Interactivity and real time-envy

Jim Drobnick: What aspects of technology utilized in your work do you intend to be “transparent” and what aspects are made visible?

Elizabeth Diller and Ricardo Scofidio: Because we want our work to be understood within a broad definition of technology, we tend to downplay hardware in favour of more elusive forms of cultural apparatus. The Slow House (1991), for example, probes the notion of “view.” The house sits on an oceanfront site facing the horizon. It takes the from of a distorted cone of vision: a narrow entry door at one end leads to an expansive picture window to the ocean view at the other. Partially interrupting this view is a video monitor that receives a similar image of the ocean from a live camera at a higher elevation. This video view can be panned and zoomed by remote control. It can also be recorded and deferred – day played back at night, fair weather in foul…. The image in the monitor and the one through the picture window are grafted into a composite view with the two horizons permanently out of alignment. For the resident sitting deep in the recliner with a margarita in hand watching the sun set over the horizon, mediated vision is offered as an object of contemplation.

With the domestic application of long span glass in the 1950s, the view became an object of desire, a possessable artifact, a trophy for the living room. The picture window domesticates nature. It assigns value to whatever it frames. It produces the view. Can the view in the picture window be considered any less “technologized” than the one in the video screen? In fact, as advanced technology strives to de-materialize its hardware, to become solely effects, perhaps the picture window can be considered a “high” technology because its cultural mechanisms are immaterial, unlike the bulky video system.

How does your work resist or alter the instrumental, commercial or positivistic attitudes built into technology?

While our work utilizes new technologies, it targets the reductive discourses surrounding them: the technophilic narratives of progress and technophobic narratives of decline and control. This dualistic mine field has pushed us to become techno-centrists. The technologies themselves are far less insidious…. We are always circumventing industrially and commercially determined applications of the technologies we use.

What is the role of interactivity in your work? Why have you chosen to work in this format?

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As our work stems from architecture, it always anticipates a thinking and performing subject. With new media, we’ve simply added more explicit forms of interactivity, thus more conscious links to the subtext of the work… which somehow always returns to subjectivity itself.

How have you negotiated the contradictory issues of freedom and empowerment, and their inverse, control and design, present in interactive work?

The contradictions of interactivity are part of its attraction. For example, the claim that the conventions of authorship will be overturned by converting the passive viewer into an (inter) active co-producer. This passive/active dualism perpetuated by new media assumes that subjects are “passive” if they are not pushing a mouse and “active” even if they are playing out prescribed scripts. Interactive art is a kind of predetermined indeterminacy, conceived by artists in the guise of control surrendered. This deception is an important structural component of interactive work.

In Indigestion (1995), we used the empowerment of “choice” to lure viewers into a closer inspection of character construction. Two figures of undesignated relation across a dinner table are projected onto a horizontal screen that corresponds precisely in size, shape and height to an actual table. The dialogue, written by Douglas Cooper, involves an archetypal blackmail scenario camouflaged in a repartee about food. Along the progress of the narrative, a nearby touch screen offers viewers a menu of replaceable characters, each a sexual and/or class stereotype. The piece is conceived for continuity in any branching pathway though the event is thoroughly nuanced according to the chosen stereotype.

The pretext of “freedom” is interactivity’s strongest instrument of control. Freedom has been a persistent theme of twentieth century technology, so the instrumental use of freedom is a logical postmodern extension. Lately, we’ve been studying how closely the rhetoric of “freedom” surrounding emerging technologies parallels the rhetoric which accompanied the introduction of a visionary new technology in the early twentieth century: glass. Curtain wall construction would liberate vision from the disciplinary enclosure of masonry. Glass was considered a material of truth, an instrument of disclosure. Glass promised, as do information technologies, to democratize information. Both have guaranteed a boundless, transparent world, unimpeded by conventional spatial limitations. Also, both eventually discovered their dystopian flip side. When the gaze came to be understood as a two-way system, glass suddenly became a paranoid material, raising the question: Whose freedom and on which side of the glass? Likewise, interactive and information technologies have raised the question: Whose freedom and on which side of the interface?

We’ve been trying to rethink glass after modernism – trying out strategies of display and spectatorship – beyond positive and negative associations. In Jump Cuts (1996) we added a liquid crystal skin across the glass facade of a Cineplex theater. Following Asimov’s prophetic idea of “opacifying glass,” the facade phases between transparent and translucent modes with the application of an electrical current. While translucent, the liquid crystal interrupts the view into the theater lobby with video imagery that ranges from surveillance views of the scene blocked from direct view, to movie trailers. Glass here has a flexible ideology.

How does your use of technology address the body? Is it a form of disembodiment or re-embodiment?

Your question reflects another dualism propagated by new media. We distance ourselves both from the ecstasy of “disembodiment” and the nostalgia of “re-embodiment,” assuming that the body was ever actually lost.

What manner of subjectivity, character, or behavior do you wish to invoke?

We’re interested in producing a reversible subjectivity that can negotiate aggregate modes of real/fictive space. This requires a subject that does not surrender their identity. Typically, a new media tends to neutralize its subject. It prefers a disembodied, un-situated subject that can easily be re-situated and assume any identity. In virtual technologies the term “entering” a sensory-immersive environment presupposes exiting the environment in which it sets. This arrival/departure metaphor insures a distinction between the fictional “inside” and the actual “outside,” safeguarding the distance between author and subject – the very distance this technology was originally meant to bridge. The hard work ahead for interactive art may well be the interrogation of this forced distance. Can individual subjectivity actually be left behind? We believe that it is only because cultural codes are unavoidably brought into fictive space by the geographically and culturally situated subject that willful choices could be made and any threat to the conventions of subjectivity could be tested.

Are there any new technologies you would like to work with, or not, and why?

At the moment, we’re working on some new themes within existing technologies. We’re obsessed with two contemporary temporal notions: “live” (as in broadcast transmission) and “real time” (as in interactive media). While recorded and lag time are thought to divorce spectator from event, action from reaction, the temporal immediacy of live/real time produces experiences at the precise moment of their occurrence, despite spatial discontinuity. This emphasis on immediacy seems to express a desire to recuperate auratic experience lost in postmodern culture. It oddly favours unmediated time over unmediated space. We’re currently working on the condition of real time-envy in a project for the Web and the assumption of live performance for a theater work on the traditional stage.

How do you hope that your work, as well as other artists’ productions changes an audience’s relationship to technology?

Hopefully, when the novelty subsides, content-driven work will challenge the acritical embrace (or acritical rejection) of everything new and allow its audience to appreciate interactive art within a genealogy of media and with an understanding of the political and economic conditions out of which it is produced.

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What ramifications do interactive works have for rethinking social structures?

It’s hard to generalize. However, in our production, interactivity is an ideal instrument for the interrogation of social structures. It can challenge participants with problems of “propriety” and allow them to test social limits without liability for their transgressions. The nature of the issues we want to bring out, however, requires the invention of new interfaces which complicate the formerly exclusive domains of the “real” and the “fictive.” For that reason our aim is to weave together fictive and actual sites/situations in which participants can engage cultural codes from a critical semi-fictive stance.

Jim Drobnick is a writer living in Montreal.

Les architectes new-yorkais Diller + Scofidio experimentent avec plusieurs pratiques et medias. Leur travail interroge les discours culturels sur le regard, l’architecture et la representation. Ils abordent ici certaines de leurs oeuvres recentes ou il est question de l’aspect illusoire de l’interactivite, de la notion de transparence en architecture moderne et de la place du sujet a l’ere des nouvelles technologies.