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technology in the '90s  

the interactive gambit (do not run! we are your friends!)

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I remember the hilarious moment when, in a very high-tech public toilet somewhere in Europe, I first ran into a sink which had no handles to open the flow of water. With soap all over my hands, I first looked for foot switches, then something on the wall s. Finally, I noticed a telltale reddish-black plastic window just below the faucet, an infrared sensor which recognized body heat. Putting my hands under the tap caused the water to flow. So this also points out how we develop certain habits of intera cting with the world, and these can be powerful conditioning factors for an audience in finding the way an artist intended for them to interact with his or her work.


This is an installation I made in 1979, titled Sexual Jokes. It is shown during its exhibition at the Whitney Museum in that same year. This work was supposed to be only barely interactive, and it was not computer-controlled - there was a microphone nea r one of the chairs, with which one could throw ones voice across the room to a speaker near another chair - a kind of projection that I would revisit in another work with robot-puppets, which I'll talk about in a while. The work was chaotically organize d - not only were the chairs and monitors at skewed and disorienting angles to each other, but so were the images inside the video. The true interaction in this work was supposed to be at the collision-point of the title and the complexity presented by t he objects and images in the room. But what shocked me was that people moved the chairs around as they pleased. I was utterly at a loss for what to do to stop it, short of fastening them to the floor, which was impossible. The positions of the chairs, making it difficult or impossible in many cases to look at a video monitor, were very carefully structured, yet people did not give a moment's thought to moving them about. Chairs, in the context of art museum, remained chairs, as long as one was allowed to sit on them, and therefore, also could be moved to a spot where they were most useful in the ordinary way - here, offering a good view of the television.

Duchamp's idea of the art coefficient says that every work of art can be evaluated, in part, as ratio between that which is intended by the artist and not expressed in the work, and that which is unintentionally expressed by the work. In other words, rec ognizing that each work finally escapes, to some extent, from it makers intentions, and these are the two main factors which come between the original intention of the artist and the understanding of the work by the audience.

But in making interactive artworks, we have to add a corollary to Duchamp's equation, and also say that we have to look at the ratio of what unexpected things the audience does when they become participants, and which expected things they do not do at all . This, added to the uncertainty of miscommunicated expression, makes these works very difficult to approach critically, and perhaps accounts, to some extent, for the nearly total absence of analytical critical writing about specific interactive artworks. Our critical context, at the moment, remains largely fixed on formal tendencies and technological developments, and I would say that one of the obstacles preventing this work from being more widely understood is the difficulty of critically approaching these works which are not intended to offer up their meanings clearly and simply.

varlot Varlot's invention

And I think that there is a reverse side, from the point of view of the audience, which is how the work behaves in relation to their expectations, and I think I have to say that our audiences are largely still in a period of time analogous to that in whic h audiences expected pictures to be clearly representational, poems to be nice stories couched in a rhyme. I expect an audience to bring to this work the same ability to handle abstraction, paradox, and complexity as they have evolved for other forms of art, and I think it is not interesting to make variants of these familiar forms in order to take a supposedly higher moral ground by making works that are "easy to understand".

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