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Interview with Piotr Szyhalski

Steve Dietz, 1997
Steve Dietz: Piotr, I'm interested in why you chose the theme of canon and the title of The Thing Itself for your Walker Web commission, since there really is no accepted canon for interactive media. And when you factor in the Internet as the delivery mechanism for your project, where every viewer's physical/technical setup--speed of connection, sound card capability, etc.--directly affects her reception of the work, the idea of "the thing itself" seems, well, variable.

Piotr Szyhalski: The concept of variability is very interesting to me, and perhaps one of the key elements of "the thing itself". To put it simply: Ding an sich is precisely what remains constant in all the possible variable readings/experiences that may occur on the Web. I always believed that any artwork fulfills itself only through the active perception/reading of the viewer--in Ding an sich I try to make this idea more apparent by drawing the attention to the fluidity of the medium: to the fact that more than one perception/reading is inherent to the structure of the work. I do think that--among other more specific things--this is a "new media" canon of sorts. But the reasons for canon references are broader than that--I am interested in the structural characteristics of the format, but also in its historical associations (hence the voices of some of the prominent figures in the art history).

SD: We've talked about the idea of unique characteristics of interactive media before, and I wonder if you could elaborate on variability as one of those characteristics. Certainly, in any medium, the viewer's perceptions of an artwork are going to vary. How is variability structural with interactive media?

PS: It seems that the term perception as we use it in relation to more traditional media doesn't function well in the context of interactive media. Perception here consists of much more than sensory experiences (although the fact that we deal with more than one medium at the time IS important and unique)--especially in terms of the participatory inclusion of the audience. Joseph Beuys accurately described this situation as the two-step process involving information as well as active exformation. In the case of truly interactive works the exformation reaches deep into the process of creation, with viewers affecting the format and/or content of their own experience through the MANIPULATION of the work. Canon 05 Definite Idea is about that very issue: the relationship between the artists vision/idea and its reflection/fulfillment in the viewer's experience. Martha Graham's statement, I have a definite idea, but I am perfectly willing to change, undergoes viewer-controlled mutations, and through that very manipulation fulfills it's premise.

SD: I've always assumed that part of the reason you use Shockwave is to better manage some of this variability on the user's end than you can with, say, plain vanilla HTML or various flavors of Java and Javascript. What are some of the artistic/technical strategies you consider for work being presented/delivered in an Internet environment?

PS: Yes--the choice of Shockwave is dictated by my desire to contain some of that fluidity. . . . Technically, Director allows me to resolve some of the key issues specifically related to The Canon Series. For example, relationships between sound and other events in the piece (images, movement of the cursor, etc.), and perhaps more importantly viewers direct impact on the sound. In Canon 10 All for the Others, the viewer continually controls two sound layers: the volume of "radio noise" with the spoken text depends on the movement/position of the cursor; and the dominant rhythm pattern evolves as different drum textures correspond with different words completing the text in the piece. This is just one of the many benefits of working with Director, but I want to stress that the pieces were all developed with WWW as the ultimate destination (as opposed to CD-ROM). I think the Web and it's extraordinary publishing qualities offer a new kind of connection between the artist and the viewer. It's unlike the mass media we know (TV, radio) where an authority communicates its message to the millions. There is a sense of an intimate relationship between the two individuals involved (rarely is there more than one person at a time in front of a computer screen). Working on Ding an sich (and all other Web works) I thought of a one-on-one conversation rather than a public address. The uniqueness of the Web comes also from the fact that this intimate conversation does indeed take place between the artist and MANY people in the same time. . . .

SD: Without rousting too many painful memories of college philosophy courses, can you explain a bit more your view of what it is that remains constant in Ding an sich if, essentially, everyone's experience of the work is different?

PS: As a concept, Ding an sich assumes the existence of things outside of our sensory experiences. Kant describes it as unknowable though CERTAINLY existing, which I thought had a lot to do with the experience (or perhaps the very nature) of art in general. Art goes beyond matter/objects: it testifies to the existence of the "Things Themselves." Somewhere there is the "constant" we all know, although each one of us would almost certainly describe it with very different words. Doesn't the way we are moved by a powerful artwork remain constant regardless of what medium was utilized by the artist?

SD: What are some of the other unique characteristics of interactive media that you feel you are working with; that interest you?

PS: The ability to shift between varied patterns of exformation. For example linear versus nonlinear sequencing, or how/when the conclusion of a given piece occurs (e.g. whether a viewer "concludes" the work relatively quickly as a singular unit of meaning--like a poster; or whether the conclusion occurs over time slowly building up to a conceptual crescendo at the end of the piece; or whether the conclusion has no clear place in the structure of the piece but takes place as an afterthought...) Also the multimedia aspect of the work--new expressive junctures between words images sounds and movement: choreography of meaning?

SD: Conversation is one of my favorite descriptions of what good interactive media should aspire to. One of my favorite observations about much of your work, however, is that it often involves a kind of faux interactivity--that is, there is the appearance of user choice/interactivity, but you consciously frustrate it with what interface designers might call "unforgiving" responses (I am thinking of The Final Analysis, for instance) or purposely endless loops. It seems obvious to tie this in with your background of growing up under a totalitarian political system. Do you buy any of this? How do you see your personal history affecting your working with interactive media, if at all?

PS: Whether that is a remote connection or not--I am not sure, but I am positive that growing up in Poland did teach me that things are not always what they seem to be.... That what is being said doesn't always mean exactly that--and more than often, exactly the opposite. There is a strong tradition of highly allusive, metaphorical, symbolic work in Polish culture that served an important social function: communicating independent messages in a coded manner so as to bypass the heavy hand of the state censor. And on the other hand--a strong tradition of highly manipulative official broadcasts that also coded messages, however with different objectives in mind ... In any case it seems that one's ability to read and INTERPRET the meanings was always tested. I suspect this had some impact on my work (and certainly submitted to my paranoid, at times politicizing, of any and everything around me...) in a way that it often communicates ideas by omission--emphasizes the message by offering its alternatives. Also it is not an accident that one of the "chart" layers surrounding the floating figure in the Prelude (the one that originates from the "+" mark on the figure's head) is a copy of images used by Ivan Petrovich Pavlov as visual stimuli in his famous experiments on conditioned reflexes...

SD: You speak very eloquently of the screen as an intimate intermediary between you and the viewer, can you expand on some of the ways the connection between the artist and the viewer manifests itself?

PS: The decisions an artist makes during the process of building his/her work are perhaps the most important aspects of creation. Everything else follows: selection of the media, compositional/structural choices, etc. The nature of interactive work is based on the idea that both the artist AND the viewer make decisions. How meaningful those decisions on the audiences part will be often is the measure of how successful the piece is....Also--I do feel strongly about the physical context in which the online work is being experienced: the fact that, most likely, the viewer sits in front of their terminal--much like I do when working on the piece--is a peculiar mirror event. What the Web gives us in addition to the typical experience is the option of CONTINUING the conversation... via e-mail for example, which is why I always make the e-mail address readily available with the work. It DOES work, too! I engage in an ongoing exchange with many people from all over the world with whom I share a unique experience: art.

SD: I like the phrase choreography of meaning, which brings to mind other media, of course. Also, your use of the term exformation. I wonder if you can say a bit about the interactive essay you are creating for the Walker exhibition Joseph Beuys Multiples, which is your response to his work and ideas. How does new media allow for new presentation possibilities besides the creative work of artists?

PS: The Harvest created in connection with the Joseph Beuys Multiples exhibition at the Walker Art Center touches on several issues prevalent in Beuys' work: the idea of democracy as well as the subtleties in the patterns of information/exformation. By combining a user-provided material (in shaping the visual layer, Harvest relies on text submitted by the audience) with an attempt to define the essence of democracy, the work itself becomes a manifestation of democratic practice. In effect, as the number of participants/creators (aka "audience") of Harvest grows, the figure of "information provider" (aka "artist") becomes gradually less significant, slowly shifting the emphasis from the "information" to the "exformation" process involved. According to Beuys (and I do believe this to be true as well) information (the creation of the work) and exformation (the act of perception/comprehension of the work) are equally important in art. If understood as the same energy channeled in the opposite direction, the two processes appear mutually replaceable, implying that anyone can play the role of either the "provider" or the "receiver".... I think this truth about art as an act of communication is especially clear in the context of new media. That is why Harvest exists on the Web. In the reality of Internet, the fulfillment of this work emerges as a result of the collective effort of all parties involved. While I think so much in the Harvest reflects concepts and philosophies embraced by Beuys, I often wonder, what would he think of the Internet? So much in his work relies on the tactile experience of the material, which is effectively questioned by the screen-based experiences.

SD: Right now there is such "pressure" to make the Net a viable commercial venue, I wonder if you see this as affecting the ability to do creative projects and if so how? Does it require a similar coded response?

PS: Yes--the pressure is building, and will not go away. The Internet is a challenge for commerce in general, with especially twisted problems when it comes to art: how does one purchase a Web-specific work of art? When purchased, how could it be "protected"? How can one build a unique, private collection of such work when in reality anyone with a set of bookmarks on their browser can recreate the same archive?.... I think this is a good thing for all parties involved: it forces the institutions involved in handling art to rethink their role/position, and it creates new environments for artists to create outside the institutional constraints as well.

There is another way of looking at the "relationship" between the commercial and the artistic on the Web, though, which I find more interesting. There is a very fundamental difference in the ground objectives on which the two Web environments are built. This difference calls for a very different approach in developing just about every component of the work: the structure, visual interface, sound, navigation. In my experience the contrasts are so pronounced, that in fact the two methods inform each other quite well through opposition: a good Web-specific artwork can be defined by what a proper corporate site is not, and vice versa.

SD: The individual connections are strengthened with screen-based projects, but this format also creates "problems" for public presentations. Crudely, it's never as fun to see someone on stage click around a Web site or project as it is to do it yourself. Any comments on the potential for multi-viewer (i.e. public) accessibility to projects such as yours? Or is it designed to be intimate and one should not try to get around that?

PS: I strongly believe in the connection between the content of the work and the medium in which it is executed, that there is only one right way of expressing every idea. When I work on a Web-based project it is a result of my decision, that whatever it is that I am trying to communicate, will be communicated most successfully in this medium--with all its unique characteristics. The intimacy of the face-to-screen-to-face situation is one of the more important concepts here, and so, to answer your question: no, one should not try to get around that. Of course galleries and museums will not settle for that. We will go through many gallery spaces with computer monitors installed in various attempts to accomplish the impossible: obscure the physicality of the computer, and in the same time present the work in the "intimate" setting.... I think by now most of us have experienced such situations and realize the awkwardness there. On the other hand, I continue working on stage events that utilize the rich vocabulary of interactive multimedia, which would not function well on the Web. The new performance under the working title On Leading and Following I prepared for the CyberTheatre in Brussels, Belgium, features screen/stage events controlled by audience members via computer terminals, and also some larger than life projections, where scale plays crucial role, and intimacy is certainly not a priority.

First published by Gallery 9/Walker Art Center, September 1997.