… Nathaniel Stern’s Interactive Art and Embodiment establishes two first events: not only Stern’s debut publication but also the first of a new series from Gylphi entitled “Arts Future Book” edited by Charlotte Frost, which began in 2013. All quotations are from this text unless otherwise stated.
Stern’s vision in brief: in order to rescue what is philosophically significant about interactive art, he justifies its worth through the primary acknowledgement of embodiment, relational situation, performance and sensation. In return, the usual dominant definitions of interactive art which focus on technological objects, or immaterial cultural representations thereof are secondary to the materiality of bodily movement. Comprehending digital interactive art purely as ‘art + technology’ is a secondary move and a “flawed priority” (6), which is instead underscored by a much deeper engagement, or framing, for how one becomes embodied in the work, as work. “I pose that we forget technology and remember the body” (6) Stern retorts, which is a “situational framework for the experience and practice of being and becoming.” (7). The concepts that are needed to disclose these insights are also identified as emergent.
“Sensible concepts are not only emerging, but emerging emergences: continuously constructed and constituted, re-constructed and re-constituted, through relationships with each other, the body, materiality, and more.” (205)
Interactive Art and Embodiment then, is the critical framework that engages, enriches and captivates the viewer with Stern’s vision, delineating the importance of digital interactive art together with its constitutive philosophy.
One might summarise Stern’s effort with his repeated demand to reclaim the definition of “interactive”. The term itself was a blatantly over-used badge designed to vaguely discern what made ‘new media’ that much newer, or freer than previous modes of consumption. This was quickly hunted out of discursive chatter when everyone realised the novel qualities it offered meant very little and were politically moribund. For Stern however, interactivity is central to the entire position put forward, but only insofar as it engages how a body acts within such a work. This reinvigorated definition of “interactive” reinforces deeper, differing qualities of sensual embodiment that take place in one’s relational engagement. This is to say, how one literally “inter-acts” through moving-feeling-thinking as a material bodily process, and not a technological informational entity which defines, determines or formalises its actions. A digital work might only be insipidly interactive, offering narrow computational potentials, but this importance is found wanting so long as the technology is foregrounded over ones experience of it. Instead ones relationship with technological construction should melt away through the implicit duration of a body that literally “inter-acts” with it. In Stern’s words:
“…most visually-, technically-, and linguistically-based writing on interactive art explains that a given piece is interactive, and how it is interactive, but not how we inter-act” (91)
Chapter 1 details how aesthetic ‘vision’ is understood through this framework, heavily criticising the pervasive disembodiment Stern laments in technical discussions of digital art and the VR playgrounds from the yesteryear of the 90s. Digital Interactive Art has continually suppressed a latent embodied performance that widens the disembodied aesthetic experience towards – following Ridgway and Thrift – a “non-representational experience.” Such experiences take the body as an open corporal process within a situation, which includes, whilst also encompassing, the corporal materiality of non-human computational processes. This is, clearly, designed to oppose any discourse that treats computation and digital culture as some sort of liberating, inane, immaterial phenomenon: to which Stern is absolutely right. Moreover, all of these material processes move in motion with embodied possibilities, to “create spaces in which we experience and practice this body, its agency, and how they might become.” (40) To add some political heft, Stern contrasts how the abuse of interactivity is often peddled towards consumerist choice, determining possibilities, put against artistic navigation that relinquishes control, allowing limitless possibilities. Quoting Erin Manning, Stern values interactive art’s success when it doesn’t just move in relation to human experience, but when humans move *the* relation in experience (Manning, 2009: 64; Stern, 46).
Stern’s second chapter moves straight into a philosophical discussion denoting what he means by an anti-Cartesian, non-representational, or implicit body. Heavily contexualised by a host of process, emergent materialist thinkers (Massumi, Hayles, Barad), Stern concentrates on the trait of performance as the site of body which encapsulates its relationally, emergence and potential. The body is not merely formed in stasis, (what Stern dubs “pre-formed” (62) but is regularly and always gushingly “per-formed” (61) in its movement. Following Kelli Fuery, the kind of interactivity Stern wants to foreground is always there, not a stop-start prop literate to computer interaction, but an effervescent ensemble of “becoming interactive” (Fuery, 2009: 44; Stern, 65). Interactive art is not born from an effect bestowed by a particular medium of art making, but of “making literal the kinds of assemblages we are always a part of.” (65)
Chapter three sets out Stern’s account for the implicit body framework: detailing out four areas: “artistic inquiry and process; artwork description; inter-activity and relationally.” (91) Chapters four, five and six flesh out this framework with actual practices. Four considers close readings of the aforementioned work of Penny together with Camille Utterback merging the insights gained from the previous chapters. What both artists encapsulate for Stern is that their interventions focus on the embodied activities of material signification: or “the activities of writing with the body” (114) Utterback’s 1999 installation “Textrain” is exemplary to Stern’s argument: notably the act of collecting falling text characters on a screen merges dynamic body movements with poetic disclosure. The productions of these images are always emergent and inscribed within our embodied practices and becomings: that we think with our environment. Five re-contextualises this with insights into works by Scott Scribbes and Mathieu Briand’s interventions in societal norms and environments. Six takes on the role of the body as a dynamic, topological space: most notably as practiced in Rafael Lozano-Hemmer. Chapter seven I’ll discuss near the conclusion: the last chapter shortly.
Firstly, the good stuff. Interactive Art and Embodiment is probably one of the most sincerest reads I’ve encountered in the field for some time. Partly this is because the book cultivates Stern’s sincerity for his own artistic practice, together with his own philosophical accounts that supplement that vision. His deep understanding of process philosophy is clearly matched by his enthusiastic reassessment of what interactive art purports to achieve and how other artists might have achieved it too. And it’s hard to disagree with Stern’s own position when he cites examples (of his work and others) that clearly delegate the philosophical insights to which he is committed. One highlight is Stern’s take on Scribbes’ Boundary Foundations (1998) and the Screen Series (2002-03) which intervenes and questions the physical and metaphorical boundaries surrounding ourselves and others, by performing its questioning as work. This is a refreshingly earnest text, proving that theory works best not when praxis matches the esoteric fashions of philosophical thinking, but when art provides its own stakes and its own types of thinking-experience which theory sets out to faithfully account and describe. Stern’s theoretical legitimacy is never earned from just digesting, synthesising and applying copious amounts of philosophy, but from the centrality of describing in detail what he thinks the bodily outcomes of interactive art are and what such accounts have to say: even if they significantly question existing philosophical accounts.
Stern leaves the most earnest part of his book towards the end in his final semi-auto-biographical companion chapter called “In Production (A Narrative Inquiry on Interactive Art)”. This is a snippet of a much larger story, available online and subject to collaboration . Here, Stern recounts or modifies the anxiety inducing experience of being a PhD student and artist, rubbing up alongside the trials of academic rigour, dissertation writing and expected standards. Quite simply, Stern is applying his insights of performative processual experience into the everyday, ordinary experiences faced by most PhD students in this field, and using it to justify a certain writing style and a sense of practice. It’s an enjoyable affair – in large part because it outclasses the dry scholarly tone usually associated with writing ‘academically’, elevating imaginative, illuminating redescriptions for how the experiences of interactive art broadly hang together rather than relying on relentless cynical critique. And most of that is down to Stern’s strong literary metaphorical technique for grounding his vision, perhaps even more effectively than the previous chapters.
Yet earnest experiences aside, there are two problems with Stern’s vision which, in my eyes, leave it flawed. That isn’t a bad thing: all visions are flawed of course. That’s why the similarities between art and philosophy feed our heuristic, academic compulsion to come up with them and debate: well, that and sometimes the most flawed can end up being the most influential…