13.0123 interactivity in art & in computing

Humanist Discussion Group (humanist@kcl.ac.uk)
Tue, 3 Aug 1999 07:13:44 +0100 (BST)

Humanist Discussion Group, Vol. 13, No. 123.
Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King's College London

Date: Tue, 03 Aug 1999 07:17:59 +0100
From: Willard McCarty <willard.mccarty@kcl.ac.uk>
Subject: interactivity

In the Times Literary Supplement for 30 July, no. 5026, James Hall reviews
a current show at the Tate Gallery, "Abracadabra", focusing in particular
on the "Utopian dream of pure interactivity" at the heart of it. His title
tells the tale: "Touching on child's play: Abracadabra and the recurring
nightmare of 'interactive' art". Apparently a large bit within the Tate has
been remade into a continuous space, carpeted in purple deep-pile, to
create (in the words of the curators) "a stimulating, surprising and
convivial environment where the visitor is invited to make discoveries and
share the imaginary worlds of the artists" -- 15 of them from Europe,
America and Japan. The design is "collaborative and inclusive". We are
invited to touch and feel some of the pieces and to "interact" with all of

I bring this review and the show to your attention not to get you to come
here (ok, with one exception!), rather because interactivity lies also at
the heart of computing, and more specifically because in the design of
systems it seems to go without saying that interactivity is a Good Thing.
Allow me to reassure you that I am not driving deviously toward a call for
our return to DOS, rather that I think it's our job to turn over rocks like
this one and see what's crawling around underneath.

Hall traces interactivity back to two founding stories: that of the
historical Zeuxis (ca. 4C BCE), whose painted grapes were so realistic that
the birds tried to peck at them; and the mythical Pygmalion, so enamoured
of his own "virgo eburnea" (ivory sculpture of a young woman) "that he
fondles and kisses, dresses and undresses, even beds it", as Hall says,
cutting to the chase. The latter story ends happily -- the goddess Venus
transforms ivory into living flesh and they live happily ever after -- but
not before (at least in Ovid's version) we get the uncomfortable,
disturbing point. What, exactly, are we interacting with, to what end, with
what consequences? The founding stories Hall points to would suggest that
it's a tease -- hunger (Zeuxis) and desire (Pygmalion) are evoked only to
be frustrated.

Hall argues that in the history of art the interaction (touching and being
touched) is a big problem (the "recurring nightmare" of his title) -- that,
for example, the technique of perspective worked "to set up a cordon
sanitaire between the work of art and the viewer" because of the dangers
lurking in too intimate interactivity, and that in general the pressure on
the artist has been to make his or her work "as innocuous as possible".
(Or, thinking of recent events in London and elsewhere, as "outrageous" as
possible, and so, given the current aesthetic, as innocuous as possible.)
An old story, illustrated by the deaths of Socrates, Lenny Bruce and many,
many others: get too close to society's anxieties and one pays the

The interesting bit for us is in thinking about what we want interactivity
to do for us, with us, to us. Or, to put the matter another way, what do we
do about the gap between living intelligence and its inert simulation?


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