Saturday, March 19, 2016

The Humidity of Emotion -or- That Feel

At the risk of stretching myself too thin, I've decided to take on an extra layer for the upcoming installation project.  This class is at it's core about interactive design; our charge is to conceive of and execute robust interaction frameworks.  This involves, but is not limited to, ease of entry (meaning little or no explication of the rules of the interaction), richness of recognized gestures or interaction possibilities, feedback from the installation that both maps to the gesture intuitively yet is also dense enough to maintain the interest of the participant, seamless technical execution, an error handling framework for unexpected input (following Benford et al in the paper "Sensed Expected Desired"), and many more.  While this is more than enough to fill my plate for the next five (!) weeks or so, I also feel compelled to explore another layer that is not the main focus of (but by no means ignored in) this class: that of a compelling aesthetic experience causing an emotional connection with the audience.

I will by no means claim any sort of authority on the width and breadth of interactive artwork, but I have seen a fair share, some good, some bad.  Many, and especially those that harbor a large amount of digital hardware and software, often have an antiseptic feel to them, a sleek presentation that shares an aesthetic with the design of all of our technical hardware.  In a discussion with Dr. Gurevich about this, he suggested that many of the works are still conceived of in the vein of the Bauhaus, Late Modernism and Minimalism, with their rejection of of superfluity and unnecessary ornament.  I am by no means rejecting this aesthetic, this is not a manifesto and I shy away from categorical imperatives; I am just curious if a more emotive framework can be found for a digital interaction.  While many works are able to instill a sense of wonder with beautiful lights, surprising interactions and technical sophistry, or conversely deep disquiet with dark imagery, it's rare, at least for me, to find a digital work that can, or attempts, to achieve more subtle explorations of emotion.  Is there a path to Nostalgia, to Ennui, to Anticipation, to Longing, or to the vast sea of feelings that are as of yet unnamed, only evoked through either the actual experience or the non-verbal forms of communication?  C.J. Ducasse in a 1964 article in the Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism puts it well:

"The fact is that human beings experience, and the works of art and indeed works of nature too express, many feelings besides the ordinarily thought of when the term the emotions is used.  These other feelings are too rare, or too fleeting, or too unmanifested, or their nuances too subtle, to have pragmatic importance and therefore to have needed names." 
 So to what ends do I pursue in search of these subtle shades?  It, of course, ultimately breaks down to 'that feel', the artistic judgment of the worth of an aesthetic, of whether or not is the correct vehicle for the feeling that I would attempt to invoke.  In other disciplines, the access to that feel can be a much clearer pathway; there are hundreds, even thousands, of years of practice and tropes to follow or flee from.  In the realm of digital interactive art, we barely have fifty or sixty years, maybe with a hundred years of antecedents; we have no history from which to draw or to be ashamed.  So this has lead me down some curious pathways; as any place is as good to start as any other, I decided to start at what I though was the beginning.

I was reading on the basic psychological aspects of a viewers emotions in relation to art when I came across an article by Vladimir J. Koneni of the Department of Psychology at University of California San Diego (Emotion in Painting and Art Installations, The American Journal of Psychology).  The article was about how, overall, installation art was a better vehicle for instilling an emotional reaction in a viewer than traditional painting.  Most of his conclusion boiled down to how installation work can be made very large and thus short circuit its way to inducing awe.  A line early in the paper caught my eye:

For an examination of their potential effect on emotion to make analytic sense, it is necessary that paintings be considered solely qua artworks – that for any observed effect to be treated as positive evidence, it needs to have been clearly caused by the paintings’ artistic attributes alone and not by their status as semiotic signs. An example is
a portrait of a loved person, no longer living. Perusing such a painting, one may become genuinely sad, which, however, may have little or nothing to do with the painting’s artistic or aesthetic value, or even mimetic success. The painting does not induce emotion as a work of art, but as a displaced or generalized classically conditioned stimulus.
So, setting aside the notion of 'solely qua artworks' and their utility to psychology (and I may quibble with his conclusion a bit—there is a Rothke at the Detroit Institute of Arts that still flabbergasts me every time I sit with it), I explored the idea of the 'semiotic signs' of the artwork.  For Koneni this 'taint' of external meaning of the artwork made for a bad sample set for the sake of psychological research, but it could prove rich loam in my pursuit.  Representational painting of course needs a subject, and I believe that a painter rarely chooses a subject solely based on the underlying set of signs and assumptions that portraying it would convey; being married to a painter I know it is an esoteric mix of quality of light and color that really catches their imaginations.  Even if there is a conscious underlying meaning, like, for example, Picasso's Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, it is done more for immediate commentary or effect; the emotional signs, the unnamed feelings evoked are subjectively imbued into the painting by the individual viewer much later, and often to the distress of the artist.  Furthermore, the deliberate invocation of a specific sign pointed at a specific feeling is ham-fisted, coercive, and inevitably bound to backfire because of the ultimately subjective nature of feeling.  But I believe that it is possible, especially in a medium as flexible as interaction, to create a 'saturated atmosphere of sign'.  No mean feat, I'm sure, but possible; I believe the place to look to for inspiration is film because it shares a similar combination of abilities in combinations of sound and light.  A particular continuum of filmmakers comes to mind when I think of the aesthetic I would like to pursue; that of Jan Svankmajer and his immediate heirs, the Brothers Quay.

Svankmajer is a Czech filmaker working from Prague most active in the mid to late Communist era.  He is most known for his surrealist stop action animation made on a shoe string budget with found objects.  The Brothers Quay, twin brothers from the U.S. but located in England, created a similar style, though they came to Svankmajer late as his works were hidden behind the Iron Curtain. They made a tribute film to Svankmajer called The Cabinet of Jan Svankmajer   Here are some examples of their work:

A Svankmajer whimsy:
Jan Svankmajer - Jabberwocky from deanna t on Vimeo.

And an excerpt from the Brothers Quay:

These works have an emotional resonance for me not just because they are technical feats, or the peculiar medium that they choose to work in, but because they are rich with sign; obviously they are in direct succession of the surrealists for whom subconscious sign was a stock in trade.  The reuse of weathered detritus, the juxtaposition of objects and actions not normally related, the bizarre narrative, the surreal settings; all these combine to create an atmosphere 'humid' with sign just waiting for for a subject to condense on.  Just like the water suspended in humid air, the condensation is indiscriminate because it is pervasive; a cold spoon, a glass of ice water, a window, anything just cool enough will cause the water to appear out of the air and saturate it's surface.  To follow the metaphor, as long as one is willing to accept the indiscriminate condensation as the desired affect and not simply targeting one 'object' (feeling) to saturate, then creating an atmosphere that can have emotional resonance across a variety of subjective viewpoints is possible.

This is dangerous territory.  Just like pointing at a certain feeling can backfire, creating an overbearing overall environment can cause a viewer to shut off due to too much stimulus; furthermore just collecting a heap of sign laden imagery and cramming it into a container risks becoming kitsch.  The collection must be delicately curated or the 'dew point' of the whole enterprise drops and the water falls out of the air.

Then there are the requirements for this particular situation.  This is an exercise in interaction, requiring and active as opposed to a passive audience.  It would do no good to do the curation of sign and then simply give the participant a push button interface; this would also break the atmosphere, drop the dew point.  The interaction must be interwoven into the atmosphere, inform it, work seamlessly within its confines.  This brings me to the question that is the whole point of this endeavor. Our subconscious is activated by our different senses in a myriad of ways with more or less efficacy; the smell of rotting leaves, the mournful wail of a saxophone, the taste of a childhood dish, the quality of bright sunlight of a late winter afternoon, etc.  Sight, smell, hearing and taste seem to have a direct line to the subconscious, cutting across our years and ringing out multiple associations in their path, creating a complex and unrepeatable tone of feeling with each pass.  But what of touch?  What of the tactile?  What of gesture?  There is something so immediate about touch that it seems to defy these subconscious associations; I'm racking my brain trying to think of a nostalgic gesture, of a texture that sends me into reverie, the touch equivalent of Proust's Madeline.  This would be the gold standard of Interactive Design; not just interacting in a sign saturated atmosphere but having a physical interaction saturated with sign.  This is my big lift for the upcoming project and it may very well turn out Quixotic.  I'll leave the conclusion to one of our times great tradesman of sign, who once in an interview described himself as less of a musician and more of a curator:




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