Being a spectator means being passive. The spectator is separated from the capacity of knowing in the same way as he is separated from the possibility of acting.

From that diagnosis it is possible to draw two opposing conclusions. The first one is that theatre in general is a bad thing, that is the stage of illusion and passivity which has to be dismissed in favour of what it forbids : knowledge and action : the action of knowing and the action led by knowledge . This conclusion has been drawn long ago by Plato: the theatre is the place where ignorant people are invited to see suffering people. What takes place on the stage is a pathos, the manifestation of a disease, the disease of desire and pain, which is nothing but the self-division of the subject caused by the lack of knowledge. The “action “of theatre is nothing but the transmission of that disease through another disease, the disease of the empirical vision which looks at shadows. Theatre is the transmission of the ignorance which makes people ill through the medium of ignorance which is optical illusion. Therefore a good community is a community which does not allow the mediation of the theatre, a community whose collective virtues are directly incorporated in the living attitudes of his participants.

This seems to be the more logical conclusion of the problem. We know however that it is not the conclusion that was most often drawn. The most usual conclusion runs as follows: theatre involves spectatorship and spectatorship is a bad thing. Therefore we need a new theatre, a theatre without spectatorship . We need a theatre where the optical relation- implied in the word theatron - is subjected to another relation , implied in the word drama . Drama means action. The theatre is a place where an action is actually performed by living bodies in front of living bodies. The latter may have resigned their power. But this power is resumed in the performance of the former, in the intelligence that builds it , in the energy that it conveys . The true sense of the theatre must be predicated on that acting power. Theatre has to be brought back to its true essence which is the contrary of what is usually known as theatre. What has to be pursued is a theatre without spectators, a theatre where spectators will no longer be spectators, where they will learn things instead of being captured by images and become active participants in a collective performance instead of being passive viewers .

This turn has been understood in two ways which are antagonistic in their principle though they have often been mixed in theatrical performance and in its legitimization . On the one hand, the spectator must be released from the passivity of the viewer, who is fascinated by the appearance standing in front of him, and identifies with the characters on the stage . He must be proposed the spectacle of something strange, unusual, which stands as an enigma and demands that he investigate the reason for that strangeness. He must be pressed to switch from the status of the passive viewer to the status of the scientist who observes phenomena and looks for their cause. On the other hand the spectator has to leave the status of a mere observer who remains still and untouched in front of a distant spectacle. He must be dragged away from his delusive mastery, drawn into the magic power of theatrical action where he will exchange the privilege of the rational viewer for the possession of its true vital energies.

We acknowledge those two paradigmatic attitudes epitomized by Brecht’s epic theatre and Artaud’s theatre of cruelty. On the one hand, the spectator has to become more distant , on the other hand he has to loose any distance. On the one hand he has to change his look for a better look, on the other hand he has to leave the very position of the viewer. The project of reforming the theatre ceaselessly wavered between these two poles of distant inquiry and vital embodiment. This means that the presuppositions which underpin the search for a new theatre are the same which underpinned the dismissal of theatre. The reformers of the theatre in fact resumed the terms of Plato’s polemics. They only rearranged them by borrowing from the platonician dispositif another idea of the theatre. Plato opposed to the poetic and democratic community of the theatre a “true” community : a choreographic community where nobody remains a motionless spectator, where everybody is moving according to the communitarian rhythm which is determined by the mathematical proportion.

The reformers of the theatre restaged the platonic opposition between choreia and theatre as an opposition between the true living essence of the theatre and the simulacrum of the “spectacle”. The theatre then became the place where passive spectatorship had to be turned into its contrary: the living body of a community enacting its own principle. In the text introducing the topic of our academy we can read that “ theatre remains the only place of direct confrontation of the audience with itself as a collective”. We can give to the sentence a restrictive meaning that would merely contrast the collective audience of the theatre with the individual visitors of an exhibition or the sheer collection of individuals looking at a movie. But obviously the sentence means much more. It means that “theatre” remains the name for an idea of the community as a living body. It conveys an idea of the community as self-presence opposed to the distance of the representation.

Since German romanticism, the concept of theatre has been associated with that idea of the living community. Theatre appeared as a form of the aesthetic constitution – meaning the sensory constitution - of the community: the community as a way of occupying time and space, as a set of living gestures and attitudes which stands before any kind of political form and institution : community as a performing body instead of an apparatus of forms and rules . In that way theatre was associated with the romantic idea of the aesthetic revolution: the idea of a revolution which would not only change laws and institutions but transform the sensory forms of human experience . The reform of theatre thus meant the restoration of its authenticity as an assembly or a ceremony of the community. Theatre is an assembly where the people become aware of their situation and discuss their own interests, Brecht will say after Piscator . Theatre is the ceremony where the community is given the possession of its own energies, Artaud will state. If theatre is put as an equivalent of the true community, the living body of the community opposed to the illusion of the mimesis , it comes as no surprise that the attempt at restoring Theatre in its true essence take place on the very background of the critique of the spectacle .

What is the essence of the spectacle in Guy Debord’s theory? It is externality. The spectacle is the reign of vision. Vision means externality. Now externality means the dispossession of one’s own being. “The more man contemplates, the less he is”, Debord says. This may sound anti-platonician. Obviously the main source for the critique of the spectacle is Feuerbach’s critique of religion . It is what sustains that critique, namely the romantic idea of truth as unseparateness . But that idea itself still keeps in line with the platonician disparagement of the mimetic image . The contemplation that Debord denounces is the theatrical or mimetic contemplation, the contemplation of the suffering which is provoked by division. “Separation is the alpha and the omega of the theatre”. What man contemplates in this scheme is the activity that has been stolen to him, it is his own essence, torn away from him , turned foreign to him, hostile to him, making for a collective world whose reality is nothing but man’s own dispossession.

In such a way there is no contradiction between the search for a theatre achieving its own essence and the critique of the spectacle. The “good” theatre is posited as a theatre that uses its separate reality in order to suppress it, to turn the theatrical form into a form of life of the community. The paradox of the spectator is part of this intellectual dispositif which keeps in line, even in the name of the theatre , with the platonician dismissal of the theatre . This dispositif still sets to work some ground ideas which have to be brought back into question. More precisely what has to be questioned is the very footing on which those ideas are based . It is a whole set of relations , resting on some key equivalences and some key oppositions : equivalence of theatre and community , of seeing and passivity, of externality and separation , mediation and simulacrum; oppositions between collective and individual, image and living reality, activity and passivity, self-possession and alienation.

This set of equivalences and oppositions makes for a rather tricky dramaturgy of guilt and redemption . Theatre is charged with making spectators passive while its very essence is supposed to consist in the self-activity of the community . As a consequence it sets itself the task of reversing its effect and compensating for its own guilt by giving back to the spectators their self-consciousness or self-activity. The theatrical stage and the theatrical performance thus become the vanishing mediation between the evil of the spectacle and the virtue of the true theatre . They propose to the collective audience performances intended to teach the spectators how they can stop to be spectators and become performers of a collective activity . Either, according to the Brechtian paradigm, the theatrical mediation makes them aware of the social situation on which it rests itself and prompts them to act in consequence. Or, according to the Artaudian scheme it makes them leave the position of spectators : instead of being in front of a spectacle, they are surrounded by the performance , dragged into the circle of the action which gives them back their collective energy. In both cases the theatre is a self-suppressing mediation.

This is the point where the descriptions and propositions of intellectual emancipation can get into the picture and help us reframe it. Obviously this idea of a self-suppressing mediation is well-known to us. It is exactly the process which is supposed to take place in the pedagogical relation. In the pedagogical process the role of the schoolmaster is posited as the act of suppressing the distance between his knowledge and the ignorance of the ignorant. His lessons and exercises are aimed at continuously reducing the gap between knowledge and ignorance. Unfortunately, in order to reduce the gap, he has to reinstate it ceaselessly. In order to replace ignorance by the adequate knowledge, he must always run one step ahead of the ignorant who looses his ignorance. The reason for this is simple: in the pedagogical scheme, the ignorant is not only the one who does not know what he does not know. He is the one who ignores that he does not know what he does not know and ignores how to know it. The master is not only he who exactly knows what remains unknown to the ignorant. He also knows how to make it knowable, at what time and what place, according to what protocol .On the one hand, pedagogy is set up as a process of objective transmission: one part of knowledge after another part : a word after another word , a rule or a theorem after another . This part of knowledge is supposed to be exactly conveyed from the master’s mind or the page of the book into the mind of the pupil. But this equal transmission is predicated on a relation of inequality . The master alone knows the right way, time and place for that “equal” transmission, because he knows something that the ignorant will never know, short of becoming a master himself , something which is more important that the knowledge conveyed. He knows the exact distance between ignorance and knowledge. That pedagogical distance between a determined ignorance and a determined knowledge is in fact a metaphor . It is the metaphor of a radical break between the way of the ignorant and the way of the master, the metaphor of a radical break between two intelligences.

The master cannot ignore than the so-called “ignorant” who is in front of him knows in fact a lot of things, that he has learnt on its own , by looking and listening around him , by figuring out the meaning of what he has seen and heard , repeating what he has heard and known by chance, comparing what he discovers with what he already knew and so on . He cannot ignore that the ignorant has made by this way the apprenticeship which is the condition of any other : the apprenticeship of his mother tongue. But for him this is only the knowledge of the ignorant : the knowledge of the little child who sees and hears at random, compares and guesses by chance and repeats by routine , without understanding the reason for the effects that he observes and reproduces. The role of the master is to break with that process of groping by hit-and-miss . It is to teach the pupil the knowledge of the knowledgeable, in its own way: the way of the progressive method which dismisses all groping and all chance, by explaining items in order , from the simplest to the most complex, according to what the pupil is able of understanding , with respect to its age or its social background and social destination.

The first knowledge that the master owns is the “knowledge of ignorance”. It is the presupposition of a radical break between two forms of intelligence. This is also the first knowledge that he transmits to the student: the knowledge that he has to be explained to in order to understand, the knowledge that he cannot understand on his own. It is the knowledge of his incapacity. In that way, progressive instruction is the endless verification of its starting point: inequality. That endless verification of inequality is what Jacotot calls the process of stultification. The opposite of stultification is emancipation. Emancipation is the process of verification of the equality of intelligence. The equality of intelligence is not the equality of all manifestations of intelligence . It is the equality of intelligence in all its manifestations. It means that there is no gap between two forms of intelligence. The human animal learns everything as he has learnt his mother tongue , as he has learnt to venture through the forest of things and signs which surrounds him in order to take his place among his fellow humans : by observing , comparing one thing with another thing, one sign with one fact , one sign with another sign, and repeating the experiences he has first made by chance . If the “ignorant” who does not know how to read , knows only one thing by heart, be it a simple prayer, he can compare this knowledge with something that he still ignores : the words of the same prayer written on a paper. He can learn, sign after sign, the resemblance of what he ignores with what he knows. He can do it if , at each step, he observes what is in front of him, tells what he has seen and verifies what he has told. From this ignorant up to the scientist which builds hypotheses, it is always the same intelligence which is at work: an intelligence which makes figures and comparisons in order to communicate its intellectual adventures and to understand what another intelligence tries to communicate to it in turn.

This poetic work of translation is the first condition of any apprenticeship. Intellectual emancipation , as Jacotot conceived of it, means the awareness and the enactment of that equal power of translation and counter-translation. Emancipation entails an idea of distance opposed to the stultifying one . Speaking animals are distant animals who try to communicate through the forest of signs .It is that other sense of distance that the “ignorant master” – the master who ignores inequality- is teaching. Distance is not an evil that should be abolished. It is the normal condition of any communication. It is not a gap which calls for an expert in the art of suppressing it. The distance that the “ ignorant” has to cover is not the gap between his ignorance and the knowledge of the master . It is the way between what he already knows and what he still does not know but can learn by the same process. To help him to cover it, the “ignorant master” needs not be ignorant. He only has to dissociate his knowledge from his mastery. He does not teach his knowledge to the students. He commands them to venture forth in the forest, to tell what they see, what they think of what they have seen, to check it and so on. What he ignores is the gap between two intelligences. It is the linkage between the knowledge of the knowledgeable and the ignorance of the ignorant. Any distance is a casual one . Each intellectual act weaves a casual thread between an ignorance and a knowledge .No kind of social hierarchy can be predicated on that sense of distance.

What is the relevance of this story with respect to the question of the spectator? We are no more in the times when the dramaturges wanted to explain to their audience the truth about social relations and the good way to do away with domination. But it is not enough to loose his own illusions . On the contrary it often happens that the loss of their illusions lead the dramaturges or the performers to increase the pressure on the spectator: maybe he will know what has to be done, if the performance changes him , if it sets him apart from his passive attitude and makes him an active participant in the common world. This is the first point that the reformers of the theatre share with the stultifying pedagogues : the idea of the gap between two positions. Even when the dramaturge or the performer does not know what he wants the spectator to do, he knows at least that he has to do something: switching from passivity to activity.

But why not turn things around? Why not think, in this case too, that it is precisely the attempt at suppressing the distance which constitutes the distance itself ? Why identify the fact of being seated motionless with inactivity, if not by the presupposition of a radical gap between activity and inactivity? Why identify “looking” with “passivity” if not by the presupposition that looking means looking at the image or the appearance , that it means being separated from the reality which always is behind the image? Why identify hearing with being passive, if not by the presupposition that acting is the opposite of speaking , etc, etc.? All those oppositions – looking/knowing, looking/acting, appearance/reality , activity/passivity are much more than logical oppositions. They are what I can call a partition of the sensible, a distribution of the places and of the capacities or the incapacities attached to those places. Put in other terms, they are allegories of inequality. This is why you can change the values given to each position without changing the meaning of the oppositions themselves. For instance, you can exchange the positions of the superior and the inferior. The spectator is usually disparaged because he does nothing , while the performers on the stage – or the workers outside – do something with their body. But it is easy to turn matters around by stating that they who act, they who work with their body are obviously inferior to those who are able to look: those who can contemplate ideas, foresee the future or take a global view of our world . The positions can be switched but the structure remains the same. What counts in fact is only the statement of the opposition between two categories : there is one population that cannot do what the other population does. There is capacity on one side and incapacity on the other.

Emancipation starts from the opposite principle, the principle of equality. It begins when we dismiss the opposition between looking and acting and understand that the distribution of the visible itself is part of the configuration of domination and subjection. It starts when we realize that looking also is an action which confirms or modifies that distribution , and that “interpreting the world” is already a means of transforming it, of reconfiguring it . The spectator is active, as the student or the scientist : he observes, he selects , compares, interprets. He ties up what he observes with many other things that he has observed on other stages , in other kind of spaces .He makes his poem with the poem that is performed in front of him . She participates in the performance if she is able to tell her own story about the story which is in front of her. This also means if she is able to undo the performance , for instance to deny the corporeal energy that it is supposed to convey here in the present and transform it into a mere image , if she can link it with something that she has read in a book or dreamt about a story , that she has lived or fancied. They are distant viewers and interpreters of what is performed in front of them. They pay attention to the performance to the extent that they are distant.

This is the second key point: the spectators see, feel and understand something to the extent that they make their poem as the poet has done, as the actors, dancers or performers have done. The dramaturge would like them to see this thing, feel that feeling, understand this lesson of what they see, and get into that action in consequence of what they have seen, felt and understood. He sets in the same presupposition as the stultifying master: the presupposition of an equal, undistorted transmission. The master presupposes that what the student learns is the same thing as what he teaches to him. It is what is involved in the idea of transmission: there is something - a knowledge, a capacity, an energy – which is on one side, in one mind or one body- and that must be transferred onto the other side, into the other’s mind or body. The presupposition is that the process of learning is not only the effect of its cause –teaching - but that it is the transmission of the cause : what the student learns is the knowledge of the master. That identity of the cause and the effect is the principle of stultification . On the contrary ,the principle of emancipation is the dissociation of the cause and the effect. The paradox of the ignorant master lies there. The student of the ignorant master learns what his master does not know, since his master commands it to look for and to tell everything that he finds out on the way and verifies that he is actually looking for it. The student learns something as an effect of his master’s mastery . But he does not learn his master’s knowledge.

The dramaturge or the performer does not want to “teach” something, indeed. There is some distrust today regarding the idea of using the stage as a way of teaching . They only want to bring about a form of awareness or a force of feeling or action. But they still make the supposition that what will be felt or understood will be what they have put in their own dramaturgy or performance. They presuppose the equality – meaning the homogeneity - of the cause and the effect. As we know, this equality rests on an inequality. It rests on the presupposition that there is a good knowledge and good practice of the “distance” and of the means of suppressing it. Now the distance takes on two forms. There is the distance between the performers and the spectators. But there is also the distance inherent in the performance itself, as it stands as a “spectacle” between the idea of the artist and the feeling and interpretation of the spectator. This spectacle is a third thing , to which both parts can refer but which prevents any kind of “equal” or “undistorted” transmission. It is a mediation between them. That mediation of a third term is crucial in the process of intellectual emancipation. To prevent stultification there must be something between the master and the student. The same thing which links them must separate them. Jacotot posited the book as that in-between thing. The book is that material thing, foreign to both the master and the student, where they can verify what the student has seen, what he has told about it, what he thinks of what he has told.

This means that the paradigm of intellectual emancipation is clearly opposed to another idea of emancipation on which the reform of theatre has often been predicated : the idea of emancipation as the re-appropriation of a self which had been lost in a process of separation. The debordian critique of the spectacle still rests on the feuerbachian thinking of representation as an alienation of the self : the human being puts its human essence out of him by framing a celestial world to which the real human world is submitted . In the same way the essence of human activity is distanced, alienated from men in the exteriority of the spectacle. The mediation of the “third term” thus appears as the instance of separation, dispossession and treachery. An idea of the theatre predicated on that idea of the spectacle conceives the externality of the stage as a kind of transitory state which has to be superseded . The suppression of that exteriority thus becomes the telos of the performance . That program demands that the spectators be on the stage and the performers in the auditorium. It demands that the very difference between the two spaces be abolished, that the performance take place anywhere else than in a theatre . For sure many improvements of the theatrical performance resulted from that breaking of the traditional distribution of the places. But the “redistribution” of the places is one thing, the demand that the theatre achieve, as its essence, the gathering of an unseparate community, is another thing . The first one means the invention of new forms of intellectual adventure, the second means a new form of platonic assignment of the bodies to their good place, their “communal” place.

This presupposition against mediation is connected with a third one: the presupposition that the essence of the theatre is the essence of the community. The spectator is supposed to be redeemed when he is no more an individual , when he is restored to the status of a member of a community, when he is carried in the flood of the collective energy or led to the position of the citizen who acts as a member of the collective . The less the dramaturge knows what the spectators must do as a collective, the more he knows that they must become a collective, turn their addition into the community that they virtually are. It is high time, I think, to bring back into question the idea of the theatre as a specifically communitarian place. It is supposed to be such a place because , on the stage, real living bodies give the performance for people who are physically present together in the same place. In that way it is supposed to provide some unique sense of community, radically different from the situation of the individuals watching on the TV or the spectators of a movie who are in front of mere projected images. Strange as it may seem, the generalization of the use of the images and of all kinds of media in theatrical performances didn’t change the presupposition. Images may take the place of living bodies. But, as long as the spectators are gathered here, the living and communitarian essence of the theatre appears to be saved so that it seems possible to escape the question: what does specifically happen between the spectators of a theatre which would not happen elsewhere? Is there something more interactive, more common to them than to the individuals who look at the same time the same show on their TV?

I think that this “something” is just the presupposition that the theatre is communitarian by itself . That presupposition of what “theatre” means always runs ahead of the performance and predates its actual effects. But in a theatre, or in front of a performance, just as in a museum, a school or a street, there are only individuals, weaving their own way in the forest of words, acts and things that stand in front of them or around them. The collective power which is common to the spectators is not the status of members of a collective body. Nor is it a peculiar kind of interactivity. It is the power of translating in their own way what they are looking at. It is the power to connect it with the intellectual adventure which makes any of them similar to any other in so far as his or her way does not look like any other. The common power is the power of the equality of intelligence. This power binds individuals together to the very extent that it keeps them apart from each over, able to weave with the same power their own way. What has to be put to test by our performances – whether it be teaching or performing, speaking , writing, doing art , etc, is not the capacity of aggregation of a collective . It is the capacity of the anonyms, the capacity which makes anybody equal to everybody. This capacity works through unpredictable and irreducible distances. It works through an unpredictable and irreducible play of associations and dissociations.

Associating and dissociating instead of being the privileged medium which conveys the knowledge or the energy that makes people active: this could be the principle of an “emancipation of the spectator” which means the emancipation of any of us as a spectator. Spectatorship is not the passivity has to be turned into activity. It is our normal situation. We learn and teach, we act and know as spectators who link what they see with what they have seen and told, done and dreamt. There is no privileged medium as there is no privileged starting point. There are everywhere starting points and knot points from which we learn something new, if we dismiss firstly the presupposition of the distance, secondly the distribution of the roles, thirdly the borders between the territories. We have not to turn spectators into actors. We have to acknowledge that any spectator already is an actor of his own story and that the actor also is the spectator of the same kind of story. We have not to turn the ignorant into learned persons, or, according to a mere scheme of overturn, make the student or the ignorant the master of his masters.

Let me make a little detour through my own political and academic experience. I belong to a generation which was poised between two competing statements: according to the first , those who had the intelligence of the social system had to teach it to those who suffered from it and would act in order to overthrow that system ; according to the second , the supposed learned persons in fact were ignorant : as they knew nothing of what exploitation and rebellion were , they had to become the students of the so-called ignorant workers. Therefore I tried to re-elaborate Marxist theory in order to give its theoretical weapons to a new revolutionary movement , then to learn from those who worked in the fabrics what exploitation and rebellion meant. For me, as for many other people in my generation , none of those attempts proved really successful . That’s why I decided to look in the history of the worker’s movement for the reason of all the mismatches between the workers and the intellectuals who had come and visited them , in order either to instruct them or to be instructed by them . I was lucky enough to find out that it was not a matter of relationship between knowledge and ignorance, no more than between knowing and acting or individuality and community. One day in May, during the 70’s, as I was looking at a worker’s letters from the 1830’s in order to find what the condition and the consciousness of workers was at the time , I found out something quite different : the adventures of two visitors ,on another day in another time of May, one hundred and forty years before . One of the two correspondents had just been introduced into the utopian community of the saint-simonians and he told his friend the schedule of his days in utopia: works, exercises, games, choirs and stories . His friend in turn told him the story of a country party that he had just done with two other workers in order to enjoy his last Sunday leisure . But it was not the usual Sunday leisure of the worker restoring his physical and mental forces for the following week of work. It was in fact a breakthrough into another kind leisure: the leisure of the aesthetes who enjoy the forms , lights and shades of Nature , of the philosophers who spend their time exchanging metaphysical hypotheses in a country inn and of the apostles who set out to communicate their faith to the chance companions they meet in any inn.

Those workers who should have provided me information about the conditions of labour and the forms of class-consciousness in the 1830’s provided in fact something quite different: a sense of likeness or equality : they too were spectators and visitors amidst their own class . Their activity as propagandists could not be torn apart from their “passivity” as mere strollers and contemplators. The chronic of their leisure meant a reframing of the very relationship between doing, seeing and saying . As they became “spectators” , they overthrew the distribution of the sensible which had it that those who work have no time left to stroll and look at random , that the members of a collective body have no time to be “individuals” . This is what emancipation means: the blurring of the opposition between they who look and they who act, they who are individuals and they who are members of a collective body. What those “days” brought them was not the knowledge and energy for a future action. It was the reconfiguration hic et nunc of the distribution of Time and Space . Workers’ emancipation was not about acquiring the knowledge of their condition . It was about configuring a time and a space that invalidated the old distribution of the sensible, dooming the workers to do nothing of their night but restoring their forces to work the next day .

Understanding the sense of that break in the heart of Time also meant setting to work another kind of knowledge, predicated not on the presupposition of the gap but on the presupposition of likeness. They too were intellectuals, as anybody is. They were visitors and spectators, just as the researcher who, one hundred and forty years after was reading their letters in a library, just as the visitors in Marxist theory or at the gates of the fabrics. There was no gap to bridge between intellectuals and workers, actors and spectators , no gap between two populations, two situations or two ages. On the contrary, there was a likeness that had to be acknowledged and put at play in the very production of knowledge. Putting it at play meant two things. Firstly, it meant refusing the borders between the disciplines. Telling the (hi)story of those days and those nights forced me to blur the boundary between the field of “empirical” history and the field of “pure” Philosophy. The story that those workers told was about Time, about the loss and reappropriation of Time . In order to show what it meant, I had to put it in direct relation with the theoretical discourse of the philosopher , namely Plato, who had told , very long ago , in his Republic , the same story by explaining that in a well-ordered community everybody had to do only one thing , his own business, and that workers anyway had no time to stand in another place that their workplace and do anything but the job fitting the (in)capacity that Nature had given them. Philosophy then could no more appear as the sphere of pure thought separated from the sphere of empirical facts. Nor was it the theoretical interpretation of those facts. There were neither facts nor interpretations. There were two ways of telling stories.

Blurring the border between academic disciplines also meant blurring the hierarchy between the levels of discourse, between the narration of a story and the philosophical or scientific explanation of the reason of the story or the truth lying behind or beneath the story. There was no metadiscourse telling the truth about a lower level of discourse. What had to be done was a work of translation, showing how empirical stories and philosophical discourses translate each other. Producing a new knowledge meant inventing the idiomatic form that would make the translation possible. I had to use that idiom to tell my own intellectual adventure, at the risk that the idiom remain “unreadable”for all those who wanted to know the cause of the story, its true meaning or the lesson for action that could be drawn out of it . I had to produce a discourse that would be readable only for they who would make their own translation from the point of view of their own adventure.

That personal detour may lead us back to the core of our problem. Those issues of crossing the borders and blurring the distribution of the roles come up with the actuality of the theatre and the actuality of contemporary art, where all artistic competences step out of their own field and exchange their places and powers with all others. We have theatre plays without words and dance with words; installations and performances instead of “plastic” works ; videoprojections turned into cycles of frescoes; photographs turned into living pictures or history paintings; sculpture which becomes hypermediatic show, etc., etc. Now there are three ways of understanding and practising that confusion of the genres. There is the revival of the Gesamtkunstwerk which is supposed to be the apotheosis of art as a form of life but actually proves to be the apotheosis of some strong artistic egos or the apotheosis of a kind of hyperactivist consumerism, if not both at the same time. There is the idea of a “hybridisation” of the means of art , which would fit in with a new age of mass individualism viewed of as an age of relentless exchange between roles and identities, between reality and virtuality , life and mechanical prostheses, etc. In my view, this second interpretation ultimately leads to the same as the first one. It leads to another kind of hyperactivist consumerism, another kind of stultification , using the crossing of the borders or the confusion of the roles only as a means of increasing the power of the performance without questioning its grounds.

The third way – the good way in my view – does not aim for the amplification of the effect but for the transformation of the cause/effect scheme itself, the dismissal of the set of oppositions which grounds the process of stultification. It invalidates the opposition between activity and passivity as well as the scheme of “equal transmission” and the communitarian idea of the theatre that makes it in fact an allegory of inequality . The crossing of the borders and the confusion of the roles should not lead to some sort of “hypertheatre” turning spectatorship into activity by turning representation to presence. On the contrary, it should question the theatrical privilege of living presence and bring the stage back to a level of equality with the telling of a story or the writing and the reading of a book. It should be the institution of a new stage of equality, where the different kinds of performances would be translated into one another. In all those performances in fact , it is a matter of linking what one knows with what one does not know, of being at the same time performers who display their competences and visitors or spectators who are looking for what those competences may produce in a new context , among unknown people. Artists, just as researchers, build the stage where the manifestation and the effect of their competences become dubious as they frame the story of a new adventure in a new idiom. The effect of the idiom cannot be anticipated . It calls for spectators who are active as interpreters, who try to invent their own translation in order to appropriate the story for themselves and make their own story out of it. An emancipated community is in fact a community of storytellers and translators.

I am aware that all this may sound as : words, mere words. But I would not hear this as an insult . We have heard so many speakers passing off their words as more than words, as passwords enabling us to enter a new life . We have seen so many spectacles boasting on being no more spectacles but ceremonials of community. Even now, in spite of the so-called postmodern scepticism about changing life, we can see so many shows turned to religious mysteries that it might not seem outrageous to hear that words are only words . Breaking away with the phantasms of the Word made flesh and the spectator turned active , knowing that words are only words and spectacles only spectacles may help us better understand how words, stories and performances can help us change something in the world where we are living.

- Jacques Rancière
Frankfurt , August 2004

Association and dissociation versus being the medium of an aggregation of a collective around its true knowledge or energy
(the link with the ignorance of the performer; cf my practice of the knowledge of the ignorant )la séance Gauny ; the voyage ;
(community against equality)
( the collective power in everybody )

The idea of the community of translators ; the role of translation ; the staging of non-theatrical texts ; the reintroduction of narration and text in choreography . the transformation of theatrical texts ; the suppression of the text; the mixing-up of living bodies and images, etc… ( different from the “communitarian idea” Putting together things which re not supposed to be put together)

The fetichism of action and the fetichism of knowledge . School and theatre.

( the pedagogical relation : the exercises of consciousness and energy ; the circle : the suppression of the relation that constitutes theatre or school; the institution that works on the presupposition of its self-suppression , which is the suppression of the distance ; the infinite exercise of reproducing the distance “by” suppressing it )

The place of the presupposition of “equality in transmission” ; the knot between equality and unequality.

Reforming the theatre on the background of the critique of the spectacle, this means using the mediation of theatrical representation in order to dismiss the theatre as a separate form, as an “artistic” form.[ According to Guy Debord “art is the common language of social inaction”. ]

true presence, true movement against the evil which is division, mediation, representation
( the actors as the relation of the audience to itself; the choir; the theatre as another assembly of the people)

the idea of the true community ; Brecht the popular meeting against social exploitation, Artaud the collective ritual against the disease of civilisation)
( the paradigm of incorporation ; cf Plato/Debord)

The presuppositions : presence of the community to itself (the unseparate body of the community)

Exteriority as simulacrum

Mediation as separation

Equal transmission ( whether it be good or wrong)

Position of mastery ( the master is the expert in terms of “equal transmission”)

We should never forget this first statement of the issue which still underpins in fact all the critiques of theatre and all the wills to change theatre. Theatre is the transmission of the disease of passivity through the disease of looking. It is easy to find this original pattern underpinning theories as different as Brecht’s epic theatre or Artaud’s “theatre de la cruauté” . What Brecht stigmatizes is the theatrical illusion which keeps the spectator in a state of hypnotism and passivity. And he calls for an active spectator, meaning a knowledgeable spectator who refuses identification takes distance from what he sees and asks why it is so . What Artaud disparages is a theatrical practice which leaves the spectator untouched, passive. And he calls for a spectator who becomes a participant in the magical or hypnotic process of identification. The solutions are opposing but they grapple differently with the same problem : turning the passive spectator- the spectator who only sees - in an active participant, in a persons who truly acts, whether this “true action’ is viewed of as a process of rational inquiry or magical possession . We should never forget the radical conclusion that it entails: there is no reform of the theatre, no good theatre. At first sight , we could be tented to say that the debate on the reform of theatre is endless and insoluble because it rests on a biased footing : it rests on a setting of the issue which has no other logical conclusion that the sheer dismissal of theatre.

That would be nevertheless too simple a conclusion. Arguably there is a paradox if you want to change theatre with theoretical tools targeting in fact its suppression. But what if precisely what is wanted from an art is that it suppresses itself as an art. Let us read Brecht : The theatre that he calls for is a theatre which shows the world in such a way as it appears possible to change it. Such a theatre, he says us, should not be still viewed as an “art” . Let us read Artaud
( the issue of teaching)

It means that the starting point is indifferent. It suffices to learn one thing and relate everything else to it.

The equality of intelligences does not mean (explain : emancipation? The continuity restored; the method of the riddle , the idea of translation , the importance of the book)

above copied from: