NMC Affiliate Panel, Instrument As Interface As Artwork

FALL 2011: V.07 N.02: CAA Conference Edition 2011

Robert Lawrence
Joshua Pablo Rosenstock
Associate Professor, Interactive Media & Game Development
Worcester Polytechnic Institute

Chair: Joshua Pablo Rosenstock

Panelists: Kate Riegle-van West, MFA Candidate, Interdisciplinary Art and Media, Columbia College, Chicago; Taylor Hokanson, Assistant Professor of Art, Oakland University; Sabine Gruffat, Assistant Professor of Digital Media, Department of Communication Arts, University of Wisconsin-Madison; N_DREW (aka Andrew Bucksbarg) Assistant Professor, Dept. of Telecommunications, Indiana University, Bloomington.

INTRODUCTION by Joshua Pablo Rosenstock
Developments in New Media performance and installation over the last few decades have extended the notion of an “instrument” beyond music-making and into new hybridized forms of multimedia. This panel examines the ways that New Media works can be considered instruments – wherein the artwork itself may possess intricate beauty, but does not reach its full potential until it is manipulated in virtuosic fashion into a media performance.  Participants will share their own creations that are re-conceptualizing the very notion of an instrument with new types of gestures, techniques, and performances.  Often times, interactive interfaces are designed to be as simple and accessible as possible; conversely, we’ll consider interfaces that are obtuse, eccentric, or baroque, and instruments that require expert practitioners or years of practice to fully utilize them.

This panel is not intended as a manifesto, nor does it present a theory of art, but is simply a report from a select group of current interactive art practitioners. Today’s artists/hackers (anyone seeking to blend art with technology today needs to be somewhat of a hacker) are as adept at electronics and software as they are proficient in traditional art and craft techniques and performing arts.  The presently flourishing Open Source and DIY movements, as well as, of course, the staggering increases in accessibility and sophistication of consumer media technologies available today (and abandoned tomorrow), permit these artists to incorporate electronic sensors, mobile apps, programmable microcontrollers, and CNC fabrication into their creations.  But the real importance of their work is not in the tools they use or create. In fact, all of these artists choose not to emphasize the technologies they use, but rather the kinds of creative interactions their work engenders.

Although the artists in this panel present diverse approaches in their art, there are certain shared themes in their work which I will briefly present.  One is the primacy of gesture, the human dimension of the interface that connects the body to the machine. Whether we are swinging a hammer, practicing an ancient performance art, or doing something as everyday as riding around on a bike, these physical actions become augmented into empowered performances and symbolic experiences.  Coupled with the primacy of gesture, the artists foreground notions of play.  They extend the idea of “playing” an instrument or “playing with” an object into an overarching emphasis on playfulness, with a particular attention to the transformative potential of play for both performer and audience.  Lastly, each of these artists presents a nuanced approach to the accessibility and complexity of the interactions they propose.  In our present era of i-devices and Kinects, interactive interfaces are generally expected to be easily and effortlessly mastered by the average user. Yet, this conventional path has largely been eschewed in the artworks presented in this panel.  Kate and Andrew have created highly personal interfaces that require practice and considerable virtuosity; Sabine’s video synths repurpose familiar game interface elements to produce highly abstract results; and Taylor’s Sledgehammer keyboard makes an everyday interface deliberately difficult to operate. Although the artists describe their intents in differing terms – for instance, Kate speaks of breaking habitual tendencies and altering associative properties of thinking; Andrew describes the audience’s process of negotiation between the unknown and unexpected or the familiar; and Taylor writes of requiring users to reevaluate their technological relationships that are ordinarily taken for granted – in all cases, these deliberate choices regarding the balance of simplicity vs. difficulty, or control vs. indeterminacy, give rise to a transformative encounter for the user.