Modalities of Interactivity and Virtuality

Extract from a lecture at XXVIII. International Conference on Art History, Berlin, July 1992; published in: Artistic Exchange, Ed. Thomas W. Gaehtgens, Berlin, 1993, pp. 295-300.

The research and development of various mechanisms and codes of spatial representation has been a basic preoccupation throughout the history of western art. The formulation of a set of spatial coordinates provides an underlying aesthetic and existential paradigm within which a culture achieves tentative representation (and thus comprehension) of its desires. The recently developed digital imaging technologies offer the artist new methods and new paradigms which extend the spatial identity of the artwork. And not just in terms of the structure of the image itself, but also in terms of a space of interaction between the image and the spectator.

Painted images hang on walls or rest in storage; bringing them into view is a material handling. Digital pictures reside immaterially inside the computer, and the computer screen functions like a window through which the viewer chooses what he wants to look at. Furthermore, the computer screen functions like a cinema camera, because the viewer can pan in any direction over the surface of an image, and also zoom into the details of a chosen image. These characteristics offer the possibility to create a virtual space of imagery wherein a three dimensional structure of relationships between two dimensional images can be defined. This can then constitute an interactive space which the viewer explores by utilising some kind of interface device.

The interactive structure of "The Narrative Landscape" shows that the spatial boundaries of the digital image does not have to be defined by the traditional perimeter of a 'picture frame'. Instead, a virtual image space of any dimension may be created, which the viewer explores by moving his 'viewing window'. And as in the cinema, the externalisation of the image is always referential to the activity of the viewer's eye (the 'camera'). This location of the viewer at the focal plane of an extended virtual space of imagery is similarly the modality of "Going to the Heart of the Center of The Garden of Delights" and "Inventer La Terre". All three works demonstrate modalities for the location of two dimensional digital imagery in a virtual three dimensional space. "The Narrative Landscape" has a specific structure of image levels set behind the plane of the projection screen. "Going to the Heart of the Center of The Garden of Delights" implicitly brings these levels out in front of the screen and into the room where the viewer is walking. "Inventer la Terre" can dispense with the screen surface altogether and achieve an explicit optical conjunction of the virtual image space and the actual museum space surrounding the viewer.

What are the opportunities offered by the three dimensional methods of computer visualisation? If we describe the two dimensional digital image as a planar raster of numeric values (pixels), then the three dimensional digital image is a volumentric raster of numeric values (voxels). The viewer's eye position inside that volumetric space determines each momentary displayed ordering of that raster. Thus a three dimensional virtual image space can be created which always reveals itself interactively in relation to the viewer. The Virtual Reality technologies allow a heightened degree of viewer 'immersion' in such a virtual image space - they can simulate the sensual coordinates of the real world in a new arena of fictional visualisation.

"The Legible City" is a three dimensional digital image whose virtual size was approximately six square kilometers. The viewer can interactively travel in this space by riding a bicycle which is standing in front of a large video projection screen. The 'real time' interaction of the bicycle and the computer generated image allows the bicyclist complete freedom to move anywhere in this virtual image space. In "The Legible City" the space of visualisation is virtually located beyond the surface of the projection screen and thus outside the actual room where the bicyclist are situated. In "Alice's Room" and "The Virtual Museum" the virtual imagery is located inside the actual room where the viewers are standing. Such a digital conjunction of virtual and actual space evokes a Mannerist ambiguity - different orders of simulation are located in a meta-dimensional structure that mirrors a confluence of the real and the fictional. This location of the virtual space in a contiguous relationship with the real space establishes a discourse in that fine zone between the virtual and the actual which resembles what Duchamp called 'the “nframince'. It is here that I believe the most interesting and challenging opportunities for artistic formulations exist.

The traditional activity of art has been the representation of reality - manipulating materials to create tangible mirrors of our experience and desire. Now with the mechanisms of the new digital technologies, the artwork can become itself a simulation of reality - an immaterial digital structure encompassing synthetic spaces which we can literally enter. Here the viewer is no longer consumer in a mausoleum of objects, rather he/she is traveller and discoverer in a latent space of sensual information, whose aesthetics are embodied both in the coordinates of its immaterial form and in the scenarios of its interactively manifest form. In this temporal dimension the interactive artwork is each time re-structured and re-embodied by the activity of its viewers.