Galloway: The Medium is an Interface
(The following is a cross-post with the Institute of Network Cultures blog from a series of reports on the recent A Wedge Between Private and Public conference in Amsterdam on 22 April 2010 written by Juliana Brunello and myself. For the further reports, see the index post.)
Alexander Galloway presented an investigation of interfaces. His first example is the contemporary airport, which is split into four stages. The first is the check-in kiosk, where we see the outsourcing of the check-in procedure to the traveler. Those behind the desk no longer act as representatives of the airport, instead acquiring the role of tech support for passengers befuddled by the self check-in terminals. Next is the security queue, an interface that utilizes both old techniques (”Remove your hat, shoes, and jacket please”) but also new techniques such as data-mining and computer vision techniques (facial recognition, gesture monitoring). This stage has a distinctly theatrical quality with certain people taking on roles and asking certain questions and others answering with certain responses (”Has anyone touched your bag?”, “No.”).
After this theater experience, which is embodied as a straight line, comes the shopping area. If the security interface is a straight line, the shopping area is a curve. All manners of meandering pathways through well-lit rooms. International trade is physically instantiated and made clean for mass consumption, buffered by the presence of the security interface. The last stage is the departure gate, an interface to the destination and the final stage of the airport. Indeed it represents the airport’s true function, the kernel of its reason for existence. The outer layers of interface are established in order to enforce procedures deemed necessary for the functioning of the departure gate interface.
The purpose of this example is to highlight that interfaces are back, and perhaps they never left. Plato conceived communication as writing the words on the soul of another person. Interfaces are everywhere and seem to seek invisibility. The more devices erase evidence of their own functioning, the more effective they are. To succeed as an interface is at best self-deception and at worst self-annihilation. In some ways an interface is only an interface when it disappears from view.
Interfaces should not be seen merely as “surfaces with significant meaning” and discussed in terms of ‘intuitive’ or ‘not intuitive.’ It is better to conceive them as doorways and discuss them in the language of thresholds. Interfaces become important in the issues of cybernetics in that it is the site of discussion where human meets machine, flesh meets metal. Or in systems theory, where energy flows from one node to another in a system.
Interface and media may be two names for the same thing. From the viewpoint of McLuhan and the concept of re-mediation, media are merely containers that encapsulate other pieces of media. This can be seen as an “onion” model of media. Media themselves are then intrfaces: through the containment concept it becomes the means by which the encapsulated media can be extracted from the layers. Interfaces/media are the point of friction, of agitation between layers.
Interfaces are an ‘outside’ that possess the ‘inside’, “a fertile nexus” that has its own autonomy and represents an area of choice. Galloway uses the terms ‘text’ and ‘paratext’ to discuss this inside / outside scenario: paratext is the dge, while text is the center. Interfaces can be seen as any artificial differentiation between two media. Any examination of the difference between the edge and the center leads to understanding that it is difficult to discern where an edge ends and a center begins. Avant-garde techniques are very interested in this tension. In film or literature the distinction is termed diagetic vs non-diagetic.
Digital media are actually relatively good at maintaining the distinction between edge and center. For example, an HTML contains both simple ASCII (plain-text) and a dynamic web page. The difference is which program is used to view it, the text editor or the web browser. “The source code of HTML is an interface.” We impose a linguistic construct to address the site of differentiation. It is a kind of doorway where one medium is understood as distinct from another medium. It’s not a thing (bank machine, self-check-in terminal) but an effect, a process, a mode of translation. A fertile nexus.
How does an interface succeed in effecting a coherence, a centering, a localization? To answer this question Galloway invokes the triple self-portrait of Norman Rockwell. This painting plays with the idea of the interface yet in the end deals with the problem of the interface by repressing it. The process of viewing the painting draws one’s eyes in circles, the painting does not break the frame but rather circulates internally through the three portraits. Galloway calls a “diagetic surface, a circuit between the artist, the mirror and the canvas.” The image is a process not a conglomeration of artistic details.
In contrast he presents a famous parody of Rockwell’s painting from influential magazine MAD in which the magazine’s mascot Alfred E. Neuman is painting a self-portrait that is the back of his head. That is, the self-portrait is from our vantage point, not from the perspective of his reflection in the mirror. The mode of address becomes the core concern and the viewer is addressed in an intense way. The circular coherence of Rockwell’s painting is broken into orthogonal spikes. These spikes are focused entirely on externalization rather than the enclosed, internalizing circulation of Rockwell’s.
This kind of direct address is almost entirely excluded from narrative forms. Rather it appears as a common tool of the avant-garde to engender ’short-circuits’ that address the issue of interface (the “fourth wall”). With Rockwell we see a interface that addresses itself to the interface but in the end answers the problem by repressing it. Alfred solves the question of the interface through a schizophrenia. It dwells on the pain of shattered coherency in the face of an interface.
There are two types of interface we have today: those that present their internals to an audience but also those that exist move cross-ways within and between mediums themselves. All interfaces are looking back at us, even when we become engrossed with them ourselves.