Matthew Fuller on Wed, 7 Jan 1998 07:23:20 +0100 (MET)

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<nettime> Belinda Barnett: Storming the Interface

Storming the Interface: Mindvirus, I/O/D and Deceptive Interaction.

Belinda Barnett

"You will see when using anything from Grolier's Multimedia Encyclopaedia
to the narcoleptic outpourings of those who aren't afraid to wear
club-gear to work , interaction is fed first and foremost through the
circuits of sight," explain Simon Pope and Matthew Fuller, editors of the
electronic magazine I/O/D.  The visual grammar we are accustomed to in
'interactive' multimedia is all hotspots and bright links abiding,
'friendly' icons and polite buttons leading our gaze to efficient closure
and the smooth digestion of information. What we sometimes forget is that
the interface itself is not merely a transparency: it is a text, a
finely-wrought behavioural map at the intersection of "political and
ideological boundary lands" (Selfe and Selfe, 480). It is a semi-permeable
membrane between human/machine. When we lose our awareness of the
materiality of this interface, we cede control to the intentions of the
author: 'interactivity' is no longer a conversation between the work of
art and the reader, but information processing.

As a handful of emerging electronic artists see it, the dis-articulation
of this interface and the "smart-cufflinked control" imposed by its visual
economy is where interactivity becomes conversation. They are concerned
not so much with 'presenting' their work in the electronic writing space
as with drawing our attention to the interaction itself, disrupting the
"point'n'click metaverse" as it is administered to us by infotainment
culture. "We are not proposing to formulate a new paradigm of multimedial
correctness," stress Simon and Matt, but simply "exploring the possibility
of more complex feedback arrangements between the user and the machine".
Adelaide-based group Mindflux are also mapping the intermezzo with their
electronic magazine, Mindvirus.  The group produce interfaces that involve
sensory apparatus and navigational skills that have beenwritten out as
incidental in mainstream multimedia. Sound, pattern-recognition, movement
and an element of randomness become central to the navigational
experience, disrupting what Mindflux call the seamless "co-opt, convert,
consume culture" by creating moments of hesitation and conscious
re-adjustment between nodal leaps and navigational decisions.This is not a
revolution, however: "there will always be people who prefer their food
pre-chewed" they explain.

In Mindvirus0297 (mv3.7), the reader is presented with a pair of monkeys
involved in an inexplicable cue-card experiment as they attempt to access
'meaningful' information. Is there a pattern to the randomness? The reader
must develop something akin to paragnostic abilities in order to "extract
signals from the noise" and progress through the magazine. Habitual
point'n'click action doesn't appear to yield results. The monkeys, it
seems, are conducting an experiment on this faceless 'reader': are you
actually interacting with this machine or merely responding to the
s(t)imulation? ("Is the interface the Art? Is convention the interface?")
Similarly, in I/O/D#3, the opening screen is not a well-behaved,
encyclopaedic guide to the 'work' contained inside, but a window filled
with what appear to be shifting weather-patterns. As clouds skid across
the screen in a meteorological frenzy trailing sun and (mutating) storm,
the user finds that slight movements of the mouse and a brush of fingers
across the keyboard produce odd formations and noises. Is there a pattern
to the randomness?  A cache of 'meaningful' information behind the play?
Only experimentation will tell. The reader becomes aware of what
convention expects and, hopefully, learns to think in the space between
such responses.

 "As well as cultural forms and data types marginalised by the historically
Eurocentric fixation on text and image, most computer use relies on
strange, almost unnoticed conventions and choreographies" explains Matt.
One such convention is the use of predominantly middle-class, white-collar
business metaphors such as the 'desktop', 'trashcan', 'folders' and
'files'. In I/O/D#3, the reader is presented with a familiar McFolder
entitled "Limbo". On habitual double-click, this folder produces another
folder, whose title is the beginning of a story. Double-click on this
icon and it gives way to yet another folder whose title is also a
sentence-fragment. And so on as the story unfolds across a desktop
pass-the-parcel minus the meaningful surprise. There is nothing inside any
of these folders: their titles are their meaning. Similarly, in
Mindvirus0294, the reader is given the option at one point of pressing
'restart' for fear of strange interfaces and alternative paradigms. The
only problem is that the familiar 'restart' button begins to blink and
skid across the screen in the most user-unfriendly fashion, with your
trigger-happy finger in hot pursuit. ("Is the interface the Art? Is
convention the interface?") When we become conscious of the materiality of
interaction, we enter into dialogue with the machine.

"There is no real distinction between the technological and the organic
machines," explain Mindflux. "The perceived distinction arises from an
inability to see the computer as part of an extended phenotype of the human
organism." As we describe a trajectory through the information, our
bodies are in turn inscribed upon. As we write, we are also written: we
evolve. "In 'interaction, there is only evolution. Flux. Chaos,"
Mindflux explain. The bite-size units of conceptual information contained
within the data, or 'memes', infect our consciousness like cognitive
viruses. ('Memes' are units of information or ideas which behave in much
the same manner as genes, like a TV jingle that seems to survive and
replicate in our minds, or an ideology that affects our behaviour). Memes
inscribe themselves upon us consciously or unconsciously whenever we
interact with the world around us, creating an evolving feedback loop with
reality. Similarly, when we 'interact' with a computer, we exchange
memetic information across an always already political interface. Mindflux
seek to make this process explicit. Mindvirus00297 (mv3.7) contains a
'Conspiracies'R'Us' Random Meme Generator, and on activation, it
arbitrarily assembles a theory from a pool of linguistic components (eg.,
"president Clinton impregnates cornflakes with LSD and administers them to
schoolchildren so the world is a safer place"). The experiment is on the
reader as soon as her eyes begin to move over the letters. Will this meme
survive and replicate in your mind? Are you conscious of this exchange?

"We believe that the computer, like everything else, is composed in
conflict," explains Matt. "Within interactive media there is a tension
between the universal development of metaphors, systems and devices and the
commercial need to publish software that is at best 'less-similar' to that
of competitors." Universal metaphors - the visual grammar and behavioural
logic of multimedia - render the interface transparent. "Familiar
expectations are exploited by I/O/D by re-evoking the bewilderment
experienced by first-time users of the system," maintains Matt. In I/O/D2,
the opening screen is black, its field of links and hotspots dead to the
eye. On touching the mouse, the reader finds that he or she affects the
sound emanating from the speakers. Slight movements introduce new bass
loops and interstellar bleeps. After a while, she discerns that the key
navigational organ is the ear: she must re-adjust her perceptions to a
sound-based interface. The initial reaction is one of bewilderment. (Am I
controlling these noises or are they pre-programmed? Is this how I
'access' the information?) "It is in this renewal of dialogue between the
user, the machine and the wider conceptual and material apparatus that
they are connected to that things are opened up," explains Matt. "The
normal noun-verb based point'n'click behaviour obscures the possibilities
for the development of more complex arrangements of feedback between the
user and the machine." The sounds produced across the I/O/D interface
encourage the reader to explore not only the information, but the
boundaries of the interaction itself. (What sort of noises can my
movements produce - and where will they lead me? My eardrums and my sense
of rhythm direct the flow.) In this moment of readjustment, we are given
the opportunity to converse with the machine, to open ourselves to

 "We don't assume people are stupid," explain Mindflux.
"Mindvirus encourages exploration and curiosity. Nothing is stagnant.
There is always a 'further' to evolve into."

first published in Artlink Vol. 17 No. 4
 Belinda Barnett 1997


Selfe, C. L. and R. J. Selfe. 'The Politics of the Interface: Power and its
Exercise in Electronic Contact Zones', College Composition and
Communication 45:4, pp. 480-504, 1994.

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