Not Everything Is Interaction

A seminar in the DEAF07 context.

Not Everything Is Interaction

Not Everything Is Interaction; photo: Jan Sprij

Apr 2007
15:00 to 18:00
location: V2_, Eendrachtsstraat 10, Rotterdam

Interaction is a key concept in many scientific paradigms and art forms. But could this emphasis be overrated? Is it really interaction that is key, or is mere response mistaken for interaction? And if the latter is the case, what are the theoretical consequences for these scientific paradigms and art forms?


A report

A seminar with such a provocative title creates expectations: of big statements, or of clichés being overturned and prejudices being tackled. Unfortunately nothing of the sort happened on this Thursday afternoon. It left the audience with a slight feeling of frustration. Even predictable questions from the audience after the presentations ("So, what then is not interaction?" "What is interaction?") were not sufficiently addressed. The refusal of most of the speakers and the moderator to make any comparative judgment on types of interaction might have been stimulating in other DEAF presentations (like at the "Interact or Die" symposium on Saturday), but with a title like "Not Everything is Interaction" one expects some strong positioning taking place. Maybe the organizer should have urged the speakers to focus on the theme, as the very different views did not seem to have more overlap than a very diverse interpretation of the word 'interactivity'. The presentations of new media lecturer Mitchell Whitelaw and artist Roman Kirschner were the most interesting, even if they seemed to view interaction from two opposing sides of its presently very broad spectrum.

Moderator Eric Postma is a professor in Artificial Intelligence at the University of Maastricht. He is specialized in cognitive science. His introduction to the topic was rather 'machine' oriented, as he spoke mostly of efforts to make machines or computers do tasks like recognize faces or to make 'entities' that learn through interaction. He did however also quote Andy Clark, professor of Population Genetics at Cornell University, saying that "having a body is important for intelligence" and briefly referred to social interaction, thus linking the mathematical definition of interaction with the common understanding of interaction (as being purely social) in the traditional art world. It is between these two separate areas that most interactive art now develops.

First speaker Mitchell Whitelaw presented an introduction to generative art, and to artificial life and art. His notion of interactivity seemed a little confused, as he would wander from talking about interaction between humans and machines, to talking about interaction between machines, then discussing interaction inside a machine and lastly also mentioning interaction between humans, without making any real critical distinctions between them. This did however paint the complexity of the matter well. Mitchell asked us also to think of a form of interactivity that "would not be derived from a set of pre-determined alternatives", something he called a "new paradigm of interactivity". This would be an interactivity designed through artificial life, and that would "present opportunities for true interaction" between humans and machines (but also between machines and machines, and within machines maybe). The mentioning of 'true' interaction seems to suggest there is also something called 'false' or 'fake' interaction. This would probably be the 'reactive' rather then 'interactive' form of interactivity he mentioned early in his talk, but he did not clarify his point. Reactivity would be the type of interactivity involved when pushing a button. Things got really confusing at the end of his presentation when, after stating "the user is the problem", Mitchell went on to say "if you don't have to think about interaction you can explore alternative models". Interaction seems to disappear into a black hole of definitions and systems at this level, without clarity of it ever re-emerging. Finally he mentioned that we "have to understand the structures behind the works" and that "the next stage requires interpretation and translation". Interpretation and translation are not a next stage, but a necessary component of artificial life development. I wonder what kind of reflection we can expect of a 'new paradigm of interactivity' if even the present variety within interactivity is apparently so difficult to analyze or judge?

The second speaker was Jose van Dijck, associate professor of Literature and Cultural Studies of Science at the university of Amsterdam. She spoke about video sharing sites. There was something very funny about her lecture, in that it reminded strongly of online discourses of about ten years ago. This was the biggest problem with this lecture too, as it seemed a little after the facts for the quite well informed audience of DEAF. It seems as if for Jose van Dijck nothing interesting happened before YouTube, and as if television is the measurement for all media. She spoke of "restructuring the institution" of television, something which has slowly developed for years already, starting modestly with viewer telephone calls, exploding with more and more home video programs and reality TV, and more recently continued by including sms, chat and email feedback live onscreen. Van Dijck claimed that "interactivity is inadequate as a concept" and that "television viewers have never been passive". But she also claimed: "viewers are becoming 'you-sers'". The insinuated transition between the presupposed pre-internet 'activity' of the viewer to the 'you-ser' however remained unclear. Jose van Dijck should, like her predecessor Mitchell, have clarified the differences between the levels or types of interactivity she describes. Though a lot of her remarks were quite to the point and 'correct' (she made a short reference to copyright issues), her lecture really lacked in terms of expanding on an already longtime existing discourse about the mix of social and technological interactivity we deal with in our present media environment.

After the break two artist presentations followed: one by Gazira Babeli, a SecondLife performer, and the other by Roman Kirschner. Unfortunately Gazira Babeli (or the artist(s) behind her) was not really at DEAF. Instead Babeli was presented by someone who was almost too shy to speak. The performance and presentation were largely incomprehensible and the images on screen only developed slowly. Babeli needs to be a lot more thoughtful as to offline presentations. Roman Kirschner on the other hand was very clear, about both his work and his intentions. His presentation was refreshing, and the audience gratefully gathered around his artwork. His work was not very subtle, and some of Kirschners work could even be described as a kind of 'jackass art'. He is probably best known for his Pain Station, a dark parody of the simplistic Playstation interactive games. In Pain Station a player of the well-known game 'Pong' gets an electric shock every time s/he makes a mistake. Kirschner further indulged in his boyish pleasure in rough gaming with Legshocker, a device to be attached to a video soccer game, in which the player gets a 'kick' against her or his shins every time s/he gets too close to another player. A very sympathetic installation of Kirschner is the one he brought to this presentation though, a work called His Master's Voice. It invites people to gather around a table and sing to a set of robotic balls that each react to different frequencies. According to the video Kirschner played, in which two singers managed to align the balls perfectly with their voice alone, it is possible to be quite precise in moving the pieces. This work not only has an interface that is still rarely used in interactive installations (voice), but on top of this it provokes a kind of interaction between the players that is almost extinct in the western world: singing or chanting together. Kirschner also made the first conclusive comment about interactivity of the afternoon. According to him "in interactivity it is important to create sympathy and empathy". Linking briefly to something Mitchell should have expanded on more, Kirschner then stated "you are never separated from your body". Interactivity for him is about embodiment and immersion through emotional and physical engagement, not through an awe-inspiring, overpowering technological experience that only works as long as its novelty lasts. Despite his jackass attitude Kirschner had a point.

The closing debate fired up the audience to finally get what they wanted: to hear what is not interaction. The panelists presented very different views. Van Dijck remained at a safe distance by stating that "the word interactivity has different meanings in different contexts". Kirschner claimed that "good interaction creates a change at the core of both participants", yet for Whitelaw this was absolutely false. He said that "it is not about internal changes in the individual participants, but about a change to the environment between or around them". This difference of position (inside and outside the body) was very interesting, and it was probably at this point where the afternoon should have started off. The positioning of the human (which includes her or his body), so disgracefully called 'the user', seems to be of crucial importance to our understanding and development of interactivity.

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