Robert Atkins: Our last panelist, Perry Hoberman, is an installation and performance artist who teaches at the graduate computer-arts department at the School of Visual Arts in New York. He is also art director at Telepresence Research in Portola Valley. His installation, BarCode Hotel, was awarded top prize at last yearís Interactive Media Festival and, in June, he presented his paper, ìMistakes and Misbehaviors in Cyberspaceî at the fifth international cyber-conference in Madrid.

Perry Hoberman: I'd like to address questions of interactivity especially as they relate to art and artists, and not just consider questions relating to interactivity in general. I think that as an interactive medium the Internet is doing very well. Everything from E-mail to MUDs and MOOs function and attract wide participation. But that doesn't mean, as other panelists have remarked, that this brings them into the realm of art.

One of the first things I notice about the Internet is that art isn't demarcated in the same way that art galleries and museums demarcate art in the real world. Artworks look exactly the same as anything else on the Internet. The one thing you might be able to say is that their intention is less clear than some of the more practical things online. So in that sense, artworks become more like pranks or hacks; and I think that the line separting those categories isn't really clear. Artists tend to use things in ways that are less practical. This relates to what art has been in the 20th century--a useless activity. That's the way the avant garde has often defined it, as something without a practical purpose. It's not about communication, it's not about getting something done, it's art for artís sake. I think this continues and I don't think we've dispensed with a need for the avant garde as Jane [Veeder] said. I think that there's always both a need and a place for an avant garde, but what that place is constantly changes.

When I think about interactivity online, the first questions I ask are about interactivity off-line, and about interactivity as it's already been used in artworks and multi-media. I primarily make installations that have a physical presence that aren't confined to a screen in any way. I did this for a long time without making anything that was interactive. In the early-80's, I worked with multiple slide projections and multi-image systems to make cinematic spectacles that didn't rest on a screen but kind of filled a space. And in the mid-80's I started using electric eyes and switch matting, which is a material that goes on the floor and turns things on and off. Interactivity added a kind of open endedness. The more complicated the interactivity got, the less there was any way I could say ëthis is the way the piece is supposed to be and this is how it's supposed to look.í I couldn't compose in the same way and I think that's what interactivity adds to the experience. It forces an artist to try to mold a situation or a context and in some way to try to consider all of the possibilities of what people might do with their work, instead of just composing the perfect formal structure. This is a much more interesting thing to be doing.

What online interactivity adds is other people. You're no longer talking about interacting only with machines but interacting through a medium with other people and this is probably what Maggie [Morse] was referring to as intersubjectivity. Now, most of the Internet is used for E-mail and that kind of thing. Obviously this creates all kinds of new intersubjectivity. If you think of the existing ways of relating to other people, we can think of face-to-face communication, or something like this panel, where I'm addressing a group, or a telephone conversation or even a conference call. The thing that's interesting about the Internet is that any communication can be addressed to any number of people. Reception can go both ways. Obviously it gets very complicated and it becomes a kind of deferred communication. You don't necessarily get immediate feedback on something that you write and you can sit there for months and months before you get any response. So it mutates all those intersubjective relationships into new forms. All of the new technologies that are being added to the Internet offer possibilities for both enhanced communications and for something that's not necessarily about communication but about art. That is, a kind of art that works with the presence of other people.

One thing about interactivity that I think is often lost is that interactivity doesn't really mean anything. You ask a question about interactivity and you immediately have to consider what apparatus you are using to interact with. Not just ëWhat are you interacting with?í but ëHow are you interacting with it?í This brings up the question of how you actually use your body and your senses to participate in something. A mouse and a screen and a key board limit the possibilities of interactivity. The person who I think has spoken most openly about this is Stelarc, who talks about how you push the body into cyberspace. He wires up electrodes to his own skin so that someone over a network can control his arm by shocking him mildly.

It goes both ways. I'm very interested in alternate interfaces to the Internet. I think there's too much acquiescence to what is established by the corporate world as the interfaces that are available to us. There's everything from actually building other kind of apparatus as interfaces to just misusing things so that we don't just have click, click, click. One of the things that makes it difficult for me to think about how to use this stuff is that when I navigate through the web I just want to click as fast as I can. As long as there's a choice out there for me to make, I'll make the next one because there's nothing so attractive about anything that I'm looking at or reading that I want to stay there. So I just keep going. Part of the question with interactivity is how do you get people to stop interacting for a second and regard what they're looking at?

The way we deal with the world is not really as multiple choices. Obviously there are moments in our daily life where we do have to make choices. It's usually very clear what those choices are and we have a good reason for making a choice, or if it's arbitrary something probably kicks in our brain for whatever reason. There are a million and one things that go on that don't involve multiple choices, that are a kind of immersive space that we're usually in. So to base a medium on the idea that you give people three or four or a hundred choices is a mistake. I think we should stop thinking about choices altogether, although I'm not really sure how to do this.

We have one extreme which I would say is most of what happens on the Internet or in most educational multimedia. Something just waits for you to make a choice. You make a choice, and it stops and waits for you to make a choice again. And then thereís another extreme--video games where time never stops. You interrupt time as much as you can but it just keeps battling on and you try to keep up with it. There is a whole range in between these extremes where we might operate.

Another subject I want to bring up--which artists must deal with in this medium--is the distinction that is often made now between form and content. I think, Iím not alone in wondering why this so prevalent. Why do those in industry believe that artists are more or less synonomous with content providers? At SIGGRAPH [last week] we printed up buttons that read ëdiscontent providersí and they were very popular. But I wonder why we artists are basically being told that we don't deal with form? I thought thatís what weëre supposed to be doing. I don't look at it as a situation where I come up with a story or an image and someone else determines what the form is. Artists bring a particular point of view to that.

That said, I don't think that is up to the artist to define some new mass medium that is going to take over the universe. There is a tendency to think this because the Internet is totally connected to everything else. But if that's all that itís about, it would be very easy to judge what is good art and what is bad art. It's complicated by the fact that there is so little gestation time now. People know about things very quickly and the technology changes so fast. This creates a state of flux, which is actually kind of interesting. But obviously it's only the big corporations that can afford to keep up with all this stuff and to keep it up-to-date and functioning. So I still have my doubts about whether we can keep going like that. And even if we could, what will that do to the position of the independent artist?

Scene & Heard
Issue 3
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