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Print version (doc, includes transcript of the video essay)

“The Object Speaks Back”, ASCA mini-conference
Amsterdam, 10.5.2007

Interfaces As Aesthetic Theoretical Objects

Some time ago, our internet connection and phone line at home were suspended by UPC, the big Dutch telecommunications company. I thought we had been wronged because we had been paying the bills in full and on time until, recently, the company had sent a sales representative who had gotten us to sign up for automatic payment. To rectify what I perceived as a wrong and have our communication lines restored, I called the UPC "customer service" line. This I did of course from someone else's phone, so it wasn't I who was paying for the call. I was thus on the phone for the best part of an hour, and no matter what I said, did or felt, the person on the other side of the line repeatedly exclaimed - like a tin android that had been drenched in water - "I am here to help you and answer your questions, but it's technically impossible to reconnect you" - which is of course patent nonsense, since after all is said and done someone will eventually flip a switch and reconnect the service, so why not now?
Now, normally I wouldn’t have carried on with this conversation for so long. Especially since in line with recent standards of service these calls are charged for at a premium of 10 cents per minute above the normal charges. This payment is probably also designed to limit the duration of the call, so that when people hear the same sentence again and again they will give up and hang up before they notice anything strange. But I wasn’t paying, and I had time and it was then that I began realising that there was something strange, that the person I was talking to was probably being "assisted" – but in fact quite controlled - by an expert customer interaction management system: computer software providing the call-centre employee all the relevant data about the customer – that is, about me - together with customer scenarios including pre-scripted texts for any eventuality. I didn't ask her whether she was indeed using such a system, but she did keep repeating the same prefabricated formulae that I can only assume were appearing on the computer screen in that call-centre cubicle. She was there to help me and answer my questions – so says the script – but if that script doesn’t actually include a solution to my particular problem, then that’s that then. The employee’s own initiative has no place in the general order of things anymore.
I was curious about the machinations of the system I was confronted with, so I decided to try out some boundary behaviour, in an attempt to see whether the person on the other end of the line could pass an improvised, ad-hoc Turing test. I feigned losing my temper by raising my voice and interrupting my conversant. The script-reciting agent merely, but very tellingly, noted that I was "getting personal" - as if getting personal was in itself somehow an ultimate wrong.
The Turing test (for those of you who were sick on the day of the exam) was designed 60 years ago by pioneering computer scientist Alan Turing. A person exchanges printed messages with two other invisible agents in another room, one of whom is a computer, who is in fact the one taking the test. If the human can't tell which of the exchanges were with a computer and which with another human, than the computer is said to have passed the Turing test. After an hour of conversation, I wasn't convinced that the agent I was conversing with had passed the Turing test. I couldn't be sure I had in fact been talking to a person. And the reason for that was that from the moment I began suspecting that I was talking to someone controlled by a ‘customer interaction manager’, I could no longer detect any human agency on the other side. Working from a script, the call-centre employee didn't seem to be able to make her own decisions, or even to make up her own sentences. I've actually met computers who could do more than that!


What sort of thinking goes into the proliferation of such software? What do the people who design and sell those systems, and those who commission them and pay for them, have in mind? It seems to me that they all converge on the desire to control human interaction, and to do so without anyone really noticing. The person who commissioned such a system and the people who built it do not want to leave any detail of the conversation between customers and service representatives unchecked. In their design, such conversations have to be completely predictable, reducible to a known set of possible and profitable outcomes. And the technology used has to weave itself into the fabric of our everyday life, become pervasive without us noticing it. For interaction or experience designers – the people who design computer based tools and services – one of the signs of success is that the interface becomes “invisible”, intuitive, and unobtrusive, not drawing any attention to itself. And if I hadn’t been particularly aware of computer technologies, I might not have noticed that the call centre employee I was talking to was so controlled by a computer. It may indeed have become imperceptible to me.
A certain ‘distribution of the sensible’ – to abuse a concept from Ranciére – seems to be developing here, according to which some can make and deploy sophisticated interactive technologies, whereas most people are not meant to notice and possibly not even perceive or sense the presence of these technologies. The customer and the call centre employee are called upon, according to the logic of commerce, to re-enact a ritual in which they cancel each other out (earning the company 10cpm in the process). And all that is supposed to be so normal that nobody would notice. The control fantasy extends from the use of tools to the humans whose subjectivity is reduced to the positions of employee-object and customer-object in the software, and whose agency is strictly confined by what has been defined in the software, in order to meet the needs of the company. You can’t stray from the omniscient, but invisible, artificially intelligent system's script. You can’t even “make do”, because you’re not to know what you’re up against. It is our tools which, through their increasingly vanishing interfaces, structure our subjectivity. And when we don’t know or sense, we can’t resist – and resist we must, because the stakes are only getting higher.
At laboratories and computer science departments, technology is being fitted with simulations of social and emotional intelligence. It may ultimately also be fitted with simulated consciousness – and it may come too soon for us to realise how to deal with it culturally, socially or philosophically. It may also come too soon for us to realise how to deal with it aesthetically. We do have to have theory on our side, but we must be well-equipped aesthetically too. Interaction art is in a particular position regarding this ‘distribution of the sensible’. Forms of interaction involving an embodied subject construct the subject, defining a scope of action. It is one thing, for instance, to click on a clearly marked button and execute a predictable command, and quite another to be challenged by a difficult interface whose elements are not visible; and still another to be the unintending trigger of some process, as in Formica1 that we heard about in Anik Fournier’s earlier presentation. It is one thing to control a gun-totting avatar using a joystick in order to virtually annihilate pixel-monsters, and quite another to gently pat a robotic-pet who appears to feel a little morose. The aesthetic ability to grasp those distinctions between ways of interacting with technology is essential, especially if we have to deal with uncontrollable technology.
The old control fantasy of modernist human-computer interaction and control-systems cybernetics no longer fits. This is where interaction art and art education may become significant - in articulating this sense of communication and negotiation with subjective technology. In the words of Ranciére again, art can imagine a different future in which other ways of doing and making can exist. And it can do so by invoking an aesthetic state, 'a moment where form is experienced for itself'2, thus inventing 'sensible forms and material structures for a life to come'3.
When any object or tool becomes so complex that you can talk about it in such terms, its agency and subjectivity become more than metaphorical. It can really speak back. If the game of control is allowed to continue, it may well be that either our tools will control us or those who are better equipped to interact with such tools will open an interactivity gap. The sense of agency that we are used to get from controlling something, using the habitual control interfaces that we do, this quality of agency is just not going to be there for much longer with those intelligent, sentient, conscious or self-expressive technologies. The right quality of agency will perhaps arise out of us interacting with technology not through control but in a way that acknowledges our tools' own agencies, their own subjectivities.
I'm not suggesting that technology becomes legally or ethically a subject. Not at first, anyway. Still, if and to the extent that we imbue our tools and instruments with human qualities such as intelligence and emotion, it may then become necessary to interact with them as if they were imbued also with at least a measure of subjectivity. An ethical relation to our tools will begin to make sense. We may have to be considerate with them. We may have to be really suspicious too. We will have to know what they're capable of and, for instance, not abuse them; and we may need to give them a certain autonomy to "do their own thing" their own way.
With this framing complete, I am prepared to move on to the presentation of my object, which, by framing it the way I did, I may have succeeded in turning into a theoretical object. It is an art project, an interactive art project, an interactive self-portrait, an interface in the most literal sense.
Open another window with the video's transcript

If the work you’ve now seen – but which you should properly try out - is indeed a theoretical-aesthetic object, it is because it is an object to think with, an object with which to articulate interactively “what we cannot articulate cognitively”4. By articulating interactively I mean to say that by doing certain things rather than others in order to enact the work, and by doing them at a certain order and rhythm, using certain parts of our body, with or without others, and with or without real or simulated others at that – in short by performing our spectatorship in interaction with the work - we gain some knowledge. If aesthetics, now understood epistemologically, is a study of the distribution of the intuitive (sensible, perceptible or procedural/actionable) knowledge of forms then art is a locus of discourse for this type of knowledge, and it can offer us the functions of reflection, authorial power and resistance to it, offering alternatives to the existing distribution, the supposedly self-evident order that determines what can be seen, heard, thought, made, said, done.

Interfaces are - and exceedingly so - part of that order, of that self-evidence that guides our intuitions, perceptions and - very specifically in the case of interactive technologies - our ways of doing and making. The understanding of the epistemological aesthetics of interactivity can proceed through recognising the role of interaction in intuition (sensation, perception) as a form of knowledge acquisition, through formalised procedural perception. And, on the (inter)face of it, this seems to be an opportunity to form breeches in the present distribution of the sensible, perceptible and doable.


1 Formica is a reactive installation by Montreal-based Artist Philoméne Longpré. Her website contains a description and some images.
2 Ranciére, Jacques, 'The Politics of Aesthetics', London: Continuum, 2004, p. 24
3 Ibid. p.29
4 This is a paraphrase of Ernst Van Alphen's presentation of the ideas expressed by Hubert Damisch in his 1972 Theory du /nuage/ (English translation: Damisch, Hubert (2002) 'A Theory of /Cloud/: Toward a History of Painting ’, trans. Janet Lloyd, Palo Alto: Stanford University Press). The Van Alphen text I'm referring to is Alphen, Ernst van (2005), 'Thinking about art in History', Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, in particular pp. 5-9.