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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 

Years of development and sources of inspiration 

Seen, Biennale de Venise, David Rokeby, 2002

L. B. : Can you speak about what talents, interests and motivations brought you to the creation of interactive art work ? Is it something that you dreamt of when you were a kid? How did it appear in your life and how did it became a constant in your life?  You seem to be in your « element » as Ken Robinson qualifies people whose work seem to be a passion that lasts.

D. R. : I think creating interactive experiences has been for me a way to bridge theory (scientific and cultural) and embodied practice. I never feel comfortable unless I am in the act of connecting an idea with a thing. I always had a very sensuous connection to ideas. It took me a long time through my teens to find an outlet for this odd mixture. Working as I do, not only interactively, give me a way to keep connecting the abstract and the particular.

It started in my life in Art school. I was looking for ways to address the viewer’s subjectivity. I was troubled by the fact that when I mixed sounds together, every combination was interesting, and so I was unsure what my role as organizer of those sounds was. Interactive systems allowed me to present the set of potential combinations rather than the combinations themselves. I was looking for ways of representing or sculpting or twisting time... All these things were part of what led me there. I had separated myself from society at some point in my teens, and interactivity was also a way to explore and reclaim the value of social relations.

As for how it became a constant... it was for a time, a way to bring all my interests and questions together into one large enterprise. There was in 1989, however, the first glimmer of the fact that everything I did did not have to be interactive. Interactivity is somehow a surface feature of a set of interests that more correctly correspond to the deep set of interests that drive my passion.

L. B. : You mainly create interactive installations, what artistic filiations of installations, interactive or not, have inspired you ? Did you yourself practice music, painting, sculpture or any other medium? Any direct influence from your family? Were you fan of video games?

D. R.: As a boy, I drew cars and buildings and guitars and typefaces. I played guitar. I did some kinetic sculpture at the end of high school. I almost became an architect and a graphic designer. I wrote music for films. My family is not very artistically active. I think my father’s creativity was quite damaged by early experiences of rejection and criticism. I can fall into addiction with video games, but I have never been a fan. I could perhaps be a fan of making video games, but not of playing them.

L. B. : How about school, as an artist did you get along well in an organized environment, was it a good framework ? How did it serve, if it did, your artistic mission and your vision of projects to accomplish?

D. R. : I had a very unorganized school experience at the Ontario College of Art. I had many radical teachers who inspired me. I quickly organized my own trajectory. I had the good fortune at OCA to have a few teachers who worked in computers and electronics and this made it easier to ignore the fact that for most people, art must not have anything to do with things like computers.

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).