The Aesthetics and Rhetoric of the Technological Arts Interface Machines

— Part One —

Jean-Paul Longavesne
Université Paris XI – ENSAD

Translation: Colin Bell


Over the course of the twentieth century, art evolved in the direction of according more and more importance to interactivity, performance, installation and the participation of the public. The emergence of an aesthetics of the media arts in which networks, interface machines and sensors play an increasingly important role in the creative process raises questions pertaining to the status of the artist and the nature of the work. Technological interfaces, especially in the field of the visual arts, abolish the old aesthetic and cultural categories. These technological interfaces then spread through sensory and extra-sensory channels, availing of multi-modal processes in which proprioception, tactility, emotivity and body posture become forms, so many new indications of the return of the senses. Multimedia installations no longer rest on any given medium but on processes in action, retroaction and becoming. This leads in turn to the disappearance of the medium, of the material substratum. What becomes of painting when machines start to paint? What becomes of the work of art in the age of digital reproduction? How do these art forms combine to bring about the emergence of a new aesthetics? This paper is a response to the various questions raised by the use of digital interfaces in the technological arts as witnessed in contemporary artistic practice.

An Observation

At rare intervals in the history of art, the manner in which different societies perceived the world changed at the same time as their manner of existence. The construction of this manner of perception, the medium in which it is situated, is not solely determined by human nature but also by historical circumstances, conceptual mutations, technological advances and epistemological breaks. The manner in which we conceive of matter, space and time has changed considerably since the beginning of the twentieth century. As the evolution of modern art is closely tied to these changes, it is now important to examine the relationship between the different artistic, scientific and technological disciplines. Here at the beginning of the twenty-first century, traditional cultures are undergoing a decisive transformation. Despite their long-standing traditions, classical art forms can seemingly no longer fully respond to the changes taking place in society. New types of highly complex culture are now emerging: media culture and techno culture. These combine the advances in telecommunications with new means of approaching space and time and with epistemological and philosophical mutations to produce the hybridisation of our systems of thought and of artistic creation. This paradigm shift entails the transformation of the space-time relationship. While still linked to academic and corporate laboratories, artistic experiments in the field of new technology and of the ‘virtual’ are becoming more and more accessible to the broader public. Once collective, these experiments have metamorphosed into individual productions. Their initial aims and characteristics, which privileged participation and activity, have given way to a mediatisation based on the circulation and interaction between place, artist, spectator and artwork. Unlike the installations and in situ peregrinations of the 1970s, many of these contemporary installations offer a wide range of experiences in the guise of sensory manipulation and real-time communication.

The possibilities of exploration and deterritorialisation opened up by these new paths are inscribed in a framework which prefigures ever more chaotic and unpredictable encounters between the body and language, between unmediated space and the medium. These mutations at the very heart of the notion of installation are related to the qualities of instability and nomadism and to the possibilities opened up by the field of artificial intelligence. Artists have been exploring cyberspace for several years now and are discovering items of interest for sound ecology as well as for the more metaphorical locales of collaborative creation. Such locales are not only hybrid zones where the body in action takes into account the specificities of a certain site or creative space, but are also new ‘territories’ propitious to the development of a ‘digital ironmonger's.’ These hybrid zones will allow for the real-time construction of ‘interface machines’ whose raison d'être will no longer be the installation itself but rather communication.


The status of knowledge and technology changed at the same time as society entered the digital age and culture the cybernetic age. This transformation began early in the 1980s, and the 1990s saw an acceleration in the development of digital interfaces. A paradigm shift has therefore been taking place over the course of the last twenty years. In the fields of science, technology and culture, knowledge and research are now directed at language. The consumer society which was made possible by the technological revolution which followed the Second World War has been replaced by the information society, a post-industrial society in which work and know-how count less than the act of making known. Current scientific and technological research into information theory, genetics, modern algebra, computers, linguistic theories, questions of translation and the problems of man/machine communication reflects the cultural evolution which our society is undergoing. The impact of these technological changes on culture and artistic creation is considerable indeed. As the technological arts are now developing a certain practice, a certain means of using interactive processes, they are also developing that play on form (artworks) and meaning that is called rhetoric.

General Aesthetics, Individual Aesthetics

The conflict between the unreality of the image and the reality of historical content, between the imaginary and the real, resurfaces in every stage of aesthetic development. In the traditional art forms, aesthetic images are not immutable, they are not archaic invariants. The artist's subjective experience produces images which are not images of some thing but of an ideal form, even though that which he gives us to see is, apparently, a material object or physical form. It is in this way that art is linked to the experience of facts, for it takes shape in the technological reality of the world, a reality in which the genesis of a work in the mind and imagination is tied to its existence as a physical phenomenon. The artistic process used to consist in rendering the invisible visible. Contemporary artistic practice, on the other hand, consists in rendering the visible invisible (and vice versa) – this can be achieved by the use of new technologies which replace the classic dialectic of the real and the imaginary with a ternary logic in which the virtual assumes pride of place. This in turn entails an opening out of the concept of aesthetics. The aesthetics of form and content, as propounded by Hegel, Nietzsche, Wölfflin, Focillon, Greenberg, Panofsky and Ehrenzweigh, is now paralleled by relational, communicational and situationist aesthetics – aesthetics of process. Therefore, in the field of artistic creation, the guiding aesthetic principles are no longer form, content, mimesis, truth, the physical, the visible, uniqueness, the emotional state of the spectator and/or the artist, but are instead communication, the surface, immersion, hybridisation, synthesis, the rhizome, the network, factual time, accelerated time, uchronia, the fluid, the transitory, the ephemeral, the ambiguous, the invisible, reproduction, identity, the collective, the nomadic, diversity, the installation, performance, interactivity, multi-modality, exchanges, participation, circularity.

The Aesthetics of Form – The Aesthetics of Processes

Until as recently as the 1960s, all aesthetic changes were the manifestations of and manifestos for material developments which were adapted, transformed and transmitted by art. Until the decline of figurative painting, the object represented a form, even in cubism. Form is undoubtedly mediatised by content, just as content is mediatised by form, but the content of a painting is not only that which it represents, but also all the colours, structures and relations it contains. In the same way, the content of a multimedia art work is not limited to what it represents but also includes the other elements it brings into play: structures, interfaces, distance, memory, practice, interactivity, virtuality. The concept of form effectively constitutes aesthetics' blind spot – this is because art in its entirety is so attached to it that it becomes impossible to isolate it. That said, art is not simply identical to or reducible to form, even if it cannot be defined in any other manner. Even if the unity of form tends to break down in much structurally complex modern art, it nonetheless remains an underlying element. Open forms existed long before the current all-pervasive crisis, but never in the history of art has the questioning of form been expressed with such force and intensity as now. It is therefore time to abandon the formalist approach which has dominated up to now and adopt instead a sort of phenomenology of appearances [25].

Form and matter are no longer subject to each other (unlike in Hegel's thought) and this is because of the factual disjunction of the medium caused by multi-modal processes. That which is now mediatised in art, and which ensures that art works are more than simple representations, must necessarily be mediatised by means of multi-modal interfaces. It is only such interactions which can establish correlations in the field of media art. This relational or interactive aesthetics, which developed from communicational aesthetics, is coupled with an aesthetics of interfaces and situations, a situationism in which installation and performance are joined by variable spatio-temporal modalities. Especially in the field of the plastic arts, technological interfaces are erasing the old aesthetic and cultural categories based on form and the senses (visual, auditory, tactile). Multimedia installations no longer rely on any given medium, but are instead based on processes in action, retroaction, becoming, processes which are potentially present. To classify these works according to the media they use – video, holography, synthetic images – would amount to putting an aesthetics of form and content into place, and would therefore continue traditional aesthetic analysis.

Interface Space

For millennia now, humans have conceptualised the notions of space and time – with which they can only interact by obeying the unchanging laws of physics. Virtual reality allows humans to remove themselves from physical reality and transform time, place and type of interaction (interaction with an environment which simulates reality or with an imaginary or symbolic world). This interactive spatio-temporal approach allows us to develop a working taxonomy for the different applications of virtual reality, but also, through the interfaces used, to deduce different aesthetics according to the means by which these interfaces act and are used. As it has no substance itself, the virtual is only an ephemeral model, a digital database which interacts with humans. The virtual only has a temporary reality within the digital machine and its interfaces. Virtual space may be Euclidian, but is not necessarily so – it may be paradoxical. In particular, the uniqueness of a given place may be put into question by tele-virtuality, in which users who are physically remote from each other can share the same virtual space both sensorially and cognitively. This space can, moreover, be perceived differently by each user, just as in physical reality. Thanks to ‘interface machines,’ the real and the virtual can now intertwine and fuse together – creating new interactive forms in which the real, the virtual and the imaginary find expression. These new performance spaces, which link the visible with the hidden, can be found in more traditional work from the 1970s, especially that of the artists in Supports / Surfaces, or in the work of Buraglio which reveals the duplicity of the image. They can also be found in contemporary works: Le salon des ombres (Hall of Shadows) by Luc Courchesne, Shadow Server by Kenneth Goldberg and Telenoia by the Quarks.

Le salon des ombres, an interactive play first staged in July 1997 involves four virtual characters. The spectators enter a dark room – the ‘shadowy lounge’ of the title – in which four characters, four friends, are floating like ghosts. They appear as video images projected from the ceiling and are reflected off sheets of glass. Each character corresponds to an interactive console.

When the play starts, the characters can be seen talking amongst themselves, paying no attention to the audience. This continues until a spectator intervenes by using a touch screen to ask one of the characters a question. The character then responds orally, initiating a debate which gradually centres around important existential problems and in which each character, real or virtual, must take a stand. The performance lasts for a few minutes, after which the characters disappear, having become conscious of the virtual nature of their existence. The installation's aim was to create a true ‘group synergy, a democratic micro-society’ in which political questions were debated in real time [10].

This question of reality – or truth – is at the heart of Shadow Server. Created in July 1997 by the American artist Kenneth Goldberg, Shadow Server effectively delivers or projects shadows, referring to Plato's allegory of the cave in the process. In California, a box contains various objects which are lit by several light sources. Members of the public can control these light sources via the web and so produce different-shaped shadows which flicker across their screens. What is the nature of these ‘things’ which we have on the web? What do we think we are getting: things or just their shadows?

Shadow Server is remarkable for more than one reason. It inverts the questioning and watchwords which have dominated electronic art over the last few years. It doesn't render the ‘invisible visible,’ instead rendering that which is normally visible invisible, leaving only shadows remaining. The ‘thing’ itself is hidden and it is the shadow which is important. The shadow becomes the thing. In this work, Goldberg is reasserting the disappearance of the object in art, a process which began at the beginning of the twentieth century. The images created by Shadow Server bring to mind Moholy-Nagy's photograms. They capture light in a subtle manner before projecting it onto the screen and also reintroduce the idea of contemplation into a medium in which creation centres around flux and movement.

Interactivity among several people and collective creation are other fields explored by the media arts. Telenoia: Mind at Large, * a collective work conceived by Roy Ascott and created on 31 October 1992, involved the collaboration of more than a few artistic collectives: V2_Organisation (Hortogenbosch), Electronic Café (Santa Monica), McLuhan Program (Toronto), ZEROnet (Vienna), GRAM (Montreal), CAiiA (Bristol), the Pratt Institute (New York), Virtualistes, and the GRIP Quarks (Paris). Although the event generated vast amounts of data in the shape of images, faxes and music, it retained its interactive quality by involving artists scattered across Europe and America. The event entailed the creation of a large-format ‘live painting’ in which, carrying on from mail art, a painting machine was connected to an interurban and international network linking video artists together. Some of the artists used traditional means of communication, such as the post and the telephone, while others experimented with satellite and cable transmission. Sherrie Rabinowitz and Gene Youngblood organised performances which were linked up by satellite and which took place simultaneously in the United States and the USSR. Based in Toronto, the team led by Doug Back and Norman White developed several different types of network.

Interface Time

Just as the interface is installed in a certain location, it is also inscribed in time. Virtual time opens up new dimensions for artists to explore. In order to better understand it, they can either accelerate it or slow it down (simulated growth of plants with a view to preparing an aesthetic study; simulated ageing or vice versa). In the world of virtual objects, interactions are principally visual, tactile or auditory – they are sensory and behavioural. In this way, we can use our physicality, expectations and body postures to unsettle the virtual world and, thirty years on, give full meaning to Harald Szeemann's remarkable 1969 exhibition in Bern, Switzerland Quand les attitudes deviennent formes (When Attitudes Become Form: Live in Your Head). **

Before it is something technological, the interface is essentially a place, a marginal zone which facilitates communication and the spatial and temporal interrelation of two different conceptions of the world. It is an intermediary zone which creates friction, contact with which obliges the spectator to undergo the strange experience of a separation of the self, as in Peter Campus's 1972 installation Interface. In this work, as the spectator approaches the middle of the room, his image is reflected in a large window located in a dark part of the room. At the same time, a video camera placed on the far side of the window projects a video image of the spectator onto it. The window becomes both a mirror and a screen and is the place where two different representations coexist. It is an interface.

Meanwhile, the development of digital technology has led to a diversification in the nature of interfaces. Artists can now explore not only real spaces but also virtual spaces, creating worlds in which spectators can completely immerse themselves. As Nam June Paik has written of Edmond Couchot's wonderful Je sème à tout vent,

By blowing into a small hole, the visitor causes a dandelion to be dispersed across the screen, the degree of this dispersal being dependent on the strength with which the person blows [...] Jeffrey Shaw's work [The Legible City], meanwhile, consists of a bicycle linked up to a television screen. The visitor becomes a touring cyclist and moves through the scenery at a speed which is related to the amount of pressure placed on the pedals [26].

Because the artists use everyday objects placed in a natural setting, these interfaces seem natural and easy to access. The interface becomes transparent. The interface participates in the transformation of the spectator's gaze, of exhibition value and of exchange value. Such is its role, that, according to Anne-Marie Duguet, the choice of interface can have ‘as radical a consequence as the abolition of the frame in a pair of spectacles, replacing the notion of the image with that of the stage . . . ’ [12].

Faced with such a multitude of potential applications, a working taxonomy of interfaces is now necessary. This taxonomy must fit into the context of the exchange of information of a spatial, temporal and interactive nature between real and virtual worlds. As Annick Bureaud has suggested, it can be characterised by typologies defined according to their physical properties and use values [6]:

A Taxonomy of Interfaces

This taxonomy is based on the inherent functions of virtual reality, the field in which digital interfaces find their fullest use, and allows us to better understand the different aesthetics proposed by artists in their installations and performances.

Three variables may bring about different states in the fields of time, space and interactivity. (This premise echoes – by inverting it – the one postulated by the tragic authors in seventeenth-century France who advocated the rule of the three unities of place, time and action.) These are theoretical and not utopian potentialities, and they allow us to understand not only the aesthetics underpinning works created with new technology, but also to develop a rhetoric of interfaces.

Virtual reality implies interactions of a type Ir or Ii. It follows that tele-presence and tele-operations (which involve interactions from a distance with the real world (I0 * T0 * P0)) are not an intrinsic part of virtual reality, even if they make use of the same kind of interfaces. The same can be said of communications made via telephone or videophone or of videoconferences (I0 * T0 * P0), for which a specific type of communication aesthetics has been envisioned [15]. Theoretically, there are 2×3^2 = 18 possible combinations for the two classes Ir and Ii. However, different users meeting together PU can only take place in the present T0, and there are therefore four combinations which are not possible: (Ir + Ii) * PU * (T- + T+).

I now propose distinguishing among twelve different aesthetic forms which are to be found in current artistic practice:

In a World which Simulates Reality

In these applications, the aim is to provide a simulation of reality in order to understand it better. The sensory channels exploited depend on the desired application.

Ir * T0 * P0
Virtual activity. The user interacts with a virtual stage for his pleasure. Use of multimedia is sufficient as the place and time remain unchanged.
Ir * T0 * P#
Virtual transfer. The user is transported to a place which simulates reality and where he can relax, do things, etc. The time remains unchanged.
Ir * T0 * PU
Virtual tele-association. Several people have the possibility of meeting in a virtual location – Teleconference using virtual reality tools, virtual town, etc.
Ir * T+ * P0
Virtual conception. Virtual reality allows us to conceive of and experiment with situations – Virtual architecture, clothes design, sculpture, etc.
Ir * T+ * P#
Virtual development. Same possibilities as with virtual conception, but concerning spaces and locations to be developed – Town planning, landscaping, etc.
Ir * T- * P0
Virtual exhibition. Entails the recreation and observation of objects which no longer exist.
Ir * T- * P#
Virtual event. By recreating historical events, the user is given the opportunity of better understanding them.

In an Imaginary or Symbolic World

In these applications, the aim is to provide the user with either playful and artistic imaginary worlds or symbolic worlds which will employ metaphor to clarify real concepts and phenomena.

Ii * T0 * P0
Virtual creation. Virtual reality allows for the creation of ephemeral art works, either through interaction with the user or by playing with metaphors – Virtual art, artificial life, etc.
Ii * T0 * P#
Virtual museum. A gathering together of virtual works and the creation of a virtual museum.
Ii * T0 * PU
Tele-virtuality. Use of clones to link several users together – Virtual community.
Ii * T+ * (P0 + P#)
Virtual science-fiction. The user is projected into an unrealistic future world – Virtual work, virtual games.
Ii * T- * (P0 + P#)
Virtual imaginary past. The user is projected into a past world which never actually existed.

A Typology of Interfaces

Whenever one speaks of digital interfaces, the image which springs to mind is that of a user wearing a video-helmet and electronic glove or joystick and linked up to a computer by cables. This is the image which the media promotes and, although it is not entirely accurate, it has the advantage of showing us that a link exists between daily reality and the virtual worlds created by interactive technology. Interactivity itself is not new. What is new, however, are the processes made possible by multi-modal behavioural interfaces which allow for real-time immersion in a supplemented reality, one which joins the real with the virtual. Multi-modal interfaces can be classified according to their sensory characteristics (sensors) or their motor characteristics (transmitters). The first inform the user of changes in the virtual world by means of his senses while the second inform the computer of the movements and actions made by the user in the virtual world.

Physical interfaces which link us with virtual reality – or behavioural interfaces – can be classified as either Sensory Interfaces (SI) or Motor Interfaces (MI). However, one type of sensory interface does not correspond to each sense. Certain physical interfaces can combine a sensory interface with a motor interface: these are mixed interfaces. We would suggest the following classification:

Sensory Interface (SI)

Sight:Visual interface (screen and video-helmet)
Hearing:Interfaces which output sound and voice
Touch:Interfaces which output tactile and thermal stimulants
Proprioception:Interfaces which output pressure and movement

Note that proprioception is divided into three fields: sensitivity to position in space, to movement and to force exerted on the muscles. The first two correspond to kinaesthesia.

Motor Interface (MI)

Location:Location sensor
Hand location:Electronic glove
Eye location:Oculometer
Locomotion:Motion and position sensors
Speech:Interfaces which process vocal commands
Muscle action:Force and movement sensors

The Importance of the Transmission of Information

The transmission of sensory stimuli and motor responses affect interfaces differently depending on whether the transmission is made by physical means (b.p.m.) or without physical means (w.p.m.). Two categories relate to the sense organ in question:

Visual interface Head movements picked up by electromagnetic and acoustic waves (w.p.m.) or mechanically (b.p.m.) Light rays picked up by the eyes (w.p.m.)
Auditory interface Head movements picked up by electromagnetic and acoustic waves (w.p.m.) or mechanically (b.p.m.) – Speech (voice commands) issued by user and transmitted by acoustic waves (w.p.m.) Sound and speech (synthesised voice) transmitted to the user's ears by acoustic waves (w.p.m.)
Interfaces which output tactile stimulants Mechanically transmitted to the skin (b.p.m.)
Proprioceptive interface (which outputs pressure and movement) Mechanically transmitted to the body (b.p.m.)
Location interface Body movement picked up by electromagnetic and acoustic waves (w.p.m.) or mechanically (b.p.m.)

The construction of interfaces which output tactile stimulants, interfaces which output pressure and interfaces which simulate body movement encounters considerable technical difficulties, as these must transmit sensory information by physical means. The use of these types of interface leads to installation- or performance-style behavioural aesthetics.


Not so long ago, Lyotard reminded us that the function of criticism or theory was to transform ‘canvases’ or paintings into ‘words’ [24]. In doing this, he was also reminding us of the creative function of aesthetic theory, which does not simply draw up lists and inventories, but which actually recreates the world using its own specific means: language. This creative function would now seem to be reserved to the contemporary artists who use and manipulate the technological interfaces available to them. Just like forms, their materials are also processes and languages. They are critics as much as they are artists, and their hybrid works are so many aesthetics questioning the world. A new history of art seems to be in the process of emerging. As Roland Barthes wrote:

Another history of painting is possible, which is not that of works and artists but that of tools and substances; for a very long time, the artist, among us, was not distinguished by his instrument, which was, uniformly, the brush; when painting entered upon its historical crisis, the instruments were multiplied, and the raw materials as well: there has been an infinite journey of inscribing objects and their supports; the limits of the pictural tool have been continually pushed back [3, 213].

It is now a question of transforming a dense physical reality into words and, in so doing, of taking part in its staging, until the coming and going between the real and the virtual ultimately leads us to the invisible purity of the concept.

Artists working currently are not that different from the great names of the past. The most influential amongst them have been those who have succeeded in introducing new techniques and materials. As Mario Costa has aptly remarked:

The history of the arts is essentially the history of technical developments: it catalogues the emergence of new possibilities in productivity and in multiform hybridisation capacities; the reciprocal influence which art and technical developments have on each other and, finally, their triumphs and their decline [8, p.10].

The technological resources of any given period define its episteme and also its artistic forms. The new technologies are not at all unrelated to certain of art's predominant preoccupations: they favour communication, they are flexible and adaptable to subjective considerations, and they allow art to reach a broad public. Most importantly, their polymorphous nature favours creativity. Historically, art has always been close to the pulse of civilisation and it cannot remain aloof to the changes in the instrumental, material, immaterial and logical framework which characterise our age.


As Telenoia creator Roy Ascott explains, ‘Telenoia is about telematic connectivity, mind-to-mind across the globe. Artists worldwide making images, texts, music together. We want to make authoring a collective experience and a collaborative process. The themes we hope will weave their way through our networking will recognize that it's Halloween – a kind of electronic, metaphysical, out-of-body trick or treat. We also want to use this 24 hour period, noon Saturday to noon Sunday, to create a new day of the week – the eighth day of the week. We'll use email like Earn, Bitnet, as well as Picturetel and fax. We'll use Macs and Amigas, modems and fax machines’ [2]. Telenoia celebrates the networked consciousness of global connectivity. Computer-mediated, distributed mind-at-large: asynchronous global connectivity. In celebrating telenoia, we reject the individualism of the old industrial culture – solitary, anxious, alienated, neurotically private. Telenoia replaces paranoia in the telematic culture.

The exhibition Quand les attitudes deviennent formes (When Attitudes Become Form: Live in Your Head) is considered ‘a historical reference, presenting for the first time, in Europe, artists such as Joseph Beuys, Richard Serra and Lawrence Weiner. With this exhibition, the process of creation is now recognised as a work of art’ [20].


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About the Author

Jean-Paul Longavesne was born in France and lives in France and Québec. He is Professor at the University Paris XI and École Nationale Supérieure des Arts Décoratifs de Paris (ENSAD), Director of the Groupe de Recherche en Informatique Picturale (GRIP), invited Professor at University of Québec, Montréal (UQAM) and Board Member of the Commission Internationale de l'Eclairage (CIE). He publishes different papers on his practice of the pictorial data processing, participating as speaker in the international symposium on the media arts.

As an installation and performance artist, he has pioneered the development and creative use of an artist's personal painting machine on the net and has exhibited internationally at a number of shows including Imagina, Cité des Arts et Nouvelles Technologies de Montréal, @RT+COM Gallery, Los Angeles SIGGRAPH and to the Scientific and Industrial Museum ‘La Villette.’ Recent work includes networks with live interactive paints, such as ‘Virtual Identities.’ In addition to art-making, he researches, teaches and (periodically) publishes in the areas of technology and culture, contemporary critical theory and electronic intermedia.

Jean-Paul Longavesne can be contacted via email at

About the Translator

Colin Bell is a Ph.D. student at Trinity College, Dublin and Maître de Langue at Université de Lille III. His current work focuses on postmodern aspects in the fiction of Georges Perec. He can be contacted at:

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