Beyond Technology and Representation: What Can Interactive Art Do?
Nathaniel Stern. Interactive Art and Embodiment: The Implicit Body as Performance. Canterbury, UK: Gylphi, 2013. 291 pp., 41 color ills. $29.99 paper
Troy Rhoades, for CAA’s Art Journal, Spring 2014
Download Art Journal’s PDF spread of this article from Taylor and Francis
Remember the body.
Re-member: Embody again (6).
In Interactive Art and Embodiment: The Implicit Body as Performance, Nathaniel Stern would like us to remember the body’s potential for moving, thinking, and feeling in relation to digital interactive artworks. He wants this triumvirate of bodily activities – what he defines as embodiment – to be placed in the foreground of thought when we discuss interactive art. It is his contention that technology and representational content have been the focal points of interactive art for too long, and it is time for a paradigm shift. “We must get away from concentrating only on the signs and images on the screen or the interface, away from privileging the technology and what it affords. We must engage with the quality and styles of movement that are rehearsed with interactive art” (15–16). Stern sees the need to stop explaining what interactive art is as a technological object or a generator of signs. He asserts instead that our attention should be placed on what interactive art does as it shapes our potential for embodiment, that is, our ability to move-think-feel with the work. It is important to note that Stern is not completely rejecting technological and representational approaches to interactive art and solely focusing on embodiment. Rather, he wants us to notice that there is a glaring absence of embodiment in many of the present methods used to analyze this type of work. This book is his attempt to address the long-overdue need to reevaluate this field of art. He reveals that we have always been moving-thinking-feeling with interactive art.
Stern begins his reassessment of interactive art by clearly defining his approach to this work. First, he declares that he will not value or define the potential of any individual artwork categorically: “I begin and end with singular works in the gallery space, and am interested in creating a discrete critical framework for encountering interactive art” (5). Stern then defines the interactive artwork as digital and electronic art that uses “various forms of sensors or cameras for input; computers, microcontrollers, simple electronic circuits, or other digital or analogical terminals for processing; and any form of sensory output – audiovisual, tactile, olfactory, mechanical, or otherwise; where all are placed together in a system that responds to the embodied participation of viewers, either in real-time, and/or over lengths of time” (5–6). From here Stern states that his theoretical approach is aligned with process philosophy and affect theory, primarily based on the work of the philosopher Brian Massumi, in order to “explore interactive art’s potential, outside of signification alone” (9).1 By approaching interactive art from an affective and processual approach, Stern associates himself with other contemporary new media thinkers (some of whom he cites) such as Anna Munster, Steve Goodman, and Stamatia [Portanova].2
With his approach and theoretical foundation clearly stated, Stern delineates in the first two chapters how recent research practices in interactive art, which have focused on technology and representation, connect and diverge from his understanding of embodiment as the body’s potential for moving-thinking-feeling. In the first chapter Stern tackles the notion that digital technology is somehow incorporeal, as espoused by thinkers such as Friedrich Kittler and David Rodowick.3 He argues against the notion that data, computational processes, and networks do not have any physical presence or materiality. For Stern all of these technologies and digital processes take on some physical form, on hard drives, computer chips, or fiber-optic cables: “Neither bodies nor information can exist without form and embodiment, and intelligence encompasses far more than informational processing” (33). Stern wants us to be aware not only of the corporeal aspects of digital and electronic technology that interactive art uses but also how we are affected and effected when participating in these technologies. He sees a real challenge in keeping “the participant’s attention on the quality of their own movements, rather than the response of the machine” (45). In Stern’s view, we need to become more attuned to the moving-thinking-feeling experience we have with interactive art, rather than focusing on the technology that drives the work.
In the second chapter Stern challenges recent thought concerning the body and representation in interactive art. He asks that we pay attention to the body as “more than its signs and significations, more than what we see or look at, more than skin, flesh, and bone” (54–55). According to Stern, for a body to be understood as a series of signs or an object, it needs to be static or “pre-formed,” like the many static points of Zeno’s famous arrow. A body becomes “explicit,” lacking any potential to experience embodiment. For a body to move-think-feel, Stern contends, it must be seen as a continuously changing entity that “situates embodiment as always per-formed: emergent and relational” (67). A body that experiences the ongoing activity of embodiment during an encounter with interactive art is, for Stern, an “implicit body” as performance.
After critiquing technological and language-based approaches to interactive art, Stern outlines a potentially paradigm-shifting method for understanding interactive art and embodiment through what he calls the “implicit body framework.” This framework comprises four areas of examination: “artistic inquiry and process; artwork description; inter-activity; and, relationality” (91). The first area looks at the artwork from the artist’s perspective, focusing on his or her approach to the work and the techniques chosen for its production. The second area gives us a detailed description of the artwork: how it looks, sounds, and plays. For Stern, these first two areas of examination are standard in most investigations of interactive art. They also represent the point at which most inquiries stop. As he states, “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, emphasis in orig.).
Stern sees the third and fourth areas of examination – interactivity and relationality – as the missing elements in discussions of interactive art. The two areas focus on the potential for an awareness of embodiment to emerge in the viewer-artwork encounter; they foreground our capacity to move-think-feel our potential for change when we experience interactive art. The third area specifically examines the interaction itself, that is, how viewers and artworks connect at the level of embodiment. It focuses on the emergent affects, feelings, and movements generated in the midst of the viewer-artwork encounter. The final area of examination focuses on the relations that emerge in our encounter with interactive art and how these “relationships intervene in our transformation with the world around us” (97). Stern wants us to become aware of the extensive potential for relations to alter and affect our ability to move, think, and feel with regard to an interactive artwork.
In the next three chapters Stern presents a series of case studies using his implicit body framework, approaching several interactive artworks under three different thematics: body-language, social-anatomies, and flesh-space. For Stern these thematics reveal various emergent relations between embodiment and some other sensible concept, such as “language, society, architecture, other matter, forces, and matters” (97–98). The body-language chapter examines the work of Simon Penny and Camille Utterback and its parallels with Jean-Luc Nancy’s notion of “excription,” looking specifically at body and language as “mutually immanent” (104). The social-anatomies chapter investigates Nick Crossley’s idea of “intercorporeality” – the capacity for the body and society to reciprocally produce each other – through the work of the Millefiore Effect, Mathieu Briand, and Scott Snibbe. The third thematic chapter, on flesh-space, approaches the interactive work of David [Rokeby], Rafael Lezano-Hemmer, and Norah Zuniga Shaw through the thought of José Gil and Erin Manning, investigating the ability of these artworks to make viewers aware of the ways in which “bodies and space are made of their relations” (176). These three chapters demonstrate Stern’s implicit body framework as rigorous yet flexible when applied to the analysis of interactive art.
In the penultimate chapter Stern takes his implicit body framework further, demonstrating that it can be used beyond the limits of interactive art. He investigates a large cross-section of new-media works by artists such as Erwin Driessens and Maria Verstappen, Brandon Labelle, and John F. Simon, Jr., as well as his own work, which he calls “potentialized art.” For Stern all of these works have the capacity to “amplify action, affect, embodiment, performativity, transformation, and/or materiality” (206). Potentialized art enables us to become aware of our ability to move-think-feel with a work in the midst of our mutual encounter. We can experience the potential for embodiment as we perform with these artworks. We can become aware of our ability to move-think-feel.
The most rewarding and riskiest chapter of Stern’s book is saved for the end. “In Production (A Narrative Inquiry on Interactive Art)” is a case study of Stern’s own art and writing practices from 2000 to the present. What makes this chapter such a rewarding and refreshing read is that it is written in an unconventional autobiographical style that is also academically rigorous, a style Stern calls an “autoethnographic experiment” (254). This experiment blends conversations, personal narrative, and several analyses of his interactive artworks using his implicit body framework in order to “amplify” and “potentialize” the reading experience (259). Stern consolidates everything he has advocated about the relationship between embodiment and interactive art into a personal story about himself and his work, effectively exposing us to an example of the experience of moving-thinking-feeling that we have been reading about throughout the book.
Stern’s experimental approach to writing is also one of this chapter’s many risks. There is the possibility that more traditional readers of art theory and history may find such a self-referential and unconventionally written account off-putting, even jarring. However, Stern’s storytelling ability is strong and will likely win over even the most curmudgeonly reader. Another risk this chapter takes is the form in which it has been published. The book surprisingly ends by giving us only the introductory section of this concluding chapter. We are invited to go online to view or download the remaining sections (253, 259).4 We are allowed just a taste of this chapter and then must shift our attention from the written page to the written screen. The risk here is that readers may be lost in this transition from the book to the Internet, leaving some of Stern’s best writing unread.
The book is part of the Arts Future Book initiative, a research project and academic book series investigating the future of academic publishing in the arts, led by Charlotte Frost. Placing this final chapter online appears to be part of the series’ mandate to exploit “recent technological advances in publishing” (xxi). Readers who go online and read the complete text of “In Production” will find the possibility to interact with others, in the ability to make comments at every paragraph. This gives readers a platform to share thoughts about some of their favorite (or less agreeable) passages. The ability to comment is an appealing feature, but publishing this chapter online has the potential to take away some of its affective impact. Moreover, it feels like an unnecessary use of digital technology, one that does not appear to follow the spirit of the book, as the online publication breaks a sense of continuity and makes it more difficult to experience moving-thinking-feeling in the work itself. As Stern states, “Embodiment only is through its ongoingness and continuity” (57, emphasis in orig.). If this chapter – which encapsulates everything Stern advocates with regard to interactive and potentialized art – were printed in its entirety at the end of the book, readers would have a better opportunity to experience the embodied potential the book commands. Despite these misgivings, everyone who reads Stern’s book (and those who are interested in reading it) should visit the website and discover the complete text of this wonderful final chapter.
It will be interesting to see how those behind the Arts Future Book series continue to explore the potential that digital and online media offers to expand the form of the book. Interactive Art and Embodiment is the first from this series, making it the first to experiment with the hybrid approach to publishing. I hope the editors will embrace Stern’s notion of embodiment and ensure that digital incarnations of future titles emerge from the potential activated within the texts themselves.
By asking us to engage with interactive art at the level of potential for movement, thinking, and feeling, Stern alters the idea of what inquiry can be, changing it from an analysis of something static into a dynamic event. The act of examination becomes as much a performance as the interactive art it investigates. Through the use of Stern’s implicit body framework, artworks become more than mere descriptions placed within a historical context. Through his writing, artworks become alive in the reading, giving us a sense of how the embodied interactions and emergent relations feel as they are encountered.
1. Throughout the book, Stern focuses on three of Massumi’s texts: Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002); “The Thinking-Feeling of What Happens: An Interview with Brian Massumi,” in Interact or Die: There Is Drama in the Network, ed. Joke Brouwer and Arjen Mulder (Rotterdam: V2 Pub./NAi, 2007), 70–91; and Semblance and Event: Activist Philosophy and the Occurent Arts (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2011)
2. See Anna Munster, Materializing New Media: Embodiment in Information Aesthetics (Hanover, NH: Dartmouth College Press, 2006); Steve Goodman, Sonic Warfare: Sound, Affect, and the Ecology of Fear (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009); and Stamatia Portanova, Moving without a Body: Digital Philosophy and Choreographic Thoughts (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2013).
3. See Friedrich Kittler, Gramophone, Film, Typewriter (Palo Alto, CA: Stanford University Press, 1999); and David N. Rodowick, Reading the Figural, or, Philosophy after the New Media (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2001).
4. The concluding chapter in its entirety is at http://stern.networkedbook.org, as of February 11, 2014.
Download the Journal’s PDF spread of this article from Taylor and Francis