Art and Interface

See page 227 in The Language of New Media

“Historically, the artist made a unique work within a particular medium.  Therefore, the interface and the work were the same; in other words, the level of an interface did not exist.  With new media, the content of the work and the interface are separated.”

The larger context for this claim relates to an application of Manovich’s Principle of Variability: a particular new media object can be viewed in many different ways.  As Manovich observes, new media make it possible to “create different interfaces to the same material.”  This is, however, more of a linguistic illusion resulting from the terms of Manovich’s reductionist analysis than it is an observation about how new media function (either as cultural traditions or as computer programs).

Manovich is here using the word “interface” in an expansive sense, wherein text and cinema, for example, are understood as “interfaces” to shared bodies of cultural knowledge and traditions.  It is somewhat unclear what, exactly, it might mean for Manovich to suggest that a new media object exists in multiple mediums in a way that is substantively distinct from traditional cultural productions.  A CD-ROM, for example, won’t fit into a radio; and while the audio contained on a CD-ROM can be played back over the radio, a painting can just as readily be reproduced in a book.  And while it is true that a particular image might be retrieved from a DVD Player as readily as from a web browser — thus providing an example of multiple interfaces to the same work — it is still unclear how this is substantively distinct from how one might appreciate the literary content of a traditional drama either on stage or in print.

The history of art is filled with countless variations on the themes of the creation myth of Judaism, the narrative of Christ, Greek folk heroes, and the like.  And while these mythologies are not themselves the creations of a single artist, distinct artworks which portray these myths are different “interfaces” to specific cultural productions.

Moreover, an artist who makes use of allegory and symbolism provides an audience multiple ways of “interfacing” with a given artwork.  Iconography and symbolism are frequently used in religious or philosophical art to indicate a transcendent reality distinct from the material world of the senses.  Likewise, allegory is used to implicate general truths distinct from the particular facts of a given narrative.  In a given painting, we may find symbolic uses of color, gesture, geometric composition strategies, and culturally significant objects used to generate different sorts of meaning.  One might appreciate the aesthetics of a painting’s colors or forms in a way quite distinct from what those colors and forms are being used to say about historical, philosophical, or mythological ideas.

It might be illustrative here to mention Dante’s notion of a “polysemous” artwork — that is, an artwork “endowed with many meanings.”  A polysemous artwork involves four distinct types of meaning: the literal, the allegorical, the moral, and the anagogical.  One literary statement might be at once appreciated for the economy and the skill of its construction, for the useful information it conveys, for the transcendent truths which it indicates, and for the moral teachings the statement imply.  A given reader need not be aware of each of these levels of meaning, nor be attentive to each to appreciate the others. Here we have a Mediaeval formulation of what multiple “interfaces” to a single artwork can look like.

Painting is more than pigments on canvas, just as a book is more than “a rectangular page containing one or more columns of text, illustrations or other graphics… pages that follow each other sequentially, a table of contents, and an index” (see page 71).  A book is also a cultural tradition; the obstacles an author (such as James Joyce) must overcome while trying to get a book published confer upon the book a type of authority.  That perception of authority contributes to how a reader might cognitively orient his- or herself to the text.  As more people read texts online, more people come to the realization that there is something emotionally satisfying about holding a bound book in their hands while they read — something quite apart from the content of the text, or what is required of one attempting to “interface” with the text.

While it may be argued at this point that what new media brings to art is the ability to make these multiple modes of “interfacing” somehow more explicit than what is found in traditional art forms, there is little reason to attribute this change to anything about how new media is structured.  The ability to “interface” with a work of art in multiple ways existed before the development of new media, and social practices designed to foreground this multiplicity likewise existed before the development of new media (the museum being an obvious example).  And while it may then be suggested that new media places this multiplicity “within” the artwork in a way distinct from that found in traditional media, Manovich’s argument would seem to preclude this line of reasoning, as he suggests that there is a distinct way in which “the content of the work and the interface are separated” in new media.

Moreover, the best interfaces are those which are most transparent: if, when a person sits at a computer, he or she spends too much time trying to figure out how to operate the computer, the interface is not a useful tool for getting actual work done.  Successful interfaces rely on common cultural signifiers, the consistent implementation of functional components, and a degree of unobtrusiveness.  If an industrial designer tries to be too innovative with the design of a light switch or a doorknob, users will become frustrated when they can’t figure out how to make it work.  And while there may be an aesthetic argument for new media artists addressing the conventions of the interface itself — of directly addressing the complexity of multiple interface possibilities — to identify this possibility as somehow inherent to new media practice misses the point of what an interface actually does.

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