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Working the Screen 2000

Beyond the interface: exhibiting digital media

Kathy Cleland

Patricia Piccinini, Breathing Room Patricia Piccinini, Breathing Room
With the increasing prevalence of new media work being shown in galleries, installation design is an important area of concern for both artists and curators. Because of the ease with which digital media can be modified and reconfigured, new media works can be exhibited in a variety of formats to suit different exhibition and viewing situations. While many new media works have been created specifically for the web or CD-ROM, these works often achieve parallel lives as gallery installations. On the other hand, the ease of distribution is a double-edged sword as artists relinquish control of how that work is viewed and used. As media artist Leon Cmielewski comments: “the jukebox format encourages people to skip to the next work. [CD-ROMs] take an extraordinary amount of time and effort to compose and I feel everyone’s work deserves at least an even chance when it comes to presentation.”

For this reason, and when given the opportunity, many artists prefer to exhibit installation versions of their work, most frequently using data projectors and sound systems to amplify the work and create a more immersive cinematic environment than is possible via a computer monitor with in-built speakers or headphones.

Spectrascope (Sydney Biennale, Performance Space) co-curator Julianne Pierce says: “Generally speaking, an interactive work exhibited in the context of projected installation is more directly engaging than the same work exhibited on a monitor. The projection will often enhance the image, giving it a more cinematic quality.” Nevertheless, despite the current preference for projected work, bigger is not always better. The large screen experience can prove intimidating or embarrassing for individual users, particularly when they are not sure how to navigate the work or are being required to type in responses while being observed by other audience members.

Another more intimate option is to create custom built installation housings or kiosks such as those made by Ian Haig for his works Hack and Web Devolution, Haig writes, “...nothing is more unengaging than a Mac on a table or a plinth for displaying interactive work. Installations that house the work can give things a much wider context to operate in.” In many cases the nature of the work itself will suggest a particular mode of presentation. Leon Cmielewski says of The User Unfriendly Interface (created with Josephine Starrs) that “in places it used a very intimate interrogation and so we thought a one-to-one kind of experience like that should be housed in a kiosk which precluded more than one person using it and also encouraged people to answer the questions without the embarrassment of having an audience watching their responses (or typing skills).”

Unlike works that are viewed privately, where it can be assumed that the viewer is reasonably computer literate and has a high degree of motivation and commitment, none of these things can be assumed in the gallery context. User navigation guides or help information (as a gallery sheet if not onscreen) can overcome some of these barriers. Time-outs, when the work returns to a home screen after a set period of disuse, or ‘home’ buttons are also helpful in orienting gallery audiences who will often not be entering the work where the artist intends them to start but somewhere in the middle—often at a tricky part that’s hard to get out of!

Another consideration for artists and curators is the length of time audience members are likely to spend with a work in a gallery. Five to ten minutes with an individual work is probably a generous estimate; many will spend considerably less! Interactive multimedia producer and artist Kate Richards thinks that pieces requiring a short time commitment from the player (3 - 6 minutes) are coming into their own. “With Darkness Loiters (Sydney Suburb, in Museum of Sydney, 2000), “Ross Gibson and I have devised a piece that a player might spend only a few minutes to understand the interactivity design and scope. Then, if interested, they can continue interacting for quite some time and so get to understand a deeper layer of writerly connectivity and audio design.”

In Darkness Loiters, audiences become voyeurs, viewing the work via a ‘peephole’ constructed of horizontal wooden slats which allow access to a projected screen at 2 eye levels . Using old crime scene photographs taken in Sydney in the 1940s and 1950s, Richards and Gibson have created an interactive story engine which generates endless paranoid narratives. Small photographic images fade in and out of view in the top half of the screen and when clicked on they flash up full screen before settling into the bottom section of the screen. Once 3 images have been selected, they flash up again in sequence with individual captions forming surreal narrative juxtapositions.

Patricia Piccinini’s Breathing Room (Moet and Chandon 2000, AGNSW) created a particularly powerful and physically immersive installation environment. The work incorporated 3 large back projections of digitised human/animal/mutated skin which ‘breathed’ and pulsated in time to a soundtrack of human breathing. The soundtrack follows a cycle where the pace of the breathing escalates to what sounds like a panic attack before gradually calming and slowing. This work induces an intensely visceral and emotional response—I found it impossible to control my own breathing and heartbeat which also sped up as the pace of the breathing intensified. This visceral sensation was enhanced by innovative use of a mechanised floor which shuddered in time to the breathing.

Justine Cooper, in her new work Scynescape (which I viewed as a work in progress), also sets up a physically immersive environment via multiple video projections of magnified biological samples of the artist onto tensioned sheets of latex. The walls of latex form a maze that audience members navigate, adding their own shadows to the projections and (in the completed version of the work) activating aural components of the work via motion sensors. Cooper comments: “For me installation and projection are integral to the success of the work because I deal directly with issues of space—both body space and ‘experienced space.’...So even while it is necessary for me to create the work sitting in front of a monitor, the last thing in the world I want is for the viewer to sit in front of a box, linked only visually to what is unfolding in front of them.”

The use of ‘sensitive’ spaces where the movements of the audience act as input devices rather than a mouse or keyboard are some of the most fascinating and engaging examples of current new media installation practice. Garth Paine’s Map 2 (viewed via video documentation) is an interactive sound environment that was exhibited as part of the Kunstfest Am Kultur Forum in Berlin (December 1999). Using CCTV cameras and customised software audience members’ movements trigger musical notes and phrases. The area is divided into 4 zones which operate as 4 individual musical instruments allowing up to 4 audience members to participate at a time. In many ways the work is as much performance as installation, as audience members learn how to ‘play’ the work. Paine also collaborates with choreographers and dancers, for example with the innovative Melbourne-based Company in Space (see page 16) developing a new software instrument that will allow real time interactive input from both dancers and the composer. Information and short video excerpts of Garth Paine’s installation works, MAP1 and MAP2 and his new Reeds installation for this year’s Melbourne Festival, are available at

Exhibited as part of Spectrascope, Unstill Life by Mari Velonaki and Gary Zebington also goes beyond the standard mouse/keyboard/screen interface using a video camera and artificial vision systems software (Chognacrome) to create an invisible interactive interface between audience members and a woman’s digital portrait. The portrait is projected onto gossamer fabric creating a wonderfully luminous silvery image which contrasts dramatically with the traditional dark wooden frame that houses it. The Renaissance meets the 21st century. As the title of the work suggests, this is no ordinary still life. As you enter the gallery space, the woman observes and responds to your movements. A container of red apples acts as the interface and when an audience member approaches the container to pick up an apple, the woman becomes alert and excited.

Theoretically the more apples you eat (or appear to eat) the more animated the woman becomes. This work is still in development and the scope of the interaction is presently somewhat limited and unpredictable. Nevertheless, it is an exciting experiment and I am looking forward to seeing Velonaki and Zebington’s future collaborations. There was a truly magical moment when I walked into the room and the woman sat up and looked back at me and I was transfixed but then she lost interest no matter how many apples I pretended to eat!

All quotations in this article are from personal email correspondence.

RealTime issue #38 Aug-Sept 2000 pg. 12

© Kathy Cleland; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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