The Geometry of Interaction
Université de Paris VI
If you desire to see, learn how to act.
When he wrote this motto,it is almost as though the cybernetician Heinz von Foerster, one of the theoreticians who influenced the school of constructivist psychology, had in mind Du Zhenjun’s works, which reveal themselves and acquire their meaning only in response to the active participation of the viewer. Indeed, for von Foerster, “perceiving is making” and all perception is therefore created by the subject’s action upon his environment. In the field of digital arts, the concept of interaction has repeatedly been identified as a fundamental characteristic and this notion is one of the fundamental advance brought by the use of computers in art installations. In the paradigm of the interface, interaction has often been considered as a necessarily reduced and incomplete dialogue between the human and the machine, as a means of access that will always be frustrating since it is imperfectly codified according to the digital reality hidden at the core of the machine, in the shadow of memory banks and over-clocked chips. This is because the computer is still thought of as a simple repository of binary information, a database in which the phenomenon of interaction is reduced to a question of more or less easy and more or less efficient access to data. This vision is all the more applicable to one of the latest developments in new media, the World Wide Web, the rhizomatic reification of a nearly infinite library of Babel. In taking up this route, numerous artists have done their utmost to devise interfaces that are more or less natural to allow for an improved interaction with their digital works, as if the viewer’s immersion should necessarily go through a complex technological apparatus with computer or electronic elements facilitating the difficulty and ambiguity of interpretation that all artistic production offers. That approach, however, forgets that immersion is cognitive before being perceptive, the “reality” of a work clearly being invented and recreated by the viewer and not just perceived and undergone.
Du Zhenjun clearly situates himself within this new conceptualization of interaction. The interactive technologies he uses are relatively simple, as the presence sensors (through floor pressure or infrared detection) merely record and send binary data: on/off, present or absent. Thus, far from technological artifice, he rather invents an epure of interaction, which, through its minimalism, makes light of any given technological implementation. He thereby exposes the digital medium employed with no reticence, to the point of bestowing it with the authorship of his piece Fountain (2001), which is labeled “Macromedia”, the publisher of the software used.
Du Zhenjun strives to lay bare the very logic of interaction: “I want to go beyond video,” he says, “I need a new language to formulate a possibility.” Beyond the instantaneousness of painting and the linearity of video, it takes the form of diagrams with the multiple bifurcations that his works often engender, thus representing different possible worlds connected by viewers’ actions. The viewer is never thought of as being outside the work and in dialogue with it, but rather, he is considered as being well inside it. The work is therefore conceived as a dynamic system receptive to the actions of the user, so that it can produce feedback actions and communicate an intense emotional response. And the ultimate creation of Du Zhenjun is indeed the situation the viewer will find himself in. Therefore, the center of this work is each and every viewer and the circumference is nowhere, as it does not stop at the video projection screens. Instead, it opens up onto our social collective memory through the use of sequences of found images simultaneously cut off from their original context and immediately identifiable as cultural archetypes everyone can reinterpret in his own way. Thus, in Presumption (2000), the ghostly nude figures in the shower surround the viewer and integrate him into their world of misery; the illegal refugees chased down in The Raft of Medusa (2000), whom the viewer catches by surprise and makes vulnerable, question the viewer’s complicity—a questioning that reappears in He Hurts Me Every Minute (1999). More complex in their arrangement, the TV images in A Week in the World of Du Zhenjun (2000) mesmerize, intoxicate, and daze each viewer, despite the fact that he has been well-accustomed since childhood to dreary indifference in front of the post-spectacular media atrocities invading his living room everyday . . . In one of the most recent pieces, I Erase Your Trace (2001), the figures projected on the ground take great care to clean the floor, closely following the viewer as if telling him that his presence has disrupted some pre-established order and that he is in fact undesirable since his literal presence can only soil the work’s dark virtuality. Through the work’s absence, the viewer in fact becomes a center and takes on a sort of accursed role (“part maudite”).
These pieces therefore present a disrupted space between reality and virtuality, in which the viewer is engaged, sometimes in spite of himself, in an action that takes him as if by vertigo to a point he does not want to go, in a mental state he had nevertheless thought banished from his sterilized vocabulary of microwave-reheated emotions.
But how can the viewer be so deeply implicated in the work, trapped in it even, and unable to escape?
The notion of a work’s context and the viewer’s implication in various “technological” media (photo, film/video, computer) has often been analyzed in terms of semiotics. We could also adopt C. S. Pierce’s classification, which distinguishes between three types of signs: icon, index, and symbol. The symbol corresponds to a conventional association (i.e., arbitrary) between the sign and its object (for example, the word |red| and the corresponding color); the index corresponds to an existential association (for example, the gesture of pointing toward something); and the icon corresponds to an association of similitude that somehow exposes an abstraction of the object (for example, a drawing or diagram). But perhaps a fourth category of signs could exist, a category that is at work in Du Zhenjun’s multimedia installations. Indeed, we can imagine a sort of reverse index, that is, a sign that would point not to its subject, but from its subject, like for example a sign that would refer to the one who interprets it, and would therefore charge the sign with all the energy of its “observers,” just as a solar battery charges more when the light is brighter. This singular process is nevertheless at work in our post-spectacular society, with subject/signs that acquire existence only through the desire of millions of people to possess them, and those individuals/signs that gain (media) interest only through the millions of people who look at them; thus the sign almost explicitly refers to its observers/interpreters as a whole in order to charge itself with their gazes like an exchange value in a fool’s bargain where it must find its place.
Du Zhenjun’s work isolates this very process since each piece is unmistakably a sign that refers to its observer and calls on him as a witness. It is a concave sign of sorts, lying in wait for a human presence, which it will take on an uncertain journey toward the disturbed landscapes of his own consciousness—as if only a “thought from outside” (Foucault) could circumscribe the new modalities at stake in our contemporary society.