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Interview: David Rokeby

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Interviewer: Morgan Rauscher
Interviewee: David Rokeby
Where: Hamilton, Ontario, Canada

1- What inspires your work with relationship to technology?

This is a somewhat ambiguous question. If it means: How does technology inspire my work, then:

Technology primarily inspires my work through frustration. That is to say, I look at what technology does badly and I try to understand this better, because I think it holds keys to our understanding of both ourselves and our relationship to technology. I often start to work by trying to make a computer do something that is very difficult for a computer to do but very easy for a human to do. I like to be contrary. I like to work against things because I think I learn more this way.

2- How do you view the technology you use?

I reject the notion that technology is just a tool. It is a very textured tool full of biases. Computer technologies are tools that guide the user in subtle and not so subtle ways (precisely because they are so interactive). Any piece of software is the personal expression of the programmer who wrote it. When you use a program, you carry some of that person’s world view in you. That makes it more than a tool. I have written that interface is content for example. Since an interface changes the way you relate to the “content” of something (web-page / interactive work) it changes the meaning of the content by changing your experience of the content. This means that the tool has content.

I have often created tool-like pieces that actually express quite a lot of myself. Very Nervous System is very much this way.

Even a computer language affects what you do with it in some way.

Everything about a computer is the product of human desire, human interests and so must be though of as a cultural artifact. Tools can be considered cultural artifacts… but these new tool are much more complex…

I also feel the need to understand and critique the technology that I am using. It is hard for me to use something that is having so much impact on my culture without treating it as part of the subject as well as the toolset in my process of creation.

3- Do you believe that technology is a prevailing resource for the future of art?

Technology is useful, technology is a defining presence in our contemporary culture, but I like great line-drawings as much as I like art involving “technology”. Artists take hold of whatever is available and technology is one of those things. One must choose the medium appropriate to the work.

4- What is the main idea behind very nervous system?

(From the Prix Ars Electronica ’91 Catalog)
In the series of installations that fall under the general title ‘Very Nervous System’, I use video cameras, image processors, computers, synthesizers and a sound system to create a space in which the movements of one’s body create sound and/or music. It has been primarily presented as an installation in galleries but has also been installed in public outdoor spaces, and has been used in a number of performances.
I created the work for many reasons, but perhaps the most pervasive reason was a simple impulse towards contrariness. The computer as a medium is strongly biased. And so my impulse while using the computer was to work solidly against these biases. Because the computer is purely logical, the language of interaction should strive to be intuitive. Because the computer removes you from your body, the body should be strongly engaged. Because the computer’s activity takes place on the tiny playing fields of integrated circuits, the encounter with the computer should take place in human-scaled physical space. Because the computer is objective and disinterested, the experience should be intimate.

The active ingredient of the work is its interface. The interface is unusual because it is invisible and very diffuse, occupying a large volume of space, whereas most interfaces are focussed and definite. Though diffuse, the interface is vital and strongly textured through time and space. The interface becomes a zone of experience, of multi-dimensional encounter. The language of encounter is initially unclear, but evolves as one explores and experiences.

The installation is a complex but quick feedback loop. The feedback is not simply ‘negative’ or ‘positive’, inhibitory or reinforcing; the loop is subject to constant transformation as the elements, human and computer, change in response to each other. The two interpenetrate, until the notion of control is lost and the relationship becomes encounter and involvement.

The diffuse, parallel nature of the interaction and the intensity of the interactive feedback loop can produce a state that is almost shamanistic. The self expands (and loses itself) to fill the installation environment, and by implication the world. After 15 minutes in the installation people often feel an afterimage of the experience, feeling directly involved in the random actions of the street.

This unexpected sense of almost spiritual encounter informed a lot of the initial development of the installation but is only one aspect of the work. I often feel that it is necessary to work against the momentum of this experience and particularly its lesser manifestations (senses of power and affirmation, or even ‘neat’ness) because they can overwhelm and mask underlying aspects of the work that are as important. By adding other sculptural and visual elements to the installation (i.e. “(Perception is) The Master of Space”), I have begun to focus the attention of the interactor away from the excitement, making the interactive relationship more visible.

The installation could be described as a sort of instrument that you play with your body but that implies a level of control which I am not particularly interested in. I am interested in creating a complex and resonant relationship between the interactor and the system.

5- What in your mind – are the implications of the technology used in very nervous system?

The interactive feedback loop that VNS involves is very tight so that you are responding to the system’s response to you before your consciousness is fully aware of your own actions. This intense feedback loop is both a beautiful experience and a dangerous scenario outside the art realm. It is very easy to manipulate someone in such a feedback loop.

Secondly, I realized (as Florian Roetzer (German media arts writer) has pointed out) that you cannot have interaction without surveillance. The more interaction, the more surveillance you need. This has profound social and political implications for a culture filling itself with interactive systems. Up until how, the only thing complexly interact was other people. We have developed over the millenia, a set of rules and protocols about inter-human interaction. But we have not got the same sort of understanding with machines and the people who design and use them. This is essential if human values and computer technology are to move forward together.

6- How long did it take you to make very nervous system (to its current state)?

I developed the installation from 1981 (first experiments) to 1991 (I haven’t changed the installation substantially since then…) I have continued to develop the software system that started with Very Nervous System and has now become softVNS 2.01.

7- What has very nervous system shown you as an artist?

The best answer to this question is to look at my “Transforming Mirrors” and “Constructing Experience” texts on my web site. These are largely based on my experiences showing VNS.

It is hard to answer this question in less than several thousand words.

But the short answer, that leaves out all the stuff like: “What has VNS shown me as a person” would be that artists must be careful how they use technology. In the end I was dissatisfied with VNS because it was too much fun for people, which meant that they ended up not having to think enough about what they had experienced. As an artist, this frustrated me, because, while praise, and making people excited, is nice, it is not why I became an artist. What I was discovering through using VNS was very different from what people were taking away for themselves, and so I went looking for ways to try to communicate this other stuff, and changed the way I work. This does not mean that I don’t still love VNS. It just means that as an artist, I have realized that it suffered as an artwork from being TOO neat.

8- Did you find that your work was under rated in the art community in the beginning around the time of very nervous system?

Nobody knew how to look at it at the time. People who let themselves just experience it generally had a strong experience. Bu the art world blinds itself a bit by thinking that it knows what it should be looking at. More than 10 years after starting VNS, people who had disregarded it earlier were starting to learn how to see it. Things that are new take time for people to learn to be able to see. This surprised me because it seemed to me that VNS worked very intuitively and naturally, if you just let yourself be a human being… But if people are for example looking for symbols in Very Nervous System, they will be very frustrated.

9- What were the three most memorable responses you received to very nervous system?

One woman in 1983 played with the system for 2 hours. One week later she told me that the whole world had been alive in a new way after seeing my work.

A blind 5 year old piano student came to my studio in the late 80’s. His sense of the ‘space’ of VNS… the tangible wall of the edge of the sensitive part of the room was extraordinary.

I have had several strong experiences of watching dancers improvise with VNS. Robert Desrosier in the system seemed to be pulling the sounds off his skin. Leslie Ann Coles changed the way she moved completely depending on the specific VNS piece she was dancing to in a way that reflected the behaviours of the system in an amazing way.