May 30, 2007

Digital Art Beyond Expression

by Nick Montfort · , 5:51 am

José Manuel García-Patos, who is at work on the interactive fiction system Gesaku, called my attention to a fascinating article about player freedom by Stephen Bond, author of Ramses.

Bond points out that the camp that expects IF to provide a more or less completely blank slate upon which the player’s experience can be realized (so that IF becomes simply a “a text-based vibrator for the imagination”) is quite distant from those who expect IF authors to supply treasures, dragons, puzzles, and conventional pleasures. He offers a third idea, that of “interactive fiction as a kind of art form,” allowing expression. In Bond’s view, artmaking is “egotistical” and “[a]n artwork is a reification of the artist’s self, a subjective consciousness made objective, bravely put forth and held out for admiration.”

The ideas of pure player choice may be as uninteresting as the cave-crawl, but I don’t think this concept of art is the only alternative.

While Bond’s comments in this article are compelling in many ways, they really encompass only the most lyrical, romanticist artworks. “Art” as put forth here is something very limited. Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain has been called many things, including the most important artwork of the 20th century, but is it really “a reification of the artist’s self, a subjective consciousness made objective, bravely put forth and held out for admiration”? Is it best thought of as being expressive? To turn to the literary arts, what about Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, Alain Robbe-Grillet’s La Jalousie, Steve McCaffrey’s Carnival, Doug Nufer’s Never Again, and Charles Bernstein’s “Let’s Just Say” (excerpt, mp3)? I don’t mean to suggest that the creation of these works was egoless or that subjectivity has been entirely erased in all of them. But it seems like it would be missing the point to think that these works mainly serve as embodiments of the author, that they mainly sing the particular selves that wrote them. It seems to me that, while they are individual creations, they mainly offer ways of working through various systems of language and narrative as they are shared by whole cultures.

The problem with an exclusively “expressive” concept of art may point to a limitation of one of Michael’s terms, a term I actually like quite a bit: “expressive AI.” Hugo Liu’s phrase “computational aesthetics” is more welcoming and covers the artistic use of computation without requiring that the system convey an author’s or artist’s expression, or that it be expressive itself. On the other hand, if Michael is less interested in marking off the interesting from the uninteresting and more interested in adding a particular capability to computer art – in saying “let’s have computers capable of expression as well as conceptual manipulation” – it makes sense to specify that. I just want to suggest that we not collapse all of what art does into the “expressive.”

11 Responses to “Digital Art Beyond Expression”


  1. andrew Says:

    I read Bond’s post recently via Emily Short’s reaction to it.

    Nick, I agree with both you and Emily that Bond’s post has several worthy sentiments, but I too differ on some of his conclusions.

    I’m one of those developers who talks a lot about player freedom. But, coincidentally, as a recent post of mine that could be subtitled, “NPCs: you just can’t control ‘em” suggests, without the game having its own narrative goals and intentions pushing back on the player, there’s no cohesive entertainment there, more of a cool sandbox, which can get boring fast.

    (Now, I could imagine a sandbox where you can give NPCs motivations and goals, and then play against them; a little bit like playing chess against yourself.)

    As far as the raison d’être of IF (or literary games) as a medium of expression for the author/artist, well, IF and just about any other form of any kind can be used for just about anything. Do we want to see more interactive stories with strong authorial intent? Do we want more interactive stories with lots of player freedom, that follows through with lots of agency? Do we want more games with a more conceptual art slant? Yes, yes, and yes. All of it.

    Some suggest games need to be a little more boring, in fact. (And from a guy who has ideas to express.)

    [p.s. in the process of grabbing the url above, I found this new article, that I'll blog in a top level post.]

  2. Stephen Bond Says:

    “Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain has been called many things, including the most important artwork of the 20th century, but is it really “a reification of the artist’s self, a subjective consciousness made objective, bravely put forth and held out for admiration”? Is it best thought of as being expressive?”

    Why not? Duchamp’s work had a meaning in the context of its time. It was an expression of contempt for a certain culture (or a bourgeois idea of it) that was responsible for the Great War. It was a protest, a witty provocation, a satirical joke. I’d have no difficulty in seeing it as a personal statement — even if the statement is against art as a personal statement.

    I admit that shorn of its context, in a culture that openly celebrates tat, in which art is as mass-produced as toilet bowls, Duchamp’s pisspot doesn’t appear to say much. Now that it’s in a glass box at the Tate, canonised as great art, and valued at $2.5 million, what was anti-culture has become thoroughly bourgeois culture, and it’s still taking us to war. In this climate, I find that there’s something appealingly Dada in insisting that art should once again be a vehicle for self-expression. Maybe someone should go up to Fountain and paint the Mona Lisa on it.

    (Perhaps a more clear-cut example of an artwork that avoids self-expression altogether is John Cage’s 4’33″, though I wouldn’t be the only person to doubt whether that is really art. And even then, it’s not clear that ego is entirely absent from the work.)

    I must also admit I hadn’t encountered the other works you mention, though I’ve followed up the links where present and had a brief look. While I’m glad we agree that in all cases self-expression is involved, I suspect we’d disagree about the quality of the works. For instance, while I very much enjoyed Ad Verbum (and its associated XYZZY acceptance speech), I find longer efforts in constrained writing (which Never Again seems to be) rather tedious, for various reasons — for one, because self-expression is inevitably constrained along with the writing. In any case, I don’t argue that works that de-emphasise self-expression are not art –at least, as long as the expression is there in some form. I’m just of the opinion that they make less interesting art.

  3. breslin Says:

    Nick writes:

    Bond points out that the camp that expects IF to provide a more or less completely blank slate upon which the player’s experience can be realized (so that IF becomes simply a “a text-based vibrator for the imagination”) is quite distanst from those who expect IF authors to supply treasures, dragons, puzzles, and conventional pleasures. He offers a third idea, that of “interactive fiction as a kind of art form,”

    Even a moderately nuanced argument defies summary. Or, at least, quicko-sloppy summary.

    The initial point (which is not the most interesting, but happens to be the only point that is being discussed here) is introduced by the observation of similarity, not difference, between “traditional” and “sandbox”: despite their differences in theoretical orientation, they are (ironically) quite close in the essential respect of authorial expression. (Thus, the sandbox aesthetic is served a twist of satire.)

    So yes, while one can extract positive statements like “Creating a work of art is an egotistical act” etc., one must not simply extract them, but contextualize them within the larger argument.

    I’m sure Bond can put it better than I, but that initial point is basically that mere sandbox probably isn’t a satisfying aesthetic, because a work of art must have some authorial shaping; it must be not only a mere world or confinement (which is the case in both traditional and sandbox games), but an expression therein.

    I would disagree with this, but that’s another matter, and the rest of the article is probably the more interesting, which is yet a third matter. At this moment, I just wanted to remark that it would be nice to have read the argument before disagreeing with it.

  4. nick Says:

    Andrew, thanks for the link to Emily Short’s reply. The sentiment that we should try anything and everything is fine, but naming the possibilities is still very important for figuring out the scope of that everything. Stephen identifies two – the possibility of total player freedom and the conventional puzzle game – and then suggests another possibility, expressive art. This suggestion is very useful as a way of moving past what may be the two standard assumptions about possibilities for IF.

    My main point is on the level past that: Expressive art isn’t the only kind of art. There is, for instance, conceptual art as well, and there can also be conceptual IF.

    Stephen, thanks for your comment. Duchamp’s Fountain can indeed be thought of as expressive – or not. It is a work that can be understood as expressing contempt for bourgeois culture or as being against art. But is that expression in the, ahem, vessel of the artwork itself, or it is what you bring to fill a fundamentally open and empty work? You can read Fountain as being a work of art of personal, expressive, and confessional as The Bell Jar, but my sense would be that such a reading is grounded more in you than in Duchamp.

    I don’t spend much time thinking about Never Again and 4′ 33″ as examples of self-expression; they seem me to be about English and about silence. If you think expressive art is the only valid form of art, then you’re unlikely to find much of interest among the works I mentioned. It would be like starting up Ramses and expecting a puzzle-filled treasure-hunt romp with a dragon.

  5. drdon Says:

    Random thoughts:

    I’d argue that any “art” where the concept is more important than the realization (whatever the medium), creates a complication in the communication chain between creator and audience. This I think runs completely counter to games, movies, tv, etc. Where communication, meaning, comprehension, etc. with a large majority of the audience are paramount.

    It’s also interesting to note that Stravinsky often said that music was powerless to express anything. He notated his music with extreme precision in order to reduce players’ interpretations as much as possible.

    4’33″ is not about silence. It’s about random sounds or even found sounds (the world around us) being perceived or at least though of as music – it’s a concept. :)

  6. breslin Says:

    Nick, you’re not really connecting with the discussion, let alone developing it. First, it was never a question of two absolute positions (absolute player freedom and absolute authorial domination) where one must heroically make room for the golden middle. Bond does not write that, nor has anyone else. That whole form of thought is rather reductive and unhelpful.

    I did not traverse Bond’s argument exhaustively, but I pointed out the major moves. You still don’t recognize, I’ll not repeat myself.

    This gesture of yours towards alternatives — “conceptual art for instance” — seems shallow: were you even thinking of a second instance when you wrote that? One instance implies a second…. Were you even thinking of how one might apply a concept of conceptual art to IF? Were you even thinking of “conceptual art” as a specific aesthetic form?

    A reader of Bond’s article would probably have something more insightful and concrete to contribute.

  7. andrew Says:

    I don’t see Nick’s argument as unhelpful or shallow; as often happens, I’m impressed at Nick’s pretty consistently level-headed, moderating take on the rest of our sometimes hotheaded opinions. ;-)

  8. Gilbert Bernstein Says:

    I was going to stay out of this one, but since everyone started dragging conceptual art into it, I can hardly resist. =)

    I agree with Nick. I find Bond’s characterization of art to be overly restrictive, and a tad romantic. Bond writes, “An artwork is a reification of the artist’s self, a subjective consciousness made objective, bravely put forth and held out for admiration.” Bond has me up until “bravely…” at which point I imagine a chest swelling with pride and determination. Now if we strip that part, we get “An artwork is a reification of the artist’s self, a subjective consciousness made objective,” which I think is actually quite insightful. Further, I think it can run counter to Bond’s intent when we strip the “expressive” stipulation in this way. Works such as Fountain and 4’33″ that lie at the boundary of what we normally consider art can be captured, and we can see how sandbox games such as Will Wright’s are artistic.

    As before, I don’t particularly like the flavor of Bond’s conclusion to the paragraph. “A work of art with nothing of the self invested in it is just machine-made trash.” If we look at 4’33″ in particular, we should note that meaning arises on the part of the observer, not Cage, through the expectations they bring to the experience. (that is, considering the piece as music, not just as an idea) With the importance of the observer in mind, I’d object to Bond’s privileging of the author here. However, at the same time we can recognize the piece in performance as a reification of Cage’s subjective notions of music. We refer to it as Cage’s 4’33″ rather than just talking about 4 minutes and 33 seconds of silence, or better yet, just silence, because Cage chose to frame it in that way and point out that particular experience. So Cage is invested, if only slightly in the piece.

    Now, assume for Fountain that Duchamp is the Artist and that the piece is a readymade. To my knowledge, all arguments made in defense of Fountain as art rely on Duchamp’s intent as the artist. In the weakest form, this amounts to saying that the urinal is a piece of art because Duchamp claimed it as a piece of art and presented it as such. This action, which is still retained in the framing of Fountain by institutions as an artwork is a reification of Duchamp’s ideas of what is permissible as art.

    That’s all well and good, although a touch abstract. The most controversial statement I found in Bond’s article however, was “Art is not about holding a mirror up to nature, and IF is certainly not about holding a mirror up to the player.” One of the most interesting experiences I’ve heard recounted about Facade (and arguably any game) was that of playing it in a frat house, ( http://grandtextauto.org/2006/08/08/interactive-drama-a-private-affair/ ) where the experience with the game was strongly shaped by the players. Similarly I have heard stories of how MMORPGs have given players reflective revelations into their own personality and behavior–”Am I really that selfish?” This seems to be a more important artistic aim than the romantic imposition of ego that Bond envisions.

    On the other hand, Bond’s claim that games may be the autistic (or better yet, self-absorbed) art of our times may not be so far from the truth. The other side of the coin to positive introspection is narcissism and a detachment from society.

    Thanks for the discussion. I doubt I would have been motivated to go read what turned out to be a rather interesting article otherwise.

    (forgot to comment on Will Wright and sandboxes. If you take the notion of reification of subjective consciousness into account for sandbox games, you can see that the sandbox has various rules and structure which the artist imposes onto it. The Sims give us a particular idea of how life works, a model based on desires and means to fulfill them. In this way it is an imposition of Will Wright’s consciousness on his players. The design choices, the rules, the constraints are selected and crafted by the artist. I’ve also heard Spore speculatively and lightly criticized for giving a false impression of evolution since the mechanism of Natural Selection is replaced by player choice. (an intelligent designer?) I don’t agree particularly, but it’s interesting to hear people thinking about games in that way.

    Also, there’s some online book which contains similar ideas to this comment on sandboxes in its thesis about how games can function as Weltanschauungs. Wish I could remember it to link it)

  9. josemanuel Says:

    «Bond writes, “An artwork is a reification of the artist’s self, a subjective consciousness made objective, bravely put forth and held out for admiration.” Bond has me up until “bravely…” at which point I imagine a chest swelling with pride and determination.»

    In this essay, Stephen indirectly explains why he wrote that phrase the way he did. I would have said “artist’s circunstancia“, though, instead of “artist’s self”.

    «One of the most interesting experiences I’ve heard recounted about Facade (and arguably any game) was that of playing it in a frat house, [..]where the experience with the game was strongly shaped by the players. Similarly I have heard stories of how MMORPGs have given players reflective revelations into their own personality and behavior–”Am I really that selfish?” This seems to be a more important artistic aim than the romantic imposition of ego that Bond envisions.»

    In that case, we should claim psychiatry an art form, because one day I went to the shrink and ended up saying the same thing. Bad jokes aside, the art in Façade is not in the reactions of the players, but in the intentions of the authors. Star Wars has a huge number of hysterical fans, but that doesn’t make it better in artistic terms than The Seventh Seal. It doesn’t even make it art. Some Argentinians have created the Church of Maradona. Does that mean he is an artist? Does it mean he is a god? My point is, you can’t judge the artistic quality of an artwork based of the audience’s reactions, because some will find the meaning of life in Yoda’s teachings, some will do the same in Bergman’s images and dialogues, and others, in Maradona’s dodges. Reactions to art are completely personal and unpredictable for the most part. Unfortunately, only your own say something about the work that provoked them.

    As for the discussion of conceptual art vs expressive art, I would say that anything made with an intention and a style, is expressive, subjective, and uniquely personal by definition. If a poem has no meaning, why dividing the text into verses, why making them rhyme, or putting any artifice whatsoever into it? (Why even writing it?) Even if it’s just meant as a pure aesthetic experience, that’s a message in itself. (“Here I give you something beautiful”, or sometimes “Look at how smart I am.”) There’s always a need for communication on the artist’s side. There’s always a message, even if instead of an explicit one, there is a whole grammar to create your own interpretation(s) from, as it seems to have been the intention of John Cage with 4′ 33”. Here’s an interesting idea for interactive media artists. The grammar. A novel has a meaning, or several, but once you’ve gone through all of its pages, you’ve seen them all. Interactive media art can do the same, but it can also just give a grammar and let the player choose his own message from the set of all possible interpretations marked as valid by the rules of the grammar, if you know what I mean. Next time the player interacts with the game, he might come up with another message, all of them envisioned, explicitly or implicitly, by the author who created the grammar. This is the way to go, in my humble opinion, and not that of player freedom. I see the interactive media artist as a taxi driver who takes the player to wherever he wants to go but choosing the path himself.

  10. Gilbert Bernstein Says:

    I completely agree Jose. Of course you can’t just judge an artwork based on the audience reaction. I was just trying to say that those experiences were in a sense provided for by the grammar of the game, or what I was referring to as the “design choices, rules, constraints” in reference to sandboxes. In the case of Facade, it seems like the game is set up to bias someone towards trying to keep Grace and Trip together, although it doesn’t force that choice upon them. That seems like a reasonable sort of constraint to attribute to the artist. On the other hand, MMORPGs don’t seem to be designed with that sort of psychological consideration in mind at all, so that’s not really appropriate to attribute to the artist.

    I believe the grammar idea is what I was trying (and somewhat failing) to get at with the rephrasing of Stephen’s definition. The artist shouldn’t have to be brave, nor should they have to seek admiration to create. However, the act of creating is the act of ordering or perturbing the world, which is necessary almost trivially since otherwise the artist would have done nothing. This seems to be what is being called player freedom, which seems to me to be a straw man. If an IF with complete player freedom was created, it would still restrict the player to the laws of physics, (maybe not, but some sort of rules of the world) and the constraints of the interface, both of which were chosen or designed by an author. So, those rules would contain authorial intent of the sort we’ve been talking about. It seems possible to have an IF that both contains authorial intent/expression and yet allows the player or even author to explore unanticipated paths that were not explicitly provided for. That still seems a worthy goal. I don’t think the original essay made a strong argument against this, more realistic notion of player freedom.

  11. josemanuel Says:

    «The artist shouldn’t have to be brave, nor should they have to seek admiration to create.»

    If, at least sometimes, art is used to express ideas, and if some of them are deemed to be politically incorrect or socially unaccepted, we would see that an artist has to be brave to a certain extent. As for the admiration, I don’t think that’s what artists long for. They just want to be loved. Federico García Lorca said it first: «Escribo para que me quieran.» (I write to be loved.)

    In the player freedom vs authorial intent, you hinted a possible argument. Let’s think about the world, the whole universe, as if it was a work of art. The universe has physical laws that restrict what we can do in and with it. Is this a good or a bad thing? I don’t know, but, thanks to the “order” they provide, things like life and evolution were not only possible but also done in a seemingly orderly way. I mean, we’re better than the amoebas, right? Now think about these millions of years as a story, and you will notice that it has been a great one. It’s an interesting plot, constantly advancing; nice characters; good and evil; lies and truth, etc. And recently the rules we once thought were constraining us (nothing heavy can fly, and the like), we found out can be somehow broken or fine tuned. The last two hundred years have seen some pretty heavy story development. What would happen if there were no rules, no physical laws? I don’t know, but my bet is that none of us would be here today, and the plot would have been much less entertaining: every character would probably had gone his way trying to kill each other. Well, the grammar concept is equivalent to the laws of the universe. It keeps things interesting in the story, because it helps us find its answers. It keeps us focused on the plot and on the things the author (this is not an allusion to God, though I don’t mind if someone takes it as such) wants to express with it. With all this said, I guess I was just agreeing with you with other words.

    Player freedom, for me, means giving the player additional options that don’t make the story move forward. Anything else goes under the label “authorial intent” (because the author intently doesn’t give the player those additional options), so both are mutually exclusive categories. In our real world example, if all living things were inmortal, they would not have a reason to evolve, nor even to reproduce. That would be disastrous for the plot. So the way I understand it, player freedom is always a bad thing. Constraints are necessary in any interactive work.

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