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<nettime> Eric Kluitenberg, Turning the machines inside out
Florian Cramer on Wed, 2 Jul 2008 02:27:57 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> Eric Kluitenberg, Turning the machines inside out


[This essay was commissioned for the graduation catalogue of the Media
Design M.A. of the Piet Zwart Institute, Willem de Kooning Academy
Rotterdam, and will appear in the graduation catalogue designed by
Open Source Publishing, Brussels. For more information on the graduation
show "YOU ARE PWNED" at WORM Rotterdam, 4-6 July, see
<http://www.wormweb.nl/agenda.php?id=1385>.  -Florian]


Turning the machine inside out

Creating Worlds as Interface


It is always a good thing for artists who work with technology and
technological media to study the inner life of the machines. Break open
the box and look what is inside. This helps to foreclose an overly naive
relationship to the medium. Obviously, it also seems a good thing for
artists to simply know their material, understand their medium. This is
hardly any different today for media-artists than it was, for instance,
for Fresco painters in the grand hall of Sienna's Palazzo Publico in the
thirteenth century. Still there might be more at stake in the case of
digital machines, something that moves beyond the usual questions about
the artist's material.

That something might be the creation of Worlds as Interface. This
speculative idea was suggested in the proposal for a new physics by
the physicist Otto E. Rössler. An approach he named Endophysics. The
main problem for Rössler was the apparently insolvable question of how
to define an explicit model of the world in its entirety, in which the
implicit role of the observer was accounted for, given that the observer
is always inextricably implicated in what can be observed of the world
in the first place. It would require an explicit model that includes
the observer. Such a model would, however only be possible to construct
from an 'exophysical' location, a position outside of the world (in its
entirety), which is by definition impossible.

The world according to Rössler is defined by that what transfers
between the observer and the 'real' world at the interface. It is the
interface to the world that defines what can be observed about the
'real' world. This interface constitutes a 'cut' across the 'real'
which remains in itself inaccessible, as it is the very implication
of the observer in the observed. The riddle of the necessary but
impossible inclusion of the observer and the interface in the picture
of the world would appear as a problem without solution. But Rössler
suggest there might just be a little escape hatch from this unresolvable
implication. He describes it as the construction of model worlds that
include the model-observer and their interface with that model world,
which allows us, by deferral, from our meta-position outside the model
world, to study explicitly the implicit implication of the observer into
the microscopic phenomena that transpire in the model world, and their
influence on macroscopic phenomena in that model world.

Through this deferral it is possible to make explicit the relationships
between the observer, the interface, and the 'real' world. While the
true nature of the 'real' world remains as such unknowable, since all
knowledge is a product of an interface whose structure and effect cannot
be determined as there is no external position to the 'real' world from
where this could be judged, this deferred study suggests next steps to
bring the analysis closer to our own world. First of all Endophysics
recognises the necessity to include the study of the human brain,
the biological material substructure that structures the interface
to the 'real' world. It attempts to bridge the gap between physics,
neurophysiology and the subjective, the object of psychological study
and psycho-analysis. Endophysics understands the world as something
specific to each observer, defined and constituted by the specific
structure of the observers' brain and experience, but still attempts
through this deferred study and return to the original observer to come
closer to an explicit understanding of the interface that defines the
world this observer inhabits and escape 'mere subjectivism', even if the
interface itself remains ultimately inaccessible for external scrutiny.

It cannot be a coincidence that Rössler chooses his terminology of
the interface as a 'cut' across the 'real' that we know so well from
Lacanian psycho-analytical theory. In a Lacanian understanding it is
the symbolic order that 'cuts' across the 'real', which is always in
its place but is itself unknowable. The symbolic order, language par
excellence, but also the wider objects of semiotic study, open the real
as in a cut, without a sense of where or how this cut is applied. The
subject is thus stumbling in the dark of that what cannot be known - the
'real' itself.

What the interface creates, both in Rössler's conception as well as in
Lacan's, is not an access to the world, but the world itself. As such
we can never study the world in its entirety as it s structured by the
interface that exists prior to this world, but escapes its own detection
by the observer - us as human subjects - being nothing more than the
effect of an unknown interface that links us to a an equally unknown
'real'. We continue to stumble in the dark, playing around whit the
effects of the interface and delimited by its structural limitations,
the structuring principles of which are unknown to us. When we try to
observe them at their microscopic (fundamental) level they change as a
result of our action. When we want to see place we cannot see time, when
we want to see moment we cannot see space. The state of the fundamental
building blocks of 'reality' is unknown to us until we look inside
Shrödinger's box, but when we look inside we produce the reality we
observe. Outside the box the state of that reality remains undecidable,
it can be one or zero, we just cannot know.  Rössler also refers to
Kurt Gödel's undecidability theorem that shows the limits of formal
(explicit) reasoning in a thus far undisputed mathematical exposé.

What to do then, if we cannot extricate ourselves from the world to
study the interface that produces our world as an 'effect'? Should we
give up trying to understand hat world, our world, our relationship to
that world, as we are entangled in a senseless circulatory motion that
will never get us closer to the 'real", closer to understanding, to
'enlightenment'? Or is this all just a formal game, a puzzle, a fancy at
best? Surely there are still 'real' passions, joys, pains, beauty and
sublime suffering to engage with?

Rössler suggests one possible trajectory: the construction of model
worlds.  He sees them embodied in our times in virtual worlds, in
simulations that can run on digital brains, in finite schemes of
explicit description.

Well..., perhaps. But over the years (as a personal note on this) I
have become increasingly disaffected with the sterile aesthetics and
anaemic experience of virtual worlds. They simply do not capture my
soul, or haunt my dreams. They do not stir my passions, as the dramatic
foreshorthenings in a grand Caravaggio painting do. So I am wondering,
can there be another way in which we can build a deferred reality that
includes the observer and the implicit interface, suitable for explicit
study?  Such an undertaking would not simply be the construction of
formal model worlds in finite schemes of explicit description, but much
rather a more visceral experimental practice. Its object would have to
be the construction and simultaneous deconstruction of the interface;
the conscious explication of an interface with the aim to study the
interfaces that implicitly structure our world - not just our experience
of the world, but notably the world itself.

The reason why I am going into all this is that some of these thoughts
were triggered by one work in particular I had the privilege of
seeing 'under construction' (always the most exciting phase of a
technologically invested art work, in preparation for the Piet Zwart'
Institute's Media Design MA graduation show of 2008. An installation
work by Danja Vassiliev. The monstrous machine he created felt like
a psychoanalytically ambiguous tunnel that allowed a view into the
very belly of the beast, as if we are looking at the inner life of
the machines themselves. It looked a bit like the wonderfully kitschy
culmination scene of the Matrix trilogy, where the story's protagonist
Neo visits the heart of the machine empire to negotiate a truce between
men and machines.

Vassiliev constructed a patently absurd machine, called m/e/m/e/2.0[1],
and finds himself (inadvertently or not) in the best company of a long
tradition of 'avant-garde' artists who created various sorts of absurd,
ironic, impossible, sadistic, insane or ridiculous machines. His likes
are the creators of ominous bachelor machines (Duchamp, Lautréamont,
Picabia, Roussel, Kafka), self-destructing machines of the Tinguely
type, right down to the magically autistic robotic anti-sculptures of
Allan Rath.

In his comments Vassiliev showed himself sceptical of the current
infatuation with disembodied information, especially the world-wide
web with its inapt page metaphors that suggest a stability where only
flux and impermanence are the rule. To counter the loss of materiality
in the info- interface, Vassiliev constructed an elaborate machine
that allows us to look, through the tunnel in the installation an via
a web cam on the web (yes the object of criticism is part of the work)
at a stunningly analogue 'interface'. The information is printed or
drawn on half transparent sheets of circuit board material and becomes
visible by a light that shines through the sheet from behind, like
an electrical viewing box. To make the whole thing 'interactive',
Vassiliev constructed a tunnel of surgically removed and reinserted
cd/dvd computer drives, mounted at 45 degrees angle relative to each
other, and hollowed out their sliders. The sheets are now covering the
slide and the drive places a different sheet in front of the light - at
the click of a mouse!

"My main problem was to get the camera to focus automatically", said
Vassiliev, as the slides of the drives necessarily had to be placed
at different distances from both the source of light as well as
the relative position of the observer/camera. So here some complex
algorithmic manipulation had to be put in place to give us a readable
'in-focus' web cam image on the website - what would the point of the
whole web-interface otherwise be if the image be systematically out of
focus...?!

The interesting point of Vassiliev's machine is that we can witness it
in two forms at once, as a physical interface to a limited universe,
five or eight half translucent sheets (depending on the number of drives
mounted in the machine) containing some printed information, or maybe
one or two hand- drawn images, whatever might be stored on those few
lowly sheets, illuminated by the artists' light from behind. Captured
for us lower mortals by a cheap mass-consumption web cam and made
visible again in an indirect exposure emanating from the computer screen
in the from of a web page containing the webcam feed.

We need this double perspective to understand the nature of the
interface, as a principle. We can witness it simultaneously from
within the model world constructed by the artist (the feed on the
web page), and from the outside as a materialised structure (in the
installation). Obviously here the 'content' is not the point of the
work. Neither is the medium the thing under scrutiny. Much more it
is the interface: The way in which our relationship to whatever it
is that is mediated is structured by this interface. By extension we
can understand our relationship to the 'real' world as a question of
interface and mediation through this deferred but still visceral model
world.

One word of caution, though: The analogy of the biological brain to
the electronic machine should not be taken too literally. We have
witnessed over many century's of scientific and engineering discourse
a recurrent recourse to mechanistic models of the mind. Most recently
within Hard A.I. research. According to this latter doctrine a symbol
processing machine such as an electronic digital computer, should, if
it is able to perform 'typically' human tasks (of symbolic processing)
offer us a possibility, by analogy, to understand the mechanisms of
the human mind and the workings of the human brain as a biological
symbol processor. However, leaving the obvious contestations of scale
and complexity aside (the complexity of the human brain outranks that
of current computers by an enormous magnitude), these models offer
very little insight, quite likely none whatsoever, into the workings
of the human mind and brain. For the simple reason that human minds do
not only process symbols, but also many other sensations. The brain
itself is not independent of the rest of the body, most notably the
nervous system. The biological brain is not silicon-based, and therefore
essentially (physically, quantum-mechanically) different from electronic
digital machines. And finally, humans are part of living cultures that
transform with and through them, while the electronic digital machines
are little more than a mere product of the same, without any significant
immanent transcendent potential[2].

So the central issue in these experimental practices is not to create
a literal analogy to the biological brain as such, but much rather to
explore the question of the interface in a visceral manner. In fact
virtually all works represented in the Media Design graduation show
exemplify and embody this central point. They investigate, externalise,
and manifest the interface to the domain of information, which lies at
the heart of the digital machine.


In the case of Michael van Schaik's Archus Browser[3] project he
investigates simultaneously the (so far) never delivered promised of the
semantic web, an information structure based on ordering by association
of meaning and semantic properties, rather than syntactical and physical
(and therefore often arbitrary) links, and the emerging practice of
social tagging. Van Schaik's project is the most purely informational
of the group, but through its emphasis on extra-medial structuring and
social praxis it clearly explores the interface as problem and suggests
alternative approaches to the information interface.

Maria Karagianni's project "Notations under Provisions" creates a
linkage between the informational and embodied realm by creating a
system in which Laban dance notations can be interactively performed
with the help of a digital machine. But the linkage then exceeds the
relationship of notation and performance by capturing this instant
performance and putting it under copyright, utilising legal provisions
that enable the copyrighting of a first-time performance of a dance
score. The interface between the informational and embodied realm is
thus extended into the social, institutional and legal realm. Copyright
itself, of course, is a purely informational construct, and deeply
contested one for that matter. The interesting transformation is the
movement from the informational (a digital rendition of Laban notation)
through the corporeal (the performance) back to the informational domain
(the legal regime). Here again we can be both inside and outside the
system to witness how the interface between these domains produces new
realities as an 'effect'.

In Gordan Savcic's project "PlaySureVeillance", similarly the interface
between a physical game console, a game, and a hidden profiling system
creates a play of entertainment and security politics. Player's of
hacked version of Nintendo's Terror Toad are recorded, profiled and
automatically presented and tracked on Facebook. In the course of the
game more and more information is gathered of the participant and stored
in a public record.  The sinister politics of social coercion in the
revered social web are revealed as a problem of unwarranted interfacing.

During my studio visit Ivan Monroy Lopez showed me a version of
his algorithmic typography generator, where the typeface could be
dynamically generated using a midi controller to influence seed
parameters for the system. While the final version should be implemented
in a web interface, this haptic interface seemed all the more prescient
to the interrogation of the interface-problem, so it seemed to me.

Linda Hoffling's "Remote Control / Democracy Player" fits in a
series of projects that have attempted to deregulate the tight
editorial control of mass-media channels - the ultimate tool for
social normalisation. Here she proposes a series of participatory
tools to influence the content and programming of a local Copenhagen
TV station, subverting the logic of tight top-down control of the
mass-brainwash-medium TV - it should include the on/off switch,
which might have a devastatingly stroboscopic effect on the TCV
transmission...

Salvador d'Souza's Traditional Ritual Information System
(TRIS)[4] explores the abyss of post-colonial transcultural
misunderstanding. Investigating how to build web-based tools to support
the study of symbolic and visual anthropology. In this case d'Souza is
looking at the representation of Ghanaian Chieftaincy rituals and their
relationship to world cultures.  While these rituals are regularly
and often erroneously framed as exotic and authentic (in the sense
of untainted by external cultures), d'[Souza reflects on the complex
interrelations between Colonial history, migration and translocal
linkages, as for instance in the Libation Pouring ritual, which as a
local Ghanaian phenomenon is entirely dependent on De Kuyper's Schnapps
from Schiedam, another local but distinctively not Ghanaian product. The
question is how the essential translocal and borderless nature of the
world wide web relates to such local/translocal practices and linkages.

That in virtually all these projects the information interface and the
inner life of the machine are at the heart of the works produced here
is certainly no coincidence. Under the leadership of the Media design
MFA, first by Matthew Fuller and now Florian Cramer, there has been a
deliberate attempt to question the structure of the machine and the
construction of the interface from its inception. Both Fuller and Cramer
understand this necessity to dive into the machine, to turn its bowels
inside out, to make explicit the implicit interface, to deconstruct and
reconstruct it in visceral examinations. Some of the projects presented
this year take this objective quite literally, while others imply the
interface as a border and as a problem; a locus of activity even if
the interface is ultimately a non- locality (because of its essential
inaccessibility).

We could maybe even call this approach a 'style', though both Fuller and
Cramer would probably abhor such a notion. It is certainly significant,
however, that the machine is turned inside out here to reveal that the
interface is a permeable border which can be reconfigured through such
visceral, sometimes haptic acts.


Eric Kluitenberg,
Amsterdam, June 2008.


-----------------------
[1] http://k0a1a.net/meme20/
[2] Granting some transcendent potential to self-programming 
    machines - but only very little and limited...
[3] http://archusproject.org/
[4] http://tris.ofamfa.org/


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