Wednesday, May 10, 2017

Anonymity in David Rokeby’s Electronic Creations: A Duchampian Model? By Ernestine Daubner

Note: Article appears in both French and English. Only the English has been copied.

Developing the software and hardware for interactive installations and artificial perception systems for two decades, Canadian Media Artist David Rokeby has had much occasion to reflect upon the nature of subjectivity, control and disappearance in electronic art. In his interactive works, he invites the viewer to actively engage with the technologies. “Each participant is an interaction,” says Rokeby, “receives the sensation of responsibility; each has the ability to respond.” Such expressions generate a seemingly open-ended situation were meaning is produced by and is contingent upon the participation of the visitor, and were the interactors subjective experience becomes the focus of the artwork. Not all of Rokeby’s works are interactive, however. Some, based on surveillance and tracking systems, even appear to reinstate the traditional viewing experience as they position the visitor in the role of the surveillant, or as the person viewed. Whether engaging in Rokeby's interactive works or subjected to his monitoring systems, one is prompted to pose important questions about new technologies. Are these electronic creations neutral and objective? Does the artist-programmer, like the anonymous writer­ scripter, strive to relinquish authorial control? How do Rokeby's electronic works relate to former conceptions of anonymity in art and culture?
Several decades prior to the advent of electronic media art, avant-garde artists like Marcel Duchamp, whom Rokeby claims is "the first interactive artist,"2 adopted various strategies of anonymity, renouncing the authorial role of the artist. Intentionally elusive, Duchamp adopted various pseudonyms, the most famous being. that of his female alter ego, Rose Selavy. As infamous iconoclast, he consistently exhibited a blatant irreverence for the artist as a persona constructed by the culture industry. Most importantly, in rejecting the role of omniscient, authoritative author, Duchamp assumed the position of the anonymous or impersonal writer. He described this as a mediumistic role. Wishing to re­ move himself, as self-conscious subject, from the creative process s, he indicated that art should follow the direction of the writer Stephane Mallarme. Similar strategies of anonymity, with regard to the writing process, were theorized later in the century by post-structuralists as the "death of author" and the birth of the writer-scripter.
As an anonymous or impersonal writer, Duchamp produced a variety of works, words and gestures capable of being read as a network of recurring and self-reflexive signs that interweave, intersect and dialogue  with each  other.  Duchamp's  sign system spawns an indeterminate and indefinable space that is neither presence nor absence, and that posits neither a position nor a negation. This is a conceptual space in which readings are both simultaneously either-or and neither-nor; and where a myriad of inscriptions and erasures of signs trace a field without origin and where there is a perpetual fluctuation between the creating or becoming of meaning and the state of "forgetting." How is one to name such a sign system: writing or scripture, a play of difference, simply, the "modem allegory?" Perhaps Duchamp's own cryptic notes about an "allegory on 'forgetting'," about an "allegory of oblivion,"3 would best characterize it. Like the modem allegory which defies the simple correlation between one set of signs and a second order of meaning, in Duchamp's complex network of signs, there is no shared code, no privileged signifier, no stable signified, no fixed referential object, and no definitive totalizing and unitary meaning. It reflects, to use Walter Benjamin's words, "an appreciation of the transience of things" which, he noted, was "one of the strongest impulses in allegory.''4 One can certainly call such an open-ended allegory "interactive," as the production of meaning is contingent upon the viewer's active engagement as reader of the cultural signs. In Duchamp's own words: All in all, the creative act is not performed by the artist alone; the spectator brings the work in contact with the external world by deciphering and interpreting its inner qualifications and thus adds his contribution to the creative act.5 In hindsight, one understands how Duchamp's strategies of anonymity served to dismantle the illusion of totalizing meaning and unitary truth statements, created by an originary or transcendent subject whose name is "author." At the same time, his stance as anonymous writer opened new avenues for the individual viewer-reader who, in effect, was assigned a primary role in the "creation" of the art­ work. If such strategies were emblematic of a shift in paradigm, it is quite apt to reconsider the issue of anonymity in light of electronic art. By contrasting David Rokeby's notions of interactivity, and especially the authorial role, with the Duchampian model, one can recognize that, once again, a shift in paradigm has occurred.

Interactive Systems

In such early interactive works as Very  Nervous System (1983-91), David Rokeby provides the visitor with the opportunity to transform his/her body into a musical instrument. Standing in front of a video camera, the visitor's bodily movements are captured; an image processor feeds  the  message  of this motion to a computer, synthesizer and sound system. Integrated into this closed electronic circuit, the visitor is able to have every gesture translated into repeatable sounds. Rokeby explains that Very Nervous System is significant in that it "transform[s} the interactor's  awareness  of his  or her body."6 Indeed, as one produces the musical sounds, one becomes conscious not only of one's bodily actions in time and space, but also of the interconnections between our physical gestures, the act of hearing, and the electronic sound. Most evidently, this kind of art experience differs radically from that of the traditional observer of an object of display who, even when intellectually or emotionally engaged in the artwork, remains a decarnalized eye.  Plugged into the Electronic circuit of Very Nervous System, one is not a neutral body where the senses and the mind are relegated to distinct domains. As a veritable cyborg one no longer distinguish between mind and body and technology.  It is evident that for each interactor, the self-conscious multi-sensorial engagement with Very Nervous System is personal and unique. Hence, just as in Duchamp's "allegory on forgetting," there is no meaning predetermined by the artist. Nor does the interactor, as both choreographer and musician, encounter the artist's subjective voice. Or is the artist's disappearance just illusory? Though Very Nervous System becomes a vehicle by which the interactor discovers one's "self' in time/space, as Rokeby explains, "[t]he set of possibilities [is] very, constrained." In fact, "[t]he sounds/ music created by Very Nervous System carr[y] a very strong signature, despite the interactivity.''7 Un1ike the (post)modern impersonal writer or medium, Rokeby,  as  artist-programmer, decidedly re-establishes authorial control: [I]n attempting to create a system in which I disappear more effectively, l am not exactly trying to disappear. In fact, one could equally convincingly declare that I am actually playing god, trying in a more abstract way to be profoundly present and controlling, relinquishing control of the con­ tent, but tightening my grip on the processing, delivery and contextualization of this content. I propose that this sort of control can twist any content to one's expressive will while appearing to be open and "objective." So I am looking into this paradox of disappearance.
The question of the artist's disappearance is indeed paradoxical. Integrated into Very Nervous System, one does not sense the artist's presence, let alone his control. Instead, his computer-based system appears to operate like a neutral mirror, like a medium for self-reflection. However, as Rokeby warns us, such electronic works are neither neutral nor objective: I have never really felt that the computer is objective. In fact one might say that the reason I have been pursuing this angle in my work has been to find out, by creating systems that are as objective as possible, how impossible it is to create a truly objective system, By the end  of my time working with Very Nervous System, this process became very conscious.
In subsequent works, Rokeby openly ascribed subjectivity to his electronic creations. For example, Giver of Names (1998) was actually "intended to be opinionated, biased, subjective." To the gallery visitor, however, this subjectivity is not immediately apparent. Rather, the computer-based installation assumes an aura of objectivity and anonymity, except perhaps for an array of colorful objects scattered on the floor, some of which are used children's toys. In the center of this cheerful display, there is an empty pedestal. A video camera is positioned in front of it. On the periphery of this scene, one notes a computer and a monitor - presumably the "giver of names." One soon discovers that this is, in fact, an intelligent system. Like a young  child, the  computer is able to formulate words and sentences upon receiving certain visual stimuli. It is the visitor's task to provide this stimulation by placing a colored object on the pedestal. Giver of Names then translates this visual input into an array of words associated with the general shape and color of the object, and displays them on the screen. It is able to organize the data according to linguistic formulations and hierarchies such as synonyms, homonyms, homophones, family resemblances between words, and so on. With these words, the computer subsequently proceeds to formulate a flow of grammatically correct sentences for us to read. How does the visitor, then, react to this intelligent system?   The   grammatically   correct sentences exhibited on the monitor by Giver of Names can be deemed nonsensical, sometimes poetic, and, on occasion, even shocking when, like a child, it  inadvertently blurts out something rude or offensive. On the other hand, reading a sentence (e.g., "Lemons, more eyeless than other beady sectors, would par­ don no optical drops") may trigger associations in the mind of the reader, which coincide with current thought patterns, personal frames of reference, one's cultural baggage. In effect, Rokeby's intelligent Giver of Names, like Duchamp's allegory, makes explicit what many artworks obscure: that one always encounters an art object (any object for that matter) as a mediated subject. There can, therefore, be no universal viewing experience; there can be no recognition of an a priori meaning set up by an authorial voice; there is no meaning that precedes one's interaction. Meaning lies within us, in one's "creative act."
While one can reasonably argue that production of meaning is contingent upon the interactor's act of interpretation, there is a major difference between reading an array of cultural signs in the Duchampian allegory, and words and sentences produced by the knowledge base of a computer. No doubt, however, Duchamp would. Have greatly admired such a word-making machine, as he was fascinated with the inherent power of words to create meaning.
In this regard, it is also noteworthy to recognize how Rokeby designed  the  "intellect" of  Giver of Names. Not wishing to have this sophisticated database operate as "a self-portrait" of the artist, he wanted to discover "what sort of subjectivity would emerge  if the Internet  was one's sole  source  of knowledge of the world." Such a neutral knowledge base, one  might  think,  produces  language that is totally objective, giving free rein to the reader­ interpreter. Rokeby disagrees: Giver of Names is extremely subjective, precisely because it has been forced out of the vacuum of pure binary feedback that is digital processing. This is true of all my work going back to Very Nervous System. The vacuum demands violation. By being forced to operate on imperfectly perceived objects, and forced to express in that perverse construction called (English) language, it falls out of digital paradise.
As such, his electronic creations have the ability to surprise the artist: I like to be surprised and engaged by my own work. Particularly in the very self-referential world of programming, one feels a kind of is living inside one's own models.... The medium requires it because it actually offers such extreme levels of control that you have to work extremely hard to invent satisfying ways of relinquishing enough of it to find a balance (as an artist).
To the visitor, the language spoken by Giver of Names may appear arbitrary, accidental, surprising and even solipsistic in its unawareness of the interactor.   For Rokeby, such "framing" is not generally understood, however:
Computers and software are conventionally seen to be transparent channels through which content is expressed and exchanged. But all of my experience with programming indicates that programming acts shift the experience of the experience of the content. (I know...a strange formulation.) Programmers define aspects of the user's experience of being through their programming decisions and  constructs.
In his most recent work, n-cha(n)t (2001), David Rokeby expands the capabilities of Giver of Names further by anthropomorphizing the intelligent ma­ chine into a community of seven computers linked by a network. When one enters the darkened space inhabited by the society of computers, one hears them chanting together. Absorbed in this communal act, they ignore the visitor who, in a sense, intrudes into their cerebral space. The visitor can distinguish each computer by the gender and age of a human ear displayed on its screen. When spoken to, the computer will cup its ear and listen 10 the visitor's voice. While it attempts to recognize  (and misrecognize)  the  words and sentences it hears, it will project a finger pressed into the ear. Like Giver of Names, every computer, upon receiving sensorial stimuli (this time aural), will respond by formulating word associations from their respective databases. These computers, however, are actually able to utter a flow of words with their individualized synthesized voices.
Chatting with visitors results in a partial or complete disruption of the collective chant. Even while responding to the visitors, the computers silently relay their newly acquired words to the others. "The network chatting," says Rokeby, "is not heard, but floats as a subtext behind the speeches that each machine makes. There is not really any kind of dialogue between machines. They are not communicating so much as communing."
Depending on how much a particular computer is stimulated by the visitor's voice and the computer chatting, it might become overwhelmed; it thus covers its ear with a hand, indicating it wants no further input. As the verbal stimulation provided by the visitors recedes, the seven computers gradually synchronize their "individual internal 'states of mind'," until they share the same stream of verbal association. Not scripted in any way, "one machine does not tell the others what sentence to speak. The identical sentences arise when all seven computers have gotten to a point where their internal knowledge bases are identically stimulated, and they therefore say the same things." As the consensus among the computers grows, they find, once again, a kind of equilibrium in the form of a unified chant.
As this electronic community chats and chants, one can recognize to what extent it resembles us and, more significantly, how much it differs. "I am not trying to do any deep modelling of human social groups with this work," Rokeby admits: My entities are far too crude to be useful simulacra of real people. They represent nothing more than themselves...indentured slaves of this particular programmer, granted a fraction of some freedom they are utterly incapable of desiring.' Indeed, human social groups are beyond simulation. In his observations of intelligent systems, Peter Weibel has argued that "[t]he highest level of simulation lies in attaining immunity from simulation itself. (A copy without original, a clone without body.)"9 One can recognize how the fluidity and intricacies of even a single human identity ultimately render it immune from simulation.
This said, Rokeby's "indentured slaves" reveal two significant points: To begin with, their state of total oblivion renders them unconscious of their sensorial qualities as perception systems, of their ability to chat, chant - and also of their capacity to enchant, even the artist: The most beautiful moments are just before the chant is achieved.... You hear in the community the consensus grow as the semantic and syntactic gestures of each computer converge.... The sound of the seven synthesized computer voices sound much more real as a group than any individual computer sounds. The sound of the hushed chanting is very spooky and somewhat primal.
Perhaps their primal chant is so enchanting precisely because! it projects back to us an inversion of our own human complexity. Another important element is also at play in this work. Despite their primal state, these technologies do exert authority over us. Rokeby cautions that "[e]xplicitly interactive pieces often obscure the degree to which they constrain the viewer to a limited set of possibilities.... The interactive system subtly displaces some of the subjectivity of the viewer into its own mechanism."
One might, well argue that one must always negotiate certain parameters, whether walking through an architectural space, or speaking through a given language and received ideas or concepts. Although these constraints are real, Rokeby emphasizes that with technology there is a difference "in speed and magnitude of suppleness, complexity and relative invisibility." If interactive systems conceal their power to invade and control human subjectivities remarkably well, then Rokeby's surveillance and tracking systems make this phenomenon somewhat  more visible.

Surveillance and Tracking Systems
Watch (1995) provides the viewer with a live processed video stream, which serves as a metaphorical picture of the power of technology to subsume human subjectiviliies. In the installation space, one can passively watch manipulated images of unwitting passersby, situated in public sections of the gallery or in exterior pllblic areas. Captured by surveillance cameras and altered by the perception system, the manipulated images of people and place are projected on two screens, like mirror projections. On the first, the only stable images one sees are of static people and of the surrounding area. Though filmed in real time, these images give the effect of long­exposure photography. As people move across the screen, their images become blurred. In the other mirror projection, this process is inverted. People are clearly visible when in motion; and they are projected as floating outlines on a black ground when they are still.
While we, as gallery surveillants, watch these apparently anodyne images, one is able to hear the sounds of time: the ticking of a watch, a clock, a heartbeat, as well as light breathing. Sometimes, we hear a camera shutter as the projections are processed. Sound is not, however, the principal effect. Nor is an active engagement on our part solicited. Indeed, as Rokeby states: I want the dominant relationship between the public and this installation to be one of "watching," not acting. The artwork itself remains active, a live perceptual filter through which the audience watches1. The system has embedded itself into the feedback-loop of1perception, transforming the process of looking. What is most interesting to me about this transformation oflookingis that it invariably also involves a transformation of the apparent "meaning" of what is being watched.10 What is this meaning? The surveillance cameras and monitoring systems at work in Watch- as well as other related works like Watch and Measured (2000) and Gu1ardian Angel (2001) - transform the visitor into anonymous surveillants who, like voyeurs, are positioned to secretly watch. Inevitably, surveillance works such as these readily prompt one to pose ethical questions regarding invasion of privacy on the one hand and the necessity for public security and law enforcement on the other. Moreover, in the context of an art gallery, one is futher prompted to question our role as surveillants, or as persons viewed.
So then, what exactly is one watching? One sees how the "objective' camera and projection system manipulate the original image of people and things. "Due to the nature of the processing," says Rokeby, "these images already show an interpretive -bias; the processing adds weight and apparent significance to the initially banal live video source imagery."" The point is well made. The monitoring system captures and  distorts  a surface image according to the design (here of the artist-programmer), and furtively lures the surveillant, positioned as a distanced viewer, to submit to this biased view.
Watching the projected images produced by the monitoring systems, one might also draw parallels with interactive systems such as Very Nervous System, Giver of Names and n-cha(n)t. Do they not also entail a kind of tracking system, whether through the video camera or the microphone? Are these perception systems not also capable of "capturing" us as in­ advertent specimens, and "distorting" our words, gestures, body image, and by extension, our motivations? Rokeby concurs. '  Encountering Rokeby's interactive works and perception systems, one recognizes that belief in the anonymity of the artist-programmer and in the objectivity of his "indentured slaves" is a dangerous fiction. "Anonymity in my work," he explains, "is actually an exploration of the near impossibility of disappearing. [...] A computer, in my opinion, takes things past the vanishing point. I am very interested in attempting to disappear, but the struggle to dis­ appear is different from actually disappearing." In contrast to earlier manifestations of anonymity which signaled: the breakdown of monolithic truths pronounced by the universal subject, media artist David Rokeby alerts us to a very different condition: the relinquishment of authorial control is no longer a real possibility in the electronic age, and one would greatly benefit by becoming aware of this fact.
                Ernestine Daubner teaches in the Art History Department of Concordia University and is a postdoctoral fellow at Universite du Quebec a Montreal. As a researcher in contemporary art and new technologies, she collaborates with le Groupe de recherche en arts mediatiques (GRAM) and le Centre interuniversitaire en arts mediatiques (CIAM).

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