rules of engagement: auras of presence

stephen jones interacts with the engage symposium

WHILE INTERACTION IS PERHAPS THE MOST BASIC THING THAT CAN OCCUR WITHIN ANY CONTEXT, FORMING THE RAW BASIS FOR ALL COMMUNICATION IN BIOLOGY AND SOCIALITY, INTERACTIVE ART IS FAST BECOMING SOPHISTICATED AND REFLECTIVE.
Time’s Up, Graviton

Time’s Up, Graviton

Artists whose practice includes works that are interactive have begun exploring the audience experience by investigating the extent to which their works engage an audience in an interesting and satisfying ‘conversation’ with the work’s content through the details of its sensing and responsive character. This notion of engagement is similar to the notion of immersion, though without the connotation of floating in some private pool of virtual space or information.

The Engage symposium at University of Technology Sydney provided a venue for artists whose works incorporate interactivity, to focus their attention on questions of how well interactive works achieve their aims and how that can be measured. The symposium followed two interwoven lines: the discussion of works that are engaging in their interactive behaviour and the discussion of methods for discovering what it is about these works and the audience’s experience that makes them engaging. Thus interactive art has developed two contexts: one as art in which the nature of the experience, the content, the intentions and discussion that the artist wants to bring to attention become the issue; and the other as science, where the study of the interactive mechanisms and their capacity to entice involvement or engagement lead toward a theory of effective design. This scientific interest in the character of engagement itself involves two further stages: the mapping of gestural and other audience behaviours into the processing systems that lie behind interactive art installations, and measuring the success with which that mapping is handled so that the person participating in the installation becomes engaged with the work.

Overall the question becomes: how do artists make interactive works that people enjoy engaging with, given that, as Mike Stubbs (media artist and Exhibitions Program Manager, ACMI) argued, engagement is more interesting when it is not simply a function of some technical characteristic of the particular devices being used, but is primarily content oriented.

Participation implies a relinquishing of curatorial and artistic control. British curator Beryl Graham illustrated this with Rafael Lozano Hemmer’s installation Body Movies: Relational Architecture 6 (Rotterdam, 2001). This was a large-scale public light-projection work in which people interact through differences in the scale of their shadows on the walls of a building. It is the spontaneous interaction of the audience that makes the work effective. Tim Boykett, of the Austrian group Time’s Up, spoke about how they approached this problem in their installation, Hyperfitness Studio, in which they present the audience with intuitive interfaces utilising the metaphor of the fitness and sporting facility. The audience are put in the position of “proto-scientist” and have to make sense of what they find and, Boykett observed, they appear to enjoy having to experiment in order to make the connections.

Our engagement with the work also comes through being represented within it, and the more so when in intriguing and mysterious ways. As Kathy Cleland (writer, curator, lecturer, University of Sydney) noted in referring to several early video installation works (fortuitously available in the Centre Pompidou collection currently at the MCA and soon at ACMI), we do enjoy seeing ourselves in the artwork, especially when one’s image appears to be acting in ways that are quite contrary to one’s current behaviour. This is something that also arises in more recent work such as Alex Davies’ Dislocations, where virtual characters irrupt into the viewing space causing a curious dissonance within the audience’s experience. Davies’ paper subsequently revealed some of the technicalities of these illusions.

Mari Velonaki looked at another aspect of the projected personality within the installation. In her work, including her Fish-Bird’s roboticised wheelchairs we enter a “conversation” with characters who respond, often quite obliquely, to our presence thus drawing us in as participants. In Velonaki’s installations the technology is hidden, producing an illusionistic space similar to the cinema, allowing the suspension of disbelief and easing identification, but this illusion and the potential engagement can be easily broken if the projected personality responds in baffling ways.

Other problems that disrupt the illusion are more technical. For example, Nick Mariette has been exploring the Audio Nomad system (based on work by Nigel Helyer). Sound is superimposed on objects in the gallery or public space and the question becomes how well the received sound relate to the visual sites upon which it is superimposed; ie how good is the tracking and the sound rendering for source position fidelity. Here the science enters; Mariette is involved in experimental work in psychoacoustics within virtual sound environments.

With the many ways in which the audience’s presence within an installation and their responses to it can modulate its behaviour, a new kind of aura becomes attached to interactive art, of behavioural presence which, if there is going to be any kind of engagement, asks that the installation be able to actually sense aspects of the audience’s behaviour. Conversation being two-way, not only does the installation need information about its interlocutor but also that person needs to be having an experience that makes it clear that the installation has some knowledge of their presence. This leads to the investigation and evaluation of the user’s experience.

Ultimately the question must be: is the experience effective, interesting, stimulating, exciting, provocative and thus engaging? This is largely a qualitative inquiry using the methods of cognitive science. These mostly comprise various forms of post-experience interviews, often videotaped for subsequent analysis, building up categories of behaviours and personal impressions that bring out the audience’s actions, perceptions, circumstances and reflections on the experience. Some work on analysing recordings of the audience’s actual behaviour is also done.

One of the more interesting situations in which the investigation of interactive art is occurring is Beta_space, a dedicated interactive venue jointly established by the Creativity and Cognition Studios (CCS) group at the museum. Beta_space is an environment where artists can evaluate new interactive artworks using these observational and interview procedures with audience members who are willing to describe their experiences in the artwork. It also provides a context in which researchers can test and evaluate protocols for exploring user experience for use in the refinement of design processes (RT76).

There is an underlying question of what it is exactly that new media art sees itself as doing. Obviously this varies from artist to artist. Is it making new subjectivities, increasing curiosity by providing questions or conundrums for people to investigate, exploring and critiquing new technologies, offering mysteries and moments of wonder that can come from spending time with a work and engaging with it? Is it exploringour relationship to technology with a view to developing new interactive technologies for media use in general? Or are the interactive arts to be reduced to some sort of bread and circuses entertainment? We must remain aware of this potential and lift ourselves out of it into a more politically and socially cognisant activity where the exploration is of ideas and the stimulus is more than just momentary. As Lyndal Jones pointed out, it is not “interactivity per se that is important but [the] generation of meaning through the work…Furthermore…the resulting work needs to have creative and/or social impact.” This is the sort of engagement that I seek.

Engage: Interaction, Art & Audience Experience, a symposium presented by the UTS Creativity and Cognition Studios (CCS), ACID ( Australasian CRC for Interaction Design) and ANAT (Australian Network for Art & Technology); University of Technology Sydney, Nov 27-29, 2006

RealTime issue #77 Feb-March 2007 pg. 32

© Stephen Jones; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 February 2007