Communication Front 2000 Book, "Crossing Points East-West"


Jen Southern

"Everything that builds on abstractions (languages, perception, and user-interfaces) creates a biased terrain, even as it makes certain previously impossible things possible. Structural differences between languages like Chinese and English subtly cause native speakers to view the world differently. But whereas a spoken language has evolved over centuries and has had millions of unique co-designers from all walks of life, a user-interface or computer language has usually been designed by a small team of people with a lot in common. And they were probably in a big hurry." [1]

On my first visit to Plovdiv for CF99 a group of us went up to the Roman ruins in the old town one evening. The familiar cross roads and the Ancient Bath where CF99 was sited were laid out before us almost in plan view, we could follow the route of the river and a row of poplars with our eyes. Then someone turned around and looked the other way into the dark suburbs behind us. On the horizon was a bright light. We argued for a long time about whether it could be the moon or not, that it was too big to be the moon and much too orange. Perhaps the fact that none of us were at home allowed us to question our own eyes. It was not until it rose from the horizon and made its way into the sky that we had to agree, that we understood it was indeed the moon.

My interest in interfaces is in why we so often use spatial simulations and metaphors to translate and understand what is essentially data on hard disks, and how those spatialisations can change the way we look at their contents. In this context how do these spatial metaphors change when we are looking at the net within a conference about east west communication?

According to Lakoff and Johnson [2] we use metaphors not only in language but in the way that we conceptualise the world. These conceptual metaphors often refer to location (up/down/ infront /behind) and refer to objects and systems.

"Though the polar oppositions up-down, in-out, etc., are physical in nature, the orientational metaphors based on them can vary from culture to culture. For example, in some cultures the future is in front of us, whereas in others it is in back." [3]

When we use computers could we use any metaphors (or simulations) other than spatial ones? I'm thinking here of our desktops, windows, muds (Multi-user Dimensions) and moos (Multiple-user, Object-Oriented environments), homepages and trashcans. The space we live in gives us a strong awareness of the vertical through our experience of gravity which rules our interactions with objects, and in our strong sense of horizontal linked to the ever present horizon, we are bound by spatial understanding. So how does this translate to a web site, and a new interface for the CF00 workshop?

Our perception of spatial simulation and metaphor in interfaces changes radically when we look at 'spatial' as 'geographical'. Is the now familiar ubiquitous 'intuitive' Microsoft interface relevant when we're thinking about issues of east and west. How could we rethink the web site interface in this local situation, to better suit CF00.

"Our user interfaces are also a kind of belief system, carrying and reinforcing our assumptions about the way things are. It's for this reason that we must increase our awareness of the ways that the interface carries these beliefs as hidden content. It may be hard to conceive of the standard GUI [Graphical User Interface; eds.] as a belief system, but the 'holy war' between Macintosh and Windows users on the internet indicates an almost religious passion about interface. It's also useful to realise that effective interfaces are usually intuitive precisely because they tap into existing stereotypes for their metaphors. An interface designed for racists might tap into racist stereotypes as a source for icons and metaphors that would be immediately understood across the user-base. A metaphoric interface borrows cliches from the culture but then reflects them back and reinforces them." [4]

I wanted to see if we could problematise the CF00 workshop interface, to use it as a media in itself, without just seeming obscure and difficult. To use the structural architecture of the interface and not just visual architectural metaphors to convey meaning related to the place and situation of the workshop. I liked the ambiguity in the word workshop, it describes both a location for work to take place in, and a group of people engaged in work. Simultaneously a place and an action.

In entering our workshop web site you are travelling into the workshop space, crossing a border.

Interface design is a skill, an art, a field of expertise. The designer has a set of tools or software (loaded interfaces in themselves) which allow for particular constructions, a set of building blocks to play with. They also have a language of signs, a history, a lexicon which through skilled use can make an interface seem intuitive or transparent. The 'intuitive' interface supposedly needs no translation, but our workshop process was infused with translated moments and discussions, not just between languages but between culturally specific frames of reference.

In real life (IRL) we also use interface languages, for example door handles and telephones [5] which can be intuitive or counter intuitive (how many times have you pushed a door that should have been pulled because the handle or door plate suggested it?). Travelling from one country to another it is not only our written alphabet and spoken tongue which become foreign, but through them space and its negotiation is made unfamiliar. Can an interface be part of the content and have meaning in itself? Can we see the architectural structures we live in as interfaces?

CFront 2000 brought together artists and writers to workshop ideas around the theme of east west communication. It became clear at a very early stage that there was a necessity for a web site to evolve through this process. It also became clear at the beginning of the process that the majority of participants at that early stage felt that it was not just to be a collection of individual works, but that somehow the connections, conversations and collaborations that took place over the two weeks should be reflected in the web site. This would mean a variety of things, that not only would works be literally interconnected but that a connection between the work of two individuals could produce some kind of feedback loop, mutually influencing each other, and that this process and development would be apparent in the site. During the two week workshop negotiation, argument, discussion and collaboration. Eventually this process would be reflected in a web site of connected works around themes established between the participants.

The process of building an interface began to become one of building a site specific installation. I sometimes describe what I do as an exploration of socially embedded technologies in urban spaces. The sculptural installation work that I make could be loosely described as a stage on which the audience are actors completing or discovering a narrative or narrative(s) implicit in an environment.

As such the metaphor of an interface is often one that I use about installation work, installations as alternative interfaces to a space, which suggest a different way of accessing and experiencing a place conceptually and physically. This physical, perhaps sculptural idea of an interface implies that the form of the interface reflects something about the content or context of the place. That in what is usually seen as an organising device (that may or may not be 'intuitive') there is content, that the metaphors we use for our interfaces mean something about the content that is accessed.

Around a huge table at the Mexican House we talked and described to each other our thoughts and ideas, often sketching those ideas for each other in our efforts to work around the nuances that collaboration always explores, but that translation also brings to the surface. A translation not only between languages, but between discrete individuals with different frames of reference.

Whilst collecting these drawings as physical traces of translation and conversation, I became interested in interfaces and their translation, their universality and their specificity. What makes an interface accessible? How far can an interface shift away from what we think of as intuitive? How universal should an interface's use be across platforms?

We eventually decided to use the small drawings that were being made to describe ideas as icons for the interface. To take the physicality of the drawn and what it is to be face to face in a specific location, and to look at how an interface could be evolved to reflect the site as a combination of the work of many artists. Sometimes artists would be attempting to collaborate with many people in the group, at others an individuals work alone distilled something of the groups discussion, in other instances participants had their own very specific and personal reaction to that location and discussion. So the interface evolved to be the combination of 4 symbols, which when selected alone, in pairs, threes or all four together would give us a total of 32 possibilities. Each of these 32 possibilities would link to a piece of work made during those two weeks.

The interface became a simulation of a physical communication and of a striving to attain some kind of understanding of each other's ideas, not only in discussion but visually through the process of making a web site together. That the interface may present difficulties in negotiation and navigation for the uninitiated perhaps also reflects the frictions, frustrations and failings of the workshop as well as the productive, connective and creative.


[1] David Rokeby, The Construction of Experience: Interface as Content, in: "Digital Illusion: Entertaining the Future with High Technology," Clark Dodsworth, Jr., Contributing Editor, ACM Press, 1998.

[2] George Lakoff and Mark Johnson, Metaphors We Live By, The University of Chicago Press, 1980.

[3] Lakoff and Johnson, op. cit.

[4] Rokeby, op. cit.

[5] Donald A. Norman, The Design of Everyday Things, MIT Press, 1998.

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