straight up

Personal Dynamic Media <1977>

Perhaps it was nostalgia that led me to search an interactive video fantasy - a craving for control, a longing for liveness, a drive toward direct action.

This chronic condition I suffered from is reputedly a side-effect, or for video artists an occupational hazard of watching too much television, a medium which is by nature fragmentary and incomplete. Distanced and unsatisfying, like platonic sex. A (pre) condition of a video dialogue is that it does not talk back. Rather, it exists as a moving stasis; a one-sided discourse, like a trick mirror that absorbs instead of reflects.

My path to interactive works began not with video, but in performance when in 1971 an alternative identity named Roberta Breitmore was created. She was a breathing, simulacrumed persona, played first by myself, and then by a series of multiple individuals. Roberta existed in both real life and real time and during the decade of her activity engaged in many adventures that typified the cultured in which she participated. She had a checking account and driver's license, and saw a psychiatrist. Her existence was proved by the trackings of her psychiatric reports and credit ratings.

Her construction included specific language and gestures as well as a stereotyped cosmetic ambience. By accumulating artifacts from culture and interacting directly with life, she became a two-way mirror that reflected societal biases absorbed through experiences. Roberta always seen as a surveillance target. Her decisions were random, only very remotely controlled.

Roberta's manipulated reality became a model for a private system of interactive performance. Instead of a disc or hardware, her records were stored on photographs and texts that could be viewed without predetermined sequences. This allowed viewers to become voyeurs into Roberta's history. Their interpretations shifted depending on the perspective and order of the sequences.

Two years after Roberta's transformation, Lorna, the first interactive art videodisc, was completed. Unlike Roberta, whose adventures took place directly in the environment, Lorna was a middle-aged agoraphobic fearful of leaving her tiny apartment. The premise was that the more she stayed home and watched television, the more fearful she became - primarily because she was absorbing the frightening messages of advertising and news broadcasts. Because she never left home, the objects in her room took on a magnificent proportion. In the disc, every object in her room is numbered and becomes a chapter in her life that opens into branching sequences.

Viewer/participants access information about her past, future, and personal conflicts via these artifacts. Many images on the screen are of the remote control device Lorna uses to change television channels. Because viewer/participant use a nearly identical unit to direct the disc action, a metaphoric link or point of identification is established between the viewer and referent. The viewer/participant activates the live action and makes surrogate decisions for Lorna. Decisions are designed into a branching path.

Although there are only 17 minutes of moving image in the disc, the 36 chapters could be sequenced differently for several days. There are three separate endings to the disc, though the plot has multiple variations that include being caught in repeating dream sequences, or using multiple soundtracks, and can be seen backwards, forwards, at increased or decreased speed and from several points of view.

There is no hierarchy in the ordering of decisions. These ideas are not new. They were explored by such artists as Stephen Mallarme, John Cage and Marcel Duchamp - particularly in Duchamp's music. They pioneered ideas about random adventures and chance operations 50 years before invention of the technology that would have more fully exploited their concepts.

Lorna literally is captured by a mediated landscape. Her passivity (presumably caused by being controlled by media) is a counterpoint to the direct action of the player. As the branching path is deconstructed, the player becomes aware of the subtle yet powerful effects of fear caused by media and becomes more empowered (active) through this perception. Playing Lorna was designed to have viewer/participants transgress into an inverse labyrinth of themselves.

Despite some theories to the contrary, the dominant presumption is that making art is active and viewing it is passive. Radical shifts in communication technology, such as the marriage of image, sound, text and computers, and consummation by the public of this consort have challenged this assumption. Viewer/participants of Lorna reported that they had the impression that they were empowered because they held the option of manipulating Lorna's life. Rather than being remotely controlled, the decision unit was literally placed in their hands. Implications of the relationship reversal between individuals and technological media systems are immense. The media bath of transmitted prestructured and edited information that surrounds (and some say alienates) people is washed away. It is hosed down by viewer input. Alteration of the basis for exchange of information is subversive in that it encourages participation and therefore creates a different audience dynamic.

Interactive systems require viewers to react. Their choices are facilitated by means of a keyboard, mouse or touch-sensitive screen. As technology expands, there will be more permutations available, not only between the viewer and the system, but between elements within the system itself. Some people feel that computer systems will eventually reflect the personality and biases of their users. Yet these systems only appear to talk back. That they are alive, or independent, is an illusion. They depend upon the architectural strategy of the program.

However, there is a space between the system and player in which a link, or fusion , or transplant occurs. Truth and fiction blur. Action becomes icon. According to Freud, reality may be limited to perceptions that can be verified through words or visual codes. Therefore, perceptions are the drive to action that influence, if not control, real events. Perceptions therefore become the key to reality.

Lorna was developed as an R and D guide, but is generally inaccessible. It was pressed in a limited edition of 25, of which only 14 now exist. It is only occasionally installed in galleries or museums. Creating a truly interactive work demands that it exist on a mass scale, available and accessible to many people. The Hypercard program works on most Macintosh computers and can be genlocked to a disc player or a CD-V, or be used alone. It can access moving or still images and has a wide range of sound capabilities, and is relatively inexpensive.