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The nature of interactvity by Matt Ottewill

The screen as canvas ..
Some computer artists have sought to examine the cultural and aesthetic aspects of computing technologies by creating pieces which comment on the computing experience itself. I feel that this dialogue has been exhausted. Do we really need more clever and innovative virtual interfaces which seek to playfully comment on our expectations of the modern GUI? Have we not been frozen in the oncoming glare of the screen for long enough? Let’s refrain from further discourse on the eroticism of the keyboard, the virtual space behind the screen, and get on with exploiting the tools and move toward examining, through artistic practise, the enhanced artistic experience which the computer promises.

This does not mean that we need not consider the impact of the tactile experience of computing when creating a piece. Discourse on the mutability of art gains another dimension when a piece is presented in virtual space. The audience has not only has the immediate environment to consider (gallery, sitting room etc) but also the framing of the screen and tactile nature of the physical interface (mouse or light pen etc) between themselves and the piece.

"You turn the book over in your hands, you scan the sentences on the back of the jacket, generic phrases that don't say a great deal ... This circling of the book, this reading around it before reading inside it is part of the pleasure in a new book." Italo Calvino

A simple timeline tracks the linear progression from 2-dimensional painting to interaction in virtual space ...

  1. Pre Renaissance ... 2 dimensional painting
  2. Post Renaissance ... geometrical perspective permits the depiction of 3 dimensional reality on a 2 dimensional canvas
  3. Photography ... 3 dimensional space without time
  4. Film ... 3 dimensional allegorical space and time
  5. Interactive multimedia / game play ... 3 dimensional allegorical AND virtual space and time in which we may participate

Because they lack the dimension of time, we cannot easily ignore the surface of a picture when we view paintings or photographs. When we watch film we feel ourselves to be present as observers in 3- dimensional space. Interactive multimedia has the potential to turn us from passive observers into active participants.

'The common thread to all reactive graphic systems is the condition of time. Time can be perceived in one of two ways: as a natural precondition for reality or as a state measurable with respect to some specific reference.' John Maeda

During the last century, conceptions of what constituted a work of art expanded to encompass a bewildering array of artifacts. However, interactive and reactive art presented within the allegorical time and space of computing systems has yet to be fully exploited within the context of public art gallery space or the home.

Even self confessed luddites and outright detractors of the digital age often concede that the exploration of virtual space and time behind the screen is uniquely compelling. The screen focuses the mind. It beckons you in. With its mix of sound and vision it promises a sensory fait accompli. For me, the development of interactive multimedia is an area worthy of exploration. An essential element of development is the creation of tools.

What tools can computing science offer the artist?

Computers offer the artist much. In the conventional artistic disciplines (may we call painting, sculpture, video etc conventional?) they may compliment or entirely replace some of the processes of conception, production and exhibition.

Computers may be employed in several ways ...

  • An artist may employ pre-existing commercial software to create a piece
  • A technically adept artist may create their own software tools for their own use
  • A technically adept artist may create software tools which the audience/viewer may use to create a piece
  • A technically adept artist may create a piece which provides software tools to help the audience/viewer navigate, explore and interact.

Employing commercial software

Language speaks us, and the vocabulary of multimedia is vast. Modern commercial content creating and editing software offers a wide palette of tools which require great dexterity and skill by the artist in their manipulation and application. An artist’s search for identity may be severely compromised if they cannot absorb the technical skills necessary to undertake production.

Furthermore, if the artist fails to acquire the necessary skills they must delegate tasks to experts in the individual fields, with all the attendant problems of communication in areas rich with the preexisting vocabularies of male dominated jargon and syntax. Such problems often prove a significant barrier to the coherent realisation of a concept.

Also, let us not underestimate the deep satisfaction to be gained from the mastery of a skill. Often the creative process is at least as important to the artist as the successful realisation of a piece. Software which provides sophisticated creative tools, perhaps in the form of plug-in and filter algorithms, may appear to equip the beginner with an expert's skill set and undermine conventional conceptions of craftsmanship and authenticity.

However, most commercial tools are designed to improve production work flow, not aid creative expression. They are often inflexible and will not bend to the will of an artist. If artists are to wrestle control from the computer they may have no alternative but to delve deep into the code that determines the form the tools take.

Creating software tools

Programming makes possible the development of tailored software tools which an artist can employ to construct a piece. Space precludes a discussion of the merits of artistic practise carried out entirely with self devised tools, but suffice to say programming at this level will only be possible by individuals with a background in computer sciences.

Authenticity, authorship and ownership

When an artist adept at programming first creates and then makes available authoring tools and materials to the audience/viewer/end-user, conceptions of authorship blur.

'As a selfless virtue, creating new tools for others is a commendable public services that has its own rewards ... One can argue that the design and implementation of a software tool is itself an extremely creative, artistic activity. History shows that it is the artist [or end user?] who first effectively uses a new tool, not the person that makes the tool, who is remembered.' John Maeda 2000

At it’s most extreme the artist may provide tools which allow the viewer to create or 'generate' a unique piece. Creative freedom will be moderated only by the limitations of the tools provided. An artist may provide a tool which allows complete freedom and flexibility in its use, such as a pencil tool which simply paints pixels onto a background. Or they may control the extent of artistic expression possible by limiting it to particular planes of movement.

In the future the debate over intentionality and therefore authorship may focus on distinctions such as these. Artists will also have wrestled with the limitations imposed by their own skill sets and the possibilities of current computing technology itself when authoring such tools.

There is an important debate to be had over conceptions of authenticity when a multimedia developer provides "authoring" tools of this kind. Conventional concepts of ownership are already under threat in the debate surrounding the digital recycling and dissemination of music over digital networks. No doubt many artists will be eager to explore these questions and seek to push forward the debate. Who can claim authorship, the paintbrush manufacturer or the artist who paints?

In his essay The Death Of The Author, Roland Barthes discussed the destruction of the voice of the author, maintaining that the processes of narration creates a disconnection between the writer and what is written. We cannot assume that the voice (and therefore opinions) of a given character is that of the author. It may be but, we cannot know for sure.

"It is language which speaks, not the author; to write is, through a prerequisite impersonality, to reach the point where only language acts, 'performs', and not 'me'."

This idea elevates the role of the reader (interpreting the text). The text exists beyond, and "after" the author. Its "meaning" is focused and finds unity only with the reader. This idea is difficult for a culture steeped in capitalist ideology, and which celebrates the cult of personality and authorship - writers, filmmakers and so on. Placing the reader at the centre of the creative process may seem an anathema to many authors, and indeed artists, seeking to explore conceptions of self reinvention and promote public esteem and self worth.


An interesting side issues to the debate over authorship is the practise of using random variables (essentially, numeric values which are chosen at random by the computer from a range of values defined by the programmer) to produce unpredictable effects. The degree of randomness can be controlled. At its most extreme apparently chaotic effects can be produced.

Another approach is to introduce subtle variations by creating random movement within a controlled framework.

Although random music generating programs have so far proved unsatisfactory in producing results that satisfy the pre-requisites of popular music composition, so constrained by conservative conceptions of rhythm and harmony (see Adorno), the same may not be true for the art world’s equivalents where experimentation with form and craft are celebrated. The presumption of intentionality in an artists work (even if the intention is not to communicate) has long been questionable in the fast fragmenting world of modern art. Computer art may help advance this debate.

Challenge of authoring

Ultimately though, I suspect many of these debates will prove to be temporary side shows to the real challenges that lie ahead. Enabling the viewer to experience a piece interactively requires a highly disciplined approach to the conceptualisation and production processes of programming and new media authoring in which the relationship between intentionality and production may become complex.

For me, the many new things which the techniques and technologies of multimedia allow me to accomplish are dwarfed by those which I am not yet the master of. One cannot be alert to creative possibilities if one is not fully aware of the potential of the technologies. Constructing elegant and efficient programming scripts is essential to the fluid realisation of creative ideas, and this is an area of development which presents the greatest challenge to the multimedia artist.

Cultural problems

Away from the corporate world, the academically driven and sometimes diametrically opposed cultures or artistic endeavour and computer science often seem remote. Art may be characterised as an attempt to identify truths, science to identify falsehoods. It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that these opposing cultures often find collaboration problematic. This is a pity, as an axis between artist and computer scientist could produce remarkable results.

That the interactive artistic potential of computing has so far remained largely untapped by artists may say as much about their inability to confront the technical challenges of authoring as it does about the commercial imperatives of game design in the corporate world where many of our most talented creatives have found a home.

But programming is no greater a skill than that necessary to the processes of production in other artist disciplines. Does it not take years to learn how to control paint with a brush or light with a camera? Perhaps it will require a seismic shift in prevailing attitudes and skill sets among academics before we see programming being taught in art schools.

The nature of interactivity

True interactivity, so long the holy grail of those who scorn the reactive nature of most multimedia, will not be achievable so long as conceptions of interactivity differ. In order to evaluate the potential of the interactive experience in art we must first attempt a definition of 'interaction'.

As an example let us consider two people discussing and arguing. We may agree that such an exchange will be truly interactive. One makes a statement, the other counters perhaps agreeing, maybe disagreeing. The conversation turns this way and that in a complex and apparently unpredictable manner determined in part by their differing characters. Perhaps their is some element of 'randomness' in their arguments, then we see that it is the object of one of them not to win the argument by good logical reductionism to a clear point but merely to thwart and frustrate the other. Or perhaps one is not as able to follow the logic of the other because he is too busy thinking of what he will say next, to listen.

And yet one might argue that the processes taking place are purely reactive. If we had intimate knowledge of each's character and personal predisposition we might be able to predict to a high degree of accuracy their reactions to one another. Had we total knowledge of their life experiences, genetic make-up, down to the state of every atom in their bodies, would we then be able to predict every word of their conversation? An empiricist would say yes. It could therefore be argued that human experience in both virtual and real worlds is merely 'reactive.'

The logical conventions of computer programming also demand a deterministic approach. The reactive nature of multimedia may be implicit in the lines of code which determine the end-user experience. Employing random variables in scripts to simulate the apparently complex unpredictability of human exchanges is not a satisfactory solution to this dilemma. Indeed, can true randomness exist within the electronic circuits of a machine which are surely subject to the laws of physics? Quantum theorists may take issue and point out that at the sub atomic level Newtonian physics and Relativity break down. Although it raises some interesting philosophical questions, a discussion of the Uncertainty Principle is beyond the scope of this document. Besides, however uncertain the behaviour of sub atomic particles, electrons do flow with sufficient predictability to ensure the integrity of pulse waves within a digital system.

This seems to suggest that a computing system can never be interactive either. And yet anyone who has ever discussed or argued with a friend or played a modern computer game will be in no doubt that they have had an interactive experience.

Game play is interactive. You think it is reactive only? You are right. It is code, functions, control statements and variables etc, cause and effect. After all it was written by a programmer in a programming language. You play the game and your impressions change. You must think fast and react quickly to keep up. The environment changes. You rise to the challenges presented by your alien adversaries. You keep playing until you have triumphed. The aliens lie dead and the machine has been defeated. You feel exhilarated. It is compelling. You have had an interactive experience and this experience was not limited by the true reactive nature of the program. You had an emotional experience. You found something out about yourself. You challenged yourself and won, or lost.

We are left to consider two questions ...

  • If an exchange, or interface, is sufficiently complex may it not seem interactive, even though logical analysis suggests it is merely reactive? The degree of complexity required to produce the 'illusion' of interactivity will depend entirely on the knowledge, age, and expectations of the individual.
  • Does interaction occur when you make, not just a cognitive, but an emotional commitment to the exchange, be it conversation or computer interface? If an interactive interface is to succeed, must it demand that you give something of yourself to the program?

I suggest that a computer system can provide an interactive experience it it fulfils one or both of these two conditions ...

  • It should be sufficiently complex such as its deterministic nature is not apparent to its user
  • It should compel the user to engage emotionally

Furthermore, I suggest that the elements required to compel an end-user to engage emotionally with an interactive piece are ...

  • Narrative
  • Style
  • Metaphor
  • Challenge
  • Exploration

Final thoughts

Conventional' installation art (as opposed to virtual spaces) and pieces that allow the viewer a tactile experience can be hugely successful especially for children. Computer game play has shown us the importance of exploration and discovery, involving the viewer in an unprecedented manner. The viewer becomes an active participant controlling their progress through the piece. But interactive art can be so much more than mere navigation through rich media. It can demand that the viewer engage with the piece and employ cognitive and emotional skills in order to reveal its true meaning.

I believe that the availablilty of powerful digital authoring tools and development platforms offer artists a unique opportunity to engage their audience in a multi faceted tactile, aesthetic, cognitive and emotional experience.

Copyright Matt Ottewill 2001