Thursday, February 14, 2008

Digital Media: Unsettling?

Coming from little background in art, culture or critical analysis, this question may fundamentally miss the entire point of what we’re trying to study in this course. But it’s something that has struck me, and I’m curious to know more about. Why is it that nearly all of the media we’ve looked at thus far has been, in some way, disconcerting or unsettling? I don’t mean to speak of The Matrix or Neuromancer, as they seem to be more mainstream than other things we’ve looked at – though they do have their strange, unsettling aspects (the concept of being plugged onto a machine, or, for that matter, being a “battery” for the machine world in The Matrix, and the abundance of strange cultural references in Neuromancer, especially in Chiba and in reference to the Panther Moderns). But Patchwork Girl, in my opinion, is certainly unsettling, with images of a body torn apart and sown together again, and paths of text that can be downright creepy. The same is true for several of the projects we viewed in the Cave; an overabundance of eerie ambient sounds including heartbeats and warped synthesized sound pervaded most of the projects, along with distorted voices that accompanied most of the text. Even the video we watched in class, Kelly Dobson’s "Blendie," is kind of strange to watch (I feel this is best emphasized by the most recent comment on the video on YouTube: "Survivdall: (2 Months Ago) wow. i stopped after 27 seconds, thinking I was watching a scene from the exorcist. (lol)."

I think this is an interesting question to bring up while we’re on the topic of interfaces and code in class. Pold criticizes the concept that interfaces should be purely utilitarian or eliminated, as they hide users from what’s really going on. I agree with this; there is an enormous aesthetic value to interfaces, even when they’re not user-friendly – in many ways, they’re more fun when they’re not as intuitive. However, the examples Pold gives fall victim to the same eerie-ness. As anyone who’s played Max Payne should know, the game is creepy in many ways (I vaguely remember a dream sequence when you direct Max through a maze of clouds that gradually get red as he reaches a room to find a dead baby, while creepy music plays in the background). Jodi’s work doesn’t sound as unsettling, though does strike me as somewhat strange. And although Auto-Illustrator sounds like an undeniably cool program, including a “Psychosis” tab in the Preferences window is clearly perverse.

Aren’t there interesting, artistic interfaces that engage the user that aren’t vaguely disconcerting? I think so, but most of them are more mainstream than the works we’ve looked at. In many ways this makes me appreciate Jodi’s Sod and it’s apparent mocking of the world of high art. For example, I’ve been playing the game Super Mario Galaxy on Nintendo’s Wii, which has an artistic interface (in terms of the style of play, with a remote that interacts directly with the screen, much like in the Cave, and in terms of graphical layout) and is also as far from unsettling as you can get. Games like Dance Dance Revolution have similarly artistic-yet-fun interfaces. And aside from games, there are many examples of interface on the internet that are dynamic and not always intuitive, but often have a light tone. The Generative Compositional Engine and AnyMails are a couple of examples I came across.

Back on the topic of my last post, and in connection with my comment on the Wii, (and in response to Ken), someone has found a way to play Rez with their Wiimote. It’s awesome. This is what I should be doing with my free time.

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