Florian Cramer on Wed, 2 Jul 2008 13:36:11 +0200 (CEST)

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[Nettime-nl] Eric Kluitenberg, Turning the machine inside out [essay voor Piet Zwart Institute eindexamen]

[Dit essay was geschreven voor de eindexamencatalogus van de Media
Design M.A. opleiding van het Piet Zwart Institute, Willem de Kooning
Academy Rotterdam. Het boek is ontworpen door Open Source Publishing,
Brussel. Voor meer informatie over de eindexamenexpositie "YOU ARE
PWNED" in WORM, Rotterdam, 4-6 Juli, kijk naar
<http://www.wormweb.nl/agenda.php?id=3D1385>.  -Florian]

Turning the machine inside out
Creating Worlds as Interface

Eric Kluitenberg

It is always a good thing for artists who work with technology and
technological media to study the inner life of 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 is 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 with 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 Schrödinger'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

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 that 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
foreshortenings 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

Such an undertaking would not simply be the construction of formal
model worlds in finite schemes of explicit description, but 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 M.A. 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
Alan Rath.

In his comments, Vassiliev revealed his own skepticism concerning
the current infatuation with disembodied information, especially the
World Wide Web with its inapt page metaphors suggesting 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 an angle of 45 degrees 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

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 web cam 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

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 his web annotation project, Michael van Schaik investigates
simultaneously the (so far) never-delivered promise of the web as a
read- write "docuverse," rather than something controlled by web site
administrators, and the emerging practice of social tagging, linking
and commenting. 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 Savicic'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. Players of
"Terror Toad," a hacked game for the portable Nintendo DS console,
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 Ricardo Lafuente 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 Hilfling'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 TV transmission...

Salvador d'Souza's "Traditional Ritual Information System" (TRIS)[3]
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
M.A., 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

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.

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://tris.ofamfa.org/

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