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Fall 2005 | v.01 n. 01 | Invitational Issue |

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Emergent Objects at the Human-Computer Interface (HCI) A Case Study of Artists’ Cybernetic Relationships and Critical Consciousness

Sherry Mayo


There exist emergent objects or art objects that are made with nascent technologies that defy previously defined categories of art practice. The investigation of emergent objects at the human-computer interface (HCI) has implications for art education, cultural evolution, and critical consciousness. The value to society by artists experimenting at this interface consists of emergent objects that spur critical reflection on experience and social interaction.  Art education facilitates critical dialogue around emergent objects and constructs meaning. 

 The 20th century brought contemporary works to the public through vehicles of technology and expanded the visual arts to include photography, film, sound, performance, and new media art. In the information age the tangible physical object has been challenged; presence and absence are defined in post-human terms as pattern and interference as Hayles (1999) suggests. It is the function of the artist to use new technologies for human expression.

The computer is a new tool for artistic investigation and its results have to be diagnosed. This study offers a glimpse at the effects of emergent objects on critical consciousness. New Media Art programs are still in their infancy in art schools and universities.  Their need for growth in terms of curriculum development and research practice should foster exploration of artistic practice with cybernetics in the studio (See Figure 1).

Figure 1. Cybernetic Model of Change over Time.
© 2005 by Dr. Sherry Mayo.
All rights reserved.

The framework for this study included four research questions: 1) what can emergent objects tell us about the transitions studio art has gone through with the integration of digital technologies, 2) is there an aesthetic shift due to hybridization in studio practice, 3) what can investigating cybernetic relationships in studio art practice reveal about human-computer interface (HCI), and 4) what role does the artist-researcher have in arts technology integration?

The observed phenomena are artists practicing with digital technologies to create emergent objects (See Figure 2.).  Geertz (1983) made an argument for local knowledge as value added to empirical research (cited by Flick 2002).  Local knowledge of an artist is vital to understanding their cybernetic relationships at the HCI. Subjects incorporated the computer into their studio through diverse pathways that informed the way they work with digital technologies. This information is encapsulated in the emergent object as depicted in Figure 2.

Engaging in empirical research in the visual arts is an emerging field. Practice-based research or doctoral level work in the arts that produces original research around creative work using critical inquiry is more developed abroad in higher education (especially in the U.K.) than in the U.S. (Sullivan 2005).  I used Sullivan’s (1998) Case Study Critical Influence [1]as model for practice-based visual arts research. For these reasons I selected a qualitative research case-based study.

Figure 2.  Genome Model of the Art Object.
© 2005 by Dr. Sherry Mayo.
All rights reserved.

In order to execute the methodology I used a studio critique format for two reasons:  1) I needed an approach that artists would feel comfortable with and 2) structured protocols that enabled consistency across cases. The first interview was focused on biographics and process and the second interview on product.

Data Collection
Qualitative analysis lends itself to “multiple compelling interpretations (phenomenology).” 2 Typically qualitative research sifts through words from observational field study. “We are only beginning to grasp the possibilities for computer use in qualitative research”.3 Most computer software in qualitative analysis is comprised of text management systems.

Flick claims “the aim is not to reduce complexity by breaking it down into variables but rather to increase complexity by including context.”4 I embraced Flick’s principle and constructed a reflexive methodology that incorporated a computer-assisted analysis strategy. Emergent objects are slippery in their identity and should not be pared down to a level of abstraction that renders them non-functional.

Video recording enabled the complexity of the studio artist interview to be captured and video editing maintained the data’s richness through to analysis.  Using a reflexive inter-subjective model of studio critique was important in constructing knowledge around the emergent object and artistic practice but also was dependent on who I am as an artist-researcher.  

The goal was to represent a variety of approaches to using digital technologies in studio practice. These cases should provide useful evidence for art educators integrating technology into their classrooms.

The criteria for selection was as follows: 1) Professional practicing artist, 2) Artist using the computer, 3) Artist uses the computer not only to “design” their work but is conceptually driven by their cybernetic relationships, and 4) Artist is critically reflective about technology integration. These criteria narrowed my field of study to eight individuals (seven cases) including Brandon Ballengée (BB), Claire Corey (CC), Millree Hughes (MH), Patrick Meagher (PM), Tricia McLaughlin (TM), Chris Ramey (CR), and collaborative team, Ben Margolis and Jennifer Torino (BM-JT). 

The method of analysis used was a nonlinear editing (NLE) system (Apple Final Cut Pro) that provided the researcher with an opportunity to make comparisons and annotate data sets. The process of analysis was a) digitizing interviews, assembling them on a timeline, b) reviewing footage, c) rough cut of fragments, d) marking and tagging fragments, e) creating a text transcript including the time code and marker number, f) coding the fragments, and g) re-watching case fragments after video compression to ascertain cross-case comparisons. These text-coded excerpts were compiled on CD-ROM.

The aim was to represent a group of artists who integrated technology into studio practice in New York during the mid 90s through the millennium.  The entry of the computer into the studio has shifted the way these artists work; four of them no longer paint (CR, CC, MH, BB), although, two of them do paint with pixels, and five of them (CC, PM, CR, BM-JT) no longer produce work in a studio space. Other transitions include the lack of boundaries in their process and the need for artists to create their own parameters within new media arts practice. Throughout all the interviews was the artistic identity of being a hybrid whether explicitly using the term as CC, MH, TM, BB did or speaking about a cross-media approach.

Is there an aesthetic shift occurring due to hybridization in studio practice? CC challenges the viewer by producing what appears to be a painting show but could not have been made by a human. The surface is perfectly flat even though “painted” (printed) with acrylic on canvas.  This indicates that computer generated painting is changing the aesthetics of painting. In another example, BM-JT shifts the audiences’ expectation of performance with the intervention of machines.  Not that interactive performance is new with the HCI but allowing the audience to remotely control performers with technology is.

Conceptually, DJ culture with its break beats, remixing, and looping has served as a formal aesthetic device that artists have adapted.  MH thinks in these terms when he mixes visual images in Flash. The rhythm and use of light for PM in his architecturally based digital photographs are reminiscent of the rhythms of electronica.

What can investigating cybernetic relationships reveal about the HCI?  For all of these artists the computer is central to their lifestyles.  Most participants are employed in technology-based jobs. This is significant because in contrast to being left out on the fringes on the market place as cultural workers have historically been (Wolff, 1993), most participants are apart of the new economy driven by computer technology in the past decade. The HCI also allows for multitasking in the workplace, as is supported by the Windows concept of desktop management, and taking on many different roles psychologically as explored by Turkle (1995).

This has expanded the artist’s role, as seen in BB’s interview; he describes how his is transforming due to digital technologies facilitating interdisciplinary discourse.  BB has been directly impacted as an artist by his exchange with the scientific community; since he has entered into this relationship his work has expanded to include viewer education, environmental advocacy, and has created new economic opportunities through teaching and research grants.

What role does the artist-researcher have in arts technology integration? These opportunities are facilitated by digital technologies creating social networks and allowing artists to cross boundaries and occupy new spaces.  This emergent role of the artist-researcher contributing their unique skills has potential to contribute to the development of the HCI. Sullivan (2005) argues that changes in the visual arts are due, in part, to digital communication technologies that have created new roles for arts practitioners.

My second premise argues that to better understand how art education can contribute to human understanding there is a need to ground art educational research within the theories and practices that surround art making.  It is from this central site of investigation that other derivative practices such as critical and philosophical analysis, historical and cultural commentary and educational praxis emerge.5  

These artists are engaged in knowledge production at the HCI, which is a controversial cultural interface impacting our evolution.  It is a critical zone that needs cross-disciplinary examination, as it will define economic sustainability and social control globally for the foreseeable future.  It is for these reasons that this study has implications for critical consciousness.     

Cross-disciplinary fertilization is not new, just facilitated with digital technologies. What is evident from this group of artists is that the accessibility facilitated by new media opens possibilities for knowledge construction in studio practice. Artists have the freedom “not to paint” as Whitney curator, Lawrence Rinder (2002) has stated or to paint alongside coding in UNIX. MH describes the artist as a “ghetto-of-one,” a real individual with a unique customized lifestyle and value system. MH’s theory of “the ghetto-of-one” relates to Efland, Freedman, and Stuhr’s assertion regarding educational ideals that “It is based on a mythological character called “the individual,” who at one level is supposed to act freely and independently, and at another is to act the same as all free and independent individuals.”6 This contributes to a global crisis of separation and sameness that “gapification” and the diaspora has led to.

We have moved toward a digital aesthetic that Manovich (2001) has described as pixel-based, interactive, and nonlinear (See Figure 3.). The uniqueness of the emergent object’s cultural DNA is dependent upon the artist’s local knowledge, educational training, social network, and other larger psycho-cultural and socio-economic frameworks (See Genome Model, Figure 2.).  That object then shifts in meaning as it gets distributed over time and space (Figure 4.).


Figure 3.  What is New about New Media Art.
© 2005 by Dr. Sherry Mayo.
All rights reserved.

Figure 4.  The Iterative Evolution of Cultural Production and Dissemination.
© 2005 by Dr. Sherry Mayo.
All rights reserved.

There are new skills required for using the computer to make art. In prelude to consciousness we exist in an age of strife where, as Enzensberger (in Handhardt, 1986) predicted, with mass media everyone can be a manipulator; this realizes the potential for everyone to become both an artist and a terrorist. This is evident as end-user control increases over the Internet with technologies such as Flickr (www.flickr) or Google Earth, whereas an artist may be creative with spatial coordinates of a snap shot or find a live/work space with a satellite image of a neighborhood, the same data could be used for subversive purposes. Bell (1973) predicted that this swell in the information class would lead to social transformation, whereby, society would become economically instead of morally regulated. This has occurred and caused a need for the development of a mass collective critical consciousness about the development of cybernetic relationships at the HCI that has resulted in global class stratification.

Artists like researchers create knowledge and in our information-based society we need all types of workers to assemble information sets that construct meaning. Art education needs to develop arts technology curriculum that strategizes interdisciplinary experimentation and empowers students’ critical decision-making skills. Artists and cultural objects are significant contributors to our evolution and their contributions should be cultivated in higher-educational models that integrate arts technology experimentation and create new spaces for self-directed interdisciplinary inquiry.

Sullivan, G. Critical Influence (1998) conducted a 12-month case study with two Australian artists.  It investigated critical inquiry using a reflexive methodology that incorporated the artist, writer, curator, and the researcher.

2 Miles, M. B. and Huberman, M. A. An Expanded Sourcebook:  Qualitative Data Analysis 2nd ed. (London:  Sage Publications, 1994) p.9

3 Glesne, C., and Peshkin, A. Becoming Qualitative Researchers:  An Introduction.  (Whiteplains, NY:  Longman Publications 1992)  p.141

4 Flick, U. An Introduction To Qualitative Research second edition. (London:  Sage Publications, 2002) p.41

5 Eisner, E. and Day, M. Efland and Sullivan in Handbook of Research and Policy in the Field of Art Education (Unpublished manuscript, 2002) p.5

6 Efland, A., Freedman, K., and Stuhr, P. Postmodern Art Education:  An Approach to Curriculum. (Reston, VA:  The National Art Education Association, 1996) p.24


Bell, D. 1973. The coming of post-industrial society: A venture in social forecasting. New York:  Basic Books Publishers.

de Rosnay, J. 1977, January 6. Principia cybernetica web: Feedback. Retrieved on September 13, 2003, from, http://pespmc1.vub.ac.be/FEEDBACK.html .

Efland, A., Freedman, K., and Stuhr, P. 1996. Postmodern art education:  An approach to curriculum. Reston, VA:  The National Art Education Association.

Eisner, E and D., M. 2002. Handbook of research and policy in the field of art education.  Unpublished manuscript.

Flick, U. 2002. An introduction to qualitative research second edition. London:  Sage Publications.

Glesne, C., and Peshkin, A. 1992. Becoming qualitative researchers:  An introduction.  Whiteplains, NY:  Longman Publications.

Hanhardt, J. G., ed.1986.  Video culture:  A critical investigation.  Layton, Utah:  Gibbs M. Smith, Peregrine Smith Books, Visual Studies Workshop Press.

Hayles, K. N. 1999. How we became posthuman:  virtual bodies in cybernetics, literature and informatics. Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press.

Manovich, L. 2001. The language of new media. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Miles, M. B. and Huberman, M. A. (1994). An expanded sourcebook:  qualitative data analysis 2nd ed. London:  Sage Publications.

Rinder, L. R. 2002. Personal communication. September 22, 2002.

Sullivan, G. 2005 Art practice as research: inquiry in the visual arts. London:  Sage Publications.

Sullivan, Graeme. 1998. Critical influence: A visual arts research project with Jayne Dyer and Nikki McCarthy. Published by the College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales.

Turkle, S. 1995.  Life on the screen: Identity in the age of the internet. New York:  Touch Stone, Simon & Schuster.

Wolff, J. 1993. The social production of art 2nd ed.  New York:  New York University Press.


Sherry Mayo received her doctorate from the Art and Art Education Doctoral Program in College Teaching (EdDCT) Teachers College Columbia University and her MFA from New York University.  She has been engaged with integrating technology into her studio art practice since 1993 and has been curating new media art projects and exhibiting in New York, nationally, and abroad.  Mayo is an artist whose studio practice and critical writings examine perceptual shifts in how we envision bodily interfaces with artificial environments.  As these perceptions form our critical consciousness of digital culture and of our social interactions, her inquiries seek to extend cross-disciplinary dialogues through artistic expression, research, and education.

© 2005 by Dr. Sherry Mayo.
All rights reserved.

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