'Our machines are disturbingly lively, and we ourselves frighteningly inert.'
Donna Haraway,
Simians, Cyborgs, and Women
Routledge, 1990

Games are diverting trivia ... and also a means of learning. They are about destruction and derision but also about creation; they are about the displacement of sex and aggression, but also provide a safe(ish) means to explore and allow intense interaction. Maybe all games are serious? Or, as Regina Cornwell explores later in this catalogue, maybe all seriousness is being made a game of.

It seems to have been new technologies which have rekindled the debate about games - brain-boilingly violent video games, fantasy role-play chat-lines, virtual community discussion groups where escapists may romp whilst actual communities crumble outside the bedroom door. This is not, however, a show about technology, it is a show about interaction. Interaction did not, as some believe, spring fully-formed from the thigh of a computer nerd, but has been in existence for quite some time:

in°ter°ac°tive (in'tér ak'tiv) adj.

1. acting upon one another.
2. (of a computer or program) characterised by or allowing immediate two-way communication between a source of information and a user, who can initiate or respond to queries.

Webster's Electronic Dictionary
Random House, 1993

Choose Definition 1

This might include:
Dogs fighting.
Walking around a kinetic sculpture and thinking about it from different positions, and maybe changing your mind. Lighting a candle and having it light your book, and set fire to your fringe.
Having a conversation.

Choose Definition 2

Ah yes, 'Interactives', including video games, bank cash machines, some 60s computer art, rock music CDs where you can mix your own tracks, cars that tell you when your seatbelt is unfastened, gallery information points, Internet access, and 'edutainment'. Can also be used to refer to a range of media for artworks.
Bestows 'Choice'.

What definition 2 hasn't quite managed to achieve yet is the 'having a conversation': just as you can't have a real conversation with a sculpture neither can you have a real conversation with a computer-based interactive artwork, however cleverly programmed.[1]

One can get pleasure from having imaginary conversations with either carved stones or computers, but what you get in fact is a greater or lesser range of choices. These 'choices' are bitingly satirised by Diller + Scofidio's Indigestion, where the crude 'A, B and C1s' categories of social groups used by marketing folk are played out in caricatured binary choices of class and sexuality. We choose the two protagonists and then watch them joust, flirt and consume - trapped within their roles and the inflexible plot-line of screen life.

Apart from 'choice', interactivity can in general offer much to an audience; most obviously the chance to engage physically as well as mentally with an artwork. Perhaps too much is made of this feature of interactivity, but we do all learn through our bodies as well as our eyes and ears. In Ann Whitehurst's NetEscape we are offered the opportunity to physically 'put ourselves in someone else's position'. We go on a reflective journey along floor trails and into 'inhabited' spaces - we can interact with those who are distant (via a computer and Web site link) or, importantly, with those who are near (via human interaction or the textural pleasures of paper and cloth). The body, disabled or otherwise, is challenged by Ann Whitehurst's quirky world view, but is also at the centre of a much higher-tech work - Osmose, the immersive environment of Char Davies and team. In any VR (or 'Virtual Reality') 3D environment the body of the user is necessarily at the centre of the universe - users are 'immersed'. In Davies' work the body is, perhaps, even more central, as movement through the environment is controlled not by joystick or spurious data-glove, but by the user's own breathing, monitored by a 'vest'. We are certainly highly engaged physically in a 'sensational' experience, but are we necessarily more engaged mentally? Davies has started to challenge the frenetic moral vacuum of most VR 'games' with a landscape of shimmering aesthetic and perceptual impact, which has stimulated both ecstatic reactions and hot debate concerning representations of nature, or artists' access to technology.

Another potential pleasure offered by interactivity is that of 'control' - control being on a dangerously sliding scale which could also result in displeasure for an audience. 'Control', like 'choice' depends on degree is the artist giving a token degree of control which is ultimately frustrating, or giving the audience full control, in which case what is the artist there for? Bill Seaman's many years of work with video and interactive video have borne fruit so that he has now hit what is, perhaps, the happy medium of the artist as 'skilful host', creating a visual pleasure dome such as Passage Sets wherein the audience can experiment within a firm structure of sense.

If an artist is to play 'host' with participative artwork, then some parties are small intimate affairs, whilst some are merrier with more. Many interactive artworks are designed exclusively for one person at a time, which presents a challenge when showing interactive works in conventional gallery settings. However, works also exist where multiple users actually enhance the works, for the audience can not only interact with artworks, but with each other too. Toshio lwai's Resonance of 4 is an elegant persuasion in the benefits of collaboration and co-operation, where even a bashful British audience can interact with strangers in a state of grace.

By their very nature, most interactive works are enhanced by (or even dependent upon) what the audience brings to them. In Jim Campbell's Hallucination the audience brings its own presence, acting out a part in a disturbing scenario where space and time make sense in a video world, but in no other. As in lwai's work, the audience can enhance the work by 'acting' collectively as well as individually. In Ritsuko Taho's Zeromorphosis: Swans and Pigeons, a literally growing work of art, the audience actually creates the collective artwork itself. Without participants it would only exist in a minimal form. Her work also illustrates an important question for interaction; can the hapticity, the getting the hands dirty, the smells and feel of earth and money, the tactile labour of making, be separated from the mental interaction of thinking what to write, to say, or to contribute? Can you have one without the other? Much of Taho's work involves workshops with community groups, where the making and the considering go hand in hand, creating a much wider interactional space than just the gallery.

There is a question, after all, as to where the interaction takes place - between the ears; at the end of a finger; in the lungs; in the ether, or before the artwork even enters its finished form? Harwood's Rehearsal of Memory is based on the delicate, fraught, and difficult interaction between himself and those with whom he was working - residents in a high-security mental hospital. These skills of human interaction are definitely not sprung from nerds, but have a long history in community-based arts and activism - skills often not valued, recorded, or represented in gallery collections. Those who thrill to the democratic and participative potential of 'new technology' may be genuinely unaware of the painstaking skill-base of actual democracy and participation. The struggle to create art in non-elitist contexts straggles from Ruskin's Victorian dream to 80s Docklands nightmare, yet visiting California recently I was proudly shown the edifying sight of 'the invention of community art'. Again. Likewise the 70s British burgeoning of 'community work shops/darkrooms' was another reinvention of a wheel whose plans have been lost. In contrast, however, the plans of high technology are meticulously recorded, untouched by coffee stains or grubby fingers. Their sharp smooth planes promise what Matthew Fuller calls the 'white flight into cyberspace',[2] leaving behind the messy complexities of those who might try to continue to resolve the words 'community' and 'art'. Add the word 'technology' and perhaps we are trying to resolve the unresolvable. In what contexts is real participation / interaction possible? We are in an art gallery. Half a mile from where I live, only 15 percent of households have a telephone line, never mind a superhighway.

Interactive artworks present a challenge to galleries and to the audience as well as to curators. Gallery spaces tend to need works which have wider presence than a single screen; works which make some sense in the duration of a gallery visit; works which change pace and textural feel; works which might appeal to different characters, from the extrovert to the lurker. This tends to rule out many works which are certainly interactive, even those (such as many purely Internet-based artworks) which perhaps use new technologies in the most highly interactive ways, but nevertheless may not necessarily have an effective gallery presence.

When presented not in a 'new technology show' but in an exhibition alongside other media, computer-based work tends to either shout down the other works due to press attention of the Popular variety, or to be sneered at like a gauche teenager at a family party by press attention of the Art variety. Either way, there is some way to go before the work becomes widely intelligible, especially when considering media such as VR which are only just becoming accessible to a handful of artists, bestowing upon each work the burdens of huge expectations perhaps too weighty for such young artforms.

Much interactive computer-based artwork, however, is no longer a new-born artform to be cooed over but a rather awkward adolescent, with some unsentimental eyes such as Regina Cornwell's being focused upon it. The adolescent is challenging its boundaries, whilst itself being a "boundary subject' that theorist Gloria Anzaldúa calls the Mestiza, one who lives in the borderlands and is only partially recognised by each abutting society'.[3] The teenager, however, does have forebears, including a body of theory concerning video installation, just now perhaps coming of age after many years of existence, as mainstream galleries accept artists such as Bill Viola without a 'new technology' brouhaha. Video theory provides some useful structures with which to analyse the work, in particular the position in which the audience is placed as Narcissus, gaining pleasure from the magnification of their own actions.[4] Video theorists were also the first to point out the gap between promise and actuality in early interactive video - 'The current romance of interactivity promises such things as being a better or more democratic art form and/or the art form of the future...Yet interactive videodisks only appear to eliminate the alienation of the artist and viewer present in most avant-garde art.[5] Video theory, however, cannot fully cover the range of interactive tactics now available, and current mainstream criticism doesn't appear to have got much beyond the recognition of interactive computer-based art as amusing cultural artefact within postmodern theory.[6]

In many ways new interactive artworks put several cats amongst the critical pigeons - catapulting back in time perhaps rather than forward: Regina Cornwell makes reference to Duchamp and Breton (the Dadas of all cats amongst pigeons), but there are also other historical references which go together like an umbrella and a sewing machine: what happens when a piece like Osmose triggers a revival of 18th-century debates on the Arcadian landscape? What happens when, departing from the tight postmodern theory applied to most media art, it is suggested that this work should be viewed (like 50s abstract painting) as 'what you bring to it'? What happens when Arp's research on chance meets computer-generated randomness? What happens when 70s debate on British community art meets more current US 'art in the public interest' and questions interaction and participation?[7]

In selecting the works for this exhibition I wanted to challenge the audience - to challenge them to be critical about what kind of interaction they are engaging in, and to compare computer interactions with other means of interaction, and with other histories. In doing so the exhibition perhaps raises more problems than it answers, especially about the position of interactive artworks within conventional gallery settings. Games, according to Ellen Dissanayake, consist of 'a repeated exchange of tensions and releases'. What they have in common with art is that 'both involve imagination, surprise, non-predictability and self reward, and are considered biologically non-functional.' [8]

I hope that this exhibition, in combining both no-tech and high-tech artworks, might mark a step in interactive art by starting to get serious about our games, without seeking to nail down too harshly the enjoyable 'splatter' of a still-developing set of media. May your rewards not always be self-rewards, and your pleasures not always be biologically non-functional. Have serious fun.


1. Any interchange approximating a real extended conversation of words would demand real artificial intelligence from a computer - an attribute which, despite the hype, has yet to be arrived at. For more on tests of Artificial Intelligence including the Turing Test see: Benjamin Woolley, Virtual Worlds: A Journey in Hype and Hyperreality, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1992
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2. Quote from a talk at the ICA (Institute of Contemporary Arts, London) Terminal Futures conference, October 1994. 'White flight' is an American term for white (read middle class) people leaving inner cities and heading for the suburbs, leaving the centre to the dispossessed, or empty. It creates 'the doughnut effect'. Coming to a city near you soon? Matthew Fuller is Editor of Underground.
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3. Alluquère Rosanne Stone, 'Will the Real Body please Stand Up?: Boundary Stories about Cyberspace' in Michael Benedikt (ed.), Cyberspace: First Steps, MIT Press, Cambridge, Mass., 1991
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4. Rosalind Krauss discusses this aspect in 'Video: The Aesthetics of Narcissism' in Gregory Battcock (ed.), New Artist's Video, E.P.Dutton, New York, 1978
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5. Ann-Sargent Wooster, 'Reach Out and Touch Someone: The Romance of Interactivity' in Hall and Fifer (eds.), Illuminating Video, Aperture, New York, 1991
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6. A subject I expand upon in 'Playing With Yourself: Pleasure and Interactive Art', in Jon Dovey (ed.), Fractal Dreams. Lawrence and Wishart, London, 1996
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7. Arlene Raven, Art in the Public Interest, UMI Research Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1989
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8. Ellen Dissanayake, 'A hypothesis of the evolution of art from play' in Leonardo, vol.7, 1974
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Last verified: August 1st 2013.