Politics and Aesthetics of Interactive Media Art Today – An Interview with David Rokeby.

Interviewer: Ulrik Ekman.

This interview is the first in a series of four conducted in February 2014. All four interviews originated in David Rokeby’s presentation for a conference in Copenhagen, Denmark, held by the Nordic research network “The Culture of Ubiquitous Information” supported by the NordForsk research organization. The interviews constitute important parts of Rokeby’s contribution to the final publication project in this network, the anthology titled Ubiquitous Computing, Complexity and Culture (Routledge, 2015).

Ulrik Ekman: It seems evident, once one has engaged with such early projects of yours as Reflexions, Body Language, and Very Nervous System[1] or such later ones as Border Patrol, Watched and Measured, and Sorting Daemon,[2] that you affirm the potential in forging links between media art, interactivity, and the kinds of surveillance afforded by new media and ICT. Do you do this with certain critical aims in mind, working both with and against surveillance, and how so then?

David Rokeby: The early works were not made with surveillance in mind at all. But it became clear that placing machine intelligence behind a surveillance camera changes the terms of the surveillance equation in an important way.

Watch is the first piece I did where I was consciously thinking about surveillance during its creation.[3] But it was made in a spirit of inquiry: what are the relationships between surveillance, voyeurism, and sympathetic witnessing? It was in a sense about the unseen watchers and the various roles, desires, and agendas they may have. It was very non-judgmental… an opportunity for others to feel this mix of things operate in themselves as they watched, as well as to consider how they felt afterwards out on the street — visible to the camera they were so recently watching through.

For part of this experience, the video processing was important and for another part it was incidental. Erkki Huhtamo took me to the camera obscura on Santa Monica beach near L.A. once. I was surprised to find that quite a lot of what I found engaging in Watch was already there in this camera obscura: watching people from a hidden and privileged position.

Watch was created at the same time as Border Patrol. Border Patrol carries the stamp of Paul Garrin’s activism and directness. I was really mostly responsible for the video tracking and camera control. For myself, I wondered about the in-your-face strategy of the piece. It was a strong piece, and quite a disturbing piece for both of us to make. Probably more disturbing for us than for most visitors.

I created Watch simultaneously — as a much more ambiguous take on surveillance. I felt I needed to pose more questions, do some research, as it were.

Sorting Daemon comes out of the lead-up to the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the post 9/11 shift in the use and justification for the use of surveillance. It was the culmination of a series of works including Watched and Measured, Guardian Angel, and Taken[4] in which I posed a situation where the installation shows a very tangible intent to track, categorize, sort or judge the people being surveilled. How does it feel to be singled out by an algorithm? How does it feel to be judged by a system of limited intelligence but substantial power? And it was partly stimulated by the disparity between the language used to sell these systems and their real abilities. It seemed to me that it became very important to develop a critical ability to assess these systems on a functional level in order to be able to establish appropriate guidelines for their use, or to be able to critique them effectively.

A lot of my concern had to do with the ‘reach’ of the mechanism. Where does the algorithm stop? Does it alert a human who then investigates? Or does the surveillance algorithm tie directly into machines of bureaucracy and policing, extending the ‘mechanistic’ chain of consequences to the point where it has automatic implications for the person surveilled?

Are rules still made to be broken? The rules of any state or society have a degree of flexibility which has evolved over centuries to provide a measure of practicality and reasonableness.

The technologies of surveillance do not have these evolved mechanisms to temper the rigidity of pure rules-based justice.

My interest in this angle on the question arises very directly out of my work on The Giver of Names.[5] In that work, I was, among other things, trying to get a thorough grasp of the potentials and limitations of pure logical systems in the face of real-world experience. And, beyond that, I was trying to understand the importance of embodied human experience in the interpretation of artifacts and objects, and, by extension, events and actions in the human sphere.

I was asking in a very hands-on way what computers are good and bad at, in a human context. We need to have a firm understanding of this question before we can determine appropriate roles for algorithmic machines in social and political contexts (like automated surveillance).

To get back to your question, “with and against” is very much the spirit of my inquiry. It was important to me to experience the thrill of inventing an algorithm that could locate and track a human head in surveillance footage, and at the same time to consider this creation critically and hold it up for public critique. I needed to feel both in order to understand the emotional and visceral context in which implementation and deployment decisions are made. I suppose this is partly in the hope that you can speak more directly to the people who have power over these things if you understand the attraction and indeed beauty of these things as well as their great dangers.

In the larger scheme of things, this becomes an inquiry into control and the ways that digital technologies play into deep human fantasies of control, mastery, and manipulation. This desire is real, and a great many advances upon which our current civilization rests are a result of the pursuit of this desire, most particularly the computer itself. To successfully integrate these technological creations as maximally positive presences in our lives, we need, among other things, to come to terms with this desire.

The current situation with the NSA, etc. is a graphic example of how strong and addictive a drug this ability to access, track, store, and process everything is.

UE: Would one be correct in seeing in your work a certain move towards increased critical and ethico-political engagement with surveillance? If there is such a change over time in your work, perhaps this is not entirely unrelated to the ethico-political, normative, and socio-cultural shifts in network societies after 9/11 – shifts marked by strong links among terror, national security, surveillance and control. How do you think in general of the relation between your work and network societies moving into a second phase after 2001?

DR: I think for me the spark was noticing a trend in image processing research, especially in the UK in the late 90s. The United Kingdom was in a “war on terror” before the USA because of the IRA bombings. And this led to extensive research into and deployment of advanced surveillance technologies in the UK at the time. I remember hearing of research being undertaken that was attempting to find algorithms which would identify suspicious human activity in surveillance footage and found myself concerned that this was an unrealistic aim, or at least one fraught with the potential for mistakes.

But in fact, I would identify the first Gulf War as the birth of my political interest in surveillance. It was hard to be an artist using cameras and computers and not feel uneasy with the video images streaming from the noses of smart bombs. It certainly forced me to reflect on the implications of the technologies I was using in my work.

Earlier hints came at SIGGRAPH ‘88, where I was in the art show (a real coming-out party for interactivity and virtual reality that year). I was shocked by the number of military people hanging around, funding research, etc. I felt that one should be wary of a situation where supposedly edgy artists and high level military types had so many shared interests. So perhaps that was the real dawn.

I must also mention the role of Tom Sherman in this. In the mid-80s when he was the head of the media arts section of the Canada Council, he took an interest in my work and kept pointing me toward thinking of the surveillance side of Very Nervous System. (Which never seemed in itself to get people thinking critically about surveillance.)

But it is clear that the increasing anxiety about security on the face of terrorist risks and attacks have deepened my sense of the importance of looking at surveillance critically.

UE: The second phase of development of network societies involves both an expansion and an intensification of the network logics we lived with earlier, notably during the 1990s.

As part and parcel of this development one finds not only social media and mobile media. One also finds the co-development of contemporary culture and sociality with such major technical projects as ubiquitous computing, pervasive computing, ambient intelligence, the Internet of Things, and things that think.

All of these concern a broad push towards new types of out-of-the-box computing. It is all about the reach of out-of-the-box computing moving into contexts, environments, and milieux so as to become dynamic and more or less intelligent parts of these, not only but most often in embedded, opaque, or marginally obtrusive ways, seen from a human perspective.

To many this appears to raise a veritable list of questions — concerning surveillance, profiling, trust, and privacy, among other things. Certainly, this seems to entail a new set of modes of relating to and engaging with our environment and other people. As a media artist deeply invested in notions of interactivity, how do you see your work in relation to this development?

DR: Very simply, I think it is dangerous to allow something that you do not yet fully understand to become invisible.

In some of my work, such as Very Nervous System, I tried to make the interface transparent and the experience was remarkable. But the transformation of the relationship between your body and your environment is clear, if mysterious.

Most great designers seek transparency in their user interfaces. It is a comfortingly clear target to aim for, and it also has been very difficult to achieve in the past. As interfaces improve, we need to remember that you cannot critique what you cannot detect.

Important to this is the fact that we humans contribute enormously to the effectiveness of our interfaces, through projection, imagination, intelligent governing of the feedback loop, etc. We willingly and involuntarily collaborate to improve the apparent transparency of the interface. If the interface is compelling enough we use our resources to complete the illusion. We become an unwitting prosthesis for the interface.

The resulting danger is that, with no obvious external force to blame, we wear the inadequacies of the interface ourselves.

To address the question of privacy, we also have a tradeoff to negotiate: convenience and the richness of our on-line identity versus privacy. Total interactive on- and offline engagement requires total surveillance.

Some have proposed that privacy is an outmoded concept, inappropriate to the conditions of life in 2014. These seem to me to be sentiments possible only to someone living in an extremely stable economic and political situation. At a recent protest in Ukraine protesters and bystanders received text messages from their communications company warning them: “Dear subscriber, you are registered as a participant in a mass disturbance.” This was based on their phones’ proximity to the site of the protest. We have already seen from the crumbling into chaos of the former Yugoslavia, and, more recently, in the enactment of draconian laws to protect against terrorism after 9/11 that the political ground and the terms of individual rights and freedoms are always capable of unexpected and dramatic shifts even in well-established and apparently civil societies.

In reference to this, in my own work I have mostly focused on presenting installation projects that make the invisible or hard to understand relationship of surveillance and interaction visible, tangible, and explorable. The spread of new technologies throughout the fabric of our social lives has shifted the nature of our basic intimate social contracts. We no longer have a clear sense of what we are agreeing to when we agree to be citizens of contemporary culture. Like the 20 page EULAs that we must declare to have read in order to use software and related services, the agreements are no longer clear, are no longer stable, have not been subject to the evolution of compensatory mechanisms of privacy and trust.

So works like Sorting Daemon, Taken, and Guardian Angel are attempts to create spaces in which to have direct experience of being tracked and categorized, and to watch others being subjected to the same… to make some of the terms of these extremely abstract contracts tangible, even visceral.

The truth is, however, that privacy these days is highly inconvenient. Perhaps it takes acts like Edward Snowden’s to force us to question the trade-off.

UE: A vast part of your work affirming an ongoing responsibility for such compensatory mechanisms appears to unfold as an exploration of the mutual demarcations by machines and humans of the limits and contours of perception and sensation, including the speedy and the visceral.

This bears witness to an ongoing engagement with the question of an aesthetics of interactivity. It is quite striking that you are consistent in your pursuit of complexity here – in terms of articulating an aesthetics and a sensate dimension of awareness.

Even though I risk being a little provocative by saying this, I wonder whether your articulation so far of this breadth of awareness still could be too reductionist.

Movement and kinesthetics might deserve a place of import here, but perhaps they are included in your notion of embodiment since one cannot but notice their key roles in your work. More pointedly, though, I also wonder whether this breadth of awareness still bespeaks an aesthetics of interaction that is too much oriented towards exteroception.

If ubicomp cultures move towards invisibility and the infrastructural, intangibility, ambience, calmness, and silence… is sensate interaction in this context not also rather becoming more and more a matter of interoception, including a vague inner sense of stress, danger, the unknown? There is also a deeply interior haptics, a thinking inside out with your stomach, gut feeling…

DR: I have often been referring to movement and kinesthetics. When I was deep into development of Very Nervous System, I started to feel in a visceral way that there was intelligence distributed more broadly throughout the body than our brain-centered models suggest. Embodiment is a term I use to include the kinesthetic, I guess.

In terms of exteroception, I considered Very Nervous System an external channel of something resembling interoception… A stereoception made of an interoception and a parallel exteroception. The complication with interoception is that it can easily fall into invisibility, and an external loop through an external channel fed back into the body can serve to illuminate the internal body experience.

In terms of the vague inner sense of stress and danger, this relates, I think, to the sense I have that an invisible interaction casts a shadow into the body. The body internalizes what it cannot detect, and it becomes a part of a kind of distortion of interoception. At its best, it could be augmented interoception, and perhaps that is how one might describe some of my works. At its worst it becomes a kind of external induced deformation of one’s interior sense of self, one’s body and one’s relationship to one’s social and physical surroundings.

You speak of a deeply interior haptics. “Haptics” is perhaps too narrow a word for this field of experiences. I do think that we are engaged in a lot of relationships with ourselves and each other for which we have no words, no justification, no theory. These senses and relationships vanish under scrutiny. Rather than being a reason to discount them, it should perhaps be considered that ‘behavior under scrutiny’ can be a feature of experience rather than a validation of experience, and that traditional models of study and verification are inappropriate for the engagements that do not survive this scrutiny.

This is tied in my mind to the computability and quantifiability problems… It takes extra effort to hold open space for things that do not survive analytical scrutiny when more and more of the most current and powerful tools and approaches are bound by issues of quantifiability and computability. This is why perhaps I insist on the particular kind of “complexity” that you noted. Computed environments tend to reinforce the scrutinizable parameters by feeding them back to us, with speed and persistence. I say “tend,” because, I believe that it is possible to work against this tendency, and that is something that has always been an active concern in my work.

UE: Some of your latest work appears to take up yet again the question of an aesthetics of interactivity, now with a view to 21st century conditions.

It is evident in the Hand-held and Minimal Object installations that you work with a mixed reality environment with context-awareness.[6]

The technics of these installations prompt a set of interactions exploring the field of sensation for humans, and you are decidedly synaesthetic in your own description of these works.

You grant quite some attention to the invisibility in the visible and to heterogeneity in the movements of sound, but you put a certain emphasis on translating both visuality and the auditory into a matter of touch.

Would one be correct to find here an implicit argument of yours, one to the effect that we have entered a new haptic culture, that a culture and aesthetics of touch should be granted a certain privilege in the 21st century condition?

DR: I have always felt strongly that sound is partly a tactile medium. In 1996 I was in a show at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago which was organized by the Fibre Faculty. All the other pieces dealt directly with materials and, at least implicitly, with touch. The show itself was called “The Presence of Touch.” I was the only artist showing something invisible and untouchable (Very Nervous System) and it was a fascinating context in which to exhibit. It drew attention to the virtual tactility of Very Nervous System in a very nice way, and the work on the later (2003) version of Very Nervous System and Minimal Object owe a lot to that experience.

Long before I was thinking about tactility, I was thinking about muscularity and embodiment, proprioception, and what I might call virtual physics. In Very Nervous System, the sound behaviors often induced the feeling in the user that the space was filled with an invisible substance whose physical properties were articulated by the sound, but which imprinted themselves on the user’s body. I often tell the story of the first exhibition of Reflexions in 1983. I was madly preparing for the show and worked too hard, and spent no time with friends. Working with that very early version in the absence of almost any other kind of interaction completely changed my way of moving through space, in an extreme and embarrassing way. The installation was really only satisfyingly triggered by sudden jerky movements, and so I had come to move only in sudden and jerky ways in the installation, but also outside of the installation. For the next version I consciously created interactive algorithms that responded more like a fluid, and the result of extensive interaction with this was a kind of flowing, full-body movement which I can still see signs of in recent video of myself in Very Nervous System.

This was a kind of virtual completion, where the body involuntarily accepts the role of completing the illusion proposed by a virtual behavior. It is a kind of phantom tactility, and it is something I remain very interested in. It certainly is a central concern of Hand-held. The jumping off point for Hand-held was the fact that we now almost all use ‘touch’ interfaces, but that these touch interfaces are very different from haptic interfaces. The surface we touch is, in tactile terms, featureless. There is an almost complete absence of texture. The surface itself, especially in the days of high skeuomorphism, attempted to visually propose materials that would have texture if they were actually present instead of imaged (imagined). So we are continually engaged in a kind of fantasy of tactility.

I have always been very interested in embodiment, and equally fascinated by our ability to escape the bonds of the physical through feats of imagination. Hand-held presents a space where we can play with this experience, wonder about it, separate from our habits with other virtual tactile experiences like the ones we have with our tablets and mobile phones.

The touchscreen phone is an example of the embodied gesture reducing itself to a pointer… All the highly developed nerve endings, small bones, and muscles necessary for intricate manipulation are ignored. The hand gesture loses most of its nuance, and is focused or narrowed down to an unambiguous and decisive point. This is not to deny the fact that a multi-touch screen is capable of nuanced gesture, but it is still, for me, similar to the reduction of a complex phenomenon to a single word, wherein the main point is expressed but the physiological, emotional, psychological, contextual data are lost. And we, for the most part, quite rightly want our phones to work that way.

I guess this also ties in to questions about what it means to be present. My wife is a concert pianist. Through me she has been exposed to all the extraordinary things that a computer can do, including playing the piano impossibly fast, without mistakes, even with nuance. We keep coming back to discussions of what it means to be a live human being, one sitting at a piano in front of an audience and playing. And also a discussion of how her playing might change so that it is not caught in the trap of competing with computers (or perfectly edited CDs), but fully engages in what makes this live and present experience special.

My feeling is that there are always channels of ambient awareness and communication when we are sharing a physical place with someone, even when we are on our own in a place. I remember Hiroshi Ishii presenting some of his MIT lab work with ambient communications displays[7] — including lovely touches like the heartbeat of your partner creating a subtle ambient reflection on the ceiling, but also (if I am remembering properly) a wash of colored lights on the wall representing the state of the stock market. After the presentation he asked me for my opinion of the work he had presented, from my artist’s viewpoint. And I said that I appreciated it very much, but I wondered about this race to fill ambient perceptual channels with more data. Are we certain that these channels are currently empty?

This issue can also be framed in terms of compression. Compression is one of the most amazing successes of the last 20 years of computer science, as far as I am concerned. But it hinges on the assumption that we know what counts in a communications stream, and what is not important. I remember trying to record ambient city sound in 2002 with a minidisc player. Minidisc was a nice technology that recorded most things extremely well. But, due to its compression algorithm, it failed miserably at recording noise. All noise ended up sounding the same, because the compression algorithm was not tuned to attend to the details that make noise rich.

In the race to virtualize and compress, we are at the mercy of the limits of our understanding. If we cannot explain something to ourselves in a way that can be programmed into code or silicon, we leave it behind. There is a sorting daemon at the gates of the digital that allows the quantifiable and computable to pass through, but rejects anything for which we have not yet been able to arrive at a formal or procedural description. And there is a sort of feedback loop here, because there are great practical advantages for anything that can be digitally represented, in terms of copying, manipulation, data-mining, etc. The things that are more resistant to digitization tend to fall farther into invisibility.

Back to touch: I have come to the solution of more gnarly problems when I step into the shower than at any other particular time in my day. Perhaps it is simply the stepping away from the problem. Alternatively, it might be the result of the fact that I am suddenly having every single tactile sensor on the exterior of my body stimulated and engaged in a particular way.

Perhaps the word I am looking for here is ‘integrative.’ I am always looking for ways to remind us, from within the great successes of digital technology, that we need to remain aware of what the computer and its extended systems are bad at. Most of my pieces are attempts to seek a difficult balance in which relatively advanced digital technology is used in ways that support unusually ‘integrative’ experiences. By ‘integrative’ experience I guess I mean a kind of parallel multi-modal awareness, in which a large number of simultaneous and heterogeneous sensory, perceptual, and cognitive channels are simultaneously open and engaged.

To come back to the question about whether I think we have entered a new haptic culture… I do not think I would put it that way. I would say that there is an increasing awareness of the importance of haptics that has been growing for at least 20 years, but that what has been delivered for the most part has been a shadow of haptic experience, with undeniable utility, but which perhaps mistakes the surface of tactility for its depth.

My purpose in works like Hand-held is to create an environment where we can experiment with the feeling of projected, virtual tactility… where we can feel ourselves imaging touch, and feel our involuntary responses…

On the flip side, I also think about something that I find myself calling ‘the secret life of empty space.’ While perhaps I mourn the loss of tactility, on the other hand I find it very important for us to be fully aware of how full space is… of radio waves and Wi-Fi, of algorithms and surveillant gazes, of voyeuristic glances and sympathetic observation, of projections of personal space, of emergent networks of mutual awareness, the energy that makes a crowd a crowd. I am not obsessed with tactility or embodiment. I am obsessed with breadth of awareness. It happens that of the broad spectrum of modes of engagement, tactility and embodiment have been put under particularly interesting stress by digital technologies.

UE: In contemporary ubicomp cultures the mix of physical and information spaces could be said to solicit especially the articulation of an aesthetics in which it is the interplay of psychological inventiveness and the capacity of the human body for awareness that, if possible, sketches experiental frames for information- and media art.

Human sensation is addressed in breadth and also exceeded by non-sensible ratio. Aisthesis here will need to involve mutual relations between psyche and sensation, and perhaps a certain primacy belongs to touching and being touched.

One could approach touch as the primary sense – the first, the most important, the sense of exploration and drawing of limits and contours, a sense of texture, temperature, weight, etc.

Would not touch be primary for an aesthesis for our existence in ubicomp cultures with mixed realities, noting the need for inventive projective experimentation and integrative approximations to what might remain beyond registration?

DR: Mapping data-sets and data-streams into experiential space is clearly a very interesting area of development. Touch and tactility are attractive and difficult for reasons we have already covered: touch is multi-modal in itself, in a way that no other sense seems to be. It is challenging because it is harder to produce sensors and transducers for. It is also challenging because it has not been extensively ‘semantically mapped.’ My concern about the present touch interfaces is that they seem to represent the first step towards the reduction of the multivalent potential of tactility to an oversimplified semantic mapping. Are we endangering the attributes of touch that make it unusual and attractive as a channel for experience and communication? I fear a colonization with all its attendant, often unintentional, violence, I guess…

UE: I can certainly see that the broader and more empirical developments of haptic interfaces so far would tend to confirm at least parts of your fear.

Mostly the reductions of touch at stake take place as a parenthesizing of almost everything other than simple positional pressure on a 2D surface. Moreover, this is almost without texture, and it is accompanied by a massive synaesthetic translation of touch to a vision of screen images. This almost obliterates even what shadows and chiaroscuro could do in terms of keeping open the potentials of haptic close vision, just as it almost obliterates the potentials inherent in the blurring and evisceration of contours and organized vision by certain strokes or caresses.

However, I might want to stress the “almost” here: the development of HCI, interaction design, and concrete interfaces for ubicomp cultures is ongoing and might not remain as reductive, although it is true that even current R&D demonstrates the difficulties in dealing design-wise with traits such as weight, force-feedback, temperature, and textures giving rise to limits, contours, and forms.

But this is only one dimension in play – the more technical and software-specific one. One would also want to reconsider the status and development of human perception and sensation in this context.

You could argue that a hardware, software, and HCI development of interactivity taking place under the rubrics of ubiquity, pervasiveness, and environmental ambience implicitly aims at touch and the being touched of every cultural phenomenon – throughout, all over, or in its full extension. The strong idealizations aside for the moment, would this not tend towards evoking, at least in human interactants, what you are calling for: a finely differentiated articulation of the sense of the sense of touch and primordial tactility?

DR: Of course we have all probably been guilty of underestimating what technology will make possible. I certainly have at times been guilty of this.

I also know that our perceptual and cognitive systems are very plastic and adaptable.

Adaptability is very useful in terms of survival, but just because we can adapt to new circumstances does not mean that we should welcome any change of circumstance. I think that the ‘adaptation capital / potential’ which we carry as a species should be ‘spent’ with care. We can praise adaptation and evolution all we want, but we should not leave the evolution of the environment in which we adapt and evolve to be determined by narrow commercial and design goals. We have ceded much to the free market over the past decades.

The questions and concerns I am regularly expressing in this conversation generally have to do with stressing the importance of a multivalent, multidisciplinary process of exploration and critique along the way to counter the dangers of overspecialization and the tendency to follow the easy, practical line in the ongoing development of our future environment. I am not ignoring the fact that there will be some astounding innovation, but I am also concerned that much still hinges on which problems get solved in which order. In the history of science we see how each discovery opens and closes doors, eases the movement of experimentation along certain lines and obscures or partially buries other possibly more optimal ones.

So my position on this is hopefully as constructive skeptic. The development of ubicomp will continue regardless. Conversations like ours are a useful part of a creative, speculative critique of the future. My place is to help with the tempering and annealing process, to keep a wider range of possibilities and considerations alive so that we have better and more numerous options available in order to continuously curate a broadly better future.

UE: One cannot but notice the widening of perspective in your answer to this issue of the role of touch and tactility for a contemporary aesthetics of interactivity.

I take it that this pointer of yours – in the direction of a broad and multimodal sensate human adaptation and development in engagements with the environment and others – implicitly bespeaks a certain import of what becomes or can become with touch and tactility.

This would concern the performative and practico-aesthetic exploration of limits as between self- and other-reference. It would care for the condition for the generation of the very field of sensation and the gathering and/or distribution of the senses. It would also concern the movement from affect across sensation and emotion to perceptions permitting of an articulate sense-making and a conceptual or linguistic grasp.

However, your remarks also make clear that you find here a path towards something extraordinarily important, but also something very difficult: a link between interactive exploration and critique.

Now, in the Western modern tradition of thought ‘critique’ most often tends to imply methodology, disciplined and systematic analysis, a process of orderly debate leading perhaps to judgments of recognition, perhaps to negative judgments, or perhaps to an ongoing practice of doubt. It almost always implies a reflective examination of validity and limits that can only work given a certain position of a subject and a distance to what is undergoing critique.

It seems clear that you have something other than this in mind. Could you elaborate on this notion of a ‘critique’ via an aesthetics of interactivity – since it must perhaps rather be characterized as a relational, experimental, and inventive ‘critique,’ something operating as an opening to training or habituation, and this prior to clear consciousness and certain knowledge of phenomena?

DR: I guess that ‘critique’ is not quite the right word, but neither is ‘experiment,’ nor ‘research.’ Technology develops at a speed that makes it perhaps too dangerous to wait for clear consciousness and certain knowledge. I guess what I mean in this case by ‘critique’ is really the continuous posing of questions, arising from engagement but with a commitment to seeking out the dimensions of the issues that are not automatically and naturally visible to the R+D process. Perhaps all research is intended ideally to be this way, but as it tends now more and more towards R AND D, the balanced ‘objective’ viewpoint is skewed towards practical questions.

I try to ask difficult questions from the inside. And I try to derive these questions from the matter at hand. I think it is dangerous to assume that existing critical positions (Marxist, feminist, etc.) will be automatically applicable to the flux of the moment. So I am looking for ‘critical’ positions that perhaps arise in parallel with the technological phenomena and which include a fairly deep understanding and direct experience of the technology, in order to avoid falling into pitfalls and assumptions based on ignorance and visceral fear (of which I have encountered much when presenting my work over the years).


[1] Cf., Rokeby, David. “Body Language.”  http://www.davidrokeby.com/body.html.

———. “Reflexions.”  http://www.davidrokeby.com/reflex.html.

———. “Very Nervous System.”  http://www.davidrokeby.com/vns.html.

[2] Cf., Rokeby, David. “Border Patrol.”  http://www.davidrokeby.com/border_patrol.html.

———. “Sorting Daemon.”  http://www.davidrokeby.com/sorting.html.

———. “Watched and Measured.”  http://www.davidrokeby.com/wm.html.

[3] Cf., Rokeby, David. “Watch.”  http://www.davidrokeby.com/watch.html.

[4] Cf., Rokeby, David. “Guardian Angel.”  http://www.davidrokeby.com/angel.html.

———. “Taken.”  http://www.davidrokeby.com/taken.html.

[5] Cf., Rokeby, David. “The Giver of Names.”  http://www.davidrokeby.com/gon.html.

[6] Cf., Rokeby, David. “Hand-held.”  http://www.davidrokeby.com/handheld.html.

———. “Minimal Object.”  http://www.davidrokeby.com/minimal_object.html.