Robert Atkins: Our next speaker is Margaret Morse, who is a professor at UC Santa Cruz and a theorist in the field of computer-assisted new media. Virtualities, her collection of essays about the transition from media- to cyber-culture will be published next year by Indiana University Press.

Margaret Morse: I thought I was going to be the only ambivalent one here and now I realize that everybody is feeling ambivalent today. I was going to start off by questioning interactivity per se. We have lots of assumptions that interactivity is liberating and I want to question those fundamental assumptions.

But Iíve decided to start with what I'm really excited about. I am very excited about this transitional era that we're living in. New genres for aesthetic expression have opened up. I think that almost any kind of format on the Web can become the stuff of art. I find however that it's hard for me to get into the pictorial aspects of online media because everything takes so long to download that you wait forever for images to show and I'm very impatient. So I was really pleased to see a piece [on Favela] that actually used that slow download time to slowly reveal the content of the piece in a very effective way: There's potential in every kind of limitation.

I'm also really intrigued by art works on an enormous scale that are possible online, whether produced collectively or individually, or generated automatically as in artificial life. But apparently many people working in A-Life and using the Web to create emergent forms or allow them to evolve through many many generations believe that this really is some kind of new life form. I think that's a limitation. As long as it's a metaphor, a way of playing, a way of thinking about patterns and how they merge, we can learn by imagining conceptual possibilities. But when you start thinking that you're generating new forms of life it's something else entirely; it's not art at that point.

I haven't personally run into E-mail or MUDs that claim to be art, to frame the actual act of creating text-based spaces as art, but there's no doubt that it can be done. My students and I are doing some research on the Web about various kinds of formats and art forms. One of them was looking at hip-hop culture and the use of the chat lines, the IRC, to generate a new kind of rap without music. That is a kind of freestyle poetry composed on the fly and in relationship to other people on the line. I thought, ëWow, that's another genre.í It's rap without the music, but the rhythm was still there, the response was still there.

I also get very charged when Iím around women concerned about women online and the masculine domination of computer culture. I've been to a few meetings here in the city and across the country and the work these women are doing makes me realize that nothing about this online world has to be solely masculine. We all know that there are problems with access which limit the potential for the technologically underprivileged everywhere. I like art work that addresses this lack of access and begins to think about ways of ameliorating it. Muntadasí File Room, a censorship archive that people can contribute to is one. Another piece I like is Siberian Deal by Eva Wohlgemuth and Kathy Rae Huffman. On their Web page they would report on and get responses to their trip across Russia, where they traded objects theyíd picked up in Vienna, like red, high-heeled shoes. What they found is that people in Siberia didn't have the concept for trade. That said, I think that these experiments will continue, but I think that the radical potential of online media in this period of transition is quickly being eroded.

To get to the topic of interactivity per se, I don't know how many of you are as skeptical about it as I am. I think the claims for interactivity as a counter to passivity or couch-potato-hood are not all they're cracked up to be. Let me try to explain why. I want to distinguish between interactivity and intersubjectivity, and I also think there's a difference between virtual and fictional that requires discussion.

There's a general need for interactivity because of the way our culture has developed. Television was needed because we had developed freeways and suburbs, and there was this kind of dispersion of what once had been communities. And television creates a fictional community; it uses fictional modes of personal and direct address. All those people talking to you from the TV set. It's fictional of course. But itís also this way of personalizing things needed at a time when socio-economic cohesion was beginning to disintegrate, so that you needed a kind of media force for reintegration. I think the Web and all this interaction is simply an extension of this powerful force. One of the paradoxes of the age in which we live is that as our socio-economic motives get more and more impersonal, we develop virtual modes of personality: We invest personality and all sorts of pseudo-subjective qualities onto machines, which have become agents.

I view interactivity as a way of relating to machines. Interactivity is usually conceived as a way of allowing the consumer or viewer to change the image with the help of an input device, telephone keyboard, remote control, joy stick, mouse, or touch-screen. Interactivity has been mistaken for something emancipatory and expressive that might change the very nature of communication. Two-way television, for example, is touted as whe way of escaping the one-way, couch-potato position for consuming television. But of course in another way it locks you even more fully into the television so that you're actually interacting with the machine itself.

If interactivity is only an extension of this kind of immediate feedback, or input on a display, then it's operational and instrumental. Is this any more intersubjective or liberating? We need this interactivity; as I suggested it's part of the way our culture has developed. We can welcome it as long as some things that are unprofitable and inefficient, mainly forms of intersubjectivity, are also protected and given space.

Now why isn't the virtual world created like fiction? I believe that fiction demands a feeling of safety. When you go to a movie you know that nothing on the screen is going to be able to attack you, that there are barriers between you and whatever happens on-screen. You are safe. Whatever was filmed was filmed a long time ago. You're in this dark theater and you know the screen, the stage and so on. Fiction demands this incredible separation and feeling of safety. There's nothing about the virtual world which is safe. You're using modes of subjectivity: You're immersed in symbolic meanings; you're saying ëI am youí to machines. So you're not at a safe distance from them. Furthermore, almost anything in this realm can be hooked up to real effects, it can be telematic.

The most obvious example would be the Gulf War. But many artworks are also telematic. Things that happen in these virtual realms may have not only symbolic and psychic effects, but real effects. The virtual itself is incredibly different from the fictional. And our culture hasnít processed the differences between these things or learned how to make such distinctions. Information society is incredible sterile. It's about stripping every aspect of subjectivity, of place and time from something that then becomes a complete commodity that can be put on line. Then the job of culture is somehow to reconstruct these things in a virtual way and I think that interactivity plays a huge role in this.

I think that's all I wanted to say but I want to reiterate that I feel we are moving into a time of more closure, which we might compare as Jane [Veeder] did, to the time of after World War I when all these amateur radio operators were closed down and a lot of possibilities were closed down with them. We could compare the time we're living in to an experimental period before the cinematic forms of narrative were completely determined. We're in a wonderful, experimental time and I think there' s nothing that should discourage us from exploring it. At the same time time I see that the means of controlling such explorations and making it all less radical are already in operation and we can see this happening every day.


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