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From Digital to Bio-Chemical Computation

December 7, 2009 Leave a comment

In the context of the class, we have been focussing on the relations between literature and digital technologies. As my own work deal with bio or living architecture I thought I would post on digital architecture in order to articulate some relations it might share with living architecture. In fact, it is possible to make a direct connexion between the two. My readings on digital architecture (even though they are not exhaustive) have led me to understand that an important amount of the vocabulary used to qualify the new possibilities offered in the digital realm is issued from the biological one: variation, evolution, adaptation, mutation, etc. Various recent publications also foreground the relations between the digital and the biological: Greg Lynn’s Folds Bodies and Blobs, Lars Spuybroek’ Architecture of Variation, and Brian Massumi who has published extensively on architecture. Here I will focus on the Spuybroek and Massumi.

How to trigger change?

Digital Architecture and Dynamic Forms

Deleuze and Guattari, following Bergson, suggest that the virtual is the mode of reality implicated in the emergence of new potentials. In other words, its reality is the reality of change: the event. (…) Technology, while not constituting change in itself, can be a powerful conditioner of change, depending on its composition or how it integrates into the built environment.”1

In the context of my work, as I explained in my previous post, I am interested in the potential for change: the potential for technology to facilitate the reconfiguration of our social ecology of practices. Here I would like to see what changes digital architecture can trigger in the built environment. Lars Spuybroek’s most recent publication address that question through looking at the ways in which architects today are “resetting the tools for design and creating a language that integrate variation and complexity.”

The book he edited on the topic, The Architecture of Variation, contains an interview with architect Ali Rahim. At the beginning the interview Rahim argues for one should understand the use of digital technologies not in relations to the possibility of increasing efficiency (which for him is the way that was mainly foregrounded in architecture) but rather to (1) “further design innovation and producing proliferating cultural effects” and (2) increase the potential for collaboration and cross-fertilization between different areas (for example, as I discuss the the cross-fertilization between the digital and the biological).

According to him it seems like what digital technologies have brought to architectural practice is the possibility to integrate real-time feedback from the environment into the design process. In this perspective, he says, digital architecture reverse the traditional design process: instead of integrating a pre-conceived design into the environment, it integrates the environment into the design process. As explained by Brian Massumi “this is because the software put into use [are] evolutionary rather than representational2.” “Rather than using traditional CAD software, where basic geometrical forms are reproduced and then modified or rearranged, architects employed special effects software where you start by programming a set of modifications before you have an object to modify — a potential modification”3. This way of doing architecture negates the linear cause/effect model and insist rather on feedback loops. Hence, it seems that what digital technologies bring to architecture is the potential for generating a reflexive and symmetrical dialogue between the built form and the environment: to consider them as co-operating and co-evolving. Accordingly, it would be correct to say that digital technologies insist on the processual dimensions of form generation. In this perspective the digital hold the potential to negate hylomorphism (the imposition of a form over matter) and to insist instead on “formation,” e.g. on the form’s processual dimensions, on the dynamism of its generation and on its potential to vary over time.

In Spuybroek’s edited book on the Architecture of Variation, Manuel De Landa argues for something similar when he makes the difference between properties and capacities. For him capacities are relational and is in fact a capacity to affect and to be affected. Following Rahim and De Landa digital technologies are bringing up front the capacity for an affective design where the form affects the environment but can now also be affected by its environment (and that on the level of design and not only when the form is physically built).

The key point is that digital technologies offer evolutionary, variability and connectivity processes to design. The abstraction made possible by digital technologies is what makes these processes possible. As Massumi argues “architecture has always involved, as an integral part of its creative process, the production of abstract spaces from which concretizable forms are drawn” Now with digital technologies “the abstract space of design is populated by virtual forces of deformation” and, I insist of transformation. Although he adds that “he virtual is a mode of abstraction, the converse is not true. Abstraction is not necessarily virtual.” For architects, the question concerns the ways in which the abstraction process made possible by digital technologies (the virtual forces of deformation and transformation it entails) can operate on the level of the virtual, that is how the abstraction process can trigger deformation and transformation.

Smart/Responsive Buildings

I think that what digital technologies have realized so far in relation to “living architecture” is the creation of responsive buildings. Of course they have also helped with the production of buildings that exhibit living qualities (mainly on the level of the visual form). However my interest is not based on buildings that look like living entities (visual form) but rather buildings that behave like living entities. Responsive buildings is an example. Even though they don’t necessarily behave like living entities, for me they embody the first step towards the production of a real living architecture. I will here give an example that will show that these buildings can adapt themselves to their environment but that unlike living entities, they don’t have the capacity to evolve, to change over time. The new Arts and Engineering building at Concordia University in Montreal is considered a smart or responsive building. One of the problems I have, especially with the discourses surrounding smart or intelligent architecture is that they are mainly understood in terms of efficiency, something that Rahim pointed out in his interview. In this efficiency perspective, intelligent/smart buildings seem to be mainly associated with two main ideas (1) environment friendly and (2) sustainability. At Concordia they created the building in this perspective. For instance, they equipped the building with moving sensors that are related to the lighting of the building. When there is no movement, the lights shut down. This might sound smart, but it seems like the engineers did not integrated the social environment’s feedback into the design. Indeed they did not take into account the fact that sometimes scholars only read in their office and that as a consequence their movements are fairly limited. For instance you sometimes see scholars moving their hands above their head to get back the light in their office! It seems that responsive environments deal with the question of the “information required to get a complex response”4 and that the architects/engineers of this building did not integrate sufficient information (virtual forces) into their design process).

Even though Rahim argues that “designing with the virtual abolishes fixed types and programs. Rather than housing a static, predetermined arrangement of functions within an established representational envelope, formations develop uses in response to their occupants and context. These uses are connected to the form directly rather than through representation” it seems that this still remains on the discursive level as building today are still pre-programmed to a variety of uses and they don’t necessarily hold the potential to evolve once they are built, that is to catalyze new usages. The Concordia Building is one example.

Even though I agree with Rahim on the fact that we should not think design only on the level of efficiency, design must have an objective. It seems that most discourses that deal with the integration of living materials and processes inscribe their goals in relation to environmental development. In this perspective, Rachel Arstrmong argues that projects like the Concordia Arts and Engineering Building deals with the “conservation of energy: alternative energy sources, efficiency and recycling which buy us time by 
reducing the production of greenhouse gases but do not combat the 
fundamental causes of climate change. According to her “these designs can be impressive in their complexity and metaphorical sentiment” but they only help us gaining some time as fundamentally, she says “they change nothing.” I think it would be correct to say that they present initial steps towards the emergence of real reflexive and symetrical relation between the buildings and the environment without necessarily fully actualizing this relation.

Beyond Gravity

Here I would like to discuss the work of the Polish Architect Zbgniew Oksiuta. Oksiuta creates what he calls biological habitats: spaces with dynamic membranes. He argues that the construction of a spatial boundary between an inside and its environment is the most elementary task of architecture. He adds that “naturally, separating oneself from the environment, creating barrier and walls, is also a central human activity5”. His creations speculate on systems/environments whose dividing border between the inside and the outside is not a foreign body, but rather an immanent component. Oksiuta creates spaces of dynamic liminality, transformative instances, uncertain spaces, spaces that act as associated milieus, as milieus of association. The link between his practice and digital architecture concerns the fact that he grows his dynamic membranes under water in order bypass micro-gravity conditions. In fact, many forms generated by computer-based design cannot be built in the physical environment as they don’t respect micro-gravity conditions. Consequently, Oksiuta’s creations provide a term of passage: they can be seen as a current model -an extension or a prolongation- of what is being done in the digital realm. In addition, his practice aims more towards a living architecture as it is a form of liquid architecture and it was shown in science that life requires liquid to emerge. Following my readings on vital individuation it also seems that in order to be alive, a system must have a membrane, but also a space of interiority. I think that the problem with responsive buildings is that they only succeed at generating a membrane that is unfortunately freed from a space of interiority where the potential for evolution actually resides.

From Binary to Chemical Computation

The architect’s job is in a sense catalytic, no longer orchestrating. He or she is more a chemist (or perhaps alchemist) staging catalytic reactions in an abstract matter of variation, than a maestro pulling fully formed rabbits of genius from thin air with a masterful wave of the drafting pencil.”6

As I explained in my previous post, I recently developed an interest in protocell architecture. Protocells have not been fully designed in laboratories so far as nobody has been able to ensure their division/reproduction successfully. However the use of digital technologies is important in that field as scientist use simulation processes in their experiments. Computation is related to evolvability and programmability and can be extremely useful for the study of biological entities. Although it seems that the Turing machine and its related binary or digital code might not be of best used in the field of synthetic biology (the field in which scientists are concerned with the design of protocells). Rachel Armstrong notes that Ikegami argued that the only semantics we have so far is the one of the binary code and that it would be necessary in the long run to develop a “chemical computation” based on shape-shape relations rather than binary (which would mean the development of a shape-grammar). She says, following 
Ikegami, that “the semantics of chemical computing pose a significant obstacle 
to interpreting the results of chemical interactions since our current 
understanding of computer code is based on binary systems that are not
expressed in more complex, analog systems like chemical reactions.7” In this perspective, she adds that

Material computation is performed by molecules that are able to make 
decisions about their environment and which can respond to local cues in 
complex ways that result in a change of their fundamental form, function 
or appearance. Material computers are responsive to their environment and 
make decisions that result in physical outcomes like changes in form, 
growth and differentiation. These have already been demonstrated to take 
place in non-biological systems as early as the latter half of the 19th 
Century when life-like behaviours were reported from nonliving systems 
that were not based on cells or even cell extracts. There are many 
differences between material and digital computers but most arise as a 
consequence of the information in material computers being embodied in a 
molecular scale, physical system that possesses both mass and volume. The 
main advantage of material computers over digital computers is that these 
systems exhibit almost unlimited parallel processing power, which enables 
huge amounts of information to be processed and allows for multiple 
solutions to be found for any given problem. However, material computers 
are also limited by their physical embodiment, which slows down their huge 
powers of processing and contrasts dramatically with the instantaneous, 
massless computation that is characteristic of the digital domain.”8

This might be a very interesting analysis to produce on the semantic level, e.g. to look at the convergences and divergences between digital and chemical computing and to question how they could mutually influence each other. Although I think that we would first need a model to refer to that would help understanding how chemical computing differs form the Turing machine.

Lastly, I think that digital technologies offer very interesting tools for reflecting upon bioarchitecture but that the potential for generating a real bioarchitecture might in fact resides in pushing the limits of the digital realm to its extreme. I think that digital technologies can help to think how a bioarchitecture could emerge but that it might not be the digital realm that will ensure its actualization.

1 Massumi, B. (1998) Sensing the Virtual, Building the Insensible


3 Ibid.

4Kirschner, M. (2009) Variations in Evolutionary Biology in The Architecture of Variation p.30

5 Oksiuta, Z. (2008) Biological Habitat: Developing living Spaces in Sk-Interfaces: Exploring Borders – Creatin Membranes in Art, Technology and Society. Foundation for Arts and Creative Technologies/Liverpool University Press. p.134

6 Massumi, B. (1998) Sensing the Virtual, Building the Insensible


8 Ibid.

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More on Inter(intra)faces and Inter(intra)active Art

December 1, 2009 Leave a comment

I would like to bring some examples to supplement my previous post on interfaces. I will engage with two art examples that will help me to make “visible” the maybe “too philosophical” comments I made. I will start by giving a brief explanation of the two pieces I wish to focus on, and then relate them to the points I raised in my previous post: intrafaces, intra-activity, event value, staging situations. I will also relate them to other notions such as micropolitics, microperception, the collective. Lastly, I will articulate their relations to digital and analog processes.

Voz Alta – Rafael Lozanno-Hemmer

The first project is Voz Alta (2008), a piece by Montreal based artists Rafael Lozanno-Hemmer. I will quote Lozanno-Hemmer’s description of the project as I don’t think I can explain it better than himself!

“Voz Alta (Loud Voice) is a memorial commissioned for the 40th anniversary of the student massacre in Tlatelolco, which took place on October 2nd 1968. In the piece, participants speak freely into a megaphone placed on the “Plaza de las Tres Culturas”, right where the massacre took place. As the megaphone amplifies the voice, a 10kW searchlight automatically “beams” the voice as a sequence of flashes: if the voice is silent the light is off and as it gets louder so does the light’s brightness. As the searchlight beam hits the top of the building of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, now Centro Cultural Tlatelolco, it is relayed by three additional searchlights, one pointed to the north, one to the southeast towards Zócalo Square and one to the southwest towards the Monument to the Revolution. Depending on the weather, the searchlights could be seen from a 15Km radius, quietly transmitting the voice of the participants over Mexico City. Anyone around the city could tune into 96.1FM Radio UNAM to listen in live to what the lights were saying. When no one was participanting the light on the Plaza was off but the three lights on the building played back archival recordings of survivors, interviews with intellectuals and politicians, music from 1968 and radio art pieces commissioned by Radio UNAM. In this way the memory of the event was mixed with live participation.
Thousands of people participated in this project, without censorship or moderation. Participation included statements from survivors, street poetry, shout-outs, ad hoc art performances, marriage proposals, calls for protest and more”.1

D-Tower – Lars Spuybroek

The second is D-Tower, a project by Dutch architect Lars Spuybroek. The D-Tower is a sculpture in the town center of Doetinche in Holland. The sculpture is hooked up to a website where the town residents are asked to complete a questionnaire about their mood. An example of question/answer is: ‘Are you happy with your partner?’ Possible answers: ‘very much’ – ‘yes’ – ‘a little’ – ‘no’ – ‘absolutely not’ – ‘not applicable’. Each answer has a score2. The D-tower uses the questionnaire to record emotions: the statistical results of the survey are sent to the D-Tower, which changes colour according to the results. The questionnaire contains 360 questions. Four new questions are made available every other day.

Interfaces and Interactivity

My interests in these projects is that their interfaces are not only based on a series of action/reactions. Even though one could understand the installations according to the action/reaction logic they both go way beyond it. If we were to understand these installation in relation to the action/reaction (or encoding/decoding) logic, one could say that for the D-Tower, the survey is the action and the tower colour is the reaction. For Voz Alta one could say that the act of speaking in the megaphone is the action and that the resulting distribution of the lights (and also the distribution of the messages on the radio) are the reactions. To me, however, the D-Tower is more based on the social interactions (mood) that are encoded in the survey and on the interactions that result from the tower’s changing colour. I also think that The Voz Alta project operates the same way: it is related to (1) the massacre (2) the people talking on the microphone (3) the light distributed in strategic points of town, and also (4) the people listening to the radio. Accordingly both these projects seem to be more based on staging social relations, e.g. on relationality rather than on actions/reactions. Both theses projects hence are social before being technological, which means that the technology only gets its consistency when it is incorporated and given form/meaning by and through social assemblages.

In addition, it appears to me that these projects exhibit what I would call “distributed interface”: their respective interfaces are in fact not localizable in a specific place. Hence, they becomes intra-faces: they ensure the linkage (intra-relations) of the different levels of the situation staged. For example, one could argue that the D-Tower project’s interface is the online survey but also the tower itself. To me, the fact that the interfaces are “distributed” makes these projects operate on the level of intra-action. It is the relations between the survey’s answers, and the tower changing colours, and the effects generated in the way the people interact with each other that constitutes the whole system functioning (the whole system is intra-structured by and through the various relations at play). In fact, these various relations operate as intra-actions, and these intra-actions participate in the intra-structuration of the whole system. In the context of Voz Alta one could ask what or where is the interface: the megaphone, the computer that transduces the messages and that activates the lights, the lights projected on the buildings, the distribution of the messages on the radio? To me, the most interesting way of looking at these projects is to actually refuse to reduce them to a material or localizable interface but rather to think about them as intra-active projects: to incorporate the whole set of relations at work. These projects are concrete examples of what I called an intraface in my previous post: their operate more on the level of the relations, they facilitate the emergence of relationality rather than being based on the use value of the interface (in fact they integrate the heterogeneous modalities that Suchman talks about: human, non-human, technique, discourse (my emphasis), artifacts, living, non-living, etc. These projects all take a specific situation as their object. Indeed, their realization is not based on the efficiency of the interface but rather on its power to facilitate the emergence of new forms of relations. Of course Lozanno-Hemmer and Spuybroek are very professional artists who work with skillful people, which reduces the possibilities for the technical components to be dysfunctional. However the point I want to make here is that the intraface is not necessarily technological, and that the realization of the projects do not foreground the transparency of the interface but rather various levels of relation -a series of intra-actions- that generate and are generated by a distributed interface, by an intra-face.

Both these projects take seriously what Brian Massumi thinks is the strength of interactive art (according to his arguments, it might be more appropriate to talk about relational art), that is to say taking the situation as its object. The D-Tower takes the citizens mood as its situation rather than the technological components that ensure the realization of the project. Voz Alta also takes the massacre situation (and also the pirate radios) as the situation. In doing so, they do not subordinate the event to the technology but rather put them in a relation of co-extensivity. Accordingly, they both trigger the emergence of new forms of relations. Here the situation, along with the technological components used to stage it, become co-relates in the context of the art installations. It is in this sense that both these projects operate for me on the level of intra-faces.

Co-evolution and Co-operation

D-Tower and Voz Alta both operate according to the co-evolution logic I talked about in my previous post. For instance, the D-Tower changes according to the citizens mood. In this perspective both the citizens and the tower “become together” according to a logic of co-operation. The affective mood of the citizens affect the colour of the tour which in turn affect the interactions of the citizens. The co-evolution is actualized according to a very interesting feedback loop between the citizens and technology. Voz Alta operates on the same level. The light is co-evolving with the messages recorded by the megaphone, and transduced by the computer. In addition, the people listening to the radio co-evolve with the messages transmitted, as these messages are certainly affecting them. This set of relations generates a feeling of togetherness between the messages, the light and the radio listeners. This togetherness performs relations of co-evolution and co-operations I talked about in my previous post.

Politics and Perception – Micropolitics and Microperception

One of the things these projects foreground that I think is extremely relevant is that they are political in effect and not necessarily in content. Even if they are all related to a more or less “political” situation: the social relations for the D-Tower and an extremely charged political event for Voz Alta, they also operate on the political level through the effects they generate. The D-Tower play with the politics of social relations, making the citizens aware of the collective mood. Voz Alta also plays with the politics of social relations, offering new forms of engagement with the massacre that most likely generated new forms of social relations, new forms of social engagements amongst the citizens.

Politics is always enacted through perception3”.

Recently I became very interested in micropolitics. With the people form the Sense Lab at Concordia University we have been engaging with the notion of micropolitics for a whole year. Following this engagement, Nasrin Hamada and Erin Manning edited a whole issue of Inflexions on the topic. In the issue there is a very interesting interview with Brian Massumi that was conducted by Joel McKim4. In the interview Massumi argues that micropolitics are politics of microperception and that microperception is another way of talking about affect. I think that in the context of interactive art, it is important to question the potential to trigger new, e.g. non-traditional modes of perception. I also think that that affect can help us understand the notion of the threshold that I questioned in my previous post (following the fact that Zach raised the issue). If we take both Bobette and Massumi’s comments about micropolitics, what would it mean in the context of the projects I talked about to say that their politics is only enacted through perception? And that their politics of perception ought to be politics of microperception? It would mean in fact that they both have to be analyzed on the level of affect. Affect is the capacity to affect and to be affected, it is a change in capacity that is carried from step to step. I think that both the projects operate on that level. The D-Tower is affected by the mood/interactions of the citizens which in turn affect their mood/interactions. Voz Alta lighting is affected by the citizens messages which are in turn affected by the brightness produced. Although affect, following Massumi, is more complex than the capacity affecting and being affected, as it is only visible or perceptible in its effect as it operates on the non-conscious level. According to him, microperception (or affect) “is not smaller perception; it’s a perception of a qualitatively different kind. It’s something that is felt without registering consciously. It registers only in its effects.5” He adds that “affect and microperception are always related to a shock.” Affect, he says “is inseparable from the concept of shock. It doesn’t have to be a drama. It’s really more about micro-shocks.6” I think that affect is in fact this passing of a threshold that generate a change in capacity. The D-Tower triggered a change in capacity through generating micro-shocks. These micro-shocks were actualized through the encounter with the tower. People might not have registered the colour of the tower consciously but it was most likely felt in its effects, that is to say in the ways in which it affected their interactions with the citizens. This was made possible by the feedback loop between the private mood and its public image/manifestation. In the context of Voz Alta, the fact of enlightening buildings that are considered as power and political centres is not traditional and might in fact generate micro-shocks in the population. In addition, the massacre was considered a taboo for many years. The simple fact of giving it a place in the collectivity certainly participate in generating these micro-shocks. As those cannot be registered consciously, it is in a way impossible to qualify them (as Massumi puts it: affect is unqualified7). My interest in bringing this is to emphasize once again the importance of staging the situation not in the form of action/reaction that are encoded/pre-encoded and therefore pre-determined but to stage the situation in the form of an open situation that leaves space for micro-perception and micro-shocks to take place.


My interests in the collective comes from micropolitics. According to Deleuze and Guattari, micropolitics is realized by and through the minor collective assemblage. To me, both Voz Alta and the D-Tower foreground the collective. The D-Tower makes visible the collective mood and generate effects on the ways it gets assembled. In fact, if the tower turns out being a colour that means people is angry or mad (I am sorry I tried to find the colour chart but I could not) it might make people being more attentive to the people around them. Giving a visible colour to the people’s invisible mood holds the potential to generate effects on the social ecology of practices, on the ways in which the city inhabitants interact with each other. In this context, intra-actions are addressed on at least two different levels: (1) the interactions of people that are being compiled following the survey and (2) the potential for new forms of interaction to emerge from the colour of the tower. As Brian Massumi puts it “this can undoubtedly reflect back on the interactions taking place in the town by making something that was private and imperceptible public and perceptible.”8 He adds that in this context “the feedback loop here has been created between private mood and public image that has never existed in quite this way before9”. Again, I think that this project is also related to the notion of the threshold that both Zach and I have been interrogating. The colourful collective mood can be seen as the potential for change in capacity: the capacity of the tower to affect the citizens and to make their mood pass a threshold that will push them to interact differently with the other citizens.

In the context of Voz Alta, giving space to the massacre most likely had similar impact on the social ecology of practices. On the one hand it foregrounds the collective in the first place: its departure point is the collective itself. The massacre affected the collective and it is put back into the collective. In addition its effects are addressed to the collective through the distributed interface that generated the possibility to relate heterogeneous components of the situation. It probably also regenerated social relations in the community through giving the citizens the possibility to express themselves to the population (and indirectly to some political charged places: the buildings where the light was reflected). It also gave them the feeling of sharing an event.

Digital versus Analog

Some of you could say that the projects I talked about, and the analysis I produced, do not address the digital in a direct way and that I failed at foregrounding the potential for the digital realm to trigger new forms of experience. According to me, new forms of experience and the emergence of new subjectivation processes is based on change. We have to focus on generating new subjectivation processes that don’t reproduce the dominant ones. This, for me, is made possible by working with the potential and the virtual: we need to ask what potentialites, virtualities and impulses hold the potential to generate change. In chapter five of Parables for the Virtual (the chapter is entitled on The Superiority of the Analog) he says that “digital technologies have a connection to the potential and the virtual only through the analog”. All these projects I talked about in the context of this post highlight this passage from the digital to the analog. The D-Tower codes the survey’s answer which are then transduced into the analog through the tower’s changing color. Voz Alta encodes the sounds, voice, messages that are also transduced into the analog with the light that reflects on the building. In this perspective, the key point with digital art seems to reside in the project’s capacities to transfer the code into analog processes. I would argue that the potential for the micro-schocks to be actualized resides there, taht is to say in the transformative process of the digital to the analog. So I think I could go as far as saying that -and here following the projects I analyzed in the context of this post- that with digital art, the threshold -the potential for a change in capacity- resides in the passage from the digital to the analog.



7Massumi, B. (2002) p.28


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Some comments on the Breathing Wall

November 9, 2009 Leave a comment

I would like to make some comments about the Breathing wall. My first comment concerns my own experience of the piece. I had some problems with the night dreams. I probably have a weird breathing style as the microphone could barely record my breathing (even though I set it up). Accordingly, I had to literally blow in the microphone. It is kind of embarassing to say that, but I think that the piece can only actualized through its experience and that my own experience infected my capacity to engage with it. You can imagine that because I had to blow in the microphone I started having a headache after 5 minutes. To avoid hyperventilating, I decided to use the CD plastic case to make wind in the microphone so I could go through the piece. This certainly changed my experience/feeling/understanding of the piece. I could say that the piece literally operated on the level of the affect. Affect is the capacity to affect and to be affected, it is the passing of a threshold, seen from the point of view of a change in capacity (Massumi: 2002). My incapacity to affect the piece (to make it effective with my own breathing) affected me in return in a way that the night dreams decreased my bodily’s capacities (ineffectiveness of my own agency). This significantly decreased my experience of the piece. Before taking the CD plastic case, I was having more an experience of my own body than of the piece (and it was in fact the same when I used the plastic case: I was not concentrating on my breathing but I was more getting annoyed by the movement of my hand). I think this is an objective of the piece –to realize your own physicality- but I think that I was never able to achieve and equilibrium between my own physicality and the piece’s narrative. In fact, I was more trying to control my own breathing and/or the movement of my hand than actually experiencing the piece. I could say that in this perspective the interface was not transparent enough and that this lack of transparency prevented me from engaging fully with the piece.


Also, I am not sure if my breathing deficiency (!) generated some unwanted/unnecessary lengths in the piece but I would like to ask what are the implications of the lengths of the images during the night dreams. For example the leave floating around, or the wind blowing on the long grass in the field. Even though time might not exist (!), I can say I that I felt duration when I was facing these images (but it kind of disturbed me as I had to keep on shaking my hand to make the image move and was thinking that I might finish with a Tendinitis!). The fact that most of my attention was directed to making my hand shake made me lose track of what was happening. I was just hoping I could get to the next section so that I could concentrate on something else than my hand. I think that these images actualized some disruptions in the narrative. Maybe the author’s aim was to really make us experiencing our own physicality and the necessity of our own engagement to actualize the narrative, e.g. to insist on the physicality of the passages from spaces of interiority and spaces of exteriority. In fact, the passages from the prison to the external world, from the day dreams to the night dreams, from “reality” to the dialogues with Lana, emphasized these spaces of interiority and exteriority, and also the physicality necessary for them to become visible. This is a very interesting point as it foregrounds the non-passivity of the body in relation to acts of readings and to the actualization of narratives (although I think it is important to achieve an equilibrium between the narrative and the physicality—equilibrium that I was unfortunately unable to achieve).


On another level I would like to raise a question about the collective implications of the piece. I think that digital technologies hold an enormous potential for actualizing collective assemblages (and please this time don’t reinforce the determinism that have infected the relations between European and North American scholars telling me I am so European because I say the word collective). I am not necessarily talking about Englebart’s utopian idea of the collective IQ but I wander how the breathing wall can facilitate collective assemblages. According to Foucault, Deleuze, Guattari, Simondon, Massumi and many others technology is social in the first place– technology is always social before to be technological(or to put it in other words, it means that there is a human technology before a material technology). More precisely, it means that technology never exists as a stand alone as it is only actualized or expressed within social assemblages (Deleuze: 1986). In this perspective, how does the Breathing Wall operate on the social and collective levels? In fact, I am wandering if this piece hold the potential to facilitate the reconfiguration of our social and collective ecology of practices or if it only emphasizes my own individuality? Does the fact that the interaction does not seem to go beyond the computer/microphone/headset and the viewer decrease the political effects that the piece might generate? One way to answer the question would be to ask another one: what is the relevance of the piece outside the world of literature and narratives — does it resonate elsewhere?

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Inflexions — Micropolitics: Exploring Ethico-Aesthetics

November 3, 2009 Leave a comment

Hey guys

The new issue of Inflexions (the open access journal/collective Im a member of) is out!


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Response to Zach’s post on Interfaces

November 2, 2009 1 comment

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!

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November 2, 2009 Leave a comment

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