Interactive Digital Structures

Essay by Jeffrey Shaw about his own interactive works, written for "Book for the Unstable Media," 1992.

Interactive Digital Structures

Book for the Unstable Media

The research and development of various mechanisms and codes of spatial representation has been a basic preoccupation throughout the history of western art. The formulation of a set of spatial coordinates provides an underlying aesthetic and existential paradigm within which a culture can achieve tentative representation (and thus comprehension) of its desires. The recently developed digital imaging technologies offer the artist new methods and new paradigms which extend the spatial identity of the artwork, not just in terms of the structure of the image itself, but also in terms of a space of interaction between the image and the spectator. With reference to recent work of my own, I would like to describe certain important characteristics of the digital image and in particular those aspects which are able to constitute the mechanisms of an interactive artwork.

Painted images hang on walls or lie in storage; bringing them into view is a material handling. Digital images reside immaterially inside the computer, and the computer screen functions like a window through which the viewer chooses images to look at. Furthermore the computer screen functions like the viewfinder of a film camera, because the viewer can zoom in on details of the chosen image and also pan in any direction over the surface of that image.

These characteristics constitute the possibility to create a virtual space of imagery wherein a three-dimensional structure of relationships between these images can be defined. This structure then constitutes the form of an interactive space in which the viewer can move about.

This diagram (fig 1a) shows the structure of relationships that I gave to 28 images in the interactive artwork THE NARRATIVE LANDSCAPE (Aorta, Amsterdam, 1985). The images are arranged on four levels, each having a specific location beside, above, and below each other. Using a joystick (fig 1b), the viewer can determine his/her personal path of movement through this virtual space of imagery. The joystick gives the viewer interactive control over the movement of the viewing window, which can be panned horizontally in north, south, east and west directions over the surface of an image, and can be zoomed vertically up and down into the detail of the image. The vertical zoom movement also allows the viewer to penetrate through an image and pass from one level to another.

Two important characteristics of the digital medium were clearly stated in THE NARRATIVE LANDSCAPE. Firstly, the representational identity of the digital image changes in relation to the number of points (pixels) that constitute it. A digital zoom into the detail of a picture progressively reveals its underlying numeric structure, an abstract conglomeration of blocks of color (fig 1c). Secondly, the spatial boundaries of the digital image are not set by the conventions of the 'frame'. A virtual image space of any size can be created, which the viewer explores by moving his/her 'viewing window'.

These same two characteristics were also central in my installation GOING TO THE HEART OF THE CENTER OF THE GARDEN OF DELIGHTS (Vleeshal, Middelburg, 1986). In this installation, image changes occurred interactively as a consequence of the viewer walking through the gallery ' from the entrance to a large projected video image at the opposite end (fig 2a). The underlying structure of this work was defined in relation to the seven vaulted segments of the building's Gothic architecture. There was a sequence of seven images, and the image changes were electronically triggered as the viewer walked through these seven areas. In this way, the work was given a set of coordinates along the length of the actual space of the gallery, and its interactive visual manifestation was determined by the spectator's location in that space (fig 2b).

The dialectic between the representational image and its underlying digital structure was expressed in this work as a transformation between two images. The first image was a quotation from Oshima's film 'The Empire of the Senses', and the final image was quoted from Bosch's painting 'The Garden of Delights'. The seven-stage sequence shows a progressive digital reduction of the Oshima image into an abstract raster of colored blocks. Fragments of the Bosch image gradually emerge within this raster, until it is fully shown during the last stage. Thus the viewer's actual journey through the installation space embodies this other journey; of entering the low level structure of one image and finding revealed there the hidden high level structure of another image.

This particular strategy of using two-dimensional digital imagery to articulate a virtual three-dimensional space was also an essential aspect of my interactive video disc sculpture INVENTER LA TERRE (La Villette, Paris 1987, fig 3a). This work inherits and dematerializes the tradition of trompe I 'oeil panorama painting. The panorama here exists as a true virtual image, positioned around the viewer and superimposed onto the actual space of the museum (fig 3b). A periscope-like sculpture contains video and optical mechanisms which enable the viewer to interactively rotate his/her window of view inside this panorama, and then choose video disc sequences which are 'visits' to 'places' represented in that panorama.

The three works so far described demonstrate the basic modalities for the location of two-dimensional digital imagery in a virtual three-dimensional space. THE NARRATIVE LANDSCAPE had a specific structure of image levels set behind the plane of the projection screen. GOING TO THE HEART OF THE CENTER OF THE GARDEN OF DELIGHTS implicitly brought these levels out in front of the screen and into the room where the viewer was walking. INVENTER LA TERRE could dispense with the screen surface altogether and achieved an explicit optical conjunction of the virtual image space and the actual museum space surrounding the viewer.

Whereas the two-dimensional digital image can be described as a planar raster of numeric values, the three-dimensional digital image is a cubic raster of numeric values. The viewer's eye position inside that cubic space determines each momentarily displayed ordering of that raster. The structure of such a three-dimensional image is specified by the numeric spatial coordinates of each point, the lines joining one point to another, and the surfaces filled between the lines. Once created, such a three-dimensional 'database' constitutes a virtual image space which reveals itself in relation to the specific position and orientation of the viewer.

THE LEGIBLE CITY (Artec 89, Nagoya, Japan 1989) was a three-dimensional digital image whose virtual size was approximately six square kilometers. The viewer could interactively travel in this space using a special bicycle (fig 4a). The ground plan of this space was based on an area of Manhattan south of Central Park (fig 4b). Instead of buildings lining the avenues and streets, the writer Dirk Groeneveld wrote a number of stories for this work and the letters and words of his text constitutes the visual architecture (fig 4c). In this way the 'city' was transformed into a kind of three-dimensional book, and bicycling there was an activity of reading.

The bicycle had electronic measuring devices on its handlebars and ped als which indicated to the computer-graphic system the momentary position and speed of the bicyclist. As a consequence of this information, the computer could calculate and display on the screen the appropriate sequence of images. This 'real time' interaction of the bicycle and image allowed the bicyclist complete freedom to go anywhere. Following the streets, turning at intersections, driving at random, and even passing through the letters, each bicyclist could choose his/her own personal path in THE LEGIBLE CITY, and in so doing construct his/her own unique reading of the text.

In THE LEGIBLE CITY, the six square kilometers of virtual space of imagery was virtually located beyond the surface of the projection screen and thus outside the actual room where thebicyclist (and other spectators) were situated. My more recent installation ALICE'S ROOMS (Kanagawa Science Park, Japan, 1989) located the virtual imagery inside the actual room where the viewers were standing (fig 5a, 6b). The artwork reproduced the visual characteristics oi the real space, and within this three-dimensional simulation showed four smaller rooms positioned there in the corners. By rotating the video monitor 'window', the viewer could approach and enter these fictional rooms, which then paradoxically carried the same inside dimensions as the room which contained them. This kind of digital conjunction of virtual and actual space recalls a Mannerist ambiguity - different orders of simulation are located in a meta-dimensional structure of windows, mirroring an intercourse of the real and the fictional.

The activity of art has always been the interpretation and re-creation of reality, an exercise of human imagination creating fictions which embody tentative structures of meaning. Until recently, the traditional activity of art has been the representation of reality - manipulating materials to create tangible mirrors of our experience and desire. Now, with the mechanisms of the new digital technologies, the artwork can itself become a simulation of reality - an immaterial digital structure encompassing synthetic spaces which we can literally enter. Here, the viewer is no longer a consumer in a mausoleum of objects, rather he/she is traveller and discoverer in a latent space of audio visual information whose aesthetics are embodied both in the coordinates of its immaterial form and in the scenarios of its interactively manifest form.

In this temporal dimension, the interactive artwork is each time restructured and re-created by the actions of its viewers - each person becomes raconteur and auto-biographer of one of its possible scenarios.

© Jeffrey Shaw / V2_ 1992

References are to images in the print publication.

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