The Pit & The Pendulum: Part 2

The trouble with this conclusion is that it represents a stalemate. That is frustrating enough in itself but it is really only the sharp end of a deeper paradox that anyone encounters if they are drawn to digital design by its potential for creative expression.

Computers as a medium seem to offer so much. The ability to combine the three physical planes with the temporal and to move between them with dizzying plasticity and speed. The possibility of defining completely new relationships between meaning and artistic representation. And lastly, but most uniquely, the potential for meaningful intervention within those representations: so called “interactivity”. At this present time the dark photons of a monitor are the closest thing we have to a pure conceptual space.

Most digital artists grasp the possibilities quickly and a recognisable school has developed characterised by very post-modern sensibilities. Unsurprisingly it turns out to be the natural métier of those whose work tends towards the highly allusive or abstract.

Of course this could also be seen as symptomatic of something else: the contradiction implied in designing for interaction. Granting the freedom to “create” meaning within a construct is one half of a desire to abnegate authorship. Follow this to its logical end and you have the familiar fantasy of an autonomous machine.

One day we are promised unlimited powers of free-will to operate within seamless and immersive environments. The generative power of machines will match or even exceed the limits of human imagination. This “holo-deck” future may be a long way off but the state of mind is with us now – one where the constraints of technology are seen as the only barriers to creativity.

It is an attitude that reflects the schismatic position of the artist in this medium and the conflicting impulses that come into play. The urge to merge with the functionality of the machine is a strong one, particularly in a field where the line is blurred anyway between creative and instrumental roles. But the idea of authorship is equally hard to relinquish; rooted, as it is, in an artistic tradition which asserts the primacy of the special relationship between a creator and an audience.

The impression given by many digital artists is that they hover somewhere between these polarities, not letting the left hand know quite what the right one is doing. If you do grasp the nettle of full authorial responsibility, you incur some fairly radical changes in perspective. From this view-point technology can never be an end in itself but only a means to realising a new kind of “art form”. The problem consists in defining what that form is, or could be, within the parameters set by the medium.

One consequence of following this path is that you shift focus from the machine’s capacity for representation to the content itself; from literal embodiment to the area of structure and metaphor. Digital complexity, the entire multi-sensory “multimedia circus”, is relegated to a secondary place. In fact, by these standards, you could say that text-based interaction is still the most “sophisticated” model we have. But this is actually the true measure of what we aspire to.

If we genuinely believe that this is a new medium, with new modes of perception and artistic expression, the challenge is to find a way to articulate the wholly unprecedented structural and symbolic relationships it makes possible. We are talking in effect about a new “language” with its own “grammar” and “syntax”, one that is able to bear the weight of real meaning.

However refreshing it might be to embrace the individualism of art and the artists need to communicate, sooner or later such recidivism is bound to get you hauled up to answer before the commissariat of instrumentality. Naturally, because interaction (i.e. the possibility for meaningful intervention in a construct) is commonly held to be the raison d’tre of digital artefacts and the standard by which they are judged.

Those reckoned to be most truly “of the medium” are also those untranslatable into any other. This was graphically illustrated by the commercial failure of the flood of multimedia CD ROM titles put out by print publishing houses trying to tap into a new market. Although the novelty factor kept sales up initially, ultimately they were just not different enough from the products they were trying to supplant. The reasons seem fairly obvious now.

The public do not want to buy books and videos repackaged for the inferior medium of a computer screen. Adding interactive elements cannot disguise the inert nature of such content. Those that did succeed were mainly reference titles, pointing to where the predominant appeal still lies. Information retrieval, data manipulation, the use of computers as tools for purely instrumental ends; this is still the main attraction for most of us. We look through and beyond the machine for our goals.

Even the hermetically sealed world of games present us with simulacrums of this type of engagement. It is axiomatic to the whole idea of interaction that we need to “get something back”, a reward for our input. We need to achieve a “satisfaction” and the only question is: what kind is on offer? Books, films and artworks provide aesthetic satisfaction but on their own seemingly self-sufficient terms. Simulations and games fulfil our instrumental needs but at the price of narrowing our emotional involvement.

We appear to have come full circle again to the intractable differences between narratives and games (read: the vast majority of interactive artefacts). This time however it might be more constructive to look at what, if anything, they have in common.


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