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Yvonne Spielmann

Interview with Bill Seaman

Bill Seaman, Gideon May, The World Generator, 1996-1997
Spielmann I would like to investigate the linguistic model that you refer to in your writings and that also informs the web like manner in which you assemble texts and images. Could you comment on the linguistic model and how you apply it to the artwork?

Seaman In my ph.d. dissertation I focused on two different aspects. One is the notion of différance from Jacques Derrida and his writing about the prototext and the gram in his book Of Grammatology. (6) In counter distinction to Derrida was the notion of mixed-semiotic milieus from Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari that they wrote about in Mille Plateaux (Eng. A Thousand Plateaus). Both of these approaches always seem to refer back somehow to the “logocentric” even if a media-text is explored. What I am really saying is different, namely that the medium can also be of itself and that we do not necessarily make a text out of the medium in order to understand it. Thus text communicates differently to that of time-based images and to that of music/sound. In the kinds of non-hierarchical interactive environments that I am creating the word is not valued above the music/sound or image. They intermingle and become a non-logocentric mixed-semiotic conveyance.

A computer-based device like The World Generator becomes a discourse environment where one can literally experience how meanings arise and shift with the form of specificity that characterises each media-element. While someone might have the argument that words are very specific and that we use them for the reason that they have a related set of meanings, in contrast, what I am suggesting is this: the complexity of the computer-oriented media-environments that we now inhabit suggests that we are constantly understanding that meaning is arising in contexts where text, image, and sound/music are all vehicles of meaning-force, and these language-vehicles become operable as computer-based variables. More and more we live our lives in media-saturated environments, and mutable computer-based domains. In computer environments an intermingling of communicative potential becomes evocative in a meaningful manner. Each media-element acts upon the other in a dynamic, potentially non-hierarchical manner. This is particularly true in my environments although others may choose to explore the media-elements differently, attributing different weights to an authored hierarchy. A composer may preference music but include text. A filmmaker may focus on images but also have a background music etc. There is a subtlety of relationships between these meaning forces that text alone cannot get at through description. Language is alive and is always relative to our ongoing construction of different contexts. The pen and the typewriter extended language and I believe the computer presents a potential of new sets of palpable extensions. We might say that each of these computer-based media forms is of itself because there is something about the characteristics of digital video or film that you will loose by translating it into text. I am suggesting that there is a potential for a new kind of understanding of media interrelations through the perspective of a computer-based environmental linguistics. As I mentioned earlier, there are two general perspectives that one might employ to come to better understand these complex, shifting configurations of media-elements—one is a computer-based mixed-semiotics and the other is a computer-based environmental linguistics as understood through the writings of Humberto Maturana and Francisco J. Varela. I am suggesting that meaning forces are functioning through operational language-vehicles within these mutable computer-based environments. I believe that working toward a new environmental computer-based linguistic model is an interesting approach at this time.

Emergent Meaning

By taking a closer look at computer models on the symbolic level where language, text, and whatsoever medium can be used to create forms of higher abstraction, I would like to focus on your understanding of the computer as a tool for abstraction as you have developed in the virtual reality piece The World Generator.

Seaman The World Generator/The Engine of Desire was my first exploration into virtual space. It used a new kind of menu system (programmed by Gideon May) with a series of spinning container-wheels. One could choose media-elements—of text, image, sound/music, still frames, and digital video—and position them in a virtual environment. One could also attribute behaviours to those media-elements. In a sense this suggests a new kind of linguistic space, certainly an operational relativistic meaning space. The underlying question was, if we were to say that reality and especially virtual reality is more complex than words’ ability to reflect upon it, how might we generate a mechanism that would let us experience that complexity and be able to reflect upon the experience. For me The World Generator empowers one to explore meaning as it is emerging, because one can form a dynamic context by putting a poetic piece of text next to an image and/or sound element, and one can experience how these fields of meanings act upon each other. I can put a sound into the environment and navigate through the environment, and I can also explore different levels of abstraction of the media elements to the very point where they might become completely chaotic. One might call this an accretive meaning—one that is adding up over time. So I am working with similar principles to those explored in the earlier pieces, but where those works were much more modular and bound to the plane of the image, in virtual space you literally navigate into and move through the image, sound and text, and thereby generate the experience in a different way. You literally are constructing the meaning from inside the experience.

Spielmann With regard to abstraction you were also saying that the way one might author virtual reality will “literally” and not only conceptually affect our understanding of what is logic and what we experience as “real” reality. Could you explain what you mean by “abstract physics”?

Seaman The idea is that in the world around us there is a kind of physics, but as soon as we go inside the computer—especially in a virtual space—we make decisions about what makes up the physics of that space—it is an authored physics. We actually “make” an abstract physics and this can be very realistic: we might see a cartoon where somebody looks like they are running and when falling down it looks as if there was gravity, but at the same time we can author a physics which is the opposite of that. If I drop something it falls up, if I take something I can stretch it or expand it and so on. So there is a new way of thinking about the relationship of actual space to virtual space. I now call this E-phany physics. Interestingly, this approach to abstract physics also makes me rethink what I do in my video. Now I even think that to use slow motion in video is also a form of abstract physics. There is an actual physics of an event, of course there is light that I record, but once it is in the machine I can slow the image down or manipulate it in various ways and abstract the physics in a subtle way. If I then take that image and bring it into a virtual space, I can give it a further media behaviour and a totally separate kind of physics, which is very different from the tradition of images that we know.

Spielmann If there is a different quality of time and space in dealing with virtual reality, my question is: how far does the option of dimensions and directions reach? For example, I think of the reversibility of time and space, of the manipulation of movement and velocity so that time and space become elastic features—and finally the whole question of time and space dissolves. I am in particular referring to a media debate around Gilles Deleuze, Edmond Couchot, and others where the argument is held that with the emergence of electronic media and more precisely hypermedia the notion of direction and dimension looses its characteristic qualities since the new media are considered as omnidirectional and multidimensional, so that, strictly speaking, they have no such temporal and spatial features like painting, photography, and film, but reinforce what Deleuze calls “whatsoever space” (l’espace quelconque). Does this make sense to your concept of abstraction?

Seaman I have not specifically defined my work with this term. I agree, such a space looses one set of qualities yet it gains another. We are now in the process of exploring this new set of potentials. I am very much interested in the definition of the “rhizome”: The concept of the “rhizome” as developed by Deleuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus is highly relevant to a discussion of a shifting configuration of media-elements, as well as a conflation of language-vehicles where any point can be connected to any other point, etc. However, I came to explore new relations to space through experimentation, intuition and interactive artistic practice. It was only later when reading Deleuze and Guattari that I felt many of my ideas were reinforced from their perspective. So, yes, I see a new kind of spatial media that opens out a whole series of potentials of behavioural media relationships, as well as new relations to time and navigation—both from the behaviour of the participant as well as a notion of behavioural or reactive media. What I have in mind is that you author the system to behaviourally respond to a person. In the coming years, as Artificial Intelligence will become more easily accessible as an authoring tool, one could imagine highly relevant responsive media-reactions to one’s interactivity within a particular environment.

© 2003 FDL

(6) Jacques Derrida, De la grammatologie, engl. Of Grammatology, Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998.