originally published in Slovakian

Cseres, Jozef "Neinteraktivne umenie je mrtve/Non interactive art is dead"
Profil: Contemporary Art Magazine, p. 52-55, vol 4, 2000; Bratislava, Slovakia

Interview with Don Ritter

"Non interactive art is dead," claims Don Ritter, the follower of physical aesthetics.

In an interview with Jozef Cseres in November 2000 Canadian video-artist Don Ritter, living currently in New York, visited Slovakia. During his first visit to Eastern Europe, where he came as a guest of the Kassak Centre for Intermedia Creativity, Ritter presented his own work at two places: at the festival Transart Communication/Human Body Electronics in Nové Zámky and at the symposium videoart+ in Bratislava. Ritter, in his lecture-presentation "Interactive Works for the Mind and Body" as well in an interview with Jozef Cseres, accurately showed us that for him interaction is not the aim but the means to test the influence and impact of nature, machines and media to human personality.

JC: Why do you call your installations "unencumbered?"

DR: An unencumbered installation is one in which viewers do not have a physical input device attached to their bodies, such as a mouse or helmet. I prefer to create installations with this feature because then a viewer does not have to be concerned with using the input device and can interact with the installation in manner that is dissimilar to interacting with a regular computer.

JC: Can you explain your concept of "physical aesthetics?"

DR: Usually the study of aesthetics refers to visual and audible perception and if these experiences are pleasant, unpleasant or whatever. Physical aesthetics refers to an experience which is kinesthetic or somatosensory, one which considers the experience of human muscle and skin. My installations are meant to be an experience for the physical body in addition to the ears and eyes.

JC: Does it mean that the aspects of tactile communication are more important for you or is it simply the thing of innovation?

DR: Interactive art typically accepts input from a viewer via a tactile interface, therefore this physical involvement must be considered as an element of the aesthetic experience. Traditional art forms which are non interactive do not require physical involvement and there is no need to consider the physical aesthetic component. It is not a question of tactile communication being more important or innovative, but rather physical involvement is a component of the experience and therefore important when judging the aesthetic experience of interactive art.

JC: But in the history of aesthetics many thinkers claimed that pleasantness has nothing to do with intellect but with senses. That's why Kant, for example, degraded music to the lowest step in his hierarchy of arts. But how to reflect the intellectual pleasure then, i.e. the pleasure from Barthesian reading of text?

DR: I will interpret the phrase "intellectual pleasure" as the conceptual aspect of an art work. This aspect of art is important, but I do not consider it to be sufficient. Conceptual based art, for example, may be satisfying for the mind, but the visual and audible system of the human is also in need of an experience, hopefully one which has a strong emotional impact. My work attempts to combine the conceptual, perceptual and technical aspects by creating interactive experiences which are satisfying for the mind and the body by using technology in an innovative and competent manner.

JC: How did you work with the text in your video poetry? Who is the author of the text in "Oh toi qui vis la-bas!" and how does interactivity function in it?

DR: The poetry was created by Geneviève Letarte who was also the singer in that performance. Her text was transformed into video sequences which contained animated sequences of the text, such as vibrating letters or words sliding on the screen. The tempo used in the presentation of the text was determined and controlled by Geneviève"s improvised singing. After every fourth note sung, the next phrase of the poetry was presented until she eventually went through the entire text in approximately 10 minutes.

JC: This method of generating letters reminds me of the thoughts of Roland Barthes who once said about typewriting that there is no birth of the letter but the expulsion of a little scrap of code. But let's talk about another medium you like to work with--music. Have you some musical training?

DR: No.

JC: What was the role of David Soldier in your Elephant Keyboard?

DR: The idea of creating instruments for elephants was started by David. I was invited to participate on the project by him. He was involved in the design of the acoustic instruments and my contribution was the design and construction of the only electronic instrument, the Elephant Keyboard. The third "instrument builder" was Ken Butler who was also involved with the acoustic instrument design.

JC: And when and how did you start your collaboration with George Lewis?

DR: I met George in 1988 when I was a graduate student at Massachusetts Institute of Technology. George was an invited artist in this class, along with musicians Gordon Gotleib, Robert Dick and Richard Teitelbaum. The goal of this class at the MIT Media Lab was to have students create interactive music systems which were to be used in a live performance by the guest musicians. Because I am not a musician and have no formal musical training, I created an interactive video system which presented video sequences in response to music, or specifically Lewis's trombone playing. The performance was well received by the public, and George and I then continued working together for the next 3 years, presenting approximately 40 performances in Canada, USA and Italy.

JC: George speaks in connection with his Voyager computer system about "animism." He refuses the prosthetic conceptions of computer music and speaks about "emotional transduction." In case of Voyager the interactivity doesn't lie in the technology but in the exchanging and transforming the emotions. The sounds are only a medium and virtuosity is meaningless. Do you think the attitude George uses to reflect his philosophy of computer music interaction can be apply also to your media?

DR: If George uses animism to mean the system is alive, I would agree with him. Interactive art can be more accurately described as responsive art, art which responds to a viewer in a manner similar to a living human responding to another living human. Non interactive art is dead because it is unable to change its form in response to a viewer. The term dead is used not as a derogatory term, but as a descriptive one.

JC: Do you think the interactivity could be suitable tool for articulation of plurality of our postmodern situation?

DR: Until recently, it was very difficult to create interactive art, art which permits participation and transformation by viewers. My interest in using electronic and computer technology within installations and performances is because these tools permit the creation of interactive or responsive art. Unlike art from previous times, interactive art considers the viewer as an integral component of the experience and the quality of this experience is measured by the term physical aesthetics, being the pleasantness or unpleasantness of the physical experience involved with the control of an interactive experience. The involvement of a viewer in an artwork could be viewed as more democratic than the autocratic experiences presented by older art forms.

Don Ritter (CAN/USA) belongs to the most original contemporary video-artists. His work is precisely intermedial, not only for incorporating technological concerns, but also for the author's organic collaboration with non-visual artists, mostly with improvising musicians. From the typological point of view, Ritter's multimedia works could be divided into the interactive performances and interactive installations. While in the first ones the changes are generated through real time improvisations using musical instruments (Ritter has collaborated in them with George Lewis, John Oswald, Trevor Tureski, Tom Walsh, Thomas Dimuzio, Richard Teitelbaum, Ben Neil etc.), in installations it is through the physical presence of an audience (Intersection, TV Guides, Skies etc.). Although Ritter uses complex technologies to create aesthetic experiences for audiences, he is not a technocrat; for him the interaction is not the aim but the means to test the influences and impacts of nature, machines and media to human personality. Ritter's installations, performances, and video tapes have been presented at the most prestigious art festivals and scenes in all of the world, including Ars Electronica in Linz, Sonambiente Festival in Berlin, Siggraph in Los Angeles, SAM Museum inOsaka, STEIM in Amsterdam, European Media Art Festival in Osnabrück, Art Institute of Chicago, Experimental Intermedia, The Kitchen in New York, New Music America in New York, Alternative Museum in New York, Musée d'art Contemporain de Montreal, Images du Futur in Montreal, the Verona Jazz Festival, Harvard University in Cambridge, Western Front in Vancouver, Metronom in Barcelona, the Banff Centre for the Arts in Banff, Exit Festival in Créteil and ArtFuture 2000 in Taipei. Ritter was a Professor of Fine Arts at Concordia University in Montreal for seven years, and since 1996 he is a Professor of Computer Graphics and Interactive Media at Pratt Institute, New York City.