A Conversation with Henry See

on the Interactive Art Conference on Arts Wire

October 1995

Henry See is a Montreal-based artist who has been an active producer of telecommunications works and software since the mid-late 80s. His work is often humorous, particularly in its approach to "interface" and "high technology"; and typically involves some type of user interaction or responsiveness.

He joins us just as the 6th International Symposium on Electronic Art (ISEA), which he helped organize, ends in Montreal. We look forward to a few stories and interesting perspectives on the state of electronic art...

-Anna Couey

When MacPaint came out, I had my first transcendent computer experience. With HyperCard, I went over the top.

In 1988, Fortner Anderson and I produced an itinerant database called The Odyssey Project. It was uploaded to a number of online systems. We asked people to download it, add material, and pass it along to someone else. After three months, a dialogue box came up asking people to return a copy to us so we could see how it had voyaged and expanded.

In 1989, I did the design and programming on a hypermedia work about Glenn Gould produced by the Banff Centre. It included two essays about Gould, a CD audio and videodisk. This was followed in 1991 by A Memory Project, a look at memory and forgetting, which received an honourable mention at Ars Electronica. The Ars Electronica experience was the first in a recurring, and unfortunate, response to this work. I learned later that while some of the jurors loved it, others didn't think it was serious because of the graphic style. (It continues to elicit a strong reaction - both positive and negative.)

Because it is HyperCard-based in the era of Photoshop, it is discounted by a large number of people who should know better. It uses black and white graphics, which, according to these "standard-bearers," makes it a relic in the age of millions of colours and photo-realism. My response is that these people should read John Berger's "Ways of Seeing" and open their eyes.

In fact, last week at ISEA95, I found out that it had been refused at an exhibit earlier this year because one of the curators didn't want to mount a historical review! Four years after the piece was done!

The implications of this are frightening but not surprising.

In 1993, I did a satire of virtual reality and virtual sex called B*rbie's Virtual Playhouse for SIGGRAPH'93. Some thought I was proposing a serious model for cybersex. Scary.

My most recent work was an interactive video installation. Very simple after the other things I had done. A darkened space, 10' by 20'. At the far end, a projection of a man sitting on a stool reading a book. The entrance is on the opposite side of the room. The visitor enters. The reading man looks up. Then, depending upon the movement of the visitor, the reader reacts in different ways. Approach too quickly, he will get up and walk off-screen. Linger at the back, he will begin regarding you more and more intently.

I was on the organizing committee for ISEA95, the Sixth International Symposium on Electronic Art, which was held in September in Montreal. More information about these projects can be had at http://macsee.citi.doc.ca.

-Henry See

Anna Couey

Hi, Henry...welcome!

"B*rbie's Virtual Playhouse" was probably my favorite work at SIGGRAPH 93. I loved the way it played on the technology of virtual reality - the Date-a-glove made from a kitchen mitt attached to a joystick; the hand drawn Hypercard stack as the virtual environment...and the way it used interactivity to involve its players in a private cybernetic sex act on the floor of the Anaheim convention center...and that sex would be randomly gay or straight regardless of the player's inclinations or philosophy. :-)

In your most recent work...does the projection of a man speak or approach the visitor?

Judy Malloy

Welcome Henry,
Its downright nice to see all of us here talking togther!

Henry See

Hello Anna & Judy. Thank you for inviting me in this month.

To answer your question, Anna, about whether or not the figure in my most recent piece speaks, no. It is a silent dialogue which takes place. The first reason for this was practical. It was first shown here in Montreal where the public was going to be mixed English-speaking and French-speaking. Using either language would have typed the character too much. Also, if I had used both languages, then it might not work outside of French and English-speaking countries.

But more importantly, I wanted to see what could be done in a silent dialogue, reusing expressions as significant elements in a dialogue. These elements could be reused, taking meaning from the context. Basic Pudovkin.

I would like, however, to do another installation using the same technology, but using voice, something *meaningless* such as an excerpt from Kurt Schwitters' Ursonate.

Anna Couey

Good point about the specificity of speech.

I like the idea of meaning growing from the visitor's interpretation of their interaction with the projected man. Do you (or are you interested in) tabulate(ing) what the visitors perceive - documenting the meanings that the same gestures might have in different contexts? How have visitors responded to the work?

A recurring theme in discussions we've had here, is how interactivity works - how interactive works convey meaning, particularly works that involve open ended response from the audience/user. Whether that freedom and open structure dissipates meaning.

The meaningless sound idea is very cool too!

Henry See

I have not done any tabulation. I prefer to watch and see how people respond. From that I am able to tweak the reaction of the video figure. Children love the piece. they can spend endless amounts of time running in and out of the room, making the figure get up and leave.

Henry See

Regarding meaning in interactive art: I am a big fan of ambiguity. Ambiguity does not mean that things are unstructured. It seem to me that the role of the artist as "author" remains extremely important in interactive art. We are still called upon to create structures which can give meaning...or many meanings. This is the "art" involved.

Interactive art which is badly structured will likely bring about experiences which have no meaning, which make no sense. Well structured pieces permit multiple readings.

But this does not make the reader/viewer a co-creator of the piece. The artist remains creator, making available the possibility of these multiple readings.

Judy Malloy

Thanks Henry. This is really interesting. I'm sorry not to have participated very much yet. It's been a bad week.

Henry See

Hi, Judy. I am very interested in your take on the issues of structure, authorship, and co-creation. Do you believe that the reader of one of your hypertexts is sharing any authoring or creation responsibilities with you?

I ask because I have noticed an evolution in my thinking on this. When I started making hypertexts or hypermedia peieces, I chanted the mantra about co-authorship. But as I did more work, I realized that structure is still fundamental. Yes, it is possible to just throw things into a bag and let people go at them at random, but this makes for a much different work than one which is structured.

On the other hand, I have always held the view that there is nothing more interactive than a pencil and paper. That one can enter into a dialogue with the author of any text. It depends upon the way you read. One can consume a hypertext the way one can consume a soft drink or novel. One can also read the novel in a very *interactive* way. This seems to me to be related to consumer society more than a particilar instance of technology.

Anna Couey


I've been thinking a lot about the role of artist/audience in collaborative work...& questioning my original thinking too. Not resolved yet :-)

The network projects I've organized have emphasized initial structure and allowed open (tho targeted) participation to ultimately define the content of the work. There are a lot of things I like about that approach, it's very collaborative, process oriented/experiential... but can also limit the artist's ability to shape the content and make meaning beyond the actual act of viewer/reader participation.

So...your words about the role of the originating artist in making meaning are pretty thought provoking...

I used to think that interactive/collaborative telecommunications work was making an autocratic system of idea exchange democratic. I've come to realize there are a lot of issues to consider about power when initiating a collaborative work - are the participants pawns in the artist's agenda?

Co-creation is a difficult notion for artists because of the way the field is structured - and the Net is now transitioning into a similar paradigm - of intellectual property rather than sharing...I'd say that collaborative works *are* coauthored, but it is not an equal-share authorship. The originating artist has a tremendous impact on the work simply by defining the initial structure, and deserves primary credit for the work. At the same time, participants also deserve credit for giving meaning to the work/making the art.

I would distinguish between interactive reading/navigation and co-creation. Co-creation to me implies action on the part of a viewer towards a work that adds meaning for future viewers/readers; reading a book or hypertext, or charting a course through an interactive cd-rom, can be interactive if the viewer/reader actively reads it - but doesn't add the viewer/reader's mark into the work.

Henry, what do you mean by:

>This seems to me to be related to consumer society more than a
>particilar instance of technology.

Henry See

I would agree that when someone takes the time to write something or draw or paint something and add it to a collaborative work, this is a creative act. My more entrenched position was more on the issue of reading/navigating.

When you ask what I mean by:

>This seems to me to be related to consumer society more than a
>particular instance of technology.

There are books, films, CDs, objects of various forms which are the product of someone's creative output which I have read or listened to in the manner of a consumer. The way I would eat a bowl of ice cream or drink a soft drink. They are consumed as a way of passing time. Of filling a hole, be it in the stomach or in the head. In terms of creative work, there is no dialogue with the author(s).

So the point I was trying to make was that even technology which we think is the epitome of interactivity is still embedded in consumer society and can be consumed in a way which has no interactive component about it...in the sense of a dialogue with either the artist or the piece. If interactivity is not about this dialogue, then I find it pointless. But no technology can guarantee the dialogue.

The one real "collaborative" work I have done, The Odyssey, was a complete failure from the point of view of producing a finished piece which was the work of many. We sent out the hypercard stack into the ether and hoped to have many copies returned three months later. We know that hundreds of copies went out. We heard that people added to it. Judy has written about it. Yet when the three month deadline came about, we got three copies back.

Were we asking too much? First, people needed to contribute.Then they had to give it to someone else, finally, they needed to return a copy to us. maybe that is asking too much. With the web, perhaps the same thing could be done more easily.

As for authorship, the finished piece has many contributors, yet the unifying idea, the structure, came from Fortner and myself. In this sense, it is more like a collection of texts, a book, which is edited and commented on by the editors, but which collects the work of many authors.

Judy Malloy

Yes one thing I have found is that it's important to make the collaboration easy and fun to do if I want people to participate.

Timothy Collins (tmc)

Hi Henry, this is very interesting. I'm not sure that a work -is- a collaboration if it's "made easy for participants". Collaborations indicates to me a mutually shared authorship of both the impetus for the work and the eventual system of expression.

I like this notion of 'interactivity" being embedded in consumer society. It rings very true with me. And indicates the broad meaning-non-meaning the word actually has. It also indicates the perversion of the ideal by market forces interested in "tailoring" products for individual consumers. Interactivity implies your own "personal" version of a designer product/entertainment experience.

Which is the antithesis of the ideal. (For me being an ongoing productive dialogue with opportunity for mutual insight and experiential and intellectual growth) Which is what the Interactive Conference does best! : )

Judy Malloy

I'm still thinking about the Odyssey, the work that Henry and Fortner Anderson sent around on disk. There had been mail art works like this - that moved around the world gathering input, but this is the first disk that did this that I know of. I wonder if the idea would work better today.

Anna Couey

I forget how you distributed it, Henry - I know Art Com sold it as artist's software, or at least publicized it that way. If you'd bought it you probably wouldn't add to it & send it back. But... you gave it away also, right? To artists? To people with computers?

There's a lot more computer-literacy, and platforms are merging, which would make it easier to add to. I suspect time is another factor - to truely participate in a work takes time away from the rest of your life &/or your "own" work.

Did the mail art works generate a lot of response, Judy?

Anna Couey

(wrote this offline in response to earlier postings..)

Definitely agree with you, Henry, on the passivity imbedded in consumer society. And that interactive technologies do not necessarily increase dialogue and can themselves be consumed. I think that's part of the challenge of creating work that seeks dialogue.

I too have found that simply designing a work for audience input doesn't mean you'll receive it. In the cross-network events that I've organized, the bulk of the input typically comes from systems that are used to dialogue, like the WELL. In an exhibition setting (thinking of SIGGRAPH and the ACM Multimedia conference), I found that most passersby were intimidated by the idea of adding to the dialogue. A few were very excited by it, and in some cases came back a day later to add material when their thoughts were clearer about what they wanted to say. In these projects, the interactivity was very open; I was hoping for dialogue on issues like cultural diversity in cyberspace. Not something you could really write off the top of your head!

Something that Judy often does in her collaborative works that I think mitigates the passive tendency, is to be very specific about what she wants people to add - write a sentence about someone you love.

Gil MinaMora's electronic Exquisite Corpse was similarly effective - write a stream of consciousness sentence. Years ago, when I demoed the Art Com Electronic Network to people who didn't use computers, I would call up his work and turn over the keyboard to the person watching the demo - who almost always could come up with a sentence! It really broke the passivity, and made the participant feel good.

Tim, your point about collaboration being mutually shared authorship is a good one. I feel as though I'm struggling over language with the word; like Henry I would consider a creative addition to a work a stroke of authorship. And in the experiences I've had trying to create collaborative situations with "viewers", it's definitely not been mutual. I suspect much of that is the consumer society paradigm - we are not used to coming to an exhibition to sit down & create; and exhibitions are usually not designed to encourage it. Some of it may also be culturally based. Or that the work does not arise enough from the community of "viewers" that it engages them in dialogue.

This stuff seems to be even more true in collaborative multimedia. Expression thru words is something we all do daily. Expression thru images has mostly been relegated to trained professionals.

Henry See

There are three things which Anna mentioned that struck me:

1. that in these collaborative efforts we are taking people away from their own work;

2. we can encourage participation by following Judy's strategy of being specific about what we want people to contribute;

3. that few people are trained to communicate thru images.

It sounds to me like asking people to add something specific and focused is an excellent way of getting people to participate. At the same time, the very "truth" of this statement underlines the point I was first making about "creativity" and "co-authorship." In projects where the contribution is pre-structured to such an extent, the real co-authorship is minimal. (Note that I am not saying this type of work isn,t valid! Only that it falls well within the parameters of authorship as we know it.)

And this is true because of the first point. Time. Asking people to spend time thinking about their contribution, understanding how it fits into what preceded it, etc. People have to consider the work their own, make it their own, to give the time and thought necessary to make a meaningful addition.

Tim's point of "tailoring" products for individuals is dead-on. Isn't this the Negroponte/Media Lab ideology?

Judy Malloy

Henry, I'd love to hear more about what you are working on right now and/or about what went on at ISEA.

Henry See

My current work is being done at a research centre in Montreal, the Centre for Information Technology Innovation. I am part of a working group on Networked Cultural Information Systems. Our mandate is to work with cultural organizations in Canada - including museums, SchoolNet, producers - to see what we can do on the net, in hypermedia, in distance access to collections, etc.

I have been working with a group since January on a prototype of a system for organizing and managing the info you find on the web. It consists of a view of the web from the outside so to speak. As you browse, icons representing the pages you have visited appear in an external window. The links between these pages are visible. From the external window, you can click on an icon and the browser will load the page. As well, you can "expand" an icon - that is, if the links from a page have not been entered, by clicking on an icon you can tell the browser to load all the URLs from a page into the system, creating icons for each of these pages. Soon you get constellations of web sites.

Once the icons are in your information space, you may annotate and add keywords to them. If you find associations between pages which are not indicated by the author of the page, you can add your own links in your window (these are not HTML HREF tags, they are your private indications of associations.)

Using filters based upon your keywords, you can then select certain icons by subject. Once the space begins getting cluttered (much like al desk), you can make hand-drawn markers which float in the background giving further location indicators.

Icons can then be drqgged into project windows and copies will be made. There is a quick and dirty HTML editor built-in so that you can do editing on the fly.

The first incarnation was done on the Mac. We are currently implementing it in Java. More info on this project can be found at http://macsee.citi.doc.ca/ACME.html.

More on ISEA tomorrow....

Judy Malloy

So would you see this system (iconography?) as being the basis for an artwork of some kind?

Henry See

ISEA 95.

The sixth International Symposium on Electronic Art was held in Montreal in September. As one of the organizers, this report will be 1) hopelessly biased, and 2) woefully incomplete. I didn't get to many of the panels or shows.

The symposium was large, 1000 people involved, which makes it over twice as large as any previous ISEA. Apart from the academic part, there was a week-long exhibition which filled a former elementary school, concerts every night, performances in a local club which served as the nightlife centre, and a number of special events.

The opening reception was held in the old American pavilion from Expo 67, a geodesic dome designed by Buckminster Fuller. The dome is now a centre devoted to the St Lawrence River. The opening took place outdoors on a platform about five stories up overlooking the river and the skyline of the city. The Video Creature, a performance artist from Brazil who wears a large monitor as a head, was the official host of the evening, speaking in English & French.

The show at the school had about 50 works. Each installation or interactive piece had its own classroom, which worked well for keeping sound from interfering with neighboring works. Though way so many people are using smoke machines is beyond me....

Works in the show included Jon McCormack's Turbulence (a recent winner at New Voices/New Visions), an interactive videodisk installation exloring artificial life, Graham Harwood's interactive piece done with the criminally insane at an institution in England, A Rehearsal of Memory, Giselle Trudel's investigation of 3D video using two monitors and mirrors, Timepiece, Catherine Richard's Curiosity Cabinet for the end of the Millenium, and Dennis Wilcox's Zenotrope ii & Zenotrope Oscillator.

A second show of pieces done at ZKM in Germany was on display at the University of Quebec at Montreal. Artists represented included Bill Seaman, Jill Scott, Luc Courchesne, and Agnes Hagedus.

The piece which stood out for me was Osmose, an immersive environment by Char Davies, on display at the Contemporary Art Museum across the street from the conference site. Forget any other immersive VR world you have seen. Char's work is innovative both in its interface and its aesthetics. First, the interface. You wear a helmet. But there is no glove. Instead you wear a vest which measures your breathing. Large breaths move you higher in the space. Small breathes (less expansion of the chest) moves you downwards. Forward/backward movement is done by leaning forwards and backwards. This interaface was suggested to Char by her experiences scuba diving.

The effect is to bring a much heightened awareness of the body into the experience, beginning to overcome the mind/body duality at the heart of so much VR.

Aesthetically, Osmose is lightyears away from the 3D worlds of solid cubes, spheres, and planes which dominate computer graphics. As anyone who knows Char's 2D work will attest, she has never shared the established way of seeing. (Insight into this may be gleaned from John Berger's Ways of Seeing...) Char has always been critical of the dominant aesthetic. Here, she shows a way forward freed from the engineered look of SIGGRAPH 3D, a way in which things are suggested and implied.

I have to mention Char's connection with Softimage. She is in effect the artist-in-residence at Softimage and was able to produce such a work because the company was committed to the peoject. She has had the freedom to work on this for over a year (including conception). Programming began in earnest last April. She worked with a team of people who had worked in the VR program at the Banff Centre, so they were open to working with an artist, in artistic ways, to push the medium and try and set a new, higher, poetic standard.

More on ISEA next time....

Judy Malloy

Thanks Henry. I'm looking forward to reading this offline!

Timothy Collins (tmc)

Osmose description has me squirmning in my chair! I wanna do it! BADLY. Very badly. It's curious how many 'lectronic works I hear of that -only- exist in description for me....but onece and a while they sing clearly even off text. Some of Fred Trucks work has the same resonance.

Henry See

OSMOSE will be in New York starting this week:

Opening Thursday, October 26, continuing to December 2, 1995

Ricco/Maresca Gallery 152 Wooster Street New York, NY 10012

Gallery Hours: 11-6 Tuesday through Saturday phone 212-780-0071

part of the CODE show. Then it may get to the west coast in 96. Char hopes so at any rate. It was up at the museum here in Montreal for six weeks. You had to make an appointment to get hooked up. Char fought to make a time period of 20 minutes so that people could really experience the piece. It takes most people about 10 minutes to get relaxed.

The installation itself it well-done. While others are "inside," you can watch a projection of their voyage with 3D glasses.

Timothy Collins (tmc)

Cool I'll make a point of seeing it!

Judy Malloy

Henry, were there any cd or artists software works that you particularly liked?

David Green

(Interjecting a little...)I made it to the opening of the CODE show last night: OSMOSE ws indeed the star of ths show. Of course it was almost too crowded (a VERY electro-chic crowd and three video crews) to see anything but I spent about 20 minutes as one of the audience bedecked with 3-D glasses entranced by the journey through a different kind of cyberspace. What was unusual was the degree of freedom allowed one's own imagination: the space is extremely fluid: few hard edges and a lot to stimulate your mental and emotional movement through it. I should return to experience it more directly (maybe Tuesday at 10am!)

Judy Malloy

Thanks for the report, David!

Anna Couey

Great to get a little more familiar with your work at CITI, Henry. Like Judy, I'm curious about how you view it in relation to exhibitable works you've created. I guess because I expected you to answer the question about your current work by describing exhibitable work....& because I find my own work fairly continuous...what I do for a living & what I do in an exhibition context are part of the same exploration.

Will keep my eyes open for OSMOSE in SF...hope it makes it here! I loved both your descriptions...especially the interface.

Well, Henry, hard to believe the month has already come to an end. It's been wonderful to have you here, have really enjoyed the conversation that emerged! Thanks for being our guest...

Transcript of A Conversation with Henry See, Item 69, Interactive Art Conference, Arts Wire.
Posted to the Web with participants' permission.

Conversations with Artists