Archives for the month of: November, 2011

Last 4th of November a panel convened at the J.E.U.X exhibition, held at Montréal’s Eastern Bloc gallery. The evening included the playing of Doug Wilson’s game Johan Sebastien Joust, which was a big hit.

The panel was framed as discussing how we can use video games to learn. In the course of the discussion, Prof. Bart Simon took the provocative position that a game exists solely as an opportunity or invitation to do something different. He specified that in Western culture that meant something different from work. Simon’s work centers on how a game creates a space to do something more than is required to play it. He suggests it is that excess from which the engagement (fun?) is derived. He explicitly said that this excess can not be accounted for in the underlying code; that it cannot be measured in the flow of information within the game.

This challenges the methodology and the potential outcome of my research. I want to see if there are tell tale signs of the intentionality that underlies the transfer of simple, lean data streams.

We retreat to the TAGlab to fabricate and code

The idea of a virtual tug o’ war game occurred to van Sertima during an early discussion of gestural games at Concordia University’s TAGlab, during 2009. The challenges of creating a game that simulates the interaction of two or more people hauling on a rope seemed great to an academic trained as an art historian and philosopher, even one who carries some pride in his skills as a carpenter, mechanic and renovator. So when this October’s Bizarro Game Controllers workshop came to Hexagram Concordia, Leif Pezendorfer, a fellow Game Studies graduate student was recruited to add some engineering expertise. Additionally, the workshop leaders, Drs. Amanda Williams and Cindy Poremba offered considerable mentoring. The other workshop participants shared their expertise. By the end of the workshop, we had constructed a crude controller that translated pulling forces into electrical signals that could move a paddle in a version of the game Pong. Here is how we achieved this first phase of our research, and the direction and goals which were suggested by our success.

Going into the workshop, van Sertima’s conception was to suspend a spring from the ceiling of the lab, with a stout rope providing the point where a user would grip the controller. Body weight would be required to activate the system. The vision of Quasimodo hauling on a bell pull but causing a digital paddle to ascend and descend was the first concept. The logistical realities soon became apparent and a more modest system was devised. Pezendorfer suggested that rather than having a one person pull, that a cooperative system be instituted. Both players would have to work together to balance the pulling force.

As a research creation project, this brought to mind an early performance work of the controversial american artist, Chris Burdon. In Art Forum(May 1976) Robert Horvitz describes this work:
“One consisted of a metal T-bar that bolted to the floor, on which two people were supposed to stand, and a pair of metal rods connected to each other by short cords. Holding the rods in their hands, the two people leaned away from one another and attempted to strike a common balance. ‘This balance point,’ Burden comments, “is very elusive and can only be maintained for a few seconds.’”

Bordon’s concern was that such art works were interpreted as static and metaphorical when he intended that they be played for what they were, and embodied interaction.

This concern with direct experience of a mediated action inspired the use of a 50 lb fish scale as providing resistance to the pulling action. The index is not a simulation of a tug of war. Our goal was to allow for substantial physical force to be applied to the controller, and ultimately this force would be actuated digitally. In that sense this controller was geared to a high if degree of indexicality if not necessarily a perfect one.
For the purposes of this work shop we were content to get connectivity and interactivity.

The fish scale, arduino and miscellaneous parts are monted on a piece of plywood.

The controller: A stretch sensor is attached to the fish scale. The stretch sensor is electrically connected to an Arduino Uno microcontroller via a simple buffering circuit. The data is streamed to a computer via a USB cable. The Arduino software accepts the data and transfers it to applications created in Processing.

The controller worked well enough to let two people control one paddle in a game of pong. An opponent used a capacitance sensor to operate the other paddle.

We were pleased with having a working model. More refined iterations will be built. These could include a series of LEDs mounted directly on the controller, indicating whether the paddle is in the appropriate place to return the “ball”. A more robust controller mounted on a support could allow the original idea of a controller that uses body weight. The long term work would include using a Kinect device to eliminate the controller entirely. This addresses a problem that is briefly discussed by Seth Giddings, when he discusses the difficulty of moveing two characters in concert in the game LEGO Starwars.
The payoff for these questions will be a delineation of how much embodiment can be transmitted digitally.

One of my long time questions revolves around the question of intentionality. Philosophers use that word specifically to mean the experience of having experience. At least, that is my short explanation of the term and expresses how I use it. We are aware that we are aware. At least we have the experience of being able to stand back and watch ourselves somewhat.

This raises two questions, to start. Do others also experience this? Empirically, we act as if others share a similar intentionality. Indeed, if I didn’t think that was the case, I would have less motivation to write a blog. The second problem is how we can share our subjectivity. Many thinkers point out that to a great extent we assume intersubjectivity is possible between intentional beings. Just reading that last sentence calls to mind myriad thinkers who argue that assumption is highly questionable, and proposed ways to reflect on that problem.

For myself, I started some years ago to look at what we commonly call art as a means to examine both intentionality and intersubjectivity. Certainly, many thinkers before me thought of that. Arthur Schopenhauer thought that, and from his thought, Friedrich Nietzsche began to explore a politics of art, or more precisely, an aesthetics. Other thinkers touched more cursorily on art objects. Edmund Husserl, who started the 20th century version of this approach termed it phenomenology. His work explicitly tried to look at the elements of experience that were specific to a given experience of a phenomena.

MM was an installation that portrayed a maquette as a real space, calling into question the viewers relationship to projected work.

Husserl used the example of a die. It had a particular sense of weight, warmth and texture. It had a particular play of chiaroscuro, colour and wear. And these appeared to change to some extent over time. Additionally, your perception differs from mine, even when we look at the same die– we haveit from a different spatial perception. Husserl’s approach was what he called the “epoché” which was the attempt to bracket everything that wasn’t particular to the moment of experiencing the given phenomena.

For myself, I see Husserl’s approach, and its elaboration in those he influenced, such as Martin Heidegger, Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Paul Ricouer as very applicable to thinking about art works. This is especially true of interactive art works. Notionally, we often talk of an artist’s intention when we discuss her work. We also come to have different interpretations and responses to the works. These responses become more complex and compelling when we consider performative art, such as music, theatre and the contemporary form called performance art. Modern technology, too has allowed us to interact with devices that seem to approach what social scientists call “agency” although they may dispute what they exactly mean by agency.

The Mona Lisa restiored

DaVinci's La Gioconda "The Mona Lisa" is one of many versions his studio produced. Apprentices contributed different amounts of work to each of DaVinci's pieces.

So this blog is my space to write about interactive art forms. These may be works that address a single person, works that interactive with each other, that allow the interaction of people with each other, or all of these situations. I will try to stick to Husserl’s cry “to the things themselves” and address specific art works, rather than broad categories. More contentiously, I will include works that include objects such as video games that haven’t traditionally been considered art objects. Briefly, the commercial motivation to create digital games is merely another motivation and neither greater or lesser than any other in the creation of art works. My grounding for this is in the work of such art historians as Janet Wolff’s The Social production of Art which argues that art is always subject to pressures and limitations the same as that that informs agriculture, industry or anything else that is made by people. Wolff has many other scholars who provide compelling arguments for this position.

So I have outlined what I want to think about in this blog. I hope it will be as interesting for you to read as it is for me to write.