Thesis Info

Transient communication systems: A system-theory reading of interactive digital installation art
Falk Heinrich
2nd Author
3rd Author
Number of Pages
University of Aarhus, Denmark
Thesis Supervisor
Janek Szatkowski, associated professor
Supervisor e-mail
Other Supervisor(s)
Language(s) of Thesis
Department / Discipline
Institute of Asthetic Disciplines
Languages Familiar to Author
german, english, danish
URL where full thesis can be found
system theory, interactive installation art, aesthetics,avantgarde, body, communication
Abstract: 200-400 words
Falk Heinrich Transient communication systems: A system-theory reading of interactive digital installation art Introduction Since the arrival of computers in industrial and subsequently in private and social spheres, the digital machine has played a role in the production of art and its form. Installation art was one of the departments of art that embraced digital machinery and, since the beginning of the 1970s, digital technology has been involved in its formal features. In addition to the capacity of computers to include multiple media, it was especially the facility of digital registration of physical phenomena within defined parameters that lead to certain developments in installation art and the resultant term ‘interactive installation art’. These artworks depend on the physical actions of those ‘viewing’ the work. In this way, one of the characteristics of interactive installation art is achieved, which is the incorporation of the viewer into the work via the viewer’s ‘in-stallation’ into an art space (a space created by art). Besides the creation of an architectonic and semantic space, the elements of an interactive installation artwork are digital technology (which includes the sensor system measuring a participant’s actions within defined parameters), the computer programs that treat input data (data from the sensor) with regard to generating output in the form of visual, textual or audio phenomena, and lastly more-or-less precisely predefined action by the participants. The structure of the dissertation The dissertation is divided into two parts. In Part I, a theory of interactive digital installation art is developed. Part II comprises analysis of various interactive installation artworks. The analyses in Part II should be regarded as the method for the dissertation’s theory construction. In such manner, the analyses provide both a basis for my theory as well as exemplify that theory. At the same time, the analyses stand as reflections over individual works, in singularis, each with their own intentional specificity and spectrum of interpretation. Part I: theory Chapter 1, Methodological selections, introduces the disciplinary field in so far as I begin with shift in the conception of what constitutes ‘a work’ begun with installation art and intensified by interactive digital installation art. Interactive artefacts can no longer be regarded as being a definite expression, conceived and executed by an artist. It should rather be considered as variable work realisations, which in addition to spatial and digital expressions also incorporate participants’ actions. This conception of an artwork vastly complicates the recipient position of the work’s viewer, in so far as the strategy of mental contemplation is confronted by the involved physical action; in which response to a work that depends on a distance between work and viewer no longer seems eligible. Any theory that wishes to be valid for interactive installation art, therefore, must be able to deal with a paradox that can be encapsulated in the question “how can a viewer be a contemplative observer of their own simultaneously performed action?” This paradox cannot be explained with a synthesised, identity-creating subject. The theory deployed here, however, proceeds from the system theory of Niklas Luhmann and is based especially on the distinction between psychic systems and communication systems, as well as on the distinction between autopoietic and allopoietic (the trivial machine) system types. My thesis is such: that interactive digital installations operate as staged, artificial interaction systems that I will call transient communication systems. These transient communication systems are generated on the one side conceptually by the artist and on the other side as work realisations of the implicated participant actions in interaction with the digital machine’s variously expressed outputs. Chapter 2, System operations, introduces a range of features from system theory that are relevant to my field of investigation. A short summary of Maturanas and Varelas’s concept of autopoiesis will be followed by a description of Luhmann’s concepts of i) autopoietic systems as the operative observation of (Luhmannian) differences ii) his distinction between a psychic system and a communication system (social systems), together with the communication system’s constitutive ‘difference’ of information-utterance-understanding, and iii) the structural coupling and interpenetration between psychic systems and communication systems. As a result, investigation is carried out thereafter into allopoeitic systems, via a résumé of the main dispositions and mechanisms of algorithmic, cybernetic systems. Chapter 3, Genealogical considerations, comprises an art-history influenced reading of installation art intended to distil the genealogical relevance of this artform for interactive digital installation art. Concepts brought into focus include space, conceptual art, and the recipient position of the viewer within various avant-garde traditions (futurism, Dadaism, Bauhaus, minimalism, and conceptual art). From a discussion that includes Michael Fried’s rejection of minimalism and conceptual art, installation art is considered to be an interaction system in the process of becoming (called here an initial interaction system) that includes the viewer’s observed observations in the space of the installation artwork. Lastly, the chapter focuses on arrival of digital multi-media technologies into the installation artwork’s space and the subsequent shift from a primarily spatial response towards the artwork to a temporal one. Chapter 4, Transient communication systems, develops the dissertation’s main thesis of digital interactive installation art as a transient communications system. The thesis proceeds from Luhmann’s conception of the autopoietic interaction system (which likewise is a social system), which emerges from reciprocal observed observation, supported and ensured by the psychic system’s perceptional generation of information (Wahrnehmung). In its demarcation to a autopoietic interaction system, interactive digital installation art is defined as staged, allopoietic communications system, which sequentially attributes experience and action, ‘alter’ and ‘ego’ to the participant and the digital machine. With assistance from Hans Robert Jauβ’s re-working of the terms aisthesis, poiesis, catharsis, as coupled, processual functions in the making and individual reception of art, and Wolfgang Iser’s description of fiction as art’s programme of transgression between the real and the imaginary, I work towards establishing the difference that constitutes transient communication systems: namely the difference of allopoietic and ‘as-if autopoietic’ systems. Because of this constitutive difference, the ‘alter’ of the person participating comes to be considered as both trivial machine and as autopoietic agent for the artist responsible for the work. The difference itself is communicated by each individual work as a ‘fiction program’. But, it is brought into effect as the difference present in the participant’s consciousness (via coupling). This unity, a unity of the ‘difference’ in observing, in itself necessitates second order observation, the implicit observer, who for the first makes decisions on what the artist’s conceptual selection has been and, for the second, guarantees the participant’s own aesthetic distance. As that which unifies difference, the second order observation, in particular, is responsible for producing subsequent communicative action, i.e. the subsequent communicative actions of the participant. This chapter concludes with an investigation into the body’s function in the process of interpenetration between communication and consciousness. Drawing on Brian Massumi’s concept of ‘Affect’, interpenetration is defined as a communication system, and the psychic system’s simultaneous observation of the body. Though based in the body’s autopoiesis, the body is still ascribed an active role both in relation to consciousness and communication. Chapter 5, Perspectives, puts Part I into perspective as well as concludes it. Luhmannian interaction systems accomplish and at the same time distinguish itself from society, via three dimensions (temporal, thematic and social). Seen in this light, interactive digital installation art exists as being both dependent and dissident to the system of art. Being art, a fourth dimension to the transient communication system is brought out, which is the dimension of fiction. When the fiction program of interactive art occurs with the brute fact of the participant’s body, the dimension of fiction stands out as art’s description of itself, a description that re-introduces the issue of real-reality/imaginary-reality (i.e. the issue similarly addressed by diverse avant-garde strategies, but for alternative reasons and with other methods). By employing a comparative approach to the various artforms, the concept of interaction is crystallised as a point of convergence in the treatment of the difference ‘real-reality/imaginary-reality’, centrally, in a society that to an increasing extent functions as serial reality constructions (e.g. with the aid of digital technologies). Part II: analyses The section covering analysis consists of eight analyses of varied scope, the common point to which is their diverse administrations of the difference allopoietic and ‘as-if autopoietic’ systems. The various weightings that the works exhibit, provide a continuum between poles. On the one hand, works are found that prioritise the ‘as-if-autopoietic’ mode. David Rokeby’s Very Nervous System (1986–1990) and Charlotte Davies’s Osmose (1995) are relevant works to this mode. A characteristic of these works is their immersive qualities that try to diminish the distance between machine and participant by rendering the interface as ‘invisible’ as possible. Ken Feingold’s Head (1999) and Sinking Feeling (2001), Max Dean and Raffaello D’Andrea’s The Table (1984–2001) and, in part, Rokeby’s n-Cha(n)t (2001) work with a roughly even distribution between the allopoietic and the as-if-autopoietic mode of reception. These works build up a dialogic situation that positions the participant ‘in front of’ the computer in the role of agent. Lastly, to illustrate the allopoietic end of the continuum, I have chosen Lynn Hershman and Fabian Wagmister’s Time and Time Again (1999) and Knowbotic Research’s IO_dencies (1999). These two works deploy the digital machine in its structurally determined functionality. To conclude – and as a borderline case – I have chosen Jon McCormack’s Eden (2001), which works with a generative algorithm. The work’s reliance on AL-technologies makes problematic both my concept of interaction and the difference allopoietic and ‘as-if autopoietic’. The continuum also reveals this artform’s differing realisations of processual space. The more as-if-autopoietic oriented works generally use a closed operative circuit between participant and cybernetic machine, which by-and-large plays itself out in a determined physical space. Works that accentuate the allopoietic dimension, however, burst the spatiality of an installation with an electronic permeability, in so far as they make use of data distribution available on the internet. This permeation renders art’s difference of real-reality/imaginary-reality problematic, since these works operate with computer technology as reality generating machines in/from the public sphere. In contrast, as-if-autopoietic oriented works focus on the fact of the body to provide a fulcrum for art’s difference. Nevertheless, all interactive works display a conceptual shift from an ontologically conceived concept of fiction to a concept of imaginary reality as the difference-establishing output of observation. The impetus here is not simply the fact that the digital machine synthesises and generates ‘expressions’ which can no longer be considered representations of reality, but more so the second order observation of the participant that necessarily includes the participant’s own executed actions. The continuum also indicates a genealogical aspect. The as-if-autopoietic accentuated works generally date from an earlier period, whereas an allopoietic accent is found in later works. This can be interpreted as sign of a broad demystification of the digital machine since the 1980s, where faith in the autopoietic machine in the service of art still remained intact, to today where focus is placed on the importance of digital technology to network society, which to an increasing sense is based on the computer as a sign and a reality-generating machine. Via the questions designed to provide a perspective as to whether all forms for interactive art create transient communication systems, a closing discussion of convergences and divergences is taken up regarding interactivity as technological concept, and interaction as a social concept in relation to various interactive art and cultural phenomena.