Storming the Interface: Mindvirus, I/O/D and Deceptive Interaction.
"You will see when using anything from Grolier's Multimedia Encyclopaedia to the narcoleptic outpourings of those who aren't afraid to wear club-gear to work , interaction is fed first and foremost through the circuits of sight," explain Simon Pope and Matthew Fuller, editors of the electronic magazine I/O/D. The visual grammar we are accustomed to in 'interactive' multimedia is all hotspots and bright links abiding, 'friendly' icons and polite buttons leading our gaze to efficient closure and the smooth digestion of information. What we sometimes forget is that the interface itself is not merely a transparency: it is a text, a finely-wrought behavioural map at the intersection of "political and ideological boundary lands" (Selfe and Selfe, 480). It is a semi-permeable membrane between human/machine. When we lose our awareness of the materiality of this interface, we cede control to the intentions of the author: 'interactivity' is no longer a conversation between the work of art and the reader, but information processing.
As a handful of emerging electronic artists see it, the dis-articulation of this interface and the "smart-cufflinked control" imposed by its visual economy is where interactivity becomes conversation. They are concerned not so much with 'presenting' their work in the electronic writing space as with drawing our attention to the interaction itself, disrupting the "point'n'click metaverse" as it is administered to us by infotainment culture. "We are not proposing to formulate a new paradigm of multimedial correctness," stress Simon and Matt, but simply "exploring the possibility of more complex feedback arrangements between the user and the machine". Adelaide-based group Mindflux are also mapping the intermezzo with their electronic magazine, Mindvirus. The group produce interfaces that involve sensory apparatus and navigational skills that have beenwritten out as incidental in mainstream multimedia. Sound, pattern-recognition, movement and an element of randomness become central to the navigational experience, disrupting what Mindflux call the seamless "co-opt, convert, consume culture" by creating moments of hesitation and conscious re-adjustment between nodal leaps and navigational decisions.This is not a revolution, however: "there will always be people who prefer their food pre-chewed" they explain.
In Mindvirus0297 (mv3.7), the reader is presented with a pair of monkeys involved in an inexplicable cue-card experiment as they attempt to access 'meaningful' information. Is there a pattern to the randomness? The reader must develop something akin to paragnostic abilities in order to "extract signals from the noise" and progress through the magazine. Habitual point'n'click action doesn't appear to yield results. The monkeys, it seems, are conducting an experiment on this faceless 'reader': are you actually interacting with this machine or merely responding to the s(t)imulation? ("Is the interface the Art? Is convention the interface?") Similarly, in I/O/D#3, the opening screen is not a well-behaved, encyclopaedic guide to the 'work' contained inside, but a window filled with what appear to be shifting weather-patterns. As clouds skid across the screen in a meteorological frenzy trailing sun and (mutating) storm, the user finds that slight movements of the mouse and a brush of fingers across the keyboard produce odd formations and noises. Is there a pattern to the randomness? A cache of 'meaningful' information behind the play? Only experimentation will tell. The reader becomes aware of what convention expects and, hopefully, learns to think in the space between such responses.
"As well as cultural forms and data types marginalised by the historically Eurocentric fixation on text and image, most computer use relies on strange, almost unnoticed conventions and choreographies" explains Matt. One such convention is the use of predominantly middle-class, white-collar business metaphors such as the 'desktop', 'trashcan', 'folders' and 'files'. In I/O/D#3, the reader is presented with a familiar McFolder entitled "Limbo". On habitual double-click, this folder produces another folder, whose title is the beginning of a story. Double-click on this icon and it gives way to yet another folder whose title is also a sentence-fragment. And so on as the story unfolds across a desktop pass-the-parcel minus the meaningful surprise. There is nothing inside any of these folders: their titles are their meaning.
Similarly, in Mindvirus0294, the reader is given the option at one point of pressing 'restart' for fear of strange interfaces and alternative paradigms. The only problem is that the familiar 'restart' button begins to blink and skid across the screen in the most user-unfriendly fashion, with your trigger-happy finger in hot pursuit. ("Is the interface the Art? Is convention the interface?") When we become conscious of the materiality of interaction, we enter into dialogue with the machine.
"There is no real distinction between the technological and the organic machines," explain Mindflux. "The perceived distinction arises from an inability to see the computer as part of an extended phenotype of the human organism." As we describe a trajectory through the information, our bodies are in turn inscribed upon. As we write, we are also written: we evolve. "In 'interaction, there is only evolution. Flux. Chaos," Mindflux explain. The bite-size units of conceptual information contained within the data, or 'memes', infect our consciousness like cognitive viruses. ('Memes' are units of information or ideas which behave in much the same manner as genes, like a TV jingle that seems to survive and replicate in our minds, or an ideology that affects our behaviour). Memes inscribe themselves upon us consciously or unconsciously whenever we interact with the world around us, creating an evolving feedback loop with reality. Similarly, when we 'interact' with a computer, we exchange memetic information across an always already political interface. Mindflux seek to make this process explicit. Mindvirus00297 (mv3.7) contains a 'Conspiracies'R'Us' Random Meme Generator, and on activation, it arbitrarily assembles a theory from a pool of linguistic components (eg., "president Clinton impregnates cornflakes with LSD and administers them to schoolchildren so the world is a safer place"). The experiment is on the reader as soon as her eyes begin to move over the letters. Will this meme survive and replicate in your mind? Are you conscious of this exchange?
"We believe that the computer, like everything else, is composed in conflict," explains Matt. "Within interactive media there is a tension between the universal development of metaphors, systems and devices and the commercial need to publish software that is at best 'less-similar' to that of competitors." Universal metaphors - the visual grammar and behavioural logic of multimedia - render the interface transparent. "Familiar expectations are exploited by I/O/D by re-evoking the bewilderment experienced by first-time users of the system," maintains Matt. In I/O/D2, the opening screen is black, its field of links and hotspots dead to the eye. On touching the mouse, the reader finds that he or she affects the sound emanating from the speakers. Slight movements introduce new bass loops and interstellar bleeps. After a while, she discerns that the key navigational organ is the ear: she must re-adjust her perceptions to a sound-based interface. The initial reaction is one of bewilderment. (Am I controlling these noises or are they pre-programmed? Is this how I 'access' the information?) "It is in this renewal of dialogue between the user, the machine and the wider conceptual and material apparatus that they are connected to that things are opened up," explains Matt. "The normal noun-verb based point'n'click behaviour obscures the possibilities for the development of more complex arrangements of feedback between the user and the machine." The sounds produced across the I/O/D interface encourage the reader to explore not only the information, but the boundaries of the interaction itself. (What sort of noises can my movements produce - and where will they lead me? My eardrums and my sense of rhythm direct the flow.) In this moment of readjustment, we are given the opportunity to converse with the machine, to open ourselves to possibility.
"We don't assume people are stupid," explain Mindflux. "Mindvirus encourages exploration and curiosity. Nothing is stagnant. There is always a 'further' to evolve into."
Selfe, C. L. and R. J. Selfe. 'The Politics of the Interface: Power and its Exercise in Electronic Contact Zones', College Composition and Communication 45:4, pp. 480-504, 1994.