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Luc Courchesne: Portrait Number One

Burson’s transformational video mirror recalls a pioneering instance of an interactive art game by Luc Courchesne entitled Portrait Number One, first shown in 1990. Portrait Number One is an interactive narrative consisting of a computer monitor on which a woman’s face is displayed. At first sight it looks like a typical static photographic portrait. However, when one approaches one notices that there is a mouse, and activating the mouse reveals a list of conversational statements that the viewer can direct towards the apparently lifeless face. As soon as one chooses a statement the portrait springs into life and responds. To continue the conversation the viewer selects from another list of responses. The result was so engrossing that this viewer spent half an hour in ‘conversation’ with the portrait (at TISEA, 1992). This is a deeply immersive work that involves creative and critical engagement on the part of the viewer. In retrospect, one can’t avoid asking the question how one could spend so long speaking to a machine. To construct the work Courchesne used the actor Paule Ducharme and wrote an imagined conversation with the gallery viewer beginning with simple statements such as ‘Hello!’; ‘Do you have a minute?’; ‘What is your name?’; ‘What are you doing here?’; etc. Courchesne used Apple’s HyperCard as software. He explains that the statements addressed to the portrait are:

grouped on ‘cards’ by sets of 2 to 4; each question is a ‘button’ linking to another ‘card’ that defines and plays a video sequence related to the question; this video ‘card’ is in turn linked to another ‘card’ showing a new set of questions. After ending a particular development, I could step back a few cards and imagine alternative questions (attitudes) with their own development. For instance, in formulating the second or third question on a ‘card’, I imagined the visitor in a different mood or another visitor altogether. (Courchesne 2002)

Courchesne’s interactive portrait underwent various modifications to ‘fine-tune the interaction between the character and visitors’ (Courchesne 2002). And the final version of the installation is available in six languages. What is remarkable is that such a powerfully immersive and interactive work could have been created with relatively simple software (Hypercard came free with the Apple Macintosh when Courchesne developed Portrait Number One) at a time when computers where considerably less powerful than they are today.

Artificial Identity, Synthetic Creativity: Knifeandfork (Sue Huang and Brian House)

More recent excursions into synthetic identity and interactive narrative may be more elaborate but not necessarily more aesthetically sophisticated than the elegant simplicity of Courchesne’s  Portrait Number One. One notable recent instance is the interactive narrative installation 5 'til 12,  2006, created by the media art duo Knifeandfork (Sue Huang and Brian House) and exhibited at the University of California, Irvine’s Beall Center for Art+Technology.

The visitor is invited to watch four characters, on four monitors incorporated into pedestals spatially distributed in the gallery. The four characters recount the tragic, fictional, circumstances of a murder on the exhibition's opening night. The experience is unique for each visitor, as each story is generated by computer algorithms that select narrative particles somewhat similar to the ‘lexemes’ that Barthes used to break Balzac’s ‘Sarrasine’ into components. But the computer does not simply pull out random variations of lexemes, the selection is guided by the rules of the game-theoretical strategy referred to as the ‘Prisoner’s Dilemma’.

Like Breitz’s Becoming, 5 'til 12  is based on cinematic narrative, specifically Akira Kurasawa’s film Rashomon, 1950. Broadly speaking Rashomon is in the genre of the courtroom drama but the tale is not set in a courtroom but in the poetically dramatic setting of Kyoto's crumbling Rashomon gate, where people involved in a recent crime—the rape of a woman and the murder of a man possibly by a bandit—seek shelter from a rain storm. In each of the four versions the characters and particular details are consistent. Yet there are also significant differences. The bandit pleads guilty to the murder but denies the charge of rape, claiming consent. The woman’s story confirms that the bandit attacked her, but suggests that she may have murdered the dead man. The dead man's account, told via a medium, tells a tale of rape and suicide. The last witness is the only one not directly involved but he tells the least convincing story due to the fact that it seems to interweave elements of the stories that have already been told. Brian House notes that Rashomon is: ‘about the subjectivity of the narratives and how objective truth is elusive ... really all of their stories are valid in a certain way. We were fascinated by  that’ (Knifeandfork 2006). House also notes that another aspect of Rashomon that appealed to him and Sue Huang was that Kurasawa ‘uses the viewer as a character. The viewer  plays the part of a magistrate who receives the testimony of the characters in the story’ (Knifeandfork 2006).

One of the slightly disappointing aspects of 5 'til 12 is that there is less interactivity than is the case in works such as Burson’s The Human Race Machine or Curchesne’s Portrait Number One. But upon consideration one can note that 5 'til 12 is fabricated within a very interesting and potentially productive space between interactivity, artificial creativity and traditional authorship. Which is to say 5 ‘til 12 is certainly not fully interactive, but it is also certainly not a game devised by artists for artists. It is semi-interactive, but due to the ‘creative’ intervention of the computer program, it is also semi-authorial; which indicates that this work is entering into a new creative territory.

I will deal with the level of interactivity first, before examining more closely the question of artificial creativity. Each visitor to the exhibition is given a small unique identifying microchip (RFID). He or she has to enter their personal chip into each of the monitor pedestals before the narrative will begin. This ensures that the system recognizes each individual viewer and keeps track of the story being told that particular viewer as he or she wanders through the installation from one character to another. Keeping track of the identity of each individual viewer means that the computer grid can weave a bespoke narrative game for that viewer effectively  inserting that viewer into the conversation in a manner akin to the first person point of view evident in Rashomon. But whereas Rashomon tells the same story to everyone who watches us 5 ‘til 12 tells as many stories as there are viewers. This requires quite a bit of computational power, a lot of video snippets being fed by a powerful server to individual computers that act as each of the four characters. The server inserts the viewer as the target of what needs to be an internally consistent narrative.

Each of the character’s scripts are made up of twenty-five to forty sentences (in Barthesian terms ‘lexemes’) each of which has three to six variants. As noted, the game that is played with these sentences obeys the rules of the  ‘Prisoner's Dilemma’ wherein individuals choose to cooperate or maximize their own personal advantage. The computational characters can ‘choose’ to be complimentary, neutral, or vindictive toward each other. A character who appears confident and blameless while illustrating everyone else’s faults will win that particular ‘round’ of the narrative. However, in the following round, the rules of the game entail that he or she can expect revenge and must eventually make amends. Although I am explaining this in human terms in fact in 5 ‘til 12 we should remember that interpersonal logic is actually in the form of a computer program based on mathematical game theory. Also, we need to remember that the computer program is aiming the narrative at one person, in effect this intricate game is directed at persuading that individual that they understand what happened. The fact that the program works even plausibly well is a testimony to the fact that highly productive relationships can be established between system and creativity. Sue Huang comments:

What we tried to do is create characters that are really complex in the way that real humans are complex. They have been given the ability to sympathise with their fellow characters and they have been given the ability to be critical people. We were interested in this idea of truth and the human ability to recognize the truth, or tell the truth. So this piece is really expressing a subjective truth, the idea that truth is a relative thing. Narrative is the way that humans create meaning for the world around them. The viewer themselves will create their own truth They may feel that their version is completely correct, it doesn’t really matter because everybody’s version is correct, in the sense that they experienced it.  (Knifeandfork 2006)

One of the most groundbreaking features of 5 ‘til 12  concerns the fact that it is not an artist’s game that the artist plays and the viewer admires. Instead it is a game that a computer plays and the viewer admires. 5 ‘til 12 contributes to the Barthesian debate concerning the ‘death of the author’ (1977) by foregrounding the productive relationship between system and creativity that is antithetical to romantic aesthetics and putatively central to deconstructive aesthetics. And with regard to this particular aspect of 5 ‘til 12 Huang and House report that another influence on this work was the Oulipo literary movement led by Raymond Queneau (1903-1976). Queneau is best known for his Exercises in Style, 1947, and his structuralist, permutational poem ‘One Hundred Thousand Billion Sonnets’. The latter consists of ten sonnets limited to the classic structure of fourteen lines. The one hundred thousand billion stems from the fact that the sonnets can be arranged in ten columns with fourteen rows and the reader is then able to select any line from any of the ten sonnets moving down the fourteen rows. According to Queneau, the permutations can reach one hundred thousand billion sonnets. ‘One Hundred Thousand Billion Sonnets’ is a pioneering instance of interactive poetry and a fine example of the overlapping of structure and creative process that is one of the key features of post-romantic aesthetics from Dada, Surrealism and Constructivism onwards.[57]

Although 5 ‘til 12 is passively interactive, in the sense that it is the computer system and not the viewer who controls the interaction, it is, nevertheless, a highly engaging work that opens up a great deal of creative involvement on the part of the viewer due to the issues that it raises. Possibly the most contentious issue concerns the apparent success of what is essentially an artificial creativity machine. 5 ‘til 12 provides valuable support for the post-romantic thesis that creativity is not necessarily a mysterious unknowable process, it can instead be a complex system, such as the systems in nature for example. 

Artistic identity & consumer culture

Before the arrival of mass media painting and sculpture were in the service of the power of the church and court. In modern/postmodern culture it is mass media that serves the capitalist system of power. The difference between the two social systems lies in the fact that under democratic capitalism there is the possibility of criticism within the sphere of the creative arts. 

It is also the case that following the failure of Soviet communism we have to accept that capitalism is the only social system that appears to function in a socially progressive manner on a mass scale. Of course there is always the possibility that the waste products of capitalism will destroy life on the planet. Bearing this problem and others—such as the oppression of the Third World—in mind, one stops short at celebrating capitalism. One is led, nevertheless, to the admission that capitalism is productive not only in terms of commodities but also in terms of knowledge and culture.


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Luc Courchesne, Portrait Number One, 1990. Interactive installation. The viewer interacts with a 'portrait' on a computer monitor by selecting from a list of questions'. In this case the list of possible questions are: 'what are you doing here?', 'Who are you?', 'Have I got a chance?'. The actor is Paule Ducharme, the software used was Apple's Hypercard for the Macintosh.

Knifeandfork (Sue Huang and Brian House), 5 'til 12, 2006

Knifeandfork (Sue Huang and Brian House), 5 'til 12, 2006. An immersive narrative installation at the University of California, Irvine, Beall Center for Art+Technology. Courtesy Knifeandfork.

Knifeandfork, 5 'til 12, Video editing: the work consists of a large number of video clips that are labelled, stored in a database and retrieved by the command computer according to the rules of a narrative game based on the game-theoretical 'prisoners' dillema' model

Knifeandfork, 5 'til 12, System architecture showing Flash video storage and MySQL database with PHP5 middleware calling on the database for the various video clips.

Knifeandfork, 5 'til 12. A viewer watching one of the characters relate a personalised version of the narrative