Interface Realisms: The Interface as Aesthetic Form
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Interface Realisms:
The Interface as Aesthetic Form

Until now, digital arts have largely been understood to belong in traditional genres or forms of art: we are said to have electronic literature, net.art, or electronic, techno music. Sometimes interesting discussions have arisen concerning the very ontology of digital art, and questions such as whether net.art should be seen within the tradition of the visual arts or as a form of literature connecting it to the different traditions and questions regulating these arts.1 While it is not my intent to disconnect digital art from traditional art, or to argue for the irrelevance of the traditional forms of art, I will in the following establish the interface as an aesthetic and critical framework for digital art.

The interface is the basic aesthetic form of digital art. Just as literature has predominantly taken place in and around books, and painting has explored the canvas, the interface is now a central aesthetic form conveying digital information of all kinds. This circumstance is simultaneously trivial, provocative, and far-reaching—trivial because the production, reproduction, distribution and reception of digital art increasingly take place at an interface;2 provocative because it means that we should start seeing the interface as an aesthetic form in itself that offers a new way to understand digital art in its various guises, rather than as a functional tool for making art (and doing other things); and, finally, far-reaching in providing us with the possibility of discussing contemporary reality and culture as an interface culture.

In what follows I pursue these three lines of thought in order to outline the interface as an aesthetic form. I start by taking a brief look at the explorations of the interface undertaken in the fields of engineering and computer science in order to sketch out the traditions that dominate the design, functionality, and cultural conceptions of the interface. In these traditions, realism is the keyword—not a realism found in aesthetic tradition, but a realism that stems from the pragmatic urge in engineering to deal with the physical world. I then confront this realism with aesthetic realism and the question of how digital artworks can be seen as a reflection on and reaction to this. Finally, I analyze a computer game (Max Payne), a net.art game modification (Jodi’s SOD), and a software artwork (Auto-Illustrator) to show how they engage with the interface and what they make us see through and in it.

The Engineered Image

The graphical user interface (GUI) as we know it does not stem from an aesthetic tradition, but from an engineering tradition that has paradoxically tried to get rid of it. Until recently it has largely been understood in technical terms and developed in engineering laboratories. Important starting points were Ivan Sutherland’s first graphical, interactive interface in Sketchpad (1963), Douglas Engelbart’s Online System NLS (1968), which introduced information windows and direct manipulation via a mouse, and Alan Kay’s development of the desktop metaphor and overlapping windows.3

Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) research continues this engineering tradition. From the beginning, HCI aimed to increase the “user-friendliness” and “transparency” of the interface and over the years has involved cognitive sciences, psychology, ethnographic fieldwork, participatory design, etc. A leading usability expert, Don Norman, explains the desire to eliminate the interface in “Why Interfaces Don’t Work”:

The real problem with the interface is that it is an interface. Interfaces get in the way. I don’t want to focus my energies on an interface. I want to focus on the job. . . . An interface is an obstacle: it stands between a person and the system being used. . . . If I were to have my way, we would not see computer interfaces. In fact, we would not see computers: both the interface and the computer would be invisible, subservient to the task the person was attempting to accomplish.

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Making the interface, its expression, and materiality more functional and transparent has been key to interface design and the accompanying academic discipline, HCI. In the broader cultural and social understanding of the computer, the tendency has been to understand the interface...