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the art of the interface

1) what is an interface? i’d like to start with this question. in the works for this week, a clear, concise definition of interface seems to be lacking. perhaps this is because “interface”–as a concept, a material, arguably a methodology–is allusive. but perhaps it’s worthwhile to attempt to tease out (beyond what we’ve been presented with) what an interface is / can be? or more specifically, what it is / can be in theory and art?

i found söke dinkla’s discussion of interface problematically aloof and was troubled by the initial provocation that the history of interactive art “is essentially characterized by the attempt to ‘humanize’ the interface between system and player.” while i was more compelled by rokeby’s writings on interface, i think the mirror metaphor only gets us so far with this basic question.

i’d like to share a few definitions, descriptions, suggestions of what an interface is by four other media theorists as possible points of departure for understanding the interface and its effects / relations to (interactive) art and the humanities: Galloway and Thacker have defined interface as an “artificial structure of differentiation between two media” in The Exploit, while Florian Cramer and Matthew Fuller begin their discussion of interface in Software Studies: A Lexicon with its etymology, citing Webster’s Ninth Collegiate Dictionary to date the term to 1882, noting its emergence from the discipline of chemistry: “a surface forming a common boundary of two bodies, spaces, phases.” Their computational reformulation: “interfaces link software and hardware to each other and to their human users or other sources of data.” In a recent article entitled “The Unworkable Interface,” Galloway returns to the interface, suggesting it is not a thing but an effect, a “being on the boundary,” an artificial differentiation between data and algorithm, “a fertile nexus.” it seems that even these attempts at exegesis are at once specific to computation yet also slip easily into abstraction when interface is used to discuss matters at the edges or boundaries of computation. galloway has labeled the interface a “control allegory” that points toward a specific methodology.

with all of this in mind, what are the productive, useful, critical, creative ways to talk about the “interface” in “the art of the interface”?

2) attempting to withhold my comments on the many annoying remarks made by söke dinkla (such as, “instead of being a commentator standing outside society, the artist now decides to take part in the socio-technological change and judge from within,” or, “new points of view are not formed by physical experience but with the help of new interactive media strategies”), i would like to return to dinkla’s claim that the history of interactive art “is essentially characterized by the attempt to ‘humanize’ the interface between system and player.” in a certain sense, this strikes me as bluntly correct, in that any human action or intervention upon a technology or technological system is an act or process of “humanizing,” but when considering the “attempt” at interface made by the artist, this appears to be a gross reduction. not only taking into account various making-strange activities of the avant-garde but also more contemporary forms of media art (what about jodi.org or the ascii films of vuk cosic? for instance), it is quite clear that many artists work with, against, and through the formal logics of their technologies at hand. indeed, it seems quite reasonable to suggest that all pieces produced by artists working with technology undergo a doubled process of humanization and nonhumanization. this notion of humanizing seems to call forth an anthropomorphic reading of the artwork and the interface, which so much contemporary critical new media works argue against. dinkla writes that interactive works “disclose their actual content only after a sort of decoding.” what happens to content here if it is not humanized? in fact, the concept of content seems to be a human one. galloway and thacker have written that “there is no content.” is the point of all interactive art to reveal a content (which implies a meaning) through decoding? can we think of other critical approaches to this history that doesn’t foreground the human so solidly in the center?

3) dinka’s discussion of interface is quite obtuse, in that many different things are considered to be an interface. david rokeby is certainly much more specific and focused in “transforming mirrors.” yet again, the mirror (usually as metaphor) erases the complex  relationalities between technological systems and people. rokeby even writes that “no interface can be truly transparent.” perhaps it’s more worthwhile to think in terms of thresholds rather than mirrors? the very suggestion of a mirror interface seems to do away with depth, obfuscation, and threshold. does the mirror really get us that far with critically thinking about interactive art? perhaps rokeby unknowingly implies an answer to that question when he writes that “technology mirrors our desires; interactive technologies, in particular, reflect our desire to feel engaged.” but what if we don’t feel engaged because technology does not mirror our desires? what if we are left out, which is certainly the case for many people. to assume that technology mirrors our desires seems to completely overlook the political configurations of technology; technology is never for everybody’s desires. in fact, isn’t this feeling of being left out, of not finding our desires in technology, the very reason why some artists work toward creating various alternative and resistant projects? for some people, there is never a mirror, just a threshold that operates on various levels of transparency and opacity based on the interactions of each specific person. I agree when rokeby writes that “the design of these technologies become the encoding of a kind of moral and political structure,” but this structure is far more complex than a transforming mirror. i still find myself asking the question: what is an interface?

4) i think some interesting results could be found through thinking about johanna drucker’s conception of “the model” in relation to interface. drucker writes that “the model is an intellectual concept according to which all the elements of a project are shaped [. . .] it is an expression of form that embodies a generalized idea of the knowledge it is presenting” (15 – 16). is this model an interface? perhaps more interesting is that the model here suggests a change in methodology: speculative computing calls for new models that include / are computational interfaces. in general, i am interested in the promise the concept of the model offers for creating form in scholarship and criticism.

5) Drucker’s concept of speculative computing hinges strongly upon what the digital humanities is and isn’t. however, i couldn’t help but feel that what the digital humanities is was never adequately articulated. while the field did not feel clearly outlined, drucker also chooses not to speculate upon the future of the digital humanities and were it is moving toward. so first, what is the digital humanities? and does it not maintain elements of speculation as well? based on my brief exposure to work that claims to be “digital humanities” (such as the ucla digital humanities manifesto), could speculative computing be just a subcategory of the digital humanities? is speculative computing one possible direction for the future of digital humanities? in short, isn’t there much more overlap than differences between the two?

secondly, i’d also like to probe further into the “speculative” of speculative computing. just how speculative is it? what actually constitutes something as speculative? is there a difference between open-ended, relational research and speculation? can the digital–as a formal logic–actually be speculative? this seems to be (in part) a question of functionality; speculative computing should equally value the functional as well as the nonfunctional. keeping in mind that drucker’s project is an institutional one, aimed toward academic research and production, what is to become of the radical potentialities of the speculative in a humanities context? is speculative computing–as an endeavor that is theoretical and practical–more suited for the realm of the arts?

lastly (and mostly as a side note): with current works emerging in the last few years around speculative realism in philosophy (and i admit that at this point i know very little about this work), i wonder how these two types of the speculative intersect and/or divert.

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