Interface: A Generative Interface

Autoportrait Exhibition, 44a Gallery, 31 May 2016

As technology can be defined not only as an instrument but also as a way of organization, we see that interfaces organize the modes of making and sharing art in emerging ways today. Interfaces have become the dominant cultural forms mediating between humans and machines, cultures and data, artworks and viewers or collectioners in our digitalized everyday life. They directly affect the ways we perceive, share and perform cultural activities because they offer a possibility to view and act within the shared boundaries of the existing and the emerging.

In his recent book entitled, The Interface Envelope: Gaming, Technology and Power, John Ash (2015: 24) notes, “within work on technology and new media studies, at least five distinct approaches to the interface can be identified. Interfaces are understood as: (i) computational devices, (ii) a set of human practices, (iii) a medium for transmitting cultural logics, (iv) a link between analog and digital and (v) as affective surfaces.” Ash further asserts that these five approaches have a common point which positions the interface as a connection between distinct modes of being, even if they don’t always distinguish between the same modes of being. In doing so, the interface emerges as a force of generative friction between various formats, structures, cultures, users and contexts.

As windows of web browsers substitute the walls in art galleries, the force of generative friction of interfaces manifests a critical point: the leading dominant culture is being folded, enveloped and transformed through interfaces. This critical point then leads us to reflect how interfaces operate.

Any given format finds its subjectivity merely in the fact that it becomes a container for another format. Hence, interfaces touch the shared boundaries of both the governing dominant aspects and the fleeting minor others, and they reveal a generative force which is caused by the friction between them.

Today the emerging ways of exhibiting and collecting artworks via interfaces fold, envelop and transform the existing cultural forms and formats of contemporary art. Here, the main point does not seem whether this transformation is revolutionary. The transformative processes of interfaces explore the knowledge about the construction and operation of new forms of power. If one can strictly explore the operational process of interfaces, then it becomes possible to distinguish whether interfaces are creating a form of distracted and distributed present in which human capacities for imagination and reflection are being deconstructed.

For this reason, it important to note that today interface-oriented cultural industries can also create a cacophonic attention economy, where increasing frequency levels of stimulation are used to contain users (i.e. viewers, artists and collectioners) magnetized in a single object or subject, a popularized artwork, material or an artist. Speculation, polemics and all  kinds of promotional activities play a vital role for affecting the decision-making, judging and imagining processes of such users. In Rushkoff’s (2013: 3-4) estimation, the digital world is creating a ‘multitasking brain, actually incapable of storage or sustained argument’ leading to what both he and Stiegler (2009) term a ‘temporal disorientation’. This also means the erosion and consumption of interfaces’ generative force due to excessive friction.

In cacophonic economy of interface-oriented dominant cultural industries, instead of gaining pleasure from focusing on one, ‘we hop from choice to choice with no present at all.” In turn ‘we lose the ability to imagine opportunities emerging and excitement arising from pursuing whatever we are currently doing, as we compulsively anticipate the next decision point’ (Rushkoff 2013: 116). Rather than finding minor modes of escape and generate, here and now, we are subordinated to react to the ever-present assault of simultaneous impulses and commands. Beyond individual negative effects, Stiegler suggests that, in attempting to control attention, these cultural industries also create restrictions for the construction of alternative social relations, cultural activities and critical thinking.

Interfaces can be instrumental to challenge and transform the ways in which cultural industries and cacophonic attention economies paralyze the abilities of imagination, critical thinking and developing alternative social relations. Thus, they can reverse the distracted and distributed perception manipulations in order to create not only economic value, but also various sorts of positive and negative values, such as satisfaction, fame, success, respect, esteem, stagnation and friendship, which can be possessed according to the conditions of present moments and spaces. In this way, interfaces would not merely rely upon the active contingency and the productive skills consumers generate through practices of consumption.

Rather than understanding interfaces as the outcome of a process that attaches different domains together to complete a task, for instance to gain economic value, Ash suggests that interfaces can also be considered as environments of inorganically organized objects, which communicate through processes of conversion. Hence, interfaces can then fold the existing ones inwards, open up and create new capacities for attention and affect that can be mined in order to realize new forms of enveloped and habitual values. As such, the power of interfaces does not emerge from oppressing or dumbing down a user’s critical faculties, but from augmenting the capacities of users’ enveloped power within a set of possibilities that the interface attempts to prioritize or naturalize.

For Jean-Luc Nancy (2000) the trope of the interface actually shows that interfaces are a site of differentiation where the distinction between things becomes sharply contrasted and apparent, through the very processes of contact and connect. To touch something is to make contact with it even when remaining separate from it because the entities that touch do not fuse together. To touch is to caress a surface that belongs to something else, but never to master or consume it. It requires a certain space between beings, but also an interface where they meet (Harman, 2013, p. 98). Thus, the friction which occurs within the shared boundaries of the existing and the emerging reveals the connection power of interfaces and it also makes the transformative ways in which this power is generated vital.

References

Ash, J. (2015), The Interface Envelope: Gaming, Technology and Power, New York: Bloomsbury.

Harman, G. (2013), Bells and Whistles: More Speculative Realism, Winchester: Zero Books.

Nancy, J. L. (2000), Being Singular Plural, California: Stanford University Press.

Rushkoff, D. (2013), Present Shock: When Everything Happens Now, New York: Penguin Group US.

Stiegler, B. (2009), Technics and Time, 2: Disorientation, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.