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David Rokeby : I’m an interactive artist; I construct experiences

Louise Boisclair

Long Wave, David Rokeby, LuminaTO, Toronto

Interactive installations would not have became what they are without pioneers like David Rokeby who devoted three decades to tame them, making them accessible, subtle and fruitful of complex resonances. His artworks speak several languages, visual, auditory, proprioceptive, synesthetic. Their vocabulary is rooted in our relationship with the world and the perception of our every move. Coupling calculated programming and artistic intention open and original, Rokeby talks about his artistic development by revisiting several works with his visceral understanding of interactivity or interaction, particularly the creative sap of  Very Nervous System and the subtle composition of Taken. As the lamplighter of the Little Prince, David Rokeby is a consciousness lighter.

About interactivity 

The Giver of Names, David Rokeby

L. B. : David Rokeby, to start this interview, as you describe yourself as an « interactive artist who creates experiences »1, I would like to ask you your definition of interactivity and how it has evolved in nearly 30 years of artistic practice?

D. R. : I started thinking about interactivity before I was working with computers for my artworks. I was interested in art systems that somehow incorporated the viewer in the creation of the work. I had a very broad sense of how this might be accomplished. In the end I suppose, I decided to slant things towards the artist’s intention rather than any explicit mechanism of interaction. One can argue that any work has an element of interactivity in it. I was interested particularly in work where the artist explicitly left room for the subjectivity of the viewer. This sort of challenge intrigued me, and, I felt, addressed some of the problems that have come to exist between artists and audience in the last century. So I do not privilege work that uses some explicit sort of interactive interface. As I have written elsewhere, an interactive interface can just as easily prevent experience as it can enable experience.

Among the things I explored in the early 80s where explicitly interactive interfaces, and I got quite excited about them. I guess I had a bit of a utopian approach. I felt that by giving people a sense of agency through interaction, that they would understand that their actions had consequences and that they therefore would develop a sense of responsibility (i.e. knowing that I affect the world around me is affirming and gives me a sense of power but understanding the consequences of that power I hoped would bring people to a state where they would simultaneously act and perceive... to affect the world, but even as they affected it, to carefully observe the impact that one had... that is to say, to fully engage in the loop of feedback.

In the late 80s I began to realize that people did not want the responsibilities that I felt were inherent in interaction, or indeed, life. They were looking for a sense of engagement and affirmation with no strings (consequences) attached. This was simultaneously depressing, and alarming, because I realized that abuse of interactive technologies would seem to point directly to a disengaged public, trapped in a feedback loop that did not extend out through the world... playing at participation, but engaging with neither the power nor the responsibility that it involves. The utopian dreams were dashed!

I remembered at that point that interaction is everywhere and banal. The artworld was an exceptional place where interaction had mostly been abolished, but most of life was always and constantly multidimensionally interactive. Interaction still seemed to me to be a useful way to represent systems and relations. I looked forward to the day when interaction was just another tool in the artist’s toolkit, to be used on occasion where appropriate.

I used interaction from time to time now, when the situation seems right. The whole question of interactivity remains a very interesting one for me in the broader sense, beyond the bounds of a particular branch of new media art.

L. B. : If I may ask, what distinction do you make between interaction and interactivity? Your answer would help me to make the nuance in french.

D. R. : I do not think I make any strong distinction.... normally I think I use interaction to refer to an individual's relation to a work, and interactivity to refer to the more abstract notion of interaction in works, although I am sure that I am not consistent in this...

L. B. : Also you declared that you wanted to create a more humanistic exchange between human and computer, what do you mean by that and how has it Taken form?

Watch, David Rokeby

D. R. : It is not exactly that I want to create a more humanistic exchange between human and computer. It is more like that I want to create a more humanistic exchange between people through a computer, or between me and myself through the computer. Working with the computer is among other things, an act of communication with oneself. Even writing with a word processor is an act of communicating with oneself. The words and ideas as edited and restructured come back to you as the other part of a peculiar kind of dialogue. I have written extensively about the interactive system as a transforming mirror.

It is true that the computer’s very existence seemed to present a direct and obvious challenge. Its resistance to human modes of communication I took as a provocation and set about seeing what could be done to make create richer interfaces. I like a challenge.

But the real motivation here was not to allow computers and humans to cozy up to each other, but to probe what a computer is, and how it relates to what we are, what we think we are and what we wish we were. And then, to step beyond that, how does the computer’s presence in our culture change who we think we are.

L. B. : Some theoreticians, I think mainly of Lev Manovich and Jean-Paul Fourmentraux by example, criticize this notion as being tautological or to broad, or use other expressions, like médias partiquables. We see also ‘arts programmés’, probably from Umberto Eco, etc. How do you position yourself within these tendencies?

D. R. : I don’t read many media theoreticians. I don’t really enjoy arguing about definitions, and I do not like labels to restrict what I do. I do what seems obvious and interesting to me.

L. B. : How do you approach interactivity, how do you decide what type of devices you will develop, how do you define a successful interactivity? Basically you are your first interactor, the fist participant. What criteria do you use to evaluate?

D. R. : My approach is on one hand largely pragmatic and experiential. I probe and test and try out things. I am guided in my choice of interfaces and technologies by my interests. I am interested in perception, so I often explored perceptual interfaces, that is to say, interfaces that are required to make judgements and generalizations rather than that respond to simple quantitative stimula. For myself, I seek to destabilize myself and surprise myself. I like to pose situations to myself that draw out unexpected responses from myself. So when I am developing a work, I am working in a very rational way (since I am programming) looking for the completely unexpected experience not predicted by the what I understand of the system (including myself).

L. B. : Is interactivity going to disappear with the miniaturization and the sophistication of the interfaces ?

D. R. : It does not go away, but it may become transparent. Is that what you mean? I am very interested in the problem posed by the interface that one cannot sense and therefore cannot critique or interrogate. Any interface of this sort inevitably creates a distortion of one’s sense of one’s self, since the behavior of the invisible interface must be incorporated into one’s model of one’s self. This is why I have written about the implications of constructing experiences through programming. The programmer in this case is in a sense modifying the interactor, changing their relationship to themselves and the world. As this act of modification becomes impossible to locate or detect, it becomes politically problematic.

Years of development and sources of inspiration 

The sap of the tree : Very Nervous System 

Taken : between surveillance and a plays with memory and perception 

Other related activities and the next future  



1 David Rokeby, « Construire l’expérience, l’interface comme contenu », article publié en anglais dans Digital Illusions (2000) et en traduction française dans Interfaces et Sensorialités (2003).

2 Extrait du site Web de la Fondation Langlois, accessible à, consulté le 14 mars 2010.

3 Conférencière, Mobile/Immobilisé. Art, technologies et (in)capacités, colloque dirigé par Louise Poissant et Louis Bec, novembre 2007,, dernière consultation le 24 mars 2010.



Auteure, artiste et chercheure, Louise Boisclair  a publié de nombreux articles pour Archée, Inter art Actuel, Vie des Arts et Parcours. Outre ses œuvres plastiques et médiatiques, elle a créé et produit une cinquantaine de vidéos dont quatre Vidéo-Mag primés. Parmi ses réalisations : le film d’art expérimental, Variations sur le hook up, le mémoire-création, Variations sur le dépassement et L’écho du processus de création, et le prototype du conte visuel interactif, Variations sur Menamor et Coma et Vitrine Cosmos. Ses recherches portent sur  Voir l’image et ses effets à l’ère de l’interactivité. Membre du groupe Performativité et effets de présence, elle est doctorante au programme de sémiologie à l’UQAM. Par ailleurs, elle offre aussi des ateliers de créativité, mandala et peinture gestuelle.

Artiste international né en 1960 à Tillsonburg en Ontario et basé à Toronto, David Rokeby, lauréat du Prix du Gouverneur général en arts visuels et en arts médiatiques 2002, expose depuis 1982 dans de nombreux pays, notamment à la Biennale de Venise en 1986. Sa carrière de près de 30 ans poursuit deux pistes principales : la perception visuelle et le temps à travers les caméras de surveillance, le  langage  des humains, croisé à celui des machines. Rokeby jouit d’une renommée internationale particulièrement associée à son installation interactive sonore Very nervous system (1986-1990). Il a créé le logiciel VNS qui permet de transformer le mouvement de l’interacteur en son, dont plusieurs artistes se sont inspirés pour leurs installations, notamment Wald de l’artiste allemand Chris Ziegler et KinéFusion de l’artiste montréalais Robert Chrétien.



Texts by David Rokeby online
Challenges in Intermodal Translation of Art
Constructing Experience: Interface as Content
Transforming Mirrors: Control and Subjectivity in Interactive Media
Lecture for the Kwangju Biennale (A survey of my works placed in context)
The Harmonics of Interaction (MusicWorks)
Predicting the Weather (MusicWorks)
Dreams of an Instrument Maker (MusicWorks)

Texts on David Rokeby online
Seeing (Dot Tuer)
Disembodied States: Vision, the Body and the Virtual (Dot Tuer)
Interactive Strategies and Dialogical Allegories (Ernestine Daubner)
Dances With Machines, Technology Review, May 1999 (Rebecca Zacks)
Silicon remembers Ideology, or David Rokeby's meta-interactive art (Erkki Huhtamo)
Very Nervous System,Wired Magazine issue 3.03, (Douglas Cooper)

David Rokeby, Taken :
David Rokeby :
Fondation Langlois :
Mobile/Immobilisé. Art, technologies et (in)capacités,


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Cette publication a été rendue possible grâce au soutien financier d'Hexagram, du groupe de recherche des arts médiatiques (GRAM), de la Faculté des arts de l'UQAM, de la Chaire du Canada en esthétique et poétique de l'UQÀM (CEP), ainsi qu'à une subvention, pour une quatorzième année consécutive, du Conseil des arts du Canada (CAC).