Lezing bij de seminar The body as interface

Netherlands Media Art Institute December 15, 2006

Interactivity: between interpretation and bodily performance
Renée van de Vall
Maastricht University

Among the questions introducing this meeting on The body as an interface,  some in particular caught my attention:

* How do we conceptualise interactivity and incorporate emotional values?

* Does interactivity offer, due to its participatory nature, a more profound experience than traditional forms of art?

* How does one define the line between spectacle and works that create a chain of associations and provide a space for engagement, interpretation and participation?

These are questions that have been a major topic in the book I am now completing,which is titled At the Edges of Vision. A Phenomenological Aesthetics of Contemporary Spectatorship (Ashgate, forthcoming 2007). I am a philosopher,not an art critic or artist and that implies that what I would like to present to you are neither the latest developments in new media art or criticism, nor the most cutting edge technologies. I have been slowly thinking my way from traditional art forms to newer media, looking for continuities rather than breaks and new vistas.

There are many reasons why interactive art might be considered with some suspicions – and why the questions mentioned in the introduction might be answered in a negative way. Rather than being more profound than traditional forms of art, new media art and in particular interactive art might be more superficial: first of all, because it is part of a visual digital culture that delights in spectacular audiovisual effects, tending to the senses, rather than to the imagination or the intellect; secondly because the interactive nature of new media art would make it unlikely that the user is really and profoundly affected.

I. Contemporary visual culture overwhelms its spectators with sensational but superficial experiences. Andrew Darley, in Visual Digital Culture , his survey of new media genres like digital cinema, music videos, computer games and simulation rides, does not hesitate to characterize these forms in terms of an aesthetics of surface play and spectacle. In contrast to traditional cultural forms and genres like the classic cinema, focused on narrative and symbolic meaning and requiring an interpretative activity of the spectator, new media genres ‘position their spectators as seekers after modes of direct
visual and corporeal stimulation.' (Darley, 2000, p. 168) In the same vein, philosopher Martin Jay has criticised contemporary visual culture for its immersiveness, robbing the spectator of the distance necessary to critically reflect on what is shown. (Jay, 2000)

A second reason would be that interactivity forecloses what Lyotard has called ‘passibility', the capacity of the spectator of being receptive to what is other, what defies your expectations and profoundly affects you. Rilke's famous lines about the impact a statue of Apollo made on him: ‘denn da ist keine Stelle/ die dich nicht sieht. Du mußt dein Leben ändern', would be unlikely in the case of interactive art, because the visitor of an interactive website or installation is continuously acting instead of receiving, and responds to the initial frustration of incomprehension by moving along to another page or clicking a further link. Moreover, she would be subject to manipulation, since the associations she would have imagined herself in the case of a painting or novel or film, are now externalised and replaced by a choice between a set of prefigured options. That is what Lev Manovich fears in his critique on the myth of interactivity. (Manovich, 2001, p. 55-61)

But what is interactivity?
I find Jan Simons' definition very useful:

* Interactivity may take place in a human-human-relation with other users or in a human-data-relation with digital objects. This means that interaction itself is divisible in three distinct actions: communication with other users, manipulation of digital objects and navigation through a (digital) information space. On each of these levels interactivity can vary from limited and trivial possibilities for choice and intervention to full control over form, content and development of the digital object. (Simons, 2002, p. 79; transl. RvdV)

* Just like Manovich, Simons is very critical about the suggestion of free choice and creativity implicit in the notion of interactivity and stresses the fact that the user is usually very restricted in her choices, and rather than manipulating is often being manipulated instead.

Against these critical evaluations of interactivity, one could also respond that in interactive art, the locus of affective and imaginative engagement, of interpretative and critical depth might shift – from the image as such to the process of interaction. This is Mark Hansen's view. He states, in agreement with new media theorists like Kittler and Manovich, that a digital image is in fact a ‘processural realization of information in time' (Hansen, 2004, p. 9) that does not need to appear as an image. But in contrast to Kittler and Manovich, Hansen questions the dissolution of the image, but without reverting to a fixed materiality or form of the image itself. Instead, he privileges the user's body. If the image has indeed become a process, than it is the bodily activity of the user that ‘transforms formless information into an apprehensible form'. ( Ibid ., p. 11)

I think Hansen is right in situating the crux of digital images in the process of embodied experience, but I doubt whether this is really new. One of the main claims of my book is that what links ‘traditional' art forms like paintings with interactive art is that both engage the spectator/visitor in some kind of doing . Art has always a performative dimension, whether this is mainly interpretative , as in the case of traditional art, or also configurative , as in interactive art. (See for instance Eskelinen and Tronstad, 2003) That is hardly surprising. However, I would also say that even an interpretative performance is not only a mental thing. There is often a bodily activity required as well, even in such a ‘quiet' activity as looking at a painting (see for instance Van de Vall, 2003, on the bodily activity involved in looking at a Rembrandt self-portrait). The second major claim is, that art may stage instances of performative articulation : in the experience of doing what the work wants you to do, you develop ‘new body parts' as it were and, with that, discover new or more richly differentiated experiences and concomitant worlds. Specific for art is that the experience of bodily engagement is reflexive – you feel yourself moving about and consider the feeling to be meaningful – and allows for a certain indeterminacy and imaginative and reflective play .

To return to the question ‘How does one define the line between spectacle and works that create a chain of associations and provide a space for engagement, interpretation and participation?' My example is not an art work, but a movie that exemplifies visual digital culture as Darley characterised it, using allmeans of the MTV videoclip.

Darren Aronofsky Requiem for a Dream , 2000.

On the level of representation, the narrative structure, or the story and how it is told, is important. It exemplifies the dynamics of addiction of four characters under the headings Summer, Fall, and Winter. But far more important is the presentation, or aesthetic form – what Aronofsky called its ‘hip hop montage'. Starting with wide open and relatively quiet images in the beginning, the editing of the images and the music quickens toward the middle episode to become an unbearable and inescapable, suffocating experience. It Stages an embodied experience for the spectator and what she is going through feels in some respects how it must feel to become addicted. One could discern three rhythms: ascending, descending, and finally a turning point in which an indeterminacy is presented. In this film, the techniques of visual digital culture, geared to an overwhelming sensorial experience, are used to let the spectator feel what it is to become addicted. However, the film is not only manipulative (it is not merely propaganda), but by its open and indeterminate ending also allows for a reflexive awareness of the difference between being manipulated and being engaged in a imaginative and reflective play – sad as this play might be.

The other question, ‘Does interactivity offer, due to its participatory nature, a more profound experience than traditional forms of art?' brings me to the website www.requiemforadream.com, designed by Florian Schmitt as an advertisement for the film. The website tries to do the same as the film. There are two sequences in the website that are very instructive, because they involve same type of interaction, laying bare an underlying image by the movements of the cursor, but in two completely different rhythms. And here you see the shifting of the locus of indeterminacy from the image itself to your dealings with it .

What affects you is presented in the reflexive experience of your own actions. What makes the interactivity interesting is that by feeling yourself performing the act, the action becomes articulated. What was an undifferentiated experience before, moving your cursor over the screen, becomes differentiated. The first movement is an enjoyable and predictable discovery of a clear image. The second movement feels erratic, unpredictable, senseless, like groping for the image and dragging it out of the darkness – and then losing it again: like you are getting stuck. So, by performing the act, you discover something about yourself, the world around you and your relation to and presence in that world. And that is what art should be about.

Darley, A. (2000), Visual Digital Culture. Surface Play and Spectacle in New Media Genres . London and New York: Routledge.
Eskelinen, M. and Tronstad, R., (2003). ‘Video Games and Configurative Performances', in Mark J. Wolf & Bernard Perron (eds). The Video Game Theory Reader , pp. 195-220. New York and London: Routledge.
Hansen, M. (2004), New Philosophy for New Media , Cambridge, Mass. and London: The MIT Press.
Jay, M. (2000), ‘Diving into the Wreck: Aesthetic Spectatorship at the Fin-de-Siècle', Critical Horizons 1 (1) February, pp. 93-111.
Simons, J. (2002), Interface en cyberspace. Inleiding in de nieuwe media , Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press.
Vall, R. van de (2003), ‘Touching the Face. The Ethics of Visuality Between Levinas and a Rembrandt Self-Portrait', in C. Farago & R. Zwijnenberg (eds.) Compelling
Visuality: The Work of Art In and Out of History . Minneapolis and London: Minnesota University Press.