Dmitri Siegel | Essays

Interface Space

Hans Gremmen with Monique Gofers, Empty Trashcan, 2004

You probably spend hours a day staring at this screen — working, playing, talking to friends, shopping. With so many creative people spending so much time on their computers it is no surprise that the computer interface itself has become source material for contemporary art. Daily immersion in a two-dimensional space has raised an intriguing question that many contemporary artists can't resist: what is the physicality of the screen? The ubiquitous interface experience has created a symbiosis between the metaphorical space of the computer and the physical world.

Jan Robert Leegte, Scrollbar, 2002

The boundary between the screen and life started blurring with the first graphical user interface. Architectural metaphors like the desktop and the window were used to make the screen more intuitive. But these interfaces have gained so much symbolic importance in our lives that they have left their metaphorical antecedents behind. In his series of scrollbar pieces Jan Robert Leegte makes luminous recreations of browser handles. The sculptures are reminiscent of Dan Flavin's work — both artists are interested in light and space. But Leegte is exploring a dimensionality that was designed to be viewed flat, from a single perspective. There is no precedent for what kind of shadow the glow of a browser casts. The integral role the screen plays in our lives has created a hybrid between two and three dimensions. Leegte is one of many artists attempting to render this two-and-a-half dimensional space.

Liron Ross, Masking Tape Folder, 2002

Liron Ross' Masking Tape Folder is instantly recognizable as a recreation of the folder icon rather than an actual folder. The universality of the interface experience has made the folder a potent symbol. Once a humble office supply, the folder has become the system by which we organize everything in our virtual lives — music, contacts, messages, movies, etc. Because of this, the digital notation for a folder has far more currency than the object itself. This inversion of phsycial and digital forms raises the question of the materiality of the folder — Liron's piece is an interpretation of what the desktop icon might feel like if it could be touched.

Cory Arcangel, Disassembling 48K, installation view Migros Museum, Zurich, Switzerland, 2005

Of course the dominant architectural metaphor of the computer interface is the screen itself (and the many smaller screens that populate it). But many people have a more intimate experience with the video game screen than the computer screen. In his series Disassembling 48K Cory Arcangel hacks 8-bit Nintendo games to remove everything except spatial/environmental elements and then projects the resulting landscapes onto the walls of the gallery. The reduced visual grammar is unexpectedly resonant with modern architecure's agenda of reduction and abstraction of space. In a recent collaboration with the art collective Paper Rad, Arcangel further muddles the boundary between 2-D and 3-D by presenting a movie inside the Super Mario Brothers video game.

Doug Aitken, Sleepwalkers, 2007

Doug Aitken's recent installation Sleepwalkers on view at (actually, on) MoMa, transformed the entire neighborhood around the museum into a screened environment rivalling its neighbor to the West, Times Square. Inigo Manglano-Ovalle's work makes a more explicit connection with architecture. Mies van der Rohe is a recurring presence in his video installations, particularly the curtains of glass Mies created in such buildings as the Lake Shore Drive Apartments in Chicago where Manglano-Ovalle filmed his installation Climate in 2000. The proliferation of screens for advertising is a topic that has been well documented but these installations recreate the deeply personal way that narratives are constructed and combined on screen.

Dahn Vo, detail from Exhibition at My Parents' Home, 2004

Other artists' use of interface elements is purely incidental. For example, Danh Vo's work explores his experience as a Vietnamese refugee in Denmark. Much of his work involves communicating with figures of authority or artists who have influenced him. These communications are presented matter-of-factly in whatever form they were made: an official letter from the German police, or an e-mail from Robert Gober (shown here). The work is not about technology but in the same way that collage has always captured the editorial design of its era, this contemporary mail-art project records the Hotmail interface as a commonplace aspect of the artist's everyday life.

Over the last decade artists have recorded the rapid evolution of the computer interface. Leegte's scrollbars reference the windows32 gui (95, 98); the tan color of Ross' Folder reveals that he works on a PC; Hotmail is already in decline from it's heyday as the premiere webmail application. These anachronisms are also part of what makes Hans Gremmen's desktop sculpture so compelling as well. The elements of the "desktop" he recreates have almost as much nostalgic appeal as the schoolhouse chair featured in the piece: the font suitcase he so wittily constructed will soon be as obscure as the typecase it replaced in the designer's office. But these works also reveal that changes to our sense of place are far more subtle and unpredictable than the regular progress of technological change.

Posted in: Arts + Culture

Comments [20]

After using a computer pretty much daily for 18 years, I have already tried to undo something I was drawing with a pen and also felt the need to press find when I was looking for something in my bedroom.

Blip, I have actually put the pen down and looked for an undo button at the edge of my paper. My wife says it's sad.
Jeff Gill

Along those same lines there are street artists combining computer imagery with billboards and walls to reshape perceptions of the space.

Something like this
Brad Martin

I live in one of those Mies Lake Shore buildings in Chicago, does anyone know where I can get more info about Manglano-Ovalle's Climate? Is it available for purchase anywhere (is/was it a video installation?). How did I miss this?

Brad: That broken link poster is great. Thanks for linking.


I often wish I could "save" my progress in daily life and then try something wild and crazy, and upon failing just "open" my "document" and return to the point I was at before I got "experimental."

Unfortunately, this damn life-thing doesn't even come with an auto-save feature...

So, what's blogging? Is that the print-feature equivalent? Or maybe a view of the source code?
Brad Gutting

This further enhances the mental relocation we experience when in "cyberspace." The computer itself is held as a portal to transport ones minds and souls into another dimension. Time and physical environment are lost as the eyes become the vehicle of transport, and the body is transmitted. Considering this, I can understand the "need" of people to be on the internet. This "addiction" is a kind of distraction, not that the person has to be in front of a computer, but rather they have to be in cyberspace. The medium of entry can be in any form, thus understandably they are satisfied from any access point.

More Thoughts...
Rishi D

Now on display at London's Blow de la Barra gallery: Miltos Manetas' internet paintings. Image here.


Occasionally, when I'm drawing or writing on paper and I make a mistake, I immediately reach my left hand to the page to hit command-Z (undo)....
Doug B

Errorwear have been doing a set of t-shirts for a few years now with a range of computer error messages and similar graphics. If you want an IE "missing image" icon on your chest, that's the place to look. For Safari users there's MacMerc.com.

(I removed the links; your cgi didn't like them.)
John Coulthart

An interesting thing about the desktop folder icon- it's debatable whether that is the correct icon for its function. It actually represents a directory, which can contain other nested directories. When using the FTP program transmit, directories are also represented by folders, to match the iconography of the desktop. But the arrangement of files on a web server follows a more specific (and conventional) directoyr structure that average users probably don't follow on their desktops.

The folder has an obvious 'office' reference, but as a metaphor, file folders as an icon may mask the structure of a computer file system. Many users don't connect the structure of a URL with the mac interface.To aid in this, GUI's tend to use "Folder Trees". A tree, nests, or roots, may have been a more appropriate metaphor.

It's evident that the infinite modifiability of the digital world is having a huge effect on our physical world.

We're developing desires for our physical environment to become easily editable, easily parsed.

For better or worse? I can't decide.

I mess up in real life and my left pinky and index finger motion for CTRL-Z.
Zach Katkin

does anyone else keep real folders on their real desktop anymore? i find it reassuring... though i ache for the day that we move beyond the strictures of physical filing structures.

I have done this in regards to tivo. Something happens in real life and I try to rewind it and see it again.

Wasn't there an Adam Sandler movie that bombed not too long ago centered on this sort of social confusion?
And...are all these responses a good thing, or reasons to seek therapy? the artwork cited by Mr. Siegel is interesting, but the sympathetic responses are sort of...well, they make me want to hit "pause!"

I would like to further this conversation by delving into the realm of verbal communication; more specifically, business communication. In my travels in and out of the world of marketing, I cannot count how many times I've heard people whining that they did not have enough "bandwidth" to work on a project, or how they needed to "download" the meeting's events to others in the firm.

Personally, I don't want to "interface" with others. I want to have a discussion, an old-fashioned verbal exchange in the hopes of an interchange of ideas. Maybe it's an issue of semantics and this is just a swapping of culturally-relevant dialogue, but it certainly feels like the humanity is taken out of the equation when we talk to each other like a pair of SQL servers running Windows XP SR2.
James D. Nesbitt

I really enjoyed this piece!

Thought you folks might like to see these images. They're of paintings by Michael Zahn--maybe you know his work? If not, I thought you might be interested. He's been making works that deal with the desktop metaphor and binary logic since the late '80s. He's shown primarily in europe for the last ten years. I've always been a fan.

In conversation with me, Michael has often mentioned the '2 1/2D' conventions of the GUI that Dmitri refers to in his piece, with its convincing highlight and shadow edges, as a way of understanding the sculptural, shallow relief aspect of his multiple-panel paintings. The works are acrylic--he's a great colorist. The flawless surfaces of his paintings have an active micro-texture which reflects light in a subtle way. His large-scale renderings of windows, process bars, and menus float in front of the wall, and are hung in groups of two or more. Sometimes the wall or the entire room may occasionally be painted out in an 'immersive' way which refers explicitly to the desktop metaphor.

Works in the DaimlerChrysler Collection

The black and green command line paintings (Michael's recent work) are a kind of a meditation on the recent technological past. They (along with his 'desktop' wall work, his New Order 'alias' drawings, and his 'cardboard box' sculptures) were exhibited in a one-person show last autumn at Nikolaus Ruzicska Gallery in Salzburg. Taken together, I see them as recalling the era of the past twenty years or so, up until the advent of networked systems and the dot-com bubble.

Galerie Ruzicska images

Zahn showed big yellow 'sticky' painting was at Gavin Brown's space in October. It's a beautiful work, and is a part of a new series presently underway in his studio.

It is similar to the one at the bottom of this page, but much...much larger

Best, Allyson
Allyson Vieira

Indeed there are infinite possibilities with the digital world, but I still prefer the flora fragrance mixed in sunny morning breeze.

look fr studio LDA


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