INTERVIEW IN PARACHUTE: SEPT. 1999 (excerpt)

MOVING TARGET

VALERIE LAMONTAGNE: Could you discuss the "Moving Target" dance piece that you developed with Diller+Scofidio and the role of the moving body within new technologies?

DOUGLAS COOPER: As with a few of these international projects, I've never actually seen the final result, so I hope my description is accurate. At any rate, this is what I *think* we made. Diller and Scofidio were invited by Charleroi/Danse in Belgium -- an important experimental troupe -- to intervene in a full-length dance work. They proposed that I collaborate as well, and intervene we did. When the audience expects the dance to begin, a film screen rolls down, and they are forced to watch a documentary about the human foot (which I wrote and narrated). This video appears at first a factual, somewhat dull treatment of human anatomy, but the audience gradually comes to realize that this narrator has an unnatural attraction to his subject. His fetish emerges in peculiar ways: he promotes the foot to the status of "organ"; he waxes lyrical about its shape, in ways unbefitting a school teacher; and by the end he is engaging in full-scale erotic fantasies (although never less than scientific). Later in the dance piece, we intervene in further annoying ways: the screen rolls down, and we run video ads for post-therapeutic chemicals: a pill to adjust your gender balance, etc. Again, I make my spectacular debut as a voice-over artiste.

During the dance piece itself, D+S have erected a huge mirror at a forty-five degree angle over the floor of the stage. Words are projected onto that mirror, then bounced off the floor and back out towards the audience. The effect, for the audience staring into the mirror, is to see the performers in plan view, dancing with words. The mirror is semi-transparent, so dancers (and word displays) can be hung high above the stage, behind the mirror; we have all sorts of ways to confuse the viewer's perception of space. It was a tremendous opportunity for a writer with architectural pretensions: my text became, for the first time, truly spatial and kinematic. Whether the human bodies enjoyed being constrained by my words, I can't say, but I don't begrudge them their presence in my medium. I assume this piece is a grand success. Certainly various critics, in languages I don't read, seem to think so. Maybe some day I'll be invited to view it.

MILAN TRIENNALE

VALERIE LAMONTAGNE: How did you come to collaborate with Peter Eisenman on a piece for the Milan Triennale?

DOUGLAS COOPER: Five major architects were invited to the Triennale, and each was asked to choose a writer to collaborate with. Peter had read my first novel, Amnesia, and felt that we had theoretical concerns in common. (He has long made a French pun, "Amnesie," out of an anagram of "Eisenman.")

I was astonished, at first, by the degree to which Peter welcomed actual collaboration: he agreed to build, as our project, a prison cell for the protagonist of my novel in progress, Delirium. This prison cell is described in the novel, in somewhat abstract terms, and it was our job to translate this into an ambitious installation. Our budget was $200,000 -- a lot for a novelist, but not so much when you're building things.

Initially, it seemed Peter was keen to incorporate new media. I told him about "Very Nervous System," a famous computer work by Canadian artist David Rokeby; this piece converts human movement into digital output, and I suggested we use it to trigger whispering tape loops installed in the walls. That way the movement of people through the space would give rise to barely perceptible ghost texts, which would alter with the position of the audience.

Peter was thrilled, but somehow never allocated any of the budget towards this aspect of the piece, and we ended up with a conventional Eisenman construction. Sigh. At least it was called "Delirium." And it looks nice in photos and drawings.

(I believe that Peter felt that I had tricked him, somehow, into designing a prison cell for himself.)

INDIGESTION

VALERIE LAMONTAGNE: How do architecture and fiction cohabit in the medium of interactive art and Web projects?

DOUGLAS COOPER: Interactive art is inherently obscene in its structural demands. It requires a kind of rigor no sane novelist would willingly submit to. On the other hand, those of us who regard sanity as the realm of the provincial, happily submit to all manner of restraining devices.

Indigestion, a piece I made with Diller + Scofidio, required me to write the same narrative in numerous iterations. It is a laser-disc installation which involves a video projection upon a table top: the hands of two dining partners, and the food and plates between them. A menu at the side of the table/screen allows the viewer to assign various attributes to the diners: they can be educated, uneducated; masculine, effeminate; male, female. When the attributes are chosen, the hands and the food morph to reflect the new speakers and the dialogue changes appropriately.

Indigestion deals with the false promise of interactivity. The audience has the illusion of narrative power - they seem be able to control the direction of the story, by making meaningful choices - and yet each narrative proves ultimately unyielding, subject only to the will of the author. And this is generally the case: a complex interacting narrative is invariably scripted, and the audience's sense of contributing to the narrative process is illusory. At best, they're choosing which path they wish to take through a preconceived structure.

I had to deal with every possible combination of various interlocutors, and it was a serious headache. We had been warned in advance that "creating interactive art is like cleaning your loft with a toothbrush" but we only fully realized the truth of this when we'd spent some weeks trying to make all the narrative bits mesh.

THE SECRET

VALERIE LAMONTAGNE: Is the interaction of architecture/fiction/the Web creating new kinds of architectures, fictions or art, and how?

DOUGLAS COOPER: It will, and it's beginning to point in the direction of its final shape. Still, I'm not at all convinced we're past the embryonic stage of Web art. (There's a stage at which the embryo is still expressing its reptilian ancestors: I'd say we're about there.) I suspect the most interesting pieces will lean heavily not only on the Web's capacity to split narrative into parallel and perpendicular strands, but also on the medium's ability to link communities in a paranoid network of ersatz conversation.

I been working for years on a project called The Secret - which has come tantalizingly close to completion a couple of times - and this, should it ever launch, would be an example of the kind of art I'm trying to describe. It looks in many ways like a networked game, except that it isn't one; it looks a great deal like a chat room, except that communication is thwarted (although you might argue that this is a defining feature of the AOL chat room as well); in short, it takes its form from the genres that are unique to the Web. And, in doing so, it adopts (and perverts) the architectural norms associated with that medium, while insinuating a (perverse) narrative into that twisted structure.

The Secret is very much an attempt to define a mass medium. While it satirizes the fears associated with the culture of the Net, it sincerely hopes to exploit that culture for profit. My thinking from the start was unabashedly commercial: I tried to take the two most successful genres on the Web -- the chat room and the networked game -- and produce a seductive hybrid.

With The Secret, however, both the narrative and the design serve to subvert the grand, AOL-esque ambitions of the project: yes, we intend to build a vast community, and become wealthy in the process, but it won't be an entirely benign metaverse. The Secret binds together participants through a mutual addiction to gossip, treachery and blackmail. The design -- by Adam Levite of Associates in Science, which is quickly becoming one of the most intriguing firms in New York -- borrows iconography from, for instance, syphilis charts from the fifties.

(c) Parachute Magazine 1999