Sunday, March 28, 2010

Interactivity As Entropic Prison

sound resonatorsound resonator

In this article I will move from specific observations relating to my sound installation "The Lights In Room 7" to generally applicable philosophical points regarding the interactive utopia many technophiles promote. I will over-simplify and pontificate, for what else is a blog for? [This version revised from initial publication.]

This article started from a need to clarify a point I made in the initial announcement of this piece. I wrote then that "those who come to the room will hear sounds that differ for each visit". But in doing so did not wish to imply, as some have assumed, that the piece is interactive in any way. Visitors will hear different sounds only because there is so much sound to hear, and because I do not expect anyone to stay for the entire duration.

I deliberately did not indicated the length of the piece, so as to leave unconstrained the listening experience. There is a certain anxiety associated with "needing to hear the whole thing" or "missing something" which I did not wish to exploit (not this time). Instead, I am happy for listeners to come and go as they might, and to listen to as much or little as they wish.

first day of exhibitionfirst day of exhibition

In my observations of the installation thus far, I have seen instances in which people enter Room 7 during a quiet passage. They take a few disinterested steps and then look for supporting material, something to read that will explain why they should be there. Then, perhaps, they might become aware of a sound at a low volume. Some listeners assumed from this sequence of events that their presence had triggered the sound. This interpretation follows the deduction that two events related temporally are also related causally. This assumption was especially likely to be made if they noticed a computer was involved in the production.

In this case, as many others, this "common sense" deduction leads to a false conclusion. But I am interested in this phenomenon, and might even be accused of promoting it. In the room are two contact mics attached to the light fittings. Their cables hang down to the floor. Though unattached to any device, they imply a process, whether ongoing or already finished.

The piece is part of my examination into audience interactions with sound installations. And it is a test of my position regarding interactive art. Given that it has strengthened my resolve, this experiment has been a personal success.

Within domains such as knowledge acquisition (also known as, if I can write this without shuddering, "e-learning") interactivity has been seen as a "good thing". But I find the over-simplistic models and the various buzzword-plagued monologues they generate misguided in a fundamental way: they privilege the computer as a tool. In order to deconstruct their logic, one need only substitute a different technology. Since my days working on The Electronic Labyrinth project (a formative guide to hypertext fiction) I have been in the habit of using the book as this substitute technology.

To give an example: I might say that the web is interactive because one can point and click to freely move from website to website. To test if this is meaningful I consider the book, in which one can also freely move from page to page (point and flick?). Yet we don't claim a book is interactive.

door red 7door red 7

To get out of this dilemma, "interactive" might be defined as applying only to computers. But then we end up with a tautology; the term "interactive" provides us with no further information beyond claiming that a computer is involved; everything we do with a computer becomes interactive.

Structuralists reduce and abstract life into isolated fragments and are then forced to reconstitute what is lost in this process of subdividing and classifying. Terms are introduced to fill the spaces between these atomised particles, to suture the gaps. The "interactive" is one of these, a weak term standing in for much richer (now lost, in the cutting and compartmentalising) relationships.

The essential mistake in this approach is that life is not interactive (as Baudrillard stated). We cannot reconstitute the rich experiences of life from planes of interactivity beaming photons at each other.

Life is relational, reciprocal, always open to play, to reversals of polarities between opposites that never cancel. The interactive, in contrast, builds screens between domains and then strives to make those screens infinitely permeable. The interactive denies difference and would have all experience be interchangeable for all others. That is, interactivity promotes as its end the virtual. How many Utopian technology articles see virtuality as the gold at the end of the rainbow?

control surfacecontrol surface

But we know that this "Utopia" is "no place", a paradise of entropy and stasis. When all is good and nothing evil, morality loses meaning. When identity is infinitely malleable, subjectivity vanishes. The Utopian goal is congruent with the heat death of the universe, the entropic prison in which the end game of history will be played. Those who hold this as an ideal have not thought very hard about their ultimate demise!

There is also the political issue. Providing a listener a small range of allowable interactions in order to empower them mirrors the techniques of capitalism. "Burger King or McDonalds?" I have seen too many art projects that ask us to step here, put our hand there, press this button -- all for some small reward in keeping the microcosm functioning. In that domain we are nothing more than lab rats in the maze of interactivity, forced to do the one necessary thing in order to complete the system.

No true reciprocity or conviviality exists in these works. It is the system that is brought to fruition; everything exists for its sake. About us little need be said -- except that we played our part. Our own fulfilment is a non-issue.

This is why I, as a sound artist, wish to design systems that do less, expect less and demand nothing except attention. It is enough for me to set into play potentially intriguing interactions of sound, space, time and psychoacoustics. I ask only of the participant that they be in the space and listen, with no other obligation and no prescribed task overdetermining their experience.

To ask so little is indeed to ask a lot in this hyper-mediated world.

sound sourcesound source

"Interactivity is a gigantic mythology, a mythology of integrated systems or of systems craving integration, a mythology in which otherness is lost in feedback, interlocution and interface."
-- Jean Baudrillard, The Intelligence of Evil or The Lucidity Pact (2005)


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