Interactive Tedium from ISEA

by Andy Polaine on August 29, 2006

in General

I didn’t get to go to ISEA this year (not that I’ve been for ages) and I actually pretty pleased I didn’t. I really wanted to like the stuff I saw online, largely thanks to Brett Stalbaum doing a trawl of YouTube for all the videos from ISEA.

But, as usual, there were the crazy modern telematic dance to squeaky violin crowd, the utterly pointless matrix of infrared LED’s, invisible to the human eye, which can only be seen through the viewfinder of a digital camera. (On the video you hear people discussing its pointlessness). And of course the usual array of ear-splitting electronic feedback with quivering, dull, dull, dull visuals and the blinky-blonk laptop music crew.

What a disappointment. This stuff just hasn’t moved on for a decade and even back then we used to find it tedious. All the decent work is happening in more commercial areas such as tour visuals and public installations. So, new media/electronic artists out there remember:

Plugging the feedback from a rubbish circuit board you cobbled together for the first time into an oscilloscope and dancing around in front of it may be art and you might love it, but its boring as hell. Try making something beautiful, it’s a lot harder.

I’m going to miss Ars Electronica, which I’m much more upset about given that I live so close, but I’ll be in Barcelona. So there’s some compensation.

{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Karl D.D. August 30, 2006 at 3:43 am

While I think this post is a bit of a rant (exactly what blogs are for), I do agree that the hype to quality ratio was pretty out of sync.

One work I found interesting for my research was Douglas Edric Stanely’s Cubed.
I mention an interview with him from WMMNA in a paper I am writing at the moment, I will send you a PDF when it is done.

As for the ‘Rubbish Circuit Board’ I guess you are talking about the ‘Breadboard Band’ which I think is incorrectly labelled as the ‘Sine Wave Orchestra’ on that site. I have never seen either perform but I do know them; perhaps less so the SWO, but it does carry on a long Japanese tradition of low-concept and high-aesthetic priority. It seems like these experiements progress without theory but with the potential for something to be interesting and beautiful (however you define it).

There is a bit of a write up here on SWO if your interested

As for ISEA, yes your right it is the Art World, and it is what can be expected. I think you might have gotten more from a trip to Tokyo to see the ICC Kids exhibition?

2 Andy Polaine August 30, 2006 at 11:46 am

Yeah, it was a rant, but it’s part of a considered series (hence the Why Big Fine Art… paper).

Actually I found Douglas Edric Stanley’s Cubed pretty dull too. Although it’s a smart interface, it’s still a pretty straight sequencer. So all he’s really done is change clicking on squares on the screen to reading stuff off of the Rubik’s Cube. Granted there’s a whole Old Skool 80s value in the Rubik’s Cube, but I didn’t really feel he made much of the ‘cubeness’ of the cube, if you see what I mean. Perhaps I haven’t really understood the work properly from the videos, but that’s how it seems to me.

There were a lot of works like that as far as I can tell. It has always been the same in this area – artists suddenly work out how to put circuits together and/or code and the fact that they’ve done that is the art – the technology is where it stops quite often. So we’re left to marvel at the technical prowess, rather than the brilliant idea.

I don’t mind low-concept, high-aesthetic work at all – in fact I’d really like to see more of it. I loathe art that’s made about theory (as opposed to theory developed about art) because it’s usually totally post-rationalised and used to justify some really self-indulgant tosh. I think ISEA (from what I’ve seen online) suffers from way too much of the latter and not enough of the former. I’m a great one for a work seducing the viewer through it’s simplicity/beauty before interaction.

Thanks for the links by the way, but hey, you should form your HTML properly so I don’t have to edit it all!

3 Karl D.D. August 30, 2006 at 4:24 pm

Theory and Practice for mine, go together and feed off each other.
Aesthetic, is something which develops, not something which should be applied. This is about understanding and representing something, whether that is a concept, a theory or a client.
History Flow comes to mind, a chart system which was developed to show the history of a Wikipedia article.

I guess here in Japan I see too many designers/artists approaching design/art like they are choosing themes for Wordpress (?).

Your right about that post-rationalising, it is all to common in the design world as well; when the client asks you on the spot why exactly you chose that blue colour, the reply is ‘… well…blue symbolises the solidity and stability of the company but also pushing forward dynamically’.

HTML formatted, ready to go.

4 Douglas Edric Stanley October 14, 2006 at 3:26 am

lol!

I’m landing a little late here, but I just wanted to say in all sincerity that it’s quite an honor to be called dull by one of the founders of antirom ;-)

Ultimately, I agree with some of the sentiments (not all), especially those concerning my work, although indeed I think you missed some of the details. You are quite astute to mention that I do not exploit enough the “cubeness” of the cube. I wonder if you only saw the early prototype (pre-ISEA) where I hadn’t really finished exploring this aspect. For, indeed the cube is far more than just a field of colors triggering notes, it is used spatially, amongst other things. If you’re using a cube, it also means you’re touching it. So it’s not just a sequencer, it’s also a mixing board, and an audiovisual programming interface, and I’ll probably find even more uses for it through it’s “cubeness”. Thanks for the term, I’ll have to use it.

Ironically Cubed and another recent musical work grew directly out of getting bored with a lot of digital music performances (including at Ars Electronica). I was also bored with a lot of the digital music interfaces. I think the line I used a lot at ISEA was that most of it just looks like a bunch of spreadsheets, hence the difficulty of translating them into a performance tool.

As for the idea of the making stuff with the circuits: that too is a principle a lot of us have been applying for quite some time. I actually formed a musical group that used one of my interfaces (designed for another work and not as an interface), precisely to get past a lot of the gadget demos we saw: i.e. starting with the interface and not ending with it.

The ironic thing is that every time these works are exhibited, the curators, the press, the public just focus on the gadget part. Only the rare straggler spends time exploring it. Ugh! I usually calculate that I didn’t make the interface simple enough, or the content interresting enough, and try to build the response into the next piece. But I keep bumping into the gadget issue.

Only unlike you, I would still defend a lot of that gadgety work, including the Sine Wave Orchestra, even if I too am critical at times. The problem lies less, in my opinion, with the artists, but rather with the organizers that do not contextualize a lot of these machines or allow them their expressive context. In this light, might I also add that you’re strangely missing some historical perspective: a lot of these digital arts festivals are in fact “playpens” ,-) for a lot of ideas that aren’t necessarly to be taken at face value, and should be seen as something emergent — not fully understood yet.

That’s why tour visuals in fact work so well because it’s a very well known medium, and the configuration (raised stage + subservient public) has already been established. So it’s an unfair comparison. I personally find myself needing to move back and forth between the “beautiful” works and the more laboratory works like “cubed”. Both have their beauty, in fact.

Oh, and for me, tour visuals are getting totally fè§&#@g boring. They’re also too easy. I know all the algorithms already. Been there, done that. But people in the crowd still go “wow!” so there you go. It is only the rare occasion when someone uses one of those algorithms “beautifully”, simply, as you desire (I’d like to see your list). And the most beautiful ones, which are usually the simplest, often get panned as just a couple lines or pixels moving around. For me, most in that scene are doing demos just like all the art gadget nerds, the most valued work being the newer fancier algorithms.

Finally, I wonder if you were irked simply because you’ve evolved in this field long enough, and in fact are one of its founders. As a teacher, I’ve come to realize that everyone sort of stumbles through these issues one by one, reinventing the wheel if you will, and only start building uses for their gadgets after a few iterations. It’ll happen, just give it time. Then the next wave will come along and have to learn all over again. Even antirom had aspects of experimentation, baffling in fact many of your precursors that I enthusiastically showed it to. I distinctly remember being asked what the point was (« où veulent-ils en venir ? »)…

5 Andy Polaine October 17, 2006 at 4:37 pm

Douglas, thank you so much for the long and thoughtful comment on what was probably an unfair rant. Thanks for not just rising to the bait and being pissed off! I really should probably watch my glib comments on here.

You are right that part of what irked me was having been in the field long enough to have seen so much of the same-old same-old. It’s rare to see some really new ideas.

I would love to see Cubed in the flesh because I’d like to see how it feels and how playful it can be. It’s the difficult thing with interactive works always, but also part of their charm (i.e., “You had to be there”).

I agree that a lot of music sequencers look like spreadsheets. Partly that’s a structural thing with music, partly convention. I know plenty of people (like Golan Levin) have tried different methods for composition. Am I wrong in assuming that the Cube is a spreadsheet wrapped around a cube then?

One of the other things you might know of, or might like to know of, are the Phase Toys that Andy Allenson (also ex-Antirom) made, which are grids, but are changeable in terms of the time signature independently. So you can create poly-rhythms with them easily – it was inspired by Gamelan music. They did a multi-player version of it for the Science Museum too I think and also an online version (which was difficult due to the netlag – Andy managed to sort this rather impressively).

I also totally agree with the problem with curators and organisers. It’s rare to find any that really understand interactivity outside of either deep (and opaque) cultural theory or who are basically wowed by the gadgetry. I suppose this is part of my irritation in a way, that this is still happening. This stuff really has been around long enough for people to have become used to the technology enough to be able to see through to the idea. I’m never sure about Danny Rozin’s work for example. I like it and I like the ideas, but am I just being wowed by the fact he actually made a mirror out of wood and the effort involved, or is it something more?

In terms of tour visuals, yes, I’m really not talking about the demo scene fractal nerds. I’m talking more about the much more considered approach of people like United Visual Artists or my ex-colleagues over at Tomato. UVA have done some quite pared-back visuals as well as interactive works, which are much more interesting than just a few projectors with MAX/MSP patches plugging away.

6 Karl D.D. October 19, 2006 at 11:12 am

It is all to easy to come to a fast conclusion when judging documentation of interactive works. Its also all to easy to forget it is just that, documentation.

Like Andy, I haven’t had the chance to play with Cubed. However my observations were not focused on the interactive experience, but the ideas that it represented as a ‘platform for artistic creation’. [BTW the paper I mentioned earlier is now online].

As for being ‘wowed by gadgetry’, John Maeda makes some interesting comments on technology here.

Oftentimes it [technology] stands in the way of a thin idea. Why is the idea thin? Because technology demands you to treasure it — to do what you can because something new is possible. Technology craves attention, and we feed its insecurities. In the process of serving technology, we often forget why we were doing something in the first place. Such a process inevitably gets you in trouble because the all-consuming attention given to the technology leads you to an arrival point with very little conceptual strength. One must always seek balance by acknowledging the infinite hunger of new technologies (for more technology).

So to me this is a trap which artists fall into at the endorsement of curators and organisers. I have been in an ongoing discussion with Jo from the Sine Wave Orchestra about Japanese Media Art, which I believe often falls into this category. He was very interested to learn about your comments and hopefully he can post something here.

The larger question could be – to what ends do we use this technology? This is something I think Douglas offers an answer to, we can use these tools to provide others with platforms for further creation. This is not necessarily altruistic, but if we ‘imagine a world without artists, musicians, writers and performers’ it IS a scary thought; the flip side is we can use technology to empower people to create and to me this is a worthwhile goal to pursue.

7 Andy Polaine October 20, 2006 at 3:34 pm

The Maeda quote is (as usual) spot on. There are a lot of thin ideas in the new media arts area and I’m sure I have been as responsible foe some of them as any.

I think the adoration of the technology is not necessarily a problem on its own. Artists and designers (and others) have always explored the boundaries of new materials and technologies. That is a key part of the process – when one thinks about the kinds of uses people have put ‘business’ or military technologies to you can see that this is really crucial to innovation.

The problem is when the technology becomes the ‘art’ or the idea on its own, if you like, and the the artists/designer can’t see that this is going on. There are so many of these kinds of works and Karl, I know we talked about this a lot with your Lightracer work.

I also shy away from artworks being ‘worthwhile’, as you know. One of the reasons for focussing on play and playfulness is to try and explore what is actually engaging and enjoyable to use as an interactive experience, whichever technology I’m using.

To go back to the ISEA rant, the thing that I suppose depressed me was that I couldn’t really see any new kinds of explorations of the technologies – nobody had really seemed to have found anything new to do (hence my jibe the ‘blinky blonk’ circuit/laptop audio scene).

It could well be that the bit I’m missing is that people are thinking and talking about this stuff differently. My Time Sketches work, after all, is not at all technologically innovative, but the point for me is that I’m interesting in what it makes people do, not the images it makes.

The danger with all the tech. stuff is that it’s easy to forget that emotional engagement.

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