The Artists Hand… Kinda

Lately, I have been asking myself how the interface of the screen influences the projects and products that exist within mediated space. In particular, I’m wondering how the periphery of the graphical user interface (ie, the devices we use for interaction in screen space) dictate presence and persona as well as guide action in digital realms. In a way, I’ve become curious with how the movements of the cursor across a digital frames have played such a heavy role in how we embody our activities onscreen.

Part of this question comes from the proliferation of touch based interfaces, and how tablet based computing is quickly making the cursor an obsolete part of the graphical user interface. Even if the cursor disappears from our everyday media-routines, the iconographic power, and – perhaps more importantly – it’s symbolic significance will permanently hold a place in the valhalla of digital culture.

The crux of this inquiry into the status of the cursor is coming from a place of wanting to understand our current relationship to screen aesthetics, especially since contemporary net-based artists are exploring how digital technology can recursively be in dialog with AFK space and work. Looking at the sculpture and installation based works of Kari Altmann and Ida Lehtonen precisely make me wonder how the affect of the screen and its interface are being reflected and digested through non-screen-based disciplines.

The cursor acts as both an object of recording motion/interaction as well as a placement holder for mediated screen identity/presence. These two modes – and their rare combination – imbue the cursor with so much cultural weight and familiarity. This inoculation has become so pervasive in computer literacy that it has infiltrated our non-screen culture as well. Some artists employ the visual power of the cursor and have gone about removing this icon from screen space in order to investigate its significance in other mediums and contexts.

Tools@Hand, Micah Schippa 2008

Constant Dullaart, for instance, moves the cursor off-screen and onto the back of a RC floor-runner that chases and is chased around by spectators wanting to catch and/or avoid it’s erratic pointy motions. As a nod to the rich historical overlaps that lie between textiles and computer technology, Micah Schippa hand-weaves the cursor into a cloth, along with other familiar graphical user interface iconography in his Tools@Hand series. In a more humorous gesture, John Michael Boling positions the cursor as something more akin to pestilence in Lord of the Flies by having a flock of cursors float around and seemingly worship the Google logo. Chris Collins elevates – and satirizes – the mediated haptic experience of the cursor in his And So I Touched the Hand of God by likening the user experience of one (your cursor) to many (screen space, social space) to relationships between a disciple and the divine.

And So I Touched the Hand of God, Chris Collins

By simultaneously being both meditative and funny, Collins’ piece is able to bridge a gap between the cursor as icon, and cursor as experience of embodied device on and off-screen. The cursor can, and should be, thought of as our first information-age avatar. The simplicity of the cursor – and relative standardization between platforms/software – allows users to readily and easily transfer their persona into a spec on a screen.

The psychological and phenomenological relationship between user and cursor should be presented as a space for introspection within an ever increasing rapidly-moving environment. In some sense, the speed at which screen space clips makes it all the more easy for us to forego the otherwise dense transition from touch to interface to screen. This willingness is also in no small part due to how we have developed a digital culture that understands mediation of self through gadgetry (both hardware and software).

Several net-based artists have taken up this concern within their own work online, I think particularly since the cursor is rapidly approaching obsolescence. Ilia Ovechkin embraces the mediated tactility of the cursor to follow (and also trace) the movements of a teenager displaying his head-banging skills in his bedroom. Not only does Ovechkin’s Cursor act as a kind of symbolic intermediary between user and interface, but also between watcher and watched. In this sense, the cursor is a device for documentation and interaction; a reification of screen self through the movements of another device and another body.

Duncan Malashock‘s recent performance pieces record cursor movements within a very specific area or pattern (akin to Bruce Nauman’s Walking pieces). After multiplying and repeating these movements/phrases into a type of rhythmic round, the compounded performance becomes a hypnotic and slightly claustrophobic display. In Malashock’s Sarabande – a type of dance performed in triple metre – three cursors roam across the screen, independent of user guidance and control. The disembodied cursor starts to take on a new role, one that forces the viewer to reflect how the interface might contain inherent properties and stipulations that otherwise get ignored or taken for granted.

Malashock’s work plays with different types of cursor experience; in some pieces we get to engage the cursor directly, using it for its instinctive interactivity, and in others we have to observe the cursor go about it’s movements without having the ability to effect placement or result. We can imagine that these two types of engagement with our digital hand lead to two types of user experience: alienation or identification.

Portrait of a Youngman, Shunya Hagiwara 2008

This juxtaposition and synthesis of these two states of interaction happen within Portrait of a Youngman by Shunya Hagiwara. In this piece we are able to control and participate with the objects on screen, but we also are subjected to a kind of cursor theft as the objects move through a specific frame of interactivity. This limitation of participation is similar to Malashock’s recorded performances in that they show how the constraints of the interface dictate engagement and expression within the screen. The inherent hindrance of the cursor, and our reliance upon its mechanism and behavior, highlights our growing frustration and desire to move away or beyond this framework of interactivity into more intuitive hardware (ie wetware).

Rafaël Rozendaal also investigates this dichotomy of user experience through single-serving-site pieces that have variable amounts of interactivity and control. Although the mouse plays an essential role within many – if not most – works in Rozendaal’s oeuvre, two works in particular, annoyingcursor.com and outinthewind.com, exemplify the two distinct ways that the cursor can be employed as a phenomenological tool. The irritation in annoyingcursor.com (which you can imagine is self evident by the title of the work alone) reprograms the cursor to no longer abide by the typical utility that we normally expect. In doing so, Rozendaal reinforces our reliance upon the limitation of interface, and perhaps unintentionally points to our ever-growing movement away from the established hardware used for screen interaction.

outinthewind.com, Rafaël Rozendaal 2009

Through the simple and playfully poetic outinthewind.com, Rozendaal counters our frustration in annoyingcursor.com with a much more sentimental view of how we embody screen space. In this work the pixels of our cursor are blown off by randomized gusts from unseen digital gales. An almost immediate reaction I have with this work is to make sudden movements of impatience in order to regain my cursor’s form, but this on further it’s deterioration, and eventually renders the cursor into scattered slowly-fading dots in a void. Once the cursor has disintegrated completely, viewers are forced to either navigate away from the work, refresh the page, or close the browser altogether. The sense of loss within this work that occurs when we fully adsorb our absence of a graphical self on-screen. In doing so we recognize the level of investment we’ve made in the interface as a representation of personal belonging and dependancy.

Our demanding agency over digital interfaces crumbles when we realize that the series of interactions we have on-screen are based on computational situations that are occasionally beyond our control. This type of interactivity is not only unpredictable, but it is also so far removed from our everyday understanding of technology that our only way of digesting this process of translation is through a series of complex and subtle abstractions of self. As a result, the plug-and-play expectations of our hardware and software have gradually turned us into disembodied or estranged users. We are now faced with the difficulty of having to combat and understand the contradictory burden of the simultaneous frustration (when things don’t work right, for reason we don’t understand) and profound attachment (feeling loss when graphic representations of self disappear or are stunted) amidst being inundated with a whole new set of problems that touch screen hardware has already started to bring.

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