- Mobile Performance
- Electric Speed
- Schematic as Score
- (Re)purposed Clothes
- Collaborative Spaces
- Device Art
- Digital Dub
- Rise of the VJ
- Sample Culture
Joshua Noble: So, some of your work is highly interactive and some of it is really more for passive viewing on the part of an audience. How do you divide those two modes of working?
Golan Levin: There’s a fluid continuum for me: I have work which is intended to be audience interactive, and work that is really intended to be demonstrated or performed and an audience enjoys it as observers, and then I have stuff which is halfway in between. Messa Di Voce is an interesting case because it came full circle from one to the other. The first incarnation, Remark, that Zachary Lieberman and I made in 2002 was basically an installation for kids to see their speech. They would step into the light of the projector that would create the fiction that speech cast visible shadows and then they would see coming out of their heads the shadow of their speech - that’s the premise. They would interact with it and they have a pure interactive artwork experience. After making this, we realized that we actually knew more about the vocal signal than we had been able to use in the installation. We realized we could invite these professional performers who could really push this system to its limits and give ourselves the research challenge of making an interactive system that was as plastic and as malleable and as infinitely variable and as expressive and as challenging as the skills that the performers had. So, the question was: could we make a professional system that could entertain and keep such professionals occupied and engaged and feeling challenged? So, we made that and we made the performance. The performance had about fifteen different scenes. Several of those scenes were specifically tuned for Jaap Blonk and Joan La Barbara or inspired by improvisations that we had with them. After the performance there were requests to show the performance again and we said, ‘Well, we can’t arrange it, logistically it was quite difficult, how about an installation version’. We realized that of the fifteen different scenes, about five were actually something that we could return to the public and that five year olds could play with. What was really interesting was that then we presented it to the public as an installation and just off to the side was a plasma screen or whatever showing a video of the performance and that gave a crucial connection where viewers would look at the performance first on the way in and it became a kind of an active instruction manual where they would get an idea of what the possibilities were, they would get a basic idea about the mechanics of the system and what they had to do or what they were supposed to do.
GL: The interactive arts jury of Ars Electronica has on occasion given awards to performances and in justifying why they’re giving an award to a performance, as opposed to an interactive audience piece and the justification given by Erkki Huhtamo, for example, which I find very interesting, is that even though the audience themselves can’t be interacting, they are a vicarious participant. They are experiencing a piece vicariously, and there is some actual merit to this idea. There is a whole part of the brain devoted towards not just empathy emotionally but actually projecting yourself into the situation of someone you’re watching do something. There’s like, I forget where it is, but somewhere in learning and cognitive science they talk about how you can kind of vicariously learn things by watching someone do it.
JN: Right, there have been experiments where a subject can watch another persons movements and their brain activity will mimic the brain activity of actually acting that out. It’s the root of empathy and of learning my mimicry.
GL: So Erkki is claiming that we have a vicariousness of action so that interactive art is appreciated by the audience not just as a visual spectacle but actually also as an interactive spectacle through that emulation mechanism in the brain.
JN: I like thinking about how systems, artistic, aesthetic, and otherwise, can be learnable. A viewer walking in, seeing a performance using a tool, and then being presented with the tool, like you were talking about in Messa Di Voce, is essentially being trained. There’s a manual of sorts. What’s a learnable system?
GL: I think the key is to make systems that are self-revealing or that actually are very simple to learn by having interfaces that people can explore. It should be the default case, but it’s just that there are so many bad interfaces out there that we think it’s somehow special to make an interface that’s easy to learn. In fact, I guess it is because there are just so many bad ones, but to me it seems like it’s actually pretty obvious how to make an interface that’s easy to learn.
JN: So do you have a philosophy of how the discoverable interface looks and behaves?
GL: You know, to be fair, when I really look back on it, when I was making interfaces that were very easy and self-revealing and so on, they were for things that were easy and self-revealing. I wasn’t making an interface to an airplane where it does make a difference if it’s ten milliseconds or fifteen that it takes you to figure something out – it’s life and death. I’m interested in invention rather than in optimization of user experience; I’m just personally more interested in inventing new things than in improving old things. There’s a lot of work in improving old things that goes on, I just feel like I wonder why so much effort is going into that when American industry in particular really needs more invention.
JN: One of the things that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately is the actual content of interactive art, what it is that’s being aestheticized. One thought is that the content might be the capacity of a user to to understand what’s going on within a black box of sorts. That black box can be their own head as they learn a system, a computer, a physciall reactive system, another person, and so on. At the core of this mode of making things is our ability and desire to communicate with not only people, but with things.
GL: …and understand and participate in the process. Yeah, that’s an interesting point. It’s a tiny, tiny, tiny bit cynical, but not in a bad way, in a charming way. I mean, it might be true. There’s a quote that I like from an article by Gabriella Hima
'If once literature turns from an Aufschreibsystem into an Umschreibsystem, Myron Krueger’s allusion to McLuhan’s slogan – "response is the medium" – will become true. And then we could share McLuhan’s enthusiasm about the effects of media, when he wrote: "Nothing ever printed is as important as the medium of print." We might say, regarding the possibilities of telematical media: Nothing ever said in response is as important as the invention of the medium of the response.'
Maybe that’s a collapsed way of saying the same thing as, like, our capacity to understand what’s going on in a black box, which is to say, our capacity to understand what happens when we stick our finger in the black box -- what it does in response. And maybe your statement is actually a little bit better than just saying the word ‘response’ because the idea of a black box is to acknowledge that there is an input and an output. I’m reminded of, do you know Jim Campbell’s formula for computer art?
I’m friends with Jim and I asked him about this, and he basically made this as a provocative form of self-critique for a lecture that he gave some time ago. He made this to basically accuse himself but also everyone else at the same time in saying, "Is this all there is?" What I think is actually significantly missing from this is in fact the feedback operator that leads the output on the right-hand side back to the input. If there’s a user operator in here, then the user’s actions on the left and the response given to the user on the right are presented as completely decoupled here. What we don’t see here is that when you do something, it gets processed. It produces a result in some output that then influences your path on the left-hand side again. That’s not shown, and that’s my critique with the picture.
JN: Right, we’re very complex. And sometimes, even where we don’t see complexity, we’ll create it and vice versa. As long as we have a sense that our internal process is being responded to by the internal process of another party and that our two external processes are matching up, then we feel communication.