CC2007 Graduate Student Symposium--Willis

‘Creativity’ is very much a key theme within my research and the Creativity & Cognition Conference offers me an opportunity to both hear about the research of others within this field, and present and discuss my own research.

In particular I am interested in the work of Mitchell Resnick. His work at the Media Lab Lifelong Kindergarten Group represents a positive direction for empowering children to learn, generate and create themselves, rather than just absorb and memorise knowledge. As we so often see technology being used frivolously, the use of technology to build creativity empowering tools I feel is also very positive.

For myself, the opportunity to interact and discuss these themes with others will without doubt be of great benefit to my future research and art practice. I feel I can also offer opinions and perspectives from my own field and look forward to being an active participant in the Creativity & Cognition Conference.


Past Research

My research has to-date focused on the area of authorship within the broader field of interactive art and design. First looking at what interactivity is (Manovich, 2001, pp. 56-57; Huhtamo, 2005, p. 6 ), and how it differs from conventional art (Ascott, 1966-67, pp. 110-111). Then subsequently examining the authorship roles within interactivity as set forth by Cornock & Edmonds in their paper The Creative Process where the Artist is Amplified or Superseded by the Computer (1973, pp. 11-16). However research into such an area inevitably leads onto broader questions about what true authorship itself is, and what happens after Barthes’ The Death of the Author (1968, pp. 142-148). Attempting to steer clear of such broad questions, the focus of my research shifted away from authorship, towards an examination of user creativity within interactive systems.

Current Research

In particular I seek to question whether the creative role of the user contributes to a more engaging and successful level of interaction. Research into what exactly constitutes interactive engagement is seen as ‘...critical, but at this time, not particularly well understood’ (Edmonds et al., 2006, p. 307). Indeed the term interactivity itself has been put under question by prominent theorists such as Erikki Huhtamo (2005) and artists such as Rafael Lozano- Hemmer (Adriaansens & Brouwer, 2002):

Duchamp said “the look makes the picture” and when we say that every artwork is interactive, the word is not that interesting anymore. Also it sounds too much like a top-down 1-bit trigger button —you push and something happens— which is too predatorial and simple.

What has in the past been the problem (Bell, 1994), and in many respects still continues today, is the lack of an established vocabulary to talk about interactivity and the myriad of sub-genres which exist within it, and continue to evolve and expand. Lozano-Hemmer, in dismissing interactivity, speaks of just one type of simplistic interaction. With the proliferation of ‘interactive’ DVD menus, e-commerce websites and touch-screen displays, he is right in suggesting this type of ‘interactivity’ is well entrenched within the broader public mindset.

Rather than dealing with interactivity as a ‘mechanism of control’ (Polaine, 2004) to access the ‘real’ content, my research seeks to examine interactive experiences which allow the creation of aesthetic responses, either visual, aural or otherwise. In a recent interview for new media weblog We Make Money Not Art (Débatty, 2006) artist- researcher Douglas Edric Stanley speaks of a 'move away from specific interactive objects as an end-all, and the emergence of a culture of software, instruments, and platforms for artistic creation' (Ibid). Stanley introduces what he labels a moral compass for interactivity, evolving on the following scale:

Reactive → Automatic → Interactive → Instrument → Platform

Rather than including or excluding interactive works, Stanley’s scale places them on a user-centric scale where they are evaluated in terms of the openness of the interactivity offered to the user. On one end we have automatic and reactive works, where interaction is either automated or overtly simplified into predictable reactive structures. And at the other end are instruments and platforms; elaborate systems which allow the user to produce a near infinite range of creative output, such as the open source programming environment Processing.

Locating interactive works on this scale becomes a matter of defining what I have labelled interactive-resolution, that is the potential for the user to create in an open and unrestricted manner. Low interactive-resolution results in mere selectivity rather than true interactivity (Brand, 1988, p.49) as the user selects from a finite number of presets rather that creating from scratch. High interactive-resolution empowers the user to create in diverse and unrestricted ways, with a wide range of creative possibilities on offer.

In terms of user engagement, it becomes important to find an appropriate balance between the complexity of the interaction and the complexity of the interactive-resolution offered by the system. Complex interaction allows the user greater creative possibilities, but at the expense of creating a more complex learning process for the user. On the other hand, while simple interaction may be accessible to a wider range of users, such interaction inherently produces more specific results. Artist David Rokeby (1998) recalls similar issues with early versions of his interactive sound installation Very Nervous System (1986-1990):

In the early days of “Very Nervous System” I tried to reflect the actions of the user in as many parameters of the system’s behaviour as possible... Ironically, the system was interactive on so many levels that the interaction became indigestible... I found that as I reduced the number of dimensions of interaction, the user’s sense of empowerment grew.

User engagement relies heavily on this trade-off; a user frustrated by the difficulty of the interaction will soon give up, as would a user bored by the limited possibilities of interaction. Somewhere in between the two lies a sweet spot where the user can interact fluidly without their attention being drawn to the difficulty of the interaction or the limited possibilities it offers.

‘Participatory culture’ and creativity in general is currently experiencing a ground swell of activity; noted researcher Henry Jenkins (2006) suggests ‘...we are moving away from a world in which some produce and many consume media, toward one in which everyone has a more active stake in the culture that is produced’. Interactive systems that draw on the desire to participate and create, have the potential to engage the user in a positive form of activity that differs from conventional forms of engagement such as cinema or goal based games. Stanley’s suggestion of a move towards ‘platforms for artistic creation’ (Débatty, 2006), is a direction that is increasingly being explored by interactive artists and designers and offers fertile ground for further research and practice.

Art Practice

Light Tracer

In 1966, telematic art pioneer Roy Ascott speculated that the role of the interactive artist could be to provide ‘a more or less empty receptacle (the canvas) into which the spectator can project his own imaginative world’ (1966-67, p.128). Ascott’s concept of interactive art as an empty receptacle, places important focus on the spectator as an active participant who shapes the outcomes and responses of interactive art systems significantly. Light Tracer (See Figure 1) is an interactive drawing system created by the author, which seeks to function in a conceptually similar manner to Ascott’s empty receptacle.

Figure 1, Light Tracer

In Light Tracer the user is situated in front of a screen reflecting their own image, and by manipulating a series of light sources provided, marks can be left onscreen such as drawings, messages and tracing out objects such as your face or hand. Light Tracer begins life empty and is subsequently filled with the markings of its users as time progresses. How the participant uses the system is left entirely up to them; user involvement and contribution is not only preferred, but required for the system to function.

Light Tracer builds upon ideas from my research (Willis, 2006), which has sought to develop the association between the creative involvement of the user, and successful engaging interaction. Sonasphere Collaboration with Nao Tokui Sonasphere is an audio visual application for Mac OSX, which represents audio samples, effects and mixers as spherical objects within 3d space. These objects interact with each other in a generative way to produce interesting and complex audio visual results.

In 2004, an installation version of Sonasphere was exhibited at the InterCommunication Center in Tokyo, Japan (See Figure 2). The main application interface was projected from above onto the floor and users who entered the projection area have their movements tracked and fed back into the application. Users could physically interact with the system, therefore changing the makeup of the environment and moreover the audio output.

Figure 2, Sonasphere installation at the InterCommunication Center in Tokyo, Japan.


Adriaansens, A & Brouwer, J 2002, 'Alien Relationships From Public Space: A winding dialog with Rafael Lozano-Hemmer', in L Martz (ed.), Transurbanism, NAI Publishers, Rotterdam.

Ascott, R 1966-67, 'Behaviourist Art and Cybernetic Vision', in E Shanken (ed.), Telematic Embrace: Visionary Theories of Art, Technology, and Consciousness, University of California Press, Berkeley, California, pp. 109-57.

Barthes, R 1968, 'The Death of the Author', in S Heath (ed.), Image-Music-Text, Penguin, London, pp. 142-8.

Bell, S 1994, 'How can we talk about the aesthetics of interaction?' Leonardo Electronic Almanac, vol. 2, no. 7, viewed 8 December 2006, .

Brand, S 1988, The Media Lab: inventing the future at MIT, Penguin, New York.

Cornock, S & Edmonds, E 1973, 'The Creative Process where the Artist is Amplified or Superseded by the Computer', Leonardo, vol. 6, pp. 11-6.

Débatty, R 2006, 'Interview with Douglas Edric Stanley', We Make Money Not Art, viewed August 5 2006, .

Edmonds, E, Muller, L & Connell, M 2006, 'On creative engagement', Visual Communication, vol. 5, no. 3, pp. 307-22.

Huhtamo, E 2005, 'Trouble at the Interface, or the Identity Crisis of Interactive Art', paper presented to Refresh! First International Conference on the Histories of Media Art, Science and Technology, Banff New Media Institute, Canada, 28 September - 1 October, 2005.

Jenkins, H 2006, Confronting the Challenges of Participatory Culture: Media Education for the 21st Century, The MacArthur Foundation, Chicago.

Manovich, L 2001, The Language of New Media, The MIT Press, Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Polaine, A 2004, 'The Playfulness of Interactivity', paper presented to the Fourth International Conference on Design and Emotion 2004, Middle East Technical University, Ankara, Turkey, 12-14 July 2004.

Rokeby, D 1998, 'The Construction of Experience : Interface as Content', in C Dodsworth (ed.), Digital Illusion: Entertaining the Future with High Technology, ACM Press, New York, pp. 27-47.

Willis, K 2006, 'User Creativity and Authorship within Interactivity', paper presented to ACM Multimedia 2006, Santa Barbara, USA, October 23-27, 2006.