Through Alice's Looking Glass

Jeff Khan

Keely O'Shannessy, Alice's Conversations in Cyberspace

Keely O'Shannessy, Alice's Conversations in Cyberspace

Keely O’Shannessy’s Alice’s Conversations in Cyberspace, at the Centre for Contemporary Photography’s always-intriguing e-media gallery, is an interactive installation in which participants are invited to ‘converse’ with an on-screen Alice (transfigured from her literary Wonderland to the brave new frontier of screen-based computer technology). The participant types questions or observations into the computer, triggering various responses from the on-screen character that range through intrigue, delight, scorn, confusion and outrage.

The hitch is that Alice’s side of the conversation is restricted to phrases from Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass and Alice in Wonderland, and thus the conversation becomes something of a guessing game, as the participant is compelled to try and string together some sort of meaningful interaction. There is a conspicuous score in the top left corner of the screen—your points for interesting and pleasing Alice. They’re deducted for boring, confusing and disappointing her.

Thus, the subject matter that interests Alice the most scores you the most points and leads to the most favourable response: a high score of 5 and a warm thank-you “for your interesting story.” Piss her off, however, and she lashes out, dismissing you as being “perfectly idiotic,” and ending the conversation abruptly, leaving you to start over and try and do the right thing next time (whatever the ‘right thing’ is in Wonderland/Cyberspace).

The idea of “winning” a conversation by placating the other party as compliantly and entirely as possible provides a wry commentary on the loaded and sublimated nature of our seemingly innocuous everyday interactions and conversations. As a conversation with a machine—and O’Shannessy is quick to point out that this is not an experiment in “artificial intelligence”—it provides a humorous insight into the ways in which our expectations and hidden agendas are present in every move we make, and every interaction we have, be it with live or inanimate collaborators. Alice may have a highly specific (and necessarily predetermined) agenda, but it only serves to highlight the participant’s own expectations. The interaction increasingly becomes something of a test of one’s adaptive and intuitive finesse.

Pleasant as the conversation can be, Alice’s incredulous “attitude” and the omnipresent evaluative score lingering on the screen inevitably provokes some aggression and competitive attitudes. I found myself going back again and again to try and trump Alice at her own game. I was clearly not alone—the final comment for the exhibition in the CCP’s comments book reads “Alice is a whore—she called me an idiot.”

While remaining relatively small in scale and ambition, Alice’s Conversations in Cyberspace is a witty and polished installation. Indeed, it’s a refreshingly subtle and considered take on the increasingly visible media art/game hybrid genre. Beckoning the viewer to unravel Alice’s mysteries, this humorous and intelligent multimedia encounter throws the spotlight back on the participant.

Alice’s Conversations in Cyberspace, Keely O’Shannessy, Centre for Contemporary Photography, Melbourne, Oct 3-Nov 1

RealTime issue #58 Dec-Jan 2003 pg. 27

© Jeff Khan; for permission to reproduce apply to realtime@realtimearts.net

1 December 2003