What’s in an interface?
Last month, Vector Festival curators Skot Deeming and Martin Zeilinger put together a show that posed that question. Bringing together the work of 13 artists with six pieces, the show interrogated the possibilities and limitations of human/computer interaction.
“Once we start thinking about what interfaces are and how they work, they become less invisible,” said Zeilinger. “The interface is the goal and the destination. That’s why games are good for this show—they serve as a mediating interface between you and the play experience.”
Vector is an annual Toronto festival for the convergence of video games, art, and new media that took place a few weeks ago. The main exhibition – To Utility and Beyond – recently closed on March 13.
The gallery included pieces like Sext Adventure, created by Kara Stone and Nadine Lessio, which invited visitors to pick up a phone and sext with a computer program. When I entered the gallery, I spotted a man flipping through the phone. He looked up at me embarrassed, and then went back to his adventure. After he left, I had to look at his responses. Capitalized words like “BRA” and “TITS” hinted at the monosyllabic responses that initiate the next computerized response.
Games like Sext Adventure highlight the increasingly diverse array of input devices in games. Keyboards, mice, and game controllers have been joined by motion sensors and headsets, while new technology like the Makey Makey has made it easier for hackers to turn everyday objects into control devices. Deeming says that these developments were a big part of the inspiration for the show.
“One of the things that we’re seeing in indie games, in new media, and game culture in general, is an emphasis on innovation in interface. Oculus, Kinect, and Nintendo Amiibos stand out as good examples.”
However, Deeming points out that these new innovations are consistently couched in entrepreneurial discourse. Because they’re seen as innovative, society doesn’t question what it means to interact with these machines. “There’s this fetishization of interfaces—the novelty of the new,” he said.
I had some idea of what to expect from Sext Adventure after attending a panel discussion the night before. Nadine Lessio told the audience that she has access to all of Sext Adventure’s text logs and can read any of the responses people send. I find that more interesting than anything the computer asks, but the computer does guide you down some interesting and uncomfortable paths. Sext Adventure is as much a piece about artificial intelligence as it is about sexuality.
To the right, meanwhile, a machine mounted on a tripod fed itself a single euro coin on a short loop. A coin slot ejected the coin just in time for a mechanical arm to pick it back up and put it back in the coin slot. The loop ended after a few rotations. It was prompted by a single human input—a foot tap – although the coin got jammed almost every other rotation and a gallery attendant had to come and nudge a piece of the machinery.
“It acts up towards the end of the day,” he told me.
The piece is Jochen Zeirzer’s Coin (2013), and suggests frankly that the machine may or may not need a human to interact with it. It calls up nostalgia for the mechanical technologies of the midway, video games’ carnivalesque ancestor, where coin operated fortune tellers, pinball machines, and electromechanical games were eventually overtaken by digital screens.
Moving around the room, Connor Campbell’s Cootie Catcher With Balls (2014) is an exploration of gendered signifiers. The viewer can pick small red and blue soccer balls out of yellow cups. When you take a ball out of a cup, the cootie catcher rotates and opens. What does it mean that the switch is activated by the absence of an object?
Closer to the gallery entrance was a keyboard that controls a hand on a large computer screen, which in turn controls something that resembles an Atari 2600 joystick. It’s deliberately difficult to operate.
“Originally, [the show] was called Beyond Utility,” said Deeming. “With any interface you have to start with a question of utility—if I do x, y is supposed to happen. The role of the artist is to create an interface where the main objective is not the utility of the thing.”
The piece is Kieran Nolan’s Control: A (Meta) Game About Interface Constraints (2014). The objective is to work around the difficult control system, but the meta-game is a running commentary on the absurdity of complex interfaces. Notions of utility are tied to notions of fidelity, and the lo-fi representation of human motor skills demonstrates the limits of certain interfaces.
Liquidation (2013) by Juliana Riska, Dorian Reunkrilerk, Loriane Stary, and Kim Boldt, is projected on another wall. It depicts the constant and systematic construction and deconstruction of an environment inside of The Sims 3. Watching Liquidation is a meditative experience, a constant undulation of texture and architectural form.
“As an artwork, the interaction is simply a screen-spectator relationship, but in the concept of how the work was created, there’s a fetishizing of the interface itself. They go through all the motions of decorating a level in all possible permutations. The joy of utility loops in on itself,” said Deeming.
Finally, in the back corner of the gallery, sits Mouffe by Kim Hoang, Ben Swinden, Zachary Soares, and Hamish Lambert. Mouffe uses the Makey Makey to create a controller with a big fluffy blanket. The blanket is in a tent, and you lie on your back to observe what happens when you move and roll around. According to its creators, the game is extremely popular with kids, while adults, especially those who think of themselves as hardcore gamers, have trouble expanding their ideas of what an interface can be.
To Utility and Beyond was a fascinating show, with subversive interfaces that make you question the ones you use every day. It was a fitting foundation for Vector Fest 2015, hinting at the potential for new kinds of interaction between people and technology.