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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 

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  

Cloud explained, David Rokeby

L. B. : Considering that you were already at Biennale de Venise in 1986, before many other participations aftewards, and have been honored entre autres by le Prix du gouverneur général en arts visuels et médiatiques en 2002, can we conclude that financing have not been a real issue for your work ? 

D. R. : I wish I could say that that was true. I have been lucky. I have had lots of opportunities to show and received awards, etc. Nonetheless, there never seems to be enough money! I have to keep many balls in the air all the time to keep enough money coming in to pay bills...

L. B. : I understand that you give workshops to artists interested with interactive programming, is teaching an important activity of your time schedule ?

D. R. : It has not been a major activity. It comes in spurts. I may do more in the future.

L. B. : How do you see the future of interactive installations, if I may ask you as I did with other interactive artists? How do you see the development of devices, their short and middle term evolution? Will they be more and more integrated to clothes, to become miniaturized in our glasses, to be inserted in the body itself, and so on ? How about detection?

D. R. : I don’t think about it much. I thought a lot about these interfaces when there were very few around because I found they allowed me to ask questions in a new way. It is not that I do not think that really great stuff can be done with all these new developments in technology, but my interests have shifted.

Surface_Tension, Eve Egoyan and David Rokeby, 2009

L. B. : What project are you working on these days ?

D. R. : My major project for the next year is a work that explores the way we consume images. It is a commission for a new gallery at Ryerson University here in Toronto and the whole show is related to a large archive of photojournalistic photos. Each artist is approaching this archive in their own way. I am looking at the way we digest a historical image in order to place ourselves in time, space and history, as it were, at the position in time space of the lense of the camera that took the picture. This is partly related to explorations that were part of the Giver of Names. In particular, the role of detail in perception, versus the role of larger scale features of an image. I figure this sounds pretty abstract at this point, but I am very excited about it... I am up to other stuff as well... some large public art works, a continuation of a long term exploration of the voice as a place of meeting between language and the body, continued explorations of time...

L. B. : To conclude, for students, artists, searchers who will read this this fascinating interview, what kind of testimony would you like to transmit ? Among all your artwork, what project are you the most proud of and why?

D. R. : Certainly Very Nervous System is a key to my whole oeuvre. Most of what followed was stimulated by experiences and observations made during its development. I am very proud of the Giver of Names for its simple framing of enormous complexity and of Watch for the resonance of its simplicity. But, in fact, I no longer feel qualified to judge the works in this way. I love n-cha(n)t like I would love a trouble-some but brilliant child, and no work of mine has surprised me more. I love long wave because I never expected to create anything like it, and I enjoy surprising myself more than anything... it is not an IMPORTANT WORK, but it made me deliriously happy. It takes me about 10 years to really understand past work, since I work very intuitively, so there is much recent work that I cannot assess at all yet...

I am not sure that I have anything to say about a legacy that I would like to transmit. I have put works, and words out there. They will resonate where they will...



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).