[Portrait] Jeffrey Shaw, the art of interactive cinema

This article comes from Digitalarti Mag 13. read it online for free.

Famous for pioneering the use of digital media within virtual, cinematographic, interactive and expanded environments, Australian artist Jeffrey Shaw was one of the first to create hybrid installations, such as The Legible City, in which the viewer rides a real bike in front of a big screen to explore a virtual city.

After many years of working with more high-tech cinematic processes at institutions such as the iCinema Research Centre of the University of New South Wales and the School of Creative Media at City University of Hong Kong, Jeffrey Shaw continues to focus on devices and systems that are centered on the viewer of the artwork.

These days, people are used to real-time experiences through digital media. But at the time of your early works, what inspired your interest in interactive and immersive installations, placing the viewer at the heart of the artwork?

The focus on interactivity in my art practice is based on the desire to construct a new and dynamic relationship between the artwork and the viewer. It grew out of a disillusion with the traditional modes of artistic production (painting, sculpture, etc) that by the 1960s seemed to have lost the ability to engage the viewer in a deep and attentive manner. To use Guy Debord’s terminology, modern art seemed to have been totally consumed into the “society of spectacle”.

In the process of researching different modalities of interactivity, I discovered one essential property of such art installations—they not only called upon the viewer’s action, but they also allowed themselves to be discovered, steered and modified by the viewer’s actions. So, in effect, viewers became my partners in the creation of the work by becoming the agents of its unique performances. This very interesting and powerful property (from a conceptual, esthetic and expressive point of view) was very much facilitated by new media. Especially those digital media that were software-based, because the articulation of the artwork’s interactivity is largely defined in its software architecture, abetted by the design of its user interface.   

It seems that your work has always been influenced by cinema. Your first works in the 1960s were about filming (Continuous Sound and Image Moments, Corpocinema, Moviemovie). I also remember your Future Cinema exhibition in 2003, co-curated with Peter Weibel at the ZKM. Why such an interest in cinema?

The cinema is undoubtedly the boldest technical and esthetic achievement of the 20th century. It is the gesamtkunstwerk [total art piece] of our time, a conceptual and esthetic platform where so many aspirations of art practice over the centuries reach a culmination. Therefore, it is appropriate that an experimental art practice, such as mine, would take the cinema as a context and frame of reference for pushing the boundaries of an art to come. As I wrote in Future Cinema, [published by MIT Press in 2002], cinema’s great traditions of experiment, by both filmmakers and artists, were being lost because of the hegemony of Hollywood’s modalities of film production and visual storytelling, so I felt it was necessary to subvert this model and locate my own researches in an “expanded cinema”, where the genius of cinema could again be extended into new directions of artistic expression and viewer experience.

ALiVE’s related project: reconfiguring the CAVE

The idea of interactive cinema came very early in your works—when you were involved in the Research group in Amsterdam in the 1970s, and later at the ZKM in Karlsruhe, where you initiated EVE interactive cinema. In EVE, viewers were immersed in a film and chose what they wanted to see, becoming both the cameraman and editor of each screening. Jean-Michel Bruyère (Si Poteris narrare, licet) and Ulf Langheinrich (Perm) also used this device. Did you see the combination of cinema and interaction as the logical evolution of cinema?

Yes. Since the late ’60s I felt that an “interactive cinema” was the logical and most interesting advance that could be made in an ‘expanded cinema’ art practice. It enabled the expressive power, and idealism, of the cinematic gesamtkunstwerk to be brought into a personal and intimate relationship with the viewer. And it was the opportunity to break loose from the compulsive linear narrative forms of traditional cinema and to discover, and craft, a much more interesting new range of interactive narrative structures. Jean-Michel and Ulf are artists who also took up this challenge, and each in their own way have brilliantly pushed the esthetic boundaries of this contemporary “youniverse” of “interactive narrative”.

EVE Extended Virtual Environment

You always like to develop new creative platforms, beginning in the 1990s with Extended Virtual Environment in 1993, PLACE and Panoramic Navigator in 1995. What was the interactive key to these projects?

I have explored, and sometimes invented, many modalities of interactivity in my art practice. Certain denominators appear in many different guises in these works. It is pertinent that two of my earliest installations were titled Viewpoint (Paris, 1986), and Points of View (Amsterdam, 1989), because what I was researching were optical systems that gave the viewer personal methods, and personal control, of seeing and exploring the artworks’ spaces of representation. Whereas in the cinema we as viewers are always looking through the eye of a camera that is being controlled by the director, EVE and PLACE are an expanded cinema, where the interactive viewer can control the movement of this virtual camera, and in so doing also takes control of the editing of narrative unfolding of that artwork. The objective is that we, the public, see and experience the artwork through our own eyes, and in this way take possession of, and become complicit in, its narrative unfolding. Interestingly, this ‘personal possession’ of the process of viewing even extends to those viewers who are inactively just watching what someone else is doing, because they experience it as a unique never-to-be-repeated performance.

Place has driven your most spectacular works, such as Yer-Turkiye’s 3D panoramic photographic scenes and spatialized recordings from Turkish sources, or Place-Hampi using Indian sources… Is the idea of traveling, of connecting people to another field of knowledge, also very important in your work?

In an art practice, there are many possible “places” that can become spaces of representation. As in the cinema, the location is as much a protagonist as are the actors. Furthermore, the history of art is a history of cross-references and re-appropriation, because art operates in the larger domain of human culture and memory. If my art practice can be summed up as strategy of ‘seeing and experiencing anew’, and through interactivity “discovering anew”, then it’s not surprising that the richness of such cultural contexts as Turkish and Indian heritage are things, and topics, that attract my deep interest. The esthetic imaginary is not only a space of invention. It is also a space of reclamation, reformulation and re-interpretation.

This 360-degree approach led you to create a more specific immersive device, the AVIE (Advanced Visualisation and Interaction Environment) system, a cylindrical silver projection piece, with a set of 12 video screens, designed for single and multiple-user interaction using a joystick, iPod or vision-tracking system (with polarizing glasses). Many artists have used this system, including Ulf Langheinrich (Alluvium) and Jean-Michel Bruyère (La Dispersion du Fils), as well as your own T_Visionarium project. Other artists have also worked on very similar systems (Luc Courchesne, SAT team in Montreal for the building’s 360° dome, Naut Humon / RML’s Cinema Chamber for live multimedia performance)… Are you still working on improving this ambitious system? Is creating this kind of platform for other artists as important as creating it for yourself?

Here as well, the cinema is both the model and inspiration. In the cinema, a technological apparatus was invented: film, the camera, the projector, etc, which innumerable artists have used to craft completely personal statements. Many of the ‘machines’ I have developed also have this almost generic capability to become expressive tools in other artists’ hands. AVIE, for instance, is a paradigmatic contemporary environment for the expression of panoramic spaces of representation, which follows in the traditions of the Baroque’s immersive surround and of panorama painting. As an artist, I see myself both as a creator of new systems of representation, which are made even more significant and valuable by other artists’ use of them, as well as the creator of unique instances of representation using these systems.

In 2003, you returned to Australia to co-found and direct the UNSW iCinema Centre’s research program in immersive interactive narrative systems for distributed and situated intercommunication [a research unit featuring three systematic approaches: interactive narrative systems; immersive visualization systems and distributed interface systems connected to the Internet]. Was this a way to further explore interactive cinematic systems?

The work at iCinema that you outline was a natural continuation of previous artistic practices that include my activities in Amsterdam and then at the ZKM. What possibly distinguishes iCinema is that for the first time these activities are being conducted in an academic research environment, which enables it to be inspired by the rigor of traditions of academic research practices, as well as benefit from its specific economic frameworks. This is pertinent, in my case, because so much of what I have done came about in contexts outside the frameworks of the “art world”—its market place and traditional modalities of production and consumption. So both the ZKM’s Institute for Visual Media and UNSW’s iCinema Centre were alternative and innovative contexts of creation that provided new opportunities to pursue and extend the particular interests of my art practice.

UNSW iCinema Centre’s research program reminds me of other examples of collaboration between artists and science/research, such as at Ateliers Arts/sciences in Grenoble, France…

I touched on this earlier. The scientific approach to research is something that is of real value to the artist in these times, and an understanding of research in all academic fields is a highly relevant source of understanding and inspiration if one is to fully address the contemporary human condition in one’s work. We see an increasing conjunction between art and science, often driven by the artist’s recognition that science’s areas of concern are appropriate, and necessary, territories of critical and esthetic reflection. The second point you make is also highly relevant because artists working in academic contexts have immediate and intimate opportunities to share their research with students, which again, in both the traditions of art and science, spurs future generations to expand it and forge new horizons. 

You have always enjoyed working in collaborative teams, with Bernd Linterman, Dirk Groeneveld, Sarah Kenderdine, Ulf Langheinrich, Jean-Michel Bruyère… Was it simply because you enjoy working in a team, like in a university program, or with friends? Or was it also required given the technical complexity of the pieces?

Both are true. These kinds of technically complex works do benefit from, even require, collaborative teams where each member brings to bear and can contribute specific skills and insights. At the same time, these kinds of works also lend themselves to co-authorship, if as an artist you enjoy, as I do, the sharing of the creative discourse/process. Given that the works themselves aspire to the activation of social interaction in their proprioception. The socializing of their processes of creation and manufacture is appropriate, and can be even integral, to that objective. And it is a specific communal pleasure to have an artistic platform where numerous artists can come together and contribute specific esthetic qualities, that then join together to constitute a successful trans-disciplinary achievement.

Jean-Michel Bruyère, La dispersion du fils (Lfks + AVIE).

Beyond interactive and cinematic processes, you have always been involved in very trans-disciplinary projects (the inflated pig over London’s Battersea Power Station used on a Pink Floyd cover album, traveling three-dimensional texts for Place devices, collaboration with Peter Gabriel). Considering all your background, do you believe that now is the time and opportunity for the rise of digital arts—now that the computer is central to most creative processes and that digital interfaces extend to all artistic fields?

In my own mind, digital arts are the most powerful expressive force in contemporary culture. Though again, I am always delighted when a non-digital artwork can address the contemporary with equal, or greater force, and there are numerous artists today who can do this. But the digital is my preference, maybe because from my long experience I am so familiar with, and inspired by, its ways and possibilities. And there is another factor. Contemporary culture is a machine culture deeply insinuated into every aspect of our lives. Even on the level of human communication, the direct and the mediated are so deeply entangled that social relations, and political destinies, are being transformed in the process. This creates a condition of urgent need for a critical esthetics that exploits those same digital media to constitute alternative paths of reflection, alternative world models to challenge those that are produced by the “media industries”.

From 1991 to 2003, you were the founding director of the ZKM in Karlsruhe. Recently, the ZKM launched a program to protect existing digital artworks, along with the exhibition Digital Art Works: The Challenge of Conservation… Do you believe that this is one of the big issues concerning the future of digital arts? Were you already aware of this problem when you were creating your first interactive pieces?

For most, past art’s presence is an invaluable cultural asset for every generation, and it embodies on the most fundamental level the continuum of human experience/enquiry, and informs/enlightens our possible destinies. So if we so value a work of art beyond its momentary existence, then the challenge of conservation follows. An individual artist may or may not integrate longevity in the creation of their artworks. Whatever, it is the responsibility of conservationists to figure out the appropriate and effective methods of conservation, whether it is a fresco on a crumbling wall, or a digital artwork running on an increasing obsolete computer. For most of the works I make, I believe that a strategy of “digital reconstruction” rather than permanent maintenance of the original would be the appropriate, and most realistic, means of conservation. Such a method relies on rigorous and thorough documentation, so that the reconstruction on newer platforms can be as faithful to the original as possible, and can be realized by anyone, anytime in the future.

You are currently showing a new installation that you made with Sinan Goo, Fall Again, Fall Better, at the 9th Shanghai Biennial. It looks like a highly interactive work, in which 3D human images on a large screen fall to the ground when visitors touch a specially crafted handle. The 9th Shanghai Biennial’s chief curator, Qiu Zhijie, wrote that it reveals a sense of tragic sadness. Could you tell us a bit more about this piece?

It’s somewhat tragic, indeed! Both in its expression and in its use by the public. In this installation, two threads of reflection are being conjugated. One is exemplified by Samuel Beckett’s bleakly uplifting pronouncement: Try Again. Fail again. Fail better. And the other is the multifarious ways in which the notion of falling and the word fall permeate our lives, our literature, our mythologies and everyday conversation. Failure and falling are synonyms in a language of anxiety when facing the environmental and social disruptions that haunt modernity’s global consciousness. It is an expansive discourse that ranges from the metaphysics of The Fall to the thrall of love, through history’s disasters to its Buster Keaton everyday tragicomic ubiquity. While in this sense, the installation may be interpreted as a ‘monument to the fallen’, it is not encrypting the stasis of remorse, but rather a cruel digital theater of continuous re-enactment, where each viewer is an inter-actor, and whereby a Beckettian ‘betterment’ may be endlessly previewed and rehearsed.

On a 7-meter-wide screen hung high in the entrance hall of the Shanghai Biennale, a video projection shows a group of eight digitally created human figures standing impassively. On the second-floor balcony in front of that screen, a visitor may take hold of a handle—one that is identical to those they might use in a Shanghai subway train—that will cause that group of figures to all fall down. When the handle is let go, they will rise again to an upright position. These digitally created human agents are modeled according to the physiology of a “push puppet”, a string toy that falls down when the button underneath is pushed to loosen those strings. Sinan Goo has created a computational model of that toy, and applied it to the musculoskeletal physiology of a simulated human figure. This is conjoined with an algorithm that causes an infinite variety in the ways the physical simulation makes these figures fall to the ground whenever the viewer grasps the subway handle and triggers their collapse.

interview by Laurent Catala

This article comes from Digitalarti Mag 13.
Read it online for free.