Home > Uncategorized > Response to Zach’s post on Interfaces

Response to Zach’s post on Interfaces

Zach I really enjoy the way you question the interface. I think I have a similar take as yours –although from a different theoretical background– and I would like to check if we could think this together. I am not necessarily responding directly to the questions you raise in your post (for instance I don’t know much about speculative realism so I am not going to address that section of your post) but I will try to highlight some of my own concerns with interfaces in relation to some of the issues you raise. It would be great if we could start a discussion on the topic (maybe interaction is more appropriate than discussion in the context of this post!!).


(1) The User and its Relations TO the Interface — What (or how) is Mediation?

I think my main concern with the interface it that it presupposes the notion of a user and that it insists on the use value. As a consequence, it is the usage that determines the logic of the relation: the user is related TO the interface. I think that in this context, the interface is considered as a “traditional” medium, e.g. as an intermediate agency that mediates our relation to the world. This way of understanding the medium is unfortunately engrained in the two dominant ways of understanding mediation. The first way is issued from Shannon, Weaver’s communication model and is pretty much based on notions of control. In this context, mediation is understood as a canal of transmission with traditional operations of encoding and decoding (how can the user efficiently decode what was encoded in the medium/interface in order to interact with it). Second, considering the relational dimensions of the systems functioning in terms of a user who is related TO the interface predetermines the permutation system, e.g. the formation rules of the structure between the interface and the user: the fact that the interface is either workable or unworkable. This second way of understanding mediation pre-determines the condition of the insertion of technology—many discourses adopted this theory, especially those saying that technology can either liberate or alienate us. According to this way of understanding mediation, the final conditions of technology’s insertion are predetermined (the interface is workable or not).


In addition, the interface, when it is considered in terms of usage, presupposes a number of actions/reactions. This goes towards saying that the relational aspects of the system rely on the technical dimensions of the interface, and that the overall system’s functioning is based on a series of actions/reactions encoded (or pre-coded) in the interface itself. I think that the notion of transparency emerges from that as it asks whether or not the interface succeeds at generating an efficient structure (the efficacy of the actions/reactions) between the user and the interface. The interface is hence considered in its use value. In the context of my own work, I consider mediation as a process of coming into being, as a process of individuation to which information does not pre-exist (in media theory, this is the third way of understanding mediation). For me, mediation is a process without pre-determination, a relational activity, a constitutive power that puts into relation (I take this definition of mediation from Gilbert Simondon in his book On the Mode of Existence of Technical Objects). In this regard, I wonder wether this definition of mediation can help us to rethink the interface. My first take on that would be to say that the interface does not to rely on technology (a relating TO the interface) but rather it should take its departure point from the relation between human and technology, rather than starting either form the human or the technology.

I am interested in finding ways to talk about the interface that would not insist on its use value, but rather on its event value. I might be wrong but I feel that the use value of the interface is more a question related to design than to art. I am not negating the important role of design, and I am certainly not saying that I would prefer the interfaces I use on a daily basis to have no use value. I am just more interested in thinking interfaces in relations to art instead of in relation to design: the aesthetics of the interface in terms of operationality rather than functionality (asking the question on the level of its effects rather than on the level of its workability). I might be missing the point here: maybe it is impossible to think them apart? Maybe the interface can only be thought in terms of a conjunction between art and design? Maybe the effects are based on the workability? Before going further in how we can think the event value (the operational form of the interface), I want to highlight other points about some common ways of understanding interfaces, which I think are problematic.

(2) Interfaces and Interactivity

Interfaces are often understood in terms of their potential to trigger interactivity. I think interactivity has the disadvantage that it assumes that the terms in relation – for instance human and technology — have a stable form independent of their coming together. In this perspective, interactivity is considered as an encounter instead of a correlation (co-relation) or co-evolution. The definition of mediation I previously gave argues for the terms to be ultimately created by the relation, rather than to pre-exist to it. In this perspective, mediation deals with co-evolution, co-relation and co-operation. This does not mean that technology and humans do not exist before they come into relation. Rather it means that they are considered in their pre-individual field — their field of potentialities–and that their coming together, their co-evolution actualizes them according to a logic of mutual individuation. Maybe it would be better to speak in terms of pre-determination instead of pre-existence, e.g. the terms (human and technology) are not pre-determined as it is the relation that actualizes and determines them (so it would be better to say that they pre-exist but that the form of their existence is not pre-determined).


I think you argue for something similar when referring to Galloway, you say that the interface it is not a thing but an effect, a “being on the boundary,” —-“a surface forming a common boundary of two bodies, spaces, phases.” I think this goes towards arguing for the coming together, the co-evolution of human and technology, their symmetrical relations; the nexus. In fact, I understand the common boundary as being generated by the relation. Consequently, it helps us to consider the interface as emerging from (or as being generated by) the co-evolution of human and technology, instead of considering the interface as a pre-existing tool to their coming together, as a tool that considers their forms as being pre-determined. (This way of understanding interfaces also helps us to think about their political form. I think that interfaces and interactivity should deal politics in terms of effects rather than content. Their political implications should emerge from (effects) rather than being inscribed in. However, I don’t want to go further on that point as I will engage with that in one of my other posts).


Here I want to open brackets about the nexus. I am not sure why Galloway, quoting François Dagognet, insists on a the “fertile” aspect of the nexus as the etymology of nexus clearly insists on its relational agency. Do you see a relation between fertility and relationality? In fact, in the Merriam-Webster on-line dictionary1, “nexus” has three inter-related meanings that date back in English to 1663: (1) connection, link; also: a causal link; (2) a connected group or series; and (3) center, focus. Its etymology is reported to the past participle of the Latin nectere, “to bind.” The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, in its fourth edition (2000) gives the same three meanings2, but reports the Latin origin to the Indo-European root ned- , to bind, tie.3 In this context what do you think fertile means? I think saying fertile nexus is a tautology.


I think that Galloway’s definition of the interface (as a nexus) raises a significant issue about the difference between interface and interactivity. I think the notion of the nexus insist on the interface as a process of coming together rather than a relating to and that it foregrounds relationality (understood in terms of mutual relations—co-operation and co-evolution) instead of interactivity. It insists on relationality in terms of reciprocal and mutual relations rather than on the action/reaction logic.


(3) From Interfaces to Intrafaces

I think that referring to the concept of intraface instead of interface is a way to integrate the notion of the nexus. My understanding of the intraface comes from the concept of intra-actions introduced by Karen Barad (Barad, K. (2007) Meeting the Universe Halfway: Quantum Physics and the Entanglement of Matter and Meaning), and then used by sociologist of sciences and techniques Lucy Suchman. For Suchman, intra-actions explain how heterogeneous modalities inform complex systems through mutual, reflexive, and symmetrical relations between human, non-human, technique, discourse (my emphasis), artifacts, nature, living, non-living, etc. In this way, she refuses simply considering relations between pre-existing entities, and put the emphasis on (intra)structured systems heterogeneous modalities. Her contribution goes towards the analysis of mutable and partial fixations of systems and their reconfiguration processes. From a similar standpoint Marjan Colleti argues in Interfaces/Intrafaces that “within the discourse on digital architecture, it is important to distinguish between the concept of interface-in most general terms described as the boundary between two disparate systems-an intraface-here described as a homologous framework bounded inside a control feedback system.” Here it seems that unlike Galloway, Colleti makes a distinction between the boundary and the nexus (I will come back tot his point later).

I think this way of understanding the interface (as an intraface) insist on the complex relationalities between technological systems and people, which, according to you, are erased by the metaphor of the mirror. In fact, I think that the interface, by presupposing the stable form of the terms that come into relation insists on the reflexive rather that the symmetrical (so I totally agree for the metaphor of the mirror to be irrelevant and to only succeed in reflecting something pre-determined). Conversely, the intraface opens the space of potentialities for a real co-evolution, and insist on the relational dimensions, on the nexus, rather than on the encounter of pre-determined terms. In the same vein, Galloway, in the paper that you are referring to, quotes Marshall McLuhan and says that McLuhan, following Harold Innis, “evokes interface as a type of friction between media, a force of generative irritation rather than a simple device for framing one’s point of view.” He adds that for Innis, interface “refers to the interaction of substances in a kind of mutual irritation.” I think that the concept of intraface is better than interface to describe this process of mutual irritation or symmetry.

This might sound a little too philosophical but I think that these conceptual precisions are essential to think the notion of the interface in terms of its event value rather than its use value.

(4) From Action/Reaction to the Staging of a Situation

In order to actualize these conceptual dimensions into the act of making art I will refer to Brian Massumi’s explanation of interactive art he gives in an interview published in the book Interact or Die!, which was published in 2008. In the interview he says that “what interactive art can do -what its strength is, in my opinion, is to take the situation as its object. Not a function, not a use, not a behaviour, not an action-reaction. But a situation, in all its complexity.” He insists on the act of staging the situation rather than on taking the interface (understood as a technology) as the object. To me, this way of thinking interactive art negates the use and exchange values and insists instead on its event value (as explained by Massumi himself). It seems that for him interactive art is more relational than interactive. He highlights this point when he talks about a project made by people at the Topological Media Lab at Concordia University. I will quote him explaining the project:

There were two dancers, going through a choreographed routine on stage in front of a large screen. A motion sensing camera analyzed their movement. When the movement reached a certain qualitative threshold – a certain speed and density of gesture – a video window opened up on the screen.”

The interviewer hence asks him the following question: “In the dance example, the interaction is staged. There’s the traditional theatrical separation between the performers and the audience. The interaction is only between the performers and the technology.”

And Massumi answers: “That’s what the audience said. The project was strongly challenged because of that. People said it was politically bankrupt because it had no “real” interaction, and it embraced the stage space without explicitly attempting to network out of it. I think that criticism misses the point. It’s that reductive idea about framing I mentioned awhile back – that the frame is reducible to the actual spatial parameters and anything that appears within that frame has no relation to anything outside. (…) While it was true that the audience was not in on the interaction, they were in on the relation.”

I think this marks a very interesting shift in the way we can think/understand/work with interfaces and interactivity. To emphasize relationality, intra-activity and intrafaces means interactivity takes a totally different form that is not based anymore on actions and reactions. I think it brings us to this notion of thresholds you were talking about. However, before to question this notion, there is a last point I would like to talk about.


(6) Transparency of the Interface and the Dissolution of the Process — From Product to Process Based Interactions —-

I would like to question the transparency of the interface. You quote Rokeby who says that “no interface can be truly transparent.” I think this is a very important tension in media arts. As my background is more in bioart than in digital art, I will raise the issues at stake with the transparency of the interface in relations to bioart. In fact my interest in bringing bioart is twofold (1) it is totally selfish as it is related to my own work (!) and (2) as I don’t really have much knowledge on digital technologies I would like to see if the issues raised by bioart have some resonance with digital art.

Bioart is a form of art that uses life as a medium for artistic expression. For bioartists life is not only a subject of creation, it is also an object. Bioartists raise significant questions on our ethical and moral relations to life. One of the problems faced by bioartists is the presentation of their work. For example, in tissue culture, which is the bioart form I know the most about, artists usually grow living sculptures. Growing a living sculpture takes weeks and sometimes months. You have to extract of the cells, grow them in a petri dish, attach them to a polymer structure and then insert the polymer into a bioreactor (this last action is necessary in order to reproduce micro-gravity conditions and hence to ensure the generation of a 3D sculpture). In addition, the caring and nurturing aspects are very important: you have to feed the cells (giving them nutrients) every two or three days and pay very special attention to sterile conditions. Because manipulating cells and tissues necessitates specific environments (sterile environments) it is impossible to make the sculptures directly accessible. It is impossible to directly interact with them. Bioartists hence have to figure out ways in which people can enter in a relation with the sculptures rather than in an interaction. Maybe this resonates with the code. (Do you think that in digital art we interact directly with the code? Maybe in open sources system when you reconfigure it but I tend to think that generally we don’t directly engage with the code.)

In addition, as the process of making (growing) these sculptures requires a lot of time, bioartists have to find ways to expose their process. That is to say even though they exhibit a product, they have to creatively engage in making visible the generative process of these products. In this perspective, if the interface becomes fully transparent, I think that the viewer looses the ethical implications of the process: if you make the interface transparent (if you don’t make visible their generative process), you lose the operational form of the art piece (which to me is the most important). The notion of staging the situation is hence extremely relevant. Bioartists need to find ways of staging the situation according to which visitors engage with the process instead of with the product, even though what is exhibited is a product. The issue at stake is to find ways of making visible, and perceptible, the processual dimensions. Hence the question becomes how can you stage a situation in a way that it is coherent with its own relational process? I think that the engagement with the process resonates with digital art (especially with practices like cut-ups we have studied during the semester). Bioartists raise questions about how you can enter in relation with the living sculptures. Would that be correct to say that cut-up and stir fry practices also wish to emphasize the process from which meaning emerge instead of the product generated? This take on transparency does not necessarily deal with the functional identity of the interface but more with its operational form. In this perspective, what I discuss here takes transparency in a slightly different way than what we spoke about in class, e.g. it does not necessarily deal with the efficacy or workability of the interface, but rather with the necessity of engaging with a process rather than with a product. Do you think that this take on transparency is relevant to digital art? In fact I wonder if there are some processual dimensions that shall be made visible or perceptible in digital art? What processual dimensions shall be experienced in order to understand and/or engage with art in the digital domain?

(7) On thresholds

Lastly, I want to come back on the notion of the threshold. I think the notion of the threshold is very powerful and that it holds the potential to help us understand notions of intra-actions and intra-active art. In your post you talk a lot about thresholds and say that they operate on various levels of transparency and opacity based on the interactions of each specific person. It seems like the threshold as described by Galloway ought to be understood in terms of boundaries (in the first paragraph of his piece he says that windows, doors and airport gates are thresholds). His definition seems embedded in the material/corporeal form of thresholds. Accordingly, I am not sure that his definition can bring us really far into the reflexion. In parables for the virtual, Brian Massumi draws an opposition between dynamic thresholds and boundaries. Following the distinction he makes, I would say that Galloway’s definition seems to deal with boundaried spaces rather than with thresholds (hre threshold is understood as a dynamic instance that hold the potential to effect a change/difference – or even a rupture in nature). For me, the threshold has more to do with a change in capacity than with a boundary. A boundary seems to deal with a limit instead than with the potential for change. How can intrafaces makes us pass through thresholds? What would be your definition of the threshold?


I’ll wait for your answer (or for anyone else’s answer) to push the reflexion further!

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. marieperi
    November 3, 2009 at 10:37 am

    I am aware that my post might sound not “digital” enough; that it does not address directly the digital components of an interface. In the context of my own research, I am interested in the intertwinement of research and creation. My answer to Zach deals more with the research or theoretical part. To give it more of a digital component, I will soon discuss some projects that ensure the passage from my theoretical take on interfaces into practices. One example will be Rafael Lozanno Hemmer’s Voz Alta. http://www.lozano-hemmer.com/english/projects/vozalta.htm

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