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  • Transformations of Transforming Mirrors:An Interview with David Rokeby
  • Ulrik Ekman (bio) and David Rokeby

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David Rokeby

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Ulrik Ekman

1. Introduction

David Rokeby began exploring questions of interactivity while studying at the Ontario College of Art (OCA) in 1981. His earliest interactive pieces were constructed with text or photography and specifically designed to be completed by the audience in one manner or another. There were no technological interfaces involved. At OCA, Rokeby discovered a small group of teachers and students in the school’s tiny Photo-Electric Art Department, where it was possible in the early ’80s to take courses like “Programming for Artists” and “Cybernetics for Art” with remarkable teachers like Norman White and Doug Back. Although Rokeby had had some experience programming computers in high school, he had not seriously considered using them in his art. His encounter with the Photo-Electric Art Department at OCA led him to bring together his interests both in audience-involvement and in computer technology.

Most of his time at OCA was occupied with the development of what was to become Very Nervous System. Advancing from interactive sound systems involving single light cells and analog electronics, this project evolved over a decade into a sensitive interactive sound installation in which everything from the audience’s small finger movements to large leaps drew out accompanying sounds that interpreted these movements in some manner.

Alongside its life as an artwork, Very Nervous System served the practical study of intense physical computer-human interaction. As a result of observing both himself and thousands of others in this installation, Rokeby generated ideas about the characteristics of the machine-human relationship. These ideas were first expressed in his 1989 text “Transforming Mirrors: Subjectivity and Control in Interactive Media.” In producing Very Nervous System, Rokeby not only designed and built his own specialized computers, he also wrote some simple computer languages, and a lot of other code. While he did this, he watched himself program and, as a result, became interested in programming as a cultural practice, and in the role of programmers as cultural producers.

While Very Nervous System focuses largely on the relationship between human bodies and computers, his next major work, The Giver of Names, looks at the relationship between human intelligence and machine intelligence. For this project, Rokeby spent more than ten years working along the edges of artificial intelligence research, developing software that attempted to replicate human perceptual and cognitive abilities. The Giver of Names was an artificial subjective entity that considered objects presented to it and responded with spoken sentences. The aim of this pursuit was not so much to succeed at replicating human behavior as to provide an inside view of the process of trying to do this, in order to open the pursuit to some sort of questioning. The installation was presented, in part, as a sort of public research space where anyone could explore issues of (artificial) perception and intelligence in a practical and playful but non-trivial way.

At the time he developed The Giver of Names, Rokeby turned his attention to surveillance systems. His surveillance installations of the late ’90s and early 2000s, such as Watch, Taken, and Sorting Daemon, brought the real-time interaction of Very Nervous System together with the more advanced perceptual and cognitive processing of The Giver of Names to examine the social implications of the proliferation of networks of sensors and attentive intelligences.

David Rokeby has received numerous awards, including the Prix Ars Electronica Golden Nica for Interactive Art (2002), Canada’s Governor Generals Award in Visual and Media Arts (2002), and the first BAFTA in interactive art from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts in 2000. His major exhibitions include the Venice Biennale (1986), the Venice Biennale of Architecture (2002), the National Gallery of Canada (2002), and the Whitney Museum of American Art (2007). He currently teaches at Ryerson University and is an adjunct professor at OCAD University (formerly OCA), both in Toronto.

This interview addresses the status and development of interactive media art in network societies. Of specific interest are those societies in which...