Interact or Die! (Introduction)

Introduction by Arjen Mulder and Joke Brouwer for the publication "Interact or Die!" (2007).

Interact or Die! (Introduction)

Interact or Die!

Interaction is a defining characteristic of every living being. Bodies and objects build connections, form networks, and then, through interaction, achieve organization, structure, memory and heredity. Interaction is often seen as a process of action and reaction between already existing bodies and objects, but this is too limited a view. Interaction causes bodies and objects to change and variation to arise. Interaction is not a deformation of existing forms, but rather an addition of information, an informing, a formation of forms.

Interact or Die! is about the way in which random behavior in networks creates strong but flexible structures and forms, without there being a central designing coordinator or code that pushes the process into a definite direction or form. It explores how interaction both forms and selects the effective, functioning parts of networks and leaves the noneffective parts to die.

An exciting concept concerning the self-organization of networks that has come up in recent evolutionary developmental biology is that of “exploratory behavior.” It explains how blood vessels and neural cells are always found precisely at the spot where they are needed. This is not a process controlled by genes alone. In an embryo, developing blood and neural cells both grow from the top of a developing blood vessel or nerve, time and time again, in all directions, but only the extensions that hit a relevant target (a muscle or another nerve cell, or a tissue that needs oxygen) survive, while the rest simply degenerate. Only those parts of the developing network that interact live; the rest simply die.

This same process of exploratory behavior turns out to exist in many (maybe all) different forms of network building in the living world: ants looking for food, spam looking for a commercial response, viruses looking for software to feed on, game communities that grow beyond their wildest dreams, electronic works of art looking for audiences willing to interact. Exploratory behavior is about creating as much variation as possible, and then letting the parts of the network that function and interact select themselves, and letting the nonworking parts degenerate.

In the 1950s, Gilbert Simondon spoke of transduction as a process – physical, biological, mental, social or artistic – in which an activity gradually sets itself in motion, propagating within a given area, through a structuralization of the different zones of the area across which it operates. Simondon gives the formation of crystals as an example. Exploratory behavior is an interactive, living transductive process.


Clear-Cut Sloppiness

Interaction does not come into being on the basis of rigid blueprints or detailed plans with clear-cut goals; it proceeds messily, in an exploratory, flexible way. The results of interaction possess the same sloppiness, instability and tentativeness – but precisely for this reason, they can last a surprisingly long time, as they are always able to reorganize and adapt. Interactivity is, on the one hand, a method of bringing something into being – whether a form, a structure, an organization, a body, an institute, or a work of art – and, on the other, a way of dealing with it.

We all know that blueprints and plans for the future have lost their meaning: nobody can control processes like climate change or global flows of employment, fugitives and information. What’s interesting now is what kind of exploratory behavior we can come up with that might prove to be viable, by creating functioning networks where these changes and flows can interactively select themselves. Exploratory, transductive behavior is the pragmatic approach to the possibilities and problems presented by the process of globalization that we live in today. But it’s also the pragmatic approach to finding a necessary – rather than random – form for interactive electronic art installations.


The Search for a Living Art

In viewers looking at noninteractive works of art, we see exploratory and tentative behavior. Every perception is already an action, so in fact in this sense there is no art that is not interactive. But only art that presents itself as interactive tries to absorb this activity of the viewer’s and make itself open so that it, too, can change. An interactive artwork does not so much respond to the viewer as form a double system with him or her in which both the work and the viewer can change (unlike noninteractive art, in regard to which it is thought that only the viewer can change). Interactive art is an open kind of art, one that permits multiple perceptions, though not every perception. In interactive art, perception becomes action, and the action of perceiving adds something to the work. The act of perceiving thereby becomes the act of making the work.



© 2007 V2_ / Arjen Mulder / Joke Brouwer

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