Interface Theory and Cultural Technique

I last posted about extratextual scholarship, which is worth expounding upon here. The concept was not only fundamental to my reasoning behind starting the blog, but also a facet of academic work that I plan to continue highlighting here (particularly in relation to mapping platforms). As such, in this post, I want to think more specifically about the interface – its interpretive flexibility, its performative capacity, and, ideally, its iterative and dialogic nature.

Johanna Drucker writes on interface theory and specifies the theoretical trajectories from which she contends interface theory should borrow. She accomplishes this in part through her presentation of performative materiality. Within this concept, the operations of the system outweigh how it can be read structurally and critical interpretation is paramount to one’s analysis. It stresses, therefore, the imbrication of performative systems within broader cultural systems.

The role of the material in providing platforms facilitating oppositional readings of the ubiquitous is key to Drucker within performative materiality. Drucker often reiterates that the interface serves to facilitate performances, making certain readings, subject positions, and alternative projects possible. In this focus, Drucker positions performative materiality to demystify the context, labor, and production behind the very act of reading the interface.

In light of Drucker’s perspective, I thought it would be worth discussing Shannon Mattern’s Urban Media Archaeology class and its use of the Urban Research Toolkit. When considering the interface as a space of affordances as Drucker submits, it is notable how little trace there now is of the Urban Media Toolkit and how little the class projects based off it offer in terms of repeatable cultural technique. Here, I want to think through the mapping of both theory and the city as interfaces and the role that media archaeology plays in this mapping. Regarding the former,  the following from Drucker’s piece really resonated with me, in large part due to my research:

Cultural geographers, annoyed with the assumption that a map could represent a spatial experience, pushed for a non-representational approach that is particularly germane to virtual environments. The concept pushes attention squarely towards the codes and formal structures of those artifacts. This emphasizes the understanding that material forms create the mediating expressions that are transactional objects of meaning production. In such a framework, objects don’t represent, they perform.

The resistance against the solely representational in favor of the productive returns to a question I’ve asked at various points during my academic training: how useful is a visualization if its foundations are black-boxed and not open to further manipulation? Many of the Urban Media Archaeology projects, despite rightfully investigating cities and bodies of theories as modes of interface, seem more about making for the sake of making rather than actually putting production front and center, especially given the growing obsolescence of the technological platforms used in their interventions.

Regarding media archaeology, Drucker contends that media archaeology does not adequately portray the dynamism of the material and can reify different media forms as determinative of the discourses within which they become situated. In this sense, Jussi Parikka’s emphasis on using media archaeology toward investigations of making and the genealogies of theory remains intriguing yet becomes susceptible to the aforementioned forms. While these methods obviously lend themselves nicely to exploring the nature of cultural technique, I question how much they create a space of affordances within the interface for audiences to actually enact cultural technique. In other words, I am interested in the lack of dialogism facilitated within such projects.

My aim in identifying these tendencies is not to critique media archaeology per se, though one could rightfully question if media archaeology adequately addresses the questions of power that Foucault bases it on originally. Rather, I want to reinforce how right Drucker is to advocate a broad body of theory in approaching the interface. In concluding her essay with an invocation to emphasize production over product in critical interpretations of interfaces, Drucker recognizes various webs of cultural meanings and structures of interaction within interfaces. If artifacts of making are then structured as finalized projects rather than open and manipulable entry points into the production process and the circulation of cultural meanings, they undermine the potential for unforeseen avenues of interactivity and interpretation.

I’ll close with a quote from Conor McGarrigle, a theorist of locative art whose work I’ve been recently reviewing, on how he situates the nature of his own artistic interventions through technology: “Rather than producing works which are complete and finite, I am more interested in providing artistic tools and procedures which can be adopted, renegotiated and expanded on by their participants.” Such a stance recognizes the dialogism that technological interfaces afford without constricting the focus of a given project on the novelty of the technologies used. Work that is foregrounded by such philosophies becomes more about, as advocated previously, the poignancy of production rather than making for the sake of making.

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