DEAF95 Symposium Interfacing Realities

The DEAF95 Symposium on November 24-25, 1995, focused on the main theme of the DEAF95 festival, INTERFACING REALITIES. An international group of researchers, scientists and artists discussed social, cultural, philosophical and technological questions related to human-machine interfaces, and gave demonstrations of the latest technical developments in this field.

DEAF95 Symposium Interfacing Realities

Projection- DEAF95 Symposium

Nov 1995
Nov 1995
10:00 to 16:00
location: Lantaren/Venster, Gouvernestraat 133

Speakers on the DEAF95 Symposium were: Thomas S. Ray, Gottfried Mayer-Kress, Timothy Druckrey, Siegfried Zielinski, Peter Beyls, Michael B. Johnson, Dave Cliff, Mark Pesce, Marcos Novak, and Stacey Spiegel. José van Dijck was the moderator.

Point of departure was the following text:


Interacting with the world

Machines are not merely sophisticated tools devised and used by humans. Their development especially in the modern era has provided ever new perspectives onto and access to the world, machines have served us to transform the world and have shaped our understanding of it. As machines are becoming more important for our lives, the relationship between humans and machines becomes an increasingly relevant factor in social and cultural contexts. In this development, along with the transforming experiences of reality, the self-perceptions of human subjects are changing and might lead to new forms of personal and communal identities.

Human-machine interfaces are designed to lay links between human users and mechanical apparatuses. Understood in the broadest sense, the interface is a coded matrix which allows for the communication between different systems. In the case of the human-machine interface, it is determined by the physiological, psychological, and cultural conditions of humans, and by the technical, mechanical and electronic, make-up of machines. Both the human cognitive and sensory apparatus and the mechanical and electronic apparatus of machines are subject to historical, social and cultural conditioning, a fact that makes for a complex map of functions and modes of interaction between the two. Information engineers, confronted with the difficulties of devising a system of interfacial metaphors that can transcend such cultural differentiations, are increasingly collaborating with artists and graphic designers to find viable and creative solutions.

From here, a host of questions branch out into philosophical, historical, aesthetical, psychological and physiological terrains which it will be impossible to deal with comprehensively at the symposium. What we can aim for is to raise some of these questions and to develop an argument about the way in which contemporary human-machine interfaces are articulating our conceptions of reality, and about the factors which determine the interaction between humans and machines with regard to the paramenters of human existence as well as to technological developments.

Machinic environments

In addition to the practical uses that humans have made of machines, there is also a strong tradition to approach the machine on a symbolic level and to use it as a metaphor for the different ways in which humans engage with the world. However, that may be vacuous distinction.

The predominant notion of the interface assumes a dualistic opposition between human individuals and machines. A crucial question is how the human individual with its cognitive apparatus can best learn to interact with machines, and how machines are made to understand what humans want. The interface is conceptualised as a represent-ational screen between human and machine through which they are enabled to comm-unicate with each other: for example, on the remote control of a television set, a series of buttons with coded signs, icons and numbers allows the human user to control the technical apparatus of the tv. Such patterns, codes, or languages, are based on a deep reservoir of historical, cultural and social determinants which were part of human communication long before the computer. The computer, however, appears to radical-ise the problem of the interface. In the case of recent computer technology as well as its application in, for instance, medicine or biotechnology, the interface as a separate matrix tends to disappear in favour of an ever closer interlinking of the human body and the machine in increasingly immersive virtual and physical environments.

A dominant trend in interface design is the creation of intuitive, subtle interfaces which take the limitations of the human sensory and cognitive apparatus into account and which seek to narrow the gap between human and machine by an adaptation of the latter, and an enhancement of the sensory apparatus of the former. By means of such interfaces, the contemporary user of technology is confronted with new worlds, new levels of information which create new realities.

The question arises, whether in such environments the human subject will still be an outside observer of the world: the modern individual traditionally experienced itself as a separate entity outside of the machine. The new human experience - from the ubiquitous accessibility through wireless telecommunication to the prothetical connection to virtual worlds - is one of the body becoming an inseparable part of the interfacial set-up. If we apply a wider understanding of the notion of the machine as a formation with discrete parts working together to perform work, the same 'machinic' organisational model can be applied to living bodies and to mechanical apparatuses. Examples of such machines include apparatuses for industrial production as well as the human unconscious or biotopes. In this scenario, the organic body and the mechanic apparatus are neither antagonistically opposed nor models or metaphors for each other, but functions of similar formations. The distinction made between the organic and the mechanical would then be one of ontological convention.

This raises important anthropological questions. The interface is not only a technical problem, but a problem of how humans represent to themselves their relationship towards a world in which they strive to experience themselves as separate and autonomous individuals. What happens if this separation between the self and its symbolic representation is inverted and the human individual experiences itself as a symbolic representation, or as an interface?

At DEAF 95, there will be exhibitions and presentations of art projects which explore the practical and theoretical possibilities and ramifications of human-machine interfaces in an increasingly dynamic reality. They address the new developments of interaction and communication with regard to the shared knowledge and established cultural patterns through which human communities are formed, and investigate the new fields of interaction where we are confronted with as yet unknown, often incomprehensible features of realities and in which we experience ourselves as unrooted and mere relational entities. - The symposium will deal with the interfacial translations of those new dimensions in a cultural, philosophical, an anthropological perspective. Its interdisciplinary make-up will offer a special opportunity for a review of the transforming differences and similarities between human and machine, and for the attempt to assess the quality of the distance between them through a discussion of the interface as a site of dynamic interaction.


Introduction by José van Dijck

See her text in articles


Abstracts and lectures

Agents in Animation: Michael B. Johnson

I've long dreamt of being able to construct my own characters; characters that had a life of their own but were willing and able to let me share in their worlds and experience. In my mind's eye, I always saw them as fully three-dimensional, living in combinations of photorealistic and sketchy cartoon worlds. As a child I built characters constantly, acting out roles with toy soldiers and "action figures", building complex structures out of wood and mud; moving whole cities and armies around with my hand and my mind.

But until we can credibly talk about how a character was constructed, until we can debug them when they do something entirely unexpected, until we can articulate what trade-offs were made in its design and implementation -- in short, until we address the character construction process, we have little chance of making measurable progress in our desire to populate virtual environments with 3D semi-autonomous animated characters.

This problem is exacerbated when we start trying to work together on characters -- disparate artisans trying to package up their contributions for their collaborators.

What's so fascinating about the promise of doing this in the digital domain is the fact that the experience, the entire experience of what transpired, can be recorded. Recorded for reuse, appropriation, reexperience in a different form or resolution -- all of these become possible as we bring our characters to life in the digital domain. Our task is to decide how we can build them so that this can happen.


Robotic Agents: Dave Cliff

Dave Cliff's presentation gave an overview of his "evolutionary robotics" research, showing examples of the process in action. As the evolution takes place in simulation, it is necessary to invest effort in constructing interfaces for visualisation of, and interaction with, the ongoing evolutionary process. There are also issues in understanding how the agents "interface" with their own sensory environments or perceptual worlds: any truly autonomous agent constructs its own reality, on the basis of its sensory-motor interactions with its environment. This is true of humans, houseflies, robots, and software agents. Visualising and understanding the realities of other agents can be a challenging problem.


Introducing Agents: Peter Beyls

During the last few years the idea of exploring the agent paradigm has been persuasive in many computer related endeavours ranging from software engineering, the study of mobile robot ecologies, user interface design and human-computer interaction to cognitive modelling and the arts; in particular behavioural computer animation and artificial life inspired interactive works of art -- yet, there is by no means a generally accepted definition of what an agent really is. An agent is usually thought of as an active entity that does not live in isolation but is receptive and adaptive towards a dynamic context.

Software agents are specialised modules that aim to collaborate with fellow agents as well as with the user in a wish to solve problems in a common effort. Some even think of agents as personal assistants that learn from instructive feedback from a human interactor. Hardware agents are rooted in the real world, capable to adjust their behaviour according to their perception of an unpredictable environment. If one sees computers as cognitive partners in the act of artistic creation, agent technology has rich potential from a pragmatic, metaphorical or conceptual point of view. For instance, a musical conversation between human- and virtual musicians is easily modelled as a collection of agents exhibiting conflicting requirements: agents wish to express a personal character while also aiming for integration into a larger social context. Agents readily accommodate this type of distributed, social computation.

In a wider sense, agents could be viewed as a form of social computing from at least two other points of view. First, in analogy with examples of self-organising behaviour as observed in nature, a distributed society of artificial agents exhibits complex intelligent behaviour from the local interaction of many units of simple expertise. Second, many projects embracing the agent paradigm express concern with the quality of the interaction channel with a human user in addition to questioning deep qualitative capacities in agents: how could an agent learn about being responsible and, should our involvement with agents extend to the emotional level?


How can we tell if we are part of a Global Brain?: Gottfried Mayer-Kress

The dream of an omnipresent spirit that connects every being in the universe probably is as old as mankind itself. The general idea has gone through many different manifestations and reincarnations. From omniscient gods that determine our lives to the "Net of Indra" that reflects every jewel at each crossing in every other jewel, Hegel's "Weltgeist", and to Sheldrake's "morphogenetic fields" we observe a desire of being part of a structure on a higher organizational level.

In the early eighties P. Russell made the observation of a symmetry in the hierarchy of levels of complexity that involves the number tttt (ten to the tenth = ten billion): If we take tttt atoms, connect them in a smart way, we can build bio-molecules such as DNA, the carrier of our genetic heritage. If we connect tttt molecules in a smart way we can build living cells such as bacteria. If we connect tttt cells together in a smart way, we can build organisms such as conscious brains. The question we can start to ask today is what happens if we connect tttt human brains together in a smart way.

In our presentation we discuss why we think that the global connections that we have today through the Internet is "smart" enough (compared to phone, fax, TV, etc.) that we can begin to speculate about the emergence of globally connected, virtual, information structures, "Global Brains" and the consequences on an individual and global level.


Wild Nature, Free Radicals, and The Nerve Sell....: Timothy Druckrey

The collision of molecular biology and cyberscience in the fast-growing fields of networking, DNA-based computer programming and nanotechnology suggests the reconceptualization of the subject of computing. Rather than the human-computer interface, the thrust of so much current research is bio- or neuro-informatics.

As a historically developing means of control, technology itself is mutating into meta-technology. Questions of machine intelligence and political empowerment are becoming questions of artificial life and massive - albeit invisible - parallelism. Subsumed in the immaterial space of information, culture, the sphere of public action, is destabilized as a sphere of knowledge, a sphere of discourse, a sphere of difference, and a site of action. Ubiquitous computing, the "intelligent ambience," the wired world, only serve to suggest the clear fact that the triumph of technology has already occurred and that the shift from agency to behavior has become the focal point of technology research. Rather than liberating, the trajectory of so much of this work is to map, to record, to simulate, and to produce behavior.

Moreover, these technologies contribute to the transformation of the social logic of civiliation. Technoculture's spectacle is that of distributed thinking, distributed text, distributed politics, and distributed identities. In the many metaphors that are emerging, the fragmentation of form and the prioritizing of content are the most obvious. But amid the numerous rationales for the logic of distributed culture is emerging a renewed sense of totality too often identified as a unified theory - a sort of born-again modernism in the guise of mastery of the system of cognition, biology and social logic.

See the text of his lecture in articles.


transArchitecture: Transmitting The Spaces of Consciousness: Marcos Novak

The invention of technologies that transmit signal, image, letter, sound, moving image, live sound, live image, sense and action, intersense and interaction, presence, interpresence, telepresence, underscores our desire to transcend the narrow here-and-now. However, until this moment, the technologies that would allow the transmission of space have been unimaginable. A barrier has broken: not only have we created virtual communities within nonlocal, transphysical, public realms, we are now able to exercise the most radical gesture: distributing space, transmitting architecture. Transmit, but also transgress, transcend, translate, transliterate... The prefix trans~ signifies "beyond, across, through, so as to change". Transarchitecture, transurbanism, transhumanity... Every encounter is a problem of interfacing realities, ours and theirs, yours and mine. What characterizes our present situation is not simply the problem of the interface, but the problem of the interface with what is alien. The alien is that which cannot be reached by the traversal of contiguous contexts. Our parallel exploration of networked telecommunications and virtual environments have brought together two distant frontiers, those of the inner and the outer alien, while the anonymity and non-locality inherent in the hyperlink hyperleap have allowed us direct access to the aliens in our midst, at our own level. As we advance in the construction of cyberspace in its actual, virtual, and cyborg senses, we will build transmissible cities that act as interfaces and interpreters to these encounters. Until now the alien has been that which was remote enough to be strange. As distances collapse at the speed of light, we will discover the alien that is so near as to be outlandish. We will become citizens in the spaces of our varied consciousnesses.


Interface/recoupment/subject - Thinking the boundary, making it flexible, keeping it experiential: Siegfried Zielinski

Beyond its ontological comprehensibility, yet still on this side of a living subject. Wittgenstein construes the subject as a boundary (to the world). This is helpful. The interface not as a surface of the machinic which has to be designed, nor as an extended sensorium of MediaMan, but as a movement, as a ridge walk. -- Once again in the history of the media the aim of the hegemonic discourse is to make them invisible and intangible, in the vanishing point of the perfect illusion. The apparatus theory reenacted it theoretically: recoupment. This is my starting point, and I plea for its active manipulation and for keeping it alive. So long as the boundary is not dead there is no reason to hold funeral sermons for the subject.


Life in the machine: we can interface to it, but will it be interested in us?: Thomas S. Ray

The process of evolution by natural selection is able to create complex and beautiful information processing systems, such as primate nervous systems. Recent experiments demonstrate that evolution by natural selection is able to operate effectively in genetic languages based on the machine codes of digital computers. This opens up the possibility of using evolution to generate complex software. How can we provoke evolution to transform simple algorithms into software of vast complexity?

Evolution of complexity occurs in the context of an ecological community of interacting evolving species. A large and complex environment consisting of partially isolated habitats differing and occasionally changing in environmental conditions would be the most conducive to a rapid increase in diversity and complexity. Due to its size, topological complexity, and dynamically changing form and conditions, the global network of computers appears to be an ideal habitat for the evolution of complex digital organisms.

The proposed project will create a very large, complex and inter-connected region of cyberspace that will be inoculated with digital organisms which will be allowed to evolve freely through natural selection. The objective is to set off a digital analog to the Cambrian explosion of diversity, in which multi-cellular digital organisms (parallel MIMD processes) will spontaneously increase in diversity and complexity. If successful, this evolutionary process will allow us to find the natural form of parallel and distributed processes, and will generate extremely complex digital information processes that fully utilize the capacities inherent in our parallel and networked hardware.


Interfaces to the Sublime: Mark Pesce

In almost a decade of research, the field of virtual reality, cyberspace, immersion (whatever you choose to call it) has produced few works of art that can be said to articulate an aesthetic -- in truth, most are prosaic beyond boredom. With the widespread availability of cyberspace -- with the presence and adoption of VRML (or something very much like it) -- the number of works created for cyberspace will increase dramatically. These creators have no examples to draw from -- for, as Picasso said, good artists copy, great artists steal -- the treasury is almost empty. How can we expect appropriation from the Void?

Four works fundamental to the formation of an immersant aesthetic will be examined: CyberFin, a dolphin swim simulator which uses aural technology to create a trans-species sensual remapping, making the immersant experience sound as the dolphin does; PLACEHOLDER, which uses mythology to engender ontology in an environment where place (a body of evoked feelings) was as important as space; Danger: Brain Injury, in which the immersant passes from well-being into a condition of organic damage, effectively seeing the world through another's eyes; and Osmose, which coupled innovative interface technology with a numinous artistic representation of a hyper-natural world which opens the immersant to a sublime experience. Each of these pieces ostensibly has little to do with any other, yet they each speak to the same parts of the immersant self. What can we learn from their commonalties which might help us to articulate an immersant aesthetic? Finally we'll look at the Plutonian Mass, which combines archetype, myth and cyberspace, creating a sacred place within cyberspace.

Vision in Motion: Stacey Spiegel

A modernist perspective might suggest that the history of visualization is not relevant to understanding the evolution of cyberspace. This reflects the ahistorical position of modernism and has contributed to our post-industrial malaise of dislocation and disorientation. Now, Marshall McLuhan has argued in contrast that every new technology builds on the content of the old technology. Discussions of virtuality have not only been ahistorical, but they have also been a-aesthetic in that they address the flow of information without reference to either experience or consciousness. The work Crossings presented on the Rotterdam Harbour simulator is an exploration of Cyberspace as a perceptual and cognitive vehicle. In this collaborative environment we are extending the range of potential interactivity to achieve a clearer intersection of media ( technology) and the content of perceptual experience. Art is not merely transcriptive in the sense of conveying information, but is also a transformative process which results in a construction and reconstruction of reality as an aesthetic experience. Crossings is a non-hierarchical model that, like a multi-layered tapestry, links information with aesthetic experience. This has clear ethical implications because the activity of generating meaningful perception reconnects individuals with a sense of location and orientation. The traditional distinction between reality and virtuality disappears when the artificial dualism of information and sensation is eliminated as is the case in "Crossings."

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