The conventional view is
that an artwork is product - a finished thing, be it visual,
literary, musical or multimedia. Given this perception,
what a critic does is to comment and pass judgment of
some kind on a work's aesthetic, social or political qualities.
But as we shall see, Intimate
Transactions is more process than product and
as such it confounds views of detached objects available
for critical scrutiny. Intimate Transactions
ever remains an unfinished work until realised through
user interaction. Observation is thus denied by the primacy
of enacted and individuated experience (looking is displaced
It follows that writing critically about Intimate
Transactions cannot reveal any innate truth or definitive
qualities of 'the work', but nonetheless it can have prefigurative
or retrospective transformative ability. Which is to say:
reading what is written can alter how the work is approached,
understood, experienced and reflected upon. In this respect,
writing about the work becomes itself an 'intimate transaction'.
Of course, everybody who engages the work does so with
their experience prefigured by knowledge. Central to the
ambition of the work is to bring such knowledge (as 'felt',
if not consciously recognised) into question.
Before going further and
opening the door on more issues, we need to briefly sketch
what Intimate Transactions is and does functionally
– to better position the reader to contextualise
what is to be said in this essay.
|photo: Stuart Lawson
Intimate Transactions appears as an electronically
generated screen-based world of rendered three-dimensional
quasi-organic 'creatures' – this is entered by two
'users' via their presence as ethereal embryo-looking avatars.
Interaction within this world is enabled through hardware
that converts the bodily movement of the user to the movement
of the avatar on the screen – it does this by the
users being wired to sensors and placed on an angled platform
facing the screen. The users, who may be a short or vast
distance away from each other, are linked electronically
in order to co-habit the world of the screen in their avatar
forms. Depending upon their disposition, these individuals
can resist, or strive to embrace, becoming a unified immaterial
body as they dance and glide around their creature-populated
Interaction in such a setting
is between individual users and the technology as well as
between the users via the technology. Interestingly, at
the end of the interactive exchange, which runs for around
twenty minutes, the actual bodily image of the respective
users is revealed to each other.
What is absent from the outline
just given (besides any description of the complexity of
the technology) is the fact that users can get to know the
artificial world encountered and can gain competence to
function within it. More importantly, the exercise does
not centre on the technology but with the experience of
the interactions that it makes possible. By nature this
experience has been designed to pass through a number of
stages: beginning with learning a set of operational rules;
to an initial exploration of the immaterial environment
and the virtual creatures within it, learning that the creatures
can be 'stripped' and 'rebuilt'; then onto discovering one's
present avatar partner and the relation attempted to be
negotiated via the dance of forms. Finally, after gaining
basic abilities, there is the potential for the user to
be able to manipulate the whole system.
Where did Intimate
Transactions come from?
This question is directed at the origins of the idea rather
than its history as a fusion between art and technology,
and its appropriation and inversion of computer game forms
and methods. Keith
Armstrong, as Artistic Director of the Intimate
Transactions project, gives an account of its underpinning
ideas.1) To do so he
evokes and mobilises a plural notion of 'ecosophy'.
Ecosophy gathers together
a variety of philosophical positions that think about
the underlying human-centredness of 'an ecological crisis'
in the contemporary world and how to counter it. Essentially,
and correctly, Armstrong understands that the economic,
social, political and cultural conditions of human existence
place human beings centrally within the problem due to
their acquired values and conduct. This is not to reduce
the cause of 'the crisis' to individual human failings,
rather to the impacts of the world in which we humans
come into being as they in turn impact upon our 'nature'
and conduct. The problem is circular – we cause
ecological/environmental problems that threaten, but these
problems are inherent in the world that contributes to
forming the way we are. Ecosophy names a way to break
into and maybe out of this vicious circle. As Felix Guattari
put it – 'The ecological crisis can be traced to
a more general crisis of the social, political and existential.'
He then went on to point out that dealing with this crisis
'involves a type of revolution of mentalities'2).
In turn, he believed that this required the development
of new kinds of socio-environmental subjects (new kinds
of people), rather than increased productivism (the means
of exchange by which existing social subjects are replicated
and their world extended). In this setting, Intimate
Transactions can be posed as a particular kind of
cultural project aiming (albeit in a small way) to help
create this new type of subject.
Ecosophical thinking is
underscored by ecological phenomenology and existentialism.
What environmental phenomenology tells us is that our
being is indivisible from 'being as a whole', and that
our body is part of the porous organism of life through
which the elements pass. In this respect, we are designed
by the world of our being. But on the other hand, existentialism
tells us we are designed by our actions in this world.
Ecosophy can bring such understandings to problems of
the unsustainable as they take (our) futures away. Certainly,
it can also make the need for cultural action visible,
although the actual creation of viable and vibrant cultural
forms is still massively underdeveloped. In this context,
the designing power of 'art' (as aesthetic experience)
needs a more enabling framework. Realising this framework
can be assisted by philosophy and by the creation of forms
of criticism that are critical in a fundamental sense
(here the critical is what divides life and death). Cultural
action, so approached, implies the artist, designer, philosopher
and critic form part of the 'change community.' In an
age that is starting to understand that without sustainment
we human beings have nothing, art for art's sake, design
in the service of productivism, philosophy divorced from
other practices, and criticism as cultural gate-keeping
can no longer be afforded. By necessity, artists, designers,
philosophers and critics (and others) have to join together
to make the 'change community'.
|photo: (above) Stuart
Lawson, (below) Erika Fish
Lawson, (below) David McLeod
Art of Interaction
Most people encountering Intimate Transactions
will do so with an existing set of assumptions about what
art is – which is not to imply that a diverse group
of people will share a common view. Yet it's likely that
all will assume a critical distance exists between the viewer
and the viewed (that is between themselves and a work).
Intimate Transactions totally undercuts this assumption.
It dissolves any critical distance between the 'it' and
the 'I'. The work cannot be known without the experience
of interacting with it (and another person). As already
intimated, one cannot critically observe what 'one is a
part of' – to interact is to be of the work. The work
acts to structure the actual experience of interaction through
bringing the work to momentary completion. But insofar as
users and interactions are never identical, the work is
never completed as exactly the same experience – it
always returns to being unfinished in order to be remade.
Crucially, the interactive
intent of the work was to create a means to reflect upon
a particular kind of experience – the experience of
our being relationally connected as a collective body. The
form of its materiality functions as a means towards this
end. As such, rather than being understood within the genre
of 'art and environment', it arrives in the more adventurous
domain of 'art as environment'. Moreover, as an environment,
it has its own created immaterial ecology (an ecology of
the image). Here it's worth reminding ourselves that the
relation between environment (the constituent features of
space, place, location) and ecology (the dynamic system
that functions within and maintains the character and conditions
of the environment) is always mediated by image for us (we
see via created ways of seeing).
To better understand this,
and how an artwork and its technology can be deemed to be
an ecology, we need to grasp that we humans exist within
four inter-connected ecologies: (i) the biophysical ecology
of the natural world (biologically we always remain animal);
(ii) the ecology of the artificial (we do not just dwell
in the world of nature, but equally in a fabricated world
of our own creation that we now depend upon to survive);
(iii) a social ecology in which we depend upon each other
– we simply cannot be without others; and (iv) an
ecology of the image (be the image pictorial or literary)
that mediates the other three ecologies.
On this last point, how we
see and conduct ourselves in biophysical, artificial and
social ecologies is in large part structured by how they
arrive in front of us as objects of perception. The very
notion of 'world' is a good example of this. We only have
a sense of the world by dint of an image. While being located
in the world we cannot see it as an object. Reiterating,
everything we see is refracted via knowledge gained via
images (visual and literary). As Plato put it, 'we see with
our mind not our eyes' (mere optical instruments).
It is not a...
Intimate Transactions cannot be reduced to an object;
rather it is an active 'thing', animated in various ways. Consider
this: what turns the 'thingness' of the thing (its materiality
and informational content) into the 'thinging' of the thing is
its function to produce and mediate the experience of two 'users'
as joined in competitive and/or cooperative relations. It does
not reveal itself outside of being engaged – knowing is
doing. But knowing itself is not just one thing – there
is, for instance, a functional relation wherein familiarity increases
competence. Equally, there is a conceptual knowing.
As has been emphasised, the work
exists as a means not an end. The question that now arrives is:
does the work have the ability to actually prompt a user's reflection
on experience beyond the subjective? (Did I enjoy it? How did
it work? What kind of relationship did I have with my partner?)
This question begs to be left open for each user to answer.
Intimate Transactions is
not reducible to the consequence of any single practice. Its hybridised
form and content straddles art, design, education and entertainment.
If it has any singular quality, it is its ambition to create embodied
learning, which of course will be qualitatively different between
users. Two possibilities always travel with embodied learning:
the possibility of transferability (for example, to acquire hand/eye
coordination obviously can be useful in many contexts); and the
possibility of reflection transmuting into conscious knowledge.
In both cases, the person who experiences Intimate Transactions
is left with the question: what is it that I have experienced
and what have I learnt? Equally, its creators have to ask themselves:
what is the potential of this kind of mechanism of mediation –
can it actually break out of the productivist circle and really
contribute, albeit modestly, to bringing a new kind of human subject
into being? Answering this question is both the challenge and
the test of escosophical commitment. It also goes to the choice
of trying to inject new life into old practices or to the launching
of new ones.